Friday, February 17, 2006

A rose (of Mohammed) by any other name . . .

Some of you have probably read this news: that Iranian pastry sellers, their display cases filled with danish pastries (which Iranians love to eat) but the streets in front of their stores (metaphorically speaking) filled with people outraged by many things Danish, have taken to calling these pastries "Rose of Mohammed" pastries. As the Yahoo! News article points out, this re-naming smacks of Congress' resolution to substitute the name "freedom fries" for "French fries" when the French didn't back the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. No matter that the pastries are baked in Tehran (or, for that matter, that the fries are fried in the Capital Hill cafeteria). Just now, something is rotten in the state of Denmark . . . can't you smell it whenever you read the word "danish"?

Of course we (well, okay--I) chuckle a bit, knowing that such name changes are emotionally-driven attempts to make silk purses out of what have become, in the eyes of some, sows' ears. As Juliet knows, the thing named--in Saussure's language, the signified--does not change: the relationship between that thing and its name is an arbitrary one, determined by usage. "Downsize" may sound more pleasant in a news release than "lay off" does, but people are no less unemployed for all the euphemizing.

But such moments preform a useful reminder for us: We get reminded here--sometimes so blatantly that we laugh as a result--that language isn't neutral and valueless but, due to the very arbitrariness of the signifier-signified relationship, is a tripwire-laden jungle of implicit and explicit cultural judgments made, often, so long ago that we no longer recognize them or, in some cases, no longer think they matter when they are brought to our attention. This isn't a plea on behalf of politically-correct language--or against it, either. Our language--all language--is simply thus. What that fact should compel us to give some thought to is, when we go about naming and describing the things of the world, what we want our language for them to say about us as individuals and about us as a culture.

Monday, February 06, 2006

PD James Takes Aim at Verbal Pretenders

When I read P.D. James’ exceptional murder mystery, A Taste for Death, I was pleasantly surprised by the heightened lingual awareness displayed in her writing. Previous James novels (I’ve been reading her Adam Dalgliesh series chronologically) were brilliant, but less self-conscious about language.

James betrays her love for verbal perfection at every turn, but in Taste, her delight in the well-chosen word emerged with unmistakable zest, Adam Dalgliesh being the prime linguaphile. As in this paragraph:
“He throws over his job, his career, possibly his family. Then, don’t ask me how or why, he discovers that it’s all a chimera.” Nichols repeated the word as if to reassure himself of the pronunciation. Dalgliesh wondered where he had come across it.

I found little to quibble over and lots to love with this approach (despite the fact that the word “excrescence” appears at least twice in every book James writes. I’ve always argued that if you’re going to have favorite $5-words, you had better be oblique about it; i.e., your readers shouldn’t be able to tell).

Probably the one point of debate is whether an author should overtly expose her characters to ridicule when they fail to do justice to an exceptional noun. Such censure, coming from Dalgliesh, a published poet and arguably a cultural snob, is highly entertaining, but could it deter aspiring word-lovers from experimentation? One has to wonder.

Just the same, James has risen to the status of honorary VRP activist. And in case you're wondering, chimera is pronounced "ky-meer-ah" or "kih-meer-ah," as near as I can reproduce it phonetically.