Tag Archives: celebrity

In Defense of the Grammar Nazi

Watching television is often a complete waste of time and a total abdication of Life. I admit that I suffer from anguish, shame, and guilt if I’ve just spent three hours viewing re-runs of Family Guy, Frasier, and Bar Rescue, so I’m as guilty as the rest of the world when it comes to Couch Potato Syndrome [1].

Nevertheless, if you try really hard, you can turn your sin into a virtue by questioning what you’re seeing and thinking about how it applies to what you should be doing instead. And one of my more recent observations has been in relation to attitudes towards “skills” and “expertise.” So let’s start with one of my favorite gripes – the Celebrity Chef.


Chef: Fuurin Kazan Chef in Black and White (http://www.flickr.com/photos/joi/444939001/) / CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)

Americans in general seem to love watching people in conflict. I dare say that almost every “reality show” is predicated on the need to see people fighting while trying to live on an island, etching tattoos, singing, dancing, or even, for goodness sake, baking a cake! (“You’re going down, punk, when I whip your ass with this amazing fondue!”) The more spiteful and bitter the contestants, the better the ratings. Rome had the Coliseum with gladiators and Christians; we have cable TV with hosts and contestants.

But what all of these shows include is the Expert who exemplifies the target skill; the master who can turn something mundane and mindless into a work of sheer brilliance. Celebrity Chefs are such people. For them, the difference between a winning dish and one that has them vomiting into a bucket is whether the cook added two bay leaves or three.  And woe betide anyone who should cook a steak for 3 seconds too long – because there lies the way to the door. Fundamentally, the message that is being sold to us here is that the fine attention to minuscule details is what make a chef a great chef.

And we all sort of accept that.

Meanwhile, over in the sports arena, the same message is being played, except that the skill here is seen in the slightest of motions and the briefest of actions. In golf, putting just an inch too short of the hole is a miss that could have been avoided if just the merest of extra effort had gone into hit. In swimming, that last kick while extending the finger tips to touch the wall is the difference between a gold medal and nothing. In baseball, a two degree extra angle when the batter hits the ball can mean the difference between a World Series and a long, quiet flight home. And in basketball, that extra tap to push the ball an extra inch over the edge of the hoop can turn a player from good to legendary.

And we all sort of accept this.

Now consider the reaction at work I get when someone says, “So which of these two designs is the best?” and I reply with, “Er, better. It’s the comparative, not the superlative. If we had three choices, we could have a best.” Does this “attention to detail” come across as acceptable? Is this modest defense of some sort of standard seen as the equivalent of Gordon Ramsey tossing a whole plate of food into the trash because the color of the scallop is browner than he thinks tolerable? [2]

Nope. Any attempt at being precise in the use of language is seen instantly as nothing more than bourgeois pedantry, trivial snobbery, or the action of a Grammar Nazi [3]. Just take a look at any discussion thread on the Internet related to some issue of language use and within six or seven responses the level of argument will have dropped to name calling and attacks on anyone who tries to be in any way linguistically precise. There’s a good chance that even you, dear reader, are already feeling the pressure to trot out the “But language is always changing” argument in defense of anyone who seems to be having a hard time using their first language as their first language! When Sarah Palin used the word “refudiate,” rather than ‘fess up that she’d made a mistake, she actually tried to argue that she was no different from Shakespeare who “liked to make up words!” Sarah Palin as Shakespeare! And George W. Bush was the new Cicero.

Now before some of you have collective heart attacks and click repeatedly on the “Comments” button, let me be clear that I am NOT suggesting that everyone has to talk proper, avoid splitting infinitives, never use “their” when “there” is the right word, avoid ending a sentence with a preposition, or stab themselves in the eye if they say “irregardless.” No, we know that oral language is frequently dysfluent, peppered with errors, given to jumping from topic to topic, and studded with words whose meanings can be slippier than a bucket of eels in olive oil. And written language can be similarly dotted with misarticulations (“nyoo kyoo luh” for nuclear anyone?), spelling mistakes, wandering apostrophes, malapropisms [4], and just plain unreadable rubbish.

Where the disjunct appears is that while people will accept a Ramsey tantrum to defend standards in cookery, a Simon Cowell insult in defense of musical talent, or Tyra Banks tossing out some poor unfortunate judged not good enough to be America’s Next Top Model, they see no value whatsoever in the idea that there may be some standards in the use of the English language.

A big part of why this happens is that we are all, in our own heads, experts at language. After all, we’ve been speaking it all our lives so we must be experts. So how dare some self-appointed, smug-faced, pedantic, “no-life” critic tell ME that I used the wrong word… or can’t spell… or know my own language.

It’s a manifestation of the well-known difference between knowing a language and knowing about a language. And knowing about language is not regarded as a skill or expertise in the same way that knowing about cookery, golf, basketball, singing, tattooing, baking cakes, surviving on an island, or any other such endeavor is viewed.

In a recent post at Gizmodo, Casey Chain pointed out that Google’s definition of the word literally now includes the following definition:

Used to acknowledge something that is not literally true but is used for emphasis or to indicate strong feeling

Words do, of course, change meaning over time – less than 40 years ago being gay had nothing to do with sexuality – but there is nothing “pedantic” or “petty” about taking a stand to prefer one definition over another. In fact, the failure to try to preserve a word’s meaning can lead to it being totally hijacked by special interest groups.  Take the word socialized as in “socialized medicine.” Here’s a word that has been used particularly by the political right because it sounds close to socialist and serves to taint the very concept of “free health care” as being somehow close to communism – and you don’t support communism, do you? Listen to any Talk Radio show and you’ll hear it being used in the pejorative sense by all right-wing commentators, whereas left-wingers are more likely to talk about “affordable health care” or just “health care.” It’s a good example of where allowing a word’s meaning to change ends up with it becoming pejorative; like gay, or queen, or fag – all of which have slid from having a non-pejorative, non-sexual meaning to become almost taboo [5].

So unfashionable as it may be to talk about things such as “standards” and “norms,” it is possible to be fully aware of the evolutionary nature of language while at the same time taking some effort to protect some of the features that keep the system rich and fascinating without letting it degenerate into an “anything goes” mish-mash of rough words strung loosely together with no thought for the comprehensibility, flow, phrasing, and even beauty of language.

And after all;

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

[1] The saddest and most soul-destroying conclusion that one can come to is that it’s not just the watching of TV shows that is pointless but that one is watching the same thing over and over! With an average four-score years and ten alloted to our miserable time on the earth, depression can really set in when you realize that this is the tenth time you’ve seen Peter Griffin try to flip a dead frog out of the window, and it’s still funny. I guess when I’m lying on my death-bed about to croak, I’ll think, “Gee, if I’d only skipped those re-runs I’d have another few years to live.”

[2] Even the term “Grammar Nazi” itself illustrates the negative regard people have toward those who want to pay attention to those details that make language special and interesting. A Google search for the phrase turns up over 2 million instances, and Wikipedia provides the definition, “A Grammar Nazi is a common term used on the internet and on social websites for an individual noticing a grammatical mistake and correcting obsessively. ‘Grammar Nazis’ usually correct any punctuation or spelling errors they find in a comment or post. British comedians Mitchell and Webb have an interesting take on the Grammar Nazi.

[3] It seems to be de rigueur for celebrity chefs to be loud mouthed and arrogant, so much so that contestants in cookery contests appear to have developed these qualities before actually learning to cook. Thus the pleasure in watching these types of show is as much about seeing pride going before a fall as it is about having any genuine interest in a winner.

[4] A malapropism is where someone uses a wrong word that is phonetically  similar to the intended one. Examples of malapropisms would included “Magellan circumvented the world” for circumnavigated; “He was wearing a turbine on his head” instead of turban; and “When a baby’s born you have to cut the biblical cord” instead of umbilical.

[5] For those curious, the word gay appears to have taken on its meaning of homosexual in the 1920’s. At the end of the 1700’s it was used as a euphemism to describe a female prostitute – a “gay lady.” Queen was first used as slang to refer to male homosexuals way back in 1729 (“Where have you been you saucy Queen? If I catch you Strouling and Caterwauling, I’ll beat the Milk out of your Breasts I will so.” From the book Hell upon earth: or the town in an uproar. Occasion’d by the late horrible scenes of forgery, perjury, street-robbery, murder, sodomy, and other shocking impieties.) Finally, fag (or faggot) comes from US slang in the early 1920’s, most likely by way of its use of a term of abuse for a woman in the 1840’s.

Hated People and Celebrities… along with adjectives, euphemism, and rhetoric

George ClooneyAlthough the Speech Dudes don’t mind hearing such descriptive adjectives are matureseasoned, experienced, or even worldly when applied to themselves, it would be a mistake to think that all these euphemisms for old mean out-of-touch, gaga, or loosing it. In fact, we like to think that being in the same age bracket as George Clooney, Piers Brosnan, Bruce Willis, Sean Connery, and Denzel Washington is not that bad. Mind you, Nick Nolte, Lyle Lovett, and Steve Buscemi are also part of this gang, so perhaps we’re being a little optimistic!

Anyhow, age insecurities aside, it’s no coincidental that the points of reference we use are celebrities because we’re hip enough to know that we live in a celebrity-orientated world, where “being famous” is an actual career choice for more folks under the age of 30 than we’d all like to admit. This doesn’t apply to you, dear reader, because if you’re reading this blog in preference to OK magazine or The Justin Bieber Encyclopedia, the chances are you’re not totally impressed by the Celebrity Culture. But if Johnny Depp were to ask for your cell number…

However, for those who demand proof, which should be all of you, here’s a couple of interesting lines from the very readable and most excellent The Narcissism Epidemic (2009) by Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell [1];

In 2006, 51% of 18- to 25-year-olds said that ‘becoming famous’ was an important goal of their generation – nearly five times as many as named ‘becoming more spiritual’ as an important goal. A 2006 poll asked children in Britain to name ‘the very best thing in the world.’ The most popular answer was ‘being a celebrity.’ “Good looks’ and ‘being rich’ rounded out the top three, making for a perfectly narcissistic triumvirate.” (p.93)

Nevertheless, the Speech Dudes enjoy a celebrity train-wreck as much as anyone else (Charlie Sheen, anyone?) and so the release of a new list of The Most Hated People in America is worth commenting on – from a linguistic point of view, of course.

