My Favorite Vulgarity

I can’t believe it’s been five years since Aaron James published Assholes, a Theory, a book that got me in trouble at school when I explained to a star student athlete breaking in the lunch line that he was an “asshole” according to a philosophical treatise I’d just read.

Much to my surprise, although a senior, the violator-of-queue-protocol told his mama, who called the higher-ups demanding an apology, which I refused to offer. “Would she rather I call him despicable?” I asked rhetorically, mentioned he was older than an acquaintance of mine killed in Nam, that I had offered the Anglo-Saxon descriptor in the context of a bone fide academic argument, etc. My bosses, to their credit, demurred. After graduation, I did, however, tell him that I was sorry calling him an asshole had upset him, but he claimed it hadn’t.

Anyway, “asshole” is an example of synecdoche, one of the gadgets poets use in their bag of tricks, a part standing for the whole, illustrated here in Eliot’s famous lines from “Prufrock”:

I should have been a pair of ragged claws

Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

Synecdoche, a sort of cinematic device, focuses the mind’s eye on concrete images, renders the airy world of words in flashes of substantiality as we atomistically see the part and perceive the whole, our mental cinematographer panning out from the rugged claws to the crab itself and our imaginations morphing the symbol into meaning however our imaginations will.

In explaining this concept to students, I actually use asshole as in a despicable person to illustrate synecdoche because, flash, they immediately get it and tend not to forget it.

I have to admit I love the word [1] – almost a perfect spondee – bam-bam.  Not surprisingly, it comes to English via the Vikings [2], those juvenile delinquents with battle-axes, as one of my history professors described them.  Actually, though, according to Wiktionary.com (my OED doesn’t list asshole), its vulgar usage as a despicable person doesn’t appear until the 1950’s in of all places, the Harvard Advocate 137, March 1954.

Asshole’s popularity as a derisive term is not only evident in its broad usage but also in the number of offshoots it has spawned – assholery, assholic, etc.

But back to James’s book and his ruminations. He writes

Our theory has three main parts.  In interpersonal or cooperative relations, the asshole:

  1.  allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically;
  2.  does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement; and
  3.  is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people.

I say, bravo.

Professor James is less successful, however, in classifying assholes because he doesn’t base his division on one principle; therefore, he creates categories that overlap, e.g., the boorish asshole, the smug asshole, the asshole boss, the corporate asshole, the self-aggrandizing asshole.  Obviously, it’s easy to perceive a corporate boss like Donald Trump as being smug, self-aggrandizing, and boorish all in one.

Certainly, he is by far, according to James’s theory, the ass-holiest US president in this and the last century if not the most egregious of all time.

At any rate, I enjoyed James’s book and now that it’s five years old you can probably cop it for pennies on Amazon.


[1] Cognate with Norwegian rasshøl (“asshole”), Swedish arsle (“asshole”). Compare also German Arschloch (“asshole”). Attested from the 1370s, replacing earlier Old English earsþerl (“anus”, literally “arse thirl”). First recorded in Middle English, as ers hole (Glouc. Cath. Manuscript 19. No. I. , dated 1379, cited after OED), ars-hole (Bodleian Ashmole MS. 1396, dated ca. 1400, ed. Robert Von Fleischhacker as Lanfrank’s “Science of Cirurgie”, EETS 102, 1894, cited after OED.) Wikipedia.com

[2] Check out TC Boyle’s “We Are Norsemen” for a primer on Norse assholedom: “The idiot.  The pale, puny, unhardy idiot. A rage came over me at the thought of it – I shoved [the monk] aside and snatched up the book, thick pages, dark characters, the mystery and magic.  Snatched it up, me, a poet, a Norseman, an annihilator, an illiterate.  Snatched it up and and watched the old man’s suffering features as I fed it, page by filthy page, into the fire.  Ha!”

A Failson, Trustafarian, and Jared Kushner Walk into a Bar

I approve of the way James Joyce combined English words as if he were writing in German.

He especially liked fusing adjectives as in “snotgreen” or “chalkscrawled” or “sanguineflowered.”

Dig this: “bluesilver razorshells.”

Unfortunately, if you’re dumbassspeller like me and need your spellchecker to autocorrect, you’re not likely to follow Joyce’s lead because of those goddamn redunderlinings. Undoing them by doublechecking every possible error results in tedious timewasting.

Anyway, sometimes a fusedword will sneak into the language. Today, I learned a new one: failson.

Here’s the Urban Dictionary’s ungrammatical definition:

White, middle-class, male, useless people—who have just enough family context to not be crushed by poverty.

Felix, the failson of the family, goes downstairs at Thanksgiving, briefly mumbles, ‘Hi,’ everyone asks him how community college is going, he mumbles something about a 2.0 average, goes back upstairs with a loaf of bread and some peanut butter, and gets back to gaming and masturbating.

 A failson is not to be confused with a trustafarian, which is gender neutral:

Privileged white kids who subscribe to the hippie lifestyle (because they can) since they have no worries about money, a job etc. They can then devote their lives to eating organic, following Phish, and wearing dreadlocks (no need for job interviews).

 Sarah is a trustafarian. It’s totally evidenced by the combination of her brand new car[1] and nice digs with her “earthy” clothes and dreadlocks.

I suspect failsons tend to hole themselves up in their rooms and suffer from an EmilyDickinsonian/EdgarAllanPoeish pallor whereas the tanned Trustafarian I know who lives on Folly Beach frequently appears in public and is a ubiquitous source of putoff. When he’s not tripping on shrooms, he’s smugly pontificating in a hauterladen voice.

Him, me no dig.

But what about Jared Kushner? What’s the word for him?

How about nepotistickleptocrat?

 

In English, a hybrid language, there’s almost a word for everything.


[1] Or, as Joyce would put it brandnewcar.

 

The Sky Flashes, the Great Sea Yearns

 

I can remember as a boy lying on a pile of leaves I had raked the day before, bored, staring up at the clouds. For whatever reason, years later, I recalled this incident (if you can call it that) and told my mother, “Some of my best memories are of being bored.” For whatever reason, this nonsense delighted her, and over the decades she would sometimes remind me that I had uttered those syllables, as if they embodied some great truth about the human condition.

Balderdash. Poppycock.

Truth be told, my best memories do not include that time our broken-down train sat motionless for four hours somewhere between Edinburg and Inverness nor those hours spent sitting through seemingly interminable high school productions nor glancing up every three minutes at the slow clock ticking in Mrs. Waltrip’s Algebra class (even if she did occasionally enliven things by pointing at integers on the chalk board with her middle finger).

Of course, there’s a distinction to be made between mere boredom (languishing in a waiting room) and ennui, which might be best embodied by John Berryman’s poem “Dream Song 14.”

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.

After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,

we ourselves flash and yearn,

and moreover my mother told me as a boy

(repeatingly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored

means you have no

 

Inner Resources.’ I conclude now I have no

inner resources, because I am heavy bored.

Peoples bore me,

literature bores me, especially great literature,

Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes

as bad as achilles,

 

who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.

And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag

and somehow a dog

has taken itself & its tail considerably away

into mountains or sea or sky, leaving

behind: me, wag.

Ennui is malaise, enduring, beyond the cure of looking up the etymology of “balderdash” (originally a weird mixture of liquids like beer, milk, Nu-Grape soda, etc.) or “poppycock” [which comes from the Dutch pap (soft) and kak (dung), so poppycock = soft-poop].

No for ennui, we need something stronger, maybe a serotonin enhancer, a love affair with Oscar Wilde or Dorothy Parker, something more substantial than watching PW Pabst’s 1929 masterpiece Diary of a Lost Girl (my morning’s entertainment).

The fact is I wasn’t really bored when I was lying in that pile of leaves looking at the clouds. I was using my imagination. I was happy.

 

 

Fun with Grammar Nazis

A few posts back, I mentioned Practically Painless English, a grammar primer by Sally Foster Wallace, mother of the famous David Foster Wallace, the brilliant novelist and essayist who gave us Infinite Jest and “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.”

Here’s a riff from one of David Foster Wallace’s infamous footnotes, a description of his favorite “tablemate” on a luxury cruise that Harper’s sent him on, despite his being more than a touch agoraphobic:

Trudy was 56, the same age as my own dear personal Mom, and looked – Trudy did, and I mean this in the nicest way possible – like Jackie Gleason in drag, and had a particularly loud pre-laugh scream that was a real arrhythmia-producer, and was the one who coerced me into Wednesday night’s Conga Line, and got me strung out on Snowball Jackpot Bingo, and was also an incredible lay authority on 7NC Luxury Cruises, this being her sixth in a decade – she and her friend Esther (thin-faced, subtly ravaged-looking, the distaff part of the couple from Miami) had tales to tell about Carnival, Princess, Crystal, and Cunard too fraught with libel-potential to produce here, and one long review of what was apparently the worst cruise in 7NC history – one “American Family Cruises,” which folded after just sixteen months – involving outrages too literally incredible to be believed from any duo less knowledgeable and discerning than Trudy and Esther.

Look what I found: Jackie Gleason in drag!

In the above-mentioned post, I mentioned that I actually taught from Practically Painless English in the ‘80’s but that now copies were going for $138, but lo and behold, I have scored a copy of the second edition for pittance — $34.

What a hoot. Sally Foster Wallace is brilliantly subversive. Dig this explanation of the capitalization of pronouns:

Remember that I is the only pronoun that is always capitalized, no matter where it appears in the sentence. Capitalize a pronoun referring to God, too:

God’s eye is on the sparrow, but I know He watches me.[1]

Here’s an example with the polite instruction to “please circle each pronoun you find in these sentences”:

Lassie is teaching her pups to chew with their mouths open.

Another treat is that she creates a cast of idiosyncratic characters who sort of evolve – or at least provide behavioral motifs — as we travel from “Parts of Speech” through “Paragraphs.”

These include Peony McAllister, Rambo and Rambette, Inertia and Aphasia. Grandma and Grandpa Pringle, and Chively Sneed. Fedonia Krump and Mongo.

Here are a few of my favorite examples:

Please circle the adverbs in the following paragraph:

Peony McAllister was so excited about her extremely interesting Japanese flower-arranging class that she completely ignored the bright red stop signs randomly placed here and there on her route to school. Suddenly, her very cold ears picked up the hauntingly familiar sound of a skull-shattering loud siren, and she saw dazzling lights in her rearview mirror. Frantically, she began to create convincingly pathetic excuses for going too fast. As she slowly pulled over to the side of the road, she patted her motorcycle gently and smiled bravely at the very large person who was slowly approaching.

Brava!

Identify the part of speech of the italicized words.

Ezra pounded the steak and then smothered it in onions.

If you call your sister a dweebazoid again, I’ll be forced to turn you into a toad.

Obviously, no remedial student is going to pick up that allusion.

Identify the subject and verb.

Rambette took her parakeet for a walk.

Wild horses dragged the tall leprechauns to a boring movie.

Here’s one from a punctuation exercise.

Fedonia’s pet lion fell into the paving machine so she calls him Leotarred.

You catch the drift – DFW didn’t fall far from the maternal tree, at least as far as surrealism and an obsession with English usage (go, goes).

It’s interesting to note that when he taught college, he was, by his own admission, fanatical about correct grammar and mechanics. Here he is in another footnote, this one from the essay: “Authority and American usage” describing what happened every semester when he taught lit.

Once I’ve had to read my students’ first set of papers, we immediately abandon the regular Lit syllabus and have a three-week Emergency Remedial Usage and Grammar Unit, during which my demeanor is basically that of teaching HIV prevention to intravenous drug users. When it emerges (as it does every term) that 95 percent of these intelligent upscale college students have never been taught, e.g., what a clause is or why a misplaced only can make a sentence confusing or why you don’t just stick in a comma after a noun phrase, I all but pound my head on the blackboard; I get angry and self-righteous; I tell them they should sue their hometown school boards, and I mean it. Every August I vow silently to chill about usage this year, and then by Labor Day there’s foam on my chin. I can’t seem to help it. The truth is that I’m not even an especially good or dedicated teacher; I don’t have this fervor in class about anything else, and I know it’s not a very productive fervor, not a healthy one – it’s got elements of fanaticism and rage to it, plus a snobbishness that I know I’d be mortified to display about anything else.

Good God, how I miss DFW. What a loss to literature.

David Foster Wallace
world copyright Giovanni Giovannetti/effigie


[1] Aren’t two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s consent.  Matthew 10:29, Holman Christian Standard Bible

Language, Thinking and the Oratorical Donald

Sir Winston Trump

Can we at least all agree on this: when it comes to verbal expression, Donald Trump is no Winston Churchill?

Yeah? But is he as bad as the critics claim?

Sarah Sloat thinks not. On the website Inverse, she argues that rather than being an indication of stupidity, Donald’s Trump limited vocabulary “exemplifies sly intelligence.”

She takes issue with Philip Roth’s contention in the 30 January issue of the New Yorker that Trump is essentially a fucking imbecile, both intellectually and morally.[1]

Take it away Mr. Roth:

I found much that was alarming about being a citizen during the tenures of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. But, whatever I may have seen as their limitations of character or intellect, neither was anything like as humanly impoverished as Trump is: ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art, incapable of expressing or recognizing subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency, and wielding a vocabulary of seventy-seven words that is better called Jerkish than English.”

Because Trump has “a small vocabulary size,” Sloat argues, doesn’t mean “that the President is dumb.” I more or less agree with her on this point. A limited vocabulary doesn’t necessarily mean that a person can’t solve intricate quadratic equations or intelligently assess a potential business rival’s weaknesses. What I do disagree with, however, is that Trump’s use of an impoverished vocabulary is “the hallmark of a person sly enough to hook his listeners and persuade them using only a few words.” In other words, I don’t think Trump’s use of a small number of words in his speeches is a conscious action aimed at endearing him to downhome folk. I think he talks that way all the time.

For example, here he is discussing history with an interviewer on satellite radio:

They said my campaign is most like, my campaign and win was most like Andrew Jackson with his campaign. And I said, “When was Andrew Jackson?” It was 1828. That’s a long time ago. That’s Andrew Jackson. And he had a very, very mean and nasty campaign. Because they said this was the meanest and the nastiest. And unfortunately it continues.  His wife died. They destroyed his wife and she died. And, you know, he was a swashbuckler. But when his wife died, you know, he visited her grave every day. I visited her grave actually, because I was in Tennessee. And it was amazing. The people of Tennessee are amazing people. Well, they love Andrew Jackson. They love Andrew Jackson in Tennessee. I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart, and he was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War. He said, “There’s no reason for this.” People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, you think about it, why?

Trump isn’t shy about expressing his dislike of reading, which shows not only in the content of what he says but also in its expression.   The mind that produced the above is a mind not shaped by reading, a mind lacking the syntactical structures necessary for clear thinking, a mind with a threadbare vocabulary that limits the ability to detect and therefore articulate nuance.

It’s almost as if he’s invented his own brand of sub-literate Newspeak. Everything is either “bad” or “evil” or “great” and” tremendous.” Hence, the flip-flops. He doesn’t merely moderate his stances but completely reverses them. He rushes to judgement, proclaims something “tremendous” or “bad” but then after a discussion with a cabinet member pulls a 180.

Take his reversal on NATO, for example: “The secretary general and I had a productive discussion about what more NATO can do in the fight against terrorism. I complained about that a long time ago, and they made a change, and now they do fight terrorism. I said it was obsolete. It’s no longer obsolete.”

The implication is that NATO has just recently changed their posture towards terrorism because of Trump’s complaints, and now that NATO has changed, it’s no longer obsolete. This may be a clever strategy for hoodwinking his ardent followers but probably not all that an effective approach when it comes to our allies.

At any rate, what I most disagree with is Sloat’s conflating intelligence with ignorance. She writes, “Roth equates Trump’s small vocabulary with ignorance, [my emphasis] which is in line with the old-school view of verbal fluency.” But ignorance and intelligence are two very different matters. Unlike me, I suspect that Stephen Hawkins is ignorant of the various interpretations of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive floating around the Internet; however, I dare say that he would beat me on an IQ test.

At any rate, Roth’s charge of Trump’s ignorance “of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art” seems to me indisputable. Trump’s vocabulary is beside the point here. The idea of Andrew Jackson’s preventing the Civil War is about as credible as Noah’s releasing two penguins on Mount Ararat. It’s grossly ignorant and would be just as ignorant if Churchill had expressed it in all of his sonorous eloquence.

Skillful orators alter their vocabularies depending on their audiences. Trump uses the same impoverished vocabulary whether he’s making a speech to a stadium of his supporters, answering policy questions from an interviewer, or hitting on a model.

He’s tripleplusinarticulate.


[1] Quoting Sloat quoting researchers, “A voluminous taboo lexicon may better be considered an indicator of healthy verbal abilities rather than a cover for their deficiencies.”  Oh fuck yeah!

 

Wordly Wise Succumbs to Political Correctness

Note James Dickey’s phone number on the cover; he’d let students call him and interview him for research papers on Deliverance.

Years ago, in a less sensitive century, I taught a course in Remedial English Developmental English at a community college. Of all the various workbooks we tried during my stint there, my favorite was Practically Painless English by Sally Foster Wallace, who happens to be the mother of David Foster Wallace. David would have been a late teen when I was teaching from his mom’s workbook, and I was only in my late twenties myself.

Alas, a couple of years ago, I gave my only copy to DFW aficionado and kickass essayist John Jeremiah Sullivan. As of this morning, surviving copies are going for $138 a pop on Amazon.

However, thanks of an internet recovery site, I was able to cop these exemplary snippets from Sally Wallace’s book:

Orlanda McGurk and Chively Sneed drink kerosene.
I went to the grocery store. I bought some soap. I bought some dynamite.
His eyes sparkled as he sprinkled poison on the cupcakes.
The bright pink sports car crashed on the icy winding road.
Until the killer confesses, we are all under suspicion.
The murderer himself was in the funeral procession.

Delightful but dangerous in this trigger-unhappy era. It’s possible one of your students’ mothers died when her pink Porsche skidded off an icy, winding road and smacked into an aspen. Although unlikely, Mrs. Wallace’s macabre example could cause legitimate heartache. Believe me, it happens. I’ve hurt people alluding to a much more unlikely death scenario.

So it’s not surprising that editors of long running series like Wordly Wise occasionally revise sentences to better reflect contemporary sensibilities. In fact, several new editions have come out in the 32 years I’ve been teaching Wordly Wise; however, because I’m lazy, I still use the very same workbooks issued to me in 1985. (see illustration above) Just because the word buxom[1] has been removed from Book 7, doesn’t make it worth the trouble of re-doing the exercises of the latest iteration to accommodate such a minor change.[2]

These changes usually take place in Section B, where students have to select sentences in which italicized words have been used incorrectly (see footnote 1 below).

Many of the emendations reflect skittishness about religious references.

Exercise A

a heathen tribe

(a) living in the jungle (b) living on islands (c) converted to Christianity (d) without Biblical religious belief

Exercise B

16 (a) Any person not a Christian, a Jew, or a Moslem was considered a heathen. (b) Missionaries went abroad in great numbers to convert the heathen to Christianity. (c) The people in the jungle are best left alone to worship their heathen gods. (d) The natives continued to heathen their own gods despite the efforts of the missionaries.

So when students hear Bob Marley sing “Heathen back against the wall,” they won’t have a clue.

Examples of violence are also targets for replacement.

From the same world list, one example of recoil has been softened. The 1983 edition includes the sentence, “He recoiled in horror when his gaze fell on the murdered man,” which in the 1998 version reads, “He recoiled in disgust when he saw the slugs in his driveway.”

My favorite changes occur in Book 6, Word List 6 where the sentence “Following their defeat in battle, the tribesmen were ruthlessly massacred” has been changed to “Some people see meat-eating as the massacre of animals.” Also, the strange “The animals were driven into the ravine and massacred by men with high-powered rifles” has given way to the metaphoric “The visitors massacred the home team; the score was 57 – 0.[3]

Apparently, George Custer remains fair game. The 1983 sentence “The massacre of General Custer’s men at Little Big Horn occurred in 1876″ survives in the 1998 edition.

Sex is not so much a problem because the editors ignore any sexual connotations a word may have. For example, orgy is defined as “wild, abandoned merrymaking.”

Hi, Emerson how was school today?

It was a blast, mom. The pep rally turned into an orgy!”

I’ll leave you with one last example, another sentence that has withstood the [tautology alert] censorious eye of the Wordly Wise censor:

“He led a chaste and ordered life with his uncles.”

WTF?


[1] It’s defined as “plump.” See if you can guess which usage is incorrect: A. She was a healthy, buxom woman in the prime of life or B. She offered to buxom the pillow to make it more comfortable.

[2] Our department eschews teacher manuals.

[3] What offends me more than religious references or allusions to violence is the examples’ unnecessary use of passive voice and their lack of specificity. How about “A band of hunchbacked Lithuanian dwarves drove the bison into the ravine where their Russian overlords massacred them with AK 47s” or “The visitors massacred the home team 57-0?

That Time I Got Called into the Principal’s Office for Teaching Filth

ourheritagemedia-fullsize-b9080514cad6767ac04d4137741bebac

Okay, the Prince of Lies wings his way upward and on a cliff encounters a woman naked and beautiful from the genitals up, but horror-show-hideous below, where “[v]oluminous and vast,” a hydra-like reptilian whiplash “of scaly folds” slithers.

Satan can hear the muffled howling of dogs, the frenzied yelps coming from . . . from within her . . . “about her middle round.” These dogs “kennel” in her womb, exit and reenter periodically, and with “their wide Cerberian mouths full loud,” let out “a hideous peal.”

[Gross!]

Next to her sits a blob-like creature not “distinguishable in member, joint, or limb.” On what might be considered his head, he wears a “kingly crown.”

[What the Hell?]

Well, boys and girls, sin is ugly. Check out Hieronymus Bosch or Breughel the Elder.

farting-painting

This unholy trinity described above consists of Satan, Sin, and Death. You see, one day when he was strolling the gold-paved streets of Heaven, Lucifer had this chick split open his head and emerge, Athena-like, fully armed.  A rebellious thought had roiled his erstwhile Seraphic mind and presto Trouble!

So Beautiful was this feminine doppelganger of a daughter, he had sex with her, impregnated her, right up there in Heaven.

Her name is Sin.

[Tsk Tsk]

After the war and the expulsion of the rebel angels and their general Satan, Sin gives birth to a blob-like boy who rips open her womb and transforms her limbs into snakes. This offspring, son of Satan, immediately rapes her and impregnates her with the above-mentioned hellhounds.

His name is Death.

Satan + Sin = Death.. . .

* * *

One cloudy day in the early 90’s, I receive an email from our new principal. He’d like to see me in his office, which, because of some construction, is a trailer. I don’t put this encounter off. I stroll over as soon as I can.

Once inside, I sit down on the proffered sofa.

“Well, Wesley. I’ve had a mother call and complain about one of your sophomore English classes.”

“Really? What’s the beef?”

“She says you’re teaching obscenity. By the way, what are you teaching?”

“’The justification of the ways of God to men.’”

“Huh?”

Paradise Lost.”

He smiles, nods. “Okay, thanks.  I’ll explain it to her”

* * *

Believe it or not, sophomores dig Paradise Lost if you set it up right and read a fluidly truncated version. You teach it like it’s sci-fi. After all, Hell in Paradise Lost is a far distant planet; Satan flies through outer space to find Earth.

You got monsters, battles, video-game like scenery.

Add to that full frontal nudity and the gorgeous music of the poetry.

 

 

Eve separate he spies,

Veiled in a Cloud of Fragrance, where she stood

Half spied, so thick the Roses bushing round

About her glowed, oft stooping to support

Each Flower of slender stalk, whose head though gay

Carnation, Purple, Azure, or specked with Gold,

Hung drooping unsustained, them she upstands

Gently with Myrtle band, mindless the while,

Her self, though fairest unsupported Flower,

From her best prop so far and storm so nigh.

 

[I’ve modernized the spelling].

 

serpent