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Worst Use of "Iconic"

Something which begins as a mild annoyance can become infuriating or maddening if it goes on long enough. Such is my reaction to the contemporary use of the word "iconic." At first it was applied to fairly significant things that over some fairly lengthy period of time have become a part of our cultural furniture: "Da Vinci's iconic Mona Lisa." It became a cliché, and therefore tiresome. Gradually...or was it suddenly? began to be applied to well-known commercial trademarks: "Macdonald's iconic golden arches." (I never thought about it before, but Macdonald's arches are just plain old yellow, nowhere near gold in color.)

At that point it was silly and pretentious and meant nothing more than "well-known," often applied to non-visual things that further twisted the sense of the word: 'the iconic feedback opening of "I Feel Fine."' And then came a rapid descent into the trivial and vacuous. I'm pretty sure I saw "the iconic Bud Light brand" during the recent furor surrounding it.

But I don't think this headline is surpassable:

Arby's Is Bringing Back One of It's Most Iconic Deals

 The apostrophe in "It's" is a nice touch. You don't really want a link to it, do you?

At this point the word produces a fingernails-on-blackboard reaction in me.  (Now that blackboards have pretty well fallen out of use, is that image still intelligible to people under fifty or so?)

You can amuse or depress yourself by going to one of the search engines and allowing it to suggest completions for "iconic" followed by various letters.

iconic anime characters

iconic barbie outfits

iconic batteries

iconic candy

iconic crocs

For "iconic z," Google gives you six phrases involving The Legend of Zelda, a video game. DuckDuckGo gives you "zoom backgrounds." "Iconic m" gave me "iconic memes," of which this is one. I don't know who these people are. 


"Only the dead...

...have seen the end of war."

A quick search finds that sunny observation attributed to Plato and to Santayana, which is an awfully wide chronological range. I did not learn it from any such noble source, but rather as the name of an album by an Iraqi heavy metal group, Acrassicauda ("a black desert scorpion"). A metal band trying to get started in Iraq in 2001 probably had better reason than most of us to judge the truth of that saying.

It came to mind the other day as I was reading a couple of articles about the 60th anniversary of the opening of Vatican II (October 11, 1962). I jumped in to the Catholic mess in 1981, just past the worst post-Council days, and from the beginning hated the intramural Catholic war. Why did we have to be either "Vatican II Catholics" or reactionaries? Wasn't it obvious that both sides had good and bad points? What were Catholic theologians doing dividing history into before and after segments on any basis other than the one that gave us A.D. and B.C? 

Well, of course that was extremely naive of me. But I had seen enough of liberal Protestantism to recognize that many of the passionate advocates of a "conciliar Church" seen as a rupture with the past were in all but name liberal Protestants who would, if they had their way, take the Church down the same path as the Episcopal Church. I wanted nothing to do with that, but on the other hand I didn't see myself as a capital-T Traditionalist, either. Why did we have to have this division, which, mirroring secular ideologies--an obvious bad sign--were often labeled "liberal" and "conservative," terms which, as Henri de Lubac said in a remark that I cherish, have no place in the Church except as descriptions of temperament? 

The pontificates of JPII and BXVI tried to rescue the Council from its modernist advocates and insisted upon its continuity with everything that had come before. And it seemed, or maybe I just hoped, that the war was gradually waning. Then Pope Francis chose to fire it up again, and I realized that it will certainly outlive me. If I count myself among the dead who alone will see the end of this war, it doesn't sound so very gloomy, as I'm in my seventies. It's gloomy to me, yes--but perhaps those who are only fifty will see the end of it? I doubt it. Or at least those who are twenty? Maybe, but I wouldn't bet on it. Is another fifty years long enough? You would think that the first fifty years would have been long enough. 

Ross Douthat apparently says in a New York Times article that I can't get to, quoted by Rod Dreher, that the council was necessary, but

...we now have decades of data to justify a second encapsulating statement: The council was a failure.

This isn’t a truculent or reactionary analysis. The Second Vatican Council failed on the terms its own supporters set. It was supposed to make the church more dynamic, more attractive to modern people, more evangelistic, less closed off and stale and self-referential. It did none of these things. The church declined everywhere in the developed world after Vatican II, under conservative and liberal popes alike — but the decline was swiftest where the council’s influence was strongest.

You can argue that the decline would have been worse without the council, but that's mere speculation, and in any case the effort to be "more attractive to modern people" is hardly the most important guide for the Church.

It would appear that Pope Francis is one of those who hasn't really faced this failure. But then I don't really care to speculate about his beliefs and intentions. Whatever they are, it seems clear to me now that he is a bad pope, in a fundamental sense: not in the sense of being a bad man disgracing his office by personal sin, but in the simple functional sense that he is bad at the job of being a shepherd to the Church, just as we would say someone is a bad builder if he builds houses that start falling apart after a few years. 

And when that train of thought arrives at that point, I get off: I decide not to spend much time thinking about the Pope, and the Church as a whole, and simply try to be that thing I wanted to be, a just-plain Catholic.

