Tag Archives: language

The Nature of Terrorism

According to the definition of “terrorism,” we have some pretty half-assed terrorists out there.

Merriam Webster defines terrorism as “the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion.” Another definition says: “a surprise attack involving the deliberate use of violence against civilians in the hope of attaining political or religious aims.”

And the word terrorist is defined as “a person, group, or organization that uses violent action, or the threat of violent action, to further political goals….”

What’s missing from terrorism as spoken of by the media, politicians, and the general public? The goal. The coercion. Especially when discussing “domestic terrorism,” most of the examples have no goal. When no goal can be accomplished or even named, what you have is crime, not terrorism.

Oh, certainly some of them have goals – pointless, ineffective ones. The 9/11 attacks had a goal of destabilizing U.S. political, military, and financial structures. In that sense, it was terrorism. But as a goal, it was poorly thought-out. Political, military, and financial power in the U.S. are simply too complex and decentralized to be destroyed or even much hindered by destroying a symbol of that power.

Destroy the Pentagon and military power remains (not that the bombers succeeded in destroying the Pentagon). Destroy the World Trade Center and American capitalism carries on. Eliminate the White House and structures exist for the government to continue. While those events were powerful as symbols, as attempted coercion, they had the opposite of the effect intended. They did not weaken U.S. power; if anything, they increased it.

Goals of more “successful” terrorist actions have been more precise, and more effective. The terrorist acts of the Irish Republican Army resulted in the release from prison of members of their organizations. The domestic Islamic terrorism of the Taliban caused women in Afghanistan to abandon jobs and other freedoms for fear of violence against them. The violence and threat of more violence coerced them into altering their behavior.

Compare the lack of effectiveness of “Islamic terrorism” in the U.S. Any Sharia law enacted? No. Any convicted prisoners freed? Any populations so terrorized that they abandon former freedoms and daily routines? These shootings and bombings have been crimes, but not actual terrorism. Or at least not terrorism successful in its objectives.

And what of “lone-wolf” terrorism in the U.S.? (Let’s remember that Timothy McVeigh was not a lone wolf. He had accomplices. And they caused terrible death and destruction, but not terror in the sense of attempted coercion.) David Koresh’s Branch Davidians did not have an apparent goal. They caused fear for the people held hostage and for the lives of the government representatives trying to remove them from their compound. But they posed no real threat to the ATF, the U.S. government, or the population of Waco, TX – only to themselves and their children. The Unabomber’s schizophrenic efforts seemed random to anyone who could not follow his demented logic, because they were, indeed, random and unhinged.

The anthrax scare was perhaps the most ineffective of all. While ostensibly targeting the media and the Congress (again, to what supposed effect?), they primarily caused terror among tabloid mailroom employees and assistants who open mail for higher-ups. Fear, maybe. Terror, no. There were no demands, no goals, no proposed change in potential victim behavior.

In the U.S., the most “successful” terrorist actions have been those against abortion clinics and gay meeting places. Abortion clinics have not been eliminated (at least by bombings and shootings), but employees have in response to the death and destruction quit their jobs or instituted complex and expensive security measures. Bombings and shootings at gay night clubs and hate crimes against individuals, for example, have not eliminated the gay population, of course, but they may have had a chilling effect on the gay community and their willingness to speak up, gather in public, and feel secure in public spaces.

And what of other “terrorist” attacks like the Boston Marathon bombing? Did that event have its desired effect of bringing attention to the situation in Chechnya? No. What does the citizen-on-the-street know about Chechnya? Any more than before? That bombing and other attacks have been expressions of impotent rage, futile protests, and deadly crimes, but they have not been terrorism.

Calling these actions “terrorism” gives them a power they do not have. Terrorism is meant to alter the everyday behavior of people or institutions. To some small extent, they have done that. Americans are more vigilant, more suspicious, more angry, but not more ready to give in to the goals (if any) of the terrorists. That suspicion and anger are in many cases too widespread and likewise devoid of specific achievable goals, but they are certainly not effects that supposed terrorists intended.

The terrorists have not won. Yes, they’ve killed and maimed and destroyed property and lives, strained our resources, and made us unreasonably fearful. But they’ve hardly accomplished anything.

 

 

 

Who Is a Lady?

 

Lately there have been a lot of memes portraying Michelle Obama and Melania Trump. Among the many questions raised, along with personal style, charitable activity, physical grace, and styles of dress, is this: Which one is a true lady? If I remember correctly, one specific meme asked about “showing skin” vs. “class.”)

Since this is a problem of definition and I am a former English major, I felt compelled to jump right in. Here are some definitions I’ve heard for the term “lady.”

