everybody’s at disadvantage speaking with their second language

So I’m at a bar on Saturday with the other jiu-jitsu students after one of our own promoted to nidan, or second degree black belt. We rented the back room in one of the nightclubs on Boylston St, less than a block from where I work. The outside’s full of scheming scenesters with unbuttoned shirts; the back room is quiet and full of fellow students. One of these has just returned from a year in Israel, where he practiced krav maga four hours a day six days a week. He has a friend with him from Paris, who has black belts in karate and jiu-jitsu. The Parisian speaks good enough English to point across the bar I’m leaning on and ask, “What’s tonic water?”

“Well,” I begin, “it’s water that’s … tonic. Y’know, like in … gin and tonics?” My voice tightens, already apologizing for my own words.

The visitor asks the bartender for a glass of tonic, with ice, a straw (“a pipe”) and some lemon. He stirs and takes a sip. “It’s like a Schweppes,” he declares.

One of the reasons I want to be a writer – and one of the reasons I suspect I come across as a pedant – is because I’m always looking for the best possible way to convey something. I’m never satisfied with a “clear enough” explanation. When I give directions, they have to incorporate street names, landmarks, turns and fail-safes (“if you hit Trinity Church, you’ve gone too far”). When I describe someone, you not only need to know what they look and sound like, but which celebrity they resemble; if I can describe them in a way that makes you chuckle, so much the better. And when someone who speaks perfect conversational English asks me what tonic water is, I need something better than “it’s got quinine in it.”

I care more about whether something’s evocative than whether or not it’s true. Not that we can ignore truth – nothing turns me off more than the line or description that rings false – but it waits its turn behind the image. If I share a common language with someone but not a common culture, I want to find the words that bridge that history.

The bartender produces the gin and tonic I didn’t order. I was thirsty anyway. I slide a packet of bills across while the Parisian describes the search for a valid form of identification for the bouncers outside. “In the States they check your ID,” he explains. “In Paris, they check your shoes.”


most friendship is feigning; most loving mere folly

Directing Discount Shakespeare: As You Like It In Forty-Five Minutes has made my weeks more exciting. For one thing, I picked a really good cast. They show up every night enthused to tackle the material. For another, I’m happy to be back in the theater again. I love having a show in production.

But mostly, directing’s been fun because it gives me a chance to play John Barton twice a week.

I have to restrain myself from turning every rehearsal into a Lecture on What Professor Coldheart Thinks About Shakespeare. That’d be immensely boring. Plus, while I think Shakespeare’s continual performance over the last four centuries is no accident, I don’t think he had a God-like command over language. There’s not an hour’s worth of debate to be had over each word choice, each change in accent, or each metaphor.

Shakespeare was a pro, and pros work under deadline.

But reading Shakespeare with an eye toward performing it does yield a tremendous amount of insight. And if I can’t bore my cast, I can certainly bore you.

Here is an excerpt of a monologue from Jaques, companion of the exiled Duke, from Act II, Scene 7 of As You Like It:

I must have liberty
Withal, as large a charter as the wind,
To blow on whom I please; for so fools have;
And they that are most galled with my folly,
They most must laugh. And why, sir, must they so?
The ‘why’ is plain as way to parish church:
He that a fool doth very wisely hit
Doth very foolishly, although he smart,
Not to seem senseless of the bob

First, the obvious bits: what is Jaques actually saying in plain English? Jaques is petitioning the Duke to become the fool in his exiled court. He’s explaining the ways a fool enforces order in the court: those whom he offends the most must laugh the most as well. If a court jester offends you, you should laugh louder than anyone else. Making it clear that you feel offended jeopardizes your reputation.

That’s just a matter of careful reading and interpretation, but it’s essential. Shakespeare wrote his lines in blank verse (iambic pentameter) to make them easier to remember and deliver. As such, it’s very easy to deliver a Shakespearean monologue prettily without having the slightest idea what it means. Anyone who has an ear for rhythm, can fake a British accent and can project their voice can stumble their way through a soliloquy.

Second, why did Shakespeare use the words he did? This we can only guess at, since he didn’t leave footnotes. In fact, the surviving texts we have aren’t written in exactly his hand: they were copied from show notes, meant to be read and memorized by actors but never kept.

