Language Feed

"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.

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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.

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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.

KhakiWantsToRide

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.

Lay-lie

Oh, never mind (graphic from Grammarly.com)

EVEN THOUGH IT'S REALLY NOT THAT COMPLICATED IS IT?


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. 


Imperatives

A few months back...no, 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

What?!? 

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.