My favorite part of the book 1984 by George Orwell is the appendix, entitled “The Principles of Newspeak.” In 1984, Newspeak was the official language of the Party that ruled Oceania.  As the Appendix states:

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc [English Socialism], but to make all other modes of thought impossible.[…] This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words…

Orwell then explains how, through shrinking the vocabulary of the language, heretical thoughts became unthinkable. He illustrates by quoting the following passage from the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.

Orwell then states that “it would have been quite impossible to render this into Newspeak while keeping the sense of the original. The nearest one could come to doing so would be to swallow the whole passage up in the single word crimethink.”

Why do I mention this?  Well, it is very relevant to our present political situation.

One of the most notable things about Donald Trump is how few words he seems to know. People mock his tiny hands, but to me what’s truly amazing is his absolutely minuscule vocabulary.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in his tweets, where he will often conclude one of his communiques insulting someone or complaining about something with an imperative “Sad!” or “Bad!”

If Trump needs to lengthen some statement, usually all he can do is add the word “very” or, if he is talking about something he does not like, interject “so terrible”.

When Trump wants to add extra emphasis to some point, he often adds that it will be “big league”. (e.g. “We are going to win big league.”) Thanks to Trump’s peculiar accent, many people have misheard this as “bigly”; a child-like non-adjective that seems extremely fitting for the man, with his penchant for gaudy, oversized buildings.

If the problem were merely that our President-elect was a man incapable of eloquence, that would be one thing.  But it is far worse than that.

The scary thing is that his style of communicating is very infectious.  People–myself included–have picked up his habits of saying “sad!” or “big league”. It’s addictive, I won’t deny it; and there is an alarming pleasure in mimicking him–even for people like me, who find him utterly appalling and oppose him completely.

But that is the frightening thing: once you start to talk like him, you will start to think like him.  And once that happens, you could reach a point where “a heretical thought” becomes, as Orwell warned, “literally unthinkable”.

To be clear, I think Trump’s rhetorical style (if you can call it that) is more a symptom than the disease itself. I wrote back in 2010 that “Twitter = Newspeak”, and that was before Trump was even on the political map. I do think that the ascendance of Trump, who communicates through Twitter far more than most candidates, supports my point. It may be that Twitter itself made Trump possible.

For Christmas I received a book called “How to Read Literature Like a Professor”, by Thomas Foster. The title is self-explanatory I suppose, but it serves as an introduction to literary analysis.  The main point he makes is that it’s all about pattern recognition–an analysis of a given “text” (“text” being used in the academic sense of “anything”) is done by recognizing that this character is like this myth, or legend, or that this weather symbolizes that state of mind.

It is not a bad book, although I think I might already be doing what Foster describes.  Feel free to read through any of my posts critiquing books, movies or video games and see if you agree–I tend to remark when a given story or character reminds me of another one.

It’s probably true of any field, not just literature, that pattern recognition is they key to being good at it.  That’s why I love studying history; you start to see recurring behavior patterns and possibly even can learn something from them.  Being able to notice when thing x is like thing y is a highly important skill.  It’s also a relatively easy one to develop–all you need to do is see a lot of stuff and remember it.

One claim Foster makes is that “there is only one story” in the world, and it’s about “everything”.  This is the sort of statement that’s so generic and unfalsifiable it seems useless.  And yes, I know about Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, and the “monomyth”.  I don’t doubt that the vast majority of stories share the same fundamental theme (I’ve even blogged about it), but I think saying there is only one oversimplifies, and saying it’s about “everything” is just a cop-out.  The Masque of the Red Death and Watership Down are totally not the same story.

That’s not to say it’s a bad book; Foster’s writing is light and witty, and he seems like he would be a fun guy with whom to chat about books. As you can doubtless tell, I enjoy that sort of thing.

One thing I’ve been thinking about lately is how much better the world might be if armchair analysts of literature–myself included–would redirect their powers of analysis towards things like politics or current affairs.  Imagine what could happen if people could only look at society with the same detached, logical and rigorous search for patterns that they apply to fictional narratives and characters.

I know people–heck, I think I’m one of them–who love morally interesting and complex stories, who is fascinated by exploring possible motivations of the characters in a story–and then turns around and makes simplistic judgments or assertions about real world events and people.  I sometimes think if I were as good at applying my critical faculties to real-life as at literature, I’d be better off.

Anyway, rant over–it’s still an enjoyable book, and despite what I’ve said here, I’m sure I won’t be giving up my fondness for the parlor game that is literary analysis anytime soon.

Look, this is not hard: this website explains it. You do not have to be a genius to understand it.

And yet, it seems nowadays that fewer people know how to do it correctly.  See, in that previous sentence–that’s using it correctly.  It would have been incorrect to say “less people”.

Is there less emphasis on grammar in schools?  Again, that’s the way to do it: “less emphasis”, not “fewer emphasis”.