So, my guesses:

  • And why sir, must they so? The ‘why’ is plain as way … that a fool doth very wisely hit doth very foolishly …: There’s a lot of opportunity in here for a quick-tongued actor to play with words here. We have “why,” “why” and “way” in rapid succession, as well as “fool doth very wisely” and “doth very foolishly.” There’s opportunity for good sing-song bouncing between internal rhymes here.
  • as plain as way to parish church. Shakespeare devotes a lot of text to making fun of churchmen. As You Like It is no exception, with the bumbling vicar Sir Oliver Martext. This is probably meant sarcastically, especially considering the reasoning that follows is hardly “plain.”
  • fool / wisely / foolishly / smart / senseless. Parallels and inversions on the notion of being wise or smart and being foolish or senseless. Note that Shakespeare doesn’t use the latter two in that same meaning: “smart” means “to feel a pain” here; “senseless” means “not feeling.”
And that’s only about half of the line.

This isn’t just fodder for English majors, mind you. Think how odd the idiom “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” would sound if you heard it without the emphasis on “old” and “new.” Those are the most important words in the metaphor: the contrast between old and new, and the implication that past a certain point learning is impossible. Shakespeare used similar contrasts and parallels in his metaphors. Recognizing them, and learning how to call them out, will make your performances more memorable.

If you still don’t believe me, watch some more of those Playing Shakespeare clips online. The difference between watching a half-good amateur stumble through King John and watching Patrick Stewart deliver it should make it clear. There’s more to Shakespeare than being loud and British.

but we’ve got the biggest balls of them all

Talking with a very good friend of mine last week, we mentioned a mutual female acquaintance whom, I said, “had the ovaries to pull something like that off.”

“Huh?” my friend asked.

“Like saying, ‘she had the balls to pull it off.’ Only, y’know, ovaries.”

“Right, right; I got that.” I still got the quizzical look, though.

“I figured it’s diminutive to refer to a woman as ‘having balls’ to do something because she’s confident. ‘Oh, congratulations at having presence. You’ve been promoted to ‘Male.’ ”

“I’m with you,” my friend said. “But at the same time, I’m not comfortable with females getting special female-only titles that distinguish them from male roles. Like ‘actress,’ which is the same thing as an actor, but female. As if there’s some inherent difference in a woman’s performance than a man’s.”

“Fair enough,” I said.

(We settled on cojones, which means “balls” but is obscured by the language barrier and retains neutrality)

But the question lingers in my mind.

There’s a wealth of jargon in English to encourage someone to take bold action, and all of it points at a guy’s crotch. A guy with confidence has “balls”; astonishing confidence, “big brass ones.” Someone who needs to show confidence is told to “sack up” or “grow a pair”; someone who lacks confidence is a “pussy.” One of my favorite lines from The French Connection comes when an American mobster needs to convince his boss that French druglord Alain Charnier is a cold-hearted operator. “This guy’s got ’em like THAT!”, the mobster yells, making a cupping motion under his crotch. It’s a guttural, striking image, and it conveys the message in a heartbeat.

So how do you describe a woman with confidence? Let’s ignore for the moment the tendency of many people to refer to women exhibiting confidence, a refusal to be interrupted or a low tolerance for errors as “bitchy.” Not because that’s not a problem, mind, but because that’d be its own 1000-word post. For now, let’s settle on the problem of language.

We can’t erase ten thousand years of linguistic development, so we can’t get people to stop referring to confidence as “ballsy.” That’s not an option. So our remaining options appear to be:

  1. Appropriate that language for women as well, reproductive irony be damned. That chick’s got balls; you see that?
  2. Invent parallel language for women. Doubting yourself isn’t going to get the job done. Now egg up and get back out there.
  3. Create some gender-neutral term that’ll work well for both. Now this one’s got some real gametes, walking up and saying that.
  4. A fourth option that I haven’t figured out yet.

I ask not because I’m looking for the Orthodox Answer From Feminism (there isn’t one, and that’s a good thing). Rather, I want a good colloquial way to talk about the women I respect. Also, I like stirring up interesting discussions about language on Mondays.

we never did too much talking anyway

I would like the following euphemisms excised from polite speech:

  • “It is what it is.” No. I disagree. Now let’s fight over it.

