Category Archives: Words

The Difference between Satire and Sarcasm

I stay away from commenting on political blogs because I have to watch my blood pressure. But reading a friend’s blog the other day, I saw a commenter heckling the writer with sarcasm. The writer maintained civility, but finally told the commenter how rude he was. At this point I entered the fray and tried to explain to the commenter that we do want to hear what you have to say, but can’t take sarcastic comments seriously. The commenter’s reply was this:

“Sarcasm is a great tool when debating politics. Where would we be without satirists in this country? Its use works quite well. While it may irritate some, its purpose is to illustrate the ridiculousness some adhere to without peering beyond their particular veiled perspective.”

The commenter probably thinks he really taught me a lesson. He did, but not the one he intended. I know from experience that when people are scornful and sarcastic, you must let them have the last word, so I did not point out that these two words are not interchangeable. If you battle a sarcastic commenter, it will never end.

There’s a reason great satirists of the world are beloved. Think Ambrose Bierce, Oscar Wilde, H.L. Mencken, Mark Twain, Dorothy Parker, Joseph Heller, Tom Lehrer, Woody Allen, Christopher Guest, Monty Python, The Onion. Satire is intended to educate, make a point, or show absurdity in a brilliant, witty, and humorous manner. Sarcasm is what gets you sent to your room, embroiled in a bar fight, or fired. Sarcasm is wounding and is a favorite tool of bullies. Satire and sarcasm are the difference between the Wall Street Journal and a tabloid, Masterpiece Theatre and Jersey Shore, leadership and tyranny.

It’s also the most overused and ineffective device used by Internet commenters who are full of their own perceived superiority. I can think of no worse way to get someone to see your point of view than sarcasm. It’s not funny, not clever, not gracious. It’s what ten-year-olds having a tantrum do, what married couples who hate each other do, or what the co-worker nobody in the office can stand does. No good can come of it because it’s intended to be humiliating rather than constructive. Here you are desperately trying to win people over, and all you’re doing is further alienating them.

I am open to discussing politics without fury, with a rational, intelligent communicator. Sarcastic comments put your immaturity on display for all the world to see. It’s right up there with showing the top of your G-string above your jeans or spitting a wad of phlegm in public.

The Week in My Infotoxic World 11-8-11

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The Information Abuse Superhighway

Are you as afraid to look at your homepage as I am? Is the entire planet contaminated by a rapidly spreading virus composed of computer-enhanced human ignorance? There’s a sense of malaise around the internet, with some bloggers questioning what we’re doing here. Part of the helplessness many of us feel is a side effect of the filter bubble, an algorithm-driven defilement used by major search engines to collect and control every one of our keystrokes. Google keeps harassing me to “customize” my news, so I can skip those offensive alternative viewpoints. Quite a change from the “fair and balanced news” MSM boasted just ten years ago.  Controlling our exposure to information serves to isolate both sides and is deadly to human development. It’s one of the worst things to come out of technology, period. A nanny Internet goes a step further than a nanny government, it paralyzes our minds. We don’t know where to turn for truth, for hope, or for compromise.

The infection is also spread by Smartphones and Twitter and laptops. I just read a reasonable post by a successful person on a subject that interested me—but his ever-constant Twitter feed displays a much less relatable, and less interesting, persona. Why do I need to see personal minute-by-minute updates when I came to read an essay? He was heading down to the Occupy protest in his city. I was going to comment. Discuss. Interact. Now, I’m not. I’m Occupied-out and not impressed.

Nowadays I read my home page for one reason: in the morning to find out if we’re going to make it through the day, and in the evening to see if we’ve made it through the day. How close to me are the quakes, floods, fires, bombs…how close are the US mobs defecating on American flags, how close to my home on the border is the latest drug-cartel slaughter. I’m afraid to even click on a link on my homepage, because it changes what I see on my homepage within minutes. It’s literally useless.

Many live in filter bubbles of their own making, it’s so very obvious and easy to see in a certain area of the town I live in. The personalized info-smog makes it a snap to remain unchallenged by creating a world of denial. I don’t want to choose sides and then have propaganda shoved down my throat. Fight the filter bubble by choosing what you read yourself. Don’t let search engines decide for you.

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I’m irritated with academic-types this week because they manage to plant  snide snippets of their political views into venues where they have no business doing so. In no way should any reference book reflect the personal, especially political, opinion of its contributors. It should not be tolerated but it is, it is. I have little recourse but to resort to negative fantasy…

The Professors

Two English professors were co-writing a scholarly paper regarding the etymologies of words describing difficult people. They passed the manuscript back and forth with notes attached through interoffice mail.

The professors began arguing over the word ‘stubborn,’ whose uncertain origins date back to the 14th century. The first professor called the second professor an ‘obstinate oaf’ to which the second retorted ‘recalcitrant rube.’ The notes began to get ugly. The second professor’s temper finally got the better of him. ‘I will not tolerate such pertinacious disrespect!’ he gasped as he marched into the first professor’s lovely walnut-paneled office and stabbed him through the heart with a medieval dagger.

Well, so much for the old saying ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’!

Surviving the Nonjudgmental

The word judgmental is the spiritually-correct label of shame. Apparently the reasoning is this: it’s not judgmental to say that a person who committed an act of cruelty did a bad thing, but it is judgmental to say that the person who committed the act is a bad person.

In a world of 7 billion people, many behaving badly, being judgmental is a survival skill as well as a cause of suffering within a social structure. But a truly nonjudgmental person would not support taking sides, so in our daily lives, being judgmental is unavoidable if we have values that guide us. A man who beats children or animals can’t be a good person in some unidentified way we just haven’t tried hard enough to find.

Wild Bill wrote last week of rescuing a dog whose owner had tied cinder blocks to it and dumped it in a lake. I am judgmental because I freely base a person’s (the abuser and all like them) entire worth on a single act, even though there are several million articles that say this is the wrong way to live.

Every day, judgments are made in millions of blogs, news articles, and comment sections. News articles are passively judgmental while commenters are viciously so. People who consider themselves nonjudgmental encourage public condemnation of Christians, atheists, conservatives, liberals, smokers, alcoholics, yuppies, welfare mothers, celebrities, adulterers, prostitutes, or anyone who does or doesn’t share our beliefs. We are judgmental out of jealousy, poverty, wealth, frustration, self-preservation, compassion—just about any emotion or life stage imaginable. It is not possible to ask humans to not be human, the lesson to be learned is in our reactions.

I am pleasant to everyone I meet but that doesn’t mean I want to fraternize, it means I want to live. I don’t publicly denigrate or feel superior, I judge. Every single one of us knows people we think are useless, mean, difficult, stupid, or annoying. If you’ve never had contact with someone and then said to yourself, “what an asshole,” then you can join the rest of the people on the head of the pin who are candidates for sainthood.

There are so many interpretations of this word that it’s become one more smarmy term whose reputation can’t be lived up to. I judge this word meaningless.

A Whole New Kind of Politically Incorrect

Sometimes I speak to men and women just as a little girl speaks to her doll. She knows of course that the doll doesn’t understand her but she creates for herself the joy of communication through a pleasant and conscious self-deception. Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)

In these times of poverty, foreclosures, fear, and anger, most people are somehow able to afford Smartphones and Kindles. I understand that Kindles come with a dictionary, with larger downloadable versions available should the default not be adequate. I envy those with Smartphones and the ability to quickly research any question on their mind no matter where they are. When I am reading a book I am never far from a dictionary, but what a joy it must be to have a Smartphone handy instead of a cumbersome tome.

Yet we are not smarter. Our vocabularies dwindle as abbreviated text and computer-driven writing advice increases. Error-ridden blogs, newspapers, and even books are now acceptable. I just read a post that began: So here’s some info about a blogging workshop I’ll be facicilitating next week. With a facicilitator like this, would you sign up?

We fear appearing intelligent. In a world of flamers, trolls, and Wall Street Occupiers, we don’t want to stand out. Eloquence has become politically incorrect. We’re afraid we’ll be seen as arrogant if we use any more than the several thousand words used by teenagers, if we publish works that we proofread first, or if we dare use a word that the least articulate reader may not know. We’re uneasy asking readers to learn something new. What a drag.

We need not pen periphrastic phrases or long-winded circumlocutions, recondite riddles or abstruse analogies, bombastic observations or cryptic correspondence. But I say, writers (and speakers): mutiny against the mundane. Not by making a spectacle of your composition with specious synonyms that have strayed from the concept you are trying to convey, but by choosing from the powerful array of options available to us all. Our language is the richest in the world. Lexicographers are reluctant to report a number, but with derivatives and inflections it is estimated to be around a million words.

We are free to describe our thoughts with unimaginable ardor, animation, and artistry. If readers are insulted by this, you have no need to apologize. Instead, instruct them how to use their Smartphones for something productive.

Smoke, Mirrors, and Grammar Software

Grammar software is like taking a photograph, clicking watercolor rendering in Adobe Photoshop, and calling it artwork. Never mind all those years of practice, study, endless sketching, classes, books, museums—and most of all the longing and passion to improve your art.

Grammar software will not make you a better writer because it doesn’t know how. It’s a robot. I recently tried to read a work of fiction by a self-published author but was so wearied I could not finish the book. No matter how intriguing the theme, four hundred pages of stilted excess that should have been two hundred pages will exhaust the reader. How many times does a writer have to say the same thing using slightly different wording in each sentence? And after the third or fourth “her and Steven hadn’t taken a movie in years…” I could take no more. It felt like homework.

How many times do you need to say “that”? I have changed names and words in the following example but have left the verbose structure. It is not my intent to single out any writer—lack of restraint is a common trend.

“He knew that the more hurtful that something was the more someone felt driven to act as though it wasn’t, but he had thought that Sarah might be different. He had always believed that his wife had arrived at some highly evolved approach to life which had made her immune to the usual humiliations of the world, but now he saw that the differences between them…”

How can software recognize bloat? Only the writer has the power to make his or her work interesting, and it’s done by editing.

I looked up a tutorial for a popular grammar software program called Whitesmoke. The video guides you through a sample text and explains why you really need these computer-generated revisions. Whitesmoke is a good name for this program, because that’s what it is—expensive smoke.

Useless grammar software example 1

The text in this tutorial reminds me of the poorly translated assembly instructions that come with your new TV cabinet made in China. The grammar software suggests inserting a comma after “air strip,” but completely misses much more obvious and urgent mistakes in the last sentence: “If you are not interest in flying, we’ll arrange for something else exciting for you.”

Useless grammar software example 2

Here the software is asking if the user wants to add the placenames to the spellcheck dictionary. Big woot. But look at the last sentence in the first paragraph, “This night is on your own in Marlborough.” The robot apparently has no way of knowing what a very bad sentence this is.

The second paragraph begins with “After breakfast, we’ll drive to Heathrow airport for those who need that.” Um, Mr. Robot, you don’t sense a problem here? First, Heathrow Airport should be capitalized, and second, “for those who need that” is just awful. Just about anything would be better. Whether you understand why isn’t as important as simply feeling it.

In the second paragraph, the robot suggests changing “Or we can take you to the train” to “Alternatively we can take you to the train.” Do writers think changing plain English to a longer word randomly selected from the robot’s thesaurus makes it better?

Algorithms cannot replace imagination, knowledge, experience, and intuition. Software will never be a substitute for learning how to construct a sentence.

I wonder what would happen if you ran Ernest Hemingway through grammar software. Would it “fix” it?

The Week in My World 9-23-11

The gnawing of homesickness abrades—not for my native home, but for someplace that feels like home. But whether inspiration to act is born of ecstasy or sorrow, the result is the same—you are moved to discover resourcefulness you didn’t know you had.

Finding Love in Arizona

The two dogs rescued from my neighbors have been adopted into wonderful homes. I continue to keep a close watch on the yard, which right now is blissfully empty. But there are thousands more animals hanging on to life in similar hells. All mammals have an instinctive will to live. I am researching how to approach schools to talk about how to care for animals. There are scripts to be learned and protocols to follow.

A Story to Share with My Victims

I promise never to use the word share unless it’s to share buried treasure, my bed with dogs and cats, or pizza with a friend. I promise to never share news, an absurd encounter, or personal confessions. Those, I’ll just flat out tell you. Leave the word share for something tangible, like your meal or your toys. You may not notice the almost imperceptible cringe of a polite person when you say you have a story to share, but it’s there.

The Trials of Tag Surfing

A good way to show disrespect to your readers is frequent use of the following phrases:

As I said  •  as I said before  •  like I said    as many of you know    as I mentioned before    I’m sorry I haven’t posted in a while    I haven’t posted in a while and for this I deeply apologize    now I know a lot of people will be surprised about this revelation  •  everyone who reads my blog knows how I feel about  •  if you know me then you know that when I  •  it’s a well-known fact that I do not like…

All these phrases do is highlight your ego.

Was it a Girl Shad or a Boy Shad?

Before personal computers existed, I ran a typesetting shop for 12 years. My job was not to edit, but to set the type for a variety of businesses—but naturally I corrected errors. One of my clients was the Griswold Inn, a historic restaurant and inn in Essex, Connecticut. The inn changed its menus frequently and was a steady customer.

The owner at the time was a wealthy businessman from New York who used pompous phrases such as “I’ll see you in a fortnight” or “ring me up” or “it’s frightfully good.” Brochures outlining the inn’s history were available in the lobby, typeset and printed long before I came on board. The owner wanted to make some revisions and asked me to re-typeset the brochure. As I was typing it and fixing the usual errors made by careless typesetters (and careless business owners who sign off on proofs before printing), I came across a howler I will never forget. The copy explained how the inn was situated at the mouth of the Connecticut River where it meets Long Island Sound, and it read:

In the spring, when the androgynous shad swim upstream to spawn…

There, in a haughty Connecticut town full of extravagant homes, luxury cars, sumptuous sailboats, and trust-fund kids, not one person had ever reported the fact that shad are anadromous. I fixed the ridiculous blunder and never said a word.

The Awkward Alsatian

Before restaurants started creating their own menus with computers, they were a primary source of work for typesetters. Owners were often difficult to work with, and would insist I set the copy exactly as they had written it. One testy man from Alsace, France, was not a native speaker. His menu read: I welcome you to sample the flavors of my region. This struck me as both distasteful and hilarious, but there it stood.

It’s Not About the Acting—Four Boxes Review

Movies are a form of therapy that help distract us from the constant assault of negativity in the world, and I love them for it.  A small luxury in life is Netflix, and my plan allows unlimited streaming. The selection of movies available for streaming is meager compared to regular-delivery DVDs, it’s only the gratification of an immediate need for escape that supports its appeal. I often scan the instant movie list looking for something that isn’t awful. Many of them are either Independent or “B” movies, but you can sometimes find a sparkler among them. I don’t read professional reviews because they often pan my favorite movies but praise convoluted hipster crap.  So it’s helpful to read customer reviews, but not for reasons you might think.

One common complaint by amateur reviewers is the quality of acting and/or graphics. You should hear them go on. Even low-budget movies I really loved such as Four Boxes continue to get terrible reviews full of much worse clichés than the movies they complain about. It’s as if the reviewers see this venue as a legitimate invitation to flame something that displeases them. Many of the reviewers are semi-literate and out of 78 reviews for Four Boxes, a few people loved it and nearly everyone else complained about the bad acting. The reviews basically read like these:

stupid, the acting is bad, and im glad they all die.

i got to say this was the worst movie ive got from u it absolutly sucked never quite got the plot and far as acting VERY POOR.

whoever wrote the dialog for this steaming pile of feces should do the world a favor and never write again. words cannot desrcibe how much I detested this aweful, aweful abomintion before god.

And here I thought the characters in this movie were acting like real-life 20-somethings. I had no idea that made them “bad actors.” I was finally compelled to join about three other people and write my own favorable review.

How do they know the acting was bad? Is it because they found the characters annoying? Then what difference would it make if they cast Shia or Leo or Keira? Why does the acting matter so much if a movie is original and intriguing? It’s all about the writing. I would watch a school play if the story was good and I could hear it. Half-billion-dollar budgets featuring gorgeous Hollywood clones are no guarantee of a good movie—just witness the heap of boring clunkers starring highly paid actors. My biggest complaint is the trend toward non-articulate speech, and that’s why subtitles are indispensable. In streaming, subtitles are rarely available, so if the music is overpowering, the actors mumble, or the script ridiculous, they lose me. Subtitles would have greatly enhanced Four Boxes, but despite the fact they weren’t available I was completely absorbed.

I don’t care how primitive the production or how unskilled the actors. Movies are all about the script, and that’s what smaller production companies should strive for.