Awhile back, Thingy posted about people who use the word “basically” all the time as a meaningless filler word.

I had never noticed it before reading that post, but now I’ve realized that I’m one of those people.  So are a lot of the people I know.  And now, like Thingy, it’s driving me crazy, but even I can’t stop. I tried to read up on it, and apparently it’s pretty common.  I was wondering if it might be a regionalism (American Midwest, to be precise) but I couldn’t find anything to indicate that.

I looked up a list of other “filler” words on Wikipedia. Here are some, along with whether I use them or not:

  • “like” (guilty)
  • “y’know”(guilty)
  • “I mean”(guilty)
  • “so” (guilty)
  • “actually”(Guilty–more in writing than in speech)
  • “literally” (Not guilty, and misuse of it annoys me.)
  • “right” (I’m more likely to say “I know, right?”)
  • “I’m tellin’ ya” (guilty–I’m more likely to say, “I’ll tell you what…”)
  • “you know what I mean?” (Guilty by reason of hearing other people say it, and picking it up.)

The Wiki article also mentions that “Ronald Reagan was famous for answering questions starting with ‘Well…'”.  I do that all the time, too. I remember when watching the debates, President Obama would often begin his answers to questions with “Well, look…” I guess all three of us could be accused of going to that well too often.


Is there an example of someone who (without using a script)  speaks without using any filler words?  I suppose it would have to be somebody who was good at thinking very quickly, because more often than not, filler words are used to fill airtime while you are thinking of what to say next.

I switched back and forth last night between the Republican debate and the track meet that people tried to pass off as a football game. My impressions based on what I saw of the debate were:

  • Ron Paul is a lunatic, but some of his ideas are better than anything the rest of them offer.
  • Huntsman is trolling.
  • Rick Perry’s just zis guy, you know?
  • An analysis of Newt Gingrich may be found here.
  • Rick Santorum has by far the most appeal to the rank-and-file.
  • Mitt Romney doesn’t like hypothetical questions.

None of them seem particularly charismatic, although Paul, Perry and Santorum all seem reasonably amiable.

And lastly, not that it matters, but I got a kick out of Gingrich, Romney and Santorum all screwing up their chance to seem like “regular guys” by getting the date of the college football championship wrong. I don’t blame them, though, because I don’t particularly want a President who spends his leisure time on that. (Also, the game should be played on Saturday. Why on earth do they play it on a work night?)

I loved Paul’s answer about the economics books, though.

UPDATE: Forgot to add one other thing: at one point, Rick Perry said:

“We’re going to see Iran, in my opinion, move back in [to Iraq] at literally the speed of light.” [My italics.]

This sort of thing irritates me. “Literally” means it is actually true, no exaggerations. Perry meant to say “figuratively” which means “not literally”. Now, some people will say that I am just being a “word Nazi” or something. (I prefer “authoritarian linguaphile”.) But look, it’s a perfectly fine figure of speech, but it is not literal!

It is true that Perry is far from the first person to do this. Using the word “literally” to mean exactly the opposite has gone on for quite some time. But it seems to me like a silly practice, since we already have a word that means the opposite of “literally”, to let it have two different and opposite meanings. It’s more of what I was talking about here. Am I wrong about this?

The English language has some very interesting features. I am a native speaker, so I’m used to most of them, but they must make it very difficult to understand for non-native speakers.

One of my favorite little oddities is the word “nauseous“. Most people use this word to mean “nauseated”, but it also means “nauseating”, which is a rather different thing. Indeed, I think that “nauseous” was originally used only to mean “disgusting”, but misuse over time has become codified in the language.

But it might prove tricky in translation, don’t you think? There’s a big difference between “I’m nauseous” in the sense of “I’m nauseated” and in the sense of “I’m nauseating”.

There are many other examples of this sort of weird “glitch” in language. Know any amusing ones?

I have noticed a strange thing lately. There is now a tendency to say things like: “That’s not good. That’s the opposite of good,” or something with a similar construction. Perhaps it is a quote from something; I don’t know. I wonder how it started.

The main reason I bring it up is that, to me, it always evokes the way people said “ungood” instead of “bad” in “Newspeak”.

It is an unfortunate fact that when talking about him, it is all too easy for the tongue to slip and to say a “b” where the “s” ought to go in “Osama”. This is most annoying to me, but nevertheless, I–and many people I know–have made this error. Salon has a good article on this, and I agree with the claim that this is all the “b” in “bin”‘s fault.

What is particularly troubling about this little mistake is that people rarely used to call bin Laden “Osama”. Everyone called him “bin Laden”. He was the most infamous bin Laden in the world, so no need to say “Osama”. After all, there’s rarely a need to specify, for instance, that we are talking about Adolf Hitler, and not some other Hitler, and so we drop his first name.