In Syntax Country

In a vivid linguistics dream in the am hours of the 10th, a page of linguistic data gold that (in the dream) I carefully saved to my computer — my dream computer, of course — so I could post about it triumphantly later in the day. Alas, later in the day my dream computer was off-line, so to speak, and all I had from that marvelous page of data when I woke briefly was this not entirely certain recollection:

We never stop(ped) rolling  over them / them over  in Syntax Country.

Two possible contributors to this dream message.

First, I had my iTunes running during the night, and right before I woke up it was playing some shapenote music, including New Jerusalem (#299 in the Denson Sacred Harp), with the notable lines:

The earth and seas are passed away. And the old rolling skies.

Then, I’d been looking at the character Dr. Syntax from the English literary tradition — more on this in a later posting — and at pubs in the picturesque English countryside named after him (and an album by the Scottish rock musician Edwyn Collins named after him).

About the source of the dream message there’s not much more to be said, but the name Syntax Country led me in several directions: it evoked an intellectual world of vast expanses, reaching across the universe, with intriguing picturesque locales dotted across that landscape; and it led me to a pointed essay by Harlan Ellison on the language of the Hollywood movie industry.

Dr. Syntax surveys Syntax Country, from a tourism ad for Billings MT as the gateway to Big Sky Country:

(#1) The sound track: Alfred E. Newman’s main title music for How the West Was Won (1962), which you can listen to here

In Syntax Country your view stretches over the grandeur of the universe, while alighting everywhere on pockets of local quaintness. And it all means something.

Harlan Ellison. Who died only a couple of weeks ago, aged 84, lauded (properly) as immensely talented and prolific, while also being characterized (accurately) in various obituaries as

irascible, cantankerous, contentious, pugnacious, combative, aggressive, abusive, curmudgeonly, outspoken, opinionated, impassioned, argumentative, controversial [not attested in the obits I’ve seen, but they’re probably just accidental gaps: antagonistic, quarrelsome, hostile, truculent, bellicose, savage, ferocious, brutal, vicious, slashing, ruthless, abrasive, cutting, biting, brusque]

From Wikipedia:

Harlan Jay Ellison (May 27, 1934 – June 28, 2018) was an American writer, known for his prolific and influential work in New Wave speculative fiction, and for his outspoken, combative personality. Robert Bloch, the author of Psycho, described Ellison as “the only living organism I know whose natural habitat is hot water”.

His published works include more than 1,700 short stories, novellas, screenplays, comic book scripts, teleplays, essays, and a wide range of criticism covering literature, film, television, and print media. Some of his best-known work includes the Star Trek episode “The City on the Edge of Forever”, A Boy and His Dog, “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream”, and ” ‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman”, and as editor and anthologist for Dangerous Visions (1967) and Again, Dangerous Visions (1972).

From the publisher’s blurb for Ellison’s An Edge in My Voice: Essays (1985):


At the beginning of the 1980s, Harlan Ellison agreed to write a regular column for the L.A. Weekly on the condition that they published whatever he wrote with no revisions and no suggestions for rewrites. What resulted was impassioned, persuasive, abusive, and hilarious. Part essay, part conversation, all Ellison — these pieces provide a glimpse into a great mind, at ease in tackling both grand ideas and the minutiae of the day to day. Collected here in An Edge in My Voice, these works also open a window to a decade when a newspaper would accept such a risky venture from such a powerful voice

And from this book, Installment 19: 1 March 82 “Gobbledygook on Olympus”, catching the piece in mid-rant:


Ellison’s rant is of the Slang and Jargon Debase the Language genre, with special application to usage in the Hollywood movie industry. He slashes away entertainingly, but it’s not any more accurate than other peeving. Yes, Hollywood movie folk share a lot of slang, which serves (as slang usually does) to establish, display, maintain, and enforce in-group status; outsiders aren’t expected to understand how the slang is used. And yes, Hollywood movie folk share a lot of industry-specific jargon, technical terminology for the business of movie-making; again, outsiders aren’t expected to understand the jargon, because they have no need for it.

The industry (idiomatic) usage cut together — roughly, ‘put a film together by cutting pieces of takes and splicing them together’ — is not in fact an oxymoron, though it might at first glance appear to be one. But that’s the place in his essay where Ellison offers the image of syntax country, the realm where the populace really cares about grammar, style, and usage.

Then there’s the industry’s specialized usage of producer, as recognized in this NOAD entry, subentry 2a:

noun producer 1 [a] a person, company, or country that makes, grows, or supplies goods or commodities for sale: an oil producer. [b] a person or thing that makes or causes something: the mold is the producer of the toxin aflatoxin. 2 [a] a person responsible for the financial and managerial aspects of making of a movie or broadcast or for staging a play, opera, etc. [b] a person who supervises the making of a musical recording, especially by determining the overall sound.

Insisting that producer could only have the older, semantically transparent agent-noun sense, so that the specialized industry usage is incomprehensible, is just silly.

But Ellison wants to complain. I’m sorry sir, this is abuse; the complaints department is next door.


Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: