Lingering Superstition in the Language of Baseball

I was talking with some baseball aficiandos recently and asked them to think up the most common descriptor of left-handed and right-handed pitchers. They agreed quickly on “big farm kid” for righties (runner up: “Hard-throwing”) and “crafty” for lefties (runner up: “wily”).

Jesse Wolfersberger believes that this linguistic distinction has it roots in reality. He presents statistical analysis indicating that left-handed pitchers are better at striking out batters with off-speed, tricky, curving pitches rather than straight-at-you fastballs.

You can see what you think of his analysis by following the link, but even if it holds water I doubt that is the full explanation because it leaves out the moral nuance of the contrasting descriptors.

The idea that the right side is morally better than the “sinister” side goes back centuries, and we have not fully escaped it even though we recognize that it has no logical basis. “Crafty” is not too far from “sneaky/dishonest”. Meanwhile, consider the descriptor “big farm kid” for righties. That doesn’t just imply strength; it also connotes All-American wholesomeness. Many right-handers certainly grow up in cities and many left-handers grow up on farms, yet it would feel strange to hear a baseball announcer speak of a left-handed pitcher as a “farm kid”.

Likewise, there have many been right-handed pitchers who didn’t just manfully throw a straight and true fastball down the pipe, challenging their opponents honestly like Arthurian Knights at the jousts. Knuckle ball masters Phil Niekro, Joe Niekro and Tim Wakefield all pitched right-handed. And the New York Yankees, whom all God-fearing people agree are servants of Satan, have employed many right-handed pitchers over the years.

From the Language Police Blotter: Vosotros

Although most people on the east coast (and many people here) haven’t realized it yet, Eric Garcetti was elected Mayor of Los Angeles on Tuesday.  I’m pleased. I voted for him, and despite the fiscal and governance difficulties that he faces, I think he will do a good job as much any Los Angeles mayor can.

Much of the media has been taken up with Garcetti’s status as the City’s first Jewish mayor.  In fact, he is quite the hybrid, much like the city itself: his Mom is Jewish, his Dad (former LA County DA Gil Garcetti) is of Italian descent, but the family lived in Mexico for a couple of generations, making him also something of a Latino.  Perfect for a Los Angeles politician.

But he is going to have to do better than this if he wants to get real credibility among the Latino population (which he carried in the election).  Addressing an east side audience, Garcetti declared:

Soy uno de vosotros.

That literally means, “I am one of you,” and the notion is standard politician fare.  Notice something?  For “you”, Garcetti used vosotros, a form that is perfectly grammatically correct, but is basically only used in Spain.  It supposedly means something like “you guys” in my understanding: it is the plural form of tu.  But I have never heard it used in Latin America or among Latinos in the United States.

A colleague of mine learned how to speak Spanish in Spain, and then went to Argentina on an exchange.  He used vosotros, and, he says, “my hosts thought it was absolutely adorable, like speaking with an English accent.”  And that’s with Argentinians, who have their own series of strange words, and make every effort to dissociate themselves from the rest of Latin America.  (See Mario Vargas Llosa’s Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter for more).  The closest comparison I could make would be something like, “Hey — I’m down with thee.”

In fact, this is such an obvious mistake I’m wondering whether it was reported correctly.  But I’ve now heard it from different places.  Anyone else have a different take — has anyone heard it used among Latinos in the United States?  We would love to hear from thee.

Professor Ferguson, There’s This Thing Called “Google”….

Niall Ferguson, May 4th:

My disagreements with Keynes’s economic philosophy have never had anything to do with his sexual orientation. It is simply false to suggest, as I did, that his approach to economic policy was inspired by any aspect of his personal life.

Niall Ferguson, May 7th:

Not for one moment did I mean to suggest that Keynesian economics as a body of thought was simply a function of Keynes’ sexuality. But nor can it be true—as some of my critics apparently believe—that his sexuality is totally irrelevant to our historical understanding of the man. My very first book dealt with the German hyperinflation of 1923, a historical calamity in which Keynes played a minor but important role. In that particular context, Keynes’ sexual orientation did have historical significance. The strong attraction he felt for the German banker Carl Melchior undoubtedly played a part in shaping Keynes’ views on the Treaty of Versailles and its aftermath.

Rachel Shteir versus Chicago: Performance versus Reality

I was in Russia when a tourist from New York turned to me and said, “Whatever happened to Chicago?” To this mysterious question he added, “I kept thinking it was going to break through, but it never did.” Nonplussed, I tried to think of a Chicago breakthrough. Eventually I must have sputtered something about Nobel laureates because he interrupted me dismissively. “Eds and meds,” he said. “Every second-tier city has those.” That concluded conversation between us–-for the rest of the trip.

And that’s the problem with Rachel Shteir’s article on the front page of last week’s New York Times Book Review. Conversation ended the minute she turned a review of books about Chicago into a pan of the city itself. Oh, there were responses aplenty, but most were reflexively protective, the kind you’d expect from a mother charged with having an ugly baby. So we’ve had a week of “So’s your old man” and “I’m rubber, you’re glue” without anybody’s communicating much of anything worthwhile.

Which is a shame, because Shteir’s review was a gigantic missed opportunity to investigate the fact that “Chicago” is a performance. Chicagoans perform the city’s epic nature, its street smarts, its unshockability. Most of all we perform its blue-collar roots even–especially–when we have none of our own. How could a professor of theater miss the fact that she’s in the midst of a production as deft and complicated and self-referential as Brecht? Continue reading “Rachel Shteir versus Chicago: Performance versus Reality”

On Orwell’s Rules for Writing

I’m a fan of George Orwell. I think one of the most important pieces of writing in the English language, for example, is his set of rules for how to make the perfect cup of tea. In fact, I sometimes wonder whether people can really make a cup of tea, and therefore participate in civilised society, without following those rules; I often ungraciously request that my friends read Orwell’s piece before I permit them to hand me a brew.

Because of this general affinity for Orwell’s work, it’s always with some sadness that I look over his prescriptions for what constitutes good writing. He distils these into six rules:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

They cause me sadness because I know full well that I violate rules one through five fairly regularly – a violation that I justify by appealing to rule six. I recognise that my own style of writing – my modus scribendi – is all-too-often characterised by florid and pleonastic writing. ← There you have it: twenty-one words in a sentence that would make Orwell spill his impeccably brewed tea all over his morning copy of Pravda. Cliché? Check. Aureate prose? Unquestionably. Prolixity? Naturally. Passive voice? Colour me checked. Argot? Affirmative. And yet, aside from being inelegantly constructed, I don’t see much of a problem with it. It conveys the point clearly, albeit pretentiously.

Ed Smith’s last column from the New Statesman argued that Orwell’s rules have been co-opted and deployed for precisely the nefarious purposes Orwell had hoped to prevent:

Orwell argues that “the great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words.”

I suspect the opposite is now true. When politicians or corporate front men have to bridge a gap between what they are saying and what they know to be true, their preferred technique is to convey authenticity by speaking with misleading simplicity. The ubiquitous injunction “Let’s be clear”, followed by a list of five bogus bullet-points, is a much more common refuge than the Latinate diction and Byzantine sentence structure that Orwell deplored.

The argument seems plausible to me. Indeed, the Guardian has a lovely infographic that illustrates how SOTU speeches have adopted increasingly simpler vocabulary and syntax over time. You can decide for yourself whether this has accompanied more political duplicity, as Smith argues.

I enjoyed Smith’s post not just because I think the argument seems accurate. It’s because I’d like to think that in my own case, grandiloquent writing isn’t really the problem. Orwell’s concern was not with the choice of words (a stylistic concern); it was with the way words can be used to manipulate thoughts (a substantive concern). Hence, the dispositive sixth rule.

My take-away from Orwell’s writing rules, then, is that the sixth is the only true ‘rule,’ as it is the only one with substantive content – not to write anything barbarous. The preceding five ‘rules’ aren’t really rules at all. They’re more like suggestions, and Orwell didn’t have much of a bee in his bonnet for those.

Oops – a cliché. Damn that pesky first rule…

Language police blotter: “loath” and “loathe”

“They would be loathe to admit it” is gibberish.

“Loath” is an adjective meaning “reluctant.”
“Loathe” is a verb meaning “abhor.”

Therefore a phrase such as “They would be loathe to admit it” is gibberish. Any given instance could be a mere typo, such as I constantly make in this space. And it’s a typo the spell-checker won’t catch, since “loathe” is a perfectly good word. But I detect a trend of substituting “loathe” for “loath,” which would be a shame.

Sunday Pub Quiz: Misquotations

A pub quiz: You are on your honour not to google.

Here are five phrases that are typically quoted today in a way that departs from their original wording. For each misquotation, score 1 point if you can recall the original quote and another point if you can guess the source for the original quote. If you score 7 or more out of a possible 10, I for one will be highly impressed. Answers after the jump.

1. Pride goeth before a fall.

2. Bubble bubble, toil and trouble.

3. Money is the root of all evil.

4. Gild the lily.

5. Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink.

Continue reading “Sunday Pub Quiz: Misquotations”

Whom Do You Love?

I think that the English language must have changed when I wasn’t looking.  A recent Gallup Poll question asks:







The way my Mom always taught it to me was: who is the subject of a sentence, and whom is an object of a sentence.  Thus, shouldn’t this question be: whom would you blame if we go off the [misnamed] fiscal cliff?  The subject here is “you”. 

But now I see this so frequently that I figure either I am getting it totally wrong or that the language has changed.  That’s the way language always changes — in usage, not in the halls of L’academie Francaise.  I was always taught that if in Spanish you want to say, e.g., “There were many things” you would say Habia muchas cosas, but apparently now people are making it agree in number i.e. Habian muchas cosas.  And if that’s what people say, then that’s what people say.  But I wish someone would tell me!

Maybe it’s Bo Diddley’s fault.  But if so, it’s worth it. I’d certainly make that trade!


The Influence of a Glorious Bastard

That would be William of course, who was re-dubbed William the Conqueror after his victory at Hastings 946 years ago today. Alan Massie reflects on how the Norman Conquest changed the law and history of England, as well as its language:

So, if you were to begin by asking, in Monty Python style, “what have the Normans ever done for us?” you might first reply that the most enduring consequence of the Conquest is the richness of the English language, with its Anglo-Saxon base and Franco-Latin superstructure. This mixture gives us a huge vocabulary, and many words with essentially the same meaning, yet a different shade of emphasis: fatherly and paternal, for example.

Unusual Word of the Day: Rusk

I am in Durban, South Africa, staying with friends who are second-generation Indian immigrants. While having no nostalgia for the empire, they keep the British fashion of afternoon tea, at which I am offered a “rusk”. It’s a tasty baked goodie, much harder than a scone, and cut into rectangles.

I have never heard this word during countless tea times in Britain, nor have I heard it used in the States. Why isn’t this little bit of bread called some variant of biscuit/biscotti?

The answer may be the Portuguese influence in Southern Africa, which is reflected in many place names and other words today. “Rosca” means roll or breadtwist in that language, which may have evolved into “rusk”.

Wherever the word came from, I must say: Yum.