Julian Barnes: my life as a bibliophile
When I am dead, will read? The printed page
Was just a half-millennium’s brief wonder …
“Only connect,” E.M. Forster told us, and poor Mitt Romney just can’t, alienating the left by spelling out that he doesn’t care about the downtrodden and dissing the right by describing himself as “severely conservative.” But Romney’s lack of personal warmth goes further than his remarks—or coiffure, or pet care—and right down to his interjections.
It’s the G-words. “This was back, oh gosh, probably in the late ’70s,” he reminisced to a radio host about a steak house. Or, Romney surmised how his Mormonism would play out during his campaign with, “Oh, I think initially, some people would say, ‘Gosh, I don’t know much about your faith, tell me about it,’ ” as if his G-word fetish were the way just anyone talks these days. Or: Chris Wallace asked whether said faith might be a disadvantage in voter perceptions of him, and Romney exclaimed, “Gee, I hope not!” Then, Romney on carried interest—one is to “say, gosh, is this a true capital investment with a risk of loss?”
Gee, gosh, and golly are all tokens of dissimulation. They are used in moments of excitement or dismay as burgherly substitutions, either for God and Jesus—words many religious people believe should not be “taken in vain”—or for words considered even less appropriate. Fittingly, they even emerged as disguised versions of God (gosh and golly) and Jesus (gee; cf. also jeez). This was in line with how cursing worked in earlier English. The medieval and even colonial Anglophones’ versions of profanity were to express dismay or vent pain by swearing—“making an oath”—to God or related figures considered ill-addressed in such a disrespectful way. The proper person at least muted the impact with a coy distortion, à la today’s shoot and fudge. Hence zounds (first attestation: 1600), as in by his (Christ’s) wounds; egad for Ye God (1673); and by Jove (1598). To increasing numbers of modern Americans, the G-words are unusable outside of quotation marks, be these actual or implied, rather like the word perky.
The proscription against swearing “to God” has ever less force. I recall being taught it as a child in the ’70s but being quietly perplexed as to why and wondering what “in vain” meant. Since then, “ohmigod” has become an ordinary remark among even a great many churchgoers. The evasive essence of the G-words, redolent of the Beaver Cleaver 1950s Romney grew up in, has long been rejected as phony, out of line with the let-it-all-hangout essence of the culture. Indicatively, a Web search turns them up endlessly in ironic writing about Romney’s assorted evasions and half-truths during his campaign. The modern American, even if he or she has one of Romney’s Harvard degrees, often uses today’s version of profanity in the slots where Romney slides his G-words. A more, shall we say, vibrant translation of “Gee, I hope not” would be “Shit, I hope not,” and in “This was back, oh gosh, probably in the late ’70s,” “hell” would be substituted for the “oh gosh,” especially after a beer or two. Or, even in more buttoned-up moments, our versions of those sentences might include “Man, I hope not,” and especially for those under about 40, “Dude, I don’t know much about your faith.” Man and dude both reach out to the interlocutor seeking agreement. Man and dude are, at heart, solicitations—“You know what I mean, man/dude?”
This warmer, more personal way of speaking fits with a trend in American English during Romney’s lifetime, in which casual speech styles have occupied ever more of the space that used to be reserved for the more formal. Casual speech always has more room for the folksy reach-out than formal speech does: Witness the use of yo today among younger black people. “Them pants was tight, yo!” I once caught on the subway. The yo isn’t the grand old call from a distance—Yo!—the guy’s friend was standing right there. This new yo appended to the ends of sentences has a particular function,reinforcing that you and your conversational partner are on the same page in terms of perspectives and attitudes.
This is also happening very quickly in texting and instant messaging. It’s common knowledge that lol means “laughing out loud,” but these days, young people’s texts are full of lols that can hardly stand for guffawing. Here is an example of an actual instant-messaging session between teenagers, with details altered for confidentiality:
The lol is the texting equivalent of black English’s yo, a nugget of new colloquial grammar establishing a warm shared frame of reference.
Language is clearly an area where Romney differs from his opponent. President Obama, for all of his coolness of demeanor, reveals himself as a more modern speaker—and by extension person—with his quiet but steady sampling from the kick-back realm of language. This is true not only in the dusting of black inflection he often uses for rhetorical purposes, but in a certain interjectional tic: a particular penchant for you know even in weighty contexts. You know steps outside of the formal, propositional box of a statement to solicit agreement from the listener, rather like a raising of the eyebrows or hands spread outward with palms upward. A dedicated Obama mimic could go a long way in sprinkling develop thoughtful statements with ample you know-age. Here is part of Obama’s recent statement in favor of gay marriage:
This is something that, you know, we’ve talked about over the years and she, you know, she feels the same way, she feels the same way that I do. And that is that, in the end, the values that I care most deeply about and she cares most deeply about is how we treat other people and, I, you know, we are both practicing Christians and obviously this position may be considered to put us at odds with the views of others. But, you know, when we think about our faith . . .
