Category Archives: Language

Meaning and Demeaning

In today’s New York Times we see, in response to an article about the difficulties faced by working diabetics and their employers, the following letter (it’s number six in the linked collection):

To the Editor:

Thank you for your article. But you do a disservice to all those with diabetes by referring to them as “diabetics.” We are not our diseases; we are individuals with lives and families. Such a reference is demeaning and promotes just the discrimination you were reporting.

Susan Lesburg
Boston, Dec. 26, 2006

We are all aware, of course, that diabetes is merely a disease, and that those who suffer from it possess other attributes as well. In the article under discussion, however, the individuals chosen for consideration were selected precisely because of the salient characteristic they share — namely, that they do indeed suffer from this cruel affliction — and the term “diabetic” summarizes this distinction with precision and economy. The use of the term in such a context should not be seen by diabetics as diminishing their humanity — which, as nobody should have any reason to doubt, is surely as dignified and multifaceted as anyone else’s — and to eschew its use in favor of some euphemistic monstrosity such as “the pancreatically challenged” would serve only to draw another pint from a language and culture that are already well on their way to becoming quite utterly bloodless.

I have seen firsthand the suffering diabetes can cause, and certainly mean no disrespect to its victims. But Ms. Lesburg might do well to read this post, by the noted curmudgeon Deogolwulf.

Looking Up

Recently I was given a century-old copy of the immense Merriam-Webster International Dictionary of the English Language. This 1906 edition’s title page continues:

THE ISSUES OF 1864, 1879, AND 1884




Monkey Bards

We’ve all heard the suggestion that a roomful of monkeys hammering randomly away at typewriters would, given billions of years, recreate the complete works of Shakespeare. (A “typewriter”, for those of you whose brows are wrinkled solely by bafflement, is an antique mechanical device that generated crumpled sheets of paper.) It’s an interesting idea, but if you’re like me, you’ve just been too busy to try it out.

Well, the wait is over. Take a look at this. It’s not exactly instant gratification; thus far the sedulous simian simulacra have only got as far as the first 24 letters from “Henry IV, Part II”. But, as someone once said, “how poor are they that have not patience.”

Eggcorns and Snowclones

Yesterday’s New York Times ran a story about a website called Language Log, which I visited at once and had a hard time leaving. There is even a special introductory post written just for all the new visitors that came by as result of the piece in the Times.

If you love English, you’ll love this blog. Onto the sidebar it goes.

Cowboy Leg Beautiful Pole

I had to share this, which came to me by way of Eugene Jen.

Bon appétit.

The Bard of Bucks County

I wonder how many of you have ever read any S. J. Perelman, or even know the name. He was pretty much a household world, at least in New York and Hollywood, in his heyday, but fewer and fewer people that I mention him to even seem to know who he was.

Consonant Cluster Ice Cream

It’s time I commented on an alarming trend. Not only are we Americans more sedentary and obese than ever, nowadays we even have lazy tongues. You’d think with all the exercise they get they’d be regular Jack la Langues, but no, they’re slacking off just like the rest of us. And written English is feeling the effect.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

I love the English language. I love its immense vocabulary, largest of them all. I love its rich history of assimilation, which began with multiple invasions of the Scepter’d Isle itself, continued with the Earth-girdling expansion of the Empire, and which, with English now the international language of science and commerce, shows no sign of abatement.

It is a tricky, idiosyncratic tongue, full of broken rules and irregular spellings, in which the same strings of letters can take a bewildering variety of pronunciations (consider cough, though, through, plough, and rough). But from the pen or tongue of a master – a writer such as Shakespeare, Churchill, Joyce, Nabokov, Perelman, Tennyson, Austen, Twain, Wodehouse, Dickens, Pope, Swift, Shelley – the English language can lilt, evoke, command, arouse, describe, amuse, exalt, gladden, inform, seduce, provoke, abash, and delight with incomparable beauty, power and nuance.

But the icing on the cake is Cockney rhyming slang.

Oral Gratification

Here’s an interesting site that I recently happened upon:

An Illustrated Glossary of Rhetorical Terms

It’s all there, from “accumulation” (figure wherein a rhetor gathers scattered points and lists them together) to “zeugma” (use of a word to modify or govern two or more words although its use is grammatically or logically correct with only one). Here are some other goodies: