Word Study postsSaturday August 31, 2013
The Lesson of Adolf Hitler or Taylor Swift
A friend posted a link to The Atlantic's quiz, “Who Said It, Adolf Hitler or Taylor Swift?” and I took it and got 8 out of 10. I missed the first two, then realized the key: It's in language and metaphor. Hitler wouldn't say “flaws” or “over-achiever.” Swift wouldn't use magicians or bridges as a metaphor. In the end, it's not that hard.
This is how the whole thing started:
This “Hitler or Taylor” joke started with a Pinterest user named Emily Pattinson, who juxtaposed pretty images of Taylor Swift with quotes from the “real Taylor Swift” ... [Except] the quotes Pattinson was using actually belong to the likes of Hitler, Osama bin Laden, and Joseph Stalin — and no one noticed.
Then The Atlantic tries to draw a lesson from it all:
So are Taylor Swift fans gullible? Do Swift's words resemble Nazi propaganda? Is Hitler the voice of the millennial generation? The answer isn't so obvious. Or is it?
Here's the lesson to me. A quote isn't validated or invalidated by who said it. None of us are 100 percenters. Just because Hitler said something doesn't make it awful. Just because Lincoln said something doesn't make it moral. Just because Swift said something doesn't make it fatuous. Look to the words and the meaning.
On the IMDb.com site today:
- If the script was written years ago and real-life events now mimic it, that means it is prescient. I think that's the dictionary definition of “prescient.”
- Yet “Olympus” is still hardly prescient. In terms of global villains, who's left for Hollywood? Russian yadda-yaddas, Middle Eastern badaboobs, and the North Koreans. You certainly can't use the Chinese. You see the box office there these days? Look, even “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” with its moronic villains, still uses North Korea for its cold open.
Words I Learned While Reading Gore Vidal
The day after Gore Vidal died I went a little crazy with Gore Vidal quotes; but they were just sitting there, in the Vidal books I owned, marked and underlined, ready to be disseminated.
I also came across about two dozen words that I didn't know when I first read the book. Back then, being the good student, I looked them up and wrote the definition in the margins. These are just sitting there, too. Here's a sampling:
- l'espirit de l'escalier: the wit of the staircase; any witticism or cleverness that comes too late, as on the staircase away from the debate
- ex cathedra: with the authority derived from one's office or position: esp. of the pope's infallibility as defined in Roman Catholic doctrine
- collyrium: an eye lotion
- bibulous: fond of alcoholic beverages; highly absorbent
- recondite: hidden from sight; deep
- vatic: prophetic; oracular
- velleities: inclinations; slight wishes or tendencies; the lowest degree of volition
- quotidian: occurring every day
- caveat lector: let the reader beware
- manqué: short of or frustrated in the fulfillment of one's aspirations or talents — used postpositively
- faute de mieux: for lack of something better or more desirable
- plangent: having a loud reverberating sound; having an expressive and especially plaintive quality
Of these, only 'quotidian' became part of my regular writing vocabulary. Shame. I could've used l'espirit de l'escalier, since, like most (but unlike Vidal, one imagines), it's generally the only wit I know. It might even make a good tagline for this site. Or I could always go with: ErikLundegaard.com: Faute de mieux. Or: Caveat lector. Or: Movie critic manqué.
Another Example of Why You Should Never Quote Someone for Only One or Two Words
M's GM 'surprised' by injury to Yankees' Pineda
Although maybe the headline was written by a Yankees fan.
Words I Never Use and Why - I
arguably (adv.): as can be shown by argument.
I cringe every time I see this word. It feels like the writer is trying to make a bold statement but wants it to be a bold and objective so adds this and ruins everything. Now it's meaningless. Because what can't be shown by argument? "Oxygen is arguably our most important element." "George Bush is arguably the greatest president in the history of the United States." "I am arguably the sexiest man alive."
The other day, Michael Rand, a Star-Tribune blogger, disagreed with some of Rob Neyer's top 100 baseball players of the decade, including Joe Mauer at no. 40 (Rand felt he should've been higher), and wrote that Mauer's accomplishments included winning "two consecutive Gold Gloves while playing arguably baseball's most demanding position." Dude, just say it's baseball's most demanding position. Or say it's, with pitcher, one of baseball's two most demanding positions. Adding "arguably" is like letting left fielders or second basemen into the equation. Just look at injuries, games played, career length. Now: Which position's demanding? Write your sentence.
"Statistically" would've worked there as well. Here, too. It's from a 2006 AP story:
"Texas has arguably the most extreme separation between the well off and everyday people in the United States," said Don Baylor, a policy analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities, an Austin think tank that advocates for lower-income families.
I should cut the guy some slack since it's just a quote, but policy analysts for think tanks should know better. They should know that what's being talked about here can be measured, so it's less an argument than a matter for statistics.
On subjective matters, I prefer "probably" or "one of the" or "I feel," since none of these have the pretensions that "arguably" does. Unfortunately, more and more, people are using both, as in this short Zimbio bio of Tiger Woods:
Tiger Woods (born December 30, 1975) is a professional golfer. He is arguably one of the most successful golfers in the history of the sport..."
I don't know golf but Woods has won 14 majors, second only to Jack Nicklaus' 18. Tiger Woods is one of the most successful golfers in the history of the sport. There's no argument there, Zimbio.
This may be the saddest usage I came across. From an amazon.com customer review of "Bella":
It is arguably the best independent film I've ever seen.
You don't know? Why don't you have that argument with yourself, son. Then get back to us.
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