Life’s Rich Knots

Your Friend’s Problems

A friend of mine allowed a 35-year-old man to park his RV on her property and hook up to her facilities in return for the completion of an agreed-upon punch list of work. The man had broken up with his wife and lost his job and blah blah boo hoo.

Six months later he has yet to fulfill his obligations and my friend claims she has asked him to leave. Since his truck is in a thousand pieces in her garage, I don’t see this happening without a sheriff.

I disliked him from the first day I met him. He’s a pathological know-it-all with the personality of a blister. He talks about himself obsessively, borrows my friend’s car, and walks into her house anytime he pleases. As he’s sucking up her electricity and hot water using her washer and dryer, he’s complaining about her cigarette smoke. I was curt with him until, in respect to my friend’s wishes, she asked for my cooperation.

A month ago he reconciled with his wife and moved her in without first asking permission. The wife does nothing but sleep and assist her husband in relating pathetic tales of woe. They are accomplished con artists.

I have since stopped speaking to him and his self-aggrandizing logorrhea is met only by my cold glare. My friend does not want to provoke them, so I must seethe quietly. At times I must get up and leave or I will explode in fury.

Our role in a friendship is often difficult to define. Is a friend’s job to empathize, yet remain a detached third party? Isn’t it natural to feel outrage when a friend reports exploitation or abuse? But at whom—the abuser or the victim? Maybe some people have a subconscious desire to be a doormat, or maybe I do not know how to be a friend.

Subscriber Button Drama

WordPress keeps trying to social-mediatize us. They took the Subscribe by email button off and replaced it with Follow at the top of the page. So many people complained that they returned the subscribe button, but with an obnoxious update—it announced to the world how many subscribers you have. Blogging is not Facebook. We are not here to play Farmville or Mafia Wars or endure the anxiety of publicly accumulating “followers.” Many blogs are specialized, personal outlets, and discussion is our goal. How many subscribers we have is nobody’s business but our own. I just now noticed that the number of subscribers information is gone, so thank you WordPress for listening to your flock.

A Little Antidote

I once worked for two Connecticut veterinarians. They were specialists in conditions other vets were stumped by, and charged usurious fees for consultations. One day as I was assisting one of the doctors in a poisoning case, he said to the client, “don’t worry, we’ll find the right anecdote.” I didn’t understand how relating a clever account of a humorous incident would help the dog one bit.

The Acceptance of Degrading Lyrics

Rap singers have the potential to change the world but many just sell out for the sake of sales. I love the song Yeah by Usher, who doesn’t? (Here’s the video: “Yeah” by Usher) It has a great beat. Usher is adorable and talented and his lyrics aren’t generally sexist or violent, but this song, which is about meeting girls in a club and leaving with them, has some cringeworthy bits. Another rap singer, Ludacris, sings the bridge, and every time I hear these lyrics I flinch. Yeah is considered a tame song and was (and still is) a huge success, selling a bajillion copies and remaining a radio staple. I have numbered the lines for easier translation.

Bridge to song Yeah by Usher and Ludacris:

1.  My outfit’s ridiculous, in the club lookin’ so conspicuous.
2.  And rowl! These women all on the prowl, if you hold the head steady I’m a milk the cow.
3.  Forget about the game, I’m a spit the truth, I won’t stop till I get ’em in they birthday suits.
4.  So gimmie the rhythm and it’ll be off with their clothes, then bend over to the front and touch your toes.
5.  I left the Jag and I took the Rolls, if they ain’t cuttin’ then I put ’em on foot patrol.
6.  How you like me now, when my pinky’s valued over three hundred thousand.
7.  Let’s drank you the one to please, Ludacris fill cups like double D’s.
8.  Me and Ush once more and we leave ’em dead, we want a lady in the street but a freak in the bed.

Translation:

1.  I’m dressed like a pimp and everyone is looking at me.

2.  Growl! The women in the club want to mate with a guy with lots of cash and I take advantage of this. If you hold the head steady I’m a milk the cow means that after the woman I have chosen for the night performs fellatio, she is to hold her head steady so I can ejaculate in either her face or mouth.

3.  I am not interested in talking. My only goal is to get them naked.

4.  She must take her clothes off and bend over.

5.  I own two luxury cars. If the woman does not comply with my sexual demands, she must get out and walk.

6.  You should be extremely impressed that the ring on my little finger is worth $300,000.

7.  I’m not sure exactly what this means, