Standing Athwart Progress, Literally
Traditions change, yes, including words. Not always for the better.
Dear Reader (Especially the heroic Tulsi Gabbard campaign that refuses to buckle under the misogyny that forced Elizabeth Warren from the race),
I’m getting a very late start today on account of the badgers—if by “badgers” you mean a contractor and his crew who were supposed to be at my house this morning and then never showed. But admittedly, that would be a very weird use of the word “badger.” So let’s not dwell on that.
But since you brought it up, I do get frustrated with the misuse of words. This is one of these areas where I am guilty of cognitive dissonance, which is a more highfalutin way of saying I understand one thing to be true but I often feel otherwise.
I think the brilliant linguist John McWhorter is absolutely convincing when he argues that words are always changing their meaning. Well, the words aren’t doing the changing; they’re not sentient entities. Rather, the meaning of words is constantly changing to fit the needs of speakers and societies. It’s all very, very Hayekian—which in lowfalutin language means “Duh, that’s right.”
Consider the word “cheater.” Originally, a cheater was a royally appointed officer who monitored the monarch’s escheats. These were lands that would revert back to being the crown’s property when the owner died without heirs. The thing is, the cheaters were famous, uh, cheats. In 1662, the English writer and clergyman William Gurnall observed that a “Cheater may pick the purses of ignorant people, by shewing them something like the Kings Broad Seal, which was indeed his own forgery.” Cheaters became so well-known for swindling people out of their lands that the title cheater took on a different meaning. I love the irony that we get the term cheater from the fact that cheaters prospered—which, I’ve been told, they never do.
Hayek argued that traditions emerge in part as pragmatic solutions to problems. That doesn’t mean they were all rationally created for that purpose. Think of it in evolutionary terms: Darwin pointed out that tribes with a greater emphasis on altruism and cooperation would have better chances at survival—and hence passing on their genes—than tribes where all the members were devotees of Ayn Rand (I’m paraphrasing). The cooperative tribe works together and has strength in numbers when challenged by an external threat. For contrast, when the head of the Randian tribe says, “Everyone grab your spears!” the Randian tribesman cries out, “You’re not the boss of me!” and quickly gets wiped out, screaming “You have no right!” as a rock is smashed into his face. (The same fate would befall Rousseau’s noble savages as well—if they ever existed.)
It’s entirely possible that some sagacious shaman or chieftain of some prehistoric Hatfield clan said, “We’ve got to stick together or the McCoys will kill us and eat our livers.” But it’s more likely that the customs of community that made cooperation possible emerged more organically. Or think of kosher laws. Many Jews take great umbrage at the suggestion that kashrut is just a list of food safety best practices, and I think they have a good case. Still, that doesn’t mean that staying kosher wasn’t a comparatively good way to avoid getting sick in biblical times. In other words, the tradition may have non-pragmatic origins, but its pragmatic benefits gave it staying power.
Thinking of words as little mini-traditions might be a helpful way to think about how they work. Traditions change, and often vanish, when the circumstances that sustained them change. In Victorian England, gentleman suitors would leave a calling or visiting card to make an appointment to visit a young lady. The telephone did away with that, which is ironic because the most widespread literal use of the term “calling card” is to describe a kind of credit card used to make phone calls, though it seems like they’re on the way out too, because of cell phones. The most widespread figurative use of “calling card” is in criminal investigations. It’s an object or token used by serial killers to claim credit for the crime. For instance, when Ted Cruz was the Zodiac Killer, he often sent letters with symbols of the zodiac to the police.
My use of “figurative” and “literal” above brings me back to McWhorter, who may be the foremost defender of using “literally” figuratively. Saying “literally” is just another way to add emphasis to what you’re saying, McWhorter argues. We all understand that someone isn’t speaking from beyond the grave—or telling their vampire origin story—when they say “I literally died.”
I get it. But here’s my problem. We still need a word for “literally.” The only synonym for literally on this list that does the job of literally is “not figuratively.” But try using that in a normal sentence. “If we keep spending money this way, we’ll not figuratively go broke!” “The wolverine was so annoyed that it not figuratively ate the man’s penis!”
There’s something missing here, and I don’t mean the wolverine-teaser’s Captain Standish.
It’s not like we really need to hold onto the original meaning of the word “cheater” or even “decimate” (to kill one-tenth of a group), but we literally need the word literally. Indeed, we literally need more words that mean literally, not fewer—another word that’s disappearing on us thanks to the idiot cult of “less.”
My problem with McWhorter’s argument is that when it comes to language, we must accept whatever gets washed onto the shores of our vocabulary by the linguistic tide. Is it so terrible for some of us to stand in the way “progress”? I put progress in quotation marks because progress is a cheater word that steals moral authority it does not earn. Progress can mean improvement and it can also mean simply change. But not all change is improvement. It has an analogue in the word “reform.” Reform can mean to improve but it can also mean, literally, to reform, as in “change shape.” Not all reformations (please note the lowercase “r”) are improvements.
So I get McWhorter’s point, and in the long run I think his argument is pretty much always right. But we don’t live in the long run, we live in the here and now. And in the here and now we can resist changes that have more costs than benefits. Like “fetch” in Mean Girls, we don’t have to surrender to every linguistic innovation just because it’s how the cool kids are talking. Sometimes the cool kids are idiots, and the world would be better off if the grown-ups rejected their fads.
And so I figuratively stand my ground on the word “literally” meaning literally until such time as we have another word that can do its job.
Now, I stumbled into this topic solely because a couple hours ago I couldn’t figure out a way to start this “news”letter and wrote something dumb about badgers. As I got worked up, I intended to parlay all this stuff about words into a discussion about tradition and institutions. Traditions, institutions, and words are all things that evolve over time. So just as words are like traditions and institutions, traditions and institutions are like words (transitive property for the win!).
I think you can make a similar argument—indeed a more powerful and important argument—for defending traditions and institutions from those who would erase them, particularly if those people aren’t thinking about why they exist or expressing concern for what they actually do. But whenever I get on that subject I end up repeating myself about Chesterton’s fence. So instead, let me cover some of the ground I thought I was going to write about before the great badger seduction.
First, even if you think I’m wrong about the need to stick to the literal definition of “literally,” I’d still like to hear McWhorter’s take on Joe Biden’s use of the word. Because Biden has a long history of insisting he’s not speaking figuratively when he uses the word “literally.” From a piece I wrote a while back for National Review:
The word “literally” has taken a beating in the Age of Biden. He’s often proclaimed that Obama had the opportunity “literally to change the direction of the world” (which, if possible, might help fulfill that promise to lower sea levels). Biden announced that “Before we arrived in the West Wing, Mr. Boehner and his party ran the economy and the middle class literally into the ground.” His speeches are “literally” festooned with “literally”s, like hundreds of tethers to the hot-air balloon that is his head.
The standard joke is to quote the scene in The Princess Bride when Inigo Montoya tells Vizzini, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” The problem is that Biden insists that he does know what it means. One of his favorite ways to emphasize his seriousness is to say, “And I mean literally, not figuratively,” as if “literally” meant “I’m really serious” and “figuratively” connoted some effeminate lack of conviction. He says JFK’s “call to service literally, not figuratively, still resounds from generation to generation.” He told students in Africa, “You are the keystone to East Africa — literally, not figuratively, you are the keystone.” “The American people are looking for us as Democrats,” he has said. “They’re looking for someone literally, not figuratively, to restore America’s place in the world.” Speaking at a rally for Senator Patty Murray, he said, “I have now gone into 110 races around the country, and everywhere I go I see ordinary people who play by the rules, get everything right, paid their mortgage, showed up in their school helping their kids, made sure that they did everything they could to save to get their kid to college, took their mom and dad in when they needed help and hoped to save a little bit of money so they wouldn’t have to rely on their own kids when the time came.” Here’s the kicker: “And all of a sudden, all of a sudden — literally, not figuratively — they were decimated.” If they were literally decimated, Biden doesn’t just see ordinary people, he sees dead people. But only one for every nine among the living.
Everyone’s already beaten this exchange between the New York Times’s Mara Gay and MSNBC’s Brian Williams and to a fine pulpy residue.
But I think my friend Charles Cooke has the best read on it. An excerpt:
This, right here, is why so many left-leaning Americans think that “the billionaires” can pay for everything. It’s why Elizabeth Warren was enthusiastically boosted by the media despite her ridiculous pretense that she could pay for a series of gargantuan initiatives without raising taxes on anyone but the extremely rich. It’s why Democrat after Democrat promises not to raise “middle class taxes” while promising programs that require the raising of middle class taxes. How did this bad tweet make it onto TV to be endorsed? Why did Mara Gay agree with it? Why didn’t Brian Williams notice? Because the people involved in this clip thought it was true. This is how they see the world.
Bear in mind: Brian Williams had already seen this tweet and talked about how blown away by it he was. They had this graphic ready to roll. This means people in the control room saw it. At least one producer saw it. And everyone involved just simply accepted this math, even though it’s not math, it’s not even poetry, it’s catechism. For over a year now we’ve heard from Elizabeth Warren and others that a tiny tax on billionaire wealth could pay for everything on her wish-list. “Just a couple pennies” taxed from every dollar of wealth above $50 million would deliver us from inequality, poverty, crippling debt, and washing machines that steal our socks. As I keep shouting, you could confiscate all of the wealth of the top 1 percent and it wouldn’t come close to paying for what Warren, Sanders, et al are pushing for.
At least openly religious people admit they are making leaps of faith. The jihadist can’t prove he’ll get 72 virgins in paradise, he takes it on faith. What’s MSNBC’s or the New York Times’s excuse? This comes from the crowd whose members insist they are married to facts. There’s even an ad on MSNBC that plays constantly showing Chris Hayes boasting how his side has a superior relationship with facts.
Now look, I’ve made terrible misstatements and mistakes on the fly. But this isn’t that. This is a pristine example of motivated reasoning and group think barreling over facts in an effort to support an article of faith.
The same groupthink and motivated reasoning is on full display in the mourning and woe over Elizabeth Warren’s departure from the race. If you can stomach the most intense form of this full-on moral panic, check this out. (Warning: It was filed from the self-care spa in Crazytown.)
I am fully open to the argument that women face challenges in politics men do not. I think it’s sometimes indisputably the case. But it is amazing how misogyny explains Warren’s departure from the Democratic race (again, the Democratic race—suggesting that the Democratic Party is shot through with institutionalized sexism) but it doesn’t explain Amy Klobuchar’s, Kirsten Gillibrand’s, or Marianne Williamson’s. You did hear some complaints about sexism when Kamala Harris dropped out, but they were hard to hear over the cries of racism (even though there were still two black candidates, an Asian man, and a Samoan woman still in the race).
There is something about a certain slice of professional, over-educated, progressive women (and fellow-traveling men) who simply cannot get their heads around the fact that Elizabeth Warren isn’t as great as they think she is. Rather than accept that voters didn’t like her or her program for legitimate reasons, they have to construct some elaborate theory of bigotry and victimhood to explain it.
Rudy Gavora, RIP.
As I mentioned last week, we had some tragic news in my family. My brother-in-law Rudy died suddenly from a heart attack. I really don’t have it in me to write about it at any length, for reasons I really don’t want to dash off here. But his obituary will give you a sense of the man. Rudy was smart, crude (in a funny way), decent, hardworking and, like everybody in the Gavora clan, deeply committed to his family and his community. Like his incredibly impressive father, he was gruff on the outside, but all mensch beneath the surface.
Various & Sundry
Canine Update: Well, it’s been four days flying solo with the Goldberg menagerie. It’s amazing how quickly we resort to pack life. The steroid shot seems to be wearing off a bit, but Pippa’s limp is still better than it was before she went to the vet. We’re waiting on a custom brace—two actually, one for indoor wear and one for outdoor spanielness. Both Zoë and Pippa are infinitely more needy with the Fair Jessica out of the house. They follow me everywhere and their understanding of dinner time has become much more expansive. But they also seem to entertain each other more, too. Zoë and Gracie’s frenemy relationship is also getting more intense. Zoë will let Pippa wiggle into my lap, but feline colonization of my space is a great outrage to her. She doesn’t growl or bite Gracie, but she shnozzles her away whenever he can. Zoë won’t let her sleep with me either. Gracie gets her revenge by drinking from Zoë’s water bowl until Zoë can’t take it anymore and moves her along, at which point Pippa takes Zoë’s spot next to me. I think Pippa may be paying Gracie.
My big concern is that coyotes have been spotted in my neighborhood—and they were somewhat confrontational with a local dog walker (we think they might have been protecting a den). This one was spotted not far from my house.
I wouldn’t want Zoë to get in a fight with a coyote, but I’m less concerned because I think she could survive such an encounter. Heck, she looks enough like one they might ask her to join the pack. But Pippa is a lover, not a fighter. And our cats, particularly Ralph, like to explore around our yard. I know it’s easy to say, just don’t let Ralph out, but you don’t have to hear him yell “LET ME OUT” for several hours every night.
And now, the weird stuff
Photograph of Joe Biden by Scott Eisen/Getty Images.