And I really don't want to think much about the "Synod on Synodality" which seems to be the big enthusiasm of Vatican progressives now. From what I can see its main function is to provide material for cynical jokes. Or just cynicism. "The Synod on Synodality is a two-year process of listening and dialogue...." After decades of this kind of thing in both the secular and religious contexts can anyone hear language like that and not react with cynicism? Well, yes, apparently some can, but it's puzzling.

Proponents of what they see as "the spirit of the Council" can say that we just haven't reached the end of the story yet, that one day it will be seen as the thing that saved the Church, or something along those lines. That's a respectable argument, I guess, though it doesn't convince me. I think Douthat is right that it "failed on the terms its own supporters set." But who knows, maybe a lot of abstract talk about synodality will finally do the trick.

I mentioned that I had read a couple of articles about the anniversary. This was one, by Amy Welborn, a testimonial from someone who was a Catholic school student in the '70s. If you're of a certain age and I tell you that it's titled "Jesus Livingston Seagull," you'll have an idea of what that was like.

Amy linked to this one by Larry Chapp, which is not so much about the council itself as all the horrors--and I don't think that's too strong a word--that have followed on it. They are horrors when considered in light of what the Church is supposed to be.


Here's a language complaint, from an article about Rod McKuen. It's an interesting article, if you remember Rod McKuen. But it contains this sentence:

As McKuen did, Kaur writes poems that are instantly accessible to readers who might not have previously consumed much poetry.

I hate that use of "consumed." I can only think of it as physical consumption, so the image is bizarre. And it's just wrong. In most usages that I can come up with, something which is consumed more or less ceases to exist except as a part of whatever consumed it. "Fire consumed the house." "I consumed the whole pizza." "I was consumed by envy" doesn't mean physical consumption, obviously, but it does suggest that at least for a moment the speaker had more or less ceased to exist and become envy.

I see usages such as "consuming news" and "consuming music." Even "consuming art," meaning to go to a museum or gallery. Perhaps with news it's a result of the fact that "reading" or "viewing" are inadequate because most people do both, and the writer can't think of a word that readily includes both. (How about just "getting"?) But music? Poetry? Why?!? You listen to the one, and you read the other (as a rule). This just strikes me as barbarous.


This is Khaki. He belongs to a neighbor of mine. She was having difficulty taking him out for daily walks, so I've been doing it. Most every morning I put him in my car and take him to the bayside park that's a short drive away. We both enjoy it. One afternoon a week or so ago I was getting into my car, about to run some errands. when Khaki showed up at my house, which he sometimes does. You see him here unable to believe that I'm not going to take him with me.


He followed me for several blocks, easily keeping up with my twenty miles an hour or so, even up the steep hill near my house. I finally had to stop, put him in the car, and take him home.

England, Center of the World

"They might, he said, come out to Vienna." 

That's from the Auden biography I'm reading. It's 1937 (I think) and "they" is Auden and Christopher Isherwood. 

It always amuses me that the English seem generally to refer to any travel abroad as going "out." The direction doesn't matter: out to Canada, out to Australia. And as in this case maybe only over to the continent. (Americans are more likely to say "over" to some other country. Or perhaps "down" for south and "up" for north.)  It's as if England is, naturally, the center, and to go anywhere else one must (obviously!) go out from the center. I first heard it from the Bonzo Dog Band, when they sang about "Hunting Tigers Out In India."

Judging by some of the contemporary British crime dramas I watch, they're still doing it: some criminal has "gone out to Spain" to spend the fortune he made from selling drugs or some other illegal activity, or a detective has retired there. 

Further Linguistic Defeats

Last September I lamented that the "lie-lay" distinction seems to be a lost cause. Joining it now, I think, are certain uses of "obsess" and "cliché." I've recently come across sentences like these in the writing of two forty-ish (I think) people, both very well educated, one of them a Ph.D: 

I am obsessing about that movie.

That movie is so cliché.

And these instances are in books, not casual online commentaries, email, or text messages--books edited and published by reputable publishers, and so presumably approved by at least one competent editor. I despair.

If you don't notice anything wrong with these sentences, well, I guess you're on the right side of history for the moment. They make me wince, if not worse.

When you can't get something out of your head, you are not obsessing about it. It is doing the obsessing, not you. It is on the active side of that verb. It is obsessing you. You are obsessed by it. 

Cliché is a noun, not an adjective. I'm not sure that it's even really a good thing to turn it into "clichéd," as in "That movie is so clichéd." I'm out of my grammatical depth in trying to analyze that, but it sounds better than "so cliché." 

My authority for these judgments is my Webster's New Twentieth Century Dictionary (Unabridged), published in 1966. I guess it's a relic now, like me. It's falling apart, also like me. So cliché. 

Accents of the British Isles

(Does Ireland count as part of the British Isles? I wouldn't think they'd be very pleased about that.)

I saw this on Facebook, then went looking for it on YouTube so that I could post it here. I was surprised to see that there are a number of videos of the same basic type. There's a lot to work with, I guess; it always surprises me a little that there are so many and such different accents in such a relatively small geographical area, though it really shouldn't. I suppose the actually atypical thing is that they all speak English, which is of course a political more than an organic linguistic development. There are different accents within Alabama, which is roughly the same size as England, and they didn't have hundreds of years and geographical concentration in which to develop.

I've developed a strange liking and fascination for the Scottish accents that I hear on some of the British TV shows. In one, the villain was a Scotch (Scottish?) woman, and I kept wanting her to be on screen more just so I could listen to her talk. Katia Kvinge, by the way (whom I had of course never heard of), is "a Scottish BAFTA New Talent Award Nominated comedian, actor and impressionist." Doesn't sound like a Scottish name--I wonder where it came from. Oh wait--from her web site:

Q: Where is Katia Kvinge from?
A: Mum is Norwegian, Dad is American. Born in London, grew up in Oxford and Scotland

Here Lays "Lie"

I'm actually not a grammar martinet, although it may sometimes seem that way. I've never paid a lot of attention to rules of grammar, not in the sense of being able to state them, and talk of verb tenses and such usually confuses me. It's just a matter of what sounds right or wrong, very much like hearing the right or wrong notes in music (leaving out the case where the "wrong" one is deliberately used, or the whole idea of wrongness is being subverted). Certain grammatical errors give me something like the pain of hearing a bad mistake in music.

One of these is the "lie-lay" distinction. I can't quote the rule that governs them, but I know that "I'm going to go lay down" hurts my ears. This is now so common that the incorrect use probably occurs more frequently than the correct. The trend has been in place for a long time now. There were always a fair number of people whose native usage, so to speak--what they had grown up hearing--was the incorrect one. Teachers tried to change them, but it didn't always work (to say the least). I remember when I was getting physical therapy for a back problem thirty years ago that the therapist would instruct me to "lay down" and do this or that exercise.

So I thought I was pretty much reconciled to the fact that this is a lost cause. But I had that realization driven home definitively a few weeks ago when I read a sentence written by someone with a PhD that went something like this: "Beneath this concern lays this other concern...". It was not a PhD in science or engineering where language is merely functional, but in theology, where words are hugely important. (I do know where I read it, and just checked again to make sure I wasn't misreading the text, but am not going to identify it, partly because I see no reason to expose the writer to ridicule for his grammar or myself to ridicule as a grammar martinet. Anyway, it's possible that it was only a typo.)

Anyway, I think that use of the word "lie" is actually passing out of use altogether, with only the other word, "lie" as in "speak falsely," remaining. Well, it's certainly a word to which we need to resort quite often.


Oh, never mind (graphic from


A New Kind of Crazy

From a comment at Rod Dreher's blog: "Throughout human history....people have gone stark raven mad or crazy."

I like that. I had a post about that kind of thing not so very long ago--not craziness, I mean, but the phenomenon where someone substitutes for a word that was really part of a saying or idiom another that sounds like it, as in "tow the line." Though this one may just be an erroneous auto-correct that slipped by. Anyway, it's a rather striking image. 


A few months, wait, over six months back--see this post...I listened to an audio version of the Josephine Tey novel The Franchise Affair. It involves someone falsely accused of a crime, and early in the story there's an exchange between the accused and her lawyer which goes something like this:

What have you done?

I haven't done anything.

Well, what are you supposed to have done?

This use of "supposed," precisely in its strict sense, referring to something believed but with a degree of uncertainty, similar to "alleged" or "conjectured," caught my ear, because as often as not today we don't use that ordinary sense. And I would bet that its most frequent use is to convey something similar to "required" or "commanded," or at least "intended." "You're supposed to..." frequently means "you must."

Tey's sentence above, for instance, in isolation, would be most likely to refer to something meant to be done but not in fact done: "what should you have done?" or "what are you expected to have done?" But in common usage "You're not supposed to park here" means "you must not park here."

A couple of other words or phrases have taken on that imperative sense that they are not, well, supposed to have. It's a curious thing that I began to notice a long time ago. Frequently the imperative sense is a matter of word order in the sentence. Consider:

You have this form to fill out. 
You have to fill out this form.

It would be better for you to fill out this form.
You'd better fill out this form.

The second sentence of each of those pairs is essentially a command: "You must fill out this form."  "You'd better" is weaker, a command that's a little short of "must" but with an implied threat for non-compliance. I associate it first with children, especially girls: "You better give it to me," often followed by "or I'm going to tell Mama."

These things trouble me a little because they remind me that any particular language at any particular time is a sand castle. I spend a lot of time writing, and most of it now is poetry, in which every single word is to the best of my ability very precisely chosen and placed. Oh well, it isn't likely to be read very much, so it won't matter much when my words

Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.

--Eliot (T.S.)

