Thursday, August 12, 2010
I like to think of myself as a person who is very sensitive to the nuances of language. Indeed, I love language and have demonstrated that throughout my life. Even in high school, I was the star of my senior English class, so much so that my teacher, Mr. Stephenson, sent an essay I had written for the class in 1963 to a major educational publication which published it. I was pleased to find an abstract of that article on line (http://bul.sagepub.com/content/47/281/99.abstract
). In college, I went on to take English composition and English literature courses. Moreover, I also loved foreign languages, and had studied Spanish, Portuguese and French by the time I graduated from college and later mastered Vietnamese.
All of that aside, I am very sensitive to changes in language as well as the meaning of words. A great deal of my work today involves trying to get American military officers think more clearly about the meaning of the words they use in describing the conflicts in which the US is engaged. In addition, one aspect of my alertness to language comes from the fact that I spent a good part of my life leaving and returning to the US and discovering that American English usage was constantly changing, but it was more of a shock not having been immersed in the society and only gradually becoming used to these changes. It was a bit of an awakening to return to the US and discover that the word "awesome" had come to be the most popular way of describing something good. I love youth culture and its freshness,once considered myself part of the youth culture of the 1960s and have written admirably about the current youth of the Millennial generation (see my blog post on this). However, I do not always find the way youth uses language very "comfortable." I still do not like it when I hear a lot of people under 30 consistently raising the tone of their voices at the end of sentences when they are making a statement and not asking a question and believe that this usage actually means something about the degree of confidence they have in their own statements. This habit it appears began with young women in the 90s and later was adopted by their male cohorts.
The new language usage that I have discovered just in the past month or two has been the tendency of people to answer a question with the word "so." What do you think is the justification for the war in Afghanistan? So,.... I do not think this has always been the case. I just can't recall it being consistently used. But I find it used everywhere all of a sudden, including when I hear Europeans being asked questions in English by the media. So it seems to have flown quickly among the culture of English speakers. Now why are people answering a question with the word "so?" It seems to me that these are people who are normally being asked a question due to their expertise on a subject. Because of that, they want to set the stage for making expert statements. The word "so" sets the stage for this, as in "So.... (now listen to what I am going to say because it is hard to understand but definitely authoritative)."
Now, I find this rather annoying. Maybe I just don't like people messing with the language. I guess I am a language conservative. Although I have studied linguistics at the graduate level, I am still not comfortable with the idea that anything goes in language. Of course, saying "so" does not violate any rules, but I just do not like the superior attitude that if reflects in the speaker. However, to be honest, most people are using "so" just because they have heard it over and over and are simply using a new form because everyone else is. So "so" is probably here to stay, especially as it may fill a need in our society for people to express their expert knowledge in a world increasingly marked by specialization. Oh, yes, I also do not like the phrase "good to go," which seems to have crept its way into our language from military culture as has the term "skill sets." I only heard these phrases when I came to work with the military in 2003, but quickly found it being used everywhere by everyone. I got hired, I discoverd, because I had the right "skill sets." Lucky me!
Former Congressman and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski has just died. A lot of attention was suddenly paid to a Washinton powerbroker who wound up humiliated, disgraced and imprisoned due to the hubris of politics and the DNA of Chigago politics.
My own thoughts drew to the time back in 1987 when Rostenkowski and his committee visited Rio de Janeiro when I was a US consul there. One thing you get to do in the US Foreign Service is receive CODELs, Congressional delegations, and to meet some of the great names in American politics. Of course to most diplomats CODELs are mostly a big pain, as every little detail of a visit of anything from a single Congressman to a group of 20 plus spouses can become tedious and challenging. I always welcomed them, because since Latin America is often ignored by American policy makers, a CODEL could be used to raise the US government's profile and to introduce certain issues on the official agenda. Or course, for most Congressman, the CODEL is the offical version of the boondogle. Some take them as serious work; most see them as a chance to travel abroad at the expense of the American taxpayer.
I have no idea if Rosty's visit focused on any major issues of US-Brazilian relations; I just don't remember. What I do remember was the boad ride. Any VIP visit to Rio had to include a ride on a boat around Guanabara Bay and past the famed Sugerloaf and a view of the vast beaches that ringed the Bay and that made it a major port and tourist attraction with the contrast of a big city and nature running up against the sea.
For Rostenkowski's delegation, a small boat was not in the cards. Rather, we at the consulate went after the biggest private yacht in town, the 105 foot yacht owned by the late Globo media magnate Roberto Marinho. We took a late afternoon cruise. Very nice oeres deurvs and plenty of alcohol was served by host Marinho, already about 90 but spry and his glamorous somewhat younger wife Lily. We were up on the upper deck of the yacht without any railings, standing in a tight circle, Rosty, me and a few other Congressmen and guests. Rosty had had more than a couple of drinks and was a little wobbly, when the yacht rolled a bit and I saw him tilting over towards the edge of the deck and suddenly reached out, grabbed his lapel and pulled him back towards me. It was only an instant and one that was soon forgotten, but I will never forget the time that I saved Dan Rostenkowski.