Tag Archives: register

Who are you, and who are you talking to?

Here are the slides from my presentation at the 2016 Editors Canada conference. I didn’t have a separate script, and I neglected to record myself presenting, so this is what there is to give you, but it covers the points; my speaking was generally expansion on the points.

Here is the whole show, downloadable: harbeck_who_EAC_201606

Here are the slides, one by one.

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Miss Knirps (a story)

This is a fiction I wrote several years ago for a book idea that I didn’t finish. I just remembered it. Here, read it.

One of the people who had a profound influence on my early development as a word taster was my grade two teacher, Miss Knirps. It was not quite that she had a word taster’s love for language and for the flavours of words. Oh, she loved certain words and ways of saying things, but she always seemed to approach words as though they were bees, useful for honey but capable of stinging you at any moment.

Miss Knirps of course seemed impossibly old, but I believe she was about 27 at the time. She was prim and pretty in a very tidy way. She was also very concerned with decorum. She wanted, I think, for all the children of the world to spontaneously join in a circle to sing decent songs about pleasant things. She was a naïve romantic at heart, her world view evidently shaped by too many Barbara Cartland novels. But she must have had a darker, funkier side to her, kept very far apart from her classroom life, because the songs she would recite to us, or have us recite, or even sometimes sing, were lively, popular songs from the current hit parade… bowdlerized. Songs from groups like The Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan.

I remember her sitting and reading to us in that exaggerated intonation and sing-songy voice that teachers of small children can have: “Old black water, keep on rolling. Mississippi moon, won’t you keep on shining on me? Keep on shining your light; you’re going to make everything all right. And I don’t have any worries, for I am not in a hurry at all. I would like to hear some happy Dixieland; pretty lady, please take me by the hand.” She looked at us with a very proper smile of the sort intended for those of tiny brain. “And the lady would take him by the hand and say, ‘I shall dance with you, good sir, all day long.’”

Miss Knirps folded the piece of foolscap she had written her lyrics on. One of the girls – Shelly Priest, in whom one could see the spark of a Knirps-in-training – raised her hand and said, “And then what would they do?”

Miss Knirps got a dreamy look in her eye. “They would have to part ways, of course, as the sun came close to the evening. But he would give her his calling card, and he would say –” she produced another sheet of foolscap and unfolded it carefully like a blintz or a diaper – “Missy, don’t lose my name; you don’t want to dance with anyone else. Send it off in a letter to yourself! Missy, don’t lose my name, for it is the one you will own. You will use it when we are together and have a home.” (We didn’t know at the time that Miss Knirps – Melissa Knirps – was called “Missy” by many of her friends.)

Then she taught us that chorus to a rather stiffly simplified version of the music – the refrain from Steely Dan’s “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” of course. I have to say that, stripped of its louche jazzy tone, that tune is as stiff as an old dry washcloth. But we didn’t know any better. We sang it together.

We sang it a few times through, in fact, so that some of us could actually remember it when we got home. Joey McTavish was singing it around his house when his teenage sister Janis heard him, did a spit take with her Coke, and fell about the place in a paroxysm of laughter for more than ten solid minutes. Then she pulled out Pretzel Logic and played it for Joey.

Joey’s eyes, so I’m told, were the size of dinner plates by the end of the song. Naturally, she played it again, and sang along. And for good measure she played him a the rest of the record too. And when she asked him if Miss Knirps had taught them anything else, Joey’s muddled recollections ultimately allowed her to sort out enough to pull out the Doobie Brothers and play “Black Water.”

When show and tell came the next day, Joey had a look on his face like he had a unicorn with side-mounted machine guns in his bag. When his turn came, he toodled over to the record player, which was already out and in position from some Burl Ives songs Miss Knirps had played for us. As he pulled out his record, Miss Knirps naturally went over to help him.

As she reached for the record, which was not in the album cover, she spotted the label on it and froze for approximately one half second. Then, with her smile held with the firmness of rigor mortis, she took it from him, placed it on the player, and played “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo.” Which, in case you don’t know, has no words and is a Duke Ellington tune of the sort children would enjoy and teachers would not object to. Even if it is being played by Steely Dan.

“But that’s not –” Joey started to say.

Miss Knirps pressed one finger on her lips and another, firmly, on his. “Let’s listen.”

The tune done, she handed the record back to Joey and said, “You must thank your sister for lending us her record.” He hadn’t mentioned that it was hers. Apparently this was an easy guess. “But tell her to be careful and make sure it doesn’t get damaged. I think it could get scratched if you keep bringing it here.” And, smiling ever so sweetly, she sent him back to his seat, his face now looking like someone else had just eaten his ice cream. We couldn’t figure out why.

But of course we found out later, after school, and several of us got Janis to play it for us until she heard her mother coming home.

As for Miss Knirps, she switched genres, preferring to base her verse on literature that no one’s teenage sister was likely to be reading. She read us “The Highwayman” largely unaltered, quite a thing to do for grade two kids in 1974. She also read us something that to this day I haven’t traced for certain but strongly suspect was based on Charles Bukowski; I remember her saying “We danced and danced and danced and danced. And danced.” Heh. Danced indeed.

