Archive for the ‘Language and society’ Category

Japanese symbolic culture, inscribed on León’s arm

September 8, 2023

About my friend (and former caregiver) León Hernández Alvarez (hereafter, LH) and the tattoos covering his left arm, from wrist to shoulder, reflecting his deep sympathy with the symbolic culture of Japan. Here’s LH in a face shot that will serve as an introduction to his text (as I edited it for compactness) taking us on a tour of the ink, along with seven photos he took to accompany the text (as I cleaned them up for presentation here):

(#1) LH showing off the arm (and the muscles he’s developed at the gym)

After most sections of LH’s text (which I’ve boldfaced), there’s some background material about the things depicted in the tattoos, with some photos from real life.

I hope to post separately about LH, including some about his personal qualities, but here I offer four important pieces of biographical data: LH is in his early 40s, he’s Mexican (here on a work visa), he has an MBA and a previous history working in business in Mexico, and (like me) he’s gay.


A bulletin from Pejora, the land of derogation and insult

September 1, 2023

🐇 🐇 🐇 rabbit rabbit rabbit to inaugurate September, Labor Day weekend in my country, autumn in my hemisphere, and the 84th year of my life (I’m about to be — this coming Wednesday — 83, a nice prime number)

Meanwhile, a comment by Stewart Kramer on my 8/22 posting “The Jerk Fest” leads me to some reflections on where slurs — like jerk approximating asshole — come from. A slur like this use of jerk, or asshole itself,

— levels a culturally serious charge against its target (in the case of asshole, involving, among other things, arrogance, pretension, and rudeness)

— attributes this offense to a character flaw in the target (in Geoffrey Nunberg’s analysis of asshole, the flaw of culpable obtuseness — about their own importance, about the needs of others and the way they’re perceived by them)

— and insults the target.

The slur jerk developed from jerk referring to a fool or incompetent — what I’ll call a (mere) devaluation, meaning a term that refers to an identity regarded as of little worth. The examples that turn up in discussions of pejoration that I’ll cite involve terms referring to the devalued identities of fools and the inept (old-style jerk, dope, dummy); rustics and farm folk (hick, hillbilly, hayseed); and women (chick, dame, girl), but an extended discussion would take in (at least) terms referring to oddballs and nonconformists; foreigners; members of certain racioethnic groups; the aged; the disabled; and members of sexual minorities. (Bear in mind how astoundingly culture-specific all this material is.)

The route from devaluation to slur involves elevating cultural associations with the devalued identities to connotations of the devaluation and then to its semantic content: nasty metonymy, if you will. Fools and incompetents are seen as prone to egotistical interactions with others, so that foolish jerk begins to pick up the connotations of arrogance and rudeness, which can then become conventional aspects of meaning, leading to assholish jerk. The various stages in this progression can co-occur with one another for some time, as is certainly the case with jerk as described in the pieces quoted in my “Jerk Fest” posting.



December 19, 2019

By William Haefeli in the 12/2/19 New Yorker, this entry in his chronicles of fashionable urban upper middle class gay men, especially in couples, especially in New York City:

(#1) “Someday I’ll buy a little place in the country and take my finger off the Zeitgeist.”

Meanwhile, both men are on the cutting edge of the Zeitgeist in fashion for men. Black guy with dreads and a neck tattoo on the left, white guy with a short ponytail and an ornate curly beard on the right. (I won’t even go into the clothes and accessories.)


The Gay Village, Swiss Chalet, poutine

August 8, 2018

Further notes on the 31st motss.con in Montréal (which came to an end with a stragglers’ breakfast on Monday); background in my 8/3 posting “The rainbow pillars of Montréal”. And further explorations of things Swiss, or at least things called Swiss, in particular that Canadian institution, the Swiss Chalet restaurant chain. Motssers on holiday in Québec, food: that means poutine, (by report) consumed often and by many during the con.

Brief visual background on the con’s location, the Gay Village of the city:

(#1) Aerial view of Rue Ste-Catherine E. in the Gay Village, with its overhead rainbow-colored balls (from Chris Ambidge)


Pronoun case in the Thames Valley CID

July 27, 2016

From S4 E4 (“Masonic Mysteries”) of the ITV detective procedural tv show Inspector Morse, an exchange between Morse and his sergeant, Lewis:

(1) Morse: It’s me he wants, it’s me he’s going to get, or rather, it’s me that’s going to get him…

(2) Lewis: Shouldn’t that be: “It’s I who am going to get him”?

It’s all about pronoun case (Acc me vs. Nom I) in it-clefts: roughly, identifying clauses with

subject it, a main verb BE, a predicative NP, and a relative clause missing an NP (the relative clause can have relativizer ∅, that, or a WH-pronoun like who)

— in these instances, clauses supplying the answer to the questions “Who does he want? Who is he going to get? Who’s going to get him?”

And, this being Britain, it’s also all about social class.


black, Black, etc.

November 22, 2014

From an op-ed column in the NYT on the 19th, “The Case for Black With a Capital B” by Lori L. Tharps:

this is one of my greatest frustrations as a writer and a Black woman living in the United States. When speaking of a culture, ethnicity or group of people, the name should be capitalized. Black with a capital B refers to people of the African diaspora. Lowercase black is simply a color.

Linguists, academics and activists have been making this point for years, yet the publishing industry — our major newspapers, magazines and books — resist making this simple yet fundamental change. Both Oxford and Webster’s dictionaries state that when referring to African-Americans, Black can be and often is capitalized, but the New York Times and Associated Press stylebooks continue to insist on black with a lowercase b. Ironically, The Associated Press also decrees that the proper names of “nationalities, peoples, races, tribes” should be capitalized. What are Black people, then?

I’m not going to object to this orthographic proposal, but I am going to argue that (though it’s innocuous) it’s not especially useful and is seriously confused on the nature of the categories at issue.


Taking offense: three stories

November 19, 2014

Three stories (two of them recent) about taking offense: on spear phishing; Illegal Pete’s; and frape. First, some background on taking offense.


widows and widowers

November 17, 2014

I chanced to reflect a few days ago on the words widow and widower, noting that there was “no word” (well, no olfesc — ordinary-language fixed expression of some currency) that covered them both; the union of the categories WIDOW and WIDOWER can certainly be expressed in English, but we have no quick and easy way of doing this.

So: some notes on the part of the domain of kinship vocabulary to which widow and widower belong.


Rising pitch

January 26, 2014

In the Stanford freshman seminar on language in the comics, the topic of rising intonation at the end of intonational units came, with the predictable impression from some (by no means all) of the students that it was associated with asking questions. And then I was pointed to a piece by artist Taylor Mali, “Speak with conviction”, complaining about “invisible quesion marks”. There’s a deep but understandable confusion here.


Social memory

December 28, 2013

From GayStarNews on the 17th, in “Taylor Kitsch ‘had no idea about the whole AIDS epidemic’ before filming The Normal Heart: Actor plays closeted Wall Street executive in denial about having the disease” by Greg Hernandez:

‘I mean, look: I was born in ’81. I had no idea about the whole AIDS epidemic,’ the actor tellsVulture.

Social memory is surprisingly shallow. Events vanish with great speed. My studemts (in their 20s and 30s) know virtually nothing about the Vietnam War or the protests surrounding it. Then it turned out out that several acquaintances (in their 20s) knew essentially nothing about the AIDS epidemic — this after some emotional reminiscences from me.