Category Archives: Language

Sanitizing literature a dirty business

The current heated debate over befouling Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by replacing the word “nigger” with “slave” isn’t the first such instance of weak-kneed response to real or manufactured sensibilities. Illustrative of how ludicrous the debate itself has become is the fact that the word in question is not uttered on radio or TV shows and not printed in newspapers, although it frequently is heard in rap lyrics.

Back in 2002 the New York State Education Department tried using its “sensitivity review guidelines” as a pretext for sanitizing portions of great literature before they were presented to students taking the Regents English exam. That sort of execrable evolution of the brainwashing of American children was defended on a variety of laughable levels. For example, the department’s assistant commissioner for curriculum defended messing with great writers’ work by insisting, with tortured logic, that “even the most wonderful writers don’t write literature for children to take on a test.”

At the time, as a columnist for the Times Union, I noted that rather than using classic literature as a springboard for thought and discussion — two things the sanitizers apparently feared they have failed to educate students to handle — such blockheads think it is within their purview to distort, deconstruct and otherwise demean literature to suit some moronic “sensitivity” guidelines they’ve dreamed up. Political correctness run further amok. Cathy Popkin, the Lionel Trilling professor of humanities at Columbia University, said it best at the time when she called such editing dishonest and “the practice of fools.”

If the public allows such antics as the word-swap in Twain’s work to continue without a loud and sustained outcry, what next? Stories about Jews by Nobel winner Isaac Bashevis Singer stripped of any reference to Jews because some people use the term as a derogatory one? If we don’t put a stop to these efforts to recreate reality in a version only the fools can stomach, we might wind up with “editing” such as these examples I was able to whip up in just a few minutes:

“The Merchant of Venice,” by William Shakespeare, Act 2, Scene 3:

Original: “Most beautiful pagan, most sweet Jew! If a Christian did not play the knave and get thee, I am much deceived.”

Sanitized: “Most beautiful person of undecided religious persuasion, most sweet person of Semitic extraction, and I mean that in the best possible sense. If a person adhering to Judeo-Christian teachings did not play the knave and get thee, I am much deceived.”

“Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” by Lewis Carroll, Chapter V:

Original: “Are you content now?” said the Caterpillar. “Well, I should like to be a little larger, sir, if you wouldn’t mind,” said Alice. “Three inches is such a wretched height to be.” “It is a very good height indeed!” said the Caterpillar angrily, rearing itself upright as it spoke (it was exactly three inches high). “But I’m not used to it!” pleaded poor Alice in a piteous tone. And she thought of herself, “I wish the creatures wouldn’t be so easily offended!” “You’ll get used to it in time,” said the Caterpillar; and it put the hookah into its mouth and began smoking again.

Sanitized: “Are you content now?” said the three-inch high Caterpillar. “Well … there certainly is nothing inherently wrong with being three inches high,” said Alice. And she thought to herself, “I can understand how, in the way life has victimized him, the creature would be so easily offended.” “We all are equal in every way,” said the Caterpillar, slapping on another transdermal nicotine patch.

“War of the Worlds,” by H.G. Wells, Book 2, Chapter 8:

Original: “The streets were horribly quiet. I got food — sour, hard, and mouldy, but quite eatable — in a baker’s shop here. Here I came once more upon the black powder in the streets and upon dead bodies. I saw altogether about a dozen in the length of the Fulham Road. They had been dead many days, so that I hurried quickly past them. The black powder covered them over, and softened their outlines. One or two had been disturbed by dogs.”

Sanitized: “The streets were horribly quiet. I got food … in a baker’s shop here. Here I came once more upon the … powder in the streets … and … I saw … black … dogs.”

What’s in a nickname?

Department of Tempests & Teapots:

An internal memo asking General Motors employees to refer to Chevrolet vehicles as Chevrolets and not Chevys has caused quite a stir. Perhaps not much else is going on in the world.

When word got out about the memo, a hue and cry arose throughout the blogosphere. What, detractors cried, is wrong with the nickname “Chevy”? Songwriter Don McLean even helped memorialize it in his “American Pie” with the chorus “Took my Chevy to the levee … ”

The geniuses at GM did a quick about-face, bowing humbly as they backed away and saying they were just trying for some consistency in their marketing.

Advertising Age even did a quickie poll to see what the public thought about the original memo. It then reported that “a crushing 96% of poll respondents said the shift is the wrong move for Chevrolet and for GM.” Note that AdAge used a percentage rather than an actual number of respondents, not surprising since it is a very niche publication/website with little mass readership.

Is there really any danger to an automaker of having its vehicles known more by a nickname than the full name?

Ask the people who used to have jobs making cars widely known as Merc (Mercury), Olds (Oldsmobile), AMC (American Motors), Stude (Studebaker), Duese (Duesenberg),  Oakie (Oakland), Cuda (Plymouth Barracuda), Willys (Willys Overland) …

Not too pretty for words

Anyone who has  read any of my musings over the years knows I love the language and despise misuse of it.

I am encouraged that a very serious website called Hot for Words has taken a light-hearted approach to making  people pay attention to the meanings of words.

It’s the intellectual — and entertainment — property of a 28-year-old philologist (look it up) named Marina. That’s her over there.

Got your attention now?

Words that have lost their meaning


















Each year, dictionary mavens come up with a list of new words being added to their reference works. Among the most recent “acceptable” words: mondegreen, norovirus and pescatarian.

The problem is, the editors don’t tend to eliminate words and phrases that have become meaningless due to mis-use, feeble attempts to create new slang based on nothing in particular, or are just annoyingly sloppy talk.

Here is my first “Top 10″ list of such examples. Feel free to add your own.

Amazing (so overused it has ceased to be … amazing)

• Buck (now being featured on TV dance shows, which means unfortunately it will quickly enter the mainstream slang vocabulary)

Somewhat unique (there are no degrees of uniqueness)

Ultra (the word means extreme, but is used any time the right adjective can’t be thought of)

• Mega (once “super” wore out, this replaced it)

• No problem (instead of “You’re welcome”)

• Basically (it seldom is basic)

Bitch (except at dog shows)

Book (as in to make haste)

Substance abuse (that could include overeating of potato chips; call it what it is)

MORE TO COME … I’m sure.