Tuesday, February 24, 2009

It's a Strange World After All




Mark Lombardi image via The Faulconer Gallery, Grinnell College

What a strange world it is. Esteemed American author John Updike passed away not long ago and as he was a contributer to the New Yorker magazine for something like 60 years, there were of course, lengthy and one might say, hagiographic tributes to him in a recent issue. By coincidence I'm reading David Foster Wallace's collection of essays, Consider the Lobster. The second essay is actually a critical (hilariously so) review of the Updike novel, Toward the End of Time.

One coincidence is just a curious occurrence. Two coincidences is a little creepy.

At work, I've been struggling to write a concise and informative document and in frustration turned to the Economist's online Style Guide which can politely/diplomatically/favourably be best described as sort of snooty. It's not that they are wrong or right, but just there is an intolerable snobbish way they explain or leave unexplained their reasoning around English language usage.

Every time I find one of these documents I wonder what exactly I was learning in school if it wasn't the mechanics and dynamics of English? I remember exactly one year of grammar - ninth grade, with "Chopper" Dale (I have no idea of his given name, "Dale" maybe?), and really the only thing I recall from that class was "Chopper's" terrible pun-based jokes (something about Mao Tse Tung = Mousey Tongue) and his assertion that pink was not a colour but a shade of red which was a colour1.

Regardless of my own struggles with English or the Economist's arrogant tone, I did wonder where I could find a book on English usage without all the 'tude. Then I started reading the next essay by DFW, which immediately followed his Updike review and oddly it was about the politics of American English usage as embodied by various books on English usage. What follows is not only his admission as a language Nazi but a discussion of the politics of American English.

Third odd coincidence. On a whim, the book I checked out with the David Foster Wallace book was "The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of The Oxford English Dictionary".

It is a very strange old world.

1. Clearly Dale thought this was some sort of word play or an opportunity to mess with our heads. When I responded with, "The absence of colour is called black, but black is a colour so how does it hold that words like 'pink' or 'rouge' are not colours." the topic was changed. Some time later I came to think he meant, the words used to describe colours are not, themselves "colours" but words we use to describe the effect of light bouncing in our eyes. This was typical of the kind of thing that passed as discourse at Macpherson Junior High in English class. Perhaps I'm overestimating Mr. Dale entirely. I would also like to point out how forced readings of Farley Mowat in Junior High that I never again opened a book by Mr. Mowat.

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