“A lady never wears white after Labor Day.” As far as I can tell, all prohibitions regarding fashion have, praise be, flown out the window. Here’s what wisegeek.org has to say about the white/Labor Day rule:

In many parts of the United States, a rule about not wearing white after Labor Day . . . is heavily ingrained. The roots of the idea . . . appear to be shrouded in mystery, and the rule has been greatly relaxed since the 1950s and 1960s, when it was more heavily enforced. People who choose to wear white into the fall are no longer heavily criticized for the choice, and are sometimes embraced as fashion forward trendsetters.

Originally, the restriction applied only to white dress shoes and pumps, which are typically unsuitable for winter weather anyway.

“A lady is never unintentionally vulgar.” My friend Doreen said this, though she was paraphrasing Lillian Day, who said, “A lady is one who never shows her underwear unintentionally.” (The gender-flipped equivalent of this is Oscar Wilde’s “A gentleman is one who never hurts anyone’s feelings unintentionally.” I have also been informed that there is a version that goes “A gentleman is one who, when he pisses in the sink, removes the dishes first.”)

“A lady only accepts countertop appliances.” This idiosyncratic rule was voiced by my friend Karen upon learning that a male acquaintance had offered to buy a mutual friend a dishwasher. I’m sure there must be a rule somewhere about gifts of jewelry (“A lady only accepts semi-precious stones”), and if there isn’t, I’m inventing it now. One has to be more than just good friends with a man to accept diamonds.

“A lady has modest and maidenly airs and virtue a blind man could see that I lack.” Uh-oh. Now I’m quoting from Man of La Mancha. Someone stop me. It takes us into Madonna/whore territory, where I suppose this discussion has been heading all along. Or Lady/Tramp. No wait, that’s Disney.

Notice that in all but the first and last instances, the qualities of a lady can be seen only by her actions and not by her appearance. A lady is as a lady does, as it were. That’s one reason that Michelle/Melania memes are ridiculous. You can’t tell whether either woman is a lady simply by her appearance. It is her actions (not showing underwear, not accepting large appliances) that are better at separating ladies from women.

And after all, isn’t that what we’re talking about here? Having rules that separate women from other women and making a judgment on who is the better person? This dichotomy has assorted male versions as well (sperm donor/daddy, gentleman/jerk, redneck/anyone else), but it’s the woman/lady rules that carry a real bite. Ladies are worthy of respect; mere women are not, is the implication. There are even further distinctions: lady/slut is the most common and most invidious.

It’s my belief that these comparisons are frivolous and ridiculous, meant to divide (and conquer) women by pitting them against one another instead of paying attention to issues and distinctions that really matter. Then another person is entitled to hoist his (yes, his) nose in the air and say,”Women will never be able to hold power when they’re always sniping at each other and obsessing about shoes.”

Apologies to Doreen and Karen, who I think were being ironic rather than sniping, but if we want other people to stop judging us, we should give ourselves a break too. “Lady” is a term with little meaning. It essentially says only, “I like and approve of this woman but not that one.” It’s not worth mud-slinging about. Or wasting our time on insulting memes.

Grammar Rules I’ve Given Up

For my entire life, I’ve been known as a Grammar Nazi. The Punctuation Czar. Now, not so much. I’ve written about that before: http://wp.me/p4e9wS-6z

In that post I said:

I used to take delight in knowing all the rules and enforcing them ruthlessly. Gradually I have gotten away from that practice. I felt it was impolite to go around correcting people unless they had asked for my help. I still corrected my family because – hey – it was mentally painful to be around people who misused “hopefully” or split infinitives. Or who mispronounced “nuclear” or “foliage,” for that matter.

Gradually, I changed. Here are some of the rules I am no longer an enforcement officer for.

Split infinitives

I admit that my desire to throw this rule overboard was influenced by my hope that I might find a way to approve of the phrase “to boldly go.” (Okay. I was a grammar geek, but the other kind as well.) Then, one day, I found my “out.” The rule was not only wrong; it was stupid.

The old bugaboo about not splitting an infinitive, to which I was passionately devoted, has its source in the fact that in Latin it is impossible to split an infinitive. Latin infinitives are all one word. It makes no sense to transfer that rule to English.

I breathed much easier the next time I watched Star Trek.

Impact 

I hate the use of “impact” except as a way of referring to one thing crashing into another thing – an asteroid into a planet, for example. I still much prefer that to its metaphorical usage, in which it means “has an effect on.” There’s already a perfectly good word for that – “affect.”

My co-workers, however, ridiculed me mercilessly on this one. They showed me examples of “impact” used to mean “affect” in other pieces of writing. They counted the number of times I made the change. They never let up.

And eventually I caved. It still sounds awful to me, but I have given up defending the usage. I have not, however, given up the rule that “affect” is a verb and “effect” is a noun 99% of the time, with the one percent being so seldom used as to be negligible.

Not starting sentences with “and” or “but”

Or “so.” Or “or,” for that matter. I know that conjunctions don’t belong at the beginning of sentences in Standard (Formal) Written English. But what I write is usually informal, colloquial English. If I followed the aforementioned rule, that last sentence would have had to have been, “What I write, however, is usually informal.” I use “however” enough as it is. And phrases like “would have had to have been.” (I suppose since I am writing informally here, I should have written “would have had to be,” but there you are, it’s hard to break these habits after so many years.)

There are some grammar and punctuation rules that I have not given up, however.

The semicolon

Noted author David Gerrold recently declared the semicolon obsolete and ugly. I disagree, and not just because I have one tattooed on my left wrist (http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-9G). To me, the semicolon is both elegant and useful; it implies a connection between two independent clauses. In that sentence, the semicolon means that the semicolon, by implying a connection between the two halves of the sentence, is therefore both elegant and useful. If I had said, “The semicolon is both elegant and useful. It implies a connection between two independent clauses,” those would have been true, simple statements. But they would not have emphasized the connection between the function of the semicolon and its beauty and elegance.

Okay. I’ll shut up about the semicolon now. David Gerrold and I will just have to agree to disagree.

The Oxford comma

First, let me say that one of my main clients does not use the Oxford (or “serial”) comma in the pieces I must edit, and it chips away at my soul each time I have to remove one. The lack of an Oxford comma can make a sentence both confusing and laughable. You’d get book dedications like this: To my parents, my English teacher and Barack Obama. Without the Oxford comma (the one that should go after “teacher”), everything after “parents,” becomes an appositive – equivalent to what came before. In other words, sans Oxford comma, the author is saying that her English teacher and Barack Obama are her parents. All that hilarity and confusion can be avoided with a simple comma.

The subjunctive mood

Don’t get me started on the subjunctive mood. No, I mean really don’t. We’ll be here all day.

The Next Top Iron Writer Is Chopped

Two of my favorite things in the world are language and food. But they almost never come together except in recipes and restaurant reviews, both of which I find extremely boring.

What I do like are food game shows: Chopped, Iron Chef, Guy’s Grocery Games, Beat Bobby Flay, Top Chef, and so on. They provide the combination of food preparation, competition, and a reality show that demonstrates a real talent that satisfies my needs.

But where is the language element in all this? (Except for creative cursing and abuse when Gordon Ramsey goes off on a poor, put-upon contestant.)

There are language contests, which are harder to find, especially on TV. Fictionary and Scrabble are two examples. Whose Line Is It Anyway?, while a comedy improv show, had several games that relied on the performer’s quick-thinking use of language. And occasionally at science fiction conventions, you’ll see a contest in which people try to read aloud a notoriously bad, hideously written manuscript until they start laughing, when the next contestant gets a turn.

But what if we create a mash-up of the two sorts of games and design them for writers? What would we have then? I have here a few ideas.

First, get a bunch of writer contestants, of various genres. Then a few editor judges. Then the fun begins.

Genre mash-up. Have each author draw a genre at random and write a paragraph or story in that style. Possible genres: science fiction, romance, Shakespearean, soft porn, mystery. No one is allowed to write in his or her own genre.

For the bonus round, have the contestants draw two genres and write a science fiction story à la Shakespeare, for example. Or have one contestant gain an advantage and assign genres to the other contestants.

Assign an author. The host chooses a plot: jewel thief is discovered; pirate attacks ship; a child is kidnapped; talking bunny meets talking bear; worker is fired. Then have the writers draw the name of a writer and write in that author’s style: Ernest Hemingway, Lewis Carroll, Victor Hugo, Tennessee Williams, Jane Austen, etc.

Age swap. Have writers choose a famous children’s book (Alice in Wonderland, Horton Hears a Who, The Giving Tree, Bunnicula) and rewrite a passage from it for a grown-up audience. Or have contestants rewrite a passage from an adult book (Gone With the Wind, Of Mice and Men, On the Road, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) and render it suitable for a child.

Who’s the author?/first lines. Contestants write a passage in the style of a writer of their choice and the judges have to guess who the imitated author is. Or the writers take a famous first line from a novel or story and must write something completely different to complete it.

Word list. The moderator gives the contestants a list of random words (spring, car, lonely, chart, vegetable, and tissue, for example) and they have to write a sonnet using them all.

ABC. The host draws a letter of the alphabet, and the writers must write a 50-word paragraph using that letter as many times as possible. The winner is determined by who used the letter the most.

Of course, this would not make for very compelling television, though you could have close-ups of the writers wiping their brows; professional actors reading aloud the poems, stories, and paragraphs; time limits; and even annoying Jeopardy-style music in the background as the writers work.

And think of the prizes! Money, of course. A new computer/word processing system with all the software and other bells and whistles; for the semi-finalists, a writer’s nook including desk, bookshelves, file cabinets, printer/fax; and for the winner – publication, of course!

Losers would receive either a collection of writing reference books or a Deluxe Scrabble set.

I’d watch it.

Next, I have to invent a cable network that would carry the program.

How My Husband Got Me Hooked on Buffy

Twenty years ago, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a TV show with a target audience of teen girls. My husband, despite not being a teen girl,  turned me (also not a teen girl) on to the show and got me hooked.

I had seen the movie and wasn’t that impressed. It was silly fun, with a classic over-the-top death scene acted by Paul Reubens (aka Pee-wee Herman). There was also an appearance by a very young Hilary Swank, and Donald Sutherland played the Slayer’s mentor. But not anything I’d ever want to see again.

So when a television series appeared, I ignored it.

But my husband didn’t. He became a fan.

He wasn’t one of those fans who sits people down in front of a TV and says, “Here! You have to watch 15 episodes of this amazing show!” (This would be appropriate for Firefly, another show that, like Buffy, was the brainchild of Joss Whedon, except that it never made it to 15 episodes.)

No, he was more subtle than that. He’d be watching the show and invite me to join him. “I don’t think so,” I would reply. Still, I would see a few minutes of the show as I passed through the living room.

And then one day I caught a scene from an episode in which Buffy was working at a fast-food establishment where employees had been disappearing and the food had a “secret ingredient.”

“Hah!” I thought. “This is so predictable!”

Then the top of a little old lady’s head came off, a monster emerged, and tried to eat Buffy. The secret ingredient in the meat turned out to be meat flavoring, which was being added to non-meat patties.

That sharp left turn caught me. Maybe this show did have some wit and style.

I still didn’t pay a lot of attention until the show went off the air. When it went into reruns, I could watch one episode a day and follow the story arcs (yes, it had them) and found out that Buffy was more than just teen-girl-kills-monster-of-the-week pop fluff.

It had bite. (Sorry.)

Joss Whedon has said that the show was about female empowerment. Instead of being a stereotypical victim-of-a-vampire, Buffy is the strong, capable hero who defeats evil, aided by her “Scooby Gang” of mostly female sidekicks.

Except those sidekicks have story arcs of their own. For example, Willow is a witch who dabbles in black magic in addition to the good kind. But magic, it seems, can become an addiction. Multiple episodes follow Willow as she goes from magic tweaking, to heavy involvement, to jonesing, to a destructive habit that wrecks her relationships with those around her (and almost destroys the earth).

Buffy used the basic vampire/monster plot to comment on common events in a young person’s life – high school, dating, freshman roommates, binge drinking (which turned students into cave people) – as well as topics like the aforementioned addiction, teen suicide, performance-enhancing drugs, and various shades of morality.

And the dialogue! I’m a language junkie. I don’t deny it. And in addition to the then-current teen slang, the show had its own idiom, known as “Buffy Speak.”

TV Tropes describes it thus:

[It] can give the sense of a teenaged group’s special jargon or argot without necessarily imitating anything actually found in the real world. Slang language, especially for the younger set, tends to change at warp speed. Buffy Speak allows a level of timelessness…. http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/BuffySpeak

And here’s a scholarly article about it: http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2012/08/buffy-the-vampire-slayer/

(Speaking of dialogue, Buffy also featured some break-the-mold episodes, including one in which no one can speak and one in which everyone sings their lines, musical-style, with dancing.)

Was it the feminist subtext? The busting of stereotypes and tired plots? The playful language? The hunky vampires? Perhaps the secret to my eventually becoming a fan of Buffy is the fact that, despite my chronological age, I’ve got a 14-year-old living inside my head (http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-g1). And maybe my husband knew that.

Although I don’t want to speculate who’s living inside his head.

BOLO: The Word Crimes Just Keep Coming!

“Word Crimes” was a big hit for Weird Al Yankovic, ttto “Blurred Lines,” a song that needed the Weird Al treatment if one ever did. But there are lots more word crimes that never made it into the song, likely because to get radio play, a song has to be under four minutes long. In my life as an editor, I see word crimes that are 182 pages long.

Now back to that “ttto.” It may be fairly easy to decode that as “to the tune of,” just from context. IMHO, AFAIK, BTW, and IIRC are becoming common enough online acronyms, but what are we to do with TH:TBotFA? Or THGttG (sometimes written as THHGttG). I know we all could sit here for hours and make up things that they could stand for, but there are better things to do, like petting the cat or helping the needy.

If you are at all familiar with geek culture, you may know that these acronyms are movie and book titles – The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies and The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, respectively. It’s bad enough that you sound like a noob (newbie) (neophyte) if you ask what ST:TOS means (Star Trek: The Original Series – you know, the one with Captain Kirk). But we fancy literary types don’t inflict acronyms on others. We don’t say FftMC when we mean Far from the Madding Crowd or TCoL49 for The Crying of Lot 49.