In retrospect, I do believe that Miss Knirps would have been more disturbed to hear us singing the nonstandard negatives (“you don’t wanna call nobody else”; “and I ain’t got no worries”) than to hear us singing about adult romantic entanglements. Such poor language was not for good children! I know for certain that it was those, and not the entanglements – more adumbrated than explicit, and opaque to us at that age anyway – that really blew away Joey. And the rest of us, too. Hearing them in those songs was the linguistic equivalent of seeing Miss Knirps taking a pee.

Here are the songs mentioned:

A more delectable dictionary

Imagine a cookbook that only gave the ingredients for each recipe, with no instructions on how to put them together. Many dictionaries are like that: nothing but bare-bones denotative definitions for the words.

Now imagine a cookbook that included not just the instructions, not just different variants on how you can make the recipe, not even just menu suggestions and beverage matching suggestions, but also other recipes it would go with or remind you of or definitely not go with, and even things the food could or would make you think of – other dishes it would remind you of, other times and places and people.

I would like to have a dictionary that does all that for words.

Of course much of that is individual. Every word is one of Proust’s Madeleines, a key to places you have heard it and seen it and used it before. The way it sounds and how you feel about those sounds will provoke you differently from how it provokes others. But there are several aspects of a word’s extended meaning that users will have in common. Most of them show up in one kind of dictionary or another, but not all, and not all in the same place. Let’s look at how a dictionary that covers a fuller ambit of meaning and effect would handle… let’s say the words dude and fellow.

Connotation

An important dimension of words is what they say about the speaker, the hearer, the subject, and the relation between them – what effect the speaker is trying to have on the hearer and what he or she is saying about what’s going on between them and any third party spoken of.

dude: Casual, informal. Friendly or mildly contemptuous, depending on overall relationship constructed. As an emphatic vocative, expressing some kind of amazement within a pointedly informal frame. (Read this good article by J.J. Gould for more.)

fellow: Intended to be neutral, but can be more formal, often with a taste of condescension.

Register

Register is a key concept in sociolinguistics: your choice of vocabulary and syntax bespeaks a specific situation – it’s like putting on different clothes for different places and activities: clubbing, visiting family, working at the office, working in a hospital, etc. Words are known by the company they keep. Most dictionaries won’t go beyond saying something is formal, or colloquial, or medical jargon, if they go that far. But there is always more that can be said.

dude: Tends to be laddish, often with a sense of drug, surfer, or frat-boy culture; cowboy speech is also possible. Cannot be used for formal registers, except in archaic senses (meaning dandy or greenhorn).

fellow: Broadly usable, but in youthful and casual contexts may sound old-fashioned or formal. Suitable for friendly or pseudo-friendly versions of more formal speech. As a title (e.g., Fellow of the Royal Society), suitable for the most formal speech.

Collocations

Many words have well-known travelling companions – common collocations, as linguists say. These are a word’s circle of close friends. There are dictionaries of collocations, often meant for students of English to help them know how to match their ties and socks, so to speak; there are also corpus databases that list words that tend to show up more often with them. Here are some results (mutatis mutandis) taken from www.wordandphrase.info:

dude: cool, fucking, sorry, funny, awesome, skinny, tall, like, weird, straight, ranch, dude, surfer, shit, fuck, chick, Chicano

fellow: senior, young, old, little, poor, visiting, postdoctoral, fine, nice, honorary, research, craft

Cultural references (including quotations)

Some words have the ability to call forth films or books or historical moments. Berliner can make a person think of Kennedy; cheeseburger can make many people think of endearing kittens with captions; frankly can call up Gone with the Wind. Traditional sources such as Bartlett’s should be complemented with current culture resources such as knowyourmeme.com and the auto-complete in Google searches (which can also be good for collocations). Note that fellow (noun) may arguably call forth references to fellow (adjective).

dude: Jeff Bridges as “the Dude” in The Big Lebowski (quote: “The Dude abides”); Dude, Where’s My Car? (movie); “Dude Looks Like a Lady” (song)

fellow: “Hail fellow, well met” (Jonathan Swift); “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy” (Shakespeare); “fellow traveller” (mid-20th-century euphemism for Communist sympathizer); “Write me as one who loves his fellow-men” (Leigh Hunt, “Abou Ben Adhem”); “my fellow Americans” (standard in US political speeches)

Etymology

Etymology is not inherent in our experience of a word; many people are quite oblivious to where their words come from, even as many – often some of the same – have the mistaken idea that a word’s “true” meaning is determined by its “original” meaning. But if you have an idea of a word’s origins, it will influence how you think of the word. This is true whether your idea is accurate or inaccurate. The words picnic and nitty-gritty are poisoned for many people who have false beliefs about their origins; the same people would never use bulldoze again if they knew where it came from – but most of them don’t. Many dictionaries supply etymological information, so I invite you to look it up on your own! And you will find that sometimes not all that much is known.

