“Words must be a little wild, for they are the assaults of thought on the unthinking.”
John Maynard Keynes
All is but toys: renown, and grace, is dead;
The wine of life is drawn, and the mere lees
Is left this vault to brag of.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow; a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Here at the Daily Reckoning the minutes pass by as elsewhere. We rant and rave about the price of gold, the future of Amazon.com, and the futility of Fed policy. Occasionally, we permit ourselves a visit to philosophy or politics…or to the theatre of contemporary life that goes on all around us.
But does any of it really matter? Who knows.
But at least tales told by idiots can be entertaining.
And guess what? While we fume and fumble over the latest P/E ratios, other battles – every bit as preposterous – go on in other fields.
My evidence for this is an article in this month’s Harper’s Magazine. “Tense Present” describes the rip-roaring clashes that have been going on behind the scenes among the people who put together dictionaries. It is hard to imagine, but these people, too, have their farcical arguments, their fanatics, and their martyrs.
Do you say “irregardless?” Do you split your infinitives? Do you use words casually, promiscuously, almost recklessly – as I do – without worrying about what is ‘correct’?
“Who sets down all those rules that we all know about from childhood – the idea that we must never end a sentence with a preposition or begin one with a conjunction?” asks Bill Bryson in “Mother Tongue: English and How it Got that Way.”
Well, lexicographers, that’s who. And they fall into two main camps: the Descriptivists and the Prescriptivists.
The French, by the way, are – by habit, disposition and law – prescriptivists. The Academy Francaise – a group of scholars appointed by the government – decides what the meaning of ‘infect’ or ‘imbecile’ is and figures out where the impersonal pronouns and reflexive participial expressions fit into the sentence structure.
How do they know? Well, that is the point. They know because they decide the issue. Otherwise, people might put their prepositions wherever they wanted them.
But the Anglo-Saxon world is different. Just as the common law arose spontaneously – from the actual decisions, customs and usage of the people – so did the language.
“That is nonsense up with which I will not put,” said Winston Churchill, after his grammar was corrected by a prescriptivist interloquater. Churchill thought he had the right to stick his propositions at the beginning of a sentence or at the end – and if people didn’t like where they were placed, they could shove them up…
“A dictionary should have no traffic with artificial notions of correctness or superiority. It should be descriptive and not prescriptive,” wrote editor Philip Gove in Webster’s Third dictionary.
By the 1970s, Descriptivism had completely taken over dictionaries – and the U.S. school system. Teachers often didn’t know the rules of Standard White English themselves. And besides, the prescriptive rules were seen as “inherently capitalist, elitist, sexist, racist, xenophobic, homophobic: unfair,” writes David Foster Wallace, a SWE speaker.
Debates between the Descriptivists and the Precriptivists can get pretty hot. Because there is a lot at stake. Language, and how it is used, has an effect on the way people think – and what they do. A ‘homeless’ person gets our sympathy – or at least he did as long as the linguistic subterfuge went unnoticed. But a bum?
Descriptivists maintain that they are only describing the language as it actually is. They believe they are scientists – who are explaining how the language works, much like physicists tell you how the physical world works.
“A dictionary can be an ‘authority’ only in the sense in which a book of chemistry or of physics or of botany can be an ‘authority’ – by the accuracy and the completeness of its record of the observed facts of the field examined in accord with the latest principles and techniques of the particular science.”
To those of us who begin our sentences with conjunctions whenever we can find one and split infinitives with a meat cleaver, this sounds reasonable.
But here is Wallace’s response:
“This is so stupid it practically drools. An ‘authoritative’ physics text presents the results of physicists’ observations and physicists’ theories about those observations. If a physics textbook operated on Descriptivist principles, the fact that some Americans believe that electricity flows better downhill (based upon the observed fact that power lines tend to run high above the homes they serve) would require the Electricity Flows Better Downhill Theory to be included as a ‘valid’ theory in the textbook.”
According to the Descriptivists, one usage is as good as another. So, if you say “anxious” when you mean “eager,” as many people do, then “anxious” means “eager.”