This usage of you know is not new. In 1998, I asked a 95-year-old linguist whether he remembered people using like in the hedging way they do now when he was a child, and he said that back then, you know was used in the same way. (I have since been told this by two other nonagenarians.) The difference is that Woodrow Wilson wasn’t given to saying you know in discussing the League of Nations. Language has warmed up a great deal.
Romney’s God-fearing, impersonal G-words, then, reveal him as linguistically a person of another time, in which the public mood was cooler than today’s. That can be a good thing. Even Father Coughlin would not have called an earnest young woman, or anyone else, a slut on the radio. Yet the fact remains that there are few better ways to connote the air of a mannequin in 2012 than by saying gosh with a straight face.
John McWhorter is a contributing editor for The New Republic. This article appeared in the June 28, 2012 issue of the magazine.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning once gave the poetry of her husband, Robert, a harsh assessment, criticizing his habit of excessively paring down his syntax with opaque results. “You sometimes make a dust, a dark dust,” she wrote him, “by sweeping away your little words.”
In their quest for concision, writers of newspaper headlines are, like Robert Browning, inveterate sweepers away of little words, and the dust they kick up can lead to some amusing ambiguities. Legendary headlines from years past (some of which verge on the mythical) include “Giant Waves Down Queen Mary’s Funnel,” “MacArthur Flies Back to Front” and “Eighth Army Push Bottles Up Germans.” The Columbia Journalism Review even published two anthologies of ambiguous headlinese in the 1980s, with the classic titles “Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim” and “Red Tape Holds Up New Bridge.”
For years, there was no good name for these double-take headlines. Last August, however, one emerged in the Testy Copy Editors online discussion forum. Mike O’Connell, an American editor based in Sapporo, Japan, spotted the headline “Violinist Linked to JAL Crash Blossoms” and wondered, “What’s a crash blossom?” (The article, from the newspaper Japan Today, described the successful musical career of Diana Yukawa, whose father died in a 1985 Japan Airlines plane crash.) Another participant in the forum, Dan Bloom, suggested that “crash blossoms” could be used as a label for such infelicitous headlines that encourage alternate readings, and news of the neologism quickly spread.
After I mentioned the coinage of “crash blossoms” on the linguistics blog Language Log, having been alerted to it by the veteran Baltimore Sun copy editor John E. McIntyre, new examples came flooding in. Linguists love this sort of thing, because the perils of ambiguity can reveal the limits of our ability to parse sentences correctly. Syntacticians often refer to the garden-path phenomenon, wherein a reader is led down one interpretive route before having to double back to the beginning of the sentence to get on the right track.
One of my favorite crash blossoms is this gem from the Associated Press, first noted by the Yale linguistics professor Stephen R. Anderson last September: “McDonald’s Fries the Holy Grail for Potato Farmers.” If you take “fries” as a verb instead of a noun, you’re left wondering why a fast-food chain is cooking up sacred vessels. Or consider this headline, spotted earlier this month by Rick Rubenstein on the Total Telecom Web site: “Google Fans Phone Expectations by Scheduling Android Event.” Here, if you read “fans” as a plural noun, then you might think “phone” is a verb, and you’ve been led down a path where Google devotees are calling in their hopes.
Nouns that can be misconstrued as verbs and vice versa are, in fact, the hallmarks of the crash blossom. Take this headline, often attributed to The Guardian: “British Left Waffles on Falklands.” In the correct reading, “left” is a noun and “waffles” is a verb, but it’s much more entertaining to reverse the two, conjuring the image of breakfast food hastily abandoned in the South Atlantic. Similarly, crossword enthusiasts laughed nervously at a May 2006 headline on AOL News, “Gator Attacks Puzzle Experts.”
