My Personal Set of Mistakes

If you’ve ever watched the extras on the DVD of The Aristocrats (and you really, really should), you’ll have seen Kevin Pollack’s bit where, as well as doing the world-class Christopher Walken impersonation that made it into the final cut, he does another take in the style of Albert Brooks, and afterwards talks about how he’s funnier when he’s being Brooks than he is when he’s being himself. I get that a bit when I read or hear work by someone who’s faster or smarter than me – for a little while afterwards it feels like my brain’s taken on their style and I end up somehow being quicker or cleverer than I actually am, if that makes sense.

…I’d physically shrink to the size of a child’s fist.

The other day I listened to this Caitlin Moran interview, and hearing her talk a mile a minute to Tim Minchin I could actually feel my thinking accelerate. Briefly, I imagined what would happen if she and I ever conversed and we got into some sort of a feedback loop where I talk faster and she talks faster and I talk faster and eventually the conversation just becomes a high-pitched keening that future generations have to play back slowed down to make sense of. Light bends around us and existence flickers and reconfigures itself as our dialogue generates a sort of vocal Large Hadron Collider that causes the spontaneous creation of world-ending miniature black holes, rendering everything and everyone you’ve ever loved to drifting, lonely atoms. “The Aristocrats!”

(As appealing a fantasy as that is, in actuality my personality tends to expand or contract to fill the gaps left by those around me. I have been in social groups where I was the outgoing one, but by and large I’m surrounded by people with bigger presences than mine, to whom I have taken pride in playing the time-honoured role of Straight Man. Paired with Caitlin Moran, I’d physically shrink to the size of a child’s fist.)

I’ve been thinking about what influences me, especially when I write. I’m quite sure I could harness my tendency towards mimicry by deliberately reading or listening to someone I like then immediately setting to writing once my head’s fizzing with their style, but that feels somehow like forgery. Better to just present an amoebic conglomeration of all of my influences in more-or-less reverse chronological order, which I gather is how everyone else does it – after all, “the secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources,” which is a quote I just made up now myself.

Someone – I think it was comic book creator Erik Larsen, but I could be wrong – said that style is just your own personal set of mistakes; the specific ways in which you fail to be perfect. I try to keep my pattern of stylistic theft unique to me, although sometimes one influence will bubble more closely to the top than the others – every now and then on this blog I’ve written something and thought “OK, that’s Charlie Brooker – I am 100% aping Charlie Brooker right there”*. Then there’s Garth Ennis (mostly when I’m swearing, although I spent a fair bit of the late 90s unconsciously writing in a dodgy Irish accent) and of course Warren Ellis. Occasionally I’ll affect his “horrible bastard” voice, which I do kind of half-heartedly since I’m not anything like a horrible bastard, so I can’t really pull it off. I can’t really deliver Caitlin Moran’s manic positivity either, but experiencing it always puts me in the mood to be creative.

If I had to point to a single piece of writing that influenced me more than any other, though, it’d be this: When I was a kid – probably not much more than 10 – I read a Marvel comic that had a “fill-in-the-blanks” style interview with one of the writers or artists at the back. I forget who was replying; all I remember is their answers. Basically they were just a complete smartarse, giving answers that technically fit the question but had nothing to do with its intent – “Q: The last movie I saw was… A: 90 minutes long. Q: The last book I read was… A: $8.50.” and so on. Thinking back on it now, it comes off as annoying and self-indulgent, but at the time it completely opened my eyes to how humour and language can work. So much of what I write today comes down to “what’s the obvious thing to write at this moment; what’s the usual way of putting this? OK, now do something else, just to fuck with it.” Thank you, anonymous Marvel staffer – your name may have been lost to the mists of time, but your spirit lives on in the blog of some guy somewhere.

I can’t really put a finger on my cinematic influences – when it comes to movies I just regurgitate the various tropes that a lifetime of couch-potatoing has infused me with. That’s not entirely true – Purple was specifically based on Look Around You and the Friendface ad from The IT Crowd, and I’d have much less success making ten second films if I hadn’t watched everything 5secondfilms.com has done – but mostly it’s just “I know what movies are like, so… do that.”

I don’t have that approach to writing – I try to be more of a “craftsman”/”wanker” and actually think about which word to use when and why. Weird, then, that at the age of 37, I still have no idea how to write a decent ending to a blog post. Look at this concluding paragraph for instance – it just kind of trails off and gom flimp mfffggghhh.

*In fairness to myself, Charlie Brooker has been on an influence on me from before I can remember. It wasn’t until recently that I read his Wikipedia entry and realised that he’d had a hand in just about every bit of media I’d enjoyed since childhood, starting with Oink! in the 1980s.

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Redefining Jeremy Irons

I’d heard that Jeremy Irons had said something dickish about gay marriage, but didn’t take much notice – paying attention to every dickish thing said by every celebrity would be a full time job. I am given to understand, however, that part of his “argument” was the old “but we’re changing the meaning of the word!” canard*. Now you’re talking language, which, we’ve established, is something I do pay attention to.

Assuming we are redefining marriage, who fucking cares?

I should start by saying that of course gay marriage should be legal and if you think otherwise you’re just not paying attention. Moving on, these kinds of linguistic arguments against changing marriage laws usually have two simple replies.

The first reply is that we’re not necessarily “redefining marriage” – whether or not marriage is being redefined depends on what its current definition is. If, for example, you define marriage as “two people who love each other formally entering into a lasting, legally-recognised relationship” then nothing is redefined at all. It’s only if you start with the definition “marriage consists of a penis and a vagina entering into a lasting, legally-recognised relationship” that redefinition is required**. And there’s nothing to indicate that that definition is, or ever has been, universally held – these arguments are circular, or at least solipsistic.

The second reply is: Assuming we are redefining marriage, who fucking cares? Words mean what we tell them to mean. I’ll say it again: Words aren’t discovered after years of experimentation, not discerned a priori by logicians, and not mined from the earth by linguistic engineers. We just make them up.

The same, incidentally, applies to the concept of marriage; marriage was not discovered after years of experimentation, not discerned a priori by logicians, and not mined from the earth by matrimonial engineers. We just made it up. Someone should tell this learned gentleman, who recently opined:

Marriage has a true essence, a fundamental core; it is a real phenomenon, not just a human invention or convention.

Oh, wait – someone did tell him; it was the guy who said this:

Who says these attributes – sexual complementarity, reproductive capacity – are “essential”?

Who says this is the standard?

We did. We decided that marriage involves the comprehensive sexual union of a man and a woman.

If you didn’t bother reading the link, I’ll spoil it for you – both quotes are from the same guy. In the same column. I’d laugh, but this man’s a law professor, who presumably teaches people to argue for a living.

When criticised, Mr. Irons said that his arguments were “mischievous… but nonetheless valid.” In a truly world class show of irony, he seems to be redefining the word “valid”. Still, best to be charitable to the good Mr. Irons: maybe he’s not a poorly argued quasi-bigot – maybe he was just having flashbacks to whatever they pumped him full of while he was filming Dungeons & Dragons.

Damn. I mean… just… damn.

*He also worries that legalising gay marriage would lead to the possibility of fathers marrying their sons. You know, just like straight marriage currently allows fathers to marry their daughters.

**There will now be a five minute break as I snigger over including the words “penis”, “vagina” and “entering” in the same sentence. … And we’re back.

There’s a Potty in My Mouth and Everyone’s Invited

While I enjoy a good snigger at a suggestive euphemism, most of the time I prefer my entendres single. Swearing, let’s face it, is awesome. If swear words were cakes, I would eat all the cakes and then say “yum – those were really good cakes. Fucknozzle.” Obviously, you need to take a bit of care with your profanity – there’s no art to just chucking in potty talk as punctuation. A well-placed, well-crafted bit of swearing can lift a simple sentence into a work of poetry.

Fucknozzle.

Since I’m feeling lazy (and since I’ve established precedent with the “my favourite jokes” post), the remainder of this post will be a small sampling of sublime swearing. (Obviously NSFW, unless you’re listening on headphones.)

This is still my favourite 5 Second Film, purely because of the delivery of the last line. (Spoiler: it involves “fuck”.)

Sometimes, you just have to swear. You just have to. There’s no way the punchline at 1:10 would have worked with any other word, and that’s a good thing.

(It’s worth watching the the whole sequence, if not the whole episode. One of the things I love about Snuff Box is its resistance to repeatable catchphrases – I think the only recurring lines of memetic value in the whole series are “whiskey!” and “fuck you.”)

It doesn’t have to be pure vulgarity, though – there’s a lot to be said for creative profanity, as in this example. When a room full of sitcom writers are given the chance to cut loose, it’s a wonder to behold.

And finally, the most pure, the most joyous example of swearing that I know. When Malcolm Tucker chooses to wax Chaucerian, no-one else can come close – the man’s a force of nature.

Divine.

Yeh Dirty, Dirty, Dirty…

The boy likes pink. Also, red, blue and green, but not black or yellow – he’s quite definite about this*. When we bought him his first pair of gumboots, he chose pink ones, and fair enough. His mother was subsequently a little surprised when, on telling people this, some of them asked “ooh – is his Dad OK with that?” Because, you know, if a boy likes anything pink he might turn into a Gay or a Tranny or a werewolf or something, and a proper, red-blooded father should be constantly vigilant for signs of sexual non-conformity or lycanthropy in his issue.

