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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A little light from the Sun

I was humbled and honored this morning to find that I and this wee upstart linguablog were the subject of a You Don’t Say column by John McIntyre, my fair city’s preeminent voice on matters of language and author of The Old Editor Says, the Dao De Jing of the editorial craft. And I’m elated, and more than a bit gobsmacked, that this site should be the subject of such esteemed attention so early in its life.

Which is to say: Welcome, new readers, who have found your way here by Mr. McIntyre’s referral! I hope you find something to entertain and intrigue you here, and I encourage you to comment if you feel so moved. And I promise you I’ve only gotten started here; there’s lots in the pipeline, and those of you who would like to stay tuned have much to look forward to, including an assault on logic, some further nattering on heraldry, a bit about squids, and the reason I’m not the audience for extended jokes involving Shakespeare. So stick around, true believers!

Nerds, passive peeving, and fantasy diction

Stan Carey has a post up that’s yetanother much-needed rant about passive voice peevery, and how self-styled grammarians who advise against its use (in the fine tradition of Messrs. Strunk and White) can invariably be relied on to not know what the heck they’re talking about. You should go read it. I’ll wait.

The term passive voice as a grammatical concept has a specific meaning. The mechanics of it are a little arcane for the layperson; Geoff Pullum, explaining it in linguistic terms as simply as he can manage in his Language Log essay “The passive in English,” admits up-front to needing about 2500 words to do the subject justice. But in practice, it’s (mostly) fairly easy to identify – my personal favorite test is that if you can insert “by zombies” after the verb phrase, it’s passive voice. So Bob was eaten by zombies is in the passive voice, but *Bob was going by zombies home is nonsense in English, and so that “was going” is not, in fact, passive, no matter how much E.B. White and Mrs. Badcrumble were keen to convince you it is.

Also, as Pullum and other language writers (Carey among them; he’s had cause to write on this subject before) point out, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the passive voice. It’s a useful tool in the toolbox of English speech and composition, and you can do things with it that you can’t really achieve by any other means. Depriving yourself of it because some blowhard wants to shame your prose with words like “weak” and “weaselly” and “flabby” and “flat” is giving in to that prime fallacy of the peeververein (and indeed, of grayfaced puritans everywhere), that if people might possibly do something too much they should be told not to do it at all.

(On the flip side, the good news about most people not being able to identify passives even if they’ve been bitten by them is that you can often get away with using them when you need to even if you’ve been told not to. I confess that I have, on multiple occasions, turned in work containing passive constructions at places that had misguided No Passive Voice Ever rules in their stylebooks, confident that their appearance in context was so utterly natural that it would never occur to anyone to call them out, and I was right and they didn’t.)

Anyway, seeing Carey’s rant gave me cause to remember one of my own recent experiences of spotting misidentified passive peeving in the wild, and reflect on the deleterious effect it has on a demographic I’m more than a little invested in. And so to delve deeper into this particular instance of not-actually-passive-griping, we’re going to have to talk a bit about nerds.

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“Grammar, Stanley.”

Sometime last summer[1], I became a dedicated fan of the Disney XD animated series Gravity Falls – a show that seems to produce dedicated fans almost to the exclusion of any other kind. If your sensibilities are anything like mine, it’s easy to see why; GF is a real delight, a sort of X-files-meets-Twin Peaks-by-way-of-The Simpsons (all acknowledged influences on creator Alex Hirsch) that’s both a satire of and homage to the canon of supernatural mysteries, conspiracy thrillers, and coming-of-age stories. It’s all played for laughs, but that doesn’t stop it from having some genuinely creepy moments along the way, in the mold of the best remember-this-is-a-cartoon-for-children shows of the last two decades or so.[2] Indeed, the show’s genius in balancing those and other elements is a big part of its enduring appeal.

Another thing that’s appealing about Gravity Falls (especially to late adopters like me) is that it was always conceived as a finite story – it takes place over the course of a single summer, giving it a chance to build a genuinely sequential through-line and a story arc with a satisfying beginning, middle, and end. When the show’s final episodes – the multi-part “Weirdmageddon” storyline – aired this past winter, it was the payoff to a cluster of plot seeds that had been planted early and nurtured slowly over the years of the series’ run time.

As well as being a solidly entertaining hour-plus of television (and bear with me, I promise I’m building to something language-related here), the series finale had some great moments of subverting the expectations of the type of story GF is modeled on. One of these takes place during what looks like it’s about to be the great climactic moment of victory for the heroes – the reveal of a prophecy that’s been mysteriously hinted at since the early episodes, and which is the key to defeating the series’ omnipotent, diabolical arch-villain Bill Cipher. And the sideways turn that scene takes hinges on a moment of decidedly linguistic interest.

(Hereafter be SPOILERS, obviously – not just for the series ending, but for a major reveal of one of the show’s key mysteries that happens two-thirds of the way through the second season. If you haven’t seen Gravity Falls and would rather discover its secrets in the order its creator and writers intended, this is your last chance to turn away.)

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