After encountering enough crash blossoms, you start to realize that English is especially prone to such ambiguities. Since English is weakly inflected (meaning that words are seldom explicitly modified to indicate their grammatical roles), many words can easily function as either noun or verb. And it just so happens that plural nouns and third-person-singular present-tense verbs are marked with the exact same suffix, “-s.” In everyday spoken and written language, we can usually handle this sort of grammatical uncertainty because we have enough additional clues to make the right choices of interpretation. But headlines sweep away those little words — particularly articles, auxiliary verbs and forms of “to be” — robbing the reader of crucial context. If that A.P. headline had read “McDonald’s Fries Are the Holy Grail for Potato Farmers,” there would have been no crash blossom for our enjoyment.
Headline writers have long been counseled to beware of ambiguity. “Ambiguous words often lead to ludicrous and puzzling headline statements,” Grant Milnor Hyde wrote in his 1915 manual, “Newspaper Editing.” “They can be avoided only by great care in the use of words with two meanings and especially words that may be used either as nouns or verbs.” More recently, in the 2003 book “Strategic Copy Editing,” the University of Oregonjournalism professor John Russial offered this rule of thumb: “As the word count drops, the likelihood of ambiguity increases.” He advises copy editors to think twice about trimming the little words.
The potential for unintended humor in “compressed” English isn’t restricted to headline writing; it goes back to the days of the telegraph. One clever (though possibly apocryphal) example once appeared in the pages ofTime magazine: Cary Grant received a telegram from an editor inquiring, “HOW OLD CARY GRANT?” — to which he responded: “OLD CARY GRANT FINE. HOW YOU?” The omitted verb may have saved the sender a nickel, but the snappy comeback was worth far more.
The space limitations of telegrams are echoed now in the terse messages of texting and Twitter. News headlines, however, are not so constrained these days, since many of them appear in online outlets rather than in print. (And many print headlines are supplanted online by more elastic “e-heads.”) But even when they are unfettered by narrow newspaper columns, headline writers still sweep away those little words as a matter of journalistic style. As long as there is such a thing as headlinese, we can count on crash blossoms continuing to blossom.
I actually am often trying to explain “who was Paul Williams” to younger people or to my peers who don’t know pop culture of the 1970s. As this V.F. writer points out there is no contemporary equivalent entertainer like Paul Williams to compare to Paul Williams. The guy was everywhere: pop music (genius), talk shows, game shows, movies. I think what was interesting about him was that he didn’t look like Bobby Sherman, or Burt Reynolds. He was comical, but he had a serious artist side, and he didn’t seem to care about looking like a gay Troll Doll. Part of his high profile can be attributed to the ubiquity of network television. Everybody was watching the same shows on 3 channels so our labor pool of celebrities was smaller. Also people from that time did real stuff to become famous. Famous people then wrote great songs, were not funny on Dinah, or walked on the moon. Entertaining, even attempts at entertaining, are less important enterprises in becoming famous today. You only have to be talented now at looking beautiful or saying something outrageously stupid on a reality show. – rf brown
The finale of The Pirate (1947), with a score by Cole Porter, is a number performed by Gene Kelly and Judy Garland called “Be a Clown.” In Singin’ in the Rain (1952) Donald O’Connor does a famous routine to a song called “Make ‘Em Laugh,” whose music is identical to that of the earlier song and its lyric nearly so. Its authors, however, are listed as Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed, who wrote the rest of the movie’s score. How come? Were there any lawsuits? Both movies were produced by Arthur Freed, which may mean something.
Arthur Freed, the producer responsible for most of the MGM musicals of the 40s and 50s, began his career as a songwriter. “Singin’ in the Rain” was part of Brown and Freed’s score for MGM’s first “all talking, all singing, all dancing” musical, The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (the song has since been used in five other films, counting A Clockwork Orange).
In 1952, Freed decided to use his songbook as the basis for an original musical, as he had done with Jerome Kern’s songs in 1946 (Till the Clouds Roll By) and George Gershwin’s in 1951 (An American in Paris). Freed assigned Betty Comden and Adolph Green to build a screenplay around the available material, with Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly to direct. When the time came to shoot, Donen decided that Donald O’Connor needed a solo number, and couldn’t find anything that worked in the Freed catalog. Donen suggested that Brown and Freed write a new song, pointing to Porter’s “Be a Clown” as the sort of thing he thought would fit in at that point in the script. Brown and Freed obliged–maybe too well–with “Make ‘Em Laugh.” Donen called it “100 percent plagiarism,” but Freed was the boss and the song went into the film. Cole Porter never sued, although he obviously had grounds enough. Apparently he was still grateful to Freed for giving him the assignment for The Pirate at a time when Porter’s career was suffering from two consecutive Broadway flops (Mexican Hayride and Around the World in Eighty Days).