Monday, March 03, 2008


I never metaphor I didn't like

The most recent Carnival of Feminists highlights this item by Jess McCabe, which criticizes this jerk, who rants on about how attempts to make English more gender-neutral are “raping” the language. The rant is also available at The Weekly Standard, here.

Jess attacks his column well enough that I have little to add on that front. I’ll only say that his complaint about “firefighter” is probably the silliest. I know several firefighters — all men — and they all have preferred that term for years. And note that “fireman” also refers to the guy (as it always was) on the train who had the job of stoking the fire. “Firefighter” is not only gender-neutral, but also clearer and unambiguous.

But my point in writing this is to note that I really found David Gelernter’s column to be a hard-to-read slog. I thought about why:

It’s not because I disagree with his premise. I do, but I read a lot of things I disagree with that aren’t tedious.

It’s not that nearly everything he says to support that premise is crap. It is, as Ms McCabe says in more detail, but that’s not what makes it a slog.

It’s only partly because he’s ranting and it’s overlong. Again, he is, and it is — I wondered when it would end, or whether someone had invented the bottomless web page — but that’s not the biggest problem.

The biggest problems are that he’s pompous and has a horrid writing style. He’s packed the thing from beginning to end with ridiculous similes and with mixed and strained metaphors, and the result is laughable, a caricature of what it’s meant to be. He quotes Shakespeare, as though quoting Shakespeare gives anything credibility and erudition, and then he tosses out exactly the conciseness he praises Shakespeare for:

The prime rule of writing is to keep it simple, concrete, concise. Shakespeare’s most perfect phrases are miraculously simple and terse. ("Thou art the thing itself." "A plague o’ both your houses." "Can one desire too much of a good thing?") The young Jane Austen is praised by her descendants for having written "pure simple English." Meanwhile, in everyday prose, a word with useless syllables or a sentence with useless words is a house fancied-up with fake dormers and chimneys. It is ugly and boring and cheap, and impossible to take seriously.

Impossible to take seriously, indeed. Have a look at these gems, right up there with the “dormers and chimneys” line:

arrogant ideologues began recasting English into heavy artillery to defend the borders of the New Feminist state.

where he-or-she’s keep bashing into surrounding phrases like bumper cars and related deformities blossom like blisters

The well-aimed torpedo of Feminist English has sunk the whole process of teaching students to write.

straight from a magic spring that bubbled for him alone.

the he-or-she epidemic that was sweeping the country like a bad flu (or a bad joke).

feminism had already got America in a chokehold.

Unsatisfied with having rammed their 80-ton 16-wheeler into the nimble sports-car of English style, they proceeded to shoot the legs out from under grammar

The she-sentences that result tend to slam on a reader’s brakes and send him smash-and-spinning into the roadside underbrush

Who can afford to allow a virtual feminist to elbow her way like a noisy drunk into that inner mental circle where all your faculties (such as they are) are laboring

tendency to simplify and compress its existing structure (like a settling sea-bed)

I’ve left out the characterizations like “style-smashers”, “language rapists”, and “feminist warriors”; “the Academic-Industrial Complex”, “commissar-intellectuals”, and “the running dogs of the Establishment”.

One or two of these, even a few, would brighten up the piece. Overused, as they are, they just make it silly. Yes, David Gelernter knows how to turn a phrase. Into garbage.

And he finishes off his pompous diatribe with a question: “Do we have the courage to rebuild [the English language]?” Excuse me: courage? We might say that it requires courage to rebuild Iraq. Or New Orleans.

But dealing with a shift in language usage doesn’t take courage. You only have to get off your high horse.


Anonymous said...

Bravo! (Sorry, no gender-neutral way to say that.)


Julietta said...

Pretty funny that Gelernter means "learned one" in German. Wonder what the German word for pompous windbag jerk is? (I'm sure Barry knows, as he surprises me with his vast knowledge of almost everything. And if he doesn't know, he could make it up and I'd believe him! ;-))

Barry Leiba said...

«Wonder what the German word for pompous windbag jerk is?»

"Arschloch" will do, I think.

The Ridger, FCD said...

While it is true that Jane Austen never wrote "he or she", she was pretty profligate with her singular Theys...

Anonymous said...

Methinks Prof. Gelernter should stick to computer science.

lidija said...

Alright, I do not dare criticize a native English speaker (unless he or she is very related to me) but I will just say this much for those who want to reduce, and not expand the number of people who feel included, in speaking and writing, abstractly or specifically - get lost.