Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Modern Terms Shakespeare Would Have Mocked

It's time to complain about new things people say that I don't like. I know Shakespeare would have mocked them, too, because in his plays he often made sport of trendy Elizabethan ways of speaking. One awesome* example can be found in Measure for Measure, where the clown Lavatch riff ons "O, lord, sir!," an all-purpose phrase which empty-headed Jacobean gentlemen used just to "be talking" (to quote Beatrice from Much Ado about Nothing). Another example occurs in As You Like It, where Touchstone lists, for the benefit of faint-hearted gallants who want to avoid sword-fighting challenges they've incurred, the many applications of the word "if" to escape the final showdown. ("Much virtue in 'if'," Touchstone concludes.) And there's another instance in Hamlet when Hamlet, in conversation with the "waterfly" Osric, parodies Osric's use of grandiloquent words. When Osric gets befuddled trying to follow him ("Sir?"), Hamlet and Horatio just snigger.

I'm not Shakespeare, alas, but here are my versions of "O, lord, sir" and Osric-speech for 2018. As my title suggests, most of these examples come from radio, TV, and internet, but I've heard people use some of them in regular conversation, too. To quote Shakespeare, "Stop" (Hamlet, 3.3).
  •   "Starbucks, North Korea, Shinzo Abe: Your Wednesday Briefing." Something about this New York Times internet-news-compilation headline reminds me of the little plastic fire hats they give kids who go on field trips to the fire station. The Times seems to want to help readers pretend they're important political figures who require a “Wednesday briefing.” But, NYT, your readers aren’t four. If you really wanted to give me a helpful Wednesday briefing, it would say something like “The sixth-floor copy machine is broken and the cat threw up in the hallway.” However, the internet news roundup doesn’t share sad, useful information like that. More often it shares sad, useless information about the latest illiterate Trump tweet. This is how the news caters to "the blunt monster with uncounted heads, / The still discordant wav'ring multitude," which is us. (This complaint is akin to the one I made months ago about Google News deciding “Three Things You Need To Know.” Usually none of them is something anybody needs to know.)
  • "concerning." I don't really mind the word "concerning" if I see it in a sentence like this: "Almost incredibly, despite his having attained the highest executive position in the land, he is ignorant concerning the most important events in his nation's history." However, I do not like the word "concerning" used as an adjective. It just isn't one. It's concerning that people don't know this. Proposed Shakespearean substitute: "grievous."
  •  Fakely pausing between words when delivering a radio news story, to pretend you're talking spontaneously instead of reading a script. Shakespeare hated this type of thing so much he wrote in blank verse to guide the speakers' rhythms, and had Hamlet deride players who "halt" in the middle of a speech instead of delivering it "trippingly on the tongue."
  • "Three Takeaways from Trump's Phone Call With Putin." Listicles are one symptom of our culture’s disintegration into idiocracy. Shakespeare makes fun of the summation of thoughts in little lists in Twelfth Night. (See Olivia's "Item . . . item . . . item . . .") It’s horrible that the media caters to people’s intellectual laziness and inability to attend to material presented in essay form. These preposterous little bullet-pointed summations of . . . oh . . .wait . . .  . never mind.
  • "Relatable." O, lord, sir! This word has now passed out of my teenage students' conversation into the ordinary discourse of radio and TV commentators. People! The English language contains a lot of better words to designate someone who is friendly, understanding, affable, and sympathetic, or to describe a concept or phenomenon that is coherent, clear, reasonable, understandable, sensible, and comprehensible. I know these words are old and "relatable" is new. I know I have no rational reason to hate "relatable." But I hate it. My proposed Shakespearean substitute is "sweet."
  • "Many Americans can't get over the fact that climate change is a myth." Whatever you think about climate change, I can assure you that the journalist who uttered this sentence believed that it was not a myth. She worked for NPR. So what she really meant was, "Many Americans can't get over the idea that climate change is a myth." She forgot that facts were facts, and ideas were things that could be right or wrong. And since I'm on the subject, Shakespeare knew climate change was real, and that it was caused by angry elves. (See act 2, scene 1, of A Midsummer Night's Dream.)
  •  "Let's take a listen." No! A look I might take, and maybe I'll listen, but don't try to make me "take a listen." Can't you just say, in a Shakespearean way, "Hark"? Or maybe, "Let's hearken to this"?
  • "The men felled by #MeToo will make comebacks. We need to decide what it looks like when they do." I have saved the worst for last. It was bad enough when historians started talking about the past in the present tense, in a horrid rhetorical move one of my students told me was called the "historical now." I never wanted to hear that "Abraham Lincoln stands up to give the Gettysburg Address," because I thought he had already done that, once and forever. Now we have "futurenow," in which not only all events that have ever occurred but all that will occur inhabit an eternal present. It's like we're God. The author of the above boldfaced statements, whom I won't name except to say he's Michael V. Hayden of The New York Times, started out with the future tense, but grew bored with it by the time he'd arrived at his second sentence. Why couldn't he be consistent? If these felled men will make comebacks, why don't we decide what it will look like when they do? Hayden is like Macbeth, who'd "jump the life to come."  But, as Macbeth finds out, tenses exist for a reason. They remind us time exists, and that we are its subjects. Pretending otherwise can't change this. A question like "How does Duke basketball do in the upcoming season?" is wrong, since only a time-traveler could answer it. I think language should reflect human experience, so I will rewrite Hayden's opening sentence, up top there, in what my students and I call "Fakespeare." Here 'tis: "The coming day will witness the return of fell men, despoilers of our fair maids' spotless honesty. With stealthy pace and ravishing strides, they'll stalk their prey, sweet lambkins blinded to their dark designs. 'Tis we, the earthly actors of this sad scene, who will birth the life to come -- that undiscovered country, now deep-hid in time's vault. It is for us to wreak the wolves' woe, or else be played by them, vile players bad. There will be time. There will be time."

*I use this adjective to annoy Neil DeGrasse Tyson, should he ever deign (a word he likes) to read my blog.

1 comment: