Category Archives: Language

Newspapers: Leaner, meaner, livelier or else

I have been devoted to newspapers since — oh, since I was 6 or 7 and getting caught up in the ongoing adventures of Gasoline Alley and Our Boarding House and Little Orphan Annie and other daily heirs to The Yellow Kid.

My print addiction built with my childhood passion for baseball and the after-game quotations of heroes such as Ted Williams, whose fondest phrase, as passed along by sportswriters and dutifully cleaned up by copy editors, was “blankety-blank” — as in, “That blankety-blank umpire couldn’t call a blankety-blank pitch in a blankety-blank grade school game!”

Those were the days.

And these are these days, when the daily newspaper is teetering on the brink of (choose one or more):

— Irrelevance.

— Extinction.

— Rebirth.

Not a lot of people are betting on that third option. By the time I bailed out of the full-time journalism racket almost a year ago, after nearly 40 years of writing and editing for other people’s publications, we in the working press had pretty much taken to referring to ourselves (or at least, our institutions) as the Titanic, muttering with grim humor about rearranging the deck chairs.

And we did so in pretty much a vast silence, as onetime readers and never-bothereds ignored our flailings in droves — at the same time our advertisers were scuttling toward the greener pastures of Craigslist and television and direct mail and, if we were lucky, those preprinted inserts that arrive on your sidewalk with the morning news but don’t pay the newspaper what an old-fashioned ad on the page pays.

Long before Wall Street’s spectacular tumble, newspapers started taking it on the chin. Massive layoffs and buyouts, from the Washington Post to the New York Times (100 lopped from the newsroom) to the Los Angeles Times to The Oregonian, where I was one of nearly 30 members — all with decades of experience — of the Buyout Class of 2007. Now The Oregonian is in the process of another huge voluntary buyout, cutting 50 people from the newsroom and lots more in other departments. In Portland and across the country, it’s a journalistic brain drain of astonishing proportions.

What brought a great American institution to such a pass?
Over at Culture Shock, the sharply inquisitive blogger Mighty Toy Cannon has begun a fascinating conversation on newspapers and readership and the link between a critical press and a city’s cultural life. It’s a great discussion, right up Art Scatter’s alley, and I encourage you to join the fray. But the existence of broad and lively cultural coverage in the local press also depends on the health and stability of the press in general, and that’s a deeper discussion. So here goes. You’re going to read a lot of generalizations here, and a lot of tentative ideas. But it’s a start. Feel free to pitch in.

Continue reading Newspapers: Leaner, meaner, livelier or else

Thursday scatter: cool nicknames, a new guy at the Met

One of our favorite Portland writers, Fred Leeson, has a sweet cover story in the inPortland section of today’s Oregonian on Sweet Baby James Benton, the smooth-singing jazz guy who is one of the last links to the great old days of the city’s North Williams Avenue jazz scene.

That scene was pretty much wiped out, along with the thriving black neighborhood that nourished it, by the midcentury sweep of urban renewal that also obliterated the bustling working and ethnic neighborhoods of south downtown, which at least led to the terrific Lawrence Halprin fountains that will be celebrated this weekend.

But enough of the heavy stuff. What we’re thinking about now is cool nicknames (Benton was being called Sweet Baby James at least a decade before James Taylor wrote that unavoidable song).

Jazz and blues and pop music have ’em. Count Basie. Duke Ellington. King Oliver. (Do we detect a pattern here?) Big Mama Thornton. Wild Bill Haley. Doctor John.

Football has ’em. Crazy Legs Hirsch. Whizzer White (who whizzed all the way to the United States Supreme Court bench). Night Train Lane (who gets honorary musical billing, too: He was married to the great Dinah Washington).

Baseball has ’em. Three Finger Brown. Big Poison Waner. Little Poison Waner. Stan the Man Musial. Moose Skowron. Catfish Hunter. Blue Moon Odom. Nuke Laloosh. (We don’t count sportswriter inventions such as the execrable “Splendid Splinter” for Ted Williams, or even “The Bambino” for George Herman Ruth: “Babe” was quite enough.)

We confess to a longstanding if not deeply felt regret for our own un-nicknamedness. A few people in our youth called us Hopalong: Although it’s true we once created a whole Hopalong Cassidy comic book with a fresh storyline by carefully cutting apart several old Hoppy comics and rearranging the panels in a way that fit our desires, the monicker was tied more directly to our unorthodox running style, which included a couple of hops and a jump. And a few people, knowing both our middle name and our family roots in the rural South, refer to us as “Bobby Wayne.” But those aren’t real nicknames. They don’t stick.

