Is English My Native Language?

Here’s the last paragraph of a New York Times book review by Janet Maslin:

“The Publisher” [a biography of Henry Luce] has its parched passages, most notably when it ventures into the thickets of Luce’s “big” ideas. It works best when the man is well within sight. But Mr. Brinkley is dauntless in assessing Luce’s most important accomplishments, like his “American Century” essay and other efforts to tell Americans what American life was like. Life magazine had no temerity about devoting a major series in the 1950s to “Man’s New World: How He Lives in It.” Now that Man’s New World is so different from anything Henry Luce could imagine, his life and times are more poignant than they once seemed.

As I read this, I wondered if English was my native language. It was so hard to understand. Then I wondered if New York Times writers are paid by the big word. “Parched”? “Thickets? At least I know what that sentence means. I don’t know what she means by “Mr. Brinkley is dauntless in assessing…” — dauntless means fearless. Nor do I understand what “Life magazine had no temerity about” means. Temerity means recklessness or boldness. The logic of the last sentence (“Now that . . . “) with its big word poignant also escapes me.

Perhaps Maslin has found that if she writes like this her editors will edit her less, not being quite sure what those words mean. I attended many talks at UC Berkeley in which the speaker left out crucial information, such as the meaning of the y axis of a graph. And, virtually every time, no one asked about it – not even the four or five professors present. Gradually I realized why: They were insecure.

19 Responses to “Is English My Native Language?”

  1. Byran Says:

    This “insecurity hypothesis” explains what I have observed: Graduate students are less likely to ask questions in a class than a professor who might be sitting in. In this case, the professor is much more secure in his/her knowledge; the grad students are afraid of looking foolish. Which flies a bit in the face of your assertion that professors are insecure as well; I’m sure they are but probably not, on average, as insecure in their knowledge as grad students.

  2. Alex Chernavsky Says:

    Having been to my share of god-awful boring seminars, I can say that people may not be asking questions because they’re not really paying attention, or they don’t really care. If the whole talk is pointless, why worry about the Y-axis?

  3. Alex Chernavsky Says:

    And speaking of poor writing found in the New York Times, check out the first paragraph of this book review (the review was written by one Walter Kirn):

    ===============================

    According to the perverse aesthetics of artistic guilty pleasure, certain books and movies are so bad — so crudely conceived, despicably motivated and atrociously executed — that they’re actually rather good. “Solar,” the new novel by Ian McEwan, is just the opposite: a book so good — so ingeniously designed, irreproachably high-minded and skillfully brought off — that it’s actually quite bad. Instead of being awful yet absorbing, it’s impeccable yet numbing, achieving the sort of superbly wrought inertia of a Romanesque cathedral. There’s so little wrong with it that there’s nothing particularly right about it, either. It’s impressive to behold but something of a virtuous pain to read.

    ===============================

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/18/books/review/Kirn-t.html

  4. Wayne Says:

    To be honest, the Maslin paragraph sounds like it’s been computer generated from a corpus, using statistical methods. The thesaurus-sounding big words are the least of its problems.

    Back on topic, I have to agree with Alex: if you’re interested enough in a topic/presentation, questions will naturally come up. Strong curiosity pushes back against fears of appearing to be the fool.

  5. seth Says:

    Alex, I was at these talks because I chose to be. So were the other professors, in most cases.

  6. Alex Chernavsky Says:

    Choosing to go does help motivate you to pay attention, but sometimes the speaker turns out to be quite horrible, or the subject is different from what you expected it to be. Seminars are like a box of chocolates…

  7. Nathan Myers Says:

    Do you suppose she meant “timidity”, for “temerity”? This really is all nonsense, and all because the words don’t mean what Maslin appears to be trying to say. Shame on her, and shame on her editors.

  8. Jeff Thomas Says:

    I agree with Nathan – she meant “timidity”. Other than that error I don’t find the writing that bad and the overall meaning is pretty clear. I found the use of “parched” instead of “dry,” the term commonly used to refer to uninteresting passages of writing, amusing, but I can see how someone could find it overblown. I agree with the use of “poignant” in the last sentence. That is not an overly fancy word.

  9. Christopher Burd Says:

    “Do you suppose she meant ‘timidity’, for ‘temerity’? ”

    I think so, probably via “timorous”.

  10. seth Says:

    Ordinary usage would be “Life magazine had the temerity to devote . . .”

  11. Timothy Beneke Says:

    Some tangential comments about intellectual posturing. John Searle says he asked Michel Foucault why he wrote so badly. Foucault told him that if he wrote as clearly as Searle, no one in Paris would read him or take him seriously. Foucault said that in Paris, at least 10% of what you write must be utterly incomprehensible for you to be taken seriously.

    Later, Searle asked the sociologist Pierre Bordieu if what Foucault said was true. Bordieu said it was more like 20%.

    Noam Chomsky was once asked about dialectical materialism. Chomsky said that he had no idea what it meant; that it had something vaguely to do with recursive processes, he guessed. He said that when something important happens in physics, he can meet with his physicist friends and they will explain it to him and he can grasp it at his own level, with a little bit of work. But with some ideas, especially in social theory, he feels that if he worked for a million years he would never understand it because it’s simply not coherent.

    I’m in a social theory group, with a lot of people who have taught social theory. Much of what we read and some of what is said strikes me as incoherent. But there is a pretense in the field that very abstract generalizations that have the rhetorical flavor of science are revealing some deep truth. I think it’s mostly intellectual fraudulence…

    Psychologists are mostly trying to be scientists, even if they are unclear. Some of the stuff that passes for thought in social theory and the humanities seems like pure bluff…

  12. Alex Chernavsky Says:

    The best essay I’ve ever read about intellectual posturing is this one, by Richard Dawkins:

    http://richarddawkins.net/articleComments,824,Postmodernism-Disrobed,Richard-Dawkins-Nature,page6

    Here’s a sample:

    ===================================

    Suppose you are an intellectual impostor with nothing to say, but with strong ambitions to succeed in academic life, collect a coterie of reverent disciples and have students around the world anoint your pages with respectful yellow highlighter. What kind of literary style would you cultivate? Not a lucid one, surely, for clarity would expose your lack of content. The chances are that you would produce something like the following:

    “We can clearly see that there is no bi-univocal correspondence between linear signifying links or archi-writing, depending on the author, and this multireferential, multi-dimensional machinic catalysis. The symmetry of scale, the transversality, the pathic non-discursive character of their expansion: all these dimensions remove us from the logic of the excluded middle and reinforce us in our dismissal of the ontological binarism we criticised previously.”

    This is a quotation from the psychoanalyst Félix Guattari, one of many fashionable French ‘intellectuals’…

    ===================================

  13. seth Says:

    Tim and Alex, in an earlier draft of this post I wrote: “Veblen pointed out that professors use big words to show off, but I don’t think that’s what’s going on here.” I don’t think Maslin is trying to sound smart, or impress the general public, or be taken seriously. It’s just a book review. She churns them out. She isn’t a professor, who might write three articles per year. As a journalist who wrote for Newsweek put it to me, “Then it goes to editing, where every editor feels the need to piss on it.” It’s not just Newsweek. My guess is Maslin is reacting to that treatment.

  14. Taylor Says:

    There was an interesting discussion of this in the book ‘The Economic Naturalist’. Unfortunately I can’t remember offhand what the explanation was. Something like an arms race of obscure vocabulary.

  15. griff Says:

    Reading this reminded me of the Sokal Affair (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sokal_affair). Essentially, a bunch of nonsense was written and submitted to peer review, and it made it through.

  16. Kirk Says:

    Rewriting can yield useful insights. I took a run at the paragraph, and in so doing discovered three unclear areas.

    (1) The third sentence begins with a “but”, however, that sentence appears to support the previous sentence. The “but” forces the reader to stop and wonder, “what’s she objecting to?”
    (2) I was forced to interpret the “temerity” sentence as admiration. She may have actually meant something else, in which case the sentence would wander into a different thicket.
    (3) The “poignant” word has multiple meanings. Choose your favorite:
    (a) his life and times are more physically painful than they once seemed
    (b) his life and times appear more keenly distressing to the mind than they once seemed
    (c) his life and times appear more profoundly moving than they once seemed
    (d) his life and times appear more incisive than they once seemed
    (e) his life and times appear more neat and skillful than they once seemed
    (f) his life and times appear more astute and pertinent than they once seemed
    (g) his life and times appear more agreeably, intensely stimulating than they once seemed

    My version follows.

    “The Publisher” can be dry at times, especially when it explores the thickets of Luce’s “big” ideas. It works best when it concentrates on the man himself, and especially excels when it assesses Luce’s most important accomplishments, like his “American Century” essay, as well as other efforts to tell Americans what American life was like. For example, Life magazine devoted a major series in the 1950s to “Man’s New World: How He Lives in It.” Now that the life of an American looks nothing like Henry Luce could imagine, his life and times appear more astute and pertinent than they once seemed.

  17. Vic Says:

    Suppose you are an intellectual impostor with nothing to say, but with strong ambitions to succeed in academic life, collect a coterie of reverent disciples and have students around the world anoint your pages with respectful yellow highlighter. What kind of literary style would you cultivate? Not a lucid one, surely, for clarity would expose your lack of content. The chances are that you would produce something like the following:

    ————-

    This is a fairly apt description of the whole academic field of economics

  18. Kirk Says:

    In retrospect, given the importance of the final paragraph in any essay, I conclude that her form implies her meaning. She intends to warn off the reader but could not, politically, state it clearly, something along the lines of, “This book is a bore. You’d have better fun, and learn more, by watching reruns of I Love Lucy.”

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