I end up being unable to discuss my son’s drapery without thinking of vaginas

More recently we got new curtains for his bedroom; again he went for pink and I have to admit that this time I’m uncomfortable with his choice. Not, obviously, because it contravenes arbitrary gender stereotypes, but because I can’t use the phrase “pretty pink curtains” without sniggering, and eventually he’s going to ask why.

It’s a fact about the evolution of language that if a word acquires a meaning that is rude or controversial, that meaning eventually comes to trump any other meanings it might have. We’ve seen it happen with “gay”, but before that there were others like “prophylactic” (formerly a generic term for any preventative), “girth” (which, as The Mary Whitehouse Experience Encyclopedia put it, might as well be defined “distance across (your knob)”) or “ejaculate”, which was once used to denote any explosive issue, physical or verbal:

ejaculate_caption

Eventually, what was originally a euphemism is no longer euphemistic, since it’s associated only with the dodgy topic it was formerly obliquely referencing.** As time goes by, more and more words and phrases become euphemisms (largely in response to the loss of the old euphemisms – there’s a vicious cycle operating here), and I end up being unable to discuss my son’s drapery without thinking of vaginas.

It’s only going to get worse – this was made clear at a family gathering the other weekend, where a bunch of toys and children’s books had been laid out for the kiddies. Among them was this book, which, if you’re around my age, you almost certainly read as a child. (As I recall, it was the one they gave away for nothing to get you to buy the rest of the series, so every family owned a copy of that one and none of the others…)

believeinyourself-231x300

It’s a heart-warming tale of perseverance, as we watch a determined cartoon Louis Pasteur coming up with a vaccine for rabies and curing a stricken German youngster***. Pitched to children, it dumbs down the science, so that the vaccine is portrayed as being made of magical army men who battle the nasty rabies bugs – all well and good until you get to the part where Pasteur is talking to young Joey about his upcoming treatment:

Joey had been put into bed. When he heard Louis Pasteur say this, he rose up a little. “Dr Pasteur”, he said, “do you mean your Magical Soldiers will be inside of me?”

“Yes”, said Louis Pasteur.

Joey looked puzzled. “But how will they get there?”

“Very easily”, said Louis Pasteur. “My Magical Soldiers can march through long needles and into little boys.”

Fortunately, the boy is still too young to have picked up on my suppressed giggling and the eyebrow-waggling looks I was giving my wife while reading this to him. Now, maybe I’m just using my dated knowledge of Linguistics to justify having a dirty and puerile mind, but

Actually, I don’t have an alternative. As you were.

*Since I started writing this he’s changed his mind on black and yellow. He is three.

**Things can get awkward when the rude meaning is still a bit obscure – the other day I was talking with a jazz-enthusiast workmate about how much he “loves good scat”. My face couldn’t have been straighter if I’d ironed it.

***If there were any poetry in the world, the story would have ended with “… and that little boy’s name was… Adolph Hitler.” Sadly, no.

Apostrophe’s

Apparently today is National Grammar Day in the US, so it seems like a good time to revisit my previous post on the arbitrariness of language. (Some days I think about starting a blog on language, but I’d have to come up with a clever name for it and the best one’s already taken.) In the same way that free speech means you can say whatever you want, and everyone else can call you a twat if what you said was twattish, you’re free to make any language choices you want, but that doesn’t mean they’re not stupid choices.

…a properly placed comma could have prevented Bill Cosby from coming out as a bukkake advocate.

Like I said before, there’s nothing wrong with observing rules in language – they give consistency and make communication easier – as long as you acknowledge that they’re conventions, not gospel. But you can still argue that some rules are better than others. For me, it comes down to the reasoning behind the rule – is it logical? Is it useful? Is it workable? Is it, for that matter, actually true?

For example, the rule that you should use “less” for mass nouns and “fewer” for count nouns (less sand, but fewer grains of sand) preserves a useful distinction, which is why I think it’s a good rule and one I stick to (although it appears to be on the way out, like the word “whom”). The comma of direct address (“How are you, Jim?”) is a good rule to follow, because it avoids misunderstandings – if Dexys Midnight Runners had bothered to title their biggest hit “Come on, Eileen” there wouldn’t have been nearly as much scope for mockery, and a properly placed comma could have prevented Bill Cosby from coming out as a bukkake advocate.

