Dictionaries, VanderMeer, Pyr, Politics, Birthday
Fell asleep at 8:30, woke up at 3am: Man, I don’t even know what’s wrong with me. Anyway, now that I’m officially not tired, I thought I might write up an “odds and ends” sort of thing. Looking back after having written it all I realize it’d probably read better broken up into at least three separate entries (it’s just that long), but I’m too lazy to do that now. Read a chunk, take a rest, have a light snack, and then come on back for the rest.
* One of the cool things about being of a certain age (which is, mid-thirties) is that one’s contemporaries have moved on from being flunkies and underlings and are now beginning to run things and do interesting stuff. For example, my old pal Erin McKean, who used to work at the U of C’s student newspaper with me, is now Editor-in-Chief of US Dictionaries for Oxford University Press, which I think is a pretty awesome job to have, because, dude, she’s in charge of all the words. During our discussions about another matter entirely, I somewhat pathetically hinted that I had accidentally dropped my personal dictionary into a tar pit (or something), which resulted in the arrival of The New Oxford American Dictionary, second edition, as well as the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, both of which Erin edited and/or oversaw production.
And you know what? They’re both actually delightful, which is not a word one generally uses with dictionaries and thesauri. But it works here. Both books are really well-designed books in a visual sense, which makes it easier to use them intelligently. For example, the dictionary highlights word usage in grey boxes to alert you when there’s an issue or controversy with a word. To use a recent example from this very blog, here’s what the NOAD, 2nd ed has to say on “alright”:
The merging of all and right to form the one-word spelling of alright is first recorded toward the end of the 19th century (unlike other similar merged spellings such as altogether and already, which date from much earlier). There is no logical reason for insisting that all right be two words when other single-word forms such as altogether have long been accepted. Nevertheless, although found widely, alright remains nonstandard.
I’m not at all fan of “alright” myself, but this dovetails into my thinking that the word had the misfortune of being popularized in an era during which books on grammar and usage became the rage and found itself on the wrong side of the proper usage fence. I suppose this makes makes the “all right”/”alright” thing like a secret club handshake, i.e., if you know how to use it correctly you can get into the Grammar Club, which is like Mensa, except with watercress sandwiches rather than Cheetos for snacks.
The Writer’s Thesaurus, in addition to all the usual synonyms and antonyms one finds in such a book, has a very cool feature in which an eclectic group of word users which includes David Foster Wallace, David Auburn and Stephin Merritt (yes, music fans, that Stephin Merritt) contribute little essays on the word usage; it’s quite a thing to have David Foster Wallace warn you off from using “utilize” (“using utilize makes you seem like either a pompus twit or someone so insecure that he’ll use pointlessly big words in an attempt to look smart”) or to have Erin herself — Mistress of All Words, remember — explain how “classy” is a self-defeating words because “anything described as classy generally isn’t.” This is appallingly true if you think on all the women you know who have described themselves to you as classy, usually through lips from which dangled a Virginia Slim (men don’t use the word to describe themselves; indeed, if a man were to use the word to describe himself, a group of other men would spontaneously appear from offstage and proceed to beat the holy living crap out of him).
In short, both the NOAD, 2nd and the Writer’s Thesaurus are fun to read, as well being excellent reference texts powered by the unfathomably large database of words known as the Oxford English Dictionary. If you’re looking for a new dictionary and/or thesaurus, these two really are excellent, and I recommend them. My hat is off to Erin on these. They’re great. I’m glad she’s in charge of all the words.
(as an aside, read this story from the New Yorker about the word “esquivalience,” which is to be found in the NOAD, 2nd ed and in other dictionaries, much to the amusement of Erin and her staff.)
* Conservative blogger Joseph Tranfo reviews The Ghost Brigades here, and sees parallels between my discussions of choice in the novel, and a historical concept called “contingency,” which has a champion (or so Tranfo suggests) in a conservative historian named David Hackett Fischer, and in which history can be seen as “a series of real choices that living people actually made.” Says Tranfo: “As a conservative, Scalzi’s ‘choice’ theme resonated with me, and that might very well be why I enjoyed the book as much as I did.”
I’ve not read Fischer nor am acquainted with the “contingency” school of historical thought, but I certainly see it as axiomatic that history is the result of individual choices. I can see the argument that a focus on individual choices could be seen as a conservative thing (particularly if viewed in opposition to a Marx-inspired view of the power of the masses in a world-historical sense), but I don’t particularly view it through a political filter. My fundamental view of individuals and the importance of the choices they make actually comes from Einstein, via one of my great teachers, Larry McMillin, and his Individual Humanities class at the Webb School of California. Einstein, who thought a great deal on education, wrote that the aim of education should be the creation of “independently acting and thinking individuals who see service to their community as their highest life crisis.” Humans are capable of acting individually and making choices; therefore humans should be encouraged to act individually and make choices, and also taught that choosing to make a positive difference in the world through their own actions is a critical thing.
This conceptualization of the importance of the individual is rather immutably a part of Western thought, and an integral part of the American character, although the “service to the community” aspect gets lost from time to time, whether in a 70s “looking out for #1” way, an 80s “greed is good” way, a 90s “what do I care, I have shares in an Internet company” way, or in the top-down “the hell with anyone making less than $100k” way of the current moment. One somewhat recent American leader who did memorably crystalize the idea of the individual in service to his community was John Kennedy, when he said “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Now, whether Kennedy’s implementation of that sentiment was effective or not, it’s still a galvanizing line, and reflects the idea that we, as individuals, have to make choices and have to act on them for the betterment of ourselves and others.
The power of the individual — and of the importance of individual choice — probably is a conservative idea, in a very old school definition of the term, but it also gave birth to liberal thought — again, in a very old school definition of the term. So in the end, as a purely political matter, it’s probably a wash, particularly in current American politics, in which the terms “conservative” and “liberal” have been unmoored and are now free-floating nonsensical terms whose definitions are relative to loci of power. George W. Bush, for example, is conservative by any sane definition of the term exactly as much as I am a bicycle; if a liberal politician had tried to do the things he’s done during his presidency conservatives would have met up in their think tank parking lots to fire up their torches and then marched down Pennsylvania Avenue to light up the White House — and they would have been right to do so.
As it stands American politics today is as philosophically coherent as a rugby scrum of orangutans; it’s not actually politics, it’s just some weird variant of team sports played by the same wonky people whom the high school football defensive line would kick the shit out of during lunch (this explains how someone like Ann Coulter managed to get on the political cheerleading squad). It’s a bad enough situation that for the forseeable future I’ve decided to avoid content-bearing descriptors to describe political positions, because it’s simply inaccurate usage. George Bush isn’t conservative or Republican, he’s just on the right; many of those who oppose him aren’t liberals or Democrats, they’re just on the left. The current politics of the right have to do with genuine conservative thought as much as Beggin’ Strips have to do with thick-sliced hickory-smoked pork bellies, and just as dogs can’t tell it’s not bacon, so Fox News viewers can’t tell it’s not actual conservatism. The politics of the left… well, that’s just a pile of incestutous snake breeding at this point and I don’t want to bother with it. None of the politicians right or left seem especially engaged in the idea of the American citizenry and electorate being anything more than a well of votes to be cast with no more thought than one would give to mashing buttons to get one’s vote in for American Idol. And you know, I think that’s bad.
Bear in mind this is not a cri du coeur for a return to a simpler, golden time in American politics when all politicians were statesmen and all voters stalwart free-thinkers, because that never happened; hell, Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton over dirty politics, and they were Founding Fathers (let’s not even mention what went down between Adams and Jefferson, or Jackson and the other Adams). And they were all the top card; what was simmering down in the Congress was an even more dingy stew. And if you think people are ill-educated today, introduce yourself to the average frontier voter of 1836 sometime. It’s bad today, but it’s always bad to a greater or lesser extent; people are what they are. (It’s also always good to a greater or lesser extent, which gets lost in the shuffle.)
Nevertheless, from time to time in American life there are people who either individually or in groups call on Americans to think for themselves, make their choices and serve their country. What a genuine delight it would be to have people on either side of the arbitrary right/left divide that exists in politics today do that very thing — and what an even greater delight if people listened. If this were to happen there would still be a right and a left, but their differences would be a matter of actual philosophy; which is to say there would be actual conservatives and liberals, with political philosophies that legitimately tracked with their nominal descriptors. That would be a change, and it would be nice.
* Finally, happy birthday to my friend Deven Desai, who is now old enough to run for President, but can’t, as he was born in India to (then) non-American citizens. A loss for us all.