Monthly Archives: October 2011

Sticks and Stones Can Break My Bones, But Words Will Obliterate My Identity

Boy playing with Barbie dollsWhy do words exist?

Why have we gone to such exquisite effort to stratify our existence with extremely subtle differences in mouth noises? Why do we do that? Part of the answer is somewhat philosophical, concerning our profound need to express what is in our minds, and we have found an amazing way to do it.

Ignoring profundity, we can see that we use words to describe our world. Because our world changes depending on time and space, I know the meaning of the word “website” whereas my ancestors knew the word “harrow”. Whatever that was. Or we can cite the famous example of how the Eskimos have 684 words for snow.

But for this blog entry, let’s consider a distinction in the fact that we not only use words to describe our world, but to express our feelings about that world. In this case, I don’t mean by talking about our feelings, but by creating words for the things we think are important. What specific verb means “to put cold water on your eyes in the evening to try to wake up”? There’s no such word. Who cares? It’s not important enough to have a word.

There was a time when people did think it was imporant to have a word like “octoroon”. It means a person who appears to be a member of the “white” race but who has one eighth (yes, 1/8th) “black” blood. Why was there ever such a word? Because a world existed in which the distinction between black and white was so important, and in which “black” blood was considered so inferior, that it really mattered if a person had even one eighth black heritage. Thus there was a word to set those people apart. There was also a word for someone who was one fourth black: quadroon, and one half black: mulatto. These words did not exist simply to describe the world, but to describe how people felt about the world.

I’ll examine some very interesting pairs of words that illustrate ideas about male and female behavior. Some of these words (some) are slipping out of use as social ideas change. That’s part of my point—these words do not exactly describe the world, but rather they capture what people have believed about the world.

You Naughty Girls

For the last few centuries (i.e., 10,000 years), what has been the attitude toward women who have more than one sexual partner, or even just one for that matter? It has been considered wrong wrong wrong for women to freely have sex, and they should be condemned if not worse. We even have a word to symbolically perform that condemnation: slut. Every time you use that word, you are participating in male domination, even if you’re a woman.

Is there a real male equivalent for that word? And don’t give me that “male slut” bullshit. I mean a real word, with the same connotations. Of course there’s no such word. A man who sticks it around in as many directions as possible will probably get a positive word: stud. Duuuude!

That’s Your Rocking Chair Over There

In The Canterbury Tales, the character known as Wife of Bath tells about her many husbands, the first of which she married while still a girl. I’m remembering that she was 12 years old. At that time remarkably young girls might become married to much older men, a practice that is still true in some pretty nasty cultural practices around the world.

It was almost impossible for a girl to be too young to be married, but she could certainly be too old. Because some women were still unmarried past some age of decrepitude (say, 25), they simply weren’t going to be able to marry. They would remain “maidens” or maids for life, and thus they would become old maids. In order to pass the days these poor women might spend a lot of the time spinning wool, so they were also spinsters.

And what is the male equivalent term? In the case of men, the social attitude was that they practically could not be too old—or dumb, or ugly, or mean—to get married. An unmarried bachelor was always an eligible bachelor.

You Boys Take Those Dresses Off

How bad are the connotations of the word “tomboy”? Not that bad, really. In most cases, probably not bad at all. How bad is the word “sissy”? It is never, ever good, and until recently might result in medical treatment in the United States.

A tomboy is a girl who behaves according to socially defined male behavior. No doubt some people have not liked for girls to act that way, but in general it’s not horrible and it shows a little spirit. In opposition to this, a sissy is a boy who behaves according to traditional female behavior. And it ain’t a good thing.

What these two words show us is that, socially, male behavior is so positive a girl who acts that way is at least following something admirable. Male behavior is the positive standard. Female behavior, on the other hand, has been looked at so negatively that for a boy to act as a girl—well, good God, somebody stop him!

In reality, every word in the language carries a social history, telling us something about how people in the past looked at the world. We might consider the word “virgin”, for instance, but maybe we’ll look into that later.

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Tell Us What You Think

Woman holding up political messageIn a time long distant (summer), I looked at some of the political rhetoric of Rick Perry. It feels like time to become analytical again. There are many candidates running for office, and even though I’m something of a political junky myself, I was surprised to learn that there are candidates who I never heard of. Gary Somebody? There are always the tiny third parties who want to return the entire population to farming, or require everyone to carry a handgun, or declare war on Jamaica for stealing our marijuana.

But I mean Republican candidates. There is a plethora of these. It could be entertaining to put on hip boots and wade through the gobsmacking incredible drivel that falls out of the mouth of Michelle Bachman, but it takes little ability to shoot fish in a barrel. So let’s leave Michelle standing on a hill howling at the moon, which looks a bit like buttocks, which reminds her of gay people, and grrrr…..

Instead, I’ll turn some attention to the language and rhetoric of someone who actually might become President. Mitt Romney is intelligent and capable, and he has the ability to be President. Sure, people are put off by the fact that he seems to have no real beliefs, other than how much he reallllllly wants to be President. But in the current political climate, with all the Jesus-told-me-to-tell-you rhetoric coming from the Republican side, an appearance of no serious belief could even appear to be an asset.

I’ve taken some information from Mitt Romney’s website, so let’s look at two issues that have caught fire for this election. A major item in the right-wing catechism is that thou shalt not show any sympathy whatsoever for illegal immigrants. The enlightened faithful take this point so seriously that Mr. Texas Tough-Guy Perry shot himself by admitting the obvious fact that the children are not the ones who broke the law. Romney uses that admission to go after Perry. Through the voice of his website, Romney says, “Democratic Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, President Obama, and Rick Perry all share the same position that illegal immigrants should get tuition discounts at taxpayers’ expense.”

There are two obvious rhetorical strategies here. First, Perry is being associated with two Democrats, including the much reviled Obama. In some ways this attempt at guilt by association is such a cheap trick that it looks clumsy, since in reality, Romney himself has more in common with Obama than Perry does. Probably much more. Obama and Romney both went to Harvard. Even so, the attack on Perry probably has some effectiveness, and both Democrats and Republicans will jump on this technique as fast as they can think of a way.

The second clear rhetorical strategy in the quote above is to remind party fanatics who hate immigrants (“no no, we love legal immigrants”) that Perry showed sympathy for educating the children of illegals. Given the audience Romney is aiming at, such a nasty strategy of appealing to negative feelings may be effective, at least in terms of harming Perry. In the long run, this return to the Know-Nothing political party of the 1850s shows our country at its worst. You are sowing the whirlwind, Mitt, and the Republicans may someday reap the harvest they deserve for doing that.

It thus seems a bit ironic that on Romney’s website we find the sentence: “These values—inherited from our Founders and embodied by all who came to our shores seeking opportunity—have made the United States the most powerful nation in the history of the world.” Here Mitt seems to recognize that we are a great nation largely because we have attracted ambitious, hard-working immigrants. Yes, there is a difference between legal and illegal, but saying the children should not be educated is not addressing the problem.

A second intense issue for this election—probably the most intense—is the question of jobs and the economy. No President could create such a problem; no President could fix such a problem. But that’s logic, not politics. Politically, Obama totally fucked it all up, and if only a Republican could get elected, that person could totally make everything better. That’s politics.

Another page of the website, consisting of only two paragraphs, addresses the anxiety over the economy. One of those paragraphs begins with a sentence that I think shows an effective rhetorical approach: “Any American living through this economic crisis will immediately recognize the severity of the break that Mitt Romney proposes from our current course.”

Many people are out of work now, many people want something to change. A severe break from the wretched economy sounds like a good idea. The sentence attempts to connect with those who are worried about the economy, then goes on to try to carry a sympathetic reader into “immediately” recognizing “the severity of the break that Mitt Romney proposes”.

Within the two paragraphs of that page, we also find the following phrases:

  • rebuild the foundations of the American economy
  • free enterprise, hard work, and innovation
  • increase trade, energy production, human capital, and labor flexibility
  • how economic growth and prosperity are achieved
  • how jobs are created

Aren’t these the right things to say, to invoke a sense of seriousness, a somewhat elevated aura of competence, a feeling of someone who knows? And that sense, that aura, that feeling are exactly the things the Romney campaign is trying to promote about Mitt Romney. Those are the appeals they want to use to get him elected. If he makes it to the Presidency, it will probably be because that rhetorical approach was successful. Mr. CEO.

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Coffee, Rain, Saturday

A ridge and valley in central PAFrom the cafe where I sit, very close by I see the wall of one of the long ridges that we sometimes refer to individually as a “mountain”. Those ridges, with the relatively flat valleys in between, are part of what make the landscape here so beautiful and interesting. My village is set just against the edge of this ridge, and now that it’s early fall, I can see a tiny bit of color in the trees running up that green expanse. At the moment, it’s a rainy day and there is heavy fog drifting along the top of the ridge. So I sit in a coffee shop that I could walk to if I weren’t so sadly lazy and look at this view while I write.

Last night at some point I woke up and then lay without sleeping, not such a rare thing at my age, I think, albeit not such a desirable thing either. You know how it is, one thought after another comes marching through saying Oh, think about me too, and there you are awake. I don’t worry or fret at night, though, not at all. I just think. And as I lay there, the thought came to me that there is so much to look forward to. It’s obvious that the list might include a long-delayed trip to Pittsburgh (that’s still theoretical), frisky romantic interludes (somewhat better than a theory), or drives in the country on sunny fall days (certainly possible if this rain stops).

I was also thinking of things that only a weird geek could possibly feel happy about. In the afternoon I received a book in the mail to learn the website programming language JavaScript. Yes, I’m excited about it. I’m also creating a website for a non-profit group, and the idea of doing it seems cool and fun. This week I finally talked to the newspaper about picking up my health column. I have not heard an answer, and they may say no, but until then I will go with the fact that it was a positive conversation.

And in that quasi-dreamlike state last night, feeling positive and enjoying the cold wind blowing in the window, my list of cheer inducement definitely included writing. I like doing this blog, though it can be a challenge at times. And I really am fairly pleased with the progression in writing the novel. I’m almost up to 80 pages, and the story is well into the plot structure of alternating travel in two different directions at the same time.

Or maybe the phrase “at the same time” raises a question about  time, since my protagonists are traveling west in 2011 and east in 1876. It’s not actually simultaneous, as they go back and forth. I’m still working out some of the technical details of this, but it seems to be working so far. I now have Benedict and Miramar driving down the interstate across Kansas, where they’ve just completed an unusually eventful ride in a hot air balloon. At the same “time” they have just arrived by train in St. Louis of the nineteenth century. That scene is still in progress, so they are at the moment sitting in a horse-drawn tram headed toward the river, where they will see steamboats docked. And I know that scene is going to include thieves and money and a political rally. Hmm, those things sound like they would naturally be connected, don’t they? But that’s not my intention.

I find that this is a somewhat complicated story to write. Sections of the book that are already written cry out for revision—I hear their feeble voices, bereft of detail and weak in vocabulary, asking for help. But for now my writing technique is to keep moving quickly forward. By “quickly” I mean plodding, stumbling, staring at the screen for long periods, and reading more than I actually need to know about the history of circuses or looking at maps of the Mississippi River for no real reason.

So yep, I am rushing on ahead. Something that is suffering, and I know it, is that the characters do not come close to having the development that I want them to have. Benedict smokes a cigarette now and then, when I remember that he’s a smoker. Mostly I forget. And the style of writing seems rather pedestrian to me, though I aspire to a greater plane of linguistic sublimity. OK, maybe not that high.

For now, though, I’m just trying to get the story out. Get on the horse-drawn tram. What? How do you do that? Get off the tram. What? Get off where?

When I need a break, I’ll read about JavaScript. I’m sorry to make you so jealous.

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