A lot of the “rules” of modern grammar, though, are a result of some arsehole 400 years ago deciding that English should be more like Latin. I know of no good reason why you shouldn’t split an infinitive or start a sentence with “hopefully” if that’s that way the language is flowing, so I don’t have any time for those rules. Schools in England stopped teaching the “I before E, except after C” rule after it turned out that there are more words that break the rule than follow it. On the other hand, some rules are more stylistic or aesthetic choices – I don’t dig on the Oxford comma, other people do and that’s peachy.

Still, some things are just plain wrong (or at least indefensible). The one that gets me – my biggest peeve – is the greengrocer’s apostrophe, when people shoehorn an unwilling apostrophe into a plural – cat’s instead of cats, etc. Not because it’s a bad rule, but because it doesn’t seem to be a rule at all – it’s never consistently applied. If the people who perpetrated greengrocer’s apostrophes were applying a rule that you pluralise words by adding ‘s, that’d at least be understandable (and no less silly than pluralising “virus” and “hippopotamus” as “virii” and “hippopotami”*). But they never do – look at this:

Greengrocers

Why “Singlet’s”, but not “T-Shirt’s” or “Boxer’s” or “Undergarment’s”? I swear, I’ve even seen people write “doctors and nurse’s”. If it was apparent that there was a definite rule that they were sticking to, even if it wasn’t standard, that’d be OK – it’s the fact that they seem to just fire apostrophes at the page like buckshot in the hope that one of them will end up in the right place that gets to me.

One of the main messages of language experts these days is “be right, but don’t be a dick about it” – Bill Walsh, a copy editor whose blog I’ve been reading for a long time, has a new book out called “Yes, I Could Care Less: How to Be a Language Snob Without Being a Jerk”. When I come up with a non-dickish equivalent of “Fucking… just… just don’t, OK? Just fucking don’t”, I’ll be sure to use it.

*Those are some good cases of people applying a rule that just isn’t true – I assume people think they’re following rules that existed in the languages that these words came from (usually Latin and/or Greek), but A) the rules were usually quite different from what they think and B) we’re speaking English for fuck’s sake. Don’t get me started “an historic”.

Language is Your Bitch

I’m a Technical Writer by trade and a Linguist by education, so I spend some amount of time reading up on what’s new (and what’s old) in the world of language, mostly blogs of editors and lexicologists. Most people who actually know what they’re talking about favour the view that, as many of the language “rules” people insist on are unsubstantiated bollocks, you should enforce whatever rules your organisation, readership or personal preferences dictate, but recognise that these rules, whatever they are, are arbitrary, and not to be treated as inviolable gospel. I agree – I’m all for adopting or rejecting any bits of language that suit you, professionally or personally.

Words aren’t… mined from the earth by linguistic engineers

For instance, it turns out the word “comptroller” is meant to be pronounced the same as “controller”. Weird. The only time I’ve actually heard it spoken was on an episode of The Simpsons, where Principal Skinner pronounced it as it’s spelled – I don’t know if that was a deliberate joke on Skinner’s ignorance or if the writers and voice actor were genuinely (and understandably) unaware of the counterintuitive “correct” pronunciation. I’ve seen it in writing a few times, though, and every time I do, I dutifully read it as “comp- no, CONtroller”. But recently I thought, why? It’s one of the many, many (many) patently retarded anomalies in the English language – it’s history involves confusion with a French word that means something similar – why indulge it?

A word that means “controller”, but is spelt differently from “controller”, BUT is still meant to be pronounced “controller”? That can fuck all the way off. And you know what? I can say that.

If, like me, you’re unable to scour Kirsty Alley’s late-90s comeback vehicle Veronica’s Closet from your cowed and whimpering memory, you may remember the episode where a character invents the verb “accribbitz”, because he’d run out of synonyms for “increase”. A running gag throughout the episode is the fastidious* character going increasing apoplectic every time he hears the word used, because “you can’t just make up words”. Only of course you can. In fact, you have to – that’s where words come from.

Language isn’t gravity; it’s not a law of physics. We just make it up. Words aren’t handed down from on high; they’re not discovered after years of experimentation, not discerned a priori by logicians, and not mined from the earth by linguistic engineers. We just make them up.

So if I want to choose to pronounce a word the way it’s spelled I can. If I wanted, I could choose to follow the popular aphorism and start using the word “opinion” to mean “arsehole” and vice versa – it’d be inconvenient, as people would keep misunderstanding me to begin with, but once I explained myself, everyone would be able to get on with their lives quite easily, and no-one would wonder why I keep telling them how Catholic priests need to stop having sex with small boys’ opinions.

*i.e. he’s probably gay! LOLZ! That should give you some idea of the level of comedic quality the show pitched for.