Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Definite Article

The Amazon tablet Fire might indeed be the definite article, as so many of my tech friends have written, but that is not the subject of this blog. My focus is on the definite article, as in "the" and all the other indefinite stuff out there.

I read Senator S.I. Hayakawa's Language in Thought & Action in my freshman English class. His basic sematic message--the word is not the thing--seemed very sensible to me after four years in the military where verbal primitivism prevails. The author, of Japanese descent, knew something about labels. As chance had it my first shipboard navigator was named Lt. Iwatsu who received his share of anti-Japanese venim when he unwittingly steered our ammunition ship into a monster typhoon. The slurs were not driven by his navigation skills.

While studying literature at Lehigh University my professor devoted a semester to a textual analysis of  Capote's In Cold Blood. Or more precisely, the textual differences between the serialized New Yorker edition and the final book version. There was a lot of attention to the definite article and sentences that started with "it." The doctoral students were the textual slaves. I think the professor shared his results with the author who told him he was nuts. I think my professor was a firm believer in Freud's dictum: even the slip of the scribe is significant and the man made a career out of such nostrums.

There is at least one professional journal devoted to these oddities. Notes and Queries was established in London in 1849 and apparently still has an audience of historians and English professors who publish arcane articles, usually right before they are up for tenure, that few people read. A recent issue of N&Q included articles on: "Old English Brost at Line 2176B of Beowulf; "Princess Carolina's List of Monthly Expenses, January-February 1727/8; and 'The Brewing Process in Dryden, Pope and Hogarth." One assumes search technology now aids these sleuths. If these journals adopt deep meta-tagging our academics will enjoy restful sleep.

We know words kill and words offend, protected as they may be. But not all words are life -threatening. Some just seem to be a bother. One of my first publishing bosses sent around memos outlawing the use of "it" to begin a sentence, citing all the appropriate rules from the 8th grade grammar book and the New Yorker style sheet. It failed but to his credit the man loved words. A case in point: he loved the word "regeneration" and thought it spoke to his personal development and the trajectory he imagined for his company. He asked our corporate attorney to see whether he could patent the word. My boss wasn't happy that about this time The New Yorker published an article using his precious word countless times. Thereafter, the staff used regeneration in as much verbal and written communication as good taste would allow.

Today's has an interesting piece on the Delpian Prep school in rural Oregon that seems to take it's pedagogy from the principles of Scientology.  One principle suggests that all educational problems arise from misunderstanding words, as basic as "it" and "the." According to Gawker the school teaches that abstract ideas must be shown in pictures or clay to be fully grasped. 

Apparently parents are paying $42,000 in annual tuition to be schooled in this language literalism that Hayakawa preached against: the word is not the thing, not matter how much it costs.

My freshman English professor asked us what was S.I.  Hayakawa's first name. I had been stationed in Japan and suggested every Japanese name I could think of. Other students, including those of Japanese lineage, provided others.

We were all wrong.

His name was Sam.


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