The Prescriptivists point out that language has a function, like electricity. And using it properly is important – otherwise, someone is going to get shocked.
A recent news headline, for example, informed me that a “Woman Finds Long-Lost Daughter After 18 Years in Check-out Line.”
Eighteen years is a long time to spend in a check- out line. But at least it paid off.
Your editor, choosing his words carefully,
Delray Beach, FL
April 5, 2001
*** Oh what a wicked world! The Nasdaq dropped another 34 points yesterday, amid rumors that Lucent was headed for bankruptcy.
*** The Nasdaq has lost nearly 10% of its value in the last 3 days. It seems almost unbelievable. The index, now at 1,638, was 5,048 only a year ago.
*** Lucent fell to $5.50, well below its 1996 Initial Offer Price of $6.38. But the company says it’s not going bust. And Abbey Cohen says things are going to get better in the market.
*** Also, auto sales for March were stronger than anyone expected – running at an annual rate of 17.1 million. American consumers continue to spend – and to buy foreign products. Toyota, for example, had its best month ever.
*** Dallas Fed chief, Robert McTeer, urged consumers to “go out and buy an SUV.” Looks like they took the bait.
*** So what’s the problem?
*** Consumer debt now equals 71% of GDP and 85% of personal incomes – a record on both points. And Moody’s says that households’ liquid assets fell 13.2% in the first quarter of this year, compared to the same period last year.
*** “While consumers are continuing to empty their wallets at a record pace,” writes Chad Hudson on the Prudent Bear website, “the day will come when they realize they need to start saving again.”
*** “Nightmare on Wall Street – Tightfisted Consumers” says the headline of Gretchen Morgenson’s column in the N.Y.TIMES. “Our general feeling is that the next shoe to drop in the economy is a slowdown in consumer spending,” said Jason Trennert, an economist with the ISI Group.
*** While the Nasdaq fell, the Dow rose 30 points. GE was down a little.
*** The dollar index fell too – leaving the euro back above 90 cents. Could the long-awaited bull market in the euro finally be getting underway? Maybe.
*** Gold rose too, pushing the HUI (an index of gold mining companies) up 4%.
*** European telecoms invested billions in what was to be the next generation of wireless services. But “the [third generation] technology adopted by European operators,” writes Marshall Auerback, “may ultimately prove to be irrelevant as it is surpassed by more cost effective alternatives.” Both American and Japanese companies have already demonstrated better systems – faster and cheaper – working on a different standard. The billions invested may end up being scrapped like old 8 track tape players. That is the trouble with new technology – there is always newer technology.
*** Cisco is down 83%. One of its major customers – PSINet – is near bankruptcy. And many others, to whom it extended vendor financing, are going broke. Want to buy a Cisco router? You can get it for 20% of the list price at auction. “The market for networking equipment is in complete freefall,” said an industry expert.
*** Argentina has been in a slump for 33 months. A report in yesterday’s news said that the number of desperately poor people in Buenos Aires, those living on less than $1.60 per day, has risen to almost a million.
*** Australia cut its interest rates to 5% – following the Fed lead.
*** Poor Maria. The anxious 15-year-old has a talent agent and is going for a casting call today. She takes modern dance and ballet lessons – and wants to start a career in the theatre. But she still has to pass her ‘brevet’ – a difficult test they give all students in the 9th grade. If you don’t pass it, you don’t get to go to the next grade. She faces the first installment tomorrow.
*** “Would you talk to her?” Elizabeth asked me. “Maybe she’ll listen to you more than she does to me. She’s got to take her schoolwork more seriously.”
*** And so I spoke to Maria, giving her fatherly advice. What good did it do? Not much, dear reader, not much.
*** And what else? I can’t think of a thing. Oh…Jules, 13, is on a school trip to Toronto. The poor Canadians were expecting a French kid. Jules, meanwhile, was looking forward to speaking English. Well, I just talked to Jules. He’s staying with the Lin family, where they speak Chinese at home!