Tuesday, 31 March 2009


Apparently the my comments box has been on the fritz. I've fiddled with it and am hoping it will work better now. If you read this drop me a comment just saying hi - so i can see if it works for everybody.

If you thought 'bitch' showed inherent linguistic sexism, try German.

Check this out.
I love languages. I love learning the logic of them (or lack thereof). People who are raised bi- or polylingual tend to grow up to have higher I.Q.s. I reckon that this is because if you can think in more than one language you are forced to think in more than one way, making you a more imaginative and adaptable person. I can speak and understand German pretty well, and the different rules and logical grammar put me in a different, more logical mindset.
I have some serious problems with it.
Take for example the words dämlich and herrlich. These, you'll learn in school, mean stupid and wonderful respectively. Except that their literal meanings are 'woman-like' and 'man-like'. No-one that I know of uses the words consciously as a sexist tool. It's just sort of insidiously...there.
And then there's schamhaar. That's the German for pubic hair and yep, it's what it sounds like: shame-hair. Yeah, that's a mentally healthy attitude to your body if ever I heard one.
These things bother me, but perhaps it's just because of the direct nature of the language. German rarely uses Greek or Latin roots for its words so any outdated implications of words just stick around rather than being lost in dead languages. Still. I have to wonder: do German feminists think das Sexismus ist dämlich? do they shave their schamhaar or show off their stolzhaar? Is it more difficult to challenge prejudice that is entrenched in the language, or does the entrenchment remove the meaning?
I'd love to think it was the latter, but the fact that German satnav producers had to use a male voice because male german drivers 'didn't want a woman telling them how to drive' makes me doubt it.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Bitchin' 2: Electric Boogaloo

OK first off. I said bitchin', and I mean bitchin'. Riot Kitty, my lonesome commenter (come on the other five, where are you?) points out that the "in'" ending in place of "ing" is sloppy. For the most part I agree, but is some cases it is necessary. Namely, when you are referencing a pre-existing phenomenon, or when indicating the 'sloppier' pronunciation drastically changes the understood meaning. For example the film referenced in the title of this post would and should never be referred to as 'breakING 2: electric boogaloo' as this would be a misquotation of the original title. As regards the previous blog's title, I meant "bitchin'" - the now somewhat dated California surfer-dude adjective meaning 'good'. I chose this word to title my blog as it is one use of the word 'bitch' which seems completely positive, despite being utilised by a largely masculine community. The gerund 'bitching', on the other hand, has a completely different set of meanings and users.
The verbification of bitch implies 'something that bitches do' and bitches (women) down the ages have been castigated for nagging, whining and complaining. The verbing of this noun defines the women described as bitches by this activity: She is a bitch ergo she bitches, and vice versa.
The more developed meaning of the verb 'to bitch' is to make snide and painfully accurate remarks in a group of friends behind someone else's back. This is another activity that seems to be both stereotypically and actually indulged in by women and gay men. (I have a feeling straight men do it too, but they don't call it bitching. They probably call it having a confidential man to man talk or something...) The phenomenon of women bitching about each other is one that makes me very sad. I like the idea of female solidarity, but our society is geared against it. Women are constantly encouraged to compete and compare themselves to other women.Much is made of male bonding and camaraderie (see football matches, and the recent Carling Black Label beer 'belong' series of adverts in the UK) while women are encouraged to enjoy schadenfreude at the expense of any women in the public eye (see Heat magazine's infamous Circle Of Shame page, whic delights in pointing out horrors such as wrinkles, sweat stains and body hair on promninent young women. Nice.) I guess bitching is better than solving all your problems with physical aggression, but I haven't noticed that type of behaviour being referred to as 'bloking' lately, have you?

Sunday, 22 March 2009


Here's a word that everyone seems to love. It really can't seem to make up its mind whether its been reclaimed or not, can it. I don't know what female dogs ever did for their correct term to gain such complicated range of signification.
I first consciously came across the word in a primary school playground. I'd've been about 8. The school was in a rough neighbourhood and I was reagarded as being relatively 'soft' and 'posh'. However I was rarely bullied; my classmates merely regarded my sensitve nature and slightly middle class accents as minor disabilities which allowed me extra leeway. On occasion, however, it would be decided that I needed the edges knocking off me in as gentle a way as possible. One day, a girl called Tamela Parkin cornered me and informed she was giving me a test. Her peer group wanted to know if I understood what swears meant, so I was bundled into a quiet corner and quizzed. Amazingly (to them) I came away with a nearly perfect score. Two rebellious older sisters and access to lots of books not intended for me meant that my grasp of the required vocabulary was pretty comprehensive. The only two words I failed on were bitch and bastard, which were helpfully defined for me by Tammy as 'a girl dog' and 'somebody without a dad'. As my own father had recently left the family home, drastically improving my home life, I wasn't sure how bastard worked as an insult. Also, I thought dogs were nice enough animals, but chalked it up to the tradition of livestock based invective I was used to hearing on the playground.
But bitch is different to cow and pig and cat and toad etc etc. It was on Tammy's official swear list. In my subsequent experience it went along with words like Virago and Harridan and Termagant and Harpy. An insult meaning a woman whose strength and assertiveness in someway threaten a man. These are beautiful words, thoroughly reclaimed by the feminist movement. (eg the women's publishers Virago). In my opinion, bitch is the least of these, but it seems the most popular. I can handle being called a bitch in this contexct.
But no, it's far, far more complex.
If I'm a bitch, fine. But if I become just 'bitch', then the meaning changes. I'm no longer a strong, fierce troublemaker. Now I'm relegated to subordinate being, especially in the context of somekind of relationship. It seems that if I am the superior one in an unequal relationship, I am the 'Daddy' but if I am the inferior one, I'm the other's 'bitch'.
OK. Let's just pause and think about that one.
The power belongs to the daddy. The male patriarch. The highest in the pecking order in a traditional family. OK. we're in a patriarchal world. Masculinity = power in a million and one lingusitic ways. I can kinda see how that happened. But that the lowest in that pecking order is the female dog? "You're my bitch" means "I have dominated you and you must acknowledge me as your superior". And it is applied equally to males and females. It's not enough to imply that the person you are dominating is a subservient, non-human species. No. That doesn't make them feel quite bad enough. Better imply that they are female as well. That'll do it.
What really gets me is when a woman tries to put down a man by calling them a bitch. Unless they are talking about a gay man - at which point the virago-style rules come back into play - any woman who tells a man that they are, for example 'being a little bitch' is using herself as the metaphor which belittles her target. It's just tragic, when you start thinking about it.

Stay tuned for the verbification of 'bitch'.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Grammar ninjas: pedants or unsung heroes?

OK quick survey.
In your place of study or business you see an 'official' looking sign with an obvious (to you anyway) punctuatio-grammatical error. for example:
"All cup's must be washed - It is not the cleaners job!!!"
Do you A)Probably not notice, and definitely not care,
B) Roll your eyes, grumble, and possibly make a sarcastic comment to an equally grammar aware colleague, or
C)Immediately pat your pockets in search of a sharpie, stickers and/or bottle of correction fluid to fix the offending notice?

If the answer is A) - why do you even READ this blog? Not that I'm discouraging you, but really, what's the attraction?
B)This response is pretty normal, I guess, and covers most people I know, but
C), ah C): these are my kindred, the grammar ninjas.

We're a shy and mostly passive aggressive breed. We rarely make ourselves known by vocally complaining, but left alone with an apostrophe free possessive and a marker, we really cannot be trusted. Some, like my friend Becky, will take no credit of any kind, painstakingly recreating the font, size and colour of the original text in order that her added punctuation should fade seamlessly in. The other approach is the '3 out of 10: please see me' approach. The angry, red scrawl which berates the sign maker by regressing them to their childhood English lessons. Missing punctuation and capital letters added, unnecessary letters scored through and sometimes even a teacherish comment at the bottom complaining about the lax standards of the establishment. This can be quite funny, and IMO, there's little excuse for errors in the signage of, say, an educational establishment, or any place of business that expects its employees to produce correctly spelled and punctuated work.
So maybe the discreet way of doing things is more tactful, but less noticed by the people who could stand to learn a little more. The red pen method might offend but at least points out what was missing in the first place. The apostro-free culprits at Becky's workplace seem to think that a bizarre irl version of Microsoft Spelling and Grammar Check exists in their corridors, ready at any time to magically undo their illiteracy. Would making both our corrections and our scorn more apparent do more to persuade them of the joys of literacy, or simply offernd them into a follow-up sign saying something along the lines of 'NOTICE! Dont deface the sign's?', resulting in greater rifts between colleagues?
Maybe the answer is in the technology. Googlemail recently trialed an application called 'Beer Goggles'. If you send an email late at night it makes you do long multiplication to prove that you're not drunkenly sending anything you'll regret. Perhaps a similar application could pop up before office workers are allowed near the printer. If you can't pass a simple grammar test, to don't get to hit print. It would make all of us pedants so much calmer...

Monday, 9 March 2009

The line between neologism and just buggering about.

Neologisms. Aren't they great? They have to be the ultimate goal of any writer. Just think: your reading public trust you so completely that when you invent a word - whose meaning is apparent because of your sheer expertise with the language - they just...start using it, and it makes it to the dictionary. Previous blogs have hinted at my love of a certain set of ancient yet robust anglosaxon expressions, but just as dear to my heart are words that have been invented by a known writer, and have then been taken on in general.
What got me on to this, you ask? Well. There is nothing so flattering yet faintly demeaning than the expression of surpise and admiration on a colleague's face when you, a mere peon - and a temporary peon at that - instantly 'get' and respond to an intellectual comment of theirs.
In this case, Paul, a wonderful teacher I've worked with before, of the type who talks down to no-one and yet includes everyone, used the slightly suspect word 'architectiologist'. I asked if he meant architect. "No", he said, "someone who STUDIES architecture, not someone who designs the buildings themselves..." "but...Architectiologist?" I said, disbelievingly, but willing to be re-educated: after all, for all I knew, this WAS a word. "It's a neologism." he said - quite haughtily, if I'm honest. "What, as of five minutes ago?" I returned, at which point he stopped and looked at me. "People don't usually know what 'neologsm' means" he said, with a glimmer of new respect. "I usually get [insert gormless look of incomprehension] "Huh?" or something similar ". Now. I felt happy that I was on the same page of the great vocab book of life with him enough that we could trade high-falutin' words over the kids' heads, but I also felt a little sad that he didn't automatically assume that I would know what a neologism was.
This, my friends, is what defines a geek of any genre. If you don't MEAN to look down on others, but it genuinely baffles you how anyone could NOT know anything as basic as the word neologism/particle theory/application program interfaces, you're officially a geek.
Here is my question, though: what does it take to make a goofy-made-up-word an official neologism? Is it the fame of the writer, or can a truly great word spring from an un known source? wo, for example, coined words like 'lol'?( now an official word in my book, as is can be conjugated: I lol, you lol she/he/it lols, I loled, we all have loled.) Can I claim that "Advenstruate" is a neologism, meaning to menstruate in an adventurous way? (Shout out to Adventures in Menstruating, there, btw.) or do I need to wait until people other than me and people I bribe are using it before it counts?
Well, who confinkles? (worth a try, eh?)
And by the way, Paul, the word you're after is 'architectural historian'.

Sunday, 1 March 2009


I'm not going to tackle all the nuances of this word. (The podcast 'What A Woche' from the Dinglish-speaking podcaster Gale Tufts did a wunderbar job of elucidatiing the differences between the English 'so' and the German 'so'. (I can't find the specific podcast because it's from a few years back, but listen to her more recent stuff here.)
So, I'm rambling, but what I want to talk about is not 'so' as a pre-announcement, a way of breaking up an awkward silence or broaching a difficult subject, but the kind of "so" that ends a sentence. Or tries to.
It started with the deliberate tailing off of a thought in the hope that the other person will finish the sentence the way you wanted it to end - without you having to say the slightly cheeky or unpleasant thing you need them to know. My temporary boss recently did it when he needed me to schlepp into town myself and hand-deliver my timesheet, as he had already packed up his fax for the impending school relocation and couldnt fax it.
"It's all packed up but they need a copy today, so...". Two letters and three dots effortlessly communicating "You have to spend 2 hours on public transport because it didnt occur to me that I might need my fax machine before the end of term. Merry Christmas!" He left it hanging in the air. Waiting for me to dispel the awkwardness by apparently spontaneously coming up with the genius solution of me going out of my way, which he could then pretend never to have considered.
I played dumb. "So..." I repeated, smiling and nodding encouragingly at him to finish his thought.
"So...well...there's no way WE can get it to the agency for you, and it will have to be tonight so..." Again! I kept the friendly perplexed look up for a few more seconds as he squirmed, and then I played ball. "Well I suppose I can go into town and take it myself after work. I'll struggle to get there before they close though, so..." I smiled at him expectantly again.
"I suppose you'd better leave early, then." Yes! Two can play at that game.
But that's not the worst of it. This spineless get-out clause at least has the quasi-decency to pretend that the perpetrator genuinely hasn't considered the idea that the person s/he is "so..."ing might somehow be able to get them out of this fix by going above and beyond. It's cowardly and passive-aggressive but it in some way colludes with the target audience. What is far ruder is the loss of the ellipsis. The far more abrupt "so."
I first noticed this when a flight attendant pulled this crap on my lactose intolerant partner. She had ordered the VEGAN meal, as 'dairy free' completley foxes them and results in some cheese-drenched polenta creation because someone has their food intolerances mixed up. In this case, vegan had been too alien and they had substituted the vegetarian meal, and as the world of airline cuisine knows, vegetarians subsist on a diet of macaroni cheese. With extra cheese as a vegetable.
"Well we don't have any other meals for you, so." The attendant practically spat when we pointed out the problem. The "so." here meant "Discussion over." She didnt care what the end of the sentence would have been, she had delivered the inedible goop and her work here was done. There was practically a silent "ner-ner-ner" or possibly a subtextual "fuck you". My beloved didn't drop it, though, and I think eventualy scored some sad looking salad from first class. She had to go to another attendant though: as soon as this lady had delivered the final "So.", it was case closed for her.
The only response to this annoying linguistic gambit is to pretend it doesnt exist. To persist in the fiction that the perpetrator really just lost their thread mid sentence, and politely encourage them to continue where they left off. it will confuse - or at least frustrate - the worst offenders, who may not even realise that "so" has never been a sentence closer, but if you're lucky, you'll score an afternoon off, or even a "First Class" (note quotemarks) salad, so...