Saturday, April 13, 2013

Is 'Zeitgeist' an Oxymoron? Or Onomatopoeia? Plus other things I HATE about Grammar

Did any of you read the Opinionator column in the NY Times last week?  No?  Well, here’s the link:

In this piece, Henry Hitchings denounces those new-fangled, irritating verbs used as nouns and it’s no wonder. His nom de plume reminds me of the Beverly Cleary character, Henry Huggins. You remember him. Poor Henry believes nothing interesting will ever happen to him in his life.

Well, Henry of the Times has certainly spiced up his life by sensationalizing language that is nothing more than an upscaled gerund.  And those have been harmlessly kicking about Germany for centuries.

Specifically, Hitchings takes offense at “nominalizations.” These are words that people typically embrace as verbs or adjectives, but they have morphed into nouns. Things such as “What’s the take-away from today’s meeting?”

Henry does not like the take-away.  Or ‘the reveal’ or ‘the solve.’  I bet he hates the Great Pumpkin.

What Henry, perhaps, does not reconcile is that the reveal is pretty critical to magician success, and God help Sherlock or House without the solve. 

But the take-away. I need that.  I could never understand specialist-jargon at my husband’s myeloma meetings without the take-away.

“We’ve analyzed the lamda kappa ratio assays with declination of the gamma trope. This underscores the in-situ Prius with staccato nominalization, and we couldn’t be more pleased.”

“Doctor, what’s the take-away?”

“Well.  His disorder is lots better!”

My other favorite take-away was the afternoon I absconded with five -- maybe nine -- designer bridal shower cookies when everyone was supposed to take just one.  

Those take-aways meant the bride-to-be never got to taste or view a single leftover cookie once the event was over.  

(Sorry Sara.)

So I guilt-promised to dip them in polyurethane, hot-glue golden loops onto them and give them back as Christmas tree ornaments. I think that was three years ago?  Their daughter will be ready for pre-school by the time I get around to dipping her cookies. (Hi, Stella!)

Meanwhile, I was struck by Hitchings’ advice to English teachers on how to best respond to this phenomenon. He thinks teachers should encourage students to convert the voo doo back into mainstream.  Hitchings offers the following example: The violence was Ted’s retaliation for years of abuse” is better rendered as, “Ted retaliated violently after years of abuse.”


I agree that a more active voice in the second sentence makes Ted a strong central character. He virtually dominates the sentence. But in the original sentence, violence held the starring role.

If we change subjects this haphazardly to simply restore the grammatical mainstream, shouldn’t the author be informed? 

Otherwise, context is besmirched.

And by the way, there are many real, live English teachers, of which I am one, who tirelessly slave away like pyramidion cappers in Cairo who would donate their organs if they could get students to avoid adverbs like Brussels sprouts and similes.

To wit:  there was no adverb in the first sentence about violence and Ted. But the second sentence -- which Hitchings prefers -- demonstrates that Ted is afflicted with a handicapped verb. It sits in that sentence leaning on the adjacent adverb as a crutch, like vodka and bridal shower cookies. Once you see this kind of thing inside a sentence, it is hard to un-see it.

You know, if I could, I would tell Henry that if his verb were precise, it would need no crutch.  Perhaps Ted eviscerated something.  Or he decapitated it. Placing the adverb “violently” next to these hero-verbs renders them not just redundant, but impotent. 

Redundantly impotent.

In the grand scheme, must English teachers take arms against a sea of nominalizations and by excising, end them?


Hitchings gets pretty Pot-Calling-The-Kettle when he blames these new-wave gerunds on zeitgeist. Henry, stop using ‘zeitgeist.’ It’s an oxymoron the way you use it.  Isn’t zeitgeist just pop jargon gone horribly, pseudo-intellectually wrong?

Anyway, it was an interesting read, but conventions are what they are. Language SHOULD evolve and we must evolve with it.  Otherwise, we’d all be misspelling things the way Geoffrey Chaucer did when he used Middle English. Take, for instance, his original term, “qiente” which Geoffrey coined to describe buxom, sensual women.  Thankfully, after years of growth and culture, we can now employ the evolved word “cunt” to refer to bitches we despise.

 Having a “solve” for something, waiting for “the reveal” or asking a physician for the “takeaway” is just good policy.

 But you know what zeits my geist?  The mis-use of the word “robust.”  In today’s tech-world, everything seems to be “robust” if it just performs according to design.  How bizarre if this were applied to other things that merely did their jobs.  My tea kettle boiled water.  Is it robust?

Don’t get me wrong: robust is an effective adjective!  I just find it zeitgeisty. I hear the word, and it harkens back to Chaucer and his buxom ladies, or it evokes images of Rubenesque ample bosoms and ampler bottoms.

In fact, at Radio Shack the other day, the Smartphone sales rep used the term ‘robust’ when referring to a new app, and I had to pause to banish a buxom bottom from my brain, unsuccessfully. “Yes, I agree the bill paying app IS robust.  And buxom. Large-bottomed and bountiful… Chaucerian. A true qiente of an app.”

"Reaching out" is even more zeitgeist. "I'll reach out to that prospective buyer.”

Just call.

Must we ‘reach out’ in an era that still harbors 'outreach'? 

Each time a business professional tells me they'll reach out to me in a month regarding product-satisfaction, I feel homeless. “Will meals-on-wheels come with that reach out?  Or methadone?"  Don't even get me started on the confusing 'reach-around.'  

In Massachusetts where I live, the town of Worcester employs zeitgeistian words such as “what-not” and “id-eer” -- neither of which I like, and I was born in Massachusetts. It wasn’t until I moved back from a five year sojourn in Kentucky that my ear became sensitive to a “what-not.”

Back in Kentucky, they had many cool zeitgeistian words, like aluminum fohl. I liked living there for this reason. Also because it’s a state that comes with fast horses I won large amounts of money on in the trifecta. Spelled t-r-i-f-e-c-t-a, with an R. Unlike that ‘i-dee-er’ which is a local thought people have that pizz-er is food.  It IS, technically, when consumed with be-ah, which, if swallowed in proper proportions can be pronounced any way you wish.

Which brings us to the what-not, as in, “May I please order pizz-er with pepperoni and what-not.”

Henry and I have to ask: If it’s something that is ‘not’, why mention it?  Surely this confuses servers.  A what-not could be confused with any old bauble, thing-a-ma-jig or gimcrack which my dentist says chips teeth.

In fact, the what-not might imply, “What-ever” which, if pronounced, ‘what-eva’, might cause the server to strike you.

A what-eva is the Cliff-Note version of an entire sentence-fragment that otherwise means, “Suck it, scumbag loozah,” as in the case when a loozah says, “I can’t pay my tab because of all those court fines,” to which the burly bouncer says, “What-eva. Theeah’s the dooah.  I’ll just take this heah pizz-er with pepperoni and what-have-you.”

Hats off to the bouncer!  Finally, someone is referencing pizz-er with what-have-you instead of what-not, which gives the server more options. Now he or she can rummage out back for all the what’s they’ve actually GOT that go with pepperoni.  It may even cause the chef to cheerily respond, “So they’re having the pepperoni pizza and what-have-you? Will there be any thin else?”

You know, they neva had ‘thins’ in Kentucky.  But I bet they do at the Times.  I think they even gut pretzels and anorexics and what-have-you. But those are thin things.  Not any thins.

It’s just this kind of lexicon -- not zeitgeist -- that makes people like me never bother ordering food with my be-ah.

I believe that Henry Huggins and Hitchings – perhaps the entire cast of My Fair Lady – finally have something interesting to add to their lingual, anomic angst. And if I can be of further service to you or Beverly Cleary, just leave a comment on this blog or what-have-you.