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Posted by Victor Mair

If you use the right tools, that is, as explained in this Twitter thread from Taylor ("Languge") Jones.

Rule number 1:  Use all the electronic tools at your disposal.

Rule number 2:  Do not use paper dictionaries.

Jones' Tweetstorm started when he was trying to figure out the meaning of shāngchǎng 商场 in Chinese.  He remembered from his early learning that it was something like "mall; store; market; bazaar".  That led him to gòuwù zhòngxīn 购物中心 ("shopping center").  With his electronic resources, he could hear these terms pronounced, could find them used in example sentences, and could locate actual places on the map designated with these terms.

I agree wholeheartedly with Jones.  Even though I began the learning of Mandarin half a century ago when Chinese language pedagogy was in a primitive state, I resisted it to the best of my ability and instinctively came up with means for learning Chinese that approximated the best practices employed today, but without all the wonderful electronic devices available now.  See the following posts for descriptions of the make-do methods I used to learn Chinese from the very beginning.

"How to learn to read Chinese" (5/25/08)

"How to learn Chinese and Japanese" (2/17/14)

"The future of Chinese language learning is now" (4/5/14)

"Chineasy? Not" (3/19/14)

"Chineasy2" (8/14/14)

"Chinese without a teacher" (2/6/16)

"Backward Thinking about Orientalism and Chinese Characters" (5/16/16)

"Firestorm over Chinese characters" (5/23/16)

"Learning to read and write Chinese" (7/11/16)

"How not to learn Chinese" (4/16/17)

Do not use flashcards!  Do not emphasize memorization of the characters (bùyào sǐbèi dānzì 不要死背单字). Learn words in their proper grammatical and syntactic context.  Learn grammatical patterns and practice them in substitution drills (that was one of the best ways Chang Li-ching used to train her students, and she was extremely successful in getting them up to an impressive level of fluency in a short period of time).

Above all, do not tolerate any teacher who says that they suffered to learn Chinese so that you should suffer too or that suffering while learning a language is good for you.

fèihuà 废话 ("balderdash / blather / bullshit / rubbish / garbage / nonsense / malarkey / hooey / trash / tripe / guff / stuff / bunk[um] / blah / bald-faced lies") húshuō bādào 胡说八道 /
Pernicious Garbage

[h.t. Ben Zimmer]

New Books and ARCs, 8/18/17

Aug. 18th, 2017 08:44 pm
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Posted by John Scalzi

A very fine collection of new books and ARCs arrived to the Scalzi Compound in the last week, and here’s what they are! See anything you’d like on your own shelves? Tell us all in the comments.


[syndicated profile] languagelog_feed

Posted by Mark Liberman

The Washington Post's digital front page a little while ago told us that Donald Trump has given in to those who wanted him to "dispatch with" Stephen Bannon:

Earlier today, Mitt Romney's Facebook post explained that he would "dispense from" discussion of certain aspects of Trump's comments on the Charlottesville events:

And in February of 2016, Marco Rubio urged us to "dispel with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn't know what he's doing".

This tour of the political dis-universe reminds me of the problems that I have trying to decide whether I've made an idiomatic choice of verb and preposition (or case) in languages that I don't know very well — and makes me wonder, as I sometimes do, whether I've slipped into a parallel time-line where English is not quite what I thought it was.

So perhaps we'll soon learn that the White House has disowned of Stephen Miller, discarded from tax reform, disdained over Gary Cohn, disembodied from infrastructure funding , or even displaced out of Jared Kushner.

 

TFS on TNT!

Aug. 18th, 2017 01:02 pm
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Posted by nkjemisin

So, for the handful of you who don’t follow me on social media, I had a little surprise to share the other night! There’s not much I can say about this, for now. I jokingly answered a few questions on the night of the announcement, but the truth is that I don’t really know enough […]
[syndicated profile] alas_a_blog_feed

Posted by Ampersand

  1. Woman Gives Up Teaching To Create Optical Illusions With Makeup, And It’s Messing With Our Minds | Bored Panda
  2. Here’s What Really Happened In Charlottesville
  3. Mama Cass didn’t die of choking on a ham sandwich; she died as a result of dieting.
  4. Trump’s Sensitivity to Being Laughed at Should Alarm Everyone – Rewire
    Grace sent this link to me, saying that it reminded her of our conversation about toxic masculinity.
  5. Medicare-for-All Isn’t the Solution for Universal Health Care | The Nation
    Progressives have to start sweating the details of universal health coverage.
  6. Everything About Disney and ABC’s ‘Pink Slime’ Settlement Should Scare the Hell Out of You
    “veggie libel” laws aren’t as sexy as discussing protesters on campus, but they’re much more dangerous to free speech.
  7. Maryland City May Let Noncitizens Vote, a Proposal With Precedent – The New York Times
  8. Voter Suppression in the Mirror and Looking Forward
    A review of some of the voter suppression measures conservatives are pushing.
  9. What Trump gets wrong about Confederate statues, in one chart – Vox
    “Washington was a slave owner, yes, but the meaning of a Washington statue is not necessarily pro-slavery or pro-white supremacy — whereas that’s exactly the point of the vast majority of Confederate memorials in the United States.”
  10. Debate over civil rights center at UNC focuses on advocacy and academic freedom
    Republicans in North Carolina’s congress are shutting down a civil rights center at a law school. Academic freedom, everybody!
  11. Officials say immigration agents showed up at labor dispute proceedings. California wants them out – LA Times
  12. Students say Christian college turned a blind eye to serial rapists – ThinkProgress
  13. The Lost Cause Rides Again
    Ta-Nahisi Coates on HBO’s announced “Confederate” TV series. I’m withholding judgement to small degree – maybe the show itself will be so brilliant as to answer all of Coates’ concerns and change everyone’s minds – but I’m extremely skeptical that it will be that good.
  14. An anti-immigrant group mistook empty bus seats for women wearing burqas – The Washington Post
  15. Doxing isn’t about privacy—it’s about abuse | The Daily Dot
    An interesting and, I think, useful way of redefining how we thing about doxing. “Doxing isn’t about exposure. Instead, it’s a form of weaponized attention. “
  16. Why Trump Invokes ‘Common Sense’ – The Atlantic
    “…for centuries, populist movements in particular have invoked common sense as a justification for policy goals and as an antidote to expert opinion.”
  17. What Jeff Sessions Will Never Understand About Affirmative Action
  18. Affirmative Action and the Myth of Reverse Racism – The Atlantic
  19. “I lied to my wife about liking john mayer; my life now revolves around his music and I’m looking for clarity.”
  20. In ‘Death Wish,’ Jews Gain From White Fascist Fantasies – The Forward
    I don’t agree with everything Noah writes here, but I did find it interesting.
  21. Octopus and squid evolution is officially weirder than we could have ever imagined – ScienceAlert
    “… scientists have discovered that octopuses, along with some squid and cuttlefish species, routinely edit their RNA (ribonucleic acid) sequences to adapt to their environment.”
  22. South Carolina town bans saggy pants: Can they do that? – CSMonitor.com
    I hope they get sued and lose badly. And really, are we supposed to think it’s just a big coincidence that it’s a Black fashion they go after?
  23. Could A Bus With Sleep Pods Replace Airplanes? | WBEZ
    Well, maybe for short flights.
  24. Is Jesse Singal a Bigot? | www.splicetoday.com
    An older controversy, about an academic who wrote an article that was widely criticized, and then widely defended.
  25. Sizeism Is Harming Too Many of Us: Fat Shaming Must Stop | Psychology Today
    Focuses on how anti-fat prejudice harms fat patients in the medical system.
  26. Dear Men of The Breakfast Club: Trans Women Aren’t a Joke, Ploy, or Sexual Predators | Allure
    Article by Janet Mock responding to a morning radio show.
  27. In the key 2018 battlegrounds, Trump’s support is as high as ever – Vox
    If this holds up, Trump could win re-election in 2020 while losing the popular vote by an even larger margin.
  28. …Or he could postpone the election, and if he does a lot of Republicans say they’d support him. Poll: Half of GOPers Open to Postponing of 2020 Elections
  29. “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria” Is Bad Science | Thing of Things
    I found the end point especially interesting, because I hadn’t considered that before, but the whole thing is good.
  30. Psychologists surveyed hundreds of alt-right supporters. The results are unsettling. – Vox
  31. Cartoon below is by Irma Kniivila.

More Zombie Lingua shenanigans

Aug. 18th, 2017 04:47 am
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Posted by Eric Baković

[This is a joint post by Eric Baković and Kai von Fintel.]

Regular Language Log readers will be familiar with our continuing coverage of the goings-on at what we in the linguistics community have given the name Zombie Lingua — the Elsevier journal once universally known by its still-official name, Lingua — a journal that we believe should have been allowed to die a respectable death when its entire editorial board resigned en masse at the end of 2015 to start the new (and flourishing!) fair Open Access journal Glossa, published by Ubiquity Press.

Instead, Elsevier chose to prop the old journal up, dust it off, and continue to publish articles. The first few months to a year of Zombie Lingua's macabre semi-existence were helped along by the fact that there was a backlog of already-accepted articles, as well as expected articles for special issues that had already seen some articles published — and also by the astonishingly quick acceptance and publication of other articles in the revision backlog. The then-interim editor-in-chief, Harry Whitaker, must have been very eager to clear the decks and start off with a clean slate — and to keep the flow of publications going, of course, lest the journal be truly dead.

Whitaker is now officially co-editor-in-chief along with Marta Dynel, and they have recently authored an editorial announcing the direction in which they say they are now taking the journal. Whitaker and Dynel claim that Zombie Lingua is "returning to its roots" of "General Linguistics and cognate branches", which they implicitly and disingenuously contrast with what Lingua had been publishing under the previous editorship. (See also this "publisher's note", where the journal's return-to-roots is boastfully claimed to be "the reality of the future.")

To those who have been keeping tabs on what has been published entirely under the current Zombie Lingua editorship, the editorial reads more like a defense of an internal decision to lower their editorial standards. In what is perhaps the most egregious case, the editors finally withdrew a published article that was clearly plagiarized — though reluctantly and after an unforgivably protracted period, and without acknowledgement of the charge of plagiarism.

It's also worth noting that the Zombie Lingua editorial board that has been assembled has both expanded and contracted over time — contracted because a few new members had second thoughts, (re-)weighed the pros and cons, and decided that an extra line on their CV wasn't worth lending their support to a journal that is dead in the eyes of a healthy portion of the field and that has quite obviously lowered their editorial standards. Those who have chosen to stay either have explicitly made the opposite calculus or just don't appear to care one way or the other. That's their right, of course, but we stand in judgment. (In reply to an email from us, one of the current board members wrote that "We should consider ourselves lucky that publishers deign to even touch our work." Wow.)

The bulk of the linguistics community has rallied behind Glossa and against
Zombie Lingua
, heeding the call to support the former (with our submissions and reviewing time) and to starve the latter. In responding to review requests from Zombie Lingua, a number of our colleagues have explicitly indicated their reasons for turning down the request. The editors have been duly forwarding some of these to Chris Pringle, the Executive Publisher of Zombie Lingua, who has responded by taking precious time out of his executive schedule to reply directly (and at some length) to our colleagues, relating Elsevier's "side" of the story of Lingua/Glossa.

Some of Pringle's messages have made their way to Glossa's (and Lingua's former) editor, Johan Rooryck. In the interests of transparency, Rooryck has posted this correspondence on his website, including Rooryck's subsequent exchanges with Pringle. Since the issues under discussion concern the reasons for and methods by which Rooryck and his editorial team resigned from Lingua, Rooryck has also included a point-by-point refutation of Pringle's allegations, as well as a comprehensive collection of Rooryck's correspondence with Elsevier in late 2015, both leading up to the editorial board's resignation and in its aftermath. (The current contents of this page on Rooryck's website have also been included at the end of this post.)

One has to wonder what Pringle thinks that he, Zombie Lingua, or Elsevier stand to gain from these personalized replies to review request rejections. Pringle must somehow believe that the hearts and minds of our colleagues can be won back by "correcting the record" on a dispute that he characterizes as being between a petulant journal editor and the journal's patronizing publisher. But, as Rooryck's documentation makes abundantly clear, this was an attempted negotiation between the full editorial board of the journal, entirely responsible for the vetting and shepherding of its content, and the journal's publisher, entirely responsible for charging readers too much for subscriptions to particularly-formatted versions of this content and authors too much for the apparent privilege of publishing individual articles in Open Access (with no compensatory discount on subscriptions, mind you – this is what has been properly called 'double-dipping').

In sum, there can be little doubt that Zombie Lingua continues to be the walking dead.


Current content of Johan Rooryck's Interaction with Elsevier page (as of 8/17/2017)

    The 2017 Elsevier campaign

  1. My point-by-point, fact-checking-style refutation of allegations made by Elsevier's Executive Publisher Chris Pringle about the Lingua/Glossa transition in mails (e.g. 3 and 4 below) written to invited Lingua reviewers who decline to do reviews because of the transition to Glossa.
  2. My correspondence with Chris Pringle (Executive Publisher, Elsevier) regarding his message to Reviewer 2, 8 August 2017.
  3. Mail from Chris Pringle (Executive Publisher, Elsevier) to Declining Lingua Reviewer 2.
  4. Mail from Chris Pringle (Executive Publisher, Elsevier) to Declining Lingua Reviewer 1.
  5. An attempt to rewrite history in an editorial by Chris Pringle (Executive Publisher, Elsevier) for the publisher in Lingua 194 (July 2017), and my Facebook reply to it.
  6. My refutation of claims made at ARCL 2017 regarding Elsevier's APC proposal to the Lingua editors.
  7. October–November 2015

  8. My mail to Elsevier of 5 November 2015, requesting rectification of Tom Reller's (Vice President and Head of Global Corporate Relations, Elsevier) public statement about the resignation of the Lingua editorial board on 4 November 2015.
  9. The correspondence about the Lingua Editorial Board's collective resignation between Guido Vanden Wyngaerd, for the Board, and Chris Tancock (Senior Publisher, Elsevier), 27 October 2015.
  10. My letter of resignation of 26 October 2015. The other editors sent similar letters.
  11. Elsevier's response of 16 October 2015, signed by Chris Tancock (Senior Publisher, Elsevier) to the Lingua editorial team's letter of renegotiation of 7 October 2015.
  12. Mail correspondence with David Clark, Senior Vice President, Elsevier, of 16 October 2015, following up on our meeting at the European Commission Workshop Alternative Open Access Publishing Models: Exploring New Territories in Scholarly Communication. Brussels, 12 October 2015.
  13. The Lingua editorial team's letter of renegotiation to Elsevier to publish Lingua in Open Access on (what is now known as) Fair Open Access Principles, 7 October 2015.

The linguistics of a political slogan

Aug. 18th, 2017 01:28 am
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Posted by Victor Mair

Banner on the side of a fancy car in Sydney, Australia:

The photograph comes from this article:  "Chinese Australians in supercars protest India on its 70th Independence day", by Heidi Han, in SBS (8/16/17).

It seems that Chinese patriots are angered that Indian forces are not backing down from a standoff that has been going on for more than two months at Doklam in the Himalayas.

Here are some of the latest news items on the situation:

"Chinese State Media Video Mocks India In Bizarre Propaganda On Doklam", by Deepshikha Ghosh, NDTV (8/17/17).  This article includes a rare 3:22 Chinese propaganda film in English accusing India of "Seven Sins":

An actor with a stick-on beard and heavily-accented English parodies Indians to canned laughter.

"Do you negotiate with a robber who had just broken into your house… You just call 911 or just fight him back, right?" says Ms Wang. 911 is an emergency hotline only in the US.

The actor apparently representing a Sikh answers: "Why call 911 – don't you wanna play house, bro?"

Although Twitter is blocked in China, Xinhua has posted the hilarious video on its English-language account, so you can be sure that this is pure propaganda intended only for foreigners.

I found it a bit difficult to view the video from this site, but I persisted and succeeded after about four tries.

Ah, I also found the offensive video in this article, and it is easier to view here:

"Doklam standoff: China’s Xinhua agency releases racist video parodying Indians:  A video with racist overtones that seeks to parody Indians has been issued by China’s state-run Xinhua news agency to give the country’s position on the Doklam standoff", by Sutirtho Patranobis, Hindustan Times (8/16/17):

The video particularly targets the Sikh minority, and for some perplexing reason, the “Indian” is seen to be brandishing a pair of scissors.

"View: Whether China steps back or ups ante, it will lose in Doklam", by Kanwal Sibal, The Economic Times (8/17/17).

The slogan in nine large Chinese characters at the bottom of the banner on the side of the car pictured above reads:

Fàn wǒ Zhōnghuá zhě   suī yuǎn bì zhū

犯我中华者 虽远必诛

"Whoever offends / assails / violates our Chinese (nation), although (they may be) far away, (we will) surely / certainly / necessarily kill / punish (them)."

The first thing that needs to be pointed out about this slogan is that it is not in Mandarin, but rather it is in Literary Sinitic (LS) / Classical Chinese (CC).  If you put this into a Mandarin machine translator such as Google Translate, Baidu Fanyi, or Bing / Microsoft Translator, the results will be gibberish.  It would be like asking a Hindi machine translator to translate Sanskrit, probably worse.

For those who know the basics of LS grammar, lexicon, and syntax, the message slogan is not too hard to understand.  The most challenging part is to grasp the exact semantics of the last character:  zhū 诛.  The basic meaning is "execute; put (a criminal) to death; impose the death penalty; kill", but it is also often used in the diluted or extended sense of "punish".

When I looked online for translations of the whole slogan, most avoided the use of "execute; kill" and chose "punish" or other circumlocution.  It would seem that the majority of translators instinctively sense that "execute; kill" is too extreme a penalty for the crime of fàn 犯 ("offending; affronting; assailing; violating; invading"), except perhaps for the last listed interpretation of the term.  Mind you, though, that zhū 诛 really does mean "execute; put (a criminal) to death; impose the death penalty; kill" in its most fundamental sense.

I asked several bilingual speakers of Mandarin and English how they would render the slogan in English and in Mandarin.  Here are some of the results:

English

Those who invade China will meet their doom regardless of the distance/location.

China will eradicate/punish those (nations or individuals) who intrude upon our nation although distant.

Meaning:  Chinese soldiers will definitely destroy any armed force that threatens the life of Chinese people.

Those who invade China, even though a thousand miles away, will be wiped out.

Those who offend China will be killed however far they are.

Any violators against China are to be annihilated, however far they run.

Mandarin

Fán qīnfàn Zhōngguó lǐngtǔ de dírén, wúlùn yuǎnjìn, bì jiāng zāo dào tòngjī.

凡侵犯中国领土的敌人,无论远近,必将遭到痛击。

Bùlùn jùlí yuǎnjìn, Zhōngguó jiāng huì zhūtǎo suǒyǒu qīnfàn qí guójiā hé mínzhòng de gètǐ.

不论距离远近,中国将会诛讨所有侵犯其国家和民众的个体。

Duìyú qīnfànle Zhōngguó de rén, jiùsuàn jùlí yuǎn, yě yīdìng yào bǎ tā xiāomiè.

对于侵犯了中国的人,就算距离远,也一定要把他消灭。

Duìyú nàxiē qīnfàn wǒmen Zhōnghuá de rén, jiùsuàn shì zài yuǎn, yě bìxū yào bèi zhūmiè.

对于那些侵犯我们中华的人,就算是再远,也必须要被诛灭。

Rènhé qīnfàn wǒmen Zhōnghuá mínzú de rén, wúlùn nǐ zài duō yuǎn dì dìfāng, wǒmen dōu yīdìng huì bàofù dàodǐ.

任何侵犯我们中华民族的人,无论你在多远的地方,我们都一定会报复到底。

Rènhé qīnfàn Zhōnghuá [mínzú lìyì] de rén, wúlùn duō yuǎn, wǒmen dōu bìrán huì jiānmiè tā.

任何侵犯中华[民族利益]的人,无论多远,我们都必然会歼灭他。

For the dedicated philologists among us, the reason the slogan is in LS is because it is based directly on this passage from scroll 70 of the Hàn shū 漢書 (History of the Former / Western Han Dynasty [ 206 BC – 9 AD]) by Ban GuBan Zhao, and Ban Biao, completed in 111 AD, míng fàn qiáng Hàn zhě, suī yuǎn bì zhū 明犯彊漢者,雖遠必誅。, which describes how the Chinese army defeated the Xiōngnú 匈奴 (Hsiung-nu; Huns) in Central Asia and executed their leader because they had killed the Chinese ambassadors to that region.

Two thousand years of resentment against the barbarians are riding on that car door.

[h.t. Geoff Wade; thanks to Yixue Yang, Jinyi Cai, Fangyi Cheng, Jing Wen, Melvin Lee, and Maiheng Dietrich]

The Big Idea: Anna Smith Spark

Aug. 17th, 2017 12:00 pm
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Posted by John Scalzi

The world we live in is not always peaceful… and maybe sometimes we kind of like it that way, whether we like to admit that or not. Author Anna Smith Spark has thoughts on the act of violence, and how it animates the story of her novel The Broken Knives.

ANNA SMITH SPARK:

The Court of Broken Knives is a novel about violence.

When I started writing the book, I didn’t have a plot or a world or a cast of characters in mind. What I had was a scene.

A desert.

A group of men.

Violence.

I’ve always been fascinated by violence: How one might respond to the opportunity for violence. What doing violence might feel like.  And that’s what The Court of Broken Knives ultimately became about.

I was brought up reading the great myths and legends, the old stories of heroes. The Iliad. The Eddas. Beowulf. Gilgamesh. The Tain. I loved these stories. Read and reread them, immersed myself in them, told myself stories set in their worlds. But what I came back to, as I got older, was the realisation that for so many of these stories we are not reading about good versus evil. We are not reading high fantasy, the last desperate stand where evil is vanquished and the Dark Lord is overthrown. We are reading about violence for its own sake. The act of winning, of killing one’s opponent and glorying in one’s triumph, is the victory. The hero is ‘good’ because he wins.

And yes, ‘he’. These are acts of masculine violence. More women have perhaps fought in battle than we realise, yes, granted. But, historically, organised violence has been the domain of men. Armies and battle hosts have been male places. Places from which women have been excluded. And that in itself is worth thinking on.

Let’s look for a moment on the Iliad. The Iliad was written down over two and a half thousand years ago. It was composed perhaps three thousand years ago. It is the first and greatest masterpiece of European literature, the foundation stone of western culture. It is a book entirely and totally about war. A very large number of people die in the Iliad. Graphically, horribly, and without even the consolation of heaven awaiting them. The whole reason for the war is shown to be futile.

But war is also the whole basis of the Iliad’s society. The leader of the Trojans is called Hector. He’s spent ten years killing Greeks for the sake of a woman who ran off with his little brother. He’s seen most of his brothers die, and his wife’s entire family die, and he knows, deep down inside, that he’s going to die himself. In one of the most moving scenes in the poem, he says farewell to his wife and child before going out to battle, and he knows and we know and they know that he’s not going to come back from it. And this is what he says:

When [their child is grown and] comes home from battle wearing the bloody gear

Of the mortal enemy he has killed in war-

A joy to his mother’s heart.

(Homer, Iliad, trans. Robert Fagles, Penguin, 1990, book 6, lines 568-574)

Coming home from battle still bloody with his enemies’ innards. That’s the greatest joy a woman can want for her children. That’s what makes you absolutely the top chap.

The Iliad is not a celebration of war. But is not a rejection of war, either. It makes one terrible, horrifying, entirely obvious point:

Winning at war feels great. And that’s a strange and exhilarating experience to write about—particularly someone who has not ever fought.

Reading about war is enjoyable. Writing about war is immensely enjoyable. And I strongly suspect, from everything I’ve ever studied about history, that actually doing war is even more enjoyable than reading or writing or watching it. Warfare has been pretty much a constant of human history, and those who are good at it have generally occupied the top social and sexual desirability spot. Some war is morally justified.  Most war is not. We’ve always known that. Right back to the Iliad. And yet we do it. We have always done it. We probably always will.

We do it because winning at war feels great. I wanted my characters to have the same feelings as Hector: to understand simultaneously that war is bloody and horrible, but also glorious and exciting and fun.

I do not say this because I think war is a good thing. It is a terrible thing. A horrifying thing. A thing of utter shame and grief.

But I say it because it is a true thing, and a thing that I wanted people to remember in The Court of Broken Knives.

—-

The Broken Knives: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.


He lapsed into the passive voice

Aug. 17th, 2017 07:33 am
[syndicated profile] languagelog_feed

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum

Mark Landler recently published an article in the New York Times under the headline "Where Predecessors Set Moral Standard, Trump Steps Back." Unlike his predecessors, he notes, the current president has rejected the very concept of moral leadership:

On Saturday, in his first response to Charlottesville, Mr. Trump condemned the violence "on many sides." Then he lapsed into the passive voice, expressing, as he has before, a sense of futility that the divisions between Americans would ever be healed.

"It's been going on for a long time in our country," he said. "Not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama. This has been going on for a long, long time."

This incompetent, floundering president, who has never previously had to run an organization and is revealing that he is no good at it, is guilty of so many things that could have been mentioned. But passive voice?

Asking whether "the divisions between Americans would ever be healed" is passive voice, but that's not Trump, that's Landler, who's the accuser here. "It's been going on for a long time in our country" is not in the passive voice. Mark Landler is one more case (I have literally lost count) of someone who writes for a major print source and pontificates about other people's grammar but doesn't know the difference between active and passive.

It's exasperating. Even if Trump were to use the passive voice, that would not be a criticism: the statements in style books telling you to avoid it are written by clueless idiots who haven't spent even an hour seriously studying well-written prose; their licenses to pontificate should be taken away. If you're writing in anything like a normal way, about 12 percent of your transitive verbs (plus or minus five) are likely to be heading passive verb phrases. In academic writing (and much of the writing about style that denigrates passives) passives are typically about twice as common.

This stuff is not some arcane secret. I published an article about it for a general audience of educated non-linguists, and you can read it here. There's nothing wrong with passives, everyone who knows how to write uses them, their structure is well known to grammarians, and hardly anything people say about them in general sources like newspapers and magazines and popular grammar websites is true.

Yet even people who write for The New York Times don't know this grade-school elementary grammar, it would seem, and obviously the editors don't either, or they would have caught Landler's mistake.

It is a profoundly weird situation: most educated people in America think there is a crisis about native speakers using the language ungrammatically (there isn't) and imagine that they know enough about grammar to make such judgments (they don't). So you get this situation of the blind warning the blind about a danger that isn't there. It makes you weep.


Thanks to Philip Miller for pointing out to me the reference to passive voice in the final sentences of Landler's article.

White Tears in Trumpville

Aug. 17th, 2017 06:38 am
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Posted by Lisa Wade, PhD

This week FOX commentator Melissa Francis was brought to tears while trying to defend Trump’s assertion that “many sides” were to blame for the fatal violence in Charlottesville, VA during a white supremacist, anti-Semitic, pro-Confederacy demonstration and counter-demonstration. She was challenged by two of her fellow panelists who argued that Trump was drawing a false equivalence to suggest that each side was responsible. Oddly, Francis took their comments on Trump personally, began to cry, and said this:

I am so uncomfortable having this conversation… because I know what’s in my heart and I know that I don’t think that anyone is different, better, or worse based on the color of their skin. But  I feel like there is nothing any of us can say right without without being judged!

At this point, a fellow FOX commentator, Harris Faulkner, who is African American, interrupted to console her:

You know Melissa, there have been a lot of tears… It’s a difficult place where we are… [but] we can do this. We can have this conversation. Oh yes, we can. And it’s okay if we cry having it.

But is it okay for white people to cry in the midst of conversations about racism?

Education scholar Frances V. Rains has argued that it is not okay. In her essay, Is the Benign Really Harmless?, Rains discusses several types of reactions white people frequently have to difficult conversations about race, ones that undermine meaningful progress. In one, she talks about white people’s tears.

When a white person cries in response to frank discussions of racism, Rains explains, it derails the conversation, refocuses the attention on the white person, and holds anti-racist speakers accountable for attending to his or her feelings. The most important thing in the room, in other words, becomes a privileged person’s hurt feelings, not generations of systematic racial oppression, exploitation, and violence.

This is exactly what happened in the clip above.

  1. The panelists were debating whether Trump’s comments amounted to a false equivalence that was supportive of racism and anti-Semitism.
  2. A white woman rejects the notion that Trump’s comments endorsed bigotry.
  3. When some disagree, she cries and begins discussing what it feels like for her personally to be having this conversation.
  4. The conversation turns away from racism, anti-Semitism, and the possibility that the President of the United States is a Nazi sympathizer, and toward the white woman and her feelings.
  5. Her discomfort become the problem to be resolved.
  6. A member of the disadvantaged group steps in to comfort her.

This is just as Rains would have predicted.

Amazingly, an earnest conversation about oppression turns into an opportunity to give solace to the oppressor… and it’s a member of the oppressed who must do the comforting.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

(View original at https://thesocietypages.org/socimages)

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Posted by John Scalzi

I have a piece in the Los Angeles Times today about the difficulty of writing science fiction in today’s world, and no, it’s not just because one has to wonder if the world is going to be here tomorrow. Here’s the link. Enjoy!


The Big Idea: Stella Parks

Aug. 16th, 2017 02:18 pm
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Posted by John Scalzi

I’ve eaten Stella Parks‘ desserts, and, oh, man, they are so good. So I’m delighted to give her space today to let her tell you about her debut cookbook BraveTart, which examines and celebrates a branch of America’s culinary tradition Parks thinks is overlooked and underappreciated. Is she right? Read on.

STELLA PARKS:

When people hear that I’m a classically trained pastry chef or that I work at a place called Serious Eats, most everyone will ask how I got my start. I can’t help but imagine they want to hear about a magical summer in France or else how I learned to bake at my mother’s side. Maybe they want me to say that I always loved Julia Child, or that I saved up my allowance to buy my first croissant. Trouble is, it didn’t happen that way at all.

I grew up in suburban Kentucky, my summers spent with Puddin’ Pops on the porch, my winters passed one mug of Swiss Miss at a time. I loved the tongue-scorching sweetness of a McDonald’s apple pie from the drive-thru window and the muffled scrape of a plastic spoon against the bottom of a chocolate pudding cup (the tinfoil lid curled back and licked clean, natch). At the supermarket, I learned the heft to a tube of cookie dough, the lightness in a bag of marshmallows, and the rattle of rainbow sprinkles in a plastic jar. That’s how I got my start—somewhere between the milk-logged squish of an Oreo and the snap of a Crunch bar.

Sure, it sounds a little trashy compared to that whole Proust thing with madeleines and tea, but I find those bites are just as transportive, little triggers that send me flying back through time. Chances are, if you grew up in America, you’ve got some memories like that as well. Maybe it’s the a dollop of Cool Whip on pumpkin pie, the sticky fingered bliss of an ice cream sandwich, or that familiar slab of birthday cake on the conference room table. Those shared experiences, however mundane, connect us across most every demographic.

It’s a common phenomenon, but a culinary tradition we pay little respect—we call it junk food. Truth is, mass produced snacks have a lineage as respectable as any other. Animal crackers, vanilla wafers, and Fig Newtons all date back to the 1800s, and even newcomers like Rice Krispies Treats, Reese’s Cups, and Milky Way bars are nearly a hundred years old. For anyone raised in America and alive today, these sweets have always been a familiar part of life. Yet they’re not really ours; industrial formulas are subject to change or even cancellation outright (RIP, Coke Zero; adios, Magic Middles).

So when I set out to write a cookbook about American desserts, I knew I couldn’t leave the “junk food” behind. It had damn well earned a place at the table—right alongside “proper” American desserts like devil’s food cake, chocolate chip cookies, and apple pie. With that mandate in mind, I spent nearly six years writing, researching, and developing recipes for everything from Snickers to snickerdoodles. In the end, I don’t think of it as a cookbook so much as a culinary time capsule, stuffed full of recipes, vintage images, history, and photography to tell the story of American desserts as a whole.

—-

BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author on Serious Eats, Twitter, and Instagram, or on tour.


Chinese, Greek, and Latin, part 2

Aug. 16th, 2017 01:45 am
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Posted by Victor Mair

[This is a guest post by Richard Lynn.  It is all the more appreciated, since he had written it as a comment to "Chinese, Greek, and Latin" (8/8/17) a day or two ago, but when he pressed the "submit" button, his comment evaporated.  So he had to write the whole thing all over again.  I am grateful to Dick for his willingness to do so and think that the stimulating results are worth the effort he put into this post.]

James Zainaldin’s remarks concerning the Lunyu, Mencius, Mozi, Zhuangzi, and the Dao de jing, his frustration by the limits of grammatical or lexical analysis, that is, the relative lack of grammatical and lexical explicitness compared to Greek and Latin texts, is a reasonable conclusion — besides that, Greek and Latin, Sanskrit too, all are written with phonetic scripts — easy stuff! But such observations are a good place to start a discussion of the role of commentaries and philological approaches to reading and translating Literary/Classical Chinese texts, Literary Sinitic (LS). Nathan Vedal’s remarks are also spot on: “LS is really an umbrella term for a set of languages. The modes of expression in various genres and fields differ to such a high degree that I sometimes feel as though I'm learning a new language when I begin work on a new topic.”

This last jogged my memory, a conversation with Achilles Fang 方志彤 many years ago, when he made three remarks that seem pertinent to this discussion (I paraphrase):

(1) Studying premodern Chinese letters is equivalent to learning the entire corpus of ancient Greek and Latin literature, including medieval Latin texts, plus all the early European vernaculars, from the earliest written versions up through the modern languages.

(2) When dealing with any Chinese text, one should gather every known version of it so, by comparing differences in wording, one might more accurately punctuate the version used for study and translation, bridge ellipses, and better establish contexts.

(3) If commentaries for texts existed, it would be unwise not to take full advantage of them, whatever their biases and limitations, for, if nothing else, interlinear commentaries can help with delimiting syntactic units.

As I said, this was a long time ago, but I think I remember the essentials rightly.

Now, as for the value of commentaries in interpreting texts, this varies enormously, and when multiple commentaries exist, say, for the Zhouyi (Classic of Changes), one is faced with the problem of deciding which one to trust, which one is “right,” etc. One way is to cherry pick from several or more of them:  Richard Wilhelm’s Classic of Changes was done this way, whereas my The Classic of Changes: A New Translation of the I Ching as Interpreted by Wang Bi is restricted to one commentator; I attempted to integrate original text and commentary so that each defined and clarified the other. I did the same with my Wang Bi version of the Daode jing, and I am now (2/3 complete more or less) engaged in a similar project, the Guo Xiang version of the Zhuangzi. This is not to say that Guo Xiang is “right”—for with such early texts they are often so opaque in places that the meaning can be seen to differ with each different commentary.

Peipei Qiu (Vassar) is doing a Zhuangzi with the commenary of the Song era Neo-Confucian Lin Xiyi, so her translation will be very different from mine — as it should be. Text and commentary are inseparable, so it would be nonsense to tack on a new translation of a commentary to an earlier translation of the original text (benwen 本文), as one particularly inept reviewer of my Dao de jing book thought I should have done.

The Lunyu, Mencius, Mozi, Zhuangzi, and Dao de jing are all pre-Han and thus full of eccentric, irregular, erratic syntactic forms and peculiar terminology. With the Han era, syntax and vocabulary become far more regular, which, while helping considerably in some ways, presents problems in others, for the great majority of texts from the Han through the Qing, two millennia later, do not have attached commentaries, are not even punctuated, and when they do have commentaries these often are usually factual and not interpretive.  This is especially true for poetry, where, for example with Du Fu, commentaries identify people, places, and allusions, but provide no help in explaining what particular lines mean.

Of course, in most recent times many such texts now exist in modern annotated editions with full punctuation, the annotations including baihua (modern Chinese) paraphrase (dayi 大意) interpretations — but beware, a paraphrase is not a translation! And this brings us to another problem:  the continuity between LS and modern Chinese certainly seems much closer than, say, between Latin and Italian, ancient Greek and what one reads in an Athenian newspaper. I have always (as a non-native speaker of Chinese) found my ability in putonghua, such as it is, to be a great help in intuiting meaning in LS texts, for there often is much bai in old wen texts (and wen in modern bai texts, by the way). But as a non-native Chinese I have little trust in such intuitions, so tend to verify (or abandon) them after what a native speaker might regard as excessive philological investigation. I know I just need more help.

So then an enormous battery of Sinological sources is brought to play: dictionaries, leishu [VHM:  encyclopedias; premodern reference books with material taken from various sources and arranged according to subjects / categories], background searches through local histories (difang zhi), global searches for comparable contexts in such resources as the electronic / digital Siku quanshu [VHM:  Complete Library in Four Treasuries], Christian Wittern’s 漢リポ Kanseki Repository, http://hanji.sinica.edu.tw/, etc., etc. , as well as all the guidance provided by modern Chinese scholarship and pre-modern and modern Japanese Sinology (Kangaku 漢學) (I wish I knew Korean!).

I have been at this stuff for more than 50 years now, so experience and ever wider familiarity with texts seems finally to be paying off. Göran Malmqvist (b. 1924) once told me about a visit he made to his teacher Bernhard Karlgren (1889-1978) in hospital a few weeks before Karlgren passed away.  Karlgren was propped up in bed reading the Zuozhuan, surrounded by other books. He said to Malmquist, “You know, Göran, after some 70 years I am finally getting the hang of these things!” I can hardly wait.

Cartoon: Run Them Down

Aug. 14th, 2017 01:33 pm
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Posted by Ampersand

This cartoon appears today at The Nib.

If you like these cartoons, please support them at Patreon. Even a $1 pledge means a lot to me.

Transcript of Cartoon

Panel 1 shows a white man wearing a collared shirt and a necktie pouring gasoline out of a can.
MAN: Wow, this popular conservative columnist and law professor says protestors should be run down! Retweet!

Panel 2 shows the same man striking a match. He has a disturbingly large grin.
MAN: GOP legislators in North Carolina, Florida and Tennesee want to protect drivers who “accidentally” run down protestors? About time!

Panel 3 shows the same man, lit by a huge fire behind him, shrugging.
MAN: Someone plowed their car into left-wing protestors? How awful! How does someone even come up with a sick idea like that?

Cartoon: Time Travel

Aug. 8th, 2017 08:03 pm
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Posted by Ampersand

(This cartoon was first published on The Nib.)

Mandolin has been after me for ages to do a cartoon where the year 2000, pro-Nader Barry would be confronted by a Barry from the future. So this one’s for Mandolin. :-)

This is one of my few cartoons that comes from a place of “this is funny,” rather than a place of “I’m angry about this issue!” But there is a real underlying issue here, which is how Republicans have gotten so much worse in my lifetime. Reagan seemed so awful, and the first Bush seemed similarly awful. But then Bush Jr seemed unimaginably bad – until Trump came along and showed us how much worse Republicans can get. The kicker panel is my attempt to think of where this trend might be heading.

