Monday, April 1, 2019

An Easter Meditation on UnShakespearean Language

Every April Fool's Day I used to post a joke article about Shakespeare that I thought was funny, even if nobody else did. The first one, in 2013, was a claim that a missing scene from Romeo and Juliet had been found. Then there was the one about Macbeth's remains having been located in a supermarket freezer in Aberdeen. I'm not going to write a joke post this year, because too many people always think they're real, and also because nothing seems incredible enough to be amusing since Donald Trump got elected president. That was when irony died. I considered, "Donald Trump Claims MAGA Speeches More Popular than Shakespeare's Hamlet," but the only incredible thing about that headline is the idea that Trump has heard of Shakespeare. Then I thought, maybe, "Banquo's Ghost Authored The Art of the Deal," except I think that is actually true.

So, in lieu of a joke post in the month of Shakespeare's 455th birthday, I'm going to make yet another list of modern terms and phrases which I don't like, and which I'm convinced Shakespeare would make fun of. There are so many! But, as in the past, I've limited my list to ten.

1. A piece of whatever. People who are speaking publicly in front of other people about some allegedly important subject, whether they are on the radio or the TV
news or simply standing in front of a group, now enjoy saying that some specific factor is "a piece of" some phenomenon. For example, when discussing the cause of the national decline in the sale of four-door sedans, a business analyst will say that larger vehicles' increased fuel efficiency is "a piece of it." I am tired of this. It's so hackneyed it makes me shudder. It sounds better when Shakespeare talks about "a piece of" this or that, because Shakespeare is not just repeating trendy journalist-speak, but using the phrase thoughtfully to say something about a character or an event in a play. The best example comes in Hamlet. Hamlet's friend Horatio is the play's skeptic, having studied Stoic philosophy at the University of Wittenberg and absorbed its lessons in rational thought and careful deliberation. Horatio never jumps to conclusions. Instead, he withholds judgment until things are sufficiently proven. This is such a part of his character that when, in scene one, the Danish soldier Bernardo asks, "Say, what, is Horatio there?," Horatio responds, "A piece of him." This is his first line in the play, and it sums him up well.

2. Decimate. I'm starting to get reconciled to this one, because I know it's not going away. What still bothers me about its use to mean "devastate" or "annihilate" is that the actual meaning of the word is so evident in the first syllable. "Decimate" means to destroy one tenth of something. So if you're trying to say something was blown to smithereens, you aren't getting your meaning across by saying "It was completely decimated." That's a contradiction in terms. Did Shakespeare know what "decimate" really meant? Of course! He'd read his Plutarch. In Shakespeare's Timon of Athens, certain senators plead with the rogue general Alcibiades only to "decimate" their city rather than to destroy it. "March, noble lord, / Into our city with thy banners spread. / By decimation and a tithed death, / If thy revenges hunger for that food, / Which nature loathes, take thou the destined tenth." In other words, "Kill only ten percent of us, and not everybody." Alcibiades agrees, and this is what passes for sort of a happy ending in this play. So, next time I hear somebody complain that the new city budget is going to "decimate" public works, I'll think, "Oh, good! We got off easy."

3. Presents as. People, people. This is perverse. Or perhaps you're unaware that when you speak over radio to an audience of millions, you are, in your pseudo-educated journalistic way, claiming that (for example) a political candidate is inviting voters to have sex with him in a public forum? Shocking! But that's what it means when you say something like "Bernie Sanders presents as the most progressive of the Democratic hopefuls." Sanders may seem to be the most progressive of these hopefuls, but I doubt he's that progressive. He does not "present as" a progressive, because that would mean he is adopting a progressive political stance in order to get folks to mate with him. It would also mean he was female, because "present" is not something male animals do. It's a scientific term applicable to the behavior of female baboons and such like, who "present" (their genitalia) to males at opportune moments. That's pretty much all I want to say about that, except, the addition of a little pronoun ("presents himself as") can strike a much-needed blow for decency in our political discourse. What would Shakespeare say? Don't get me started. Just rest assured that when Shakespeare wants to call attention to the bestial sexual behavior of a politician, he pulls no punches, and he says what he means. See act one, scene five, and act three, scene three, of Hamlet, both of which describe King Claudius, in terms too shocking for a family blog. Gertrude doesn't get off easy, either.

4. Ad spend. I don't want to hear that some candidate put forth four million dollars in "ad spend." Money is not "spend." Money is something you spend. If you want it to be a noun instead of a verb, say "spending." However, this one will be okay if you are speaking in iambic pentameter and you need to cut off the extra syllable to preserve the meter. Here's a Shakespeare-ish example: "The orange golem, lacking e'en one friend, / Wasted the budget with his wall-ish spend."

5. Products. Products are either the results of multiplication operations or things you can touch. Therefore, banks and investment companies need to stop talking about the accounts and services they offer as "products." The first time a bank teller began talking to me this way, when I just wanted to open a checking account, I was so confused, the whole transaction took almost three times as long as it should have. This was not just because I had never before heard an account described as a "product," but because she did not know how to use any of the more traditional words I was using to describe a bank account (like "bank account"). I know Shakespeare would hate the misuse of "products" so much that he would write a whole play about it, and it would be a tragedy. As it is, we may consider the many, many more precise terms he does use to describe bankish activity and services. Antonio and Bassanio do not visit Shylock to ask for a "product" of 300 ducats. They ask for a "loan." Antonio seeks "credit," since he lacks both cash and "commodity," or other assets. Shylock offers him a "bond," a contractual agreement for repayment within a certain period of time, which Sonnet 87 calls a "granting." Except for "commodity," these words ("credit," "bond," "granting") are verbs as well as nouns, which makes it easier to grasp that the person extending credit is providing a service, not handing over an artifact.

6. "Five Social Security Mistakes You Probably Don't Even Realize You're Making." Does the person who wrote this headline know me? Is he or she familiar with my practices with regard to social security? If not, it is highly presumptuous of her or him to assume I'm making even a single "Social Security mistake," let alone five. To the author's credit, he or she at least said "probably," not "certainly." But it's still annoying to be lectured in news headlines written by people who have no idea of the individual lives, states of knowledge, political habits, and financial practices of those who are reading them, though they may guess. The best response to this effrontery (yes, Shakespeare spells it that way) is something Hamlet says to the nosy butt-inskis Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. "You would seem to know my stops, you would pluck out the heart of my mystery." But you can't.

7. Bad grammar and spelling in "high" places. I find it appalling that The New York Times would, in print, refer to a politician's "discrete affair" (one kept separate from his other affairs?), and that the CBS Evening News would flash on the screen a statement about another politician's "adultry."It's not just that the news media's collective mind is in the gutter. It's that these are elementary-school mistakes. (Okay, maybe "adultry" is a middle-school mistake.)  The only time it's okay to spell "adultery" this way is if you're Shakespeare and, again, you need to jam a three-syllable-word together so it fits a line's meter. We find something like this in King Lear when Lear complains that his daughter is so bad, it causes him to think she is not his, and that his wife's grave is "sepulchring an adult'ress." And speaking of King Lear, I also resent that the same issue of The New York Times which contained "discrete" for "discreet" included a review of Glenda Jackson in King Lear whose author, amid all his faux-Shakespeare-knowledge posturing, could not even quote the play in a way which was correct and made grammatical sense. His example of an affecting line from this tragedy? "Men must endure. Their going hence even as their coming hither." I ask you! (That last is a sentence fragment, too, but it's colloquial.) Any of my undergraduate college students could figure out how that line was actually punctuated, but Mr. I-Don't-Know-From-Shakespeare-But-I-Can-Fake-It theater critic couldn't. Again: I ask you! 

8. Late capitalism. I've been living with this one for a long time. We all have. I think it originated in the neo-Marxist literary criticism of the late 80s and early 90s. The problem with this phrase is that it falsely implies we are in the final stage of capitalism. Some English professors pretend to want this (they don't really), and some politicians (like Bernie Sanders) really do want it, but we are not in the final stage of capitalism. We are just in a contemporary stage of capitalism. It may be different than earlier stages of capitalism, and we can hope that capitalism continues to be improved, modified, and regulated. I know I do. But let's just call it what it is: "contemporary capitalism." Shakespeare, of course, knew the word "capital," but the word "capitalism" is one he didn't invent. He liked to mess around with the word, as when Polonius tells Hamlet that he once played Julius Caesar and was killed in the Capitol, and Hamlet tells him that this outcome was "capital" (great). We get a more economic (as opposed to economical) use of the word "capital" at the end of Henry V. There the victorious Henry tells the French King that his daughter is Henry's "capital demand" in the peace negotiations. Poor Katherine. She's being sold like livestock, though Shakespeare does his best to make the ensuing dialogue romantic. What did Shakespeare think of market capitalism? He thought it was capital. His plays, and his partial playhouse-ownership, were a commodity that made him rich indeed.

9. It was hysterical. It wasn't. Maybe it was hysterically funny. Maybe it was hilarious. But "its" aren't hysterical. Only people are, and usually they are just upset. In Shakespeare, as throughout history, many make the mistake of thinking only women can be hysterical (since, medically, the word refers to the allegedly "wandering womb," which, if it ever really did do that, might legitimately make people hysterical). King Lear chastises himself for acting, as he sees it, like a woman when he gets over-excited. He says, "Hysterica passio! Down, thou climbing sorrow!" Throughout history, hysteria has usually been a false diagnosis, but let's at least get the word right. Even Shakespeare's madmen do that.

10. Crafted. In Shakespeare, the word "craft" has sinister connotations. Crafty people use it, often when practicing or discussing witchcraft (see Iago in Othello, act 3, scene 3). Also, it's a noun. In our time, however, everything from cheese to beer to investment solutions is proudly "crafted" instead of just made. I thought I'd reached the limit when I looked down in church last Sunday and read in the program that Jesus had "crafted" our salvation. Again, with the products! To be fair, whoever authored this odd phrase had thought about it quite a bit, because he or she worked it into a larger meditation about "Christ the Master Carpenter," who used "wood and nails" to do the crafting. So, in this Easter season, I forgive that church-program-writer, even as I hope to be forgiven for the stuff I write.

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