Archive for category Language

Comic adults

Justice League by Alex RossOnce upon a time, if you were an adult and you read comic books, people thought there was something wrong with you. Until Marvel revolutionized comic book storytelling in the 1960s, comics were seen exclusively as kid stuff. After all, what adult would take a story about a guy in tights and a cape seriously?

Apparently, a lot. I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out that more adults read comics than children. Many comic-reading kids grew up but didn’t want to give up their books (who could blame them?) and comics have grown more sophisticated to appease these mature readers. That’s great, because some of these so-called “grown ups” can act pretty childish when it comes to their favorite reading material.

Wired.com recently ran a short review of the new television show Comic Book Men. It’s a reality show about Kevin Smith’s comic book store, sort of like Pawn Stars for the nerd set. Take a minute to read the comments.

It’s amazing how much anger can be stirred up by a reality show about silly middle-aged men running a comic shop. The reviewer didn’t like it, saying that it reinforced negative stereotypes with its all-male cast and their tendency to make typically male jokes about women and gay men.

Luckily, Kevin Smith and company have some staunch defenders. One commenter called the author a “douche,” another said she was “pretty lame;” a third commenter said she shouldn’t be allowed to write professionally.

When a female commenter (Mary 229) came to the author’s defense, she was labeled an “angry fangirl” and taunted. “Mary’s turn on’s [sic] include whipped men, spreading inflammatory lies and invective about Rags Morales, and crying misogynist every ten seconds to invalidate the other persons [sic] point. It’s “angry fangirl 101,’” said commenter “John.”

I’m not taking sides on this one, but I think some of the comments were pretty ridiculous (once again, feel free to follow the link and decide for yourself). Since this is the Internet, I have no idea how old these people are or what their life stories are, but I can’t imagine any circumstances where statements like that would be acceptable in public. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but how about a little civility?

These comic fans should really listen more closely to their favorite characters. Has Superman ever called anyone a “douche” because they disagreed with him? Does Captain America angrily stereotype people when he disagrees with a government policy? Spider-Man is constantly being hunted down by the police and press; does he ever respond with anything besides witty banter?

When comics were read exclusively by kids, superheroes were role models. The morality and emphasis on good citizenship that started out as a way to educate children became an integral part of most heroes’ characterizations. Even in today’s age of moral ambiguity, a lot of it remains.

It’s kind of funny that a bunch of adults reading the same books can’t pick up on those lessons. These characters treat everyone with dignity, even their enemies. That seems like a pretty easy thing to understand. Superheroes are super because of their extraordinary abilities; I don’t want to live in a world where having manners is an extraordinary ability.

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Characters Not Welcome

Without individuality, life would be incredibly boring. Luckily, all human beings have a unique personality, some more unique than others. Everyone has at least one “character” in their lives, someone with a personality so strong you would think they were sent from central casting.

These people transcend the social niceties most of us get hung up on. Whether it’s the conductor singing “City of New Orleans” as he punches tickets on a commuter train, or the unofficial mayor of a small town or neighborhood, who seems to be friends with everyone, they are easy to spot.

It’s a role that few people have the audacity and, well, character to pull off without looking like schmucks, and that is the way it should be. Society can only handle so many characters, but almost everybody tries to be one.

People try to write off their irascibility and anti-social behavior by adopting the character facade: it’s not their fault that they offended you, they tell it like it is and that’s just the way they are. You need to get over it.

Curmudgeons aren’t the only culprits. Younger people have their own archetypal characters, like the “partier” or “drama queen.” Instead of tailoring responses to different situations like human beings, they react the same way every time and expect the rest of the world to accommodate them.

The world needs characters, what it doesn’t need is narcissists. Everyone has personality flaws, or moments of indiscretion, and no one should be crucified for the occasional bad mood or inappropriate reaction. Still, people need to own up to their mistakes: not everything can be blamed on one’s immutable character.

If everyone was a character, there would be no point in being a character. The genre would become overplayed and passe, like superhero comics or vampire romances. To have character, a person has to be unique. Everyone wants to escape the pressure of social mores, but that doesn’t mean they can pull off this kind of performance.

Real-life characters know they live in the real world, but they interact with it in a different way than everyone else. Wannabe characters just want to escape the rules of the real world with shallow play-acting, and that is why the whole notion of characters has gone too far. Not everyone can be Groucho; someone has to be Zeppo.

