Irreverent Mama

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

A friend gives me an article by Robert Fisk. I am urged to read it. Fisk is a 'great mind', says my friend. He 'doesn't tolerate fools gladly'. I've heard of Fisk, and even of the verb ('fisking') spawned by his rants, but never read him. (I know, I know. Shockingly insular North American am I. Given what I read of Mr. Fisk when I did investigate, I'll be back for more.)

But this particular article? I've heard this sort of thing before, and find it no more than an annoyance. Let me be clear. I'm well-read. I have decent grammar, a good vocabulary, I love the language and deplore sloppiness. I have a degree in English. Sometimes, sometimes I even manage to write something that sings, just a little. But this word snobbery, this 'zero tolerance' approach to word sins, galls me.

((But, Mr. Fisk: "Authoress"? Did anyone after George Eliot actually use that word? With a straight face?) Yes, this quibbling proves that I, too, have my fisk moments. It also proves that those who rant about words set themselves up for this kind of quibbling. However, I know that the quibbling is, at best, a clever-ish form of personal entertainment; at worst, nothing more than basest snobbery.)

Picture this:

You’re at a dinner party. The food is excellent, the furnishing comfortable, the people varied and interesting, but as the evening progresses, you find yourself feeling more and more uncomfortable. You’re not sure why, but people are being a bit stiff with you. Normally an easy conversationalist, your overtures stumble, you can’t seem to generate any momentum. You are never quite able to relax and enjoy yourself. By the end of the evening, you leave with relief, not certain why the occasion was so awkward.

Subsequent to the dinner, a friend who was also at the event explains. Your clothing was wrong - style, colour, vintage. Your tie too wide (or too narrow). Your laugh too loud (too high, too soft). Your hair an embarrassment. Your jokes out of fashion. You held your cutlery wrong, your taste in music was wrong, and the books you like to read? Well, everyone knows that type of book is out of fashion.

Your reaction? Well, can’t speak to yours, but mine is to dismiss the critics. (And perhaps to wonder how I ever got myself invited to such a gathering...) They have established an entirely arbitrary set of rules by which they judge whether someone is ‘in’ our ‘out’, whether a person is sufficiently ‘in the know’ to be part of the group. I do not judge myself by the style of my shirt or the music I listen to, nor will I allow myself to be constrained in such an ill-fitting social box. In short, they need not bother to exclude me; I want no part of their arbitrary judgmentalism. They can do the anatomically impossible.

Now, people do that sort of thing all the time, of course. Teenagers develop their own dialect, listen to certain music, wear certain clothes. Twenty-somethings watch certain television shows, dress a certain (different) way, laugh at the same type of jokes as other twenty-somethings.

Each age-group does it; each sub-group does it, down to the two women having coffee together two or three times a week. Each group has those things which identify them; it has those things which they delight to mock. Every time it’s done, its declared intent may be something noble - they're ‘expressing themselves’, ‘conversing intelligently’, ‘exploring ideas with like-minded people’ - but in fact the motivation at root is sheer adolescent clique-ishness. They desire nothing more than to identify and exclude outsiders. If you can mock them at the same time, even better!

The language snobbery of Fisk is nothing other than this. Even though I agree with him at a number of points, his argument overall simply wearies and annoys me. He knows which words and phrases are worthy, and which are to be vilified. He claims a standard by which he slots the words into their appointed category, but in fact, it’s totally arbitrary, merely a matter of his personal taste. Some words and phrases are acceptable, others aren’t, and if you don’t know which is which, you are a boor.

Pfft to Mr. Fisk.

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  • Superbly written post. And I agree wholeheartedly with you..every word of it. Bravo.

    I love English as well but deplore snobbery - yes there are certain words which, when I read then, drive me bonkers...but, as it was clearly pointed out to me when I recently blogged about it, a ertain amount of tolerance in language is a very good thing.

    Your labels are also too funny. ;)

    By Blogger Wendz, at 3:38 p.m.  

  • One of the joys of English is that it is ready to accept new words and phrases. Some of them are horrible, it's true and many - especially acronyms - are designed to exclude, as well as to cover up a lack of education and original thought. But, on the whole, it doesn't matter. It does matter that the meaning is clear and it would be better to concentrate on that.

    One mistake Mr Fisk makes is to think that Cockney is the same as Estuary English. Not at all. When Mr Tony Blair attempts to show himself as one of the people, to use glottal stops and say 'yeah, I mean' a lot, he is using a posh man's version of Estuary English. Even he would not attempt Cockney.

    That's the case with many phrases. Each has its own nuance of meaning. I celebrate it in spirit, even if I wince at some of them.

    By Blogger Z, at 4:00 p.m.  

  • Yes, you are quite the postess.

    I, too, was a word-snob, but I have grown since those days. The English language is rather malleable.

    By the way, two songs popped into (and refuse to leave) me 'ead whist reading this post: "Subdivisions" by Rush and " The Cockney Kids Are Innocent" by Sham 69. So, thanks for that!

    By Blogger Denguy, at 10:23 p.m.  

  • I'm not so well read, and I hadn't even heard of Fisk before this post. Very interesting. The article that sparked it reminds me of the Academie Francaise though, the attitude of people who can't cope with their language being in free evolution.

    Oh, and the words 'pompous' and 'ass' spring to mind...

    By Blogger f:lux, at 6:24 a.m.  

  • I am not a word snob and I was a bit taken aback by the article, as it smacked of pretension and snobbery. But I *do* take issue with certain "word trends". For example, I hate, hate, HATE when companies transform nouns into verbs (like Kinko's campaign: A new way to office.) Ick. I also don't like abbreviations in emails, the 'u' for 'you' and the '2' for 'two'. It makes me crazy.

    By Blogger candace, at 11:48 a.m.  

  • I was raised to be a word snob, in fact. Sneering at someone's speech was something I grew up with.

    As I've matured, I've mellowed. I've also come to realize that, as you've all noted, the English language is a pretty malleable beast. In fact, it is arguable that this factor more than any other is what has made it the global force that it is.

    The snobbery Fisk represents drives me mad. There is no good reason for it, except to sneer at someone. While I think I enjoy a little gripe-session once in a while as much as the next person, I don't like being around people whose first and primary way of reacting to the world around them is to sneer. Ick.

    Do I enjoy all language trends? Not at all - in fact, quite a few of the things that Mr. Fisk deplores also offend me, most notably the political/military doublespeak - its only purpose is to whitewash harsh realities. People aren't being 'fired', the company is being 'downsized'. Those corpses on the side of the road aren't 'civilian casualties', they are 'collateral damage'. Ick, ick, ick.

    But to muddle a genuine moral issue like that with personal taste, or even inferior word choice - that's offensive! Moreover, it lessens the genuine offense by equating it to something so much less significant. Let's put this in perspective: deceit and deliberate manipulation of emotions through words is a whole 'nuther order of offense than poor word choice. Get a grip.

    (You all would probably very much enjoy David Crystal's excellent little book, The Fight for English: How the Pundits Ate, Shot, and Left.)

    F:lux: I was talking about this with a friend who lived in France for ten years. Here, dictionaries are compiled by noting how the language is used; there, dictionaries dictate how the language shall be used. A world of difference. I think the Fisks of this world would very much approve of a dictionary that had the force of law - just so long as they were the ones to write it!

    By Blogger irreverentmama, at 6:34 p.m.  

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