Signing and sociolinguistics in Ed McBain’s ‘Axe’

December 9, 2014

I went on a binge of Ed McBain’s crime fiction recently, enjoying his keen ear for language and tight storytelling style. Below are three language-themed excerpts from Axe, written in 1964, which features detectives Steve Carella and Cotton Hawes investigating a grisly murder.

First, to continue the theme of whom usage, is a doorstep encounter the detectives have with an old woman of unsound mind:

‘We’re detectives,’ Carella said. He showed her his shield and his identification card. He paused a moment, and then said, ‘May I ask who I’m talking to, ma’am?’

‘Whom, and you may not,’ she said.

‘What?’

‘Whom,’ she said.

‘Ma’am, I . . .’

‘Your grammar is bad, and your granpa is worse,’ the woman said, and began laughing.

The ellipsis in Carella’s last line, which shows he’s being interrupted, is a stylistic device known technically as aposiopesis. An em dash is also commonly used in this context.

Carella later meets his wife, Teddy:

Teddy Carella watched his lips as he spoke because she was deaf and could hear only by watching a person’s lips or hands. Then, because she was mute as well, she raised her right hand and quickly told him in the universal language of deaf mutes that the twins had already been fed and that Fanny, their housekeeper, was at this moment putting them to bed. Carella watched her moving hand, missing a word every now and then, but understanding the sense and meaning, and then smiled as she went on to outline her plans for the evening, as if her plans needed outlining after the kiss she had given him at the front door.

‘You can get arrested for using that kind of language,’ Carella said, grinning. ‘It’s a good thing everybody can’t read it.’

ed mcbain axe - pan books cover 1964Leaving aside the naive reference to the “universal language of deaf mutes” (signing, far from being singular, comprises many languages and dialects), it struck me as a laudable description, presenting signing as a normal activity and showing its potential for humour and seduction. I don’t read enough such accounts in fiction.

The final excerpt has Detective Hawes visiting an accountancy firm where he talks to Mr Cavanaugh, a portly businessman “born in Philadelphia and raised on that city’s brotherly South Side”, about someone previously employed by the firm:

‘We’re investigating a murder,’ Hawes said flatly.

‘You think Siggie killed somebody?’

‘No, that’s not what we think. But certain aspects of our information don’t seem to jibe, Mr Cavanaugh. We have reason to believe Mr Reuhr is lying to us, which is why we felt we should look into his background somewhat more extensively.’

‘You talk nice,’ Cavanaugh said appreciatively.

Hawes, embarrassed, said, ‘Thank you.’

‘No, I mean it. Where I was raised, if you talked that way you got your head busted. So I talk this way. I got one of the biggest accounting firms in this city, and I sound like a bum, don’t I?’

‘No, sir.’

‘Then what do I sound like?’

‘Well, I don’t know.’

‘A bum, right?’

‘No, sir.’

‘Okay, we won’t argue. Anyway, you talk nice.’

I liked this exchange a lot too. That McBain, he writes nice.


Inheriting grandparents’ names

November 11, 2014

There’s an interesting passage about child-naming customs in Éamon Kelly’s autobiography The Apprentice (Marino Books, 1995). Kelly is recounting his childhood near Killarney in southwest Ireland, and the time he spent in his father’s workshop playing with pieces of wood:

I sat in the shavings and listened to the men who came with jobs for my father. They all spoke to me and those who knew my grandfather were surprised that I wasn’t called after him. The custom then was to call the first son after his father’s father and the second son after his mother’s father. The same rule applied to the first two girls. They were called after their grandmothers. If you walked into a house at that time and there were two boys and two girls in the family and you knew their grandparents, you could name the children. Both my male grandparents, who were inseparable friends, objected to my father’s and mother’s marriage. They claimed there was a blood relationship, though fairly far out, and the slightest trace of consanguinity had to be avoided. My mother was very upset by this attitude and called me after my father to annoy the old man. My father’s Christian name was Edmund, Ned to everybody, and so was I.

The name Éamon came later, when Kelly was a carpenter’s apprentice (hence the book title) working with his father. Since both were called Edmund/Ned, confusion arose when either was hailed, so someone took to calling the son Éamon. He remained Ned to his family and neighbours, but Éamon was the name by which I first knew of him.

I’ve written before about Éamon Kelly in his seanchaí (storyteller) guise, after coming across a couple of clips of him on YouTube. That post has additional resources on Kelly’s life, for anyone interested.

The custom he describes lives on but seems much less prevalent than it was a century ago – though my sister was named after our maternal grandfather, in a nice inversion of the tradition. I was named after my uncle, who was (I think) named after my granduncle. I’d be interested to hear who you were named after, if anyone, or what other naming traditions are in your family or area.


Book spine poem: Unlocking the language

November 7, 2014

Bookmashing, for the uninitiated, is when you stack books so the titles on their spines form a poem, or a mini-story, etc. It also has the more transparent name book spine poetry. It’s a fun game – and challenge – for word lovers, and a great excuse to browse your bookshelves. You’ll see them in a new light.

I’ve made several bookmashes over the years, and would do them oftener if most of my books weren’t in storage. Usually there’s no special theme, but some have been explicitly linguistic, e.g. Evolution: the difference engine, Forest of symbols, The web of words, Ambient gestures, and Cat and Mouse Semantics. So today I imposed the restriction of only using books from the ‘language’ shelf:

[click to embiggen]

stan carey book spine poem bookmash - unlocking the language

Unlocking the language

The professor
And the madman
Defining the world,
Shady characters
Unlocking the English language –
Is that a fish
In your ear?

*

Thanks to the authors Simon Winchester, Henry Hitchings, Keith Houston, Robert Burchfield, and David Bellos. (I’ll try to be less gender-skewed next time.)

I got the idea originally from artist Nina Katchadourian, and it has spread to public radio and around the web. Last year a British drama group ran a bookmash competition, and now Jump! Mag (an educational magazine for children) is holding one for young readers.

Millie Slavidou, who set up the contest, has put several bookmashes on her Glossologics blog, which I wrote about last year. Seeing the idea featured in Jump! Mag prompted today’s simple effort, and I look forward to seeing any competition entries they make public. New players are always welcome.


Pompous language is a weapon

November 5, 2014

People have different motivations for using gobbledygook instead of plain language. They may wish to sound impressive and assume, incorrectly, that fancyisms trump familiar words. They may use it as a technique of avoidance or obfuscation, if they want to hide the truth or are unsure of what they’re talking about. Or it might simply be habit or convention, as I said of advise in business communication.

Don Watson elaborates on this in his admirable polemic Gobbledygook: How Clichés, Sludge and Management-Speak Are Strangling Our Public Language (US title: Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language):

Corporate leaders sometimes have good reason to obscure their meaning by twisting their language into knots, but more often they simply twist it out of habit. They have forgotten the other way of speaking: the one in which you try to say what you mean. Instead they welcome their audience and proceed immediately to put them in a coma by announcing their intention to spend the next half hour outlining the company’s key strategies and initiatives going forward, and their commitment to fill capability gaps and enhance sustainable growth for the benefit of all shareholders

Even when we use it as a shield against our own uncertainty, pompous language is a weapon, an expression of power. Part of it is a mistaken effort to elevate the tone. Beneath pomposity rests the assumption that she who elevates the tone will herself be elevated; with luck, beyond scrutiny. The risk, which the truly pompous never see, is that an opposite effect is achieved or the tone moves sideways into unselfconscious parody.

Don Watson - Gobbledygook aka Death Sentence - book coverOn the matter of saying what you mean, Tom Freeman describes a writer going into Writing Mode instead of just putting their ideas in a direct and ordinary way. This is a common problem among aspiring or unskilled writers: they strive for impact in all the wrong ways, such as packing their prose with overelaborations and formal synonyms. Whether through habit, naiveté, diffidence, or lack of faith in simplicity, the result for readers is the same.

Two other things worth mentioning in brief: You probably noticed Watson’s use of she as a generic pronoun – throughout Gobbledygook he alternates between she and he for this purpose. A few writers do, and while I would favour singular they, the alternating style is at least more equitable and inclusive than defaulting to he, as too many writers continue to do. And did you see that unhyphenated unselfconscious? I approve. Oh yes.


Andy Warhol and language

October 30, 2014

“Words troubled and failed Andy Warhol,” writes Wayne Koestenbaum on the first page of his biography of the artist (Penguin Books, 2001), even though Warhol wrote many books, “with ghostly assistance”, and had a distinctive speaking style.

Wayne Koestenbaum - Andy Warhol - Penguin Lives biography book coverKoestenbaum returns several times to Warhol’s relationship with language and with time, noting how Warhol’s love of repetition manifested in verbal expression, and remarking on how he “distrusted language” and didn’t understand “how grammar unfolded episodically in linear time, rather than in one violent atemporal explosion”.

I want to quote one passage in particular, from later in the book (which is more psychological portrait than straight biography). Warhol’s magazine Interview, first titled inter/VIEW and then Andy Warhol’s Interview, featured stars interviewing other stars with the results transcribed generously and precisely, without the editing that conventionally turns spontaneous speech into readable prose:

Interview magazine was Andy’s most sustained attempt, after a [a novel], to cross the border between tape-recorded speech and the written word: his experiments in bridging this divide involve a serious philosophical quest to figure out where and how verbal meaning breaks down, and to track the imprecise, shiftless way the words occupy the time it takes to utter and understand them. Andy’s intensest experiences were visual, not verbal, yet he remained fascinated by his own difficult, hampered process of verbalization. Interview, an ideal vehicle, allowed him to indulge his interest in dialogue, as well as his desire to bodysnatch reality and to seal it in falsely labeled canisters. Via the technological mediation of tape recorder, Andy hoodwinked time and talk, and canned it as a product bearing his own name.

