Book review: The Evasion-English Dictionary by Maggie Balistreri

July 16, 2018

George Orwell’s famous essay on the politics of language, strained and self-contradictory as it is, rests on the incontestable idea that people manipulate language for political ends – whether it’s to prod something improper towards legitimacy or to dodge responsibility for interpersonal shortcomings. The political, after all, is personal, and language is as personal as it gets.

The Evasion-English Dictionary by Maggie Balistreri (Em Dash Group, 2018) shines a welcome light on such language in its social guise and dissects it for our pleasure and occasional squirming. A slim volume expanded from its original 2003 edition, the EED packs considerable insight and wit into its 132 pages, showing how we routinely choose (and avoid) certain words to massage the truth, let ourselves off the hook, and passive-aggressively get our own way.

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Savouring each preposition

May 31, 2018

In ‘The Last Campaign’, from her story collection Orange Horses (Tramp Press, 2016), Maeve Kelly portrays a marriage whose members have deeply contrasting – and sometimes clashing – communication styles. Martha and Joe are a middle-aged couple devoted to each other and to their farm, on which much of their conversation turns:

Herself and Joe met at the tap on the wall outside. He hosed down his boots, thinking about something.

‘Isn’t it a beautiful day, Joe,’ she said. ‘You might get the last of the hay drawn in today.’

‘I might,’ he said, looking up at a small, dark cloud away on the horizon and checking the direction of the wind. ‘If it holds. I think there’s a change.’

‘It’ll hardly break before this evening,’ she said.

‘Maybe not.’

She wondered to herself why his sentences were always so short. Words spilled over in her own mind so much. She had to hold them back, conscious always of his brief replies and afraid she might become garrulous in her effort to fill the void. ‘Communication,’ she reminded herself sometimes, ‘is not only made with speech.’

From this brief exchange we understand not only each character’s expressive preferences but also the effect of the difference on Martha, who would likely be more talkative were Joe not so taciturn. For this lack she must console herself with truisms. And yet their mutual fondness is unmistakable and is underscored implicitly as the tale unfolds.

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Transcending mutual unintelligibility

March 25, 2018

A scene in Ali Smith’s wonderful novel How to Be Both (Hamish Hamilton, 2014) depicts a curious but common experience: people with no shared language having a conversation. Given enough time and repeated encounters, such parties may, of necessity, create a pidgin. But for one-off exchanges it’s a different story.

Like the comic Saga, whose use of untranslated Esperanto I wrote about recently, How to Be Both switches to Italian and lets the reader fend for themself. But even if, like the story’s main characters, you don’t know the language, some words and names will be familiar or guessable.

The protagonist, George, a teenage girl, is visiting a gallery in northern Italy with her young brother, Henry, and their mother:

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Gender-neutral language in the workplace

December 12, 2017

I wrote an article on the importance of gender-neutral language in the workplace for UK job-board company Totaljobs. The article considers work-language in a cultural context and the harmful effects of gender-biased usage. Here’s an excerpt:

Studies have shown that when words like man are used generically to refer to people, readers tend to picture men only, not a balance of men and women – let alone women only. Phrases like man’s origin and modern man overlook women’s contributions to civilisation; man-made and man as a verb downplay women’s labour. This kind of language is not harmless: it helps subordinate women in social and political relations. . . .

Language is not neutral or used in a vacuum: it incorporates personal assumptions, social norms, and cultural ideologies. This is why it’s important to consider language critically as a social and political tool and to watch for biases in usage. Language reflects the world it’s used in, but it’s also active in maintaining or redesigning that world. It can be a tool of discrimination or one of empowerment.

You can go here for the rest. Totaljobs commissioned the article as part of research they did on gendered language in job ads. They analysed over 75,000 of their own ads and summarised the results here.


Real World English: a video series

September 7, 2017

Over the last year or so, Macmillan Dictionary (for whom I write a column on language) published 11 videos and blog posts in a series titled Real World English. I wrote the video scripts, which were then revised by the editors, jazzed up by the graphics team, and presented by Ed Pegg of the London School of English.

Like the dictionary itself, this material is aimed at English-language learners but may be of use or interest to others too. Its focus is on dialect differences in the workplace, mainly UK/US. The entries focus on vocabulary (greetings, education, holidays, etc.) or pragmatics (irony, directness, politeness, etc.). The introductory video gives the gist:

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You can access all 11 videos and blog posts (plus video scripts) on this page, or you can use the playlist above. Each clip is 2–3 minutes long, and the whole series comes in under 30 minutes. Real World English follows the popular Real Grammar and Real Vocabulary series of previous years. I hope you enjoy it.


Euphemisms for the stomach

July 31, 2017

Sometimes we use language to talk about something without referring to it directly – for fear of flouting social or moral convention, for fear of the thing itself, to conceal and deceive, and so on. In everyday discourse much of this falls under politeness and pragmatics: certain domains are taboo to whatever degree, so we employ euphemisms to avoid crossing a line of what is considered appropriate in the context.

Book cover of 'Loving and Giving' by Molly Keane, publisher AbacusThe last time I wrote about euphemisms on Sentence first, it was to share commentary in Molly Keane’s novel Good Behaviour on the many ways to refer to the toilet without mentioning the toilet or even the bathroom.

In Loving and Giving, another bittersweet comic gem by Keane, the area of taboo avoidance is the middle anatomy. The novel follows an Irish girl, Nicandra (named by her father after a beloved horse), who is eight years old when we first meet her. Her Aunt Tossie lives in the big house with them, and Nicandra goes to her room one morning:

Her nightdress was nothing like as pretty as Maman’s, no lace, only broderie anglaise the same as edged Nicandra’s drawers (“knickers” was a common word, not to be used. For the same reason, if you had a pain it was in “your little inside”, not in your stomach – and there were no words beyond “down there” to describe any itch or ailment in the lower parts of your body).

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Uptalk in Surrey: The Twinning Hypothesis

July 7, 2017

Uptalk, also called upspeak, rising intonation, and (misleadingly) high-rising terminal, is where someone ends a statement as though it were a question? These two are for illustration? Uptalk is stereotypically associated with Australians, ‘Valley Girls’, and young women generally.

It’s also widely hated. Get people talking about their language peeves, and sooner or later uptalk will crop up. It has been described as an ‘annoying tic’ (The Smithsonian), ‘worse than vocal fry’ (Time), and as a ‘nasty habit’ in Psychology Today, which also worries that ‘statements and opinions will become extinct’. This is feverish doom-mongering.

Even Stephen Fry, normally a tolerant sort, linguistically, gave out about uptalk on UK comedy show Room 101, complaining invidiously that it had ‘invaded Britain entirely’. The host, Paul Merton, said it could be a politeness strategy, though he didn’t call it that, but Fry was having none of it (and went on to censure quotative like, which Merton also defended). Most of the audience found uptalk ‘deeply irritating’:

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