Let's Revise the "Generations" Business

I've been complaining for a long time--yeah, I know, this sentence could end right there, but I'll continue anyway--I've been complaining for a long time about the "generations" construct which is a sort of pop sociology thing that sometimes seems barely a step up from astrology. This chart, harvested from Wikipedia, sums up the system, if we can call it that:

1024px-Generation_timeline.svgAnd I think it borders on crazy. I guess it started with the "lost generation" of the 1920s. But that term was just an observation that Gertrude Stein made about a particular set of extremely atypical artists. I don't know whether it was ever applied to an entire cohort of people who just happened to have been born around the same time. It certainly wouldn't have made much sense to classify my wife's grandmother, born ca. 1900 in rural Mississippi and growing up in circumstances more 19th than 20th century, more frontier than suburbia, with Ernest Hemingway's crowd.

Continue reading "Let's Revise the "Generations" Business" »

Bad Writing

If you can even call it writing.... Maybe just jargon. Or guff.

I received an email on my work account with this subject:

Implement Engaging Prevention Training at [college]

I wondered what it meant. Training for the purpose of preventing something, apparently. Opened the email and saw a company logo with this text:

Proven, Engaging Student Prevention Training


So I read the first paragraph:

Did you know SafeColleges Training provides a variety of effective student prevention courses through a robust training system?

I experienced deepening confusion. Few colleges wish to prevent students.

Only by reading as far as the second paragraph did I learn that they are referring to training aimed at "encouraging healthy behaviors" on topics like drugs, alcohol, and sex. 

The War on Transitive Verbs

I know I can be pedantic, but I like to think I'm not excessively so. I deny that I'm a grammar Nazi. I understand that language is constantly shifting, and that this is not necessarily a bad thing. Some departures from standard grammar--I hesitate even to say "correct," so wary am I of being overly judgmental--are enhancements in the way of color, or meet some need not provided by the standard. 

I notice the first one sometimes in certain constructs that less-educated people use. For instance: in the opening episode of The Wire, a character commenting on the death of a friend: "I guess sometimes life just be that way." "Be" is wrong, but it has a flavor that "Life is just that way" doesn't. I see a lot of memes that use, for lack of a better word, black English, and sometimes they're funny or punchy in a way that they wouldn't be in standard English. Like "be like":

SouthernersBeLikeAnd as for the second: I'm becoming reconciled to the use of "they/them/their" for the third-person singular when the sex of the person is unknown. You don't have to be a feminist to find "he/him/his" odd-sounding when the person referred to is most likely, or just as likely, to be female. I felt it often in my job in software services, where the office workers using the software were far more likely to be women than men. "Each user can set his own preferences." But 90% of them are women, and we all know it. "Each user can set her own preferences"--but isn't it just a touch patronizing to assume the user is female? "Each user can set his or her own preferences"--that's fine for one sentence, but it's clumsy if you need to repeat it. "Each user can set their own preferences"--yes, that grates mightily on my ear, but I guess I have to get used to it.

But there is no justification for this kind of thing:

This recording will repeat.

When the process is complete, a message displays. 

The screen populates with the information. 

Dr. Banner transforms into The Hulk.

She dies, then resurrects as a zombie.

If your tax doesn't calculate...

Is it really so hard, is it really too much trouble, to say "will be repeated," "is displayed", and so on? I'm not sure exactly what this syndrome signifies but I'm sure it's something bad. 

And by the way the title is partly in jest. Something else that annoys me is the declaration that any opposition to, or just neglect of, a thing constitutes "a war on..." the thing. 

Heard But Not Read, Or, Transcription Error

Back in August I had a post about the often-funny result of someone hearing a common phrase without having seen it in print or learned its actual meaning, then setting down in print what he thought he heard, which is sometimes oddly plausible. "Tow the line" as a misconstrual of "toe the line" was one example.

A couple of days ago I saw a new one which I think deserves the grand prize in this exhibition:

"It's a doggy-dog world."

Sunday Night Journal, September 9, 2018

In response to recommendations from Rob G and Janet, I recently read Julien Green's Each Man In His Darkness. Well, I guess it wasn't only in response to them. I've run across Green's name now and then over the years in discussions of modern Catholic novelists. It usually turns up toward the end, in an almost afterthought-ish sort of way: "Oh, and there's also Julien Green." I'd always think well I should check him out, too. And then I'd forget about him.

Well, it turns out he's really very good. As a brief much-too-neat but not-entirely-useless one-sentence description, I'd say he's a sort of combination of Greene and Waugh. More Greene, I guess. And not the humorous Waugh but the Waugh of Brideshead Revisited. What this book has in common with Brideshead is mainly the conflict between faith and desire, which of course is equally important in some of Greene's work. It's been a long time since I read The Heart of the Matter, and its plot doesn't bear much resemblance to that of Each Man, but shares with it, at least with what I recall, a grim sense of movement toward tragedy. And the protagonist is somewhat Greene-ian in that he is a Catholic haunted by a faith he'd rather ignore.

I couldn't figure out at first when or where the book is set. If this is stated in the narrative I missed it (which is certainly possible). Green was born in 1900 of American (and Southern) parents in Paris, and he wrote mostly in French. I assumed in the opening pages that the book was set in England (because the family names are Anglo), and in perhaps the 1920s or even earlier, as the protagonist, Wilfred Ingram, is met at a railway station by a horse and wagon. It soon became clear that that was not the case. The book was published in 1960, and I think its setting is meant to be contemporary and American. It may be New York--some large American city, at any rate. 

Wilfred is in his mid-20s, single, and one of a few Catholics in an old and largely Protestant family. He works in a clothing store and spends his nights in what the novel describes, with a word which must have already been somewhat quaint in the 1950s, as "dissipation." That is, he goes out in search of women to have sex with, and he always finds one.

(In passing: perhaps I'm naive, but I'm a little doubtful that even an attractive and charming young man would, in the 1950s, have so reliably and so often found a willing woman, and never the same one twice, as Wilfrid does. Green was gay, and I suspect Wilfred's sex life resembles that of a good-looking young gay man in the metropolis more than that of a straight one.)

In the midst of this he attempts to squelch his Catholic conscience without abandoning the faith altogether. This struggle comes to a head when he finds himself in the grip of an obsessive passion for a married woman. The outcome of that struggle is strongly affected by his relationships with two homosexual characters, who can almost be said to represent the good and evil angels contending for his soul. That's an oversimplification, as the evil one is also Catholic, mostly fallen-away, and is bent on challenging Wilfred's faith to the maximum. And as things turn out...well, I don't want to give away too much. The other homosexual character is Wilfred's cousin Angus, who is in love with Wilfred, and who is, now that I think of it, the most Waugh-ian element in the novel: a well-off, jaded young gay man of no faith, but deep longing underneath a surface cynicism, and an essentially noble and generous character. There is also a decadent old uncle who puts one in mind of Lord Marchmain. 

In short: a novel very much worth reading and placing alongside those of  some of the other names I've mentioned. I'd like to read more Green. He wrote a lot, including nineteen (!) volumes of journals and a four-volume autobiography. Goodness.... Here is his Wikipedia entry.

WARNING: what seems to be the only edition in English of Each Man has an introduction by Giovanni Lucera which gives away the major events of the plot, including the climax. And this is a big deal because the plot is not predictable. So don't read the introduction first. Fortunately it's always my practice, when a novel includes an introduction or preface, to skip it and read it only after the novel itself.


Another recommendation from Rob G: he sent me the link to this piece in First Things by David Bentley Hart in which Hart recommends the English composer George Butterworth. In the past I would have filed this away mentally and maybe followed up on it sometime, or maybe not. But having access to a streaming service--Tidal in my case--which gives me access to some huge portion of all currently available recorded music allowed me to hear some of Butterworth's music right away. I looked for the orchestral pieces, because I have to admit, with some embarrassment, that the art song is not my favorite form of music. 

Well, I found them, and they are exquisite. And I found them on this recording: 


which, according to the review at Arkiv Music, is "very special." I'm always telling my friends who are connoisseurs of classical music that I'm not very sensitive to nuances of performance. But this one really grabbed me. It was the second one I listened to (I don't remember which was first), and it's the one I saved and listened to repeatedly. 

And by the way I liked the work by Frank Bridge, a four-movement suite for strings, as much as the Butterworth. The one by Parry, a suite of dances in the baroque tradition, hasn't made much of an impression on me.

Here's one of the Butterworth pieces, not from the just-mentioned recording, but with pretty pictures.

And here's one of the songs, a link sent to me by another friend, who is probably going to roll her eyes when I tell her that although I love the song (and of course the Houman poem), I sort of wish the singer didn't do that crescendo in the middle. I guess maybe that was the composer's direction. Yes, I am complaining about the singing of one of the world's great baritones, Bryn Terfel. I'm sorry. I really am. 


I've just acquired two more entries for my list of common phrases heard but not read, and rendered innocently according to the hearer's knowledge, or guess:

for all intents and purposes -> for all intensive purposes

of utmost importance -> of upmost importance


I've sometimes thought of starting a collection of Links On Which I Did Not Click. " Like this one: "Is Your Pre-Workout Under-dosed?" I have no idea what that means. 


Less-Than-A-Hurricane Gordon did me a favor. If you read last week's post, you remember I had been trying to direct the creek that flows into the bay away from a course where it was causing erosion. The creek wanders around all the time, depending on wind and water. I had dug an outlet for it straight out into the bay, but the water level in the bay was fairly high and my ditch was filled in overnight. 

NewCreekThe storm dumped somewhere between 7 and 9 inches of rain in 18 hours or so. The resulting flood of runoff down the creek washed a path straight out into the bay, as I had wanted to do. That's the stream you see in the middle of this picture, taken a day or two after the storm, when the very high water had mostly receded, and from more or less the same place as the picture last week of another one of my attempts. Moreover, it shoved a great pile of sand up on the beach and more or less replaced what had been eroded by the creek. I am very pleased by this development.