I don’t know how serious a philosophical quest it was, but I can relate to the interest in unedited dialogue. Anyone who has transcribed recorded speech will have noticed how halting and erratic is its syntax, compared to the deliberate (if not always elegant) order of writing.

Speech, particularly in conversation, is characterised by false starts, broken phrasing, and disorganised ideas; full, coherent sentences are the exception. Little wonder our memory of syntax and vocabulary is so poor.

Warhol’s unashamedly commercial attitude can belie the fact that he was a deeply sensual artist, and for all his awkwardness with language I think he must have savoured this slippery, intimate side of it – especially when it manifested in so messy and profligate a fashion.


Word magic from Shalom Auslander

October 21, 2014

Browsing books at random in Galway, I picked up Shalom Auslander’s novel Hope: A Tragedy because the title caught my eye, and I bought it based on a cursory scan of its contents and reviews. The author’s name was also interesting to me, and the book turned out to be the most entertaining thing I had read in months.

More recently I read Auslander’s Foreskin’s Lament: A Memoir, which was the funniest thing I’d read since his novel. Not that it’s all jokes – the books are very well written, and work on many levels – but if you like dark and irreverent humour suffused with theological anxiety, there’s a good chance you’ll like his work.

Here’s an excerpt from Foreskin’s Lament on the religious implications of his name. I’ve selected it not for its humour (though it has some of that), but because of its linguistic content. I think word magic is subtler and more pervasive than we often suppose, though what follows is an extreme and obvious case of it:

In the third grade, Rabbi Kahn told me my name was one of God’s seventy-two names, and he forbade me from ever writing it in full. We wrote primarily in Hebrew and Yiddish, so anything on which I wrote my name — God’s name — became instantly holy: tests, book reports, Highlights for Kids — consequently, they could never be mistreated. It was forbidden to let them touch the floor, it was forbidden to throw them away, it was forbidden to place other papers on top of them.

—Name of the Creator! Rabbi Kahn would shout in horror, pointing at the McGraw-Hill American History lying anti-Semitically on top of my Talmud test. —Name of the Creator!

Then I would have to leave the classroom, go upstairs, and walk all the way to the bais midrash (study hall), where they kept a brown cardboard box reserved for holy pages without a home: torn prayer books, old Haggadahs, crumbling Talmuds, and the suddenly holy “What I Did This Summer” by God Auslander.

“Words are holy,” as the narrator subsequently notes. Another passage revisits the complications of being called Shalom, through an awkward conversation with his mother, but I’ll leave that for anyone interested in reading the book. For some background see Auslander’s interview at Bookslut, or visit his website for essays and more.


Grammar references in ‘Gone Girl’

September 28, 2014

With David Fincher’s new film Gone Girl hitting the cinemas, it seems like a good time to mention the grammar references in the source novel by Gillian Flynn. (Also, I read it just a few weeks ago.) I counted three such references, quoted below.

Gillian Flynn - Gone Girl book coverIf you haven’t read Gone Girl and intend to read it or see the film, you might want to skip this post in case of spoilers. The book is an effective page-turner, and the less you know about how the plot unfolds, the better. If you have read it or don’t care about spoilers, read on.

The book has two unreliable narrators. First, here’s Amy, revealing herself to be self-conscious and pedantic about grammatical correctness and careful to avoid hypercorrection:

The woman remained in the car the whole time, a pacifiered toddler in her arms, watching her husband and me trade cash for keys. (That is the correct grammar, you know: her husband and me.)

Later, a secondary character says “the hoi polloi” and the other narrator, Nick, rejects the redundancy:

Just hoi polloi, I thought, not the hoi polloi. It was something Amy had taught me.

For the record: the hoi polloi is so common, and has such a strong literary pedigree (Byron, Dryden, et al.), that even prescriptivist authorities often permit it. But it remains a popular shibboleth in usage commentary and casual nitpickery.

The third and last example of grammar discussed in Gone Girl echoes the first. It contains a significant plot spoiler, so caveat lector. Amy again:

They say it’s important for Nick and me (the correct grammar) to have some time alone and heal.

I don’t know if any of these (or similar) items appear in the screenplay, which Flynn also wrote, but I’ll be interested to see if they do. If you plan on catching the film soon, enjoy.


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