First, let’s shoot the most obvious and largest fish in the barrel: This list in NOT about “people” but “celebrities.” My sister-in-law qualifies as a “most hated person in the world” from a personal perspective, but she is, thankfully, not a celebrity, hence her absence from the list. And by celebrity, we really mean “someone who is famous enough to catch the eyes of the global media networks.” One possible reason for using people over celebrity is that if you check the data [2], people is ten times more frequently used than celebrity, which means the headline will get more “hits” from search engines looking for keywords. This is worth bearing in mind if you’re creating headlines for your blogs. And who said studying corpus linguistics is boring and arcane!

Casey AnthonyNot surprisingly, Casey Anthony heads this year’s list. Now here’s a case that demonstrates perfectly how the Celebrity Culture is a media-based, pruriently biased phenomenon and the modern equivalent of “bread and circuses” for our 21st-century decadent neo-Rome. A women allegedly kills her child, is tried by the courts using the laws of the land, and set free because there is insufficient evidence to find her guilty. So, is she innocent?

Well, as far as the court of public opinion goes – and that’s us, boys and girls – she ISN’T. You see, much as we all use words like justice, democracy, and law, the Celebrity Culture realises that appealing to our Id will always triumph over paying lip service to our Superego. The law says she is innocent but our collective animal instincts would like to see her punished.

The problem is; we don’t like her. We just don’t. Watching the endless TV clips of Anthony made us aware of her non-verbal communications, and we were all irked by her presumed smirks, her indirect eye contact, her apparently dead-pan face. Of course, all these clips were chosen by TV editors to fit into a 5-second video clip for the fast-moving broadcasts that rarely do more than provide filler for ads. From Casey Anthony to Huggies in an eye blink. It also helps that many folks were spoon-fed by Fox’s witch-finder General, Nancy Grace, a women for whom the phrase “Sentence first; verdict afterwards” was prophetically accurate.

The Hated People list is little more than a reflection of how we shape the media, and vice versa, and how “entertainment” has become the measure of what is “worthy” of coverage. You don’t need Wikipedia or a degree in Anthropology to see that the people are on the list because their lifestyles impinge on the base elements of human nature that we all love to hear about: murder, sex, infidelity, greed, vanity. In fact, if you wanted to correlate each celeb with each of the Seven Deadly sins, you could probably do it before finishing a half-empty cup of coffee.

Jon GosselinMeanwhile, it’s somewhat ironic that Jon Gosselin is one the list for two reasons: First, one of the reasons he wanted to leave his family was that he thought that he couldn’t cope with being in the Celebrity Culture! And second, St. Kate’s show, Jon and Kate plus Four Each on the Weekends has been pulled from TLC. It seems that sometimes, escaping from the publicity lens is harder to do than putting on a blood-soaked leather glove. That right, OJ?

And as for Spencer Pratt… Well, we can at least use him to teach a new linguistic term: aptronym: a surname that matches your profession or personality. I’m not sure that being a prat[3] is typically seen as being a career but in this case, we might want to argue in the affirmative. It may seem a little unfair for folks to continually maul the man but this really is like shooting fish in a barrel and he did choose to swim in it in the  first place.

We started this piece with a list of preferred adjectives and we’ll end with a few that should be made use of more often when talking about Celebrity Culture: vapid, fatuous, narcissistic, trivial, and prurient. And that’s not using euphemism[4].

[1] Twenge, J. and Campbell, K.W. (2009). The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of  Entitlement. New York: Free Press.

[2] If you haven’t yet discovered the online corpora available at Brigham Young University, take a trip to http://corpus.byu.edu and sign up. It’s free and once you start using it to investigate word frequencies it becomes a daily tool.

[3] In British English – or as some of prefer, “real English” – a prat is an idiot or someone who behaves in an idiotic, stupid, or foolish manner. Back in the 16th century, prat was slang for a buttock or ass, and at the beginning of the 20th century is was used to refer to the pocket from which a pick-pocket would pick. The link between an ass-buttock and an ass-idiot seems clear in both British and American Englishes.

[4] For a more scholarly read on the topic of euphemism and taboo words, take a look at Forbidden Words (2006) by Keith Allan and Kate Burridge, published by Cambridge University Press. They draw the distinction between euphemism (talking sweetly), dysphemism (talking offensively), and orthophemism (talking neutrally), and they refer to them all collectively as X-phemisms. Three examples of this would be poopshitfaeces, or maybe making-lovefuckingintercourse. The book discusses the links between X-phemisms and human taboos, arguing that the emotional component of taboo words is driven by the limbic system, and that taboo words cannot be censored because they are so closely linked to emotion.