pedantry

My posting on argument structure in porn (with a link to my posting on “Brads”) got picked up by Boing Boing, which brought me an enormous number of site views (7,201 on Friday, 3,225 on Saturday, 2,066 on Sunday, 1,075 on Monday, 717 on Tuesday; an ordinary day gets 200-300 views) and some new regular readers (and, so far, no vacuous or trash-talking comments on this blog).

As far as I can work this out — I don’t follow Boing Boing — it started with a notice submitterated (portmanteau of submitted and moderated, apparently — a useful coining) by someone named Sam:

Submitterator Sam:

File under NSFW – Linguistic analysis of implied “onto” or “into” in gay porn

My favorite linguist (everyone has one) Arnold Zwicky has an in-depth linguistic analysis of implied “onto” or “into” use in gay porn, and how this argument structure differs from general usage. The analysis results in a number of fantastic de-constructed porn sentences that cannot be printed here. As always, Arnold discusses even graphically sexual material with politely detached academic tone which is both educational, and sometimes hilarious. …..

(NSFW is an initialism for “not suitable for work” — that is, not something that you would want to be visible on your computer screen while you’re at work.)

Sam is clearly someone who reads this blog, but my first guess about who he was turned out to be wrong; the Sam I guessed is a fan, but doesn’t follow Boing Boing. In any case, I’m delighted to be someone’s favorite linguist (especially in the company of my Language Log, ADS-L, and Stanford colleagues, not to mention other estimable “public linguists”), and I’m totally taken with the idea that everyone has (or should have) a favorite linguist. (Tell your friends! They could have one too!)

Something that Sam gets just right is my intention to be writing seriously (and, in fact, technically) about complicated phenomena while using the most ordinary exemplars, especially from sources many people would dismiss as rude, crude, unstructured, or insignificant: rock lyrics, folk music, puns, non-standard varieties, nursery rhymes, insults and obscenities, casual speech, teen talk, porn talk, children’s books, tech talk, and more.

Maggie Koerth-Baker then produced an appreciation:

Great Moments in Pedantry: Parsing the language of porn
Maggie Koerth-Baker at 8:59 AM Friday, Apr 29, 2011
Submitterated by Sam

In a post that would be horribly NSFW were it not all just a block of text, linguist Arnold Zwicky blogs about how the vagaries of English allow you to interpret the same line from a gay porn in multiple ways.

[excerpt from  the beginning of my posting]

From there, the post rises to a level of technical language analysis that almost, *almost* distracts from the fact that we’re talking about the use of language in a porn that seems to be targeted at Brad-fetishists. [an allusion to my “Brads” posting]

This is nice, except for the header “Great Moments in Pedantry”. The main problem is pedantry, which crops up in other Boing Boing postings (although I also have some reservations about great moments):

Great Moments in Pedantry: Octopuses, octopi, octopodes [in which a Merriam-Webster editor explains that all three are acceptable]
Great Moments in Pedantry: Pie charts aren’t so bad, after all
Great Moments in Pedantry: How “Jurassic Park” got Velociraptors wrong
Pedantry of the Day: A “parsec” is a unit of distance, not time

Why is this a problem? Because pedantry has a centuries-long history of being a slam; pedantry is show-off nit-picky crap. From NOAD2’s dictionary entry:

pedant |ˈpednt|
noun
a person who is excessively concerned with minor details and rules or with displaying academic learning.

DERIVATIVES
pedantry |-trē| noun

and from the accompanying thesaurus entry:

pedantry
noun
[illustrative example] the pedantry in her argument has upset the flow of our discussion: dogmatism, purism, literalism, formalism; overscrupulousness, scrupulousness, perfectionism, fastidiousness, punctiliousness, meticulousness; captiousness, quibbling, hair-splitting, casuistry, sophistry; informal nitpicking.

This is not nice stuff, folks. Who would want to be taggeds as peddling pedantry? Not me.

A thesaurus sub-entry for knowledge suggests more positive alternatives:

2 people anxious to display their knowledge: learning, erudition, education, scholarship, schooling, wisdom. ANTONYMS ignorance, illiteracy.

What I do is scholarship and/or scientific research, and I’d like that to be recognized.

[Side issue. In more-or-less ordinary language, there’s no easy way to put humanistic scholarship and scientic research together under a single heading. Many universities and government agencies use research as the cover term, but that’s a technical usage that most ordinary people just don’t get, and even organizations of many types have come to differentiate themselves strongly along more “humanistic” and more “scientific” lines: in the U.S., the Modern Language Association vs. the Linguistic Society of America; at Stanford, the Stanford Humanities Center vs. the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences; and so on.

There’s a lot of complexity here, and a need for people to appreciate the historically and socioculturally contingent nature of some of these distinctions. But even if we were clear about all of this, how to talk to people outside the academy?]

In any case, there’s a terminological issue, a fairly serious one. The words pedant and pedantry are heavily loaded negatively, but what can we say instead? Punditry is less negative, but calls up a world of spokespeople who expatiate in the media, often at short notice, on the events of the day.

Would “Great Moments in Research / Scholarship / Learning / Science / Academia” work? (On the last, note that a lot of research doesn’t take place in academic institutions and that a lot of what goes on in academic institutions isn’t research but training in useful skills, of all sorts.) I don’t know; mostly, they sound like ironic slams to me, something that comes with the “Great Moments” figure, which is used both straight-faced and ironically, but very often mockingly: among the millions of hits for {“great moments in”} we find things like Great Moments in Drunken Hookup Failure, Great Moments in Presidential Speeches (snarking at George W. Bush), Great Moments in Tech Punditry (The Day Facebook Lost Half Its Value), Great Moments in Journal Editing (not meant in a nice way), and many more.

What I’d wish for in my dreams is that Maggie Koerth-Baker had chosen a heading like “Cool Moments in Research” (assuming, of course, that she thinks my stuff is cool). Or, if she doesn’t like the colloquial cool, “Admirable Moments in Research”. Yes, I know, not nearly as grabby as “Great Moments”.

Putting aside “Great Moments” now, there’s a very real possibility that pedantry has lost its negative tone for many people and has been extended to any talk about technical matters. That would make some sense: the relevant concept is easily available to most people, but English doesn’t have a brief, widely known and used, expression meaning (neutrally) ‘talk about technical matters’. But if pedantry has been extended this way, then we need an expression for the pettifogging, niggling variety of such talk: the retronym pedantic pedantry, maybe (unless pedantic has undergone a parallel broadening); or nitpicking pedantry (with nitpicking understood as a restrictive, not an appositive, modifier); or whatever.

(More generally: expressions broaden or narrow in their semantics over time, and often there’s a real use for an expression conveying the older sense, because its denotatum is still significant socioculturally. So people have to adapt to the change by enlisting other expressions when they want to be clear.)

I hadn’t imagined that pedantry might have broadened in this fashion, but then I’m an old man, not in touch with everything that’s happened in the past few decades. So if it’s shifted, I should stop being puzzled or alarmed by Kids These Days and find another way to say what I mean.

5 Responses to “pedantry”

  1. Chris Ambidge Says:

    well you’ve been *MY* favourite linguist for years and years

  2. Sam Says:

    I’m the Sam who submitterated your post to Boing Boing. I do think everyone needs a favorite linguist! I’m always interested to read your take on issues – it is often said that it is a good intellectual habit to look at issues from many sides, and the language side is one that is often ignored.

    Regarding pedantry, I actually like your work because it is NOT pedantic. I see pedantry as the evil twin of thoroughness, perverted in such a way that it detracts from the subject matter at hand. It makes the specificity the point, rather than any insights one could glean from being specific.

    Many people who like “grammar” can be pretty pedantic, as you know.

    As far as Boing Boing’s title, I think it is showing a sign of the ironic “pedantry” you allude to the Kids These Days doing. Boing Boing is not a normal publication (I’m not prone to reading “normal” publications, as you can probably tell by now), and has a highly dedicated audience built up from nearly 15 years of publishing on the web (before “blog” was a word). They call their own readers Happy Mutants, and engage in a unique combination of absurd posts bordering on dadaism (see the “Look at this [banana related object]. Just look at it.” series of posts), hard hitting science journalism, and coverage of the alternative art and political scenes.

    To this group, I think the “Great Moments in Pedantry” series of posts is more about “Things that are interesting, but would be derided by others for being pedantic, who we mock by playing along with.” If that makes sense. It is quite clear that this audience finds questions about “what is the correct way to indicate the plural of octopus?” very interesting, and not at all pedantic (the answer, if I recall, is “whatever you want, no plural version of octopus is inherently more right than any other, as long as people can tell what you are talking about”). The audience, by and large, is full of people who are used to being derided for their interests, and have comfortably internalized that through irony.

    The author of the post, Maggie KB is their excellent science correspondent, and is by nearly any measure, a huge geek, which in its most positive connotation means “someone who really likes the details”. I’m sure no slight was meant. Generally speaking only things that bring a smile to someone’s face are plucked from the Submitterator pool – things that bore or tire them (such as genuine pedantry) just get ignored.

    Hopefully you get a few new regular readers from the link, and not just “Brad-fetishists”. 😉

  3. Neal Says:

    It seems to me that Boing Boing’s use of pedantry is more specific than technical talk; it’s technical talk on subjects that most people would consider “rude, crude, unstructured, or insignificant”.

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