Archive | August, 2020

Making a meal of it

18 Aug

Tabloids like a joke even when there isn’t really a story. But even when there is a story, of course there still has to be a joke.

So – unlike a previous occasion in which the Star led with a story about a hamster so that it could reprise a famous headline – here the Sun reports an actual news item. A chief executive of McDonald’s, who departed with a payoff after having an affair with a colleague, is now being sued for his severance package by the company for other alleged dalliances, denied at the time. There’s money, there’s sex, there’s burgers – it’s news. And what’s the headline? MUCKY D’S!*

Or at least, that’s the main headline. But if you look further down the piece, there’s a decorative red and yellow box, scattered with fast-food clip art, that is, in effect, a menu of alternative headlines. It’s not a fact box, or a timeline, or a related story, or additional information of any kind: just a collection of sub-editorial gags that didn’t make it to the top of the page.

So we have Bacon Double Sleazeburger (fair), Happy Ending Meal (yikes), Sausage McStuffin (yikes), Thrillet-o-Fish (weak), Quarter Hounder With Cheese (what?) Supersize Lies (alleged), Sweet Curry Saucy (weak), Bit on the Side Salad (fair), Spicy McRub (what?), Robinsons Fruity Shoot (weak) and Cheesy Bacon Flat Bed (weak, and requires prior knowledge of the existence of the Cheesy Bacon Flatbread).

Obviously, this never happens on broadsheets, where one nuanced headline on the deteriorating political situation in Belarus is usually enough. Not that a little levity to intrigue the reader is a bad thing; Arthur Christiansen might have approved of that. But when handfuls of extra jokes are being thrown in to the bag like sachets of tomato ketchup, you do wonder anew whether redtop readers are buying the paper for the news or the comedy.

*For transatlantic readers: in Britain, McDonald’s is often referred to as Maccy D’s, so via a simple change in vowel sound one arrives at … oh, you’ve  got it.

Death of a Dictionary

4 Aug

Wikipedia; © Merriam-Webster

Manhattan, 1961. He was a charismatic gumshoe with a ready wit, the leg-man for a sedentary detective genius. She was a woman with money and trouble, big brown eyes and a “mouth that would have been all right with the corners turned up instead of down”. In the study of a New York brownstone, fear and murder are about to meet their match. Except there has been an outbreak of descriptivism, so the detective genius is indisposed:

“I’d better explain,” I told her … “There’s a fireplace in the front room, but it’s never lit because he hates open fires. He says they stultify mental processes. But it’s lit now because he’s using it. He’s seated in front of it, on a chair too small for him, tearing sheets out of a book and burning them. The book is the new edition, the third edition, of Webster’s New International Dictionary, Unabridged, published by the G. & C. Merriam Company of Springfield, Massachusetts. He considers it subversive because it threatens the integrity of the English language. In the past week he has given me a thousand examples of its crimes. He says it is a deliberate attempt to murder the — I beg your pardon …”

She was staring up at me. “He’s burning up a dictionary?”

He rarely stands when a caller enters, and of course he didn’t then, with the dictionary, the two-thirds of it that was left, on his lap. He dropped sheets on the fire, turned to look at her, and inquired, “Do you use ‘infer’ and ‘imply’ interchangeably, Miss Blount?”

She did fine. She said simply, “No.”

“This book says that you may. Pfui.”

Webster’s Third, as it is known, caused such a stir when it was published in September 1961 that it was condemned in the comment pages of the New York Times, described as a “political pamphlet” by the historian Jacques Barzun and ceremonially destroyed, as we see, by Nero Wolfe in Rex Stout’s thriller Gambit. For lexicographers, It was a landmark in the journey from prescriptivism to descriptivism that had begun in the 1910s; for the first time, a major US dictionary had been explicitly based on observation of words in everyday usage, rather than authoritative declarations of meaning.

As Wikipedia notes, it eliminated the labels “colloquial”, “correct”, “incorrect”, “proper”, “improper”, “erroneous”, “humorous”, “jocular”, “poetic”, and “contemptuous”, among others, leading to charges that it had abandoned the idea of “proper English”. Looking back in a 2012 article in Publishers Weekly, David Skinner wrote: “Pronunciations came to include a dizzying number of variations, all apparently equal in merit. Most controversial of all was [the editor’s] policy on disputed usages: Webster’s Third adopted a position of scholarly neutrality on words more conservative dictionaries rushed to label colloquial or slang or vulgar. It was a pure dictionary, all about the words, but utterly agnostic on many tricky issues dictionary users cared deeply about.”

It was, then, a classically descriptivist book: admirably humble and egalitarian in its intent, but maddeningly silent on the socially enforced niceties of discourse that readers nonetheless had to navigate. Like much descriptivist literature, it resembles an etiquette book that lectures you on the tyranny of dress codes when all you want to know is how to knot a tie. And although it is widely hailed for its great scholarship, its symbolic role in the culture wars makes it hard for some people to acknowledge even to this day.

In the historic gay rights case Bostock v Clayton County, decided in June, the US Supreme Court ruled that the employment protections of the Civil Rights Act did indeed extend to those unfairly treated as a result of their sexuality. The lead opinion was written by the Trump-appointed Justice Neil Gorsuch – a judge on the right of the court. But although he may have surprised liberals by finding in favour of Bostock, he was apparently still too much of a conservative to rely on Webster’s Third in doing so. As the lawyer and linguist Stephen Mouritsen points out on Twitter, Gorsuch used Webster’s Second (1954) to find a definition of “discrimination” as it was understood at the time the Civil Rights Act was passed, even though Webster’s Third was seven years closer in time to the passing of the Act in 1964.

A major consolidation of US civil rights for a minority suffering injustice? By all means. But not with the assistance of That Book.

It’s possible that this view of Webster’s Third has hardened over 60 years, but I’m not sure. One gets the impression that attitudes may have been entrenched right from the moment it was published:

There wasn’t much of the dictionary left, and, while I counted, five-hundreds and then C’s, he tore and dropped. I counted it twice to make sure, and when I finished there was no more dictionary except the binding.

“Twenty-two grand,” I said.

“Will this burn?” he asked.

“Sure; it’s buckram. It may smell a little. You knew you were going to burn it when you bought it. Otherwise you would have ordered leather.”