Rhymes and other echoes

Words will make us think of other words. Not just synonyms, which thesauruses and some dictionaries handily provide. And not just rhymes, which have their own dictionaries. There are other echoes that may contribute in some measure to the effect of a word – words that the word has some resemblance to in sound or appearance. Some non-rhyme examples:

dude: dud, dead, dad, deed, pube, dada, dildo, doobie, redo, stupid

fellow: fallow, follow, fuller, filler, fell, fail, allow, hello, willow, well, low, flow, cellophane

Phonaesthetics

And then there’s the issue of the aesthetic effects of sound qualities, still a bit controversial, but some effects are well known, such as the association of high front vowels with smaller things.

dude: The main vowel sound is a low, hollow sound (it has the lowest resonances of all the vowel sounds), often associated with dullness and stupidity; the d sounds are not as crisp as t sounds but are on the tip of the tongue, which makes them comparatively light.

fellow: The e is fairly open and bright, while the l is soft and liquid, and the f is the quietest of the fricatives; the final ow is darker and more withdrawn but allows sustain.

Obviously a dictionary that included all of this would be rather thick, and would take a long time to put together. Some of it might benefit to some extent from a wiki-style approach, though one does have to be careful. But any added attention to these aspects of how a word communicated would help us all be more fully conscious and engaged users of the language – and would surely make our words more delectable.

concupiscence

The Oxford English Dictionary gives this charming quote from Catholick Christian Instructed by Richard Challoner (1691–1781): “Q. What are the ends for which matrimony is instituted? A. For a remedy against concupiscence.” My immediate thought was, “If you’re married to an exceptionally attractive person (as I am), it doesn’t decrease carnal desire (= concupiscence); it just increases its fulfillment.” (Francis Bacon, in his New Atlantis, had already accounted for this: “marriage is ordained a remedy for unlawful concupiscence; and natural concupiscence seemeth as a spur to marriage.”)

But concupiscence doesn’t always mean plain old sexual lust. It is sometimes used to refer to not only the lust but its fulfillment; but it is also at times used to refer to other strong material desires. But what nearly all of its uses have in common is that they are high-toned condemnation; they speak against it, it is a trap, a fetter, a distraction. They wish to toss a porcupine into the lustful bed, to conk the hot one as cold as a cucumber or a fish, to knock him into sense and out of sensation. To decompose concupiscence to conk + porcupine + cucumber + fish + sense.

I did say “nearly all” – Arlene Prunkl tells me I epitomize lexical concupiscence, and I have to assume that she didn’t mean that in condemnation. Nor would she and I be the only people who fancy that a lust for words is a perfectly delightful thing; Mark Peters, a euphemism collector for Visual Thesaurus and a blogger for Oxford University Press, tweets as @wordlust and blogs at wordlust.blogspot.com. I don’t see anyone self-presenting as verbal concupiscence, but I’m sticking to Sesquiotic anyway.

Did you notice that I used word lust but verbal concpusicence? If you still don’t have enough evidence that English (like many languages) is not really a unitary invariant code but rather a language system with many variations and levels of play (English is the Dungeons and Dragons of languages, but there is no dungeonmaster), here’s another bit. Concupiscence is a high-toned word; it is suited for texts that partake of an air of erudition, clarity, precision, dryness, or some parody thereof. (I have used it in my notes on iniquity and avarice, greed, cupidity; I leave it to you to determine why I chose it.) And so it automatically goes with the more high-toned modifier – not a monosyllabic Germanic attributive noun (word) but a proper Latinate adjective (verbal). This is a word that exists expressly to move people away from Anglo-Saxon monosyllables.

So, thanks to the different register, we easily overlook the “conk” and “piss” we hear in it. We do, of course, hear the percussive voiceless stops, /k/ /k/ /p/, followed by hisses /s/ and /s/ – as though the lust were some overinflated thing that is being hit until it pops and lets out its excess air (the nasal before the second /k/ giving a sense of weakening, and the nasal before the second /s/ giving a sense of more complete deflation). We see this monster of a word as a unit, a big cold fish in your bed. And not just any cold fish: a coelecanth, a prehistoric beastie with its fins c c c c and p (and maybe i as well).

What it’s not is cute like Cupid. But it has the same root: cupere “desire” (verb). The con here does not literally mean “with” (concupiscence can be, and often is, a solo experience); it’s just an intensifier. So it’s Latin for “really wanting something”.

And if you really want long words (excellent words!), well, your concupiscence is fulfilled with this one. But is it sated? Or whetted?

What flavour of English do you want?

This is taken from a presentation I gave at the Editors’ Association of Canada conference in Edmonton, June 2008. For the bibliography and a concise summary of some key points, see the handout (PDF, 72 KB)

I thought I wouldn’t call this “Register, collocation, and reflected meaning” because, well, that sounded a little dry. And I’m going to be starting into this subject with the use of a metaphor of sort. The metaphor I’m going to be using—and I think it’s a pretty viable one—is, as you may have guessed, that a piece of a text is like a piece of food. A document is like a dish. Words are like ingredients. Continue reading