    It doesn’t much help that “it is what it is” most often surfaces as a sort of cheery fatalism, an unwillingness to tackle a problem. We can’t change the facts! If I wrap this statement in tautology, it becomes self-evident! It is what it is, and it can’t be what it’s not, which we’d rather, so let it be.

    (We mock “it is what it is” on the Overthinking It podcast pretty often)

  • “Now, more than ever …” I find millennialism repulsive in all its forms, but this euphemism dates back centuries. We live in Interesting Times, completely different from any Times that existed in the Past! For one, children disrespect their elders! Illness is rampant in the cities and the lower classes groan in poverty! Also, there are barbarians in the outermost provinces!

    I can’t think of many crises, ills or challenges that affect me and my friends now more than they ever did a comparable group of people in the past.

  • “I just wanted to say that …” Right. I understood that you wanted to say that, as evidenced by the fact that you said it. You don’t need to remind me that you’re a sentient being, my recent experiments in biological reductionism notwithstanding.

    This one doesn’t seem harmful. It’s the sort of throat-clearing we all engage in before getting to the interesting part of a sentence. But verbiage that doesn’t communicate information or mood is harmful. We read or hear it often enough and we start glossing over it. And glossing over speech puts language in the service of evil.

  • “Society …” as the subject of a sentence. “Society” is not an agent of action. Society doesn’t tell men or women to do things. Society doesn’t take away your job. Now while there are impersonal, institutional forces at work that circumscribe the lives of people that no member of that force will ever meet – i.e., I can be limited by the Church’s views on marriage even if I never set foot in a church – it aids nothing to call that force “society.” No one ever got butter on their bread by talking more abstractly.

  • “There are two kinds of people in the world …” The distinction between x and non-x rarely bears fruit outside of pre-school pedagogy, collegiate logic textbooks and high-level programming, yet you can find it in the Washington Post editorial page with sad regularity. This distinction never works. Half the time, it’s so tautological as to be useless (“there are two kinds of people in the world: members of The Rolling Stones, and the rest of us”). The other half, it draws a false dichotomy.

    A peer educator in my high school once passed along the following wisdom from his grandmother, about the two kinds of people in the world: “those who learn from experience, and those who learn from everyone else’s experience.” And while it was an interesting point at the time, useful to the moral of the lesson (namely, Don’t Do Drugs), it’s a false dichotomy. What about people who don’t learn and keep making the same mistakes? What about people who learn from fictional experience – who were scared off of heroin by Requiem for a Dream? What about people who expect a situation to turn out poorly, like a midnight road trip to Vegas, but who do it anyway because they want the experience? All of these could be acknowledged and glossed over, if the speaker hadn’t framed the story with the “two kinds of people” trope.

  • “You owe it to yourself …” Then I default on the obligation. Who’s going to come collect?

  • “Tiny favor” / “Huge favor” Have you noticed that the effort requested by that phrase is inversely proportional to the word used? Moving a couch is a “tiny favor”; answering the phone while you pee is a “huge favor.”

  • “At least I’m doing something!” This sentence only lives in rebuttals. Someone advances a plan: let’s hold a bake sale to save our school; let’s burn the house down and use the insurance money to pay off our debt; let’s bomb villages to catch terrorists, et cetera. Someone else points out that the plan might not work: we won’t pay off a ten thousand dollar debt with brownie money; insurance companies employ sophisticated arson investigators; bombing villages will create the sort of dissatisfaction that terrorists arise from, and so forth. The response, “Well, at least I’m doing something. What are you doing?”

    Most of us get embarrassed when we realize we forgot a crucial variable in the success of our plan. But “at least I’m doing something!” trumpets your apathy boldly. So what if my plan won’t work? Plans don’t have to work in order to be good. They just have to be bold! Action trumps thought; all forward motion is progress; idle hands are the devil’s playground.

  • Blog / photoblog / liveblog / vlog / bleg. I mean, come on.