So, the big question: How about you? Got a favorite nickname for a public or semi-public figure? (Arianna Huffington, it seems, has annointed Sarah Palin with “The Trojan Moose,” but we have a feeling the honoree should actually be willing to accept the honor.) Something you were tagged as a kid that has sadly (or not so sadly) drifted away? A name you’d really like to be known by, if only someone else would get the ball rolling? Hit that comment button. All of Art Scatter really, really wants to know.

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THE CHANGING OF THE GUARDS:

Big news at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which some of us consider one of the coolest spots on Earth. Thomas P. Campbell, a late horse in the running, has been selected to replace the venerable Philippe de Montebello as director and chief executive. Campbell is 46 and widely respected by those who know him; his specialty is European tapestries. Montebello is 72 and has run the Met, extremely well, for 31 years; he retires next year. With Campbell, the Met went in-house and chose someone with impeccable professional credentials — no sure thing in the go-go museum world, where directors, like college presidents, are often chosen more for their ability to haul in the bucks than for their artistic or academic chops. Of course, Campbell’s going to have to raise tons of money, too. Good luck! Carol Vogel has the story in the New York Times. Plus, a compelling analysis from the Wall Street Journal.

Meanwhile, Alexei Ratmansky, artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet, is leaving Moscow for New York to become artist in residence at American Ballet Theater: The internationalization of the ballet world continues apace. Again, The Times has the report.

And up the freeway in Seattle, Gerard Schwarz has announced he’ll retire as music director of the Seattle Symphony in 2011. He’s 61 now and will have been at the helm in Seattle for 26 years , guiding the orchestra, among other achievements, into its splendid home at Benaroya Hall. His leavetaking will not exactly be met with wailing and gnashing of teeth by a number of orchestra members, who have chafed under his autocratic leadership. But others at the symphony are stout defenders, and he’s put this orchestra on the map. A lot of potential replacements are going to consider this a plum job. Reports from the Seattle Times and the New York Times.

Ur-Scatter, primal scatter: Walter Benjamin on the prowl

Walter Benjamin is the prophet of Scrounge Scatter. The German critic of things broken, Benjamin embodies the true spirit of Modernism. Susan Sontag quipped that his essays end just before they self-destruct. But not before I’m lulled to sleep, usually. He’s the philosopher in search of an interpreter who will synthesize his scattered observations. In other words, he is the must-cite (site) for any post- or post post- critical theory—or critique thereof. His famous essay “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” speaks volumes in its title alone, even before the age of endless links.

Benjamin’s Angel of History, based on an interpretation of Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, stands breathless, back turned to the future, watching as the wreckage of the past piles up at his feet. Benjamin was chief forager in this cultural dustheap. I’ve spent the past week browsing an intriguing book, Walter Benjamin’s Archive: Images, Texts, Signs (Verso), drawn from the salvage of Benjamin’s odd collections and catalogs: notes, photos, picture postcards, toys, news articles and lists—endless lists, including, charmingly, the first words and phrases spoken by his son Stefan. Loads of it is reproduced (paper yellowed, cracked, water-stained, but without the archival dust that would have me wheezing and choking in a minute).

A short note titled “Excavation and Memory” contains this bit of Scatter lore:

Language has unmistakably made plain that memory is not an instrument for exploring the past, but rather a medium. It is the medium of that which is experienced, just as the earth is the medium in which ancient cities lie buried. He who seeks to approach his own buried past must conduct himself like a man digging. Above all, he must not be afraid to return again and again to the same matter; to scatter it as one scatters earth, to turn it over as one turns over soil.

These are images, treasures in a collector’s gallery. But it is not mindless scattering (and conjoining). There’s the time, place and circumstance of good historical research. We must mark “the exact location of where in today’s ground the ancient treasures have been stored up.” The investigative report on authentic memory documents the strata of origination, “but also gives an account of the strata which first had to be broken through.”

Fragments, shards, shored against ruin, but tagged, referenced and carbon-dated.

(Compare the origin of Art Scatter.)

*Image: ”Angelus Novus”, Paul Klee (1920).

I spelled it my way: the future of spelling

I wouldn’t say that Art Scatter is totally obsessed with spelling. We don’t employ a battalion of copyeditors to check our posts, after all, and I’m sure that strange letters pop up in strange places in the words we type sometimes. And we prefer some spellings, like “copyeditors,” that some sticklers might consider incorrect. I’m thinking of the spellcheck of this particular program, just for starters, which in addition to suggesting that “copyeditors” is two words also believes the same about our new noun “spellcheck.” We can be stubborn about this sort of thing, though. We believe our “variant” to be more useful than theirs.

Much of the time, even for the broadminded, variant spelling is the same as incorrect spelling. It’s no big deal, if you whiff on “accommodate” — though I’m about to argue the other side of this in a moment — because there’s no punishment, just a little hiccup in a reader’s mind as she encounters the misspelling, restores the missing “m” (the most frequent error) and moves on. She’ll never trust your spelling of a tricky word again, but that’s not a major consequence. We’re on the Internet for crying out loud! And she understands that. Don’t worry, she doesn’t trust us either…

The keyword here is “variant.” I bring it up because an article by Frank Furedi on the website Spiked (which we found via ArtsJournal, of course). Furedi suggests that a movement exists to “forgive” common spelling errors in British universities (such as truely) by treating them simply as variant spellings. No harm, no foul; we knew what the student meant.
Continue reading I spelled it my way: the future of spelling

Misled on Beijing: The words that twist our tongues

(This is a reader-participation posting. You, too, can embarrass yourself thoroughly by fessing up to the words you’ve mispronounced, misconstrued or generally mistreated for most of your natural born days. Hit that comment button!)

Comes this, from the venerable Associated Press: Apparently the host city of the Michael Phelps Quadrennial Swimathon is Bay-JING, not Bay-ZHING.

Who knew?

Well, more than a billion Chinese citizens, for starters. And probably Richard Nixon, may he rest in semi-peace, and Henry Kissinger, who (I never thought I’d say a thing like this) might have been a handy fellow to have around to fend off the Russia-Georgia hot-war tiff that seems to have been made possible partly by American diplomatic and political miscues.

But not me, until the AP set me straight. And not the majority of our television talking heads. And maybe not you.

Some people seem to gravitate to the soft-z Bay-ZHING because it sounds, well, foreign and exotic, according to the AP. But that, the news service points out, is like saying New ZHER-zey: It just ain’t right. (And there’s nothing much exotic about New Jersey, although the views of Manhattan from West New York are pretty darned killer.)

So, the big question: What other words have we been mangling, misconstruing, mixing up? Which words in our private lexicons have meanings or pronunciations known only to us, even though we blissfully believe the rest of the English-speaking world is fully attuned to our singular and quaintly idiosyncratic interpretations?

Some years ago — oh, say when I was in my early 30s — a friend confessed that when she was a kid she thought the word “mis-led” was “MYZ-uld.” Heh-heh, I replied, and never let on that until that moment “misled” had MYZ-uld me completely. Oh, I knew about mis-led, and what it meant. But I was under the impression that there were two words: ordinary, garden variety mis-led, which was merely descriptive, and the beautiful MYZ-uld, which meant mis-led, but with nefarious purpose — a pirate word, a word signifying skulduggery. I miss it still.

I did better on ATH-ens, only tumbling to its true pronunciation in fourth- or fifth-grade world history, when the teacher got around to talking about Mt. Olympus and the Acropolis and other stuff I’d been reading and dreaming about for a few years. Trouble is, I’d only been reading about it, and in my little personal classical cosmos the great city of the ancient world was AY-thens, with a “th” like “the,” not like “therapy,” which I almost needed to deal with the disillusionment.

Sure, there are others. But why embarrass myself still more? Time for you to embarrass yourselves. Give us the lowdown on your badspeak. All of Art Scatterdom wants to know!

Jenny Diski fights sleep, wins

“Reality cannot stand too much wakefulness.”

America could use a Jenny Diski.

Joan Didion, Annie Dillard and Janet Malcolm exercise a comparable ruthlessness, waged against received opinion on subjects of comparable range, but they are not as unrelentingly unreserved as Diski. America cannot abide too much wakefulness, which is why I resist sleep. And Diski, post-empire British to the core, is one of the things that keep me up nights.

Check her “Diary” column in the latest London Review of Books, (31 July 2008), one of the select items the Review posts online. “If you set aside the incomparable cruelty and stupidity of human beings, surely our most persistent and irrational activity is to sleep,” she begins. In the next paragraph she turns to “the second most absurd thing we do: wake up.” In the space of a page and a half she describes the several levels of wakefulness through which we descend in and out of sleep—for descend out of it we do, she convinces us, in an endless spiral, with occasional freefall.