Perhaps the most annoying acronym of all is STFUATMM (or more politely, SUATMM. STFU is familiar to all but the most genteel, who abbreviate it as SU, but ATMM is more problematic, since this time no one bothers with lowercase letters to help you guess articles, conjunctions, and the like. No, this phrase is “Shut (the fuck) Up And Take My Money,” which means, “You don’t have to say another word; you had me at ‘buy.'”

Full disclosure: I must admit that in my other blog (bipolarjan.wordpress.com), I do use the acronym YMMV, or “Your Mileage May Vary,” to indicate that my experiences should not be generalized to everyone.

Another language trend which has gotten out of hand is “portmanteau words” –two words squashed together to make a new word with a meaning that combines them both.  (A portmanteau is a cross between a trunk and a suitcase.) Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland, was, if not the inventor, surely a most prolific coiner of portmanteaus. The appear everywhere in his classic poem “Jabberwocky” – “slithy,” meaning “lithe” and “slimy,” for instance, or one that the English language has retained: “chortle,” from “chuckle” and “snort.” It’s just so damn useful.

“Brunch” and “motel” are useful portmanteaus too, but advertising has taken such words too far. I suppose it’s too late to kill off “sale-a-bration,” but can we call a moratorium on “transfarency” (airline usage) and “unjection” (prescription medicine)? Bon appe-cheese? Trucksicle?  And anything that ends in “-licious” or “-tastic”?

And while we’re on the subject of advertising, can we please stop having Washington and Lincoln dancing around for Presidents Day sales? It’s undignified, first of all, and there is no known connection between the leaders of our country and linens, unless you credit the rumors that Washington slept virtually everywhere.

You could, I suppose, make a connection between Washington and nurseries that sell cherry trees, but even that would be bogus and nurseries’ advertising budgets are not huge. (They spend it all on catalogues.)

Not to worry, though. Even if we manage to eliminate these heinous crimes, there are plenty of others in existence and soon to be created. Among the ones that make me shudder are weather-related portmanteaus like “Snowpocalypse” and “Snowmageddon”; “gifted” to mean “gave someone a present”; and most words that end in “ize.” And don’t even get me started on the way my husband pronounces “foliage” when he reads those nursery catalogues. Or how “catalogue,” “dialogue,” and “doughnut” are spelled these days. Or…or…or…

 

The Weather Is Not Bipolar. I Am.

Yeah, I get what you’re saying. The weather changes a lot, and sometimes drastically, so you say it has mood swings. And what’s more associated with mood swings than bipolar disorder?

I know, it’s a metaphor – a shorthand way of comparing things to each other, like comparing a choice to two roads diverging in a yellow wood.

The problem is, there are people on one side of this comparison, and they have a mental disorder. Bipolar literally means a neurochemical disorder of the brain that a person cannot control.It isn’t warmth in December and snow in April. It’s not just a matter of feeling happy one day and sad another. Everyone gets that.

Not everyone has bipolar disorder.

I do.

I have no control over whether I will wake up in the morning eager to get out of bed and start my day, or unable to get out of bed at all. No, you can’t control the weather either, but that’s nothing compared to being able to control your own moods, thoughts, and even actions.

Bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and other mental disorders are conditions that affect, inhibit, and even ruin people’s lives and relationships. They are not conditions to be made light of, any more than developmental disabilities are. Bipolar is a disorder – a disease, if you will – that can confuse, terrify, and impair you; unsettle, disrupt, and destroy your relationships; shred your memory; take you to the brink of suicide and beyond, if you’re unlucky or untreated.

So, no. Your picky friend probably does not have OCD. OCD is a psychological condition that inhibits a person’s actions based on a complex series of numbers, behaviors, and rituals. It’s lots worse than simply straightening picture frames. Narcissism is not just being vain. Just like high blood pressure is not just someone who avoids salt or diabetic is someone who just avoids sugar. They are medical conditions. We may joke about needing insulin when a new couple overdoes the endearments, but that’s a far cry from really needing insulin. 

Many mental disorders involve neurons and synapses and neurotransmitter chemicals in your brain, and maybe genes. Can you control those by yourself? I thought not. Neither can I.

What I can do is go to a psychiatrist who gives me medications that help control those pesky neurotransmitters. And a psychologist who shares with me ways to cope with the messiness of the life I have to deal with.

And, make no mistake, those professionals and those chemicals do help. They give me more control over my emotions than you have over the weather.

So if you shouldn’t call the weather bipolar or your picky relative OCD, what about public figures? Aren’t they fair game? Can we say, for instance, that Donald Trump is a narcissist? Most likely, yes. Can we say that he has a psychological condition called Narcissistic Personality Disorder? Or Borderline Personality Disorder? Or Sociopathy?

No. The most we might say is that he displays some narcissistic traits, or that he is, in colloquial terms only, narcissistic. But can we diagnose him, say that he has one or another of these psychological conditions? It’s tempting to diagnose from a distance. That’s dangerous. Actual psychological disorders can be diagnosed only by a professional who has actually spoken to the person in question. Anything else is pop psychology and a disservice to the mental health profession. Not to mention a disrespect to people who actually live with those conditions.

I know that psychological terms get tossed around loosely, especially in everyday, colloquial English. I get that they’re shorthand for more complex ideas. Still, it bugs me when someone says weather is bipolar or Trump is a sociopath. I like precision in language. I like it especially when it hits close to home.

What I have is not like the weather. Oh, it comes and goes. But I can’t get away from it just by going indoors. I can’t lessen its effects by putting on or taking off layers of clothing. I can’t turn on the Weather Channel for a prediction of how I will feel later in the week. I can’t move to a place where bipolar is more pleasant.

That would be crazy.

 

 

 

 

Let’s Talk: Policing My Own Voice

I recently posted a piece on how women’s voices are being criticized and discounted via both voice policing and tone policing. (http://wp.me/p4e9wS-sx)

Now I want to talk about another kind of voice policing – the kind I am learning to apply to myself.Woman covering closed mouth. Speak no evil concept

Over the years, my voice has done things that I didn’t intend for it to do, principally driving away acquaintances, potential friends, and even established friends. I believe that part of this phenomenon has to do with my tone and how I express myself.

Expert linguist (and noted science fiction author) Suzette Haden Elgin described it this way: “For English, more than half of the information is not in the words but in the body language, including the intonation of the voice – the melody of the voice – that goes with the words.” (https://www.scribd.com/doc/78998622/Suzette-Elgin-The-Gentle-Art-of-Verbal-Self-Defense-Overview)

Most people know intuitively what certain vocal intonations mean and how they can be used to alter the meaning of a sentence. In the movie My Cousin Vinny, a character responds to an accusation of murder by saying in a tone of disbelief and horror, “I shot the clerk!!!??” When this part of the interrogation is read aloud in court, in a level tone, “I shot the clerk” sounds like a confession.

The difference is in the “melody” of the two utterances.

The effects of tone or melody can even be recognized in two- or three-word sentences. Here’s an example:

“Don’t do that” simply means not to do something – give the cat a treat between meals, for example.

“DONT do that” means “I know you think that’s what I told you to do, but you’re mistaken.”

“Don’t DO that” means “You’re annoying me.”

“Don’t do THAT” means “That idea is ridiculous, idiotic, or harmful,” and possibly “You’re an idiot.”

Or think about the shades of meaning you can convey with one syllable: “No.” “Yeah.” “Right.” They can mean exactly the opposite of their definition, along with dozens of other shades of meaning: disbelief, denial, offense, uncertainty, questioning, agreement, scorn, and “You’re an idiot.”

Vocal intonation is very difficult to convey in writing without extra punctuation or modifiers like “in a level tone.” My unfortunate inability to understand vocal melody – or to produce the correct one – is likely the reason that my statements are misunderstood. They come out sounding like sarcasm, snark, or know-it-all superiority, none of which is likely to be appreciated by the hearer.

And that’s been my problem. Unintentionally, I have been making verbal attacks on people. To quote Elgin again: “Any time you hear a lot of extra stresses and emphasis on words or parts of words, you should be on the alert.” The hearer may not be able to identify what makes the sentence an attack rather than just rude (which I am also quite capable of accidentally producing), but she or he can tell it’s not pleasant.

Every time I have said, “Don’t do THAT” instead of “Don’t do that,” I have made an impression that I am a snotty, overbearing, judgmental person.

I have a particular memory of doing just that. A person mentioned casually that she wasn’t going to get a flu shot because she had heard they contained the flu virus. “But that’s how vaccines WORK!” I replied. My tone conveyed “Everyone should know that” and “You’re an idiot.”

I shudder to think how many people I have called idiots without meaning to.

And that’s just in regular conversations. When I attempt to be amusing or humorous, I probably get the “music” wrong a lot of the time and offend. Of course, some of my friends like sarcasm and snark, but I forget that not everyone does.

Talking on the phone and in email or chat is particularly fraught with possibilities for misunderstanding and offense. On the phone, vocal melody is all. The other person can’t see your facial expression – raised eyebrows, frown or smile, puzzlement, a nod of approval. Some people suggest smiling even though it can’t be seen – that it makes a difference in your voice. I’ve never been able to get the hang of that, though.

In email and chat, you don’t even have vocal melody to help. Emojis and <sarcasm on> and <sarcasm off> can convey expression, but they’re clumsy and easy to forget. The internet is a place where misunderstanding and giving offense are easy to do.