The art for this was interesting to draw – first of all, because it felt so odd to be drawing myself over and over and over again. And also, as a character design challenge – I had to do three (four, counting the kicker panel) designs, all of which are easily distinguishable from each other for readers, but all of whom nonetheless could be the same person.

My appearance isn’t 100% accurate, because I prioritized character design over accuracy. In particular, I don’t think I really looked like that in 2000; that’s more what I looked like in 1990. But from a character design standpoint, using that look was irresistible to me.

Transcript of Cartoon:

Panel 1
CAPTION: The Year 2000

The scene shows a park or college campus scene. A woman stands in front of a table, listening with an expression of skepticism; the table has a big sign that says “NADER” hanging off the front. Behind the table, talking to the woman, is BARRY2000, who is clean-shaven and has big messy hair. Behind Barry2000, BARRY2008 appears, transported to the scene by a glowing purple ring in the air. Barry2008 is yelling in a panic at Barry2000. Barry2008 is wearing a vest over a t-shirt, has his hair tied in a ponytail, and has a van dyke beard and mustache.

BARRY2000: Nader is our only choice that isn’t a vote for evil!
BARRY2008: Barry, stop!

Panel 2
A close shot shows Barry2000 and Barry2008. Barry2000 is puzzled, Barry2008 is still intense and panicked.

BARRY2000: Who are you?
BARRY2008: I’m you! I’m Barry from 2008. I’m using a time machine to stop you from making an awful mistake!

Panel 3
Close shot of Barry2008, who is waving his arms and still looks panicked.

BARRY2008: George W. Bush is much worse than you think he’ll be! There was a terrorist attack, and we invaded Iraq, and it’s all awful!

Panel 4
Barry 2008 continues to talk at Barry2000. Behind Barry2008 BARRY2016 appears in a glowing ring of time travel, tapping Barry2008 on the shoulder. Barry2016 is wearing a striped polo shirt, has his hair in a ponytail, and his beard is trimmed short.

BARRY2008: I literally can’t imagine a worse Pres-
BARRY2016: Excuse me, I’m Barry from 2016.

Tiny “kicker” panel at the bottom.
BARRY2024, an older, balding Barry in a v-neck shirt, has appeared and is talking to Barry2016, who looks very happy.

BARRY2024: Hi, I’m Barry from 2024. We’re ruled by giant alien roaches.
BARRY2016: So it gets better!

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Posted by Ampersand

Check out this essay by Mandolin!

“Unlocking the Garret” by Rachel Swirsky

Excerpt:

It’s in the stereotype. The artist of tempestuous temperament who drinks to excess as he stumbles, lean and tuberculotic, up the winding steps to his garret. Van Gogh cut off his ear. Plath put her head in the oven. The artist is passionate; the artist is mercurial; the artist is mad.

Sometimes stereotypes do hold a shard of truth.

I don’t know why there’s a connection between creativity and madness. One could provoke the other; both could be caused by another factor. It could be inherent. It could be cultural. Whatever the why, there’s a high frequency of mental illness among artists.

Despite this, we rarely talk about how mental illness affects the work. Taboos about discussing personal experiences with mental illness remain, promoted by shame and ignorance. In this toxic fog, the stereotype of the mad artist looms large, discouraging some from even seeking treatment because they believe creativity can only persist in the garret.

I have bipolar disorder—the second type, the one that lacks extremely high mood. I’ve been in treatment for ten years or so, and I’m lucky in that medications work for me. They don’t work for everybody, and for some people, they come with unbearable side effects. Still, disability remains something I have to navigate daily, and it probably always will be.

Read the rest here.

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Posted by Richard Jeffrey Newman

Today is Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of Consolation. Last year at this time, I was on a family vacation in Europe, sitting in our host’s dining room in Sweden, early in the morning while everyone else was still asleep, and writing the fourth in a series of letters to Jonathan Penton about racism and antisemitism. That letter took Shabbat Nachamu as its starting point. The letters as a whole, as a single meditation I called “The Lines That Antisemitism and Racism Draw,” were inspired by the racism and antisemitism of Donald Tump’s campaign, the Black Lives Matter movement, and Jonathan’s request that I write something that would balance out an egregiously privileged and racist statement made by a Jewish academic who’d submitted a piece to Jonathan’s publication, Unlikely Stories, which was doing a special issue called Black Art Matters. Even though I wrote the letter a year ago—by the Jewish calendar, exactly a year ago today—the issues it raises are still relevant, so I am republishing it below. I hope, after reading it, you will consider reading the rest of the letters as well, which you can find in their original format on Unlikely Stories. Or, if that journal’s white text on black background is hard for you to read, you can find the letters here, in a more traditional format.


Monday, August 15

Dear Jonathan,

We arrived in Stockholm four days ago. This is the first chance I’ve had to write. We’re here to celebrate my wife’s cousin’s 40th birthday, and, in addition to us and the other relatives who’ve come from New York, family and friends have gathered from Tehran, Toronto, and Milan. Our days, as I’m sure you can imagine, have been busy, filled with reunions and first meetings, the reliving of old memories, the making of new ones, obligatory sightseeing, and lots and lots of eating and drinking. The birthday party itself was the night before last, a Madonna-themed affair that kept us dancing—sometimes to music I hadn’t danced to since the 1980s—until the very, very early hours of the morning.

I’m sitting now in the empty dining room of the house where we’re staying. Our hosts—the birthday girl and her husband—and their three young children are still sleeping, as are the more than two basketball team’s worth of siblings, cousins, and in-laws who’ve also been staying here. I wish I were still sleeping as well, but, as I told you in an earlier letter, once I’m up, I’m up, and so part of me is actually glad to have this time alone. I’ve been thinking a lot about what I wrote to you before we left Scotland, and there is more I’d like to say.

A quick glance at my calendar while my laptop was booting up reminded me that this weekend was Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of Consolation. Shabbat Nachamu always falls on the sabbath immediately following Tisha B’Av, the ninth of Av, the fast day on which Jews mourn the destruction of the first and second temples in Jerusalem, by the Babylonians and Romans respectively. Each of those conquering nations sent the Jews into exile, and so Tisha B’Av also memorializes the dissolution of the Jewish nation, which makes it easy to understand why the rabbis scheduled Shabbat Nachamu when they did. The day takes its name from the first words of the week’s haftorah, Nachamu, nachamu, ami:

Comfort, comfort, my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and declare to her that her term of service is over, that her iniquity is expiated; for she has received at the hand of the Lord double for all her sins. (Isaiah 40: 1–2)

Jerusalem, God seems to be saying here, the Jewish nation, has suffered enough, the implication being that God is finally ready to bring the pain and loss of exile to an end. As the facts of Jewish history demonstrate, however, God did not keep this promise. Indeed, over the centuries, Tisha B’av’s significance has been expanded to include disasters that befell the Jewish people exile long after the Roman conquest in 70 CE. None of these occurred precisely on the ninth of Av, but they all occurred during that month:

  • The beginning of the First Crusade, which resulted in the deaths of 10,000 Jews and the destruction of Jewish communities in France and the Rhineland.
  • The expulsion of the Jews from England
  • The expulsion of the Jews from France
  • The expulsion of the Jews from Spain
  • The Nazi Party’s formal approval of “The Final Solution”
  • The beginning of the mass deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to the Treblinka death camp

The full list contains about a dozen such calamities, but I have focused on these six since they are all unambiguously rooted in the idea that Jewish existence is somehow existentially threatening to the non-Jewish communities in which we live. For the medieval church, this threat was religious in nature. The Jews refused to accept Jesus as the messiah and son of God, putting us in league with Satan by definition. For the Nazis, the threat was racial, embedded in their belief that the different “races” of human beings were pitted against each other in a Darwinian struggle for survival and ultimate domination.

The “racial” characteristics that made the Jews so dangerous to the Nazis, however, were essentially the same as the spiritual and other deficiencies that, according to the Church, marked us as perhaps the most loyal of Satan’s followers. Indeed, while the specifics of antisemitic expression have been different in different times and places, Jew-hatred retains a remarkably consistent internal logic wherever you find it. Whether you’re in Poland or Venezuela, Singapore or Egypt, Indonesia or the United States, antisemites will tell you that to be Jewish is to be some combination of greedy, conniving, sexually rapacious, financially corrupt, congenitally dishonest and/or biologically deficient. What’s more, they will say, we are always, always, hell-bent on destroying everything that’s pure and good in the world, whether pure and good is defined as the Church, the ideal of the Aryan nation, or the prosperity everyone would be enjoying if only the Jews did not control the world’s financial networks.

I have written elsewhere [the links to which are now dead] about the all-too-often violent antisemitism that has been a regular feature of my life since I was in third grade. In recent years, this antisemitism has most often been expressed in the context of Israel’s ongoing occupation of the Palestinians. I’m not talking about criticisms of Israel or of Zionism that cross the line into antisemitism, which I think happens both more and less frequently than the people on each side of that issue are willing to admit. Rather, I am talking about people who have used the suffering of the Palestinians to dismiss concerns about antisemitism in general, or who have insisted that, because I am Jewish, my primary, unquestioning, unconditional loyalty must be to the State of Israel—that, to use the framing I talked about in my last letter, I see myself as a “Jewish American,” not an “American Jew.”

Like the person who said to me, when I criticized Israel’s use of torture in interrogating Palestinian prisoners, “I know you don’t really mean that. You might say it in public because it’s the right thing to say, but you Jews always stick together, right? Especially when it comes to your ‘homeland,’” and he raised his fingers to put scare quotes around the word. When I pointed out that I was American, not Israeli, he looked at me incredulously. “But you are Jewish, aren’t you? I don’t understand.”

Or the acquaintance who agreed that “of course antisemitism is a problem” when I expressed concern about an antisemitic incident in upstate New York, but who went on to say, “But Jews aren’t really in danger here, are they? What’s really a shame is how the Jewish people, who have suffered so much, are causing the Palestinians that same kind of suffering.”

Or the impeccably progressive relative who, one year at Thanksgiving dinner, was incredulous that I would ask her to condemn former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial. “You do know,” she said, “that there are Palestinians dying right now at the hands of the Israelis.” Then she went on, “The Holocaust happened more than fifty years ago. Shouldn’t we be worrying about things that are happening right now?”

Then there are the people who say outright that the Israeli occupation of Palestine is the root cause of contemporary antisemitism, like the friend who insisted that you really couldn’t blame the European protesters who chanted Jews to the gas chambers! during a march against the most recent Israeli invasion of Gaza in 2014. “The Palestinians,” she said, “are suffering more than you can imagine.”

As if all Jews everywhere, by definition, endorse and/or materially support, and are therefore morally and materially accountable for, Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians, and as if, even if that were true, the Final Solution is the appropriate form for that accountability to take.

Or as if antisemitism did not have the history I alluded to above, long predating not just the Israeli occupation, but also the Zionist movement of the 19th century.

Or as if, were the miraculous to happen, were there to be tomorrow a real and true and mutually fulfilling peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, all the people in the world who hate Jews would suddenly wake up and say, “Well, that’s a relief! Hating them was such a burden. I’m glad we can finally stop.”

I don’t want to pretend that writing about antisemitism like this is less complex than it actually is. It feels inhumanly callous to set aside in what I wrote above the moral imperative to at least bear witness to what the Palestinians are suffering; and even as I finish the sentence I’ve just written, it seems an unforgivable omission not to remind people that the very beginning of Hamas’ charter frames its resistance, its call for Israel’s destruction, not as a struggle against Israel and Israelis, or even Zionists, but against the Jews, and to ask how Israel is, how Jews in general are, supposed to respond to that. I’m not trying to create a false equivalence here, as if Israel is not an occupier and the Palestinians are not the ones being occupied, or as if the support with which many Jews around the world respond to Israel’s occupation is not deeply problematic. I just want to acknowledge what focusing on my own experience of antisemitism in the United States inevitably leaves out of the conversation.

Thirty years ago, just after I started a new job as the Hillel director at a private college on Long Island, I took part in a racial awareness workshop, the purpose of which was to bring all campus constituencies together to confront racism on campus. As participants, our goal was to identify areas of campus life where issues of race needed to be addressed, and, in committees we would form when the workshop was over, to devise a plan of action to address with them.

On the third day of the workshop, in response to something someone said that I don’t remember, in an exercise where white people were just supposed to listen to what the people of color in the room had to say, one of the African American men in the group raised his voice in anger. “We need to organize just like Minister Farrakhan says, and don’t talk to me about his antisemitism! Not when he is working so damned hard to improve the lives of Black people.” I looked around the room in the few seconds of silence that followed, waiting—especially since we’d spent so much time talking about white people’s responsibility for speaking out against other white people’s racism—waiting for someone who wasn’t Jewish to call out that more than obvious swipe at the Jews in the room. Not one person spoke up, not even from among the workshop facilitators, whom I would have expected to know better. The moment passed and we moved on, and not only was it as if nothing problematic had been said, but also as if the Jews who were present had not actually been there at all.

Sadly, this experience of watching the non-Jews around me back away, or prevaricate, or stand in silence when antisemitism rears its head is an all too familiar one. Here are a few from much earlier in my life: the teachers who stood by while my elementary school classmates threw pennies at me for being “a cheap Jew;” the neighborhood adults who could have intervened but didn’t with the kids who almost daily threw rocks at me while calling me “heeb” and “kike;” and the leadership of the town where I grew up, which failed for more than a decade to sufficiently erase from the wall of the public library antisemitic graffiti written about me when I was fifteen. The words—Newman is a penny Jew—were still legible when I was in my early thirties and I brought my wife, then my fiancée, to meet my mother, who was still living in the neighborhood at the time.

To say I felt at best unwelcome in the place where I lived would be an understatement, as it would be hard to understate just how thoroughly that feeling dovetailed with what I’d been learning about Jewish history and how unwelcome the Jews have been in almost every place we have lived, except for the Land of Israel. Notice that I wrote the Land of Israel, not the State. I want in what I say next to distinguish between the idea of a Jewish homeland and the political reality that Israel currently is. The distinction is important, because while it’s been a long time since I thought of the State of Israel as a homeland I would want to claim, I’d be lying if I said the idea of such a place, where I would be unconditionally welcomed, valued, and safe as a Jew, does not still resonate with me. Not to feel this way, it seems to me, even just a little bit, is to deny a reality of Jewish history, which is that wherever antisemitism has been allowed to run its intellectual, cultural, socioeconomic, and political course, the end result has been an attempt to eliminate—either by killing them or kicking them out—the Jews who call that place home.

The first person in my life who wasn’t Jewish to acknowledge this feeling as an irreducible part of what it means to be Jewish in an antisemitic world was June Jordan, the African American writer I told you about in my first letter. She did this in an essay she wrote some time in the 1980s. Unfortunately, I don’t have any of her books with me here in Sweden—and a quick internet search hasn’t helped—so I can’t provide you with a direct quote or accurate citation. Still, I believe that this is an accurate paraphrase of what she wrote: I accept that, on an emotional level, the safety Israel represents for Jews is a non-negotiable necessity.

No one who wasn’t Jewish had ever said that to me before.

I need to write those words again: No one who wasn’t Jewish had ever said that to me before.

And again, No one who wasn’t Jewish had ever said that to me before.

Perhaps more to the point, though, all too few people who aren’t Jewish have said that to me, or anything even resembling that, since.

Well, my hosts’ youngest child has made his way here into the dining room, and he wants to play. The other kids won’t be far behind. There’s more to say. I will write again.

Till then,

Richard


As I said, I hope you will consider reading the rest of the letters as well, which you can find in their original format on Unlikely Stories. Or, if that journal’s white text on black background is hard for you to read, you can find the letters here, in a more traditional format.

The Big Idea: Beth Cato

Aug. 15th, 2017 11:42 am
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Posted by John Scalzi

There’s the saying that “those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it,” but in order to learn your history, sometimes you have to dig deeper — much deeper — than what is commonly known. This is a fact that has relevance for author Beth Cato and her latest novel Call of Fire.

BETH CATO:

I love that historical fiction can be entertaining and educational at the same time. When I began to research prior to writing Breath of Earth, the first novel in this series, I was genuinely excited to delve deeper into turn-of-the-20th-century California history. My books feature a 1906 America that is allied with Japan to form the Unified Pacific, a world power in the midst of conquering China as part of its goal to dominate mainland Asian. I bought a number of books on Chinese immigration and experiences in America in that era.

As my research continued for my second book, the newly-released Call of Fire, I found that I dreaded reading more on the subject. I’ve been a history geek since I was a kid and I went into this with the knowledge that Chinese immigrants had been treated poorly, but I had no real comprehension of the horrific abuses they endured.

This wasn’t just about far-off California history anymore, either. This was about my hometown, the place I was born.

Like many other San Joaquin Valley cities, my hometown of Hanford was founded by the railroad in the late 19th century. Chinese men did much of the hard labor to lay the tracks and blast their way through mountains to connect the state with the larger continent. Centrally-located Hanford had one of the largest Chinese communities in the valley. These days, the city is proud of what remains of its China Alley. There’s a lovely tea room there, as well as a preserved Taoist Temple with a gift shop. The Moon Festival each October is a big draw.

When I was a kid, though, I was puzzled that Hanford still had its China Alley but other nearby cities–even larger ones like Visalia and Fresno–did not. My mom told me something like, “They were probably torn down over the years.” That made sense to me. Hanford’s China Alley has some decrepit buildings, too, and it’s only been in recent years that other parts have been lovingly restored to become a year-round attractions.

During my research, though, I finally found the real answer to my childhood question. The other Chinatowns weren’t simply torn down. In the 1880s and 1890s, they were firebombed and the surviving Chinese were run out of town. There were even race riots in vineyards near Fresno.

Hanford still managed to retain some of its Chinese population, but that didn’t mean all was well during that period. I found mention of an editorial from my hometown paper in 1893 that admonished young white women of the county to improve their kitchen skills so that they would not hire Chinese cooks.

I called up my mom. “Did you know about all of this?” She did not. I called up my grandma. Same answer.

That’s when I became angry.

What the Chinese had endured had been erased from local history. Men were murdered. Families terrorized. Livelihoods destroyed. Then the butchery and abuses they endured were forgotten.

When I write about these kinds of racist incidents in my books, I imagine many readers will think that the stuff is pure fiction, all part of the elevated drama of my alternate history. That’s exactly why I include an author’s note in each book along with an extensive bibliography (which I also have on my website at BethCato.com). I want readers to know about the ‘Dog Tag Law’ that required Chinese immigrants to carry an identity card, America’s first internal passport, starting in 1892. I want them to know what happened in Tacoma, Washington, and Honolulu, Hawaii.

I hope people enjoy my books Breath of Earth and Call of Fire, but I also want readers to learn, as I have, that our beloved hometowns may possess dark secrets that need to see the light. We can’t undo the crimes of the past, but we can learn. We can remember.

—-

Call of Fire: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.


Bad Chinese

Aug. 15th, 2017 03:19 am
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Posted by Victor Mair

Sign south of the demolished Pfeiffer Bridge on Highway 1 in Monterey County (photograph taken on August 12, 2017 by Richard Masoner while on a Big Sur bike trip, via Flickr):

Bad machine translation

This is not Chinglish.  It is the opposite of Chinglish:  English poorly translated into Chinese.

The sign says:

Zhǔdòng gōnglù bùyào zǒu zài zhōngjiān de lùxiàn bǎochí bái xiàn de quánlì
主动公路不要走在中间的路线保持白线的权利

It's difficult for me to make sense of this sign.  Chinese friends to whom I show this sign are also totally confused by it.

Forced translation into English:

"Active highway.  Don't walk / ride in the center line / lane.  Keep / maintain the rights of the white line."

Word for word translations:

zhǔdòng 主动 active; initiative; driving

gōnglù 公路 highwayroad

bùyào 不要 do not

zǒu 走 walk; ride

zài 在 in; at

zhōngjiān 中间 between; inside

de 的 of

lùxiàn 路线 route; lane

bǎochí 保持 keep; maintain

báixiàn 白线 white line (perhaps signifying "fog line" here)

de 的 of

quánlì 权利 right(s); legal right; droit

I think what they're trying to say is something like this:

Busy highway.  Don't walk / ride in the center lane.  Stay to the right of the white line.

Translated into Chinese, that would be something like this:

Fánmáng de gōnglù. Bùyào zài zhōngjiān chēdào shàng zǒulù/qíchē. Qǐng kào bái xiàn de yòubiān.
繁忙的公路。不要在中间车道上走路/骑车。请靠白线右边。

Of course, there are many other possibilities, depending upon exactly what the original English was.  For those who are interested, here I'll give half a dozen other versions suggested by respondents, but only in Chinese characters with Hanyu Pinyin:

Chēliú fánmáng. Jìnzhǐ zài zhōngjiān chēdào (or maybe jīdòng chēdào?) shàng zǒulù/qíchē. Bǎochí zài bái xiàn yòufāng xíngshǐ.
车流繁忙。禁止在中间车道(or maybe 机动车道?) 上走路/骑车。保持在白线右方行驶。

Fánmáng lùduàn, xíngrén hé fēi jīdòngchē yánjìn zhànyòng zhōngjiān chēdào, qǐng zài bái xiàn yòucè xíngzǒu huò qíxíng.
繁忙路段,行人和非机动车严禁占用中间车道,请在白线右侧行走或骑行。

Gōnglù fánmáng, qǐng wù yú zhōngjiān chēdào xíngzǒu/xíngshǐ. Xíngzǒu/xíngshǐ shí qǐng kào yòu, wù chāoyuè bái xiàn.
公路繁忙,请勿于中间车道行走/行驶。行走/行驶時請靠右,勿超越白綫。

Gōnglù fánmáng, qǐng wù zhànyòng zhōngjiān chēdào, qǐng kào bái xiàn yòucè xíngshǐ.
公路繁忙,请勿占用中间车道,请靠白线右侧行驶。

Gōnglù chēliú liàngdà, fēi jīdòngchē qǐng bǎochí zài bái xiàn yòucè, wù zhànyòng zhōngjiān chēdào.
公路车流量大,非机动车请保持在白线右侧,勿占用中间车道。

Gōnglù chēliàng duō. Qǐng wù zài zhōngyāng chēdào shàng xíngzǒu huò qíchē. Xíngrén qǐng zǒu bái xiàn yòubiān.
公路车辆多。请勿在中央车道上行走或骑车。行人请走白线右边

They all mean roughly the same thing as what I proposed above in English and Chinese (they were basically following my lead [mine was considered correct, but too colloquial for a sign]).

[h.t.:  Martin Delson; thanks to Maiheng Dietrich, Melvin Lee, Yixue Yang, Jinyi Cai, Fangyi Cheng, and Jing Wen]

A Poll About Beds

Aug. 14th, 2017 01:46 pm
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Posted by John Scalzi

Because I thought about it this weekend while Krissy was away:

Take Our Poll

My answer: I stay on the same side of the bed. I’m not entirely sure why, except out of habit. I’ve never really thought about it until now.

You?


Asses and asterisks

Aug. 14th, 2017 09:35 am
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Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum

When The Sun, a famously prurient UK tabloid newspaper, chose the headlines for its coverage of the Taylor Swift case in Denver, the editors made a curious choice. They used asterisk masking on the American English word ass ("buttocks area"), printing it as "a**" as if it would be unthinkably offensive for the readers to also see the "ss" (unless it were in a reference to a stupid person, or to the animal on which Jesus rode into Jerusalem, where the same letter sequence would be fine). But they did not do the same to the familiar British English 3-letter synonym bum (which has only the meaning "buttocks area" and never means "hobo" in British).

British English has a descendant of the same Old English root as ass, but it is spelled arse, and is pronounced [ɑːs] rather than [æːs]. British arse is considered just as coarse as American ass, but The Sun has printed it thousands of times (try the Google search: {arse site:www.thesun.co.uk}). Quoting ass couldn't possibly be judged gratuitous, as it was uttered in court many times during the legal proceedings being reported.

What this says to me is that the idea of asterisk masking for taboo words is an incoherent mess even in the practice of those who favor it.

In this, I agree with Geoff Nunberg's argument against asterisk masking in his Language Log post "Unmasking slurs." The points on which Nunberg and I have publicly disagreed relate to how much the sheer offensiveness of slur words leaks out of contexts like idiomatic phrases and sports teams names, and the political implications of the continued use of such expressions. Those disagreements are mild, at least at my end: I would be absolutely delighted if phrases like nigger in the woodpile died out, and if the Washington Redskins changed their stupid name. Roll on the day. Nunberg and I don't differ on matters like opposing racism, or on whether word taboo is a productive form of political action (the goal, surely, is to eliminate racism from modern society, not merely to bar certain lexemes from being pronounced or printed).

Allow me to append one short digression, inspired by my friend Ben Yagoda, who recently discussed Donald Trump's strangely colloquial threatening talk ("North Korea best not make any more threats" etc.) and then expressed a worry that "dissecting Trump's linguistic choices when he is lobbing nuclear threats can seem a little like positioning a Titanic deck chair so it gets more sun." In exactly the same way, I do worry that it seems trivial to note the dialect difference and masking policy asymmetry involving ass, bum, and arse when the nonlinguistic issues in the Taylor Swift case are so hugely important.

A famous, business-savvy multi-millionaire is subjected to an indecent assault by a drunken DJ in public — in front of cameras, so she has a photo of it happening. She reports the incident immediately, and the groper is ejected from the event and later fired from his job as a DJ at KYGO-FM. Some time later he sues her for $3 million on the grounds that she cost him his job, and she has to endure more than an hour in the witness box having her credibility impugned.

If even a woman with Taylor Swift's courage, wealth, support, and strength of case has to face such a prospect, just imagine how daunting it is for the average woman faced with the task of prosecuting the average groper.

The picture of the event, by the way, is so damning that the judge in Denver sealed it to prevent the US press publishing it, but The Sun got hold of it. Does it show the grinning David Mueller's hand down behind Taylor Swift's nether regions? Is she twisting awkwardly away, trapped between him and his girlfriend but trying to continue smiling for the photo op? You decide:

 

Small wonder if some women are driven to extralegal shortcuts. I'm irresistibly reminded of a story about my inimitable late wife Tricia. She was six foot tall, with the strong arms of a rock climber. She told me that one working day decades ago, when she was in her twenties, coming out of the railway station at Hull in England on her way to her work as a computer expert at an engineering firm, she was waiting for the light to change at a crowded pedestrian crossing when a man beside her reached down and gave her butt a furtive grope. Without an instant's hesitation she pulled away, screamed "Don't do that!", and swung her fist instinctively at his head.

She had not fully thought through the implications of the fact that in that fist she was holding the handle of one of those old-fashioned hard-sided lockable briefcases with the metal strip round the edge. It hit him full in the face. The other commuters waiting at the crossing stared in horror.

"This dirty bastard grabbed my arse!" Tricia told them indignantly. Then the lights changed and everyone started out across the road. The groper, with blood streaming down his face, made no attempt to contest the charge but simply ran away into the crowd until he was lost from sight.

Taylor Swift has very properly chosen the legal route rather than smashing her assailant in the face, and is asking $1 in damages for the assault against her. At the time of writing, the judge has thrown out Mueller's absurd $3m suit against her, but the jury has yet to rule on whether she gets her dollar for being assaulted. I'm on her side. I hope her story (and Tricia's too, frankly) will be an inspiration to the millions of women everywhere who suffer daily harassment and occasional physical assault.


Update, August 15: The jury deliberated four hours and then rejected Mueller's claims and awarded Taylor Swift damages in the amount she had requested, $1.

Three Views of a Sunset, 8/13/17

Aug. 14th, 2017 01:37 am
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Posted by John Scalzi

These shots were taken roughly fifteen minutes apart from each other. 

We in Ohio certainly don’t lack for variety in our sunsets, do we.

Oh, and just for fun, here’s an old-timey, vaguely creepy sunset take:

Yup, that’ll do.


Colonialism or gas

Aug. 13th, 2017 08:19 pm
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Posted by Mark Liberman

The last three panels of Dumbing of Age for 8/10/2017, featuring Danny and Sal:

Mouseover text: "They have a similar smell."

What I wrote about g-dropping a dozen years ago ("The internet pilgrim's guide to g-dropping", 5/10/2004):

In fact, there is no "g" involved at all, except in the spelling. Final -ng (in English spelling) stands for a velar nasal, which is written in the International Phonetic Alphabet as an "n" with a hook on its right leg: [ŋ], a symbol called "eng." The final -n' in spellings like openin' stands for a coronal nasal, which is written in IPA with an ordinary "n": [n]. In IPA, opening is written as [ˈopənɪŋ], while openin' is written as [ˈopənɪn]. The only difference in pronunciation is whether the final nasal consonant is velar (made with the body of the tongue pressed against the soft palate) or coronal (made with the blade of the tongue pressed against the ridge behind the front teeth).

Thus is "g-dropping" nothing is ever really dropped — it's just a question of where you put your tongue at the end of the word.

Not all words ending in [ŋ] are candidates for g-dropping. English doesn't have a general alternation between final velar and coronal nasals: boomerang does not become boomeran', and ring does not become rin'. We are only talking about unstressed final -ing at the ends of words. In some dialects, g-dropping applies only to the inflectional suffix -ing (as in present participles such as trying), and not in words such as wedding or morning.

Historically, g-dropping is actually a more conservative pattern. The English present participle suffix was originally pronounced with a coronal, not a velar nasal: in early middle English, this inflection was -inde or -ende. There was a derivational ending -ung for making nouns out of verbs, which produced words like present-day "building." These eventually merged into the modern -ing suffix. In 19th- and early 20th-century England, the g-dropping pattern (which really was the "not g-adding pattern") marked the rural aristocracy as well as the lower classes.

The [iŋ] pronunciation for -ing, established  as the (London?) middle-class standard only a couple of hundred years ago, has become a remarkably stable marker of standard speech across the English-speaking world. The [in] pronunciation has been retained by certain regional varieties, and by lower-SES styles elsewhere — but almost everyone exhibits variable usage depending on style and context. See e.g. "Empathetic -in'", 10/18/2008, or this plot from Labov 1969:

So Sal is being somewhat unfair to Danny, who might very well have grown up in a g-dropping milieu depending on his geographic and socio-economic origins, and in any case would naturally exhibit a higher rate of g-dropping in a more relaxed setting.

 

"Nephew-nazi"

Aug. 13th, 2017 07:51 pm
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Posted by Ben Zimmer

When the White House issued a statement that finally condemned white supremacists for the violence in Charlottesville this weekend, the version that was originally released had an unusual typo: "nephew-nazi" for "neo-Nazi":

The president said very strongly in his statement yesterday that he condemns all forms of violence, bigotry, and hatred and of course that includes white supremacists, KKK, nephew-nazi and all extremist groups. He called for national unity and bringing all Americans together.

Brian Stelter noted the typo on CNN.


"Nephew-nazi" has, in fact, appeared as a typo for "neo-Nazi" online in the past. (Thanks to Sally J. on Twitter for pointing this out.) A few examples:

If you can call me a neo-Marxist, then it only seems fair that I call you a nephew-Nazi. (Amber Lisa, Medium, Dec. 13, 2016)

If they're talking about Richard Spencer, he actually is a nephew-nazi. He still didn't deserve to be punched, but he IS an actual, self-identified Neo-Nazi. (Mark Jennings, comment on "Chicks on the Right" blog post, Jan. 25, 2017)

Unless it is intentional for this President and his chief strategist, nephew-Nazi Steve Bannon, to rewrite our history!! (Susan Ashe, Facebook comment on "Women on 20s" post, May 12, 2017)

The second commenter, Mark Jennings, realized his error and subsequently wrote, "For the record, I meant neo-nazi, not nephew-nazi. Damn autocorrect…" This does seem to be an autocorrect miscorrection of the type we have been calling "cupertinos" since my 2006 post on "the Cupertino effect." My best guess is that it's the result of a fat-finger error rendering neo-nazi as nep-nazi (since and p are close together on the keyboard), which then got changed to nephew by a spellchecker, since nephew is the most frequently occurring word beginning with nep-. I haven't been able to replicate this miscorrection on any program equipped with spellchecking/autocorrect, but perhaps Language Log readers can figure out exactly how this might have transpired.

Update: The nep theory seems the most likely, given autocomplete options like those below, though it's still a bit mind-boggling that the announcement could have been sent out to the news media with no one noticing this major error.

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Posted by John Scalzi

Denouncing Nazis and the KKK and violent white supremacists by those names should not be a difficult thing for a president to do, particularly when those groups are the instigators and proximate cause of violence in an American city, and one of their number has rammed his car through a group of counter-protestors, killing one and injuring dozens more. This is a moral gimme — something so obvious and clear and easy that a president should almost not get credit for it, any more than he should get credit for putting on pants before he goes to have a press conference.

And yet this president — our president, the current President of the United States — couldn’t manage it. The best he could manage was to fumble through a condemnation of “many sides,” as if those protesting the Nazis and the KKK and the violent white supremacists had equal culpability for the events of the day. He couldn’t manage this moral gimme, and when his apparatchiks were given an opportunity to take a mulligan on it, they doubled down instead.

This was a spectacular failure of leadership, the moral equivalent not only of missing a putt with the ball on the lip of the cup, but of taking out your favorite driver and whacking that ball far into the woods. Our president literally could not bring himself to say that Nazis and the KKK and violent white supremacists are bad. He sorely wants you to believe he implied it. But he couldn’t say it.

To be clear, when it was announced the president would address the press about Charlottesville, I wasn’t expecting much from him. He’s not a man to expect much from, in terms of presidential gravitas. But the moral bar here was so low it was on the ground, and he tripped over it anyway.

And because he did, no one — and certainly not the Nazis and the KKK and the violent white supremacists, who were hoping for the wink and nod that they got here — believes the president actually thinks there’s a problem with the Nazis and the KKK and the violent white supremacists. If he finally does get around to admitting that they are bad, he’ll do it in the same truculent, forced way that he used when he was forced to admit that yeah, sure, maybe Obama was born in the United States after all. An admission that makes it clear it’s being compelled rather than volunteered. The Nazis and the KKK and the violent white supremacists will understand what that means, too.

Our president, simply put, is a profound moral shambles. He’s a racist and sexist himself, he’s populated his administration with Nazi sympathizers and white supremacists, and is pursuing policies, from immigration to voting rights, that make white nationalists really very happy. We shouldn’t be surprised someone like him can’t pass from his lips the names of the hate groups that visited Charlottesville, but we can still be disappointed, and very very angry about it. I hate that my baseline expectation for the moral behavior of the President of the United States is “failure,” but here we are, and yesterday, as with previous 200-some days of this administration, gives no indication that this baseline expectation is unfounded.

And more than that. White supremacy is evil. Nazism is evil. The racism and hate we saw in Charlottesville yesterday is evil. The domestic terrorism that happened there yesterday — a man, motivated by racial hate, mowing down innocents — is evil. And none of what happened yesterday just happened. It happened because the Nazis and the KKK and the violent white supremacists felt emboldened. They felt emboldened because they believe that one of their own is in the White House, or at least, feel like he’s surrounded himself with enough of their own (or enough fellow travelers) that it’s all the same from a practical point of view. They believe their time has come round at last, and they believe no one is going to stop them, because one of their own has his hand on the levers of power.

When evil believes you are one of their own, and you have the opportunity to denounce it, and call it out by name, what should you do? And what should we believe of you, if you do not? What should we believe of you, if you do not, and you are President of the United States?

My president won’t call out evil by its given name. He can. But he won’t. I know what I think that means for him. I also know what I think it means for the United States. And I know what it means for me. My president won’t call out evil for what it is, but I can do better. And so can you. And so can everybody else. Our country can be better than it is now, and better than the president it has.


Brooks on biological sexism

Aug. 13th, 2017 12:00 pm
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Posted by Mark Liberman

David Brooks recently argued that James Damore's anti-gender-diversity memo was right, and that Google was wrong to fire him ("Sundar Pichai Should Resign as Google’s C.E.O.", NYT 8/11/2017), giving us another example of Mr. Brooks' long-standing fascination with pseudo-scientific justifications of gender and ethnic stereotypes.

The best evaluation of Damore's memo that I've seen is Yonatan Zunger, "So, about this Googler's manifesto.", Medium 8/5/2017, which makes three key points:

(1) Despite speaking very authoritatively, the author does not appear to understand gender.
(2) Perhaps more interestingly, the author does not appear to understand engineering.
(3) And most seriously, the author does not appear to understand the consequences of what he wrote, either for others or himself.

Zunger focuses on points (2) and (3) — for a a deeper dive into point (1), see e.g. Rosalind Barnett and Caryl Rivers, "We’ve studied gender and STEM for 25 years. The science doesn’t support the Google memo.", recode 8/11/2017.

But what about David Brooks?

Brooks' support for Damore is not an isolated example of contrarianism. I've been posting for more than a decade about his confused but consistent interest in the science of prejudice. He explained the overall narrative in "Is Chemistry Destiny?", 9/17/2006:

Once radicals dreamed of new ways of living, but now happiness seems to consist of living in harmony with the patterns that nature and evolution laid down long, long ago.

In other words, racism and sexism are realistic and appropriate responses to the natural world, so just relax and stop trying to change things.

Here are a few long-form discussions of how Brooks explores "the patterns that nature and evolution laid down long, long ago":

"David Brooks, Cognitive Neuroscientist", 6/12/2006
"David Brooks, Neuroendocrinologist", 9/17/2006
"David Brooks, Social Psychologist", 8/13/2008

And some other vaguely related posts:

"An inquiry concerning the principles of morals", 4/7/2009
"The butterfly and the elephant", 11/28/2009
"'Your passport has just been stamped for entry into the Land of Bullshit'", 3/3/2013
"David 'Semi True' Brooks", 3/20/2013
"Ngram morality", 5/22/2013
"Reality v. Brooks", 6/15/2015

"Stereotypes and facts", 9/24/2006
"Language and identity", 7/29/2007
"Is autism the symptom of an 'extreme white brain'?", 3/26/2008
"Sexual pseudoscience from CNN", 6/19/2008
"Innate sex differences: science and public opinion", 6/20/2008
"Delusions of gender", 8/24/2010

Hugo Notes 2017

Aug. 12th, 2017 04:12 pm
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Posted by John Scalzi

To begin, for informational purposes, the list of 2017 Hugo winners, the document of how the voting went, and the document of what and who got nominated and what just missed the ballot.

Got it? Okay!

1. I’m both super pleased with the list of winners and even more pleased that the ballot could have fallen differently and that in nearly all cases I still would have been happy. There was so much great work and so many great people celebrated this year that it was almost impossible to go wrong (there were a couple of troll attempts in there too, but they were never really a factor in the actual finalist voting. I’ll talk more about that in a bit).

2. I discovered that The Dispatcher was number seven in terms of the nomination tally for the Novella category, a category with six finalist spots. How do I feel about that? Pretty darn good. The Dispatcher was in audio form for the entire nomination period, which is not the usual format for works considered for the Hugo ballot. So I think it’s pretty cool it got close. Also, you know. It was a finalist for the Locus and three separate Audie awards (winning the Best Original Work category), so it was certainly honored enough. And I happen to think that all the finalists in the Hugo category were excellent. No complaints!

3. And, why yes, women won in nearly every category. Good for them. Their work certainly deserved it.

4. This was the first year nominations for the finalist ballot were run through the “E Pluribus Hugo” process, a complicated procedure involving fractional votes that aimed specifically to blunt the effect of “slating,” i.e., jackholes trying to swamp the ballot via lockstep nominations. It’s also the first year of “5/6,” in which people could nominate five people/works in each category but six people/works were on the final ballot — again, to minimize the effects of slating.

And how did it work? For the purposes of defeating slating — pretty well! To the extent that the jackholes who have been slating work for the last few years were able to get on the ballot at all, they were confined to one finalist out of six. All those jerkhole-related finalists were dealt with appropriately in the voting — most appearing below “no award” (i.e., we’d rather not give an award than have it given to this finalist). The signal-to-noise ratio of the Hugo ballot was much closer to the mean this year than it’s been in the last few, and that’s a good thing.

Which is not to say EPH in particular doesn’t have its issues — there were people/works this year that would have gotten on the ballot under the old system that missed out in this one (not The Dispatcher, I note, which would have been in the #7 position in either system). And I think some people noted that the jerkhole movement was muted this year in any event, so factoring for it might not even have been necessary — there was a motion at the WSFS business meeting to have EPS lifted next year.

My own thinking on this is that it was muted because the jerkholes knew the Hugos were that much harder to game, and given the scope of the slating nonsense — which lingered over four years of Hugo voting — maybe dropping anti-slating measures after just a year is a little precipitate. It does appear that others agreed with me on that, since the motion to suspend it for next year failed. Good.

5. Speaking of the jackholes, I did like that when when voting process sorted everything down, the chief jackhole got outvoted by “no award” in his category by a ratio of about 12:1. That seems about right to me. Aaaaand that’s all the mental energy I’m expending on that dude.

6. Overall, a very fine year for the Hugos. Congratulations to all! Let’s do this again next year.


To The Barricades, With Refreshments

Aug. 12th, 2017 02:22 pm
[syndicated profile] scalziwhatever_feed

Posted by John Scalzi

This morning on Twitter:

It’s comedy!

But yeah, seriously though, those Nazis and KKK and other assholes congealing themselves in Charlottesville today to marinate in their bigotry can go fuck themselves.

Also, if you feel like donating to Charlottesville-area groups who fight this nonsense and/or represent people these shitbirds hate, here’s a helpful Twitter thread for you, with links.


Too cool to care

Aug. 12th, 2017 09:45 am
[syndicated profile] languagelog_feed

Posted by Mark Liberman

Today's xkcd:

Mouseover title: "It's hard to train deep learning algorithms when most of the positive feedback they get is sarcastic."

See also Geoff Pullum, "Robots gossiping in a secret language?", Lingua Franca 8/7/2017.

In fact, I suspect that Microsoft Research might be making some progress on the "too cool to care" algorithm.

Thursday and Friday were the closing-day presentations for the 2017 JSALT Summer Workshop at CMU, where I've spent the last six weeks. I ended my segment with an indication of how far we have to go. Here's the transcript of a small piece of an ADOS ("Austism Diagnostic Observation Schedule") interview:

Interviewer: all right so next we’re just going to ask you some questions all right
Patient: mhm
Interviewer: so first what do you like doing that makes you feel happy and cheerful
Patient: writing
Interviewer: yeah
Patient : mhm
Interviewer: how do you feel when you’re happy can you describe it
Patient: I’m just very pleased
Interviewer: yeah okay what about things you’re afraid of
Patient: the dark
Interviewer: the dark
Patient: making websites also makes me happy
Interviewer: yeah
Patient: I have three ((indistinct))
Interviewer: are they all with your books
Patient: no but no one is for my book
Interviewer: mhm
Patient: actually I’m thinking about making one for another book that I’m also going to write

Here's the transcription by the IBM Watson Speech API, which tries hard to get not only the words but also the division into speakers:

Speaker 2: Alright since. The questions right. So first what do you like you can be secure happy check.
Speaker 1: Writing.
Speaker 2: Yeah. How do you feel you're happy you describe.
Speaker 1: Just leave the.
Speaker 2: Yeah.
Speaker 1: What.
Speaker 2: About things you're afraid. Dark.
Speaker 1: Website. Meet.
Speaker 2: Yeah.
Speaker 1: And. Three. I they are with your books no no one is from a book. Actually I'm thinking about making money for another book which.

Here's the transcription by the Google Cloud Speech API, which makes a stab at the word sequence but treats all input as a monologue:

questions what do you like doing that make you happy and cheerful how do you feel when your happy can you describe it I'm just very pleased what about things you're afraid of dark making websites also makes me happy free are they all with your books and now one is for my book actually I'm thinking about making one for another book

And finally, Microsoft's Bing Voice Recognition offers this transcription for the same audio clip:

Happy Friday.

Clearly too cool to care.

New Books and ARCs, 8/11/17

Aug. 11th, 2017 06:29 pm
[syndicated profile] scalziwhatever_feed

Posted by John Scalzi

The weekend’s rolling in, so here are some new and upcoming books to get excited about. What do you like here? Tell all in the comments!


GAN4 ("Do it!")

Aug. 11th, 2017 05:21 pm
[syndicated profile] languagelog_feed

Posted by Victor Mair

From a long blog post on contemporary Chinese religious art and architecture:

The post contains many other photographs of this monument, some with groups of people standing before it, so it is a real thing.

We know where the monument is:  Dalishucun ("Big Pear Tree Village"), Fengcheng City, Dandong Prefecture, Liaoning Province in China's Northeast (formerly Manchuria).  It is located a hundred miles south of Shenyang and 35 miles northwest of Dandong, not far from the border with North Korea.

This striking red monument, situated on a hillside, is 9.9 meters (30 feet) tall, and can be seen from quite a distance.  The same symbol may be seen on other public constructions in Big Pear Tree Village.  But what does it represent?

Upon first glance, one of my Chinese friends thought that it was a symbol for the Chinese yuan and Japanese yen, ¥, and thus that it was a monument to mammon, a fitting motif for today's China.  But this sculpture lacks the forked prong at the top.

Another friend thought that it was a Cross of Lorraine (French: Croix de Lorraine), the heraldic two-barred cross ☨.  But the vertical member of this sculpture does not protrude above the upper cross bar.

When I showed it to some other, younger Chinese friends, they snickered, confirming my own suspicion that this is none other than the celebrated gàn 干 ("do; f*ck"; it also has many other meanings, including, when read in first tone, "dry"), with which we here at Language Log are thoroughly familiar:

Most recently, we have hearkened to President Xi Jinping's clarion call in his 2017 New Year's Speech for everyone to lū qǐ xiùzǐ jiāyóu gàn 撸起袖子加油 / 擼起袖子加油 ("roll up our sleeves and do it [i.e., work hard]").  See:

The "'gàn' zì wénhuà guǎngchǎng '干'字文化广场 ("'do' character culture square") celebrates local cadre Mao Fengmei 毛丰美 (b. 1949; CCP branch secretary for Big Pear Tree Village) and his lifetime of kǔ gàn 苦干 ("hard work").  Mao exemplifies the spirit of "为民而干" ("'do [it]' for the people") (13,400 ghits).  This is obviously a transformation of the deathless slogan of another Mao, " wèi rénmín fúwù 为人民服务" ("serve the people", more lit., "serve for the people").

Mao Fengmei's watchwords are kǔ gàn 苦干 ("work hard"), shí gàn 实干 ("work steadfastly"), and qiǎo gàn 巧干 ("work ingeniously”).  Relying on this spirit, Mao raised Big Pear Tree Village from poverty to a model of rural prosperity.  The towering gàn 干 ("do it") sculpture is the embodiment of the principles that Mao used to turn Big Pear Tree Village from a backward community to national prominence.  In plainest, simplest terms, I suppose we could say that — with his emphasis on gàn 干 — Mao Fengmei was trying to instill a strong work ethic in his fellow villagers.

For his accomplishments in Big Pear Tree Village, Mao attained sufficient national stature that he was featured in this report on the 2014 national legislative and political advisory sessions, at which he had served as a deputy (lawmaker) since 1993.

Here are more pictures and explanations of the "'gàn' zì wénhuà guǎngchǎng '干'字文化广场 ("'do' character culture square").  One of the photos is of a stele inscription commemorating the villagers' work in establishing an extensive fruit orchard, which generated considerable income for them.  The last sentence reads as follows:

Tāmen yòng hànshuǐ quánshìzhe gàn zì jīngshén de zhēndì

他们用汗水诠释着干字精神的真谛

("They illustrate the true essence of the word 'gan' with their sweat") (English translation on the stele)

Party tours are organized around this giant gàn 干.  Notice in the photograph accompanying this article that the railings around the edges of the spacious square are decorated with countless gàn 干 symbols.

Here's a richly illustrated article on a study trip to the monument by Liaoning Prison Administration cadres.

When I called this gàn 干 monument to the attention of Chinese friends and students who didn't know about it before, their reactions were diverse.  Those who were over about thirty-five years of age, and especially those from Taiwan, mostly thought of this respect shown to gàn 干 as a kind of worship.  In other words, gàn 干 veneration for them is a manifestation of popular religion.  Indeed, the local people around Big Pear Tree Village characterize gàn 干 as " shén 神" ("sacred; divine").

Younger people almost invariably cannot help but think first of the vulgar meaning of gàn 干, so for them it seems very strange to see such a huge statue erected to gàn 干 in such an ostentatious, public fashion.  They cannot help but laugh when they see this gàn 干 sculpture.  Even some older folks (over sixty) also reacted to the monument to gàn 干 with hearty laughter.

There's a third type of reaction which looks upon this monument to gàn 干 as "political propaganda and commemoration of the thirty-years of hard work and the economic development of this village".  This sober, scholarly, socialistic approach yields quite a different interpretation of the gàn 干 monument than the previous two.

Here I will let one of the correspondents (basically in the third category and about thirty years old) expatiate upon what she takes to be the overall aim of the article with which this post begins and in which the gàn 干 monument is featured:

I guess the main point of this article is to criticize the ugly and bizarre designs of much architecture in China. This has become a cultural phenomenon in China nowadays.

The elite aesthetic and artistic canon are different from the taste of the lower social classes in most societies. This is why the temples in the villages look so weird. Popular religious cults often absorb foreign deities and even create new deities based on the existing ones. This is what I learned when I was studying ancient Egyptian religion. Local and household shrines did not quite follow the royal art canon and usually look "awkward".

However, many buildings belonging to the elite look ugly too, such as the landmarks of some large cities. This indicates that the new elite, though they have become very wealthy now, do not have the corresponding elite artistic taste. Possibly the owners of these buildings (i.e., the owners of local corporations) come from lower social classes and never received any elite education.

I think the lack of education in art and humanities in China makes the situation worse. Even the best universities in China, such as Tsinghua, do not offer enough courses on art and humanities, let alone middle and high schools. I really hope things will get better in the future and young people can have opportunities to learn more about art, history, culture, and philosophy, rather than merely science and engineering.

Here's another assessment of the article by someone with a more playful, literary background (in her lower twenties):

I have read the article from the first word to the last, and I like how the writer was seriously talking nonsense! He does have a substantial point about the need to respect Chinese popular culture, even though it seems cheap, low-class, and coarse to some. It has always possessed a cute sense of humor, profound wisdom, and strong attachment to the grassroots life of xiāngtǔ wénhuà 乡土文化 ("local / rural culture") that I personally find so attractive. As for "干",it not only means hard work, but also is an equivalent to an English four-letter word starting with the letter after "e". So, if the 干 monument truly exists, the local government definitely has made itself a tremendous laughing stock.

One last thought, from a comparative perspective.  "Just do it" is a wildly popular meme in contemporary American culture, as in the supposedly inspirational video (of which this is a brief segment) by Shia LaBeouf.  What are the nuances we bring to "do it" in such a context?  Probably nothing like the folks in Big Pear Tree Village.  (Notice that some of his gestures are rather explicit.)

Finally, I have overheard people say "We didn't really do it" (i.e., "we didn't go all the way"), which shows some affinity with the vulgar usage of gàn 干.

Strange, though, that nobody looks upon the gàn 干 monument and thinks "dry" — which is most assuredly a possible reading.

Hail, almighty gàn 干, whatever you may mean for your legions of ardent devotees!

[h.t. Grace Wu; thanks to Sanping Chen, Jichang Lulu, Yixue Yang, Jing Wen, Jinyi Cai, and Chia-hui Lu]

Withdrawing from the Dragon Awards

Aug. 10th, 2017 06:00 pm
[syndicated profile] nkjemisin_feed

Posted by nkjemisin

So, amid the furor of preparing for a book launch, I’ve had to divert time to another matter. I found out belatedly that The Obelisk Gate had been nominated for the Dragon Awards, basically when I started to hear murmurs that the awards were especially problematic this year. I went to go see what the […]

Twitter Jokes: Punchline First(?)

Aug. 10th, 2017 06:09 pm
[syndicated profile] scalziwhatever_feed

Posted by John Scalzi

I note this particular tweet (which, if for some reason you can’t see it, is here), not just because it amuses the crap out of me, although it does, but it because it’s an example of a phenomenon that I think might be unique to Twitter — namely, because of the way Twitter formats pictures and retweets on its service, much of the time (if not most of the time) you’ll see a punchline or a snarky reply before you read the set-up or instigating comment.

And because it does, it changes a lot about the dynamic of the humor, and often in interesting ways. It’s like the Jeopardy version humor. Of course, some people just change things around so their comment is the set-up and the picture or previous comment is the punchline. But when they don’t, I almost feel like it creates a new kind of joke.

I could be overthinking this. Tell me if I am.


Update on the Dragon Awards and Me

Aug. 10th, 2017 04:06 pm
[syndicated profile] scalziwhatever_feed

Posted by John Scalzi

First, read this, from Andrew Liptak at the Verge, and make sure you stick around for the M. Night Shyamalan-like twist at the ending, featuring a shocking statement from me!

Also, here is the Dragon Awards’ own statement, re: Alison Littlewood departing from the ballot.

Read them? Okay, then let’s get to the questions.

So, wait, you were going to withdraw from the Dragon Awards but now you’re not?

Yup, that’s basically right.

Why did you change your mind?

Mostly because the administrators asked if I would reconsider.

How did that conversation go?

Me: I’d like to withdraw.

Them: We’d like you to stay. Please?

Me: No.

Them: What if we say, pretty please?

Me: No.

Them: What if we say, pretty please with sugar on top?

Me: Oh, fine.

More seriously, and as noted in the statement I gave to the Verge, the folks at the Dragon Awards suggested they were willing to put in some work to listen and learn, and the honoring of Ms. Littlewood’s withdrawal request and their commitment to rethink aspects of their process was a good first step. Enough that I was willing to reconsider withdrawing from the ballot.

But what about the dudes ginning up the whole “culture war” angle? You said you just couldn’t even with those dudes.

They’re still there and they’re still tiresome, and I’m not really looking forward to that nonsense, but, you know what, fuck it. Here’s the deal: Did you enjoy reading my book? Enough to vote for it over the other works in my particular category? Groovy. Then vote for it. Otherwise, don’t vote for it, please. Repeat with every other work in my category, and so on in the other categories. This is not actually complicated.

(Incidentally, and in case it’s not clear, please don’t paint every other finalist with the “I’m just here for the culture war” brush. I don’t. You can tell which ones are around to gin up a culture war. They’re pretty obvious about it.)

I JUST THINK YOU’RE HELLA INDECISIVE, SCALZI

Seems reasonable and I accept your judgment.

I still have issues with the Dragon Awards.

That’s fair. They’re new and still figuring this out, which is not an excuse but is an explanation. In my discussions with the folks running them, my sense is that they really do want to make the awards something that is viable and useful (and fun) for fans of the genre. They have a lot of work to do (this is, I suspect, in the nature of awards in general). Hopefully they’ll get there. As I noted, some of the steps they’re taking now indicate to me they want to get it right. Your mileage may vary. In the meantime, with this as with anything, you’re perfectly within your rights to have issues and criticism. Fire away.

So are you going to the awards ceremony now?

Nope, I’m still counter-scheduled in Washington DC that weekend.

What if I was going to vote for you but you said not to and I voted for something else?

I mean, that’s on me, isn’t it? So that’s fine. If you voted for something you enjoyed, that’s good enough. I’m okay with other people winning awards I am also up for. I’ve won my fair share over time. It’s nice to win, but it’s nice to see other people win, too. I’ll be no worse off. And then someone else has to worry about how to ship a trophy home. That stuff adds up.

If I wanted to vote, how do I do that?

Here’s the link to register. Anyone with an email address is eligible. And here is the full, updated ballot.

I gotta warn you, I might not vote for you.

Well, you know. I still have to read some of the finalists in my category. If I like them better, I might not vote for me.


The Big Idea: Kathe Koja

Aug. 10th, 2017 01:50 pm
[syndicated profile] scalziwhatever_feed

Posted by John Scalzi

It is sometimes said that someone is a person of their time — which may make you wonder what might happen to that person in different times, and what those times would do that person. Kathe Koja might, anyway, and it’s one of the reasons her novel Christopher Wild exists.

KATHE KOJA:

Come over here. There’s someone I want you to meet.

He’s a London guy, but he’s been around the block, he knows a lot of people and a lot of people know him. They say he’s a scholar and a poet, they say he’s a spy, they say he likes guys; he says he likes guys, and likes smoking, and thinks religion is all about control, not love, among other free-thinking opinions. Some people—most famously a dude named Dick who ratted him out to the authorities—suggested that the “mouth of so dangerous a [man] should be stopped.” And the authorities agreed, and had him killed.

But he was, he is, a writer. And so his work kept on speaking in tandem with that brief, steep, outrageous life—as I write this, this guy, this Christopher Marlowe, this Kit, is studied in universities around the world, his plays of turbulent men with violent ideas are produced and debated and relished, and he’s stealing the show in a show called Will.  

There are more than a few Marlowe biographies and novels: you may have met him there. Anthony Burgess’ gorgeously written A Dead Man in Deptford was my own introduction to Kit, and the life pointed to the work—I’d heard of Faustus, that soul-selling literal daredevil, but the other plays (like Edward II and Tamburlaine) were ravishingly new to me. And the poems, sexy, erudite, unforgettable poems . . . I thought, who is this guy! I thought, oh god this guy. I thought, I have to write about him too.

And so my newest novel, Christopher Wild.

But befitting its subject who loved to challenge, this book was such a challenge that I was bewildered how to even begin. I don’t write about real people, I write fiction that works to make characters seem real. And no one is ever going to write a better, more beautiful bio novel than Burgess. So how could I reincarnate this man?—whose voice I was crazy in love with, and whose life has resonance not only with his own time but every era where power seeks to throttle truth, and fear sits side by side with stifling caution; which is to say, every era . . . And most of all, first and last of all, he’s a writer, a gloriously original and badass writer, how could I do him full justice on the page? All I had was doubt, and a giant pile of notes and research reading.

But I wanted to hang out with Marlowe.

So I took the leap, I plunged: I planned the structure of the novel then threw that structure totally away, I found a new way, I found that the way to show his contemporaneity was to place him in places where silence shouted loudest, where danger was deepest for a man who can’t keep his mouth shut, ever: places like his own grimly glamorous Elizabethan world, then a tense and humid McCarthyesque mid-20th century, then a darkening future just slightly past our own horizon, where punishing surveillance is the 24/7 norm.

The voice that flowered in those ages, and my pages, was a confident one, a fierce and passionate one, one that I followed every bit as much as I led: I knew him better then, I learned as we went on. Is it the book I expected I’d be writing? Not at all. But that’s what it’s like when you hang with a bold new friend, he takes you places you didn’t imagine you’d go.

Which is why I opened up the process to early supporters, who received a monthly email with research notes and cool or silly factoids (Kit Harington plays Faustus! Sniff a Marlowe perfume!), along with excerpts from the novel in progress—another thing I’d never done before, or contemplated doing.

And then all the writing was done, and Marlowe was ready, again, for his close-up, he was climbing into a big-finned yellow Buick, he was heading up the crusty subway stairs, he was striding down a slick and cobbled alley where life and death murmur together, telling eternity’s everyday secrets; he was here again, with us again, because he’s never left . . . If you’ve met him already, lucky you (and why the hell didn’t you tell me sooner?). But if you haven’t, oh then please grab a seat, get a drink, let me introduce you and we can all go wild.

—-

Christopher Wild: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Roadswell Editions

Visit the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.


"North Korea best not…"

Aug. 9th, 2017 11:01 pm
[syndicated profile] languagelog_feed

Posted by Ben Zimmer

Donald Trump's "fire and fury" warning to North Korea, we now know, was unscripted, not the product of speechwriters and advisers. As some have suggested, Trump's aggressive language may have been (at least unconsciously) modeled on Harry Truman's announcement that the U.S. had dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima in August 1945.

Truman: If they do not now accept our terms they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.
Trump: North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.

Beyond the echo of Truman, Trump is particularly fond of the hyperbolic construction, "like the world has never seen," and variations on that theme. In the Toronto Star, Daniel Dale details Trump's past use of the phrase and wonders if "the president bumbled into the threat because he did not understand the ramifications of a favourite phrase he had in his head." (See also Mark Liberman's post from last year, "This is the likes of which I didn't expect.")

But what about the opening of the threat, "North Korea best not…"? Ben Yagoda said on Twitter that it "sounds like something from a bad Western." John Kelly thought it sounded more Southern. I was reminded of a famous line from the character Omar Little on the HBO series The Wire: "You come at the king, you best not miss."



The Oxford English Dictionary provides the following entry for this usage of best:

best, v.2
Etymology: Short for had best (see best adj. 4b). Compare earlier better v.2
colloq. (orig. U.S.). An invariable modal verb, normally complemented by the bare infinitive.
Had best (see best adj. 4b); should.
1900   V. S. Pease In Wake of War xiii. 153   I'll give you gold, Colonel Grayson, and you best get the rates of premium as you go through Nashville.
1927   E. C. L. Adams Congaree Sketches ix. 16   We best be leffen.
1959   P. Marshall Brown Girl, Brownstones iii. i. 68   You best watch that heavy hand..'cause this is New York and these is New York children and the authorities will dash you in jail for them.
1987   T. Wolfe Bonfire of Vanities xxii. 447   You best be making some friends, you understand?
2013   Liverpool Post (Nexis) 21 Feb. 14   Ah, look at the time, I best go.

As noted, better also gets used as an invariable modal verb, similarly shortened from had better. Think of "You better watch out, you better not cry" from "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," or the song by The Who, "You Better You Bet." This had-less version of better has received some scholarly attention — see "Better as a verb" by David Denison and Alison Cort, in Hubert Cuyckens et al. (eds.), Subjectification, intersubjectification and grammaticalization, Mouton de Gruyter, 2010. On their Grammarphobia blog, Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman have a useful history of this usage of better: "You better believe it."

The parallel use of best without had has received less attention, though much of what has been written about had-less better also applies. Both better and best are often used to convey a warning or a threat. Both also appear to have originated in American English, though better has penetrated colloquial varieties of English in the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand, according to Fowler’s Modern English Usage and other sources. Best still sounds resolutely American — whether that's Western, Southern, or Baltimorean (in the case of Omar Little).

This usage of best is infrequently attested in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, but the evidence shows that it is marked as highly colloquial. Here are six examples from COCA for "you best not" — one from a photography journal, three from short stories or novels, one from a film script, and one from a television transcript.

Hopefully at this point you realize you best not quit your day job!
–Steve Traudt, "Marketing your photography," PSA Journal, June 1995

You haven't fallen ill, have you? You best not cause me any grief!
–Ingeborg Bachmann, "In Heaven and on Earth," Chicago Review, 2000

You best not be burnin' nuthin', lest Old Man Cooch find out.
2001 Maniacs (film script), 2004

And if you hope to come around, well, you best not make me frown, because I just might knock you down, because I'm a mean ole lion.
20/20, ABC transcript, 2008 (someone singing "I'm a Mean Ole Lion," a song from The Wiz)

I reckon the two of you best not be thinkin' of marrying until at least next year.
–Beth Wiseman, An Amish Gathering: Three Amish Novellas, 2010

I think you best not push your father that far.
–Beth Wiseman, Plain Paradise, 2010

Some additional fictional examples can be found in the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA) — including two from Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities (also cited by the OED), as used by the character Reverend Bacon, a Harlem minister modeled on Al Sharpton. A broader search on COHA for "best not BARE VERB" turns up a sprinkling of other examples going all the way back to 1834, in Letters of J. Downing, Major, pseudonymously written by Charles Augustus Davis:

'Well,' says Mr. Van Buren, it's a pretty severe letter, but we best not translate it — I'll read it as it is, with pleasure.'

Davis, it turns out, ripped off the Major Jack Downing character, a folksy New Englander, from Seba Smith. In fact, Smith's own Downing letters supply the earliest OED citation for better as an invariable modal verb: "I thought you better be at home to work on the farm" (1833). (Smith-as-Downing frequently used "I better…" and "You better…") Nearly two centuries later, had-less better still sounds rather folksy, and had-less best even more so. 

Update: Ben Yagoda shares his own thoughts on Trump's use of best on the Chronicle of Higher Education's Lingua Franca blog.

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