An Ode to Vocabulary (That’s Not Technically an Ode)

Jason Schneiderman’s poem about the seductive powers of words is today’s Poem-a-Day (thanks, American Academy of Poets).  Enjoy!


Arcane Vocabulary: Pusillanimous (Plus Spiro Agnew, Freshman English, and Some Marijuana)

reprocessed public domain image for an ASHC post.

Spiro Agnew and Richard Nixon. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 199[illeg.], I was a freshman in high school.  During first period, at 7:35am, while I was supposed to be reading Shakespeare and memorizing PSAT words, I was instead immediately forgetting almost everything a kooky man named Mr. Johnson taught me.

Mr. Johnson was a man from whom the stench of the seventies rolled in waves.  His usual uniform consisted of a sleazy mustache and a ratty wool sweater, though on days on which I can only assume he felt festive, he exchanged this for a sleazy mustache and Hawaiian shirts.  He would slouch in his chair as he expounded on Creedence Clearwater Revival (and the occasional item from the curriculum).  I had an acquaintance outside of school who had, coincidentally, been a friend of his decades before and assured me that the man had a pot-growing hobby.  I learned three useful things from Mr. Johnson: that Lynyrd Skynyrd had named itself after its members’ old gym teacher, how to spell “hypocrisy,” and the meaning and pronunciation of the word “pusillanimous.”

Mr. Johnson did something very clever when he taught us this last fact: he contextualized it.  After all, learning is really just the process of fitting new bricks to an old wall; unless you can firmly cement a new idea in old knowledge, it crumbles off the wall and disappears.  Mr. Johnson told us that during the seventies, one of Richard Nixon’s supporters had accused the president’s opponents of being “pusillanimous pussyfooters,” a phrase I have never forgotten and will probably take with me to the grave.

Once I reached adulthood, I became a little skeptical, however.  Was that anecdote really true?  What kind of weirdo politician spits out a phrase like that?  Had Mr. Johnson just been rotting his brain with too much weed and classic rock?  Answer: no!  Mr. Johnson was completely correct.  Spiro Agnew really did use this phrase in 1970, at a speech in San Diego, along with the equally memorable “nattering nabobs of negativity” and “hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.”

I have to admit that there’s a part of me that admires such unapologetic wackiness played out on the national stage–this willingness to sacrifice political dignity on the altar of a really good insult.  Mr. Agnew may have left his office in disgrace (and a disgrace totally separate from Watergate, too, something of a feat of corruption).  However, he did leave at least one thirteen-year-old girl’s vocabulary just a little bit richer.  And I guess Mr. Johnson wasn’t quite so kooky as we had imagined, either.

Two Stuffed Shirts Walk into a Bar: Strunk and White Want to Tell You What to Do (and Why to Ignore Them)

Cover of "The Elements of Style, Fourth E...

Cover of The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition

One of the funniest things about William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White’s The Elements of Style is its occasional outmoded crotchetiness.  The book’s remarkable longevity—Strunk wrote the first version in the nineteen-teens, with revisions by White resulting in new editions in the fifties and seventies—means that in some ways it’s something of a time capsule.  I can’t complain about maxims like “do not break sentences in two” (rule of usage 6) and “omit needless words” (rule of usage 17), which I fervently hope will remain timeless.  But White’s 1979 “refurbishment” of the “Misused Words and Expressions” section contains some objections that contemporary readers might be bewildered by.

Facility. Why must jails, hospitals, and schools suddenly become ‘facilities’?” (p. 46, 4th ed.)

-ize.  Do not coin verbs by adding this tempting suffix.  Many good and useful verbs do end in -ize. . . . But there is a growing list of abominations: containerize, prioritize, finalize, to name three. . . . Why say ‘utilize’ when there is the simple, unpretentious word use?” (p. 50)

Noun used as verb.  Many nouns have lately been pressed into service as verbs.  Not all are bad, but all are suspect.”  White’s examples include gift, host, chair, and debut. (p. 54)

Offputting.  Ongoing.  Newfound adjectives, to be avoided because they are inexact and clumsy. . . . Select instead a word whose meaning is clear.” (p. 54)

Call me postmodern, but it’s hard for me to imagine a world in which facility is an annoyance and prioritize is an “abomination.”  The word ongoing strikes me as pretty innocuous.  And frankly, before I read this, I didn’t even know that the verb “to host” hadn’t existed just as long as the noun “host” had.

The Elements of Style‘s apparent stuffiness underscores the limitations of the prescriptivist philosophy.  Prescriptivism is an approach to language that focuses on set systems and ideals of correct language.  Descriptivism, on the other hand, focuses on actual usage in the real world.  As prescriptivists, Strunk and White’s inflexibility dooms them to irrelevance as the language evolves.

Personally, I fall somewhere in between the two extremes.  One of English’s most delightful aspects is its adaptability—giving rise its gorgeous creativity, its intricate and irrational ramification, its trenchant wit.  Why would we let frowns and primness and rules stand in the way of all that?  On the other hand, descriptivists’ critiques of prescriptivists often boil down to “What snobs!  Everyone should stop panicking and just do what they want!”  This anarchist’s approach to language loses sight of the fact that sometimes grammar rules, along with modern conveniences like stop signs and  “Ten Items or Fewer” check-outs, clarify while they bind.*

So if you’re a writer or an editor, join me in raising a glass to Strunk and White’s grouchy-old-man approach to English—while at the same time ignoring their more offputting rules.

*Also, admittedly, if everyone stopped believing in “proper” grammar I’d be out of a job.

It’s Dirty Books Week!

Why is this on Ugliest Tattoos? This may literally be the coolest tattoo in the world.

Ok, technically it’s Banned Books Week, but it wouldn’t be worth banning if it weren’t filth, right?  Wallow in it by seeking out your own local celebrations of the forbidden.  Every year, local organizations sponsor “read-outs” of currently or previously banned books of all stripes.  If you’re a fellow Chicagoan, please consider joining me at Shimer College’s read-out; if not, consider one of the events in this voluminous directory.  If you’re far from the nearest read-out but want to be part of the community of filth, consider making a video for the Virtual Read-Out, which will have its own dedicated YouTube channel.  You’ll be famous!  Among total nerds, that is, but those are really the only people worth impressing anyhow.

Banned Books Week: quite possibly your only chance all year to look badass while reading My Mom’s Having A Baby! A Kid’s Month-by-Month Guide to Pregnancy.