Friday, 4 July 2008

Hung Like a Horse

(originally posted 9 June 08 and modified 4 July 08)

Now that I have your attention, I’m sorry to disappoint you. This posting will not feature photos of men with large genitalia. Nor, however, does my title to refer to the bizarre and little-known punishment, confined it seems to Mel Brooks’ vision of the old American West, of hanging a horse for being a man thief. For that, you see, the phrase would be “hanged like a horse,” which is, my friends, the point of this posting.

Feeling a bit hazy? Don’t worry—you’re in good company. It seems that even the most literate of us kitties has trouble remembering that when a human being (or, presumably, another animal subjected to capital punishment or accidental death) is the object of “hang,” the proper past tense form of the verb is “hanged.” When is the last time you heard someone say, “He hanged himself”? Assuming you don’t work at a suicide crisis center, probably a while. But I bet you’ve heard “he hung himself” a time or three lately, nicht wahr?

Perhaps you feel this distinction is too trivial to merit mention. I admit that I do not have my usual reaction of gagging followed by a discrete spewing of projectile vomit when the humans of my acquaintance or in the media or both fail to make it. Yet I must fight against the slippery slope, that muddy slide that has brought us such indignities as “infer” for “imply,” “nutritional” for “nutritious,” and “paternalistic” for “paternal.” I mean, it’s bad enough to be accused of expending your energy reading another person’s mind when you are in fact using that precious commodity to convey, tacitly, some unpalatable fact or opinion. Perhaps Martin Buber’s formulation will help: I imply; thou infers.

Still, it’s far worse to be told that a particular food is merely “nutritional,” i.e. that it is food, when it is in fact packed with vitamins, minerals, meat, vegetables, and flavonoids. Ditto for “paternalistic”: “Paternal” is a beautiful word with a beautiful meaning; the –istic suffix is there to turn it into a distortion. Please let’s not lose that rather large distinction between fatherly and chauvinistically authoritarian. (Funny how you never hear “maternalistic.” Hmmm… I’ll let the feminists chew on that one.)

Speaking of chewing, it’s time for my dinner. Meowlicious AND nutritious!

Thursday, 19 June 2008

con ammirazione, Professore

Miss Kitty Literate purrs with pleasure at many things: among them elegant use of language, a song well sung, prolonged massages, and the commentary of Pier Massimo Forni, professor of Romance Languages at Johns Hopkins University. Besides being Italian and thus a superior life form, Professor Forni directs The Civility Initiative at Hopkins ( His latest book, The Civility Solution: What to do When People are Rude, continues to develop his theme of the connections among civility, ethics, and quality of life, with a bit of psychoneuroimmunology added for good measure.

Last week, as I listened to the admirable Dr. Forni discuss his book with Diane Riehm, I was delighted to hear him cite “oversized portions of self-esteem” as one reason for the current crop of astonishingly rude people inhabiting every corner of society. And, as I pondered the linguistic implications of our cultural overemphasis on self-esteem at the expense of humility, and on entitlement rather than earned self-confidence, a cockroach of a sentence skittered across my consciousness:

“Are you okay with that?”

Sounds harmless, doesn’t it? But listen and look again. Look at the subject. Remember when the standard question was “Is that okay with you?” There is a world of difference in the reversal of subject and prepositional object, my friends. In the former case, the emphasis is on whatever you are asking the person to comment upon—a plan, a choice of restaurant, a wedding date, maybe even a situation requiring acceptance of a bitter reality. In the latter, you (or I) become the center of attention. The sentence morphs into an extension of “are you okay?”, an inquiry into a person’s state of being, not his or her opinion or reaction. Thus, with a simple switch of parts of speech, we have fallen into Narcissus’s pond, where nothing really matters but one’s own reflection. Such a construction is not only narcissistic, it also gives off the nostril-curling odor of victimization. Hmmm… narcissism and victimization—is it any wonder that such pervasive values turn up in the seemingly most innocuous turns of phrase?

So, please, dear readers, do yourselves a favor and return to the older construction, the one that puts you at a prepositional remove from the matter at hand. Not only does it sound better, it will make you feel better, for wouldn’t you rather toss off a jaunty or pointed “It’s (not) okay with me” than a cringing or wingeing, “I’m (not) okay with that”?

And if you think I’m picking the fly shit out of the pepper, then please feel free to express yourself, as the exquisitely polite Professor Forni puts it, through the art of finger puppetry.

Monday, 19 May 2008

Just Say No

I live in Baltimore so seeing people on the street talking to themselves is no big deal. About five years ago, however, I began to notice that an increasing number of these chatty, gesticulating individuals were not the familiar ambulatory schizophrenics of my home town. They were actually talking on cell phones through their Blue Tooth ear appurtenances. I don’t know why, but discovering this freaked me out way more than if I had overheard them receiving direct instructions from God or Mr. Scratch to do something that would not redound to the public good.

Of course today I’m quite used to it, except for the occasional double-take to make sure that I hadn’t just brushed by a member of the Borg Collective. (In some cases, I’m still not sure.) The point is, I have adapted to this sea change in social behavior.

Ah, yes. Adapt or perish. Acceptance brings peace. But you know what? There are some things in the linguistic arena that Miss Kitty Literate will never adapt to or accept. Among them:

Customer as “guest.” “Will one of our sales associates please assist this guest with his/her concern before he/she shoots up all the plate glass in the store?” Even better, replacing “patient” with guest”: “Please enjoy the complimentary sepsis that comes with your post-op recovery.”

Impact as a verb was bad enough, but now it’s become an adjective. An impactful event! Besides bringing to mind excruciating dental or proctologic pain, this one is on the short list for ugliest word ever.

Skill set. “Mommy, did you throw away my skill set with my blankie? After I finish processing what you did, I’m sure I’ll hate you. No doubt one of my core competencies* when I grow up will be around misogyny.”

Process/Grow This is quite a pair. Remember when food, data, and hair were the main things processed? Now that it refers to sentient beings digesting, reflecting upon, breaking down, working out, and all those other near-obsolete descriptive phrases, I guess we’re simply living out all those visions of the future in which humans grow more robotic. Wait, did I just use “grow” in connection with the natural world? What with everyone running around growing their businesses, their social networks, and their skill sets, what’s left for poor old hair and food, not to mention height and gardens? (Okay, I’ll make an exception for crystals.)

I won’t even discuss disinterested and less v. fewer. It’s too painful.

And so here I am: a lone voice purring in the wilderness. If you ever hear me use any of the examples above, skin me. Alive.

*Credit for this one goes to my friend and recovering communication consultant Geary Cogsnest.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Around the Bend

Lately as I listen to the daily babble I am put in mind of the Fats Waller song “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.” Well, it seems that now we’re getting around way too much. “Around,” which started life as a perfectly respectable preposition and then for some reason known only to “educators” and social workers began to engulf and devour “about,” now threatens to obliterate an entire lexical population.

In just the past few days, I have heard or had reported to me the following.

“Dave’s point seems to be around governance.”

“There was an analysis done around this.”

Bali will customize an exercise plan around your goals.”

As they say in the military, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot? Okay, let’s take them one at a time:

1. Around governance. This is the classic case, a substitution of around for about. The dictionary does say that among its many meanings, “around” can be equated to “about.” So you could just chalk this up to linguistic drift, the tendency of idioms to shift slightly over time. Even if you find the substitution ugly to the ear, as I do, you might just have to, well, work around it.

2. Analysis done around this. No, no, no! It’s one thing to substitute one word for another while preserving the meaning. It’s quite another to use that same word to fog up the windshield. Exactly how do you do an analysis “around” something? Do you put the thing in the center of the room and then have a group of analysts do the hora? I have but one little word for you my friends, “Of.”

3. Plan around your goals. This is my favorite. Don’t plan to reach your goals, plan around them! Then you’ll never have to reach them, and as we (including Bali Total Fitness?) know, when it comes to exercise, most of us never do.

To continue that thought, are we just talking laziness here? Does it take too much energy to come up with prepositional phrases that actually describe what you’re talking about? Or is it a contagion? I don’t know. I’ll have to think around it.

Friday, 9 May 2008

Brother Rat

A total digression: Today on Radio Lab, a science show on my public radio station, they profiled a researcher who discovered that rats laugh when they play and when they are tickled by humans. Incredulity on the part of the hosts ran through the piece. Why? Why are human animals so stupid about other animals? Of course rats laugh! Why wouldn’t they? (Though lab rats don’t have a whole lot to laugh about, which does make it kind of incredible that they still do.) Sorry, Aristotle and all other dominionists, we are no closer to the angels than any given mirthful rodent.

Monday, 28 April 2008

It Started with Cigarettes, Take Two


If you read the first blog you'll see a reference at the end to "hold your tongue," which was the old name of the blog. It turns out that someone else has a blog of the same name; hence the change. So the title goes, but the sentiment stays the same. Sorry for the confusion!

It Started with Cigarettes

Hi. I’m Kitty Literate and I have a language problem.

It all started, as most problems do, in my childhood. I was watching the old black-and-white and enjoying the cigarette and liquor commercials when I noticed something wrong with a particular slogan: “Winston Tastes Good Like a Cigarette Should.” Something felt not…quite…right. Was it some highly precocious, and as yet unconscious, understanding of the Surgeon General’s 1964 conclusions on the dangers of smoking? No. Was the jingle musically offensive? No more than any other. Wait… I know! It’s the “like.” Shouldn’t it be “Winston Tastes Good AS A Cigarette Should”? According to my fifth-grade English teacher, I. M. Shirley Wright, it certainly should be.

And yet, dear readers, I questioned. Does it really make any difference? Doesn’t “like” sound better than “as” in this particular case? I don’t remember how I resolved this particular conundrum in my own mind, but I do know that it marked the beginning of a life-long fascination with English usage.

Fast forward a few decades. Here we are in the Information Age, when everything you ever wanted to know is a mouse click away. You would think that now would be time when language—the medium of information—would be revered. Instead, it’s being stomped on, its precision continually dulled and rich lexicon oafishly impoverished by bad usage. We are way beyond the Winston era, when a minor infringement of a syntactic rule caught the attention of a nine-year-old girl; we are into a dark time when NPR reporters say things on the air like “ad campaigns around customers’ mindsets,” and there are no problems anymore, only “issues.”

If you’ve read this far and you really don’t care about such things, then goodbye and good luck. But if you do, please stay tuned as I explore what is happening to our beloved native tongue. Oh, and all you nonjudgmental students of linguistics out there, I know language changes, and I’m all for it. But I believe we are into something here that is damaging, not just transformational, and, by golly, I want it on the record!

Please do not think of this blog as a prescriptive grammar book or me as a stuffy schoolmarm shaking her finger at you every time you say “who” instead of “whom.” It’s about style, in all senses of the word, and about taking care of your tools. I chose “hold your tongue” for its double meaning: one, watch what you say (and I don’t mean censor cussing or slang or other wonderful, creative aspects of language); and two, hold your language dear.

This is Kitty Literate, signing off. Until next time.