Dictionary Marketing and the Love of Language

A few weeks ago, in an effort to stave off the ever-looming threat of student loan collectors, I started working for the editorial department of a company that does consulting and advertising for pharmaceutical firms. Most of my job consists of proofreading, but every once in a while I’ll be tasked with ensuring that certain documents aimed at international audiences use British spellings of words rather than American ones. I have to make certain that, say, a program on tumors and leukemia is really a programme on tumours and leukaemia.

Being an American, it can’t be too surprising that British spellings don’t quite come naturally to me. I doubt that, if I weren’t looking for deviations from a pattern, I would even notice if someone wrote “traveled” (American spelling) instead of “travelled” (British spelling). As such, I find it useful to consult the list of British/American spelling differences on the Oxford Dictionaries website, using it as a sort of checklist when working on a file. I ask myself, have I accounted for every cancer centre, every licenced physician, every adverse event of diarrhoea?

The other day, once I’d gotten to the end of that checklist, I saw a link to a blog post by Lynne Murphy, asking “How do British and American attitudes to dictionaries differ?” That’s the exact sort of question that catches my attention: I hang out with language all day, I fashion myself a poet, and I spent an entire blog post here exploring my fascination with the word “paratext.” So, when I had some downtime, I gave it read.

It’s a short piece, but it hits on some intriguing cultural differences between British and American readers. For instance, American judges cite dictionary definitions in their decisions orders of magnitude more often that their British counterparts. I’d always assumed, from reading Supreme Court jurisprudence, that referencing nineteenth-century dictionaries was just part of the judge’s job description.

But the difference that I found most illuminating was in how dictionaries market themselves (and not just because it’s another example of paratext). To quote Murphy:

[A] look at the way dictionaries are marketed betrays their local histories, the local attitudes toward dictionaries, and assumptions about who is using them. One big general-purpose British dictionary’s cover tells us it is ‘The Language Lover’s Dictionary’. Another is ‘The unrivalled dictionary for word lovers’.

Now compare some hefty American dictionaries, whose covers advertise ‘expert guidance on correct usage’ and ‘The Clearest Advice on Avoiding Offensive Language; The Best Guidance on Grammar and Usage’. One has a badge telling us it is ‘The Official Dictionary of the ASSOCIATED PRESS’. Not one of the British dictionaries comes close to such claims of authority…None of the American dictionary marketers talk about loving words.

I think I’ve been subconsciously aware of these divergent tendencies in British and American dictionaries for some time now. If I wanted to know about a word’s etymology, or to look up the myriad meanings of a word in Middle English, I knew that I needed to consult the Oxford English Dictionary to do so; Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary was going to be of little help. And I’ve been in that position fairly often, needing to research the intricacies of a word’s history. In undergrad, for example, I was inspired to write an essay based on playwright Thomas Middleton’s use of “blame” as an adjective, roughly meaning “blameworthy.” The OED would see that usage as a interesting feature of 17th-century English; Merriam-Webster’s would suggest it’s merely wrong by not even acknowledging it.

On the other hand, I understand there’s a need for clear standards for a language in certain contexts, where confusion and ambiguity can have negative consequences. I work tangential to the medical industry, where unclear communications between drug manufacturers and doctors, or doctors and patients, may seriously harm or kill someone. Having an agreed-upon standard, even an arbitrary one, helps reduce that risk. In that case, the curiosities and trivia in the OED are at best distractions; give me the dry definitions and spellings of Merriam-Webster’s.

Even if I sort of knew about it already, it was still enlightening to see that division between American and British dictionaries laid out like that. And I was happy to come across a piece written by Lynne Murphy, who is the author behind the blog Separated by a Common Language, which is dedicated to exploring differences between American and British English. But I best remembered her for the time she was on the YouTube channel Numberphile, talking about how Americans and Brits abbreviate “mathematics”:

Most of the video is dedicated to debunking arguments for why “math” or “maths” is the correct or more logical abbreviation for “mathematics,” but the part of the video that interests me most is the brief history of how those abbreviations came to be. Namely, both the American and British abbreviations derive from print sources, and only later entered the spoken language. Prior to those written abbreviations, there’s little evidence that people abbreviated the word “mathematics” at all.

That brief bit of context is a demonstration of how language can evolve from the most mundane sources. I’m reminded of a line from Marianne Moore’s “Poetry”: “nor is it valid / to discriminate against ‘business documents and // school books’; all these phenomena are important” (lines 17-19). It’s the sort of history that one would completely miss if all one cared about was utilitarian usage. So if British dictionary marketers are representative of the country, count me an Anglophile in that regard.

But what do you think? Do you consult dictionaries for linguistic trivia or practical guidance? Are there any words or etymologies you find especially interesting? Let me know in the comments! And as always, thanks for reading.

On Paratext: An Essay Near Knowing

Note: This post is an imitation of the style of essay found in Brian Blanchfield’s book Proxies: Essays Near Knowing (Nightboat, 2016).

On Paratext

Permitting Shame, Error and Guilt, Myself the Single Source

The first context in which I heard the word “paratext” spoken aloud was, of all things, a speedrun. For his contribution to Summer Games Done Quick 2018, FoldableHuman (a.k.a. Dan Olson) played through the notoriously bad survival-horror game Amy. Whereas most speedrunners, based on the limited sample of such runs I’ve watched, focus their commentary on the mechanical aspects of playing the game quickly, FoldableHuman made his run a presentation on the narrative and thematic aspects of the work. Notably, during a tedious-to-play-through segment of Chapter 3, he took the time to discuss how the game’s title character, a young girl who the player-character must shepherd through a sudden zombie apocalypse, is coded as being on the autism spectrum. Amy’s autism is not explicitly mentioned in the game itself, though her in-game behavior may suggest it. Rather, one finds evidence in the game’s paratext.

Paratext—that which is around the text, above and beyond it—refers to the collection of ancillary texts which frames the main text, which attracts and transitions the audience into it. Sometimes the paratext is attached to the text itself, as in the title of a poem, or a video game’s packaging. Other times it’s disconnected, obscure, even private: an advertisement, say, or the artist’s personal correspondence. In the case of the Amy speedrun, FoldableHuman cites the existence of marketing materials and interviews with the developers as evidence that the title character should be understood as being on the autism spectrum. As such, it is fair to criticize the game for how it depicts people in that community—its paratext invites that discussion.

Since watching that speedrun, the word “paratext” has been on my tongue a great deal. There are two reasons for this, I suspect. The first is that I find “paratext” to be a fun word, a word which at the same time evokes the fantastical and the mundane. On the one hand, it calls to mind such words as “paranormal” and “parapsychology,” terms which suggests worlds and ways of knowing beyond everyday experience. After all, one must often dig beyond the naked text to find the paratext. On the other hand, paratext has a certain “parenthetical” quality to it. A phrase enclosed by parentheses is implied to be digressive, expendable, interesting as trivia but not essential to the main argument. The oddity (the paradox?) of parentheses is that, by their visual appearance, they call attention to what they’re supposed to close off. We are told not to judge a book by its cover, but if covers were pointless would publishers bother including them?

The second is that I want to write an imitation of the style of essay found in Brian Blanchfield’s Proxies: Essays Near Knowing. Among the devices which Blanchfield uses frequently, especially at the beginning of essays, is meditating on a word, discussing its etymology and drawing out its implications. I feel that to write a successful Blanchfield imitation, I need a suitable word, and “paratext” is the best that I’ve come up with. It’s semi-obscure, and even better, I think that acknowledging paratext would have some thematic resonance with Blanchfield’s book.

To start with the title, that omnipresent example of paratext, the book is called Proxies and subtitled Essays Near Knowing, both of which suggest something that can only be approached indirectly, or partially. “This book will be exploratory,” the title tells us, and we may see the paratext surrounding it as a guidebook, a map, for that exploration. Moving to the book as a physical object, we find a rather minimalist display: the title and the author’s name in white text, printed on a black field. No cover image, no exciting typeface—this is a book where language, and by that I mean pure language, has primacy over the visual, or the visual rendered through text. (I’ve been tempted to include some visuals in this blog post—a picture of the book, an embed of the archived Amy speedrun—but to do so, I believe, would violate the spirit of Blanchfield’s work.)

Turning Proxies over to the back cover, we find the kind of paratext I most associate with poetry collections and literary prose: the blurb. Blurbs from critics or established writers are a standard part of book marketing, but my preferred genres raise the blurb to a vacuous artform. The literary blurb attempts to canonize a given book through sheer grandiosity, as though every collection were the First Folio and every friend and former teacher tasked with writing one, Ben Jonson. My senior year of undergrad, I complained to my thesis advisor about the blurb-industrial complex, and as a result he lent me a copy of Nick Demske’s self-titled collection of quasi-sonnets, whose sole blurb is a generic commendatory letter from Paul Ryan, Desmke’s representative in Congress, on winning a poetry prize. I have to assume Ryan never read the book, though most blurbs are so generic, who’s to say that’s not the case from writers as well?

Personally, I’ve stopped reading the content of blurbs. I merely skip to the attribution line now, and use my knowledge of the blurb-writers’ own works as a proxy for what the text in question will be like. If Brenda Shaughnessy likes a book, my thought process goes, I might enjoy the book; if Graham Foust likes it, I should stay away. In the case of Proxies, Blanchfield received a blurb from Claudia Rankine, the poet behind Citizen: An American Lyric, which I first read for an informal book club while at Johns Hopkins; Maggie Nelson, whom I have heard of but have never read; and two others whose names were wholly foreign to me. Not the ideal line-up of writers for me to make a judgment, but Rankine’s name may have sold me on Proxies had I come to the text naively. Whereas the cover design draws my attention to the book’s language, Rankine’s endorsement primes me for a book of social engagement, one which will be sympathetic to or in the voice of marginalized groups.

Further down the back cover, one finds the name of the publisher: Nightboat Books. For a giant publishing house, the presence of the name means very little to the reader; it’s hard to say what exactly the HarperCollins brand means. For small presses, though, there’s more often a distinct house “style.” In the case of Nightboat, the name signifies a level of formal inventiveness and academic density. I’ve had a mixed history with Nightboat’s catalog. On the one hand, I greatly admired Jill Magi’s Labor, which combined poetry with prose narratives and instruction manuals to comment on the contemporary state of the academic worker. It was a book I pulled at random from the Hopkins library stacks, and I’ve considered finding it to be among my happiest accidents. On the other hand, I found Bhanu Kapil’s Ban en Banlieue to be needlessly opaque, a work whose whole text reads more like paratext. I read it for the same book club for which I read Citizen, and I contributed nothing to that particular discussion. I’m certain that had I done so, it would have come out as little more than frustrated rage.

At certain moments, in hindsight, I suspect my hostile reaction to Kapil’s work was grounded less in aesthetics than in my own insecurities. I was the youngest member of our cohort at Johns Hopkins, the one person who came straight from undergrad, and I feared at the book club that I was also the person least versed in contemporary developments in poetics. While I had read some late 20th- and 21st-century poetry in writing workshops, almost all the poetry I had studied in a critical context was early modern: Chaucer, the Renaissance dramatists. Kapil’s book demanded a fundamentally different background to understand it, perhaps, and it is so much easier for readers to blame the book than themselves.

Nightboat tends to publish authors who the Johns Hopkins English Department would invite to give poetry readings. I was a student in the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, whose taste in poetry is traditional, canonical, formalist. The English Department, on the other hand, prefers that which is contemporary, subversive, experimental. At least, so go the stereotypes. I’m told that there is a rivalry, if not outright hostility, between the two departments, although just about every interaction I had with the English department, faculty and students both, was at least cordial and oftentimes friendly. Indeed, I knew one of the English doctoral candidates from my time at Carnegie Mellon. (To a certain, the grad students in both departments had to get along, as we shared a common workspace.)

It was at one of the English Department poetry readings that I first became aware of Proxies. In effect, if not in fact, this was the primary paratext that brought me to Blanchfield’s work. It was a Friday in late October 2016, right after our readings class for the week had let out. (Indeed, my colleagues and I had to hustle downstairs and down the hall to make in on time, because our class ran long.) The room was pretty packed compared to the other readings in the series, and in my opinion the crowd’s presence was more than justified. Blanchfield’s presentation was engaging, but natural, never self-consciously performative. His choice of essay to read showcased the breadth of his powers as a writer, offering something to audience members of all aesthetic stripes. I dare say it was the best reading I saw while at Hopkins, certainly the best out of the English Department.

In one crucial sense, though, the reading was a disappointment. The event was advertised as being a poetry reading—even reading the text comes with paratext—but it seems the people in charge of booking writers for the series neglected to tell Blanchfield that. He did what writers are wont to do at such events: read from the book he was trying to promote. To the extent that was his goal, it worked. In the parlance of the book blogging world, Proxies immediately went onto my TBR afterwards. Had I been a fan of his verse, I may well have been put out by that turn of events. But then again, if what is delivered is engaging, who cares about the packaging? Paratext is merely suggestion, not a contract, right?

The place where the concept of “paratext,” as I’ve been discussing it, feels most relevant to Proxies is also the place where I’m least certain the term applies: the introduction laying out the project. The conceit, or less charitably the gimmick, of Blanchfield’s book is that all the information presented in each essay is based solely on his memory. He makes no use of search engines to find facts; he doesn’t return to books to verify how he paraphrases their points. (To paraphrase, that is, to speak around what has been said.) Instead, he includes a lengthy section at the back of the book called “Correction,” where he corrects whatever mistakes he subsequently finds in the essays, for instance, how he attributes Plato’s mistrust of poets to Aristotle.