In Diski’s hands, such a tale is magic. There’s humor: “As chief scientist in charge of making the world a better place, once I’d found a way of making men give birth, or at least lactate, I’d devote myself to abolishing the need for sleep.” And she can tap the nostalgia for those “delicious,” slightly anxious moments we never outgrow: her earliest memory of “sensual pleasure,” lying in bed, “the bedtime story told, lights out (not the hall, leave the door open, no, more than that),” perfectly comfortable, “falling slowly into sleep.”

Read it, and marvel how this brief essay–a miniature novel–slips in such short space from human cruelty and stupidity to Raquel Welch saving our beleaguered world!

If you enjoy reading and re-reading this piece, click Jenny Diski’s blog for more.

Diski is a novelist, but I’ve only read her non-fiction. I’d like to report that she grasped Portland’s unique essence in her American travelogue, Stranger on a Train: Daydreaming and Smoking Around America with Interruptions, but, alas, her night journey from Spokane to Portland, on the Empire Builder, the train she had boarded in Chicago, is recalled only for the fact that it was a non-smoking leg, except for a brief stop in Pasco, where she stood on the platform and inhaled “the best part of two cigarettes.”

If we sacrifice the semicolon, will the sentence live on?

Earlier, we were musing about the alleged death of the sentence. We didn’t understand it. Didn’t we frequently, ourselves, muster a sentence or two? But then the Voice Inside Our Head replied, rhetorically, “You call that a sentence?” Our sentences weren’t just NOT sentences; they actually killed The Sentence as they were constructed. We sometimes hate the Voice Inside Our Head. How could we not?

We have new evidence that the sentence is not dead! It’s simple, really. If we aren’t completely sure that the semicolon has passed away, tossed into the rubbage bin with a wink, then surely the sentence has received a premature burial. The French started in back in April, though maybe the whole thing was a joke, oui? John Henley writing in the Guardian exhausted the topic, we would have thought. Every clever thing that has ever been said about the semicolon was in his article. And as a good journalist must, he left the question open: Dear, reader, it is for you to decide. But then Slate’s Paul Collins got in on the fun and proved that Henley had left some things unsaid. His point was simply that the semicolon is either always misused or always dying; we’re not sure which.

We have struggled to have an opinion on the semicolon, and a real opinion, not just a wisecrack. We find that we use them just to give our pinky a bit exercise from time to time. See? We’re just not capable of it. And did you notice the short sentence there? We aren’t just irreverent about semicolon usage; we frequently employ short sentences, even “non-sentences,” instead of erecting handsome, well-made sentences, with their interlocking pieces secured by the semicolon.
We could go on: Something makes us think that if we continue to talk about semicolons, somehow we aren’t killing the sentence.

Well and truly sentenced

The question before us today is the question before us every day: Is the sentence dying? It was posed by James Billington, the Librarian of Congress, who then answered it in the affirmative. And that set Washington Post writer Linton Weeks on an imaginative reporter’s journey to test his conclusion. It’s a clever little trip. In typical reporter fashion he finds Important People to agree with Billington and Important People to disagree, and concludes with a trope newspapers seldom employ. He gives us a quote about the whole sentence problem that seems to agree with Billington, but he has taken it from an old Atlantic magazine (October 1937) and out of its context (that the loopy sentences of John Dos Passos and his kin were undermining the sentence with their complexity). Which just goes to show that language changes, and maybe that’s OK. Well played, Mr. Weeks.

The key paragraph of the story has this quote from Billington:

“We are moving toward the language used by computer programmers and air traffic controllers,” he says. “Language as a method of instruction, not a portal into critical thinking.”

He’s talking about texting, IM-ing, commenting on blogs and how these activities are seeping in the language as a whole. Sentences lurk beneath these crypticons, of course, but not good sentences, not beautiful sentences, not important sentences. The language of technology is replacing the language of… falconry. I made that last bit up, but my point is that technology always affects language, special languages do too, and for that matter so does the mode of communication. The old telegraph “language” was masterfully compressed (stop). So are classified ads (talk about a phrase that’s about to exit the language in a hurry). They save keystrokes, space and money. Modern texting is the same thing: an exploration of how little language it takes to make sense.
Continue reading Well and truly sentenced