There is one way I have improved my voice. I have trained myself to listen for and use strangers’ names in phone conversations with company representatives: “Here’s my problem, Jackie.” “I appreciate your help, Keanna.” (This works in person, too. Who wouldn’t rather hear, “Kevin, I have a question” than “Waiter, I have a question”? It’s right there on the name tag. I can remember that for half an hour, especially if I reinforce myself by using it.)

Does it actually matter whether servers and customer service people are offended or encouraged by my tone? I like to think that it does, and that vocal melody makes a difference to the service I get and the next person’s too. And it’s a way of practicing controlling my vocal tone.

I may never have a toned body, but I’m doing my best to have a properly toned voice!

Let’s Talk: Policing Women’s Voices

Women’s voices are important. Anymore, few people deny that women have something to say.

Why, then, are so many people distracted from what women say by how they say it?

voice2There are two kinds of criticism of women’s voice: voice policing and tone policing. Note that both imply that someone is monitoring women’s speech and “policing” it – telling them what is permissible, or at least what standards they must adhere to if they want to be heard, listened to, and taken seriously.


Voice Policing.
Do you find women’s voices shrill, hesitant, un-confident, not authoritative, or childish? Then you might be one of the voice police.

The voice police pay attention to the vocal characteristics of women’s speech and judge them on supposedly unattractive or ineffective qualities. Let’s be clear. There’s nothing wrong with finding an individual woman’s speech unappealing – too nasal, too soft, too pretentious. It’s when a trait is ascribed to all women – or to a broad subgroup, such as young women – that is problematic. And judging women as a group negatively based on the sounds of their voices is a form of discrimination, especially  it leads to fewer job opportunities.

Two examples of vocal characteristics that raise the hackles on many are “upspeak” or “uptalk” and “vocal fry.”

“Uptalk” is the tendency for vocal pitch to go up at the end of sentences making everything sound like a question. Many people find that this makes the speaker sound insecure. Some even find that it hurts women in their careers, since they read it as lack of confidence. It is also associated with the much-deplored “Valley Girl” speech patterns of the early 2000s. (I must confess that I personally find uptalk annoying, but not enough to “correct” someone who does it.)

“Vocal fry” is the voice pattern that has replaced uptalk as the annoyance of the moment. In some ways the opposite of uptalk, vocal fry involves lowering the voice and speaking with a creaky or gravelly sound. I am told that the Kardashian family do this, but I hear it in Mila Kunis’s whiskey commercials.

The Huffington Post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/05/30/vocal-fry-jobs-women_n_5417810.html) discussed the findings of a study that supports the idea that vocal fry harms a woman’s career (other than Mila Kunis’s, I mean).

When evaluating job candidates, participants preferred normal-voiced women 86 percent of the time, and normal-voiced men 83 percent of the time. Vocal fry also appeared to most negatively affect the trustworthiness score.

I have to wonder how many men find that vocal fry suggests untrustworthiness because they hear it as a sexual come-on inappropriate in a business setting. (Let’s also note that the authors of the study contrasted vocal friers with “normal-voiced” women, which implies that vocal fry is abnormal.)

But did you notice that the study refers to men’s vocal fry as well?

In an NPR interview (http://www.npr.org/2015/07/23/425608745/from-upspeak-to-vocal-fry-are-we-policing-young-womens-voices) Stanford linguistics professor Penny Eckert points out:

The complaints about female upspeak and vocal fry ignore the fact that men also engage in those habits. “People are busy policing women’s language and nobody is policing older or younger men’s language. The biggest users of vocal fry traditionally have been men, and it still is; men in the U.K, for instance. And it’s considered kind of a sign of hyper-masculinity,” Eckert notes.

She argues that “women shouldn’t have to change their voices to suit society.”

Tone Policing. Tone policing is another matter, and the more troubling of the two. The Urban Dictionary (http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=tone%20police) defines “tone police” as

…people who focus on (and critique) how something is said, ignoring whether or not it is true. They will discard a true statement simply because they don’t like how it was presented.

This is particularly noticeable regarding women in the public eye (or ear). During the recent election season, you often heard Hillary Clinton’s voice described as “shrill” or “nagging.” Her messages often took second place to how her voice was perceived. And protestors or those who are angry about a situation are told to “calm down,” “stop being so angry,” or “not make such a big deal of it.”

Feminists, women (and men) of color, and young people are often the objects of tone policing. In its definition of tone police, the Urban Dictionary gives this example of the underlying sentiment: “You might be right, but since I don’t like how you said it, I demand you apologize!”

An opinion piece in a tumblr blog (http://tooyoungforthelivingdead.tumblr.com/tone-policing) explains:

Tone policing is the ultimate derailing tactic. When you tone police, you automatically shift the focus of the conversation away from what you or someone else did that was wrong, and onto the other person and their reaction. … It dismisses the other person’s position by framing it as being emotional and therefore irrational.

In cases of oppression, aggression, and discounting, being calm is not the automatic response, or even the appropriate one. The post goes on to explain:

When someone says something oppressive — that can be a racist slur, an ableist stereotype, a misogynist dismissal, an invalidation of identity/experiences, being asked invasive and entitled questions, and so on – it feels like being slapped in the face…And, frankly, it’s cruel and ridiculous to expect a person to be calm and polite in response to an act of oppression.

In fact, invalidating a person’s experience by telling her or him to “calm down” or not to “get so worked up” or even “where’s your sense of humor?” will not – and should not – have the desired effect, though it may end the interaction. (As I once heard it expressed, “Never in the history of calming down has anyone ever calmed down when told to calm down.”)

Voice policing and tone policing are difficult to notice until someone points them out. Let’s try to remember that the message – the content – is the most important piece of the act of speech. Let’s try not to let the sound of speech overwhelm the substance.

The Last Eight Years: Things That Didn’t Happen

After the stress of the last eight months or so, we may be tempted to forget what happened in the last eight years – and what didn’t.

I just want to point out:
• No one outlawed guns. This has been predicted every single year during the last eight. If it hasn’t happened yet, it’s always bound to tomorrow. But in fact, even when there is a national tragedy involving guns, various half-assed solutions get batted about (along with thoughts and prayers), but no one with the power to do so ever suggests outlawing guns.
• No one took away everyone’s guns. The corollary. It sounds all gutsy and macho to say that no one will ever take your guns. But think for a minute. Even if this were the law, how would it be enforced? Would jack-booted thugs go from door to door, saying, “Give us all your guns, or else!” There aren’t enough jack-booted thugs in the country, not to mention who would be crazy enough to sign up for that particular duty?
• There were no death panels. If you want to stretch a point, we have the same death panels we’ve always had – faceless insurance bureaucrats who get to approve or disapprove drugs, treatments, and procedures. But government committees who get to decide whether to pull the plug on Granny? No. Just no.
• There were no FEMA reeducation camps. Again, the infrastructure to do this would be impossible: building the camps, rounding up all the ideologically incorrect, recruiting re-educators. Like the Democrats could get that organized. Don’t tell me it happened in Nazi Germany. Reeducation camps didn’t happen here, with eight years to get them rolling. And when there were Japanese internment camps, the U.S. had to apologize and pay reparations. Speaking of which…
• White people did not have to pay slave reparations. Can you imagine getting this past the Supreme Court (as it would surely be challenged), given the conservative majority and decisions like Citizens United and the gutting of the Voting Rights Act? Can you imagine the tax revolt that would ensue? It’s little wonder that no one even suggested this, much less tried to accomplish it.
• No one attacked Texas via tunnels under Walmart. C’mon, people. Get serious. Not even Tom Clancy or Jerry Bruckheimer would buy this premise. It wouldn’t even make a good summer action thriller, much less actually happen.
• No state seceded. They didn’t during the last eight years, and they’re not going to now. For one thing, that was the spark for the actual Civil War, and no one has time or resources for another one now (although it might make a dent in the unemployment problem). The facts are that any state that seceded, besides being in open rebellion against the government, would lose all their federal subsidies, grants, and other monies, leaving the state to fill in the gaps. Massive state tax increases would surely ensue, and you know how well that would go over.
• Secret weather machines and chemtrails have not affected us. Again, c’mon. We’re into tin foil hat and James Bond supervillain territory. All we need is a fluffy white cat with green eyes to look down its nose at us. Besides, government scientists are too busy responding to Zika mosquito and Ebola threats.
• Osama bin Laden is not still hiding in a cave. Nope. Still dead. (Personally, I think Obama’s press secretary should have had him open every press conference with this.)
• The country did not become a dictatorship run by czars. Looking back on the last eight years, does anyone really believe the Democrats could have pushed through a dictatorship, czar-run or otherwise? Oh, wait, Obama was supposed to do that with the stroke of a pen by canceling elections. Did that happen while we weren’t looking? Or while I was standing in line for an hour to vote?

Doesn’t anyone feel the least bit silly?

I’d say that now we’re going to see similar fears and threat assessments from the liberals, but they don’t have Frank Luntz, linguistic spin doctor extraordinaire, on their side. Can America ride out the new administration the way it did the last one? There may be – will be – have been – incidents of hate and violence and ugliness. There will certainly be protest movements (though I hope they pick a better name than “teabaggers”). Neighbors and families and politicians are not going to get together, hold hands, and sing “Kumbayah.”

But we got through the last eight divisive years. And the eight divisive years before that. I know many people fear mass deportations, internment camps, and war, either civil or nuclear. Are those fears reasonable? Will they come to pass?

Meet me back here in four years.