Feeding Fires

April 26, 2011

Some weeks ago, a Florida swamplands preacher burned a Koran, ostensibly in protest of that book’s promotion of violence. The same preacher had threatened the same burning a year ago, but relented in the face of widespread disapproval.

Almost as soon as match touched page, Muslims half a planet away began rioting. Arab Muslims, incensed at the libricide, took to the streets and killed seven United Nations workers in northern Afghanistan.

Neither camp learned much from the biblioclasmic events, especially with regard to public relations. Floridian swamp-preachers, having long labored under accusations of ignorant fear-mongering and rabble rousering, gained no ground to the contrary. And Arab Muslims, accused by one of those preachers of revering a book which promotes violence, certainly did their international image no favors killing seven innocent UN relief workers several continents removed from the event.

The lesson neither team absorbed is: when you labor under stereotypes on behalf of a cause, you do that cause no favors by playing into those images.


This is Joe Rago.

April 19, 2011

Wall Street Journal editorialist Joe Rago stirred up unnecessarily strong feelings some time back when, in that paper’s pages, he questioned the value of blogs. The meat of the argument was that there are no fact-checking or stylistic guardians at the blogospheric gates – indeed, there aren’t even gates – and, as a result, blogs spew opinions which are both mis-informed and terribly written, thereby polluting the marketplace of ideas.

The mainstream media, flawed as it may be, endeavors at least to preserve some standard of factual accuracy and facility with the king’s English.

The blog mob fired back, mainly via its championed electronic platform, to defend itself and denounce Mr. Rago. Most of the counter-offensive was appropriately analphabetic. One recurring theme: “Who is this Joe Rago character? He’s barely ten minutes out of Dartmouth (where he was a member of Phi Delta Alpha and edited The Dartmouth Review), and already he thinks he’s O.O. McIntyre? And anyway, who was O.O. McIntyre?”

This week, Mr. Rago – all 28 years of him – was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for editorial journalism for his work covering healthcare legislation. It’s a well-deserved honor and your editorial staff disloyally wishes him well, and wishes also he would write more often about Warren Zevon.

Joe Rago, editorialist.

The King’s is dead, long live…

April 15, 2011

If you’re not in the habit of skimming dictionaries, you might be surprised to find – upon the occasion of future skimming – the inclusion of new verbiage, notably:

  • Tramp stamp (a tattoo on a woman’s lower back),
  • Bromance (a close but non-sexual relationship between two men), and
  • Cougar (an older woman seeking a sexual relationship with a younger man).

Oxford University Press USA, which publishes the heretofor – and hereafter, no longer – august New Oxford American Dictionary, has shoe-horned nearly 2,000 new words, phrases, and meanings into the book. Reports the London-based Guardian newspaper:

A host of new meanings for old words have also made it into the 2,000-plus page dictionary, last updated in 2005, from nimrod (“an inept person) to pimp (to make something “more showy or impressive”) and rock: “she was rocking a clingy little leopard-skin number”. In the words of the newly added phrase which is “used as a rhetorical expression of approval or satisfaction”: what’s not to like?

In short: everything. Words are important because they allow us to communicate with one another. We also think in words, and evidence strongly suggests people who know more words think more clearly and efficiently – that is, better – than people who know fewer. Changing and re-arranging the meanings of words weakens our ability to communicate with one another because we are no longer assured of a shared language in which to communicate. It’s like playing cards with people who disagree over whether an ace is worth one point, or eleven: you can’t play the game if everybody doesn’t agree on the rules.  

Noah Webster, who first publishd his eponymous compilation of the American-English language in 1828, understood the necessity of consistency in language. A new biography of the lexicographer, The Forgotten Founding Father (by Joshua Kendall; Putnam, $26.95), describes his contribution: “forever unifying the world’s most ethnically diverse nation with a common language.” But as that commonality of language evaporates – or is disemboweled by the illiterati – that necessary unity begins to disintegrate.

(In addition to all that, the message inherent in incorporating oddball new words for no reason but their popular overuse is: go ahead, break the rules. If enough people break them often enough, they won’t be rules anymore. If enough people sold drugs, would selling drugs become legal? Of course not (we hope). Rules are rules for a reason, and that reason has nothing to do with popularity.)

Editor’s note: Another problem with the incorporation into dictionaries of modern “words” is that they are, in the majority, slang. Who will be responsible for cleaning out the dictionary in ten years when “cougar” and “pimp” have gone – and they will go – the way of “rad” and “gnarly”?

The Wise Puffy Daddy

April 4, 2011

When you’re old enough to be dignified, act it. Speak like you’re old. Dress like you’re old. If you’re possessed of inner style and some joi de vivre which command you to rage, rage against the dying of the light… fine. But absent that, don’t ape youthful mannerisms and fashion in hopes of passing yourself off as youthful. You’ll only appear an ape.

Post-preamble, point: previously respectable journalists are jumping head-first into youthful jargon and, like most people who jump off cliffs head-first, they emerge sounding a little brain-damaged. To wit: NPR commentators recently – and seriously – used the word “dis” in describing a meeting between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and a visiting potentate: “Hesitant to dis President X, Secretary of State Clinton [did whatever it was she did]” …or something like that. [Editor’s note: “dis” is a shortened form of the word “disrespect,” used as a verb.]

The fact that NPR commentators – about the yuppiest Prius-drivers out there – would think to borrow an imaginary verb from urban street slang is an affront to both the solemnity of their profession and the dignity of their reported-on subjects… as well as to urban street slang. Plus, it’s annoying to listeners who tune in expecting an English-language radio program. 

And, lest we be pigeonholed as curmudgeonly malcontents, remember: one of the most successful empressarios of invented urban street slang concurs. As Sean “Puff Daddy” / “Puffy” / “P. Diddy” / “Diddy” Combs explains to Vince Vaughan in the off-beat caper film Made:

“Dis? Dis! You’re in no position to “dis” or “give props” or whatever your MTV-Real World sense of… decorum tells you to do.”

"Oh, snap!"