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What I’ve Learned

For this blog’s 50th post, I decided to write about writing. Since finishing grad school last May, I’ve been trying to get a job as a newspaper journalist; here’s what i’ve learned so far about finding employment as a writer. I have not been terribly successful, so far, so don’t take this as a “How to Be a Writer” guide.

1: Newspapers want clips

My quest to become a journalist began when I started college. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do in life, but I did know that I liked to write and argue about politics. In an attempt to be social, I went to a meeting of the school newspaper, The Scarlet, and they assigned me an op-ed piece on gas prices. The rest, as they say, is history.

During senior year, I took a journalism class that included visits from local journalists. The first question they always asked was “Who works for the school paper?” That’s also how I got my first writing job (blogging for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette’s WorcesterU site): the editor saw that I worked for The Scarlet, and thought I knew what I was doing.

Published writing is a prerequisite for any newspaper or writing job. Editors want to see that a person can write; just telling them that you can without proof is not going to work. If you’re in high school or college, don’t put off writing for your school paper or any other publications.

2: They want more than clips

Good writing skills are the bare minimum for employment, employers won’t even consider someone who misspells things in their cover letter, but landing a job requires more skills. Newspapers want their reporters to have local knowledge, to know everything about the area they cover so said reporter can cultivate sources and stories.

Consequently, the best place to start looking for a job might be the place you’ve lived the longest. Having a working knowledge of the major issues of your hometown shows employers that you already know what to write about.

3: Expand your definition of “writer” and “employed”

If you can’t find steady employment, why not freelance? If you have an idea for a story, pitch it to your local newspaper. If you have a hobby, remember that the majority of content in enthusiast magazines is bought from freelancers. The New York Times also accepts op-ed submissions every week.

The problem with freelancing is that it’s hard to live off the approval of editors. So, like any good superhero, it’s a good idea to get a day job while freelancing. If you get the right job, it can contribute to your ultimate goal. I work at a not-for-profit agency, where I am making a newsletter, and writing press releases and articles for publication in local papers. In other words, I’m writing. It may not be a staff job at the Times, but it’s better than flipping burgers.

4: Work for free

This can feel exploitative and fulfilling at the same time. On the one hand, news organizations from CNN to Patch are broadcasting user-generated content. Aside from not getting paid, accepting a free blogging gig gives you some perks: the public (and potential employers) are viewing your work and your name is attached to a reputable organization. Thanks to the Internet, writing is one of the only professions where people are expected to work for free. Until payment systems catch on, we’ll just have to deal with that.

On the other hand, this could be an opportunity to do some important work. Volunteer organizations are always looking for people to write grant applications or press releases, or edit newsletters and websites. You still don’t get paid, but you do get to show off your skills for a good cause.

5: Keep Writing

No matter what you do, the important thing is to keep writing. It is, after all, a skill that can only be maintained and improved with practice. You may not have a job, but that doesn’t mean you have to stop observing the world and putting words together in an aesthetically pleasing manner. Even if you can’t think of something that’s fit for public consumption, keep a notebook. Write a blog, even if you don’t think anyone will read it. After all, if you really want to be a writer, how could you stop?

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How to say “Hanukah”

With Hanukah rolling into its second night, confrontation-averse goyim are probably sweating bullets. “How do you pronounce it?” they wonder “Why is it spelled so many different ways?”

As with any word translated from another language, the English spelling of “Hanukah” does not denote literal English pronunciation. In Hebrew, the first is pronounced with a guttural “h,” a sound that requires dislodging all of the phlegm in one’s throat to make. It’s usually represented by a “ch” in translations, as opposed to the soft, regular “h,” which is why some people write “Chanukah” instead of “Hanukah.”

Most goyim trying for the authentic Hebrew pronunciation usually ignore another critical point. In Hebrew, most words put emphasis on the second or third syllables, the opposite of most English (and even Yiddish) words. So dragging out that guttural “ch/h” for dramatic effect is unnecessary.

Either way, it’s really not a big deal; people will know what you are talking about even if you don’t sound like Tevye. The Americanized “han-u-kah” is perfectly acceptable.

It’s not like people don’t have trouble pronouncing the names of Christian holidays, right? The guy’s name is Jesus Chryst but the holiday is Christmas? What’s up with that?

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Why I love jargon

The English language is in trouble. Instant and text messaging have turned the medium of Shakespeare into an appalling mess of acronyms, abbreviations, and emoticons. Still, there is hope, and it comes from America’s subcultures.

