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Good Reads: on the politics of language, Genghis Khan, and the Beastie Boys

This week's reading list includes a book review on how we use and abuse language, leadership tips from Genghis Khan, and a tribute to the late hip hop master and peace activist, Adam Yauch. 

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer / May 10, 2012

In this file photo originally provided by Capitol Records, members of the Beastie Boys, from left, from left, Adam Horovitz, known as Adrock, Michael Diamond, known as Mike D and Adam Yauch, known as MCA, are shown.

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Nobody likes a language snob.

This is the person who corrects you in mid-sentence when you make a mistake. “Mr. President,” he shouts, at a press conference, “when you say ‘misunderestimate,’ do you perhaps have another word in mind?” And everyone laughs at you, for days.

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Language snobs are everywhere, even in France, where they even have an “Académie française,” was designed to define, protect, and regulate proper French grammar and usage. In the English-speaking world, language snobs write dictionaries that practically frown at you when you can’t remember the difference between “parameter” and “perimeter.” (The first is a mathematical term for a constant in an equation; the second refers to a boundary. Trust me, I looked these terms up in a dictionary.)

It’s easy to ridicule the language snobs, as Robin Williams did in his “rip it out” scene in the Dead Poet’s Society.

But here’s the thing about language snobs: They are oddly egalitarian. While language snobs might giggle at people who choose the wrong words or who make grammatical mistakes, their underlying premise is that there are universal rules for language. Learning to use those rules is the ultimate ladder to success, integration, and acceptance.

In this week’s New Yorker, book critic Joan Acocella writes about the ongoing debate between language snobs (or “prescriptivists,” as they apparently prefer to be called) and “descriptivists,” who believe that “all we could legitimately do in discussing language was to say what the current practice was.” Ms. Acocella is definitely in the prescriptivist camp, and when she reviews the new book “The Language Wars: A History of Proper English,” by Henry Hitchings, a descriptivist, you know you are in for a good fight. 

All of this might seem petty, but for writers such as George Orwell, the use and abuse of words had the potential to start wars, prop up dictatorships, and justify genocides. In his essay, “Politics and the English Language,” he wrote:

Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. 

For those of us who do love words, and for fellow journalists covering wars and the politicians who use words to justify them, Acocella’s review is required reading. It is also that rare guiltless pleasure, a “Rumble in the Jungle” for the literary set. Bring popcorn.

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