Is that introduction paratext? I’m not certain. An introduction does constitute part of a book’s front matter, alongside (para-) such elements as dedications, epigraphs, and the table of contents: all clear instances of paratext. But that page-and-a-half of preamble is so integral to understanding the essays as a collection that deeming it above, beyond or around the main text doesn’t capture its significance. Or is the correction section the truly integral part of the text, and the introduction merely the explanatory link between the essays and the corrections? I’m alas a poet, and one not especially fluent in literary theory. I’m not qualified to discuss these topics. I have just used the format of Blanchfield’s essays to give myself permission to do so.

In fairness, I’d argue that’s also what Blanchfield’s essays do for the author himself. From their titles, their paratext, one might assume his essays are technical and detached. They have names like “On Propositionizing,” “On Abstraction,” “On the Leave.” And, true, many start out that way. But those high-minded concepts are really entry points, permission, to discuss more intimate matters. “On Frottage,” the piece he read at Johns Hopkins, begins with an exploration of queer sexual terminology before transitioning to his life as a gay man in 1990s New York, during the height of the AIDS epidemic. “On Peripersonal Space,” my pick for the collection’s best essay, uses the title concept as a metaphor for Blanchfield’s formerly tight, now strained relationship with his mother.

I’ve done nothing quite so bold or naked here, though I believe thinking through this piece has allowed me to reflect on my time at Johns Hopkins. I find myself at a transitional point in my professional life, and I’m still unsure of how to process everything that has happened in the past few years. (Certainly “On Dossiers” has scared me off of pursuing academia, at least in the near term.) Perhaps I have latched onto paratext over text because it represents the point before commitment, the last experience before actual experience. It is the perfect element for someone who is only “near knowing” at time of composition.

Correction.

In FoldableHuman’s Amy commentary, he does not use the exact word “paratext,” but rather its adjectival form: “There is no direct reference to autism in the game, but there are paratextual references to it. It was used in interviews, in promotional materials for the game. The developers did highlight this aspect of it.”

In addition to the title, subtitle, and author’s name, the front cover of Proxies also includes, in small print and curly brackets, the phrase “a reckoning.” Neither the other paratextual elements nor Nightboat’s website indicate that this phrase is an additional subtitle. Rather, it appears to serve a similar function as the phrase “Poems” or “A Novel”—identifying the genre of a work while suggesting it possesses an aura of literary quality, the sort of paratext that brings not the reader, but a particular kind of reader, to the text.

According to Goodreads, I first placed Proxies on my to-read shelf on October 7, 2016, which would hardly qualify as “late” in the month.

Four Fragments on Nothing

Let me take you back, briefly, to late 2010.

My 12th-grade AP English teacher, Mr. LoGiudice, is out of school for reasons I can’t remember now, but he told us the day before he’d be absent. He’s left the substitute with a prompt that we’re to spend the entire period writing about. We just finished the unit on Shakespeare, so I’m expecting something related to Bard.

The substitute grabs a piece of chalk and, with a slightly confused manner about her, writes the prompt on the board, which I quote now in full:

Nothing.

There’s some laughter around the room, with a bit of disbelief mixed in. Who can possibly take this prompt seriously? Who can write an essay, even an awful SAT-style essay, on “nothing”? So I’m not sure anyone does. Certainly I don’t.

By this point in my life I have fancied myself a poet, by which I mean I like writing ballad-esque song lyrics and have been reading The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Poetry. As such, I decide to write a poem on nothing, a poem that interrogates the very concept of nothing.

It is, in something approaching an irony, the longest poem I have ever written up to this point: two pages written out, split into four sections. (That’s not actually very long, but I tend to cap out around 20-30 lines.) I throw in every approach to nothing I can think of. Allusions to Seinfeld, that show about nothing. Quotes from King Lear, where we’re admonished: “Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again.” The brains of politicians, because nothing is easier than mocking politicians.

I turn it in. I feel good about it. I go on to include it in at least one of my college applications. And for the longest time, I think no more of it.

*     *     *

Now, the purpose of that prompt in the context of the class was to introduce the unit on existentialism and absurdism, on the search for meaning in a universe that has none. It was a way of transitioning us from Shakespeare to Sartre, from Edgar and Edmund to Vladimir and Estragon. We never, so far as I can recall, discussed what we wrote the day Mr. LoGiudice was absent.

Yet I feel that little poem I wrote must have had some impact on me, because “nothing” keeps popping up in my work. “Nothing” grows in the fields. Magicians hide “nothing” up their sleeves. I speak of “a thunderclap / that releases nothing.” There is “nothing” to be concerned about.

One construction, in particular, I’ve discovered I’m fond of: “nothing but.” It’s a curious phrase, highlighting the object being named by denying the reality of all other objects. It’s so brazen an approach that it always carries an air of absurdity. It also lends itself to undermining itself. One of my published poems, “Rural Sound Check,” begins like this:

Nothing but pebbles sliding
under my sneakers, nothing
but groundhogs and garter snakes
darting through leaves on the roadside…

These two phrases cannot be true simultaneously; each denies the other. The implication must be that what the speaker initially believes to be nothing is, in fact, something, many things even.

Compare that to John Brehm’s poem “Sound Check, Rural Manhattan,” which directly inspired mine. His begins not with a “Nothing but…,” but a “Just…”: “Just a jumble of songs and jackhammers and / roaring garbage trucks…” Brehm’s speaker does not necessarily deny the existence of other sounds, merely their apparent significance. It is, perhaps, a more honest and nuanced way to approach his subject than I take. After all, when you begin as nihilist, there’s only one direction to go.

*     *     *

In The Wilds of Poetry: Adventures of Mind and Landscape, David Hinton describes the poetry of Gustaf Sobin like so:

A Sobin poem opens a “talk of mysteries,” a force field of wonder and query and unknowing. It begins somewhere already in process (often marked by ellipses), as if its beginnings were lost, thereby suffusing itself in silent/unsayable origin. It is often fragmentary, or otherwise fully of empty interstice. The language is always provisional, decontextualized, conditional, incomplete, full of words like as if, might, would, could. It revels in a vocabulary of vanishing: vestige, relic, obfuscated, elision, obliterated, nothing, extinguished, dismantled, empty, dissolving, invisible, illegible, abolished, nothing. (p. 290)

I’m not sure why Hinton feels the need to list the word “nothing” twice, but it illustrates the difficulty in writing about that which is mysterious or absent: we lack a good vocabulary for it. We end up speaking in negations (nothing, invisible, illegible) or in terms of destruction (dismantledabolished), rather than the continuous, affirmative presence that we might mean.

Granted, a creative poet can find ways around this problem of language. Sobin, for example, uses the power of the line-break to separate the prefix from the base word, allowing the word and its negation to exist simultaneously. One can see this in the poem “Languedoc,” with the phrase “that thin / il- / legible tremor” (lines 19-21). The tremor’s illegibility is made its most legible trait, rather than a problem we have in perceiving it.

But more often than not, in attempting to describe that which we call nothing, we’re left with abstraction, reiteration, and frustration. We may, after a time, feel like Prufrock: “That is not what I meant at all; / That is not it, at all.” Or, again, like Prufrock: “That is not it at all; / That is not what I meant, at all.”

*     *     *

I must confront the possibility that this post is a way of intellectualizing a personal fear of mine: have I nothing to say? Are my poems merely an excuse to string sounds and images together, with no recognizable end? Or do I have a subject, but lack the language to even think it, let alone record it?

A word I now realize is missing from Hinton’s analysis of Sobin: “doubt.” Why speak in a manner “provisional, decontextualized, conditional, incomplete,” why lead a poem with an “as if” or a “just,” why dismissively call these reflections “fragments,” why speak of “nothing” in the first place—if there is nothing to doubt?

Gould on Abandoning Offensive Terminology

At the moment I’m reading through Stephen Jay Gould’s second anthology of natural history essays, The Panda’s Thumb (W. W. Norton & Co., 1980). As with Gould’s first such collection, Ever Since Darwin (W. W. Norton & Co., 1977), the essays in The Panda’s Thumb not only describe evolutionary theory and paleontology in ways accessible to laymen, but also delve into the historical context of the discoveries that drive these fields.

When reading Gould, I always appreciate his willingness to go beyond the biographies of scientists and the oft-told anecdotes involving their work. Indeed, Gould takes a particular interest in the underlying cultural assumptions that inform the scientific process. The Panda’s Thumb contains a whole set of essays (subtitled “Science and Politics of Human Differences”) which concern the ways in which scientists have historically used the trappings of their discipline to reinforce the racial and gender-based prejudices of their cultures.

I’d like to discuss one these essays briefly: “Dr. Down’s Syndrome” (pp. 160-168 in The Panda’s Thumb). Although the first few paragraphs describe the process which leads to trisomy 21, better known as Down syndrome, and the effects of the condition, Gould devotes most of his energies to discussing the names given the condition. “We have all seen children with Down’s syndrome,” he writes, “and I feel certain that I have not been alone in wondering why the condition was ever designated Mongolian idiocy” (p. 161, emphasis original).

Continue reading “Gould on Abandoning Offensive Terminology”