From hipsters to gangsters, subcultures are everywhere. Their members build a unique culture within the macro-culture of American society, and one of the ways they do it is through language. Having a separate culture means looking at the world differently from everyone else, and, consequently, describing it differently.

Every white suburban high school kid is familiar with the slang used by their favorite rappers, and teenagers of a different generation called un-cool things “square” to fit in with the beatniks.

However, this is nothing compared to the linguistic innovations of professional subcultures. The military has its own names for things: in the Navy, the floor (or ground) is the “deck” and walls are “bulkheads.” Truckers have their CB codes (“10-4,” etc.) as well as their own specific vocabulary: in CB slang, a snowplow is a “salt shaker.” The same is true of diners (“axle grease” is code for butter and a bottle of ketchup is a “lighthouse”).

I have even found job-specific jargon in my own workplace, an agency that serves people with disabilities. To make the place seem un-institutional, the people it serves are called “consumers,” putting them on the same level as the people lining up at Wal Mart.

By repurposing words to be more meaningful in their own specific context, professional subcultures are helping the English language evolve. Other groups seek to minimize the use of words in order to make communication faster, but, while on the job, information needs to be specific and instantly recognizable. That means giving words new uses (or even inventing new words) rather than abbreviating them.

That’s why jargon is so interesting: it demonstrates the entire process of language in microcosm. The purpose of language is to communicate with the rest of the world. People in the military, trucking industry, or health services could not adequately describe things from their perspective, so they expanded the language to make that possible.

The current, Internet-happy society views proper English as an impediment to the constant flow of information to every person. With the broader culture focusing on quality over quantity, it is up to the subcultures to keep the English language going.

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Connotative dissonance

Shakespeare famously asked “what is in a name?” Actually, a lot; modern language is about more than aptly describing the world; it’s about describing the way we want to view the world. With a little clever diction, we can turn the mundane and the pathetic into something more. The British have “news readers;” Americans have “news anchors.” The position of secretary has been replaced by the “executive assistant.” People don’t have problems; they have “issues.” It is the opposite of Newspeak: instead of removing meaning from words, they are imbued with more meaning than the things they are describing.

However, these liberally-defined connotations can backfire. Words carry multiple meanings, and when we try to give them new ones, an ironic contrast can arise. One example is the title of “mayor” on Foursquare. This social networking site tracks members’ locations; the person who spends the most time at a specific location, like a favorite coffee shop or bar, becomes the “mayor.”

Foursquare did not invent this term. City dwellers have been electing “mayors” at their neighborhood bars for decades, but the term had a little less reverence than it gets on Foursquare. Pre-internet “mayors” were usually senile old men, the kind of people who had nothing better to do but sit in a bar all day. It was a sarcastic title for someone who, like it or not, was a fixture of a certain establishment.

Foursquare users like to think being the “mayor” makes them popular but they are really continuing a proud tradition started by a bunch of irascible old coots. Either way, one person loiters in a bar because they have nothing better to do.

Another example of connotative backfire is the frequent use of the word “consumer.” This word is used to describe the buying public; “we are a nation of consumers,” a recent credit card ad declared. Non-professional electronics are known as “consumer electronics,” and the people buying them are advised by Consumer Reports.

“Consumer” is an accurate term, and it sounds more neutral than “buyer” or “sucker.” Still, it has another use that could spoil many ad campaigns. Organizations that serve developmentally disabled people have a problem. Cases like Willowbrook (the New York mental institution whose abuse of patients was famously exposed by Geraldo Rivera) have made the public more sensitive to the mistreatment of the mentally ill and the need to view them as autonomous human beings. Due to the diversity of services these agencies provide, a single term like “patient” won’t cut it, and “client” was thought to imply too much dependence. Consequently, the people these agencies serve are known as consumers.

An attempt to make life’s endless stream of financial transactions into a lifestyle and economic system was borrowed to make the developmentally disabled feel better about themselves and their relationship with caregivers. The comparison may benefit those people, but other American consumers might not appreciate the comparison.

The Bard was right: words are only descriptors of what we encounter. And their impermanence is heightened by the constant process of redefinition. Modern linguists seem most interested in using words to cover reality in shiny, attractive packaging. This is how language evolves, but people attempting to make the world seem classier through creative connotation should be wary of the “mayors” and “consumers” that came before them.

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