Friday, April 22, 2011

Even in the 21st Century!

Shocking, just shocking!

I was in a local supermarket last evening when I espied this sign in an area being remodeled:

I would have hoped that by this point in the 21st century we might be beyond such blatant discrimination, but apparently not!

No, I did not venture over to the north side of the building. The thought of those poor Chinese people crammed into one corner of the place was too sad for me to bear. 

To make the discrimination even more odious, the supermarket seems to have done away with its Chinese deli, which used to be located where the sign now is! Odd.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A Prepositional Bee in the Syntactical Bonnet

Here’s an excerpt from the excerpt in today’s e-mail, “The precision and clarity of Latin.” Given my profession and my inclinations, I’ve read many things about the strange histories of English language “rules,” but I’d never come across this anecdote before:

    “Why is it ‘wrong’ to end a sentence with a preposition? ... Who, upon seeing a cake in the office break room, says, ‘For whom is this cake?’ instead of ‘Who’s the cake for?’ Where did this rule come from?
    “The answer will surprise even most English teachers: John Dryden, the seventeenth-century poet less well known as an early, influential stickler. In a 1672 essay, he criticized his literary predecessor Ben Jonson for writing ‘The bodies that these souls were frightened from.’ Why the prepositional bee in Dryden’s syntactical bonnet? This pseudo-rule probably springs from the same source many others do: the classical languages. Dryden said he liked to compose in Latin and translate into English, as he valued the precision and clarity he believed Latin required of writers. The preposition-final construction is impossible in Latin. Hence: it is impossible in English. Confused by his logic? Linguists remain so to this day. But once Dryden proclaimed the rule, it made its way into the first generation of English usage books roughly a century later and thence into the minds of two hundred years of English teachers and copy editors.
    “The rule has no basis in clarity (‘Who’s that cake for?’ is perfectly clear); history (it was made up from whole cloth); literary tradition (Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Samuel Johnson, Lord Byron, Henry Adams, Lewis Carroll, James Joyce, and dozens of other great writers have violated it); or purity (it isn’t native to English but probably stolen from Latin; clause-final prepositions exist in English’s cousin languages such as Danish and Icelandic). Many people know that the Dryden rule is nonsense. From the great usage-book writer Henry Fowler in the early twentieth century, usage experts began to caution readers io ignore it. The New York Times flouts it. The ‘rule’ should be put to death, but it may never be. Even those who know it is ridiculous observe it for fear of annoying others.”

This excerpt is from the book You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity by Robert Lane Greene. Read the entire excerpt at

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Candidate Candidate

Recently I have been musing upon the notion that there is a new (in my lifetime, at least) breed of presidential candidate—for want of a better word—stalking the land. We have had in the past the Comic Candidate (e.g., Pat Paulsen), the Goofball Candidate (e.g., Lyndon LaRouche), the Once Relevant Candidate (e.g., Harold Stassen), the Irrelevant Candidate (e.g., Ralph Nader)...but to my knowledge we have not had until recently what I’ve come to think of as the Candidate Candidate.

Harvey Dunn, The Harvest Orator, South Dakota Art Museum.        
Like someone who is “famous for being famous,” the Candidate Candidate is a candidate for no other reason than to be a candidate. He or she may or may not be serious about wanting to be president, but they seem to have little desire to do the actual work necessary to become president.

I suspect that Fred Dalton Thompson may have been the first Candidate Candidate. He seemed to want to be president, all right, but for no reason other than to be president. He stood for nothing, nothing that I could discern, at least. Early on there were some vague Reaganesque pronouncements and comparisons, but they never went anywhere—largely, I imagine, because Thompson had no depth. Perhaps the expectation was that the ghost of Reagan would cast some sort of aura around him that would propel him into the Oval Office. Guess not.

The consummate Candidate Candidate has got to be Sarah Palin, of course. Some might say she belongs in the Once Relevant Candidate category, but I dispute that she ever was relevant. No doubt those who, inexplicably, shoved her onto McCain’s ticket must have felt she had relevancy, but I believe they were sadly mistaken. And I believe history has shown me to be correct in my belief. Harold Stassen, who was, alas, something of a joke when I was a kid—this old guy from Minnesota who sought the Republican nomination every four years even though he had no chance at all of coming anywhere near the ticket—but he had a distinguished and important career in public service, not the least as a district attorney and three-time governor of Minnesota. (Yeah, he resigned midway through his third term, in 1943...but he did so in order to go on active duty with the Naval Reserve, not to have a half-baked TV series and go collect speaking fees.) Stassen was once relevant, and big time; Palin not so much.

But now a new contender emerges: Donald Trump. Why is he running? What does he hope to gain? Is it a publicity stunt? A circus act? Is he serious—and, if so, about what?

The man puts me in mind of a Fred Dalton Thompson with deep pockets. He may well want to be President...but beyond that, well, what is he? He seems only to be a Candidate Candidate—on the hustings for the sake of being on the hustings, apparently with no other agenda in mind. Eventually there will be a book deal, of course. Maybe another television show. But beyond Gertrude Stein once said of her childhood hometown, “There is no there there.” So it is with Trump, to date. There is no him there.

It’s easy, and fun, to look upon Candidate Candidates as harmless buffoons, as a sideshow, to use the term most frequently applied to Trump. But there’s the real danger that one of them could catch fire, could in in fact end up in a position where he or she could do some real and lasting damage. “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people,” said H.L. Mencken, and he was and is right. You get enough people to believe that so-and-so is “one of us” or “tells it like it is” or whatever the sound bite of the day may be, and trouble will follow. In fact, you don’t actually need people so much, thanks to the likes of Fox Noise and the Koch Brothers.

Where’s Harold Stassen now that we need him. Hell, where’s Pat Paulsen?