Sunday Night Journal, February 5, 2017

I'm beginning to suspect that Jean-Luc Godard is an over-rated filmmaker. Or at least that I don't care very much for his work. Maybe ten years ago I saw Band of Outsiders (Bande à Part), and really liked it. But I suspect that may have been only because of a few charming scenes involving the beautiful and charming Anna Karina. I haven't seen it again so I'm not sure. Then I saw Breathless, and came pretty close to disliking it. I don't have a lot of patience any more for the romantic and glamorous criminal business. Yes, I suppose  that has something to do with the fact that I'm not romantic or glamorous or criminal, but even in my old age I find it a little depressing that chicks go for that type. (I also saw Weekend sometime back around 1970 or so, and thought it was sort of crazy, but I'll withhold current judgment on it until or unless I see it again.)

And then this week I saw Alphaville. I had put it on our Netflix queue years ago. Really, years--I put it on there in a burst of enthusiasm when we first signed up, but then kept putting other things ahead of it. And it finally made its way to the top only because I forgot to put the next series of Vera ahead of it.

It's a sort of science-fiction movie with a few film-noir trappings. The city of Alphaville is the totalitarian governing metropolis of some sort of giant civilization, apparently an interplanetary one--the term "galaxies" is thrown around but in a way that doesn't make much sense. A secret agent from the Outlands has been dispatched to the city with orders to assassinate a scientist who is in charge of a computer called Alpha 60 which is in the process of becoming the real governing entity.

There's nothing wrong with that as the premise of a movie, but I don't think this one is very well executed. There are absolutely no special effects, and all the action takes place in what is obviously a contemporary (that is, 1964) city. The secret agent initially appears driving a Mustang. I don't know whether Godard wanted to do it this way or just didn't have money to build some sort of futuristic environment. And maybe that's just as well, considering the state of special effects etc. at the time. But it lends a slightly ludicrous quality to some of the dialogue. More fundamentally, if the story was meant to be genuinely exciting, it certainly failed for me. Almost everything about it was unconvincing to me. There is a lot of fairly conventional sermonizing about mechanization, automation, control, dehumanization, etc., mixed with heavy 20th-century-French profundity. I actually laughed out loud when our hero said, in an interior monologue:

Yes, it's always like that. You never understand anything. And one night you end it in death.

There were a few things I liked, most of all some really evocative photography of nighttime cityscapes and the cold empty interiors of office buildings and hotels. Anna Karina is there, playing Natasha, the daughter of the scientist, and there are many long looks at her lovely face. There is a long, really too long, scene, where the hero and Natasha are in a hotel room philosophizing and falling in love. And one device of the Alphaville environment struck me as a distinctive and still telling insight: dictionaries are treated like Bibles, but are constantly replaced with revised editions that omit some words as no longer permitted and add others that are now required. The hero finds that Natasha does not know the word "conscience." He tries to explain it to her, and she says something like "I feel that I know this word although I have never heard it." Yes--it's one of the things we can't not know.

Looking around on the net, I find that my view seems to be in the minority. Here's a more typical one, if you're interested. There is apparently some cultural context that I was not aware of: the agent is named Lemmy Caution, and is played by an American actor, Eddie Constantine, who was well-known for playing the same character in a series of crime dramas. 



 Years ago (I mean something like forty years) when I worked in a bookstore, we stocked the fiction of B. Traven. Or perhaps I should say The Mysterious B. Traven, as he is often described. Here is the beginning of his Wikipedia entry:

B. Traven (Bruno Traven in some accounts) was the pen name of a presumably German novelist, whose real name, nationality, date and place of birth and details of biography are all subject to dispute. One of the few certainties about Traven's life is that he lived for years in Mexico, where the majority of his fiction is also set—including The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1927), which was adapted for the Academy Award winning film of the same name in 1948.

I remember picking up one of his novels, The Cotton Pickers, one night in the store when nothing was going on, reading a little, and feeling a bit let down, because it didn't seem to promise anything as exciting as the vague mythology surrounding the author suggested. Then I got interrupted, and never went back to it. A month or two ago I saw The Cotton Pickers and another book, The Night Visitor, on the discard table at the local library, and grabbed them. 

Now I've read The Cotton Pickers, and that initial hasty impression of forty years ago seems to have been fairly accurate. I enjoyed it, but it's not a dramatic narrative, nor does it reach great psychological or philosophical depths. Insofar as it seems to have any aim beyond the picturing of a place and time and the telling of a story, that aim seems to be political: it is concerned with the oppression of the poor in Mexico (and by implication in the whole "capitalist" world). But it's not strident or plainly ideological, nor does it picture saintly poor people up against evil capitalists, so you never feel like you're reading a tract, but simply seeing things as they are. And in fact I would recommend it precisely as a social document, because it has the ring of truth, and it's good to be reminded sometimes, if one is inclined to forget it, of how deeply serious injustice is embedded in the world.

The story is set in rural Mexico, presumably in the 1920s when the novel was published. It's a loose first-person narrative of some months in the life of Gerard Gales, of whom we know nothing much except that he is "a white man," presumably American but possibly European, and is a vagabond without money or apparently any sort of stable life. The story opens with his arrival in a village where he desperately needs to find work. With a few other equally poor men he goes to work picking cotton. A good third or more of the book describes that experience. Later he puts in a bit of time at an oil field. He stays for a while in a little town, where he works in a bakery. He takes a job driving a herd of cattle to market. 

And that's it. There's no cumulative narrative, just a series of incidents peopled by characters who come and go. Only at the very end of the book is there a suggestion that there may be more purpose in his wanderings than meets the eye, and I'm not sure about that. It's very low-key, and Gales's voice is wry and ironic. I might even call it light, but in retrospect, I'm left with a cumulative effect of seriousness, as much picture as story, and a very vivid one. A blurb on the dust jacket of my copy says that Traven does what Hemingway only tried to do, but this book, at least, doesn't strike me that way. It doesn't have Hemingway's grim seriousness and self-conscious heroic fatalism.

Now I want to read Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which unfortunately was not on that discard table.

One reason I read this book before the other is the subject, with which I have a personal connection: I'm one of a dwindling number of people in this country who have actually had the experience of picking cotton all day. The title in German is amusing: Die Baumwollpflücker. Good thing I never called anybody that in the cotton field.


I can deal with people making cheap political points by way of slogans, "memes," and the like. Well, that's not entirely true. I can't really deal with them, but I can usually manage to change the mental subject and ignore them. What really drives me up the wall is when they think they've made a point, but it doesn't even make sense. I've long thought that "Keep Your Rosaries Off My Ovaries" was some kind of champion among that species. But I saw one a day or two ago that beats it: "The Constitution Has No Alternative Facts." The one about rosaries makes no direct sense; it's only word-association, but at least you can discern a connection between the words and a sentiment: the Catholic Church is trying to oppress me. I cannot find anything resembling a thought in the new one, though. I know what it means, of course: I don't want Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court. But is there any connection between that and a dig at Kellyanne Conway's "alternative facts" remark about the size of the crowd at Trump's inauguration? Well, there I go, doing what I really must stop myself from doing: trying to point out illogic in a context where logic is irrelevant. It's a trap. 


More and more often, in journalism and in the writing of young people in general (not real writing, but Internet postings of one sort or another), I notice misspellings indicating that the writer has only heard the word, not seen it in print, and is spelling it phonetically. This one caught my eye in a local news story the other day: 

 “She goes bizzurk, stabbing a gas station attendee in the neck and then goes across the street and attacks a female pharmacist, literally beating her to a pulp,” Nancy Grace said during a 2010 show.

I'm assuming this was the reporter's transcription, not an official one from the TV network (Nancy Grace is a TV "personality.") 



January 9, 2017

"Dogmas" or "dogmata"?

Which would you use as the plural of "dogma" when writing in a fairly formal context? The first strikes my ear as slightly off, the second as a little pedantic and even maybe pompous to some ears. By "fairly formal context" I mean something meant for the literate general reader, less formal than the academic but more so than correspondence or a blog post.

Misfiring Neurons

Like pretty much everyone, I suppose, who reaches a certain age, I fear losing my mind to physical deterioration. Call it dementia or Alzheimer's or whatever the applicable medical terminology is, the thing that strikes many old people is a horrible thing. I saw it with my beloved maternal grandmother when I was in my early teens, and was confused, disturbed and a little frightened by it. And a friend of mine is going through it now with her mother, who no longer recognizes her or anyone else, cannot use a knife and fork, has long since ceased to be able to enjoy things like reading which were a huge part of her life, and is often angry or depressed. I understand and wholly accept the Church's teaching against euthanasia and suicide, but I can certainly understand why people who don't have a belief in some kind of transcendent reality which makes suffering meaningful would see no reason why they shouldn't do it in such a terrible situation. And although one cannot approve of action to make it happen, I don't think there's anything wrong with praying for a speedy end to the ordeal.

Anyway: I don't dwell on it, and mostly maintain a combination of "thy will be done" and que sera sera attitudes when the thought presents itself. But I do feel uneasy whenever I have the sort of odd mental lapse that seems to come with normal aging, and worry that it's a sign of bad things to come. The inability to come up with proper names when they're needed, for instance, happens to me often enough, and I notice it in other people my age. That one, I'm told, is nothing to worry about it, though it can be embarrassing.

There's another little phenomenon which may or may not be a normal old age thing, but which strikes me as interesting with respect to the way the mind works. It's the unconscious substitution, when writing, of one word for another. It happened to me a day or two ago as I was composing an email to a friend. I intended to say "I'll say more in another email later." But when I read over the text before sending it, as I have learned to do for just this reason, I found that I had written "I'll say more in another email letter." 

This happens to me regularly. And it's not what we ordinarily mean by a typographical or spelling error. The substituted word is always related to the intended one in spelling, and often in meaning as well. When it's only spelling, like "through" for "though", it's always a real word. And even if the meaning is rather different, as in this example, it often makes sense in the sentence, though not necessarily as much sense as the intended word. 