I’m a sinner, I’m a saint; I do not feel ashamed

Christine pointed out last week that all of UrbanDictionary’s definitions of feminism are pretty wretched. I navigated over to check and, sure enough, it’s some kind of travesty. It’s a rather well-cloaked travesty, don’t get me wrong – all sorts of intellectual shit like “if feminism were really about equality, it would be called humanism.”1 It’s the same sort of shit you see every Martin Luther King, Jr. day in conservative magazines and weblogs, when neocons argue that the Reverend Doctor would have opposed Affirmative Action – because King was about color-blindness, not color-preference.2

Anyhow, while noting with approval that each definition had more DOWN votes than UP votes by a factor of 300% or more, I saw a link to Urban Dictionary: Fularious Street Slang Defined. It’s a book that you can buy on Amazon which compiles definitions of some of the terms you find on UrbanDictionary. Hopefully the author picked some less controversial ones, like “crunk” or “upper decking.”

My thoughts:

  1. What a delightful regression in medium! If UrbanDictionary has any value at all – still in debate – it’s that anyone in the world can update entries. This may not produce the most useful results (see “feminism”), but crowd-sourcing has certain advantages. Especially for a slang dictionary. So the smartest course, obvi, is to freeze a current view of the palimpsest and embed it in unchanging text. What if someone comes up with a hep new definition? Why, then we totes issue a new book! Who needs hypertext when you have crippletext?

  2. Aaron Peckham, the “compiler” of these books, has found a sweet scam that I want in on. UrbanDictionary is 99% user-generated content with a smattering of HTML, CSS and maybe some PHP. In other words, a few million people just put money in Peckham’s pocket. Maybe they’ll get contributor cred (this entry for “John Blaze” comes to us courtesy of Dat Nicca D, although DRM took objection). I want a million people to do work – for free, of course – that I can get paid for. See also: the PostSecret book.
Way to go, Internet!
1 Which, of course, Gloria Steinem actually called it. Oops!

2 And maybe the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr would have been opposed to affirmative action. Who knows? That’s still a pretty disingenuous argument for a white guy to make.

lower the curtain down on Memphis

First off a question: did Charles Dickens name Amy Winehouse? No? Are we sure? So it’s just serendipity, then?

Now, an anecdote with a moral: a few months ago, a friend told me about a trip she took to Italy with her mother. In a dense part of Rome one morning, a pack of gypsies surrounded the two of them. One of them thrust a baby into her mother’s arms, proceeded to strip her mother of purse and watch, and then reclaimed the baby. “What do you do in that sort of situation?” she asked me, rhetorically.

“Drop the baby,” I answered.

She stared at me in horror. “You can’t just drop a baby!”

“No, you can’t force a baby on a stranger and rob them. What obligates me to show more concern for this child’s life than his own mother did?”

Of course, I have no problem saying this in my armchair – or, as when I heard the anecdote, the evening streets of Harvard Square – but I don’t know if I’d react as coldly in the actual situation. For one thing, the sheer bizarreness of it all (“who are these people? what’s this baby doing here? hey, my wallet!”) would probably stun me for the few seconds a pro needed. For another, I’m a notorious softy when you get past my cynical exterior; I don’t know that I’d actually drop a baby on the filthy cobblestones of Rome just to prove a point. And finally, the gypsies have been doing this for centuries – I’m sure they have a contingency plan for finding a hardass like me (scream in suddenly fluent Italian for the cops, press charges, etc).

Another bit about language: no one can agree on the proper nomenclature for the satisfied humming noise people make when they see tasty food. Either “mmmm” or “ummmm”. I always use the former, as I associate the latter with the awkward mouth sound people make when they struggle for the right word. Are you hungry or confused, sir? Please indicate in a follow-up letter.

Normally this doesn’t matter, except when someone goes overboard and writes in all-caps. Consider the following e-mails:

And then we can stop in at J.P. Lick’s for some … cake batter ice cream! MMMMMM!


And then we can stop in at J.P. Lick’s for some … cake batter ice cream! UMMMMM!

The latter, to me, looks like oddly loud indecision. “I DON’T KNOW WHAT I WANT. UMMMM … SHOULD I GET ICE CREAM OR COOKIES? UMMMM …” An autistic child, instead of a dessert connoisseur.

Finally, has anyone seen this ad on YouTube over the past two weeks? The Republicans want people to submit videos for their convention. I just want you to look at the elephant silhouette in the lower left:

Republican Cthulhu Ad

For those of you not as steeped in nerd culture as I am, take a look at this image of iconic Lovecraftian horror, the mad alien god Cthulhu:


Do you see it? Am I the only one who sees it? At the very least, making the trunk and the tusks the same color fails as a design choice.

the grandma test

Whenever I wonder whether I should get really angry about a feud on the Internet – or even in real life, where many Internet tendencies are born – I use a private standard, which I believe I invented, called the Grandma Test.

The Grandma Test works as follows: could my 85-year-old Southern grandmother understand the nature of this dispute if I brought it up to her in casual conversation?

I’ll give an actual example that has nothing to do with Internet arguments. Many years ago, my parents gave me a Sony minidisc player for Christmas. I started playing with it while visiting them for the holiday. My grandparents were visiting as well, and my grandmother saw me in the living room with the player one morning.

Grandma: Is that one of your gifts?
Me: Yes it is, Grandma.
Grandma: What is it?
Me: A minidisc player.
Grandma: What does it do?*
Me: It records mp3s that I download off the Internet onto minidiscs.
Grandma: It does what?

I explained it to her in detail, because I’m not a dick, but the sheer volume of concepts that I had to unpack in order to speak on it meaningfully – mp3, download, Internet, minidiscs – made it into more of an adventure than I anticipated.

Since then, I realized that many of the intractable differences I felt with strangers on the Internet would seem ludicrously trivial if viewed through the eyes of my grandmother. And 99.9996% of the time, this was because they were ludicrous. They were trivial. If my grandma couldn’t understand why I got so upset, what reason did I have?

Some examples (note that I never actually had any of these conversations; playing them out in my head served to soothe my nerves):

Grandma: What are you so mad about?
Me: Well, one of the mods on the RPG.net forums banned someone for posting a quiz on which movie Batman was best: Michael Keaton, George Clooney, Val …
Grandma: One of the who?
Me: A mod. A moderator.
Grandma: Moderating what?
Me: A forum. A message board. It’s where people go to post messages on the Internet.
Grandma: Messages about what?
Me: About sci-fi and comic books and pretending to be elves and … you know what, it’s not that big a deal. I don’t know why I’m so worked up over it.


Grandma: You look awfully perturbed.
Me: All the new members in this LJ community keep spamming the page with cat macros.
Grandma: In the what community?
Me: LiveJournal. It’s a blog aggregator.
Grandma: It’s a what?
Me: It puts all these blogs in one place. A blog is what people used to call a web page.
Grandma: That’s certainly an unusual name. Why do they call it ‘blog’?
Me: I don’t know.
Grandma: So this is a place you can go on the Internet that activates blogs?
Me: No, aggregates them. Collects them all onto one page.
Grandma: And what is this LiveJournal doing that got you so worked up?
Me: It’s not LiveJournal; it’s … actually, I can’t even remember at this point. Thanks, Grandma!
Grandma: Oh, I’m glad to help. Have a Fresca.


Grandma: What’s got you so mad, dear?
Me: Well, Atrios misinterpreted Glenn Greenwald’s response to Meghan McArdle’s post about … you know what, forget it. I’m better now.

My grandmother isn’t dumb, and she’s certainly not senile. But she doesn’t have the immense contextual investment that many of our generations (Gen X and Millennials) have in the Internet. In certain cases, that’s a good thing. It means she doesn’t take Facebook de-friending, threadcrapping, trolling or fisking as seriously as we do. And being able to reach that sense of perspective from time to time can only be healthy.

Face it: we’re arguing with strangers on the Internet over things we can’t control. It’s like leaving a slip of paper under a rock in the road for the next traveler to find, debating about how hot the sun should be tomorrow. We’re ridiculous people. If the source of your frustration doesn’t pass the Grandma Test, for the devil’s sake let it go.

* My grandmother, a Kentucky native and a lifelong Texan, transposed the h and the w in what, as all deep Southerners do. Try it yourself.