Misleading or what?

June 17, 2017

This week Fox News finally dropped its fair and balanced slogan, which was introduced by the US channel’s founder, the late Roger Ailes, when he set it up in 1996. For a channel whose presenters have included Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck this is stretching it a bit. Trump’s favourite news channel now has a replacement is “Most Watched. Most Trusted.”

This got me thinking about misleading names and slogans. A quick search on the internet found the following:
• Flying lemurs are neither lemurs nor do they fly.
• Panama hats actually come from Ecuador, but came to be associated with the building of the Panama Canal.
• While dry cleaning may not involve water, it does require the use of liquid solvents.
• Chinese checkers isn’t a form of checkers, nor is it from China. The game, which was invented in Germany, was rebranded Chinese checkers isn’t a form of checkers, nor is it from China. It was invented in Germany in 1892; the name was changed to make the game more marketable in 1928, the year in which my father was born.

But it is in politics that these questions become interesting. We have joke names like the German Democratic Republic or Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, which is anything but. The National Bolshevik Party sounds Marxist, but is in reality a right-wing, anti-Semitic fringe party. Although I do seem to remember in my history class that Bolshevik is Russian for member of the majority faction. This was itself an example of a manipulative use of language as they weren’t really the majority.

Both Left and right use words as weapons. One successful example was the term dementia tax to describe the Conservative policy of counting people’s home as an asset when it comes to paying for the care. It was highly effective. I did hear one criticism that it was borrowing the right’s meme of taxes as something negative, as in expressions such as tax relief. By adding relief to tax you are implying that taxation is an affliction, and anybody against relieving this affliction is a villain. In a post I did about metaphors I mentioned the linguist George Lakoff, who wanted Democrats to talk about membership fees, what you pay to live in a civilized, democratic society. I really don’t see that one working, but I might be wrong. This is what Lakoff calls framing. He argues that successful political discourse is able to impose its metaphors over those of the opposition. You are implying that the earth is a big, huggable Gaia that can be befriended. Those for and against abortion like to frame the debate with pro-choice and pro-life. I haven’t read Unspeak, but I have seen these videos.

A different point of view is that of the Guardian’s Steven Poole, who coined the term Unspeak. In this sense Poole is an heir of George Orwell and his language of tyranny, newspeak. Wikipedia has a glossary of Newspeak:
doublethink the act of simultaneously accepting two mutually contradictory beliefs as correct
goodsex intercourse between man and wife, for the sole purpose of begetting children and without physical pleasure
thoughtcrime – the criminal act of holding unspoken beliefs or doubts that oppose or question Ingsoc
Unperson – someone who has been “vaporized”—not only killed by the state, but erased from existence.

Unspeak is a term or phrase that contains an unstated political argument. In the book, which he published more than a decade ago he took eight words – community, nature, tragedy, operations, terror, abuse; freedom and extremism – to show how they can be used to frame the debate. He gives some examples. For example if you say Friends of the Earth, does that make your opponents enemies of the earth? Unlike Lakoff, Poole thinks that fighting unspeak with unspeak is a bad tactic. From what I have read about human psychology it is naïve to think you can win arguments based on pure rationality.


The Internet and quotations

June 11, 2017

The Internet is awash with quotes. You can find them on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. They may reveal profound truths or the bromides of positive psychology. In my blog I have used hundreds, or maybe even thousands. There is something deeply satisfying about a good quote. And they are powerful memes, which on internet can spread all over the world in seconds.  However, many have become the literary equivalent of fake news.

Recently the Republican Party was subject to a lot of mockery after they falsely attributed a quote to one of their great leaders from the past – Abraham Lincoln. The quote itself was rather banal; they tweeted a picture of the Lincoln Memorial along with a quote: In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count, it’s the life in your years.” Lincoln never said this.

Luckily there is a man who investigates the origins of quotes. Garson O’Toole is the quotation sleuth. Fittingly, for someone who investigates fake quotes, this is actually a pseudonym. Gregory F. Sullivan, a former teacher and researcher in the Johns Hopkins computer science department is the man behind the blog Quote Investigator, and he now has a new book, Hemmingway Never Said That. Sullivan is good at providing a typography of how quotes can go wrong.  Sometimes they get streamlined over time. Churchill never said “I have nothing to offer but blood, sweat, and tears.” It was actually “blood, toil, tears, and sweat”. But this went against the rule of three. Gandhi did not say “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” According to The New York Times What he actually said was: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”

What often happens is that famous people often get the credit for something that was said by somebody less famous. Some famous people, such as Mark Twain, Gandhi, and Albert Einstein are quote magnets. Mark Twain is often credited with saying “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes”, but ironically he probably didn’t invent the phrase. Albert Einstein did not say: Two things are infinite: The universe and human stupidity.” The true source, as is often the case is unknown. And that famous Churchill quote, “If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain”, may well have been said by Francois Guizot, a 19th century French historian, orator, and statesman, but this is not sure either. That classic Voltaire quote, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”, was actually a summary of his views by the author S.G. Tallentyre in the 1906 book “The Friends of Voltaire. Tallentyre was a pseudonym used by Evelyn Beatrice Hall, an English writer best known for her biography of Voltaire entitled The Life of Voltaire. Sometimes a quote is attributed to a historical figure because of what appears in a in a film, novel or other work of fiction. Houston, we have a problem.” Tom Hanks does say it in the film; this was never said by Jim Lovell on the Apollo 13.

Apart from misquotes the Internet is also replete with positive psychology quotes aka bullshit. A couple of years ago there was a study, On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bulls**t, by Gordon Pennycook, a cognitive psychologist, in the journal Judgement and Decision Making. This seems to have been misreported by the Daily Mail: “People who post inspirational quotes on Facebook and Twitter ‘have lower levels of intelligence.”   I do not think it is a question of intelligence, but it is necessary to have a healthy dose of scepticism. I hate bullshit but it can come from New Age gurus, the corporate sector or postmodern academics.  In a previous post I mentioned how physicist Alan Sokal was able to get an article, Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity, published in an American cultural-studies discussion journal, Social Text. This, despite the fact that it was a nonsensical spoof based on mathematical absurdities and ideas and quotes borrowed from various postmodernist philosophers. What we all need is what Carl Sagan called a baloney detection kit.

My favourite example was cited by Sullivan. Samuel Johnson chided James Boswell for coming out with some fashionable platitude: My dear friend, clear your mind of cant. Now, however this has been reinvented as a positive thinking slogan, clear your mind of can’t. This is exactly the kind of cliché that Johnson was urging Boswell to avoid!

I admire the debunking work of people like Sullivan. With the exponential growth in the use of quotations, we need people like him. Does it matter when we get a quotation wrong? Maybe sometimes we can get at a greater truth. Sometimes the truth can get in the way of a good quote. As Mark Twain said: “What’s the point of life if you can’t make up a quotation from time to time.”

 


Language corner: drinking the Kool-Aid

June 4, 2017

Last week in my piece about the prevalence of pseudoscience in the world of professional sport I used the expression drinking the Kool-Aid. I was going to put an asterisk after the expression, but I forgot. This was probably a good thing as it has lot to unpack – this will be the subject of this week’s blog.

The Oxford Dictionary defines it as to “demonstrate unquestioning obedience or loyalty to someone or something.” They also furnish us real-world examples

…his real ire is directed at the news media for drinking the Kool-Aid and not being tougher on the president

In other words: everyone had drunk the New Economy Kool-Aid.

If you can’t see the bias in almost every news organization, then you’re probably drinking their Kool-Aid.

Kool-Aid is a brand of flavoured drink mix manufactured by Kraft Foods. Invented by Edwin Perkins in Hastings, Nebraska, it is usually sold in powder form, in either packets or small tubs. Working out of his mother’s kitchen, Perkins was able to remove the liquid from Fruit Smack, a liquid concentrate. The resulting powder was much cheaper to ship, and so Kool-Aid was born. This powder is generally mixed with sugar and water and served in a pitcher. Kool-Aid has other uses too – dyeing your hair and cleaning pots and pans, washing machines, silverware and toilets.

I have to say it doesn’t sound particularly appetising, but how did it become associated with following blindly? This is where the story takes a dark turn. It is to events to in a jungle in Guyana nearly four decades ago that we need to go. The terrible happenings are known as The Jonestown Massacre. I am currently reading The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple by Jeff Guinn. The author also wrote an excellent biography of Charles Manson, which was the basis for the You Must Remember This podcast series about the cult leader. I am still on the early part of Jones’s life.

The Reverend Jim Jones, a communist and an infrequent Methodist minister, who founded his own church in the late 1950s, the Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church, which was generally shortened to the “Peoples Temple.” He had a strange mix of Evangelical Christianity, Marxist dogma, racial integration and paranoia. The latter led him to preach about an impending nuclear apocalypse, for which a specified a date July 15, 1967, after which there would be a socialist paradise on Earth. This didn’t happen, but this is not usually a problem for cult leaders and their followers.

Concerned that the Peoples Temple might lose its tax-exempt religious status in the U.S. and paranoid about the U.S. intelligence community, Jones moved the Temple to the South American nation of Guyana. One of the reasons it was chosen was because its socialist policies. They had been building a settlement there since 1974. Jonestown, AKA the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project occupied nearly 4,000 acres. Many members of the Peoples Temple believed that Guyana would be a paradise or utopia. But, it was not a great place to establish a settlement. It was isolated, the soil was of poor quality and it had limited fresh water. By 1978 the population was around 900, many of whom were African-American.

In November of that year U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan, a Democrat, visited Jonestown to investigate alleged human rights abuses at the Temple. Accompanied by members of the media and concerned family members, Ryan met with a number of Temple members who sought to leave. Eventually the entire Ryan party and the Jonestown defectors drove to a nearby airstrip to board the planes that would get them out of this hell-hole. But Jim Jones had sent armed Temple members, known as the Red Brigade to prevent this. They opened fire killing Ryan three members of the media party, and one of the defectors. Eleven others were injured and fled into the jungle.

The murderers returned to Jonestown and reported their actions, Jones immediately called a meeting, of which there is a chilling audiotape. Jones suggested that the settlement would soon come under attack from U.S. intelligence agencies. He offered Temple members these choices:

  1. stay and fight the invaders,
  2. escape to the Guyana jungle or the USSR,
  3. commit “revolutionary suicide” (in other words, mass suicide as an act of political protest).

They had already tested the third option in the past. He had given members small cups of liquid, which supposedly contained poison. They followed the orders. Jones then revealed that there was no poison in the drink, but one day there would be. He has, indeed, been stockpiling cyanide and other drugs for years. Now the Temple members were creating a cocktail of chemicals including cyanide, diazepam (Valium), promethazine and chloral hydrate (both sedatives), and Flavour Aid — a grape-flavoured drink similar to Kool-Aid.

First mothers squirted poison into the mouths of their children using syringes. They were given their dose. Eventually 900 lay dead, including more than 300 children. Only a handful of survivors escaped Jonestown. These were residents who were away on errands or when playing basketball when the mass suicide/massacre took place. Jim Jones did not drink the poison, preferring to shoot himself. He would have seen the horrible deaths, which involve foaming at the mouth and convulsions. Jones, his wife, and various other members of the Temple left wills leaving their assets to the Communist Party of the USSR.

Curiously, it was Flavour-Aid and not Kool-Aid that was used to make the deadly cocktail. I suppose that it is the most famous brand.  Be that as it may many people object to the use of this expression. One such person is Jackie Speier, then a 28-year-old aide to Congressman Ryan. Having been shot five times, Speier lay bleeding for 24 hours before she was discovered by rescuers. She now holds Ryan’s seat in Congress. She is not a fan of this expression:

“There was nothing about it that was a suicide … They were killed, they were murdered, they were massacred. You can’t tell me that an infant or a two-year-old child that was injected with cyanide does so voluntarily. And that horrible phrase now that is part of our language ‘drinking the Kool-Aid’ is always one that sends me into orbit because I think people so misunderstand what took place there.”

 Last night in London we saw another example of murderous psychopaths who use religion as a justification for their perverted ideologies. Will we never learn?

_______

On the Mental Floss website they mention Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a non-fiction account of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters as they drive from California to New York in their party bus. The stoned hippies want to promote the use of LSD and they make a cocktail of acid with Kool-Aid.  This is the acid test of the title. The book’s description of one man’s bad acid trip is perhaps the first negative use of the expression:

… There was one man who became completely withdrawn … I want to say catatonic, because we tried to bring him out of it, and could not make contact at all … he was sort of a friend of mine, and I had some responsibility for getting him back to town … he had a previous history of mental hospitals, lack of contact with reality, etc., and when I realized what had happened, I begged him not to drink the Kool-Aid, but he did … and it was very bad.”


Language humour

April 2, 2017

This week on Facebook I received one of those selections of grammar Jokes that often does the rounds. Even though I had many of them before there were some new ones too. So, I thought I would trawl the web and find my own selection. Here they are:

A dangling modifier walks into a bar. After finishing a drink, the bartender asks it to leave.

I have had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it. Groucho Marx

Question: Who led the pedants’ revolt?

Answer: Which Tyler.  Anonymous

I before e… except when you run a feisty heist on a weird beige foreign neighbour.

Knock knock.

Who’s there?

To.

To who?

It’s to whom!

Don’t you know the Queen’s English?

Why, yes, I’d heard she was.

A linguistics professor was lecturing to his English class one day… “In English,” he said, “A double negative forms a positive. In some languages, though, such as Russian, a double negative is still a negative. However, there is no language wherein a double positive can form a negative.”

A voice from the back of the room piped up, “Yeah, right.”

I used to be structuralist, but now I’m not Saussure.

Pedantic, I? Alexei Sayle

I’m not anti-semantic, some of my best friends are words.

The past, present and future walked into a bar. It was tense.

Why should you never date an apostrophe?

They’re too possessive

Did you hear the one about the pregnant woman who went into labour and started shouting, “Couldn’t! Wouldn’t! Shouldn’t! Didn’t! Can’t!”? She was having contractions.

What happened when the verb asked the noun to conjugate?

The noun declined.

That woman speaks eight languages and can’t say no in any of them. Dorothy Parker

What do you say when you are comforting a grammar nazi?

There, Their, They’re

What is Grammar?

The difference between knowing your shit, and knowing you’re shit.


Word Crimes

April 2, 2017

 

As regular readers of my blog will know, I am not a grammar purist. Nevertheless, I did enjoy “Weird Al” Yankovic’s Word Crimes. And here’s a bonus Weird Al number:


Track-a-holism and other new words

March 5, 2017

Here is another selection of new words I found on the Wordspy website:

iceberg home

A home where what is seen at ground level is only a small part of structure, with the rest being underground.

Norman door

A door with a design that makes it difficult to determine the correct way to open the door.

rug-rat race

Intense pressure put on children to achieve early educational success, particularly as a prerequisite for eventually getting into an elite university.

stealth health

The practice of making a recipe or food product healthier without advertising the change to consumers.

sneakerhead

A person who collects, trades, or is passionate about running shoes.

stealth health

The practice of making a recipe or food product healthier without advertising the change to consumers.

superager

A person over 80 years old who exhibits little cognitive decline.

track-a-holism

A compulsion to monitor one’s health and fitness metrics, particularly those generated by apps and electronic devices

 verbicaine

Soothing words used to calm or distract a patient who is awake during a surgical procedure.


My favourite rhetorical devices #1 Chiasmus & Antimetabole

February 18, 2017

If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.” Stephen Stills sang this line in 1970 and it is an example of a rhetorical device known as Chiasmus. I became interested in this figure of speech after reading Never Let a Fool Kiss You or a Kiss Fool You by Mardy Grothe, a retired psychologist, management consultant, and platform speaker, who has also written a number of books about language such as Oxymoronica: Paradoxical Wit & Wisdom From History’s Greatest Wordsmiths, Viva la Repartee: Clever Comebacks & Witty Retorts From History’s Great Wits & Wordsmiths and I Never Metaphor I Didn’t Like. If you are not familiar with this structure, I found this piece online explaining the difference between chiasmus and antimetabole, a closely related literary device:

Many literary scholars use these terms interchangeably, though each term refers to a different literary device. Scholars generally know that chiasmus occurs when a phrase is repeated, but reversed, to make a point or emphasize an action. Antimetabole is very similar to chiasmus, but the words and grammatical structure must be reversed, since simply reversing the meaning is not enough. Knowing this, scholars may discover that all instances of antimetabole are also chiasmus, but the reverse is not always true.

The definition of chiasmus is a clause that is inversely repeated. The only requirement of a chiastic phrase is that the two clauses within the sentence must have opposite meanings. For instance, Havelock Ellis’s famous quote, “Charm is a woman’s strength, strength is a man’s charm,” is an example of chiasmus only. Here, the meanings in the two clauses are opposite, but the grammatical structure and the wording are different, meaning it cannot be an example of antimetabole.

Antimetabole is defined as a literary device that reverses the word order in a phrase to juxtapose the meaning. One example is Mae West’s catchphrase, “It’s not the men in my life, it’s the life in my men.” Here, the exact same words, grammatical structure, and rhythm are used create the second clause with the opposite meaning. Many scholars view this device as a subcategory of chiasmus because its rules are stricter and very closely defined.

Anyway, I don’t want to get too bogged down in all the technical stuff. Here are some of my favourites:

I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me. Winston Churchill

 

The right to bear arms is slightly less ridiculous than the right to arm bears. Chris Addison

 

It is better to be looked over than overlooked. Mae West, in Belle of the Nineties (1934)

 

Recreational wordplayers wonder why we drive on a parkway and park on a driveway. Richard Lederer

 

Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country. John F. Kennedy

 

Before I got married I had six theories about bringing up children; now I have six children, and no theories. John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester*

 

It’s always the same. Either it’s rainy with sunny intervals, or sunny with rainy intervals. Pat DuPre, on Wimbledon weather

 

Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his friends for his life. Jeremy Thorpe, after Harold Macmillan fired seven members of his cabinet in 1962

 

A good ad should be like a good sermon; it must not only comfort the afflicted, it also must afflict the comfortable. Bernice Fitzgibbons was the director of advertising at Macy’s department store in New York City.

 

They say the movies should be more like life. I think life should be more like the movies. Myrna Loy

 

I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy. Dorothy Parker

 

Many a man owes his success to his first wife and his second wife to his success. Jim Backus

 

We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock landed on us. Malcolm X (Didn’t Cole Porter use this line in Anything Goes?)

 

It’s probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.  Lyndon B. Johnson, on J. Edgar Hoover

 

Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good. Dr. Samuel Johnson to an aspiring writer

 

This is about principled compromise, not compromised principles. John Hume, on Ireland’s 1998 Good Friday peace accord

 

I always say, keep a diary and someday it’ll keep you. Mae West, in Every Day’s a Holiday (1937)

 

I am a marvellous housekeeper. Every time I leave a man, I keep his house. Zsa Zsa Gabor

 

In what other language do people play at a recital and recite at a play? Richard Lederer

 

A hard man is good to find. Mae West

 

This isn’t a bar for writers with a drinking problem; it’s for drinkers with a writing problem. Judy Joice

 

____________

 

*This cannot possibly be correct John Wilmot, second Earl of. Rochester was a famous 17th poet and author of Signor Dildo. This quote sound like it comes from the 20th century at the earliest.