What makes it so interesting to me is that it is completely unconscious. The discovery of "letter" instead of "later" in this instance was a complete surprise to me, as much as it would have been if someone else had gotten hold of my computer and changed it. It seems to offer a glimpse into the mechanics of communication, which in one's native language are largely unconscious--the extent to which some sort of invisible machinery goes into play when we write or talk. In a rough way, what seems to happen is that my conscious mind has an idea that it intends to communicate, and a rough notion of what words are required, and it calls on this partly-visible mechanism to come up with the specific words and order the fingers to type them. But what the mechanism actually delivers is not exactly what was called for: close, but not exactly. It seems to indicate that the selection of words, or at least the setting-down of them, is partly carried on below the surface of consciousness. Anyone who has any facility for writing at all is familiar with the sense that words, phrases, and whole sentences sometimes simply appear, popping into existence intact and in toto.

Perhaps this particular phenomenon has mainly to do with the mechanism of typing itself. I learned to type, or at least learned the keyboard, when I was in my mid-teens: an odd skill for a teenaged boy in 1964 or so to have acquired, and it happened only because my father was annoyed that my older sister and I appeared to have nothing useful to do one summer, and made us take a night class in typing. Looking back on it, that seems a strange thing for him to have done. But he's not here for me to ask him why he did it, and I've certainly benefited from the fact that typing is as automatic and unconscious an action for me as driving, which I learned around the same time. There is not much conscious thought between my intention for a word to appear on this screen and the motions of my fingers that make it so. (The following year I started working for my uncle on the farm during the summer vacation, which was a lot better than taking a typing class.)

Whether this foreshadows more serious mental failings, I don't know. But I guess I can see how such misfires could spread and accumulate into a serious problem, resulting in more and more difficulty in connecting with one's surroundings. I wouldn't mind hearing that someone under 55 or so experiences the same thing sometimes. If I did it when I was much younger, I don't remember--which could just be another symptom of age.

And now I've sort of spooked myself about the whole thing. 

To Architect Or Not To Architect

In the comments a few days ago discussing "graduated college" vs. "graduated from college," there were mentions of several current verbal tics that get on people's nerves. Rob G mentioned that he'd heard one that came from IT (information technology) that really bugs him, but couldn't remember what it was.

I wonder if it was the use of "architect" as a verb. Not only a verb, but one commonly found in the past tense, as "architected." As in "We architected this system to be very responsive." There are multiple annoying usages that come from the IT world, but this one makes me snarl.

It means, as you can gather, nothing more or less than "designed." There is a reason for its existence, and the reason reveals a lot about the linguistic knowledge and sensitivities of technologists. Going back forty years and more, there has existed a sub-category of computer engineering called computer architecture, or sometimes system architecture. It refers to the structure of a system, or some major feature of it, considered as a whole, comparable to the ordinary use of the word "architecture" in relation to building.

Some person with absolutely no feel for language apparently decided that architecture is the result of the activity of architecting, and began to speak in ugly sentences like the one above. It's caught on to some degree, though I hope it's so clumsy that few outside the technical world will adopt it. 


Definite Article, The; Usage of

I grew up not far from a rather large river, the Tennessee. I didn't realize for a long time that it was as large as it is in relation to other rivers, but it is. I didn't understand this until I went to Colorado, and there encountered something that was called a river, but was so small that you could probably spit across it if you had the wind at your back. I think I actually laughed out loud; it was much smaller than what we called a creek back home. 

Flowing into the Tennessee some thirty miles or so away from my home was a tributary which everyone called Elk River. Not "the Elk River," just "Elk River." As in "they have a place up on Elk River." The Tennessee was so dominant that it was more often referred to simply as "the river," but if we did name it, it was "the Tennessee River," not "Tennessee River." 

Why did we attach "the" to one, and not to the other? No one knew. No one even thought about it, but my father used to like to pose the question, just to discombobulate people, which it always did. It's not as if there were several Tennessee Rivers, so that you needed to distinguish the most prominent as "the Tennessee." 

This is all prompted by a blog post at National Review discussing the significance of saying "Ukraine" vs. "the Ukraine"; apparently each has a political implication, which I didn't know. The post itself, as well as some of the commenters, mention other occasions when the article is used or not used for apparently arbitrary reasons. Some people in California apparently refer to some highways there as, for instance, "the I5," but I have never heard anyone refer to Interstate 10 as "the I10"--it's just "I10". And why are Brits sometimes "in hospital" while Americans are "in the hospital," even if there are multiple hospitals in the locality, any of which might be the one involved?

I expect there are many more examples. I'm glad I didn't have to learn English as a foreign language. I have heard a lot of non-native speakers struggle with articles, definite and indefinite. I recall, for some reason, a Chinese co-worker arriving at a dinner with a bottle of Johnny Walker Red and saying he had brought "the wine." Aside from the fact that it wasn't wine, it wasn't the only alcohol, therefore not "the wine," nor would it have been "a wine." However, if he had brought a salad, it would have been "a salad," or perhaps "the salad." Though just "salad" would have been ok, too. Imagine trying to learn all that consciously, especially if your native language had no similar constructs. I don't know any other languages at more than the most rudimentary level, so I don't know if they all have these kinds of irregularities.