In the Mx

A recent Words We’re Watching post at Merriam-Webster online singled out the gender-neutral honorific Mx. as a trend worth paying attention to, enough so that it had been added to M-W unabridged dictionary. “CUE THE WHINING,” wrote author Saladin Ahmed in reaction on the Tweetie, and of course he was right: Without even scrolling down the comments, “Ridiculous,” “Mixed up is what it is,” and “Just too stupid for any additional words!” are responses that appear on the M-W article.

Here’s the thing, though: You don’t have to like that there are people who reject gender binaries and want an honorific to reflect that. You just need to accept that they exist. That’s what language is for – describing the world. And dictionaries, in turn, exist to catalogue the words we use for that description that have taken long-term hold. The addition of Mx. to Merriam-Webster’s unabridged lexicon isn’t the blessing of the High Council of English on a word worthy of joining the offical ranks; it’s a recognition that the word is already in widespread enough use to merit an entry, based on the idea that someone might be likely to come across it and want to know what it means.

When we speak and think in a language, we tend to unconsciously believe that the world falls into place exactly as that language describes it. This allows us to forget that the way language categorizes things may be arbitrary, or incomplete, or based on outdated notions and assumptions. As our knowledge of the world increases, the emergence of new terms can look like an annoyance to people who believe the existing vocabulary is sufficient; Everyone’s either a he or a she, they say, and when someone stands up to say, “But I’m not!” they insist it’s the new idea that has to be corrected rather that the language’s shortcoming. But this forgets that language is a work-in-progress that strives to reflect the world, not enforce limitations on it. When the toolkit is no longer sufficient, we create new tools instead of abandoning the work. When the words we have fall short, it only makes sense to engineer new ones that better represent the things we now know.

Yes, innovation can bring new complications and present new truths that make us uneasy. We didn’t use to have to worry about everyone’s pronouns, grumble the holdouts, and that’s true. But we also used to think it was moral to own people, that the social order was ordained by Heaven, that women had no place in civic life, that same-sex attraction was a disorder. We know better now. When meeting someone who wants to be addressed as Mx. and referred to as xie, we have an opportunity to learn something new. We do the world, and the language, more honor by embracing that opportunity with humility and grace than by insisting that, because our existing words haven’t made a place for it, the knowledge in question must be false.

Punctuation peeving and the gatekeepers of authenticity

Early last week, author Stephen Blackmoore said on the Tweetie, “Periods, commas, question marks. Everything else is bullshit.”

It was a one-off comment that may not have been entirely serious, and Blackmoore seems like a nice guy and I probably shouldn’t pick on him for this. But it’s a sentiment I’ve seen before. Lots of otherwise sensible and broad-minded people fixate on some punctuation mark that gets up their nose, like Kurt Vonnegut and his distaste for semicolons. And while it’s true that overuse of certain punctuation can be a distracting tic (as Anne Curzan illustrates in her meditation on the em dash), I have to wonder what people are thinking when they suggest weeding out the toolkit of written expression this way.

In the long history of the printed word, we’ve already jettisoned the punctuation that no longer serves us. The pilcrow and the manicule are mostly the stuff of old manuscripts now, and niche marks like the interrobang, quasiquote, and certainty point have failed to gain a foothold. At this stage, we can be pretty sure that the punctuation in common use is there because there’s a need for it.

So why do some marks inspire peeving and the impulse to dismiss them as “bullshit”? I suspect it’s a similar motivation to the much-loved, but still nonsensical, advice to “write with verbs and nouns, not adjectives and adverbs” and its variants – a purist version of “omit needless words.” Advocates of this approach say that the result is writing that’s “lean” or “concise” or “efficient,” as though those were obvious positives and ends in themselves that apply to all writing (which is not the case, but leave that for another day). And so there’s an idea that you can strip written language down to only its essentials, and everything that’s not strictly necessary goes in the Bullshit bin.

And what a lot of bullshit that outlook is. Yes, you can write using only “periods, commas, question marks.” But why would you? We have different kinds of connective tissue in sentences because the variation in rhythm and structure they provide is pleasing to the eye and helps convey meaning, tone, cadence, pace – all things that the skilled writer is a careful architect of. A well-written text is like a musical score that tells you where to pause, where to breathe, where to slow down, where to dash (as it were) forward. No one would tell a composer that some kinds of rests are essential and others are bullshit, but that’s what this boils down to.

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A linkage gallimaufrey

The internet is full of things, and many of those things are wonderful gems of linguistic interest. Here are some of the language-related links that have recently caught my eye:

As if on cue, Kyle Kallgren just this week posted a video on William Shakespeare’s Star Wars as what we can hope is the first of this year’s Summer of Shakespeare series. It’s a nice corrective and counterpoint to the grousing I did in my previous post, and Kallgren highlights a whole lot of what Doescher does right in capturing the Shakespearean style in his book series. (And I note that in a couple of the examples he cites, there are, contrary to my impressions, a couple of yous sprinkled in Doescher’s verse. Though I’m still convinced he’s not doing those protocols justice, I’m also happy to not be entirely right about his work.) Kallgren is very smart and funny, and always worth watching on the subject of Shakespeareana in particular; I linked to his magisterial takedown of the painfully stupid Anonymous in my last post, but all his commentary on Shakespeare on film will reward your attention.

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Nearer the Force to thee

“For in much wisdom is much grief,” wrote the author of Ecclesiastes, “and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” And if you don’t believe it, watch a costume drama with a historian sometime.

I cast some shade on my fellow nerds last week for our preoccupation with minutiae, but it’s also true that sometimes deep knowledge of a subject makes it hard to appreciate things that brush against it in a, shall we say, less immersive way. They could have at least made some effort to get the details right is the eternal lament of anyone who has just seen their field of interest given a half-cocked treatment in some bit of commercial media, and none of us who grumble about such things ever really understand that we are too narrow a band of the intended audience to make that effort worthwhile. So it goes.

One of my fields of interest is Shakespeare, and I’m just deeply immersed enough in that subject to be the guy who’s not much fun when I trip over a mistake that misrepresents some odd detail of Shakespeareana. But I have to admit that we Bardophiles have it pretty good; while we do occasionally have to roll our eyes at the moonbat chemtrail reptoid fever dreams of the Oxfordians, or grit our teeth just a little when someone misquotes “Alas, poor Yorick,” those are relatively minor annoyances in a world where there’s a movie of young Magneto in the Scottish Play. So I really do try my best to be a good sport and not grouse over things no one but me cares about because they weren’t memorizing soliloquys back in high school just because it seemed like it would be fun.

By most measures, William Shakespeare’s Star Wars by Ian Doescher should have hit the mark for me. Doescher has an admirably good ear for Shakespearean cadence and word choice, he doesn’t make a hash of early modern English morphology, and his verse scans nicely. He’s made what could have been a one-off joke into a thing that works better than it probably has any right to over an extended series, and so he gets a lot of credit for doing something clever and doing it, in many respects, very well. And yet all the same, when my famous author friend Mike loaned me a copy, I found myself bouncing off what to almost anyone else would seem like a trivial detail – so trivial, in fact, that it can be distilled to a single word, and that word is you.

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In which your humble author catches up at last to 2008

I am not by any stretch a Luddite, but nor am I anyone’s idea of an early adopter. I carried a flip phone well into the twenty-teens; I picked up a netbook just as they teetered on the edge of permanent obsolescence; the era of the iPod passed me by pretty much entirely. So what I’m saying is, at the room party of technology, I’m as often as not the guy who shows up just in time for the good beer to be gone and when the last remnants of the artichoke dip have been crusted over for an hour already.

All of which is to serve as preamble for what the heck took me so long as I announce that, after years of hesitant vacillation, I am now on the Tweetie, where you can follow me as @2ndLevelBard if you feel so inclined.

Apologies for the delay.

Pining for the fnords

Not a word is a phrase the volunteer grammar militia like to deploy as if it’s a tactical warhead, a megaton-level delivery of dismissal and shame meant to obliterate whatever invention or mutation is too recent to have been granted what they imagine is legitimacy by appearing in The Dictionary. It’s pretty much a paper tiger, of course, because “not a word” is not an argument, and that’s not what the dictionary is for, but at least when you see it you’re getting fair warning of exactly the kind of insufferable fusspot you’re dealing with.

Meanwhile, for most of us, a “word” is a collection of letters with a recognizable meaning, even if its usage is disreputable or in an informal register. But once in a while, the odd corners and alleys of culture give us an interesting edge case. Take, for example, the wordlike phoneme string fnord, which I’m guessing you likely haven’t stumbled across unless your social or aesthetic pursuits have brought you into the circle of the Discordians.

Discordianism is fascinating all by itself: a phemonenon unique in religious history for its commitment to being both a satire of religion and a practiceable faith in equal measure. That should give you an idea of the territory we’re entering here; as a Discordian of my acquaintance once said, “Nothing a Discordian tells you is either entirely serious or entirely in jest,” and that’s a pretty good rundown of the least you need to know when looking into the fnord question.

“Fnord” is a term without a definition (though it does have a Wikipedia entry) used by Discordians as a shorthand for Erisian weirdness, a marker of irony, and a signal of in-group mutual understanding among the initiated. It’s not quite an interjection, but it serves the function of a wink or a sly aside, like a more abstracted LOL for absurdists and anarchists. It’s a “word” invented to have no direct referent, indeed to resist all attempts at being defined; all connotation and no denotation. And in the circles where it’s used, it’s survived for half a century now, which is pretty impressive staying power for something with a meaning intended to stand as a perpetual question mark.

(Now, I can well imagine a Discordian saying that of course fnord has a definition, it’s just that the un-Illuminated are unable to grasp it. It doesn’t take long among Discordians to understand that this is part of the game. The brilliance of fnord is that it’s a mystery disguising itself as a secret, and the joke’s on anyone who can’t tell the difference between the two.)

Douglas Hofstadter, in his essay “Stuff and Nonsense” in Metamagical Themas (a work I regrettably don’t have in front of me, so I’m writing from memory here), wrote about the compelling quality of nonsense – in verse in particular, but other media as well – to suggest that there’s some key piece of information the reader is missing that would make everything clear if only it were revealed. Invented words can be perfectly compact meaning-delivery units when they’re made up of the intuitively right parts; they can also be distillations of that maddening feeling that well-crafted nonsense has to hover just at the edge of meaning without ever coming into view. And some of them slide back and forth across the slippery border between meaning and meaninglessness in interesting ways. I suppose lots of  people in the language fields find contemplating that ambiguous space disconcerting, but I’m fascinated by it, and if you are too, you should come sit next to me. Hail Eris! Fnord!

Is coding the new literacy?

There’s a conversation going on right now in the tech-industry neighborhoods of the web about the, for want of a better word, evangelistic movement to teach coding to everyone. Indeed, it’s a conversation that’s been going on for years now – but the recent writing I’ve read on it from the folks who are the movement’s most ardent defenders seem to hinge on some odd assertions.

I dipped into this subject a week or so ago when a friend linked to Quincy Larson’s article “Please do learn to code” on Medium.com’s freeCodeCamp site. Here’s what seems to be Larson’s thesis statement: “[P]rogramming is how humans talk to machines. … For computers to succeed at the jobs we’ve assigned them, they need us humans to give them extremely clear instructions. That means coding. Coding isn’t some niche skill. It really is ‘the new literacy.’” He then goes on to more or less restate:

Once a history-shaping new technology comes out of the genie bottle, you can’t put it back. This was true for airplanes, antibiotics, and nuclear warheads. And it’s true for microprocessors, the internet, and machine learning.

Those who adapt to these permanent waves of changes flourish. Those who shrug them off — or fail to even realize they exist — asymptotically approach irrelevance.

Coding is the new literacy. Like reading was in the 12th century, writing was in the 16th century, arithmetic was in the 18th century, and driving a car was in the 20th century.

It’s a bold assertion (and bolded in the original as well), and it feels compelling. But is it the right analogy? Is coding actually the new literacy? Well, not the way I understand the word.

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