Lest, in spite of all, the British schoolboy should obtain, even from the like of Ahn, some glimmering of French, the British educational method further handicaps him by bestowing upon him the assistance of, what is termed in the prospectus, “A native gentleman.” This native French gentleman, who, by-the-by, is generally a Belgian, is no doubt a most worthy person, and can, it is true, understand and speak his own language with tolerable fluency. There his qualifications cease. Invariably he is a man with a quite remarkable inability to teach anybody anything. Indeed, he would seem to be chosen not so much as an instructor as an amuser of youth. He is always a comic figure. No Frenchman of a dignified appearance would be engaged for any English school. If he possess by nature a few harmless peculiarities, calculated to cause merriment, so much the more is he esteemed by his employers. The class naturally regards him as an animated joke. The two to four hours a week that are deliberately wasted on this ancient farce, are looked forward to by the boys as a merry interlude in an otherwise monotonous existence. And then, when the proud parent takes his son and heir to Dieppe merely to discover that the lad does not know enough to call a cab, he abuses not the system, but its innocent victim.
I confine my remarks to French, because that is the only language we attempt to teach our youth. An English boy who could speak German would be looked down upon as unpatriotic. Why we waste time in teaching even French according to this method I have never been able to understand. A perfect unacquaintance with a language is respectable. But putting aside comic journalists and lady novelists, for whom it is a business necessity, this smattering of French which we are so proud to possess only serves to render us ridiculous.
Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men on the Bummel, 1914.
April 26, 2015
April 25, 2015
In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a “party line.” Orthodoxy, of whatever color, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style. The political dialects to be found in pamphlets, leading articles, manifestoes, White papers and the speeches of undersecretaries do, of course, vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, homemade turn of speech. When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases — bestial atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder — one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity.
In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.
George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”, 1946.
April 21, 2015
Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language — so the argument runs — must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.
Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble.
George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”, 1946.
April 19, 2015
… they have a way of teaching languages in Germany that is not our way, and the consequence is that when the German youth or maiden leaves the gymnasium or high school at fifteen, “it” (as in Germany one conveniently may say) can understand and speak the tongue it has been learning. In England we have a method that for obtaining the least possible result at the greatest possible expenditure of time and money is perhaps unequalled. An English boy who has been through a good middle-class school in England can talk to a Frenchman, slowly and with difficulty, about female gardeners and aunts; conversation which, to a man possessed perhaps of neither, is liable to pall. Possibly, if he be a bright exception, he may be able to tell the time, or make a few guarded observations concerning the weather. No doubt he could repeat a goodly number of irregular verbs by heart; only, as a matter of fact, few foreigners care to listen to their own irregular verbs, recited by young Englishmen. Likewise he might be able to remember a choice selection of grotesquely involved French idioms, such as no modern Frenchman has ever heard or understands when he does hear.
The explanation is that, in nine cases out of ten, he has learnt French from an Ahn’s First-Course. The history of this famous work is remarkable and instructive. The book was originally written for a joke, by a witty Frenchman who had resided for some years in England. He intended it as a satire upon the conversational powers of British society. From this point of view it was distinctly good. He submitted it to a London publishing firm. The manager was a shrewd man. He read the book through. Then he sent for the author.
“This book of yours,” said he to the author, “is very clever. I have laughed over it myself till the tears came.”
“I am delighted to hear you say so,” replied the pleased Frenchman. “I tried to be truthful without being unnecessarily offensive.”
“It is most amusing,” concurred the manager; “and yet published as a harmless joke, I feel it would fail.”
The author’s face fell.
“Its humour,” proceeded the manager, “would be denounced as forced and extravagant. It would amuse the thoughtful and intelligent, but from a business point of view that portion of the public are never worth considering. But I have an idea,” continued the manager. He glanced round the room to be sure they were alone, and leaning forward sunk his voice to a whisper. “My notion is to publish it as a serious work for the use of schools!”
The author stared, speechless.
“I know the English schoolman,” said the manager; “this book will appeal to him. It will exactly fit in with his method. Nothing sillier, nothing more useless for the purpose will he ever discover. He will smack his lips over the book, as a puppy licks up blacking.”
The author, sacrificing art to greed, consented. They altered the title and added a vocabulary, but left the book otherwise as it was.
Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men on the Bummel, 1914.
April 12, 2015
To Hanover one should go, they say, to learn the best German. The disadvantage is that outside Hanover, which is only a small province, nobody understands this best German. Thus you have to decide whether to speak good German and remain in Hanover, or bad German and travel about. Germany being separated so many centuries into a dozen principalities, is unfortunate in possessing a variety of dialects. Germans from Posen wishful to converse with men of Wurtemburg, have to talk as often as not in French or English; and young ladies who have received an expensive education in Westphalia surprise and disappoint their parents by being unable to understand a word said to them in Mechlenberg. An English-speaking foreigner, it is true, would find himself equally nonplussed among the Yorkshire wolds, or in the purlieus of Whitechapel; but the cases are not on all fours. Throughout Germany it is not only in the country districts and among the uneducated that dialects are maintained. Every province has practically its own language, of which it is proud and retentive. An educated Bavarian will admit to you that, academically speaking, the North German is more correct; but he will continue to speak South German and to teach it to his children.
In the course of the century, I am inclined to think that Germany will solve her difficulty in this respect by speaking English. Every boy and girl in Germany, above the peasant class, speaks English. Were English pronunciation less arbitrary, there is not the slightest doubt but that in the course of a very few years, comparatively speaking, it would become the language of the world. All foreigners agree that, grammatically, it is the easiest language of any to learn. A German, comparing it with his own language, where every word in every sentence is governed by at least four distinct and separate rules, tells you that English has no grammar. A good many English people would seem to have come to the same conclusion; but they are wrong. As a matter of fact, there is an English grammar, and one of these days our schools will recognise the fact, and it will be taught to our children, penetrating maybe even into literary and journalistic circles. But at present we appear to agree with the foreigner that it is a quantity neglectable. English pronunciation is the stumbling-block to our progress. English spelling would seem to have been designed chiefly as a disguise to pronunciation. It is a clever idea, calculated to check presumption on the part of the foreigner; but for that he would learn it in a year.
Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men on the Bummel, 1914.
March 18, 2015
Now that I have made this catalogue of swindles and perversions, let me give another example of the kind of writing that they lead to. This time it must of its nature be an imaginary one. I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:
I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
Here it is in modern English:
Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.
This is a parody, but not a very gross one. […] It will be seen that I have not made a full translation. The beginning and ending of the sentence follow the original meaning fairly closely, but in the middle the concrete illustrations — race, battle, bread — dissolve into the vague phrases “success or failure in competitive activities.” This had to be so, because no modern writer of the kind I am discussing — no one capable of using phrases like “objective considerations of contemporary phenomena” — would ever tabulate his thoughts in that precise and detailed way. The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness. Now analyze these two sentences a little more closely. The first contains forty-nine words but only sixty syllables, and all its words are those of everyday life. The second contains thirty-eight words of ninety syllables: eighteen of those words are from Latin roots, and one from Greek. The first sentence contains six vivid images, and only one phrase (“time and chance”) that could be called vague. The second contains not a single fresh, arresting phrase, and in spite of its ninety syllables it gives only a shortened version of the meaning contained in the first. Yet without a doubt it is the second kind of sentence that is gaining ground in modern English. I do not want to exaggerate. This kind of writing is not yet universal, and outcrops of simplicity will occur here and there in the worst-written page. Still, if you or I were told to write a few lines on the uncertainty of human fortunes, we should probably come much nearer to my imaginary sentence than to the one from Ecclesiastes.
As I have tried to show, modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier — even quicker, once you have the habit — to say In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think. If you use ready-made phrases, you not only don’t have to hunt about for the words; you also don’t have to bother with the rhythms of your sentences since these phrases are generally so arranged as to be more or less euphonious. When you are composing in a hurry — when you are dictating to a stenographer, for instance, or making a public speech — it is natural to fall into a pretentious, Latinized style. Tags like a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind or a conclusion to which all of us would readily assent will save many a sentence from coming down with a bump. By using stale metaphors, similes, and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself.
George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”, 1946.
March 9, 2015
Post-structuralism is a system of literary and social analysis that flared up and vanished in France in the 1960s but that became anachronistically entrenched in British and American academe from the 1970s on. Based on the outmoded linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure and promoted by the idolized Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and Michel Foucault, it absurdly asserts that we experience or process reality only through language and that, because language is inherently unstable, nothing can be known. By undermining meaning, history and personal will, post-structuralism has done incalculable damage to education and contemporary thought. It is a laborious, circuitously self-referential gimmick that always ends up with the same monotonous result. I spent six months writing a long attack on academic post-structuralism for the classics journal Arion in 1991, “Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders: Academe in the Hour of the Wolf” (reprinted in my first essay collection, Sex, Art, and American Culture). Post-structuralism has destroyed two generations of graduate students, who were forced to mouth its ugly jargon and empty platitudes for their foolish faculty elders. And the end result is that humanities departments everywhere, having abandoned their proper mission of defending and celebrating art, have become humiliatingly marginalized in both reputation and impact.
Camille Paglia, “The Catholic Pagan: 10 Questions for Camille Paglia”, American Magazine, 2015-02-25.
March 2, 2015
David Warren on the oddly named “Digby Chicken” and “Bombay Duck” along with a paean to the joys of food shopping in Parkdale:
Parkdale, which is to say, the inner core of the Greater Parkdale Area, in which the High Doganate is located, is a melting pot of innumerable overlapping ethnications. Among our most exotic immigrants are those from the far east: Nova Scotia, for instance, and Newfoundland. Shopping, at least for food in Parkdale, is a treat. We have every sort of specialist grocery, and in effect, groceries within groceries. One gets one’s Tibetan yak sausage, for instance, from a Serbian butcher whose store is cowboy-themed; ingredients for one’s Somali maraq from the Sinhalese grocery (via their Maldivian connexion); but the exhilarating, cardamom-infused gashaato instead via the Sikh Punjabis, as supplement to their Bengali sweets. Note, this culinary cross-dressing is the opposite of multiculturalism. Rather I would call it, “downmarket fusion.”
This being Lent, I try to avoid fish on Fridays. There’s enough of that for the other days, beans on rice will do, or perhaps sinfully on the last two Fridays, I indulged a craving for sweet potato in a Siamese red sauce. I woke this morning with a craving for salt, as well as protein, and as God is merciful, recalled to mind a little platter of Digby chicks in my fridge — obtained some days before from the Maritime ethnic section of a cheap local supermarket.
Digby Chicken has long been Nova Scotia’s answer to Bombay Duck. The latter, also salty, and so powerful in flavour and scent that it requires careful packaging, is actually a fish, the bummalo. Gentle reader may already be trying to construct an etymology from that, but there is no hope for him. The fish is actually harvested from the waters off Bombay. It was transported from there by rail, in the good old days of British Imperialism, aboard the Bombay Dhak (i.e. the Bombay Mail), which gave rise to such expressions as, e.g. “You smell like the Bombay Dhak.” Surely, that will be enough to go on.
February 1, 2015
[George] handed me a small book bound in red cloth. It was a guide to English conversation for the use of German travellers. It commenced “On a Steam-boat,” and terminated “At the Doctor’s”; its longest chapter being devoted to conversation in a railway carriage, among, apparently, a compartment load of quarrelsome and ill-mannered lunatics: “Can you not get further away from me, sir?” — “It is impossible, madam; my neighbour, here, is very stout” — “Shall we not endeavour to arrange our legs?” — “Please have the goodness to keep your elbows down” — “Pray do not inconvenience yourself, madam, if my shoulder is of any accommodation to you,” whether intended to be said sarcastically or not, there was nothing to indicate — “I really must request you to move a little, madam, I can hardly breathe,” the author’s idea being, presumably, that by this time the whole party was mixed up together on the floor. The chapter concluded with the phrase, “Here we are at our destination, God be thanked! (Gott sei dank!)” a pious exclamation, which under the circumstances must have taken the form of a chorus.
At the end of the book was an appendix, giving the German traveller hints concerning the preservation of his health and comfort during his sojourn in English towns, chief among such hints being advice to him to always travel with a supply of disinfectant powder, to always lock his bedroom door at night, and to always carefully count his small change.
“It is not a brilliant publication,” I remarked, handing the book back to George; “it is not a book that personally I would recommend to any German about to visit England; I think it would get him disliked. But I have read books published in London for the use of English travellers abroad every whit as foolish. Some educated idiot, misunderstanding seven languages, would appear to go about writing these books for the misinformation and false guidance of modern Europe.”
“You cannot deny,” said George, “that these books are in large request. They are bought by the thousand, I know. In every town in Europe there must be people going about talking this sort of thing.”
“Maybe,” I replied; “but fortunately nobody understands them. I have noticed, myself, men standing on railway platforms and at street corners reading aloud from such books. Nobody knows what language they are speaking; nobody has the slightest knowledge of what they are saying. This is, perhaps, as well; were they understood they would probably be assaulted.”
George said: “Maybe you are right; my idea is to see what would happen if they were understood. My proposal is to get to London early on Wednesday morning, and spend an hour or two going about and shopping with the aid of this book. There are one or two little things I want — a hat and a pair of bedroom slippers, among other articles. Our boat does not leave Tilbury till twelve, and that just gives us time. I want to try this sort of talk where I can properly judge of its effect. I want to see how the foreigner feels when he is talked to in this way.”
It struck me as a sporting idea. In my enthusiasm I offered to accompany him, and wait outside the shop. I said I thought that Harris would like to be in it, too — or rather outside.
George said that was not quite his scheme. His proposal was that Harris and I should accompany him into the shop. With Harris, who looks formidable, to support him, and myself at the door to call the police if necessary, he said he was willing to adventure the thing.
We walked round to Harris’s, and put the proposal before him. He examined the book, especially the chapters dealing with the purchase of shoes and hats. He said:
“If George talks to any bootmaker or any hatter the things that are put down here, it is not support he will want; it is carrying to the hospital that he will need.”
That made George angry.
“You talk,” said George, “as though I were a foolhardy boy without any sense. I shall select from the more polite and less irritating speeches; the grosser insults I shall avoid.”
This being clearly understood, Harris gave in his adhesion; and our start was fixed for early Wednesday morning.
Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men on the Bummel, 1914.
January 30, 2015
It’s understood that governments have an inherently antagonistic relationship with the English language. Generations of grammarians and school masters strove diligently to teach their young wards the importance of clear and logical communication. A strong grasp of English allowed students to think and understand at a sophisticated level. We don’t want any of that stuff now. People who think and talk clearly are a threat to governments the world over.
The art of government, to some extent, is the combined art of order and bullshit. There is a genuine need for the political-bureaucratic class to maintain peace, order and something resembling good government. But beyond the meat and potato stuff there is also the temptation to use government as a tool of enrichment. Since outright thievery is criticized by most people, excepting the thieves of course, an elaborate excuse is needed to distract the electorate from what is being done.
Richard Anderson, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Pork”, The Gods of the Copybook Headings, 2014-05-28.
December 29, 2014
How these challenges were met varied between the two Imperial halves. The Hungarians dealt with the nationalities problem mainly by behaving as if it didn’t exist. The kingdom’s electoral franchise extended to only 6 per cent of the population because it was pegged to a property qualification that favoured the Magyars, who made up the bulk of the wealthier strata of the population. The result was that Magyar deputies, though they represented only 48.1 per cent of the population, controlled over 90 per cent of the parliamentary seats. The 3 million Romanians of Transylvania, the largest of the kingdom’s national minorities, comprised 15.4 per cent of the population, but held only five of the Hungarian parliament’s 400-odd seats. From the late 1870s, moreover, the Hungarian government pursued a campaign of aggressive ‘Magyarization’. Education laws imposed the use of the Magyar language on all state and faith schools, even those catering to children of kindergarten age. Teachers were required to be fluent in Magyar and could be dismissed if they were found to be ‘hostile to the [Hungarian] state’. This degradation of language rights was underwritten by harsh measures against ethnic minority activists. Serbs from the Vojvodina in the south of the kingdom, Slovaks from the northern counties and Romanians from the Grand Duchy of Transylvania did occasionally collaborate in pursuit of minority objectives, but with little effect, since they could muster only a small number of mandates.
In Cisleithania [the German Austrian half of the empire], by contrast, successive administrations tampered endlessly with the system in order to accommodate minority demands. Franchise reforms in 1882 and 1907 (when virtually universal male suffrage was introduced) went some way towards levelling the political playing field. But these democratizing measures merely heightened the potential for national conflict, especially over the sensitive question of language use in public institutions such as schools, courts and administrative bodies.
Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went To War In 1914, 2012.
December 9, 2014
During the first World war use of the four-letter word, as it is now called, became universal, or more probably its universal use was first observed by the literate classes. Between the wars the word was presented by writers in a modified form — mucking or flicking — or with its initial only: f—ing. Its use in full — fuck — now seems to be approaching literary, though not conversational, respectability.
A.J.P. Taylor, A History of England: England 1914-1945, 1961.
November 30, 2014
We were a fashionable and highly cultured party. We had on our best clothes, and we talked pretty, and were very happy — all except two young fellows, students, just returned from Germany, commonplace young men, who seemed restless and uncomfortable, as if they found the proceedings slow. The truth was, we were too clever for them. Our brilliant but polished conversation, and our high-class tastes, were beyond them. They were out of place, among us. They never ought to have been there at all. Everybody agreed upon that, later on.
We played morceaux from the old German masters. We discussed philosophy and ethics. We flirted with graceful dignity. We were even humorous — in a high-class way.
Somebody recited a French poem after supper, and we said it was beautiful; and then a lady sang a sentimental ballad in Spanish, and it made one or two of us weep — it was so pathetic.
And then those two young men got up, and asked us if we had ever heard Herr Slossenn Boschen (who had just arrived, and was then down in the supper-room) sing his great German comic song.
None of us had heard it, that we could remember.
The young men said it was the funniest song that had ever been written, and that, if we liked, they would get Herr Slossenn Boschen, whom they knew very well, to sing it. They said it was so funny that, when Herr Slossenn Boschen had sung it once before the German Emperor, he (the German Emperor) had had to be carried off to bed.
They said nobody could sing it like Herr Slossenn Boschen; he was so intensely serious all through it that you might fancy he was reciting a tragedy, and that, of course, made it all the funnier. They said he never once suggested by his tone or manner that he was singing anything funny — that would spoil it. It was his air of seriousness, almost of pathos, that made it so irresistibly amusing.
We said we yearned to hear it, that we wanted a good laugh; and they went downstairs, and fetched Herr Slossenn Boschen.
He appeared to be quite pleased to sing it, for he came up at once, and sat down to the piano without another word.
“Oh, it will amuse you. You will laugh,” whispered the two young men, as they passed through the room, and took up an unobtrusive position behind the Professor’s back.
Herr Slossenn Boschen accompanied himself. The prelude did not suggest a comic song exactly. It was a weird, soulful air. It quite made one’s flesh creep; but we murmured to one another that it was the German method, and prepared to enjoy it.
I don’t understand German myself. I learned it at school, but forgot every word of it two years after I had left, and have felt much better ever since. Still, I did not want the people there to guess my ignorance; so I hit upon what I thought to be rather a good idea. I kept my eye on the two young students, and followed them. When they tittered, I tittered; when they roared, I roared; and I also threw in a little snigger all by myself now and then, as if I had seen a bit of humour that had escaped the others. I considered this particularly artful on my part.
I noticed, as the song progressed, that a good many other people seemed to have their eye fixed on the two young men, as well as myself. These other people also tittered when the young men tittered, and roared when the young men roared; and, as the two young men tittered and roared and exploded with laughter pretty continuously all through the song, it went exceedingly well.
And yet that German Professor did not seem happy. At first, when we began to laugh, the expression of his face was one of intense surprise, as if laughter were the very last thing he had expected to be greeted with. We thought this very funny: we said his earnest manner was half the humour. The slightest hint on his part that he knew how funny he was would have completely ruined it all. As we continued to laugh, his surprise gave way to an air of annoyance and indignation, and he scowled fiercely round upon us all (except upon the two young men who, being behind him, he could not see). That sent us into convulsions. We told each other that it would be the death of us, this thing. The words alone, we said, were enough to send us into fits, but added to his mock seriousness — oh, it was too much!
In the last verse, he surpassed himself. He glowered round upon us with a look of such concentrated ferocity that, but for our being forewarned as to the German method of comic singing, we should have been nervous; and he threw such a wailing note of agony into the weird music that, if we had not known it was a funny song, we might have wept.
He finished amid a perfect shriek of laughter. We said it was the funniest thing we had ever heard in all our lives. We said how strange it was that, in the face of things like these, there should be a popular notion that the Germans hadn’t any sense of humour. And we asked the Professor why he didn’t translate the song into English, so that the common people could understand it, and hear what a real comic song was like.
Then Herr Slossenn Boschen got up, and went on awful. He swore at us in German (which I should judge to be a singularly effective language for that purpose), and he danced, and shook his fists, and called us all the English he knew. He said he had never been so insulted in all his life.
It appeared that the song was not a comic song at all. It was about a young girl who lived in the Hartz Mountains, and who had given up her life to save her lover’s soul; and he died, and met her spirit in the air; and then, in the last verse, he jilted her spirit, and went on with another spirit — I’m not quite sure of the details, but it was something very sad, I know. Herr Boschen said he had sung it once before the German Emperor, and he (the German Emperor) had sobbed like a little child. He (Herr Boschen) said it was generally acknowledged to be one of the most tragic and pathetic songs in the German language.
It was a trying situation for us — very trying. There seemed to be no answer. We looked around for the two young men who had done this thing, but they had left the house in an unostentatious manner immediately after the end of the song.
That was the end of that party. I never saw a party break up so quietly, and with so little fuss. We never said good-night even to one another. We came downstairs one at a time, walking softly, and keeping the shady side. We asked the servant for our hats and coats in whispers, and opened the door for ourselves, and slipped out, and got round the corner quickly, avoiding each other as much as possible.
I have never taken much interest in German songs since then.
Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog), 1889.
November 20, 2014
If you’re of a skeptical turn, you may have wondered just what your friend’s new tattoo really says in Chinese, or Russian, or whatever script their tattoo artist just inked into their skin. My suspicion is that at least a significant proportion of the new ‘tats are the equivalent of these Japanese discount store shirts with random English words:
Reddit user k-popstar recently moved to Japan to teach English. Over the last few months he has been wandering into various discount stores and taking photos of shirts with random English words on them. I have to admit, that potato one is pretty sweet!
That second one is almost poetic. If I knew what “thirstry” was.
H/T to Coyote Blog for the link.
October 30, 2014
In a post from earlier this year, Scott Alexander discusses a common example of what has been described as a “motte-and-bailey” argument:
I recently learned there is a term for the thing social justice does. But first, a png from racism school dot tumblr dot com.
So, it turns out that privilege gets used perfectly reasonably. All it means is that you’re interjecting yourself into other people’s conversations and demanding their pain be about you. I think I speak for all straight white men when I say that sounds really bad and if I was doing it I’m sorry and will try to avoid ever doing it again. Problem solved, right? Can’t believe that took us however many centuries to sort out.
A sinking feeling tells me it probably isn’t that easy.
In the comments section of the last disaster of a social justice post on my blog, someone started talking about how much they hated the term “mansplaining”, and someone else popped in to — ironically — explain what “mansplaining” was and why it was a valuable concept that couldn’t be dismissed so easily. Their explanation was lucid and reasonable. At this point I jumped in and commented:
I feel like every single term in social justice terminology has a totally unobjectionable and obviously important meaning — and then is actually used a completely different way.
The closest analogy I can think of is those religious people who say “God is just another word for the order and beauty in the Universe” — and then later pray to God to smite their enemies. And if you criticize them for doing the latter, they say “But God just means there is order and beauty in the universe, surely you’re not objecting to that?”
The result is that people can accuse people of “privilege” or “mansplaining” no matter what they do, and then when people criticize the concept of “privilege” they retreat back to “but ‘privilege’ just means you’re interrupting women in a women-only safe space. Surely no one can object to criticizing people who do that?”
…even though I get accused of “privilege” for writing things on my blog, even though there’s no possible way that could be “interrupting” or “in a women only safe space”.
When you bring this up, people just deny they’re doing it and call you paranoid.
When you record examples of yourself and others getting accused of privilege or mansplaining, and show people the list, and point out that exactly zero percent of them are anything remotely related to “interrupting women in a women-only safe space” and one hundred percent are “making a correct argument that somebody wants to shut down”, then your interlocutor can just say “You’re deliberately only engaging with straw-man feminists who don’t represent the strongest part of the movement, you can’t hold me responsible for what they do” and continue to insist that anyone who is upset by the uses of the word “privilege” just doesn’t understand that it’s wrong to interrupt women in safe spaces.
I have yet to find a good way around this tactic.
My suspicion about the gif from racism school dot tumblr dot com is that the statements on the top show the ways the majority of people will encounter “privilege” actually being used, and the statements on the bottom show the uncontroversial truisms that people will defensively claim “privilege” means if anyone calls them on it or challenges them. As such it should be taken as a sort of weird Rosetta Stone of social justicing, and I can only hope that similarly illustrative explanations are made of other equally charged terms.
H/T to Sam Bowman for the link.