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26. Let's Do the Twist: How to Be Both by Ali Smith


I've been meaning to catch up with Ali Smith's novels for a while now, having previously only read Hotel World, and so when it came time this summer to formulate reading lists for my PhD qualifying exams, I stuck How to Be Both on the fiction section for the Queer Studies list. (This also explains why I was writing about The Invaders recently...)

How to Be Both turns out to be even more appropriate to my Queer Studies studies than I'd suspected from reading reviews, and it shows how the structures of fiction can be at least as provocative and productive as certain types of social and political philosophy. How to Be Both is generally a very readable, enjoyable book — in some ways deceptively so. In that, it reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut's best books, which manage to play with some complex ideas in light, entertaining ways. (Smith's novel would make a marvelous companion to Vonnegut's Mother Night in a course on the novel and history...) How to Be Both does quite a lot to challenge ideas of time, history, language, and various normativities, but it does so without collapsing into vagueness, abstraction, or pedantry; quite the opposite. It bears its own paradoxes far better than many works of vaunted critical theory, which end up, at their worst, sputtering out in abstraction and self-parody, like a Mad Libs version of an Oscar Wilde epigram.

Over the last ten years or so, there's been discussion among Queer Studies folks of queer temporality and historicism — the effect of contemporary vocabulary ("queer", "gay", "lesbian", "homosexual", "transgender") on a past that used different words and ideas; the relationship of past behaviors and ideas to present ones; the political power of the past for the present; the similarity or difference of past worlds to our own; how we express such similarity/difference; the experience of history as a queer person; etc. (Of course, the roots of this conversation go way back, but there have been particular spins on it recently.)

In 2013, Valerie Traub published a significant response to some of the more prominent discussions of these ideas, particularly among Renaissance scholars: "The New Unhistoricism in Queer Studies" (to which there was more response later), which is a relatively accessible entry point to some strands of discussion. Here's a bit of Traub:
Rather than practice “queer theory as that which challenges all categorization” ... there remain ample reasons to practice a queer historicism dedicated to showing how categories, however mythic, phantasmic, and incoherent, came to be. To understand the arbitrary nature of coincidence and convergence, of sequence and consequence, and to follow them through to the entirely contingent outcomes to which they contributed: this is not a historicism that creates categories of identity or presumes their inevitability; it is one that seeks to explain such categories’ constitutive, pervasive, and persistent force. Resisting unwarranted teleologies while accounting for resonances and change will bring us closer to achieving the dificult and delicate balance of apprehending historical sameness and difference, continuism and alterity, that the past, as past, presents to us. The more we honor this balance, the more complex and circumspect will be our comprehension of the relative incoherence and relative power of past and present conceptual categories, as well as of the dynamic relations among subjectivity, sexuality, and historiography.
Ali Smith's novel explores and even embodies this discussion, and does so in many ways that both the unhistoricists and the historicists seek to valorize. And it's more fun to read than their essays.

First, there is the form: The book tells two different stories, with one being the first half of the text and the other the second half. Which is which depends on the particular copy of the book you get — half of them begin with the story of the painter Francescho [or Francesco] del Cossa, the other half begin with the story of George (short for Georgia), a teenager in contemporary England whose mother has recently died. (The e-book apparently allows you to choose which order you want.) The copy I have out from the library begins with George, which seems to me to be the friendliest, easiest entry point, because the Francescho section begins much more lyrically, and it takes pages to get your bearings. It all makes sense once you know the situation and various references, but you don't really get to know those until later, so for a while the Francescho section just seems like rambling nonsense. (It is rambling; it isn't nonsense.) The opening of the George section is, on the other hand, quite marvelous and engaging. I zoomed through the whole 186 pages of that part quickly and with pleasure. It took longer for me to get interested in the Francescho section, but in some ways that one proves to be the richer and more satisfying, which is another reason I'm pleased to have read it as the second half rather than the first.

Some reviewers have speculated about the different ways readers could interpret the texts based on which they read first, but I'm not sure the difference is so much in interpretation as it is in expectation and in the reading experience itself. The pacing of the two sections is different, and so the book will feel different if you read one first rather than the other. There are connections you'll make differently based on which you read first, but I'm not sure how much that really matters except in the moment of reading, since once you turn the last page, you've got all the information as a set in your mind. For instance, the Francescho section gives us the story behind some paintings that are speculated about in the George section, and so reading the George section second would cause you to compare the speculations to the story you know from the Francescho section. I didn't feel it was a significant difference to encounter those stories second, since they are already presented in the George section as speculation, so I didn't read them as anything except the guesses and imaginings of the characters, which is what you still read them as even when you know other stories behind the paintings.

One thing uniting the academic historicists and unhistoricists is a sharp suspicion, and sometimes outright rejection, of teleology. (Traub: "Since around 2005 a specter has haunted the field in which I work: the specter of teleology. ... A teleological perspective views the present as a necessary outcome of the past—the point toward which all prior events were trending.") This is a problem for anybody writing a narrative, because narrative is purposeful, and most narratives are aimed toward their conclusions. For a long time, the whole idea of a well-wrought story has been one where, in fact, the conclusion is indeed "the point toward which all prior events were trending." A carefully constructed plot is, pretty much by definition, teleological.

Various Modernist writers tried to escape the teleological properties of narrative through disjunction, juxtaposition, impressionism, and surrealism, but teleology proved hard to escape except in the most abstract writing, or in works where it literally doesn't matter what order you read things in (e.g. Hopscotch or The Unfortunates) — although even then, in the assembling of meaning, the reader is still likely to impose a teleology at the end, even if the author has used a form that itself makes no such imposition. We want, as readers, to say that where we ended up is a direct result of where we began. It's a pretty unsatisfying story if the conclusion isn't in relationship to what came before, and preferably a relationship of causality and purpose. Even if the narrative itself works hard to escape teleology, there's still the matter of the writer's purpose in constructing that narrative.

In the early 20th century, a lot of the more avant-garde writers sought to create works that did not promote a particular moral idea or lesson (one hallmark of teleology), but more often than not this led to a new sort of purposefulness embedded in the text (if not a chronological text, then a chronological reading experience infused with a sense of purpose). (For more on this, see "Modernism and the Emancipation of Literature from Morality: Teleology and Vocation in Joyce, Ford, and Proust" by David Sidorsky. It's from 1983, but I haven't seen anything more recent that does a better job of really digging in to the question of Modernist narrative and teleology.) How to Be Both doesn't escape teleology, but it does play around with it, creating anti-teleological effects that work beautifully because they're embedded like booby traps and surprise parties in the narrative. We get the anti-teleological effects and we get the inescapable, purposeful, and even linear, movement inherent to storytelling.

Additionally, How to Be Both manages to question identity categories without pretending that identity is an unimportant concept. Past and present become interestingly different and similar, readable and prone to misreadings. In that, it's perhaps squaring some of the circles proposed by queer theory in the last ten or fifteen years.

Here's a key passage from one of the essays that Traub responds to most fully, "Queering History" by Jonathan Goldberg and Madhavi Menon:
...the challenge for queer Renaissance studies today is twofold: one, to resist mapping sexual difference onto chronological difference such that the difference between past and present becomes also the difference between sexual regimes; and two, to challenge the notion of a determinate and knowable identity, past and present. Even if the model of past alterity were to be replaced with a model of past similarity—sodomy is similar to rather than different from current regimes of homosexuality—that similarity should lead not to identity but rather to the non-self-identical nonpresent. To queer the Renaissance would thus mean not only looking for alternative sexualities in the past but also challenging the methodological orthodoxy by which past and present are constrained and straitened; it would mean resisting the strictures of knowability itself, whether those consist of an insistence on teleological sequence or textual transparency. This version of homohistory thus does not necessarily refer to homosexuality at all. Rather, it suggests the impossibility of the final difference between, say, sodomy and homosexuality, even as it gestures toward the impossibility of final definition that both concepts share. Paying attention to the question of sexuality as a question involves violating the notion that history is the discourse of answers, a discourse whose commitment to determinate signification, Jacques Rancière has argued, provides false closure, blocking access to the multiplicity of the past and to the possibilities of different futures.
Gesturing toward the impossibility of final definition is one way to express some of what How to Be Both is up to. The past in this novel is full of multiplicity and there's very little closure of any sort, whether "false closure" or not — even death is not closure, because a ghostly consciousness survives to narrate.

I haven't done a search of the text, but I don't think any words for sexual identity appear in it (if they do, they don't do so in a memorable way, at least for me). It's a small item, but an important one: what we make of the relationships in either story is up to us, and so the characters' identities remain more conceptually open in our minds than they would were they even to be labelled as queer — unless, of course, we impose our own labels on them, which is a move the text itself playfully parodies in the Francescho section, where Francescho's gender bending is accepted and explained by saying "he's a painter", with the word painter easily standing in for whatever deviation from social norms is discussed.

Francescho, for instance, is morphologically female, but functions socially as a man by wearing men's clothes and working in a male profession. How to Be Both is one of the more interesting accounts of historical cross dressing that I've read because it is generally so blasé about that cross dressing. (And by "historical", I don't mean "historically accurate" — hardly anything is known of the actual Francescho del Cossa, and there is no indication that he was identified as a woman at birth. More on this in a moment.) Francescho becomes Francescho after her mother's death, when her father proposes that she could wear her brothers' clothes and thus go to school and eventually apprentice to an artist. She shows great talent, but as a woman would have no possibility of training or opportunity to get art commissions. The solution to that problem is to stop being a woman. This has little to do with the body and everything to do with clothing and presentation. This is clearest at the moment where Francescho's best friend, Barto, is told that Francescho is a woman. His surprise and feeling of betrayal is a surprise to Francescho (who has the annoying habit of using "cause" for "because"):
Cause there'd been many times when Barto'd seen me naked or near-naked, by ourselves swimming, say, or with other boys and young men too and the general acceptance of my painter self had always meant I'd been let to be exactly that — myself — no matter that in 1 difference I was not the same : it was as simple as agreement, as understood and accepted and as pointless to mention as the fact that we all breathed the same air : but there are certain things that, said out loud, will change the hues of a picture like a too-bright sunlight continually hitting it will : this is natural and inevitable and nothing can be done about it...
Here, the speaking of difference creates the difference. Barto only becomes angry with Francescho for "lying" about gender when he is told by someone else that Francesco has been "false":
Is it true? he said. You've been false? All these years?

I have never not been true, I said.

Me not knowing, he said. You not you.

You've known me all along, I said. I've never not been me.

You lied, he said.

Never, I said. And I have never hidden anything from you.
This is not a moment in which identity is obliterated or even especially fluid, and yet it's also far more complex than one in which a contemporary category is imposed on the past. Identity exists in various forms: "my painter self" is not a false self, but a modified, incomplete self (incomplete in that it is not the whole self, which is probably unutterable if not inconceivable). A good friend, such as Barto here, is going to know a person in a way that moves beyond categories, but also in a way that is constrained by circumstances, experiences, and assumptions — just as our own knowledge of our self is constrained by circumstances, experiences, and assumptions. In the brief bit of dialogue above, knowability is both asserted and shown to be inevitably incomplete. What is "natural and inevitable and nothing can be done about it" is not identity or sexuality or self or other, but rather the effect of what is spoken about identity, sexuality, self, and other. Words create worlds.

The George section approaches all this in an entirely different way. It's set around 2014 in Cambridge, and it tells a variety of stories, including the story of George's mourning for her mother, who was an economist, writer, and internet provocateur. George's memories of her mother are memories of conversations that often involves words and meanings. (George is an aspiring grammar pedant, which both riles and amuses her mother.) It also tells the story of George's awakening desire for her friend Helena (whose friends call her H), a precocious, lively young woman who opens other worlds to George.

Again and again throughout this section, words and their meanings flow and shift playfully. George is a nickname for Georgia, and there's a wonderful perceptual effect to reading a story in which a rather male name is attached to a rather female character — by the time she's called "Georgia" by someone, it seems awfully formal and in many ways just plain wrong.

Time and perception are slippery throughout the novel, and they are slippery because of the effect of time on living. The George section begins:
Consider this moral conundrum for a moment, George's mother says to George who's sitting in the passenger seat.

Not says. Said.

George's mother is dead.

What moral conundrum? George says.

The passenger seat in the hire car is strange, being on the side the driver's seat is on at home. This must be a bit like driving is, except without the actual, you know, driving.

Okay. You're an artist, her mother says.

Am I? George says. Since when? And is that a moral conundrum?

Ha ha, her mother says. Humour me. Imagine it. You're an artist.

This conversation is happening last May, when George's mother is still alive, obviously. She's been dead since September. Now it's January, to be more precise it's just past midnight on New Year's Eve, which means it has just become the year after the year in which George's mother died.
Look at all that! All the doubling, all the slippage, all the revising of perceptions! We start reading with, probably, the reasonable assumption that George is a boy, and thus the "You're an artist, her mother says" comes as a surprise and makes us, perhaps, reread the first few lines, or at least reconfigure the image (however tentative) of George in our mind. (The exact same thing happens, though for different reasons and different assumptions, with Francescho's ghost, who is the narrator in the other section. The ghost sees George in a museum and, for reasons of changes in fashion, etc., assumes it's a boy. "This boy is a girl," Francescho writes at the beginning of the second chapter of the section.) Then there is the struggle with tense: present goes to past, and the final paragraph I've quoted adds (vertiginously) more precision, though the effect on the tenses is even more twisty: the conversation is (present tense) happening in the past. Twisty, too, is the effect of imagination, which, as a companion to words, creates worlds: George as artist, George as driver.

Twisty: It's a recurring idea in the book, most heavily but not exclusively in the George section. There's the song and the dance of The Twist. There's also DNA: George's home of Cambridge is also home to the Cavendish Laboratory (The book notes that the twisty structure of DNA was not just discovered by the famous men, but also by Rosalind Franklin). Ideas, identities, worlds twist and interrelate.

Here we have, then, not teleology so much as interrelationship. Not linear progress, but temporal parallels. Not an arrow from the past pointed at the future, but a dance of partners. Perceived separately, they are one thing. Perceived together they are one thing else. Separate, yes, but also together. Different, yes, but also a same. Both.

Late in the Francescho section, Barto offers two cups of water to Francescho to help overcome sadness and anxiety: one cup, he says, holds water of forgetting, one cup holds water of remembering. They come from the same jug, which perplexes Francescho:
So it's the cups of forgetting and remembering and has nothing to do with the water?

No, it's the water, he said. You have to drink the water.

How can the same water be both? I said.

It's a good question, he said. The kind of thing I'd expect you to ask. So. Ready? So first you drink—.

It would mean that forgetting and remembering are really both the same thing, I said.

Don't split hairs with me, he said.
How to be both is what we need to learn, and what we need to learn to perceive. There's a certain monadism to it: everything is, ultimately, one ... and yet to survive, to make sense of the world, to function from day to day, to speak and dream and desire ... we have to have separates. The water is one, and it is not one.

Don't split hairs, though. Intention matters, reception matters, perception matters. Labels matter: This is the water of forgetting because we both agree it is the water of forgetting, not because of its origin or its biological properties. Barto doesn't pay close attention to which cup he said was which, and when he and Francescho can't agree on which was poured as the water of forgetting and which as the water of remembering, they have to start over. Which is which is a social fact, and that means they have to agree on which is which for the water to do what it is supposed to do, because what it is supposed to do depends on their mutual perception. Their perceptions must dance together, must twist and helix.

It isn't all just fun and games. Perceptions create realities, and not always good ones. Francescho is paid less than male painters by a Duke because the Duke likes male painters best and has found out that Francescho is physically female. He doesn't like Francescho less as a painter, but instead values him less as a him. (This whole incident is then perceived differently by George and her mother — it is the moral conundrum of the opening, but it is not the moral conundrum it was in Francescho's time because George and her mother do not know that Francescho was perceived by the Duke as a woman painter, and thus less captivating to his desires. The moral conundrum of payment, self-worth, ego, and skill is, though, one well worth thinking about and talking through, even if it is not the one that Francescho was thinking about and talking through. It is both.)

This brings us then to the question of what we do about the past. What can be known, and what do we impose? Is Smith wrong about the real Francescho del Cossa? Yes, no, neither, both. Anything said about del Cossa beyond the very few known facts is wrong, or at least fictional, a matter of speculation. To speak is to create a story, to impose a viewpoint on the past, no matter how objective you try to be, because to speak the past is to narrate the past, to move from isolated facts to connected history. Speculation may not help us know the past, because the past may lie beyond knowability, but speculation can help us know ourselves as we imagine we know the past, and there is value in that.

Knowability isn't only a matter of the past, as How to Be Both shows. We perhaps assume we know the present and the people close to us, but strangeness (even queerness) is everywhere. This is what I take to be the purpose of the mysterious character of Lisa Goliard, whom George tries to fix an identity on: Was she her mother's friend? A fan? A lover? The book never answers these questions definitivey. Lisa Goliard remains a free-floating signifier from George's mother's life. She can be seen, even surveilled, but not known. Her story is outside George's story, no matter how much George wants to twist it into her own. She is what can't be known, what can't be pinned down, even in the present. History knows more of Francescho than George is able to know of Lisa Goliard, a living woman whom she's able to spy on. But seeing — perceiving — is not the same as knowing. The two sections of the book have icons, and the icon for the George section is a surveillance camera. The icon for the Francescho section is del Cossa's own drawing of eyes on flower petals. Sight via technology, site via nature, art, and whimsy. Both forms of sight are incomplete mediations.

Perspective, too, matters: "It's as if," George thinks after looking a long time at a painting, "just passing from one side of the saint to the other will result if you go one way in wholeness and if you go the other in brokenness." She adds: "Both states are beautiful." It's a theme throughout the book, expressed again and again: doubleness, perception, beauty. It's the twistiness encoded in DNA and in art. The book itself is like a fresco that has been painted over or a canvas that has accumulated multiple pictures. Francescho learns this lesson early when watching a master painter work:
and from looking at whose works I learned
the open mouths of horses,
the rise of light in a landscape,
the serious nature of lightness,
and how to tell a story, but tell it more than one way at once, and tell another underneath it up-rising through the skin of it
Prose struggles to tell a story more than one way at once, since we read linearly. But that idea of a story underneath another story, rising up through the skin — that idea is woven into this book's form, a book that suggests the idea is also woven into the form of our selves, if we take the time to look. Art and life do not need to be separate:
I like very much a foot, say, or a hand, coming over the edge and over the frame into the world beyond the picture, cause a picture is a real thing in the world and this shift is a marker of this reality : and I like a figure to shift into that realm between the picture and the world just like I like a body really to be present under painted clothes where something, a breast, a chest, an elbow, a knee, presses up from beneath and brings life to a fabric : I like an angel's knee particularly, cause holy things are worldly too and it's not a blasphemy to think so, just a further understanding of the realness of holy things.
The ideas, though, continue to twist, because to Francescho, these are just "mere mundane pleasures", and what really matters is (of course) a matter of "2 opposing things at once":
The one is, it lets the world be seen and understood.

The other is, it unchains the eyes and the lives of those who see it and gives them a moment of freedom, from its world and from their world both.
And there we have it. How to Be Both is, in fact, both.

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27. Pathfinders

For a long time I have been dealing with the words bad, bed, bud, body, bodkin, butt, bottom, and their likes. The readers who have followed the discussion will probably guess from today’s title that now the time of path has come round.

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28. Monthly etymology gleanings for October 2015

I keep receiving comments and questions about idioms. One of our correspondents enjoys the phrase drunk as Cooter Brown. This is a well-known simile, current mostly or exclusively in the American south. I can add nothing to the poor stock of legends connected with Mr. Brown. Those who claim that they know where such characters came from should be treated with healthy distrust.

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29. The “Bottom” Line

As promised in the previous post, I am going from body to bottom. No one attacked my risky etymology of body. Perhaps no one was sufficiently interested, or (much more likely) the stalwarts of the etymological establishment don’t read this blog and have no idea that a week ago a mine was planted under one of their theories.

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30. Did human grammar(s) evolve?

In order to hypothesize about the evolutionary origins of grammar, it is essential to rely on some theory or model of human grammars. Interestingly, scholars engaged in the theoretical study of grammar (syntacticians), particularly those working within the influential framework associated with linguist Noam Chomsky, have been reluctant to consider a gradualist, selection-based approach to grammar.

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31. Gin a body meet a body

I am not sure that any lexicographer or historian of linguistics thought of writing an essay on James Murray as a speaker and journalist, though such an essay would allow the author to explore the workings of Murray’s mind and the development of his style. (Let me remind our readers that Murray, 1837-1915, died a hundred years ago.)

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32. Words from books

October is an important month for book festivals—in Boston, Austin, Madison, Baton Rouge, and of course Frankfurt, Germany, which hosts the world’s oldest book festival. In honor of book festivals, I want to delve a bit into the way that the language of books expanded the English vocabulary.

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33. Bare bodkins and sparsely clothed buttinskis, or, speaking daggers but using none

Few people would today have remembered the word bodkin if it had not occurred in the most famous of Hamlet’s monologues. Chaucer was the earliest author in whose works bodkin occurred. At its appearance, it had three syllables and a diphthong in the root, for it was spelled boidekin. The suffix -kin suggested to John Minsheu, our first English etymologist (1617), that he was dealing with a Dutch noun.

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34. Breaking down barriers

Barriers, like promises and piecrust, are made to be broken. Or broken down, rather. Translators, like teachers, are great breakers-down of barriers, though, like them, they are almost always undervalued. This autumn our minds and our media are full of images of razor-wire fences as refugees, fleeing war zones, try to cross borders legally or illegally in search of a safe haven.

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35. Why does the European Day of Languages matter?

Each year, the European Union celebrates the European Day of Languages on 26 September. To mark this celebration of linguistic diversity, we asked the editors of Forum for Modern Language Studies to tell us why they think people should study some of the major European languages.

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36. English in 2065

Students are heading back to school this month and many recent high school grads are off to college. At institutions across the country, deans are dutifully studying the Beloit College Mindset List to remind their faculty of the recent cultural experiences that have shaped the today’s youth—and to remind us of how much the world has changed.

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37. Divide and conquer, or, the riddle of the word “Devisen”

This is the continuation of last week’s “gleanings.” Once again, I hasten to thank our correspondents for their questions and comments and want only to say something on the matter of protocol. When I receive private letters, I refer to the writers as “our correspondents” because I cannot know whether they want to have their names bandied about in the media.

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38. How well do you know Shakespeare’s influences? [quiz]

Many Shakespeare fans prefer to imagine him as an untrained genius, but, in reality, Shakespeare drew inspiration from many classical sources for his own writing. His most famous plays, such as Othello, Antony and Cleopatra, and Hamlet, allude to and reference external sources that Shakespeare was already familiar with. How much do you know about the influence of other writers on, what some would call, the greatest English dramatist to date?

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39. Playing God, Chapter 3

The question then is: “What does the root gu- signify?” The procedure consists in finding some word in Germanic and ideally outside Germanic in which gu- or g-, followed by another vowel and alternating with u means something compatible with the idea of “god.” Here, however, is the rub. Old Germanic guð- certainly existed, but we don’t know what it meant when it was coined centuries before it surfaced in texts.

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40. Playing God, Chapter 2

From what was said last week it follows that pagans did not need a highly charged word for “god,” let alone “God.” They recognized a hierarchy of supernatural beings and the division of labor in that “heavenly” crowd. Some disturbed our dreams, some bereaved us of reason, and still others inflicted diseases and in general worked evil and mischief.

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41. Books about the English language with a dash of humour

Being a booklover and an avid reader, I occasionally enjoy reading and learning more about the English language. I’ve read some great books on the topic over the years and thought I’d share some of them with you below. Let’s start with two Australian books for those with a general interest in the origins and future direction of our […]

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42. Playing God, Chapter 1

While dealing with the etymology of the adjective bad, I realized that an essay on good would be vapid. The picture in Germanic and Slavic with respect to good is trivial, while the word’s ties outside those two groups are bound to remain unclear. Especially troublesome is Greek agathós “good,” from which we have the given name Agatha.

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43. Of Purpose, Audience, and Language Guides


There are lots of reasons that the University of New Hampshire, where I'm currently working toward a Ph.D. in Literature, should be in the news. It's a great school, with oodles of marvelous faculty and students doing all sorts of interesting things. Like any large institution, it's got its problems (I personally think the English Department is underappreciated by the Powers That Be, and that the university as a whole is not paying nearly enough attention to the wonderful programs that don't fall under that godawful acronym-of-the-moment STEM, but of course I'm biased...) Whatever the problems, though, I've been very happy at the university, and I'm proud to be associated with it.

But Donald Trump and Fox News or somebody discovered a guide to inclusive language gathering dust in a corner of the UNH website and decided that this was worth denouncing as loudly as possible, and from there it spread all over the world. The UNH administration, of course, quickly distanced themselves from the web page and then today it was taken down. I expect they're being honest when they say they didn't know about the page. Most people didn't know about the page. The website has long been rhizomatic, and for a while just finding the academic calendar was a challenge because it was hidden in a forest of other stuff.

I, however, did know about the page. In fact, I used it with my students and until today had a link to it on my Proofreading Guidelines sheet. It led to some interesting conversations with students, so I found it a valuable teaching tool. I thought some of the recommendations in the guidelines were excellent and some were badly worded and some just seemed silly to me, like something more appropriate to an Onion article. ("People of advanced age" supposedly being way better than any other term for our elders reads like a banal parody of political correctness. Also, never ever ever ever call me a "person of advanced age" when I become old. Indeed, I would like to be known as an old fart. If I manage to achieve elderliness — and it is, seriously, a great accomplishment, as my amazing, 93-year-old grandmother [who calls herself "an old lady"] would, I hope, agree — if I somehow achieve that, then I will insist on being known as an old fart. But if you would rather be called a person of advanced age rather than a senior or an elder or an old fart, then I will respect your wishes.)



The extremity of the guide was actually why I found it useful pedagogically. Inevitably, the students would find some of the ideas ridiculous, alienating, and even angering. That makes for good class discussion. In at least one class, we actually talked about the section that got Donald Trump and Fox and apparently everybody else so upset — the recommendation to be careful with the term "American". Typically, students responded to that recommendation with the same incredulity and incomprehension that Trump et al. did. Understandably so. We're surrounded by the idea that the word "American" equals "United States", and in much usage it does. I sometimes use it that way myself. It's difficult not to. But I also remember a Canadian acquaintance when I was in college saying, in response to my usage, "You know, the U.S. isn't the whole of North America. You just think you are." Ouch. And then when I was in Mexico for a summer of language study, at least one of our teachers made fun of us for saying something like, "Oh, no, I'm not from Mexico, I'm from America!"

We don't have another good noun/adjective for the country (United Statesian is so cumbersome!), and the Canadians can say Canadian and the Mexicans can say Mexican and so we kind of just fall back on American. And have for centuries. So it goes. But it's worth being aware that some people don't like it, because then as a writer or speaker you can try to be sensitive to this dislike, if being sensitive to what people dislike is important to you.

This and other recommendations in the guidelines lead to valuable discussion with students because such discussion helps us think more clearly about words and language. The guide had some helpful guidance about other things that people might take offense to, whether the gentle, somewhat mocking offense of my Canadian acquaintance and Mexican teachers, or more serious, deeper offense over more serious, deeper issues.

It all comes down to the two things that govern so many writing tasks: purpose and audience. (When I'm teaching First-Year Composition, I always tell them on the first day that by the end of the course they'll be very tired of hearing the words purpose and audience.) If your purpose is to reach as wide an audience as possible, then it's best to try to avoid inadvertently offending that audience. Just ask anybody in PR or marketing who didn't realize their brilliant idea would alienate a big, or at least vocal, section of the audience for whatever they were supposed to sell. Ultimately, you can't avoid offending everybody — indeed, it's hardly desireable, as some people probably deserve to be offended — but what offends different people (and why) is useful knowledge, I think. In any case, it's much better to be offensive when you're trying to be offensive than when you're not trying to be and discover much to your surprise, embarrassment, and perhaps horror, that you actually are. (As we used to say [before we were people of advanced age]: been there, done that.)

Advice about inclusive language is similar to advice I give about grammar and spelling errors. All of my students should know by the time they've had me as a teacher that the prohibitions against such things as splitting infinitives or ending sentences with prepositions or starting sentences with conjunctions or any number of other silly rules are just that: silly. They often lead to bad writing, and their usefulness is questionable at best. However, I think every writer should know and understand all the old and generally silly prohibitions. Why? Because you will, at some point in your life, encounter someone who really, deeply cares. And you should be able to explain yourself, because the person who really, deeply cares might be somebody you want to impress or convince about something.

In fact, that's why I give my students my long and probably very boring proofreading guide. I want them to impress me, and I don't want my pet peeves about language and usage to get in the way. (No matter how anti-hierarchical we all might want to be, ultimately I'm the guy responsible for my students' grades, and so it's in their best interests to know what my pet peeves are.) They can dismiss my pet peeves as silly or irrelevant if they want, but they can't say they don't know what they are. Indeed, if I say to a student, "Why did you use 'he/she' when my proofreading guidelines specifically say I would prefer for you not to use that construction in my class," and they respond with a thoughtful answer, I may not be convinced by their logic, but I will be impressed that they gave it thought; if, on the other hand, they respond, "Oh, I didn't read that, even though you said it was important and could affect our grade," then I will not be impressed, and my not being impressed may not be a good thing for their grade. Such is life.

But really my purpose here was just to say that despite all the horrible things said about that poor little language guide, I will miss it. True, it shouldn't have looked so official if it were not (I, too, thought it was pretty official, though clearly it was not binding and was little read). The UNH statement is wrong, though, when it says, "Speech guides or codes have no place at any American university." I don't like the idea of speech codes much, either, because speech codes sounds punitive and authoritarian, but guides — well, I like guides. Guides can be useful, especially if you're feeling lost. As a university, we're a big place full of people who come from all over the country and the world, people who have vastly different experiences, people who use language in all sorts of different ways and have all sorts of different feelings about the languages we use. It can be helpful to know that somebody might consider something offensive that I've never even given a second thought to, and helpful to know why that is, so that I can assess how much effort I want to put into rethinking my own language use. The guide to inclusive language had its flaws, certainly, but it was a useful jumping off point for conversation and education. I'll continue to have similar conversations with students (my own proofreading guide has plenty in it to talk about and debate), and will continue to think such conversations are not about somehow curtailing speech, but are in fact about freeing it by empowering speakers to be more aware of what they say and how the words they use affect other people.

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44. Changing languages

In the literature on language death and language renewal, two cases come up again and again: Irish and Hebrew. Mention of the former language is usually attended by a whiff of disapproval. It was abandoned relatively recently by a majority of the Irish people in favour of English, and hence is quoted as an example of a people rejecting their heritage. Hebrew, on the other hand, is presented as a model of linguistic good behaviour: not only was it not rejected by its own people, it was even revived after being dead for more than two thousand years, and is now thriving.

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45. Bamboo Universe

Early summer in London is heralded by the Chelsea Flower Show. This year, the winner of the Best Fresh Garden was the Dark Matter Garden, an extraordinary design by Howard Miller. Dark matter is invisible and thought to constitute much of the universe, but can only be observed through the distortion of light rays, an effect represented in the garden by a lattice of bent steel rods and lines of bamboo, swaying in the wind.

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46. Monthly etymology gleanings for June 2015

Several years ago, I wrote a post on the origin of the word frigate. The reason I embarked on that venture was explained in the post: I had run into what seemed to me a promising conjecture by Vittorio Pisani. As far as I could judge, his note had attracted no attention, and I felt it my duty to rectify the injustice.

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47. Lies, truth, and meaning

Words have meaning. We use them to communicate to one another, and what we communicate depends, in part, on which words we use. What words mean varies from language to language. In many cases, we can communicate the same thing in different languages, but require different words to do so. And conversely, sometimes the very same words communicate different things in different languages.

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48. The history of the word “bad”, Chapter 3

The authority of the OED is so great that, once it has spoken, few people are eager to contest or even modify its verdict. The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology adds perhaps (not probably!) to Murray’s etymology, cites both bæddel and bædling (it gives length to æ in both words) and adds that there have been other, more dubious conjectures.

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49. Praising a cat to sell a horse

For a long time the etymology of the word bad has been at the center of my attention (four essays bear ample witness to this fact), and the latest post ended with a cautious reference to the idea that Middle Engl. bad ~ badde, a noun that occurred only once in 1350 and whose meaning seems to have been “cat,” is, from an etymological point of view, identical with the adjective bad.

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50. Publish: Revision is not sexy.

Hi folks, I am writing a summer long series. It's called Publish and is in conjunction with my TEENSPublish workshop at the Ringer Library in College Station, Texas. The tribe is working hard. The title of our anthology is A New Generation: TEENSPublish 2015 Anthology. We have moved into the last phase of our project: revision.


Yep, revision.  It's where you take your precious pages and hack at them with machete.  Fun. Fun. Fun. And NOT sexy. It's about "we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We can make him better than he was. Better, stronger, faster." If you saw The Six Million Dollar Man back in the day you know what I'm talking about. 

So what is the blessed technology that will help you on this journey? The first technology is language. I bet you didn't even know written language was a technology. It is. So time to tighten up the writing. Yes, this is just like going to the gym every day and working a circuit. 

This circuit goes like this. Ditch the "to be" verbs. Rip out adjectives and choose stronger nouns. Toss the adverbs and choose stronger verbs. Look for repeats and remove the "peats". Stop feeling things and just cut to the chase. Find white space. Make it all pretty. By the way this activity is like building a spiderweb. takes a while. Not so interesting laying out each little strand, but when it is done, it is a masterpiece. 

Oh, you get double extra charged writing if you vary sentence lengths. 

Now a second technology.  Grammar. Yes, grammar is a thing and getting it will help you create stories that sing. Go to OWL. Try Grammarly. Grammar Girl. The Blue BookBuilding Great Sentences. Add in some AutoCrit. Don't wing this stuff. Grammar, you will thank me. I liken grammar improvement to beating the dust out of rugs with broom. Hard work but eventually it is all cool  Here is a secret. It's not about making everything "correct."

Revision is hard work. It's tedious at times. It's not fast. It does lead to what you meant to say. And that is everything,isn't it.

I will be back next week with more revision stuff. The last in this series!

Here is a doodle. My son Jesse at age 3.



A quote for your pocket:

Writing is an act of faith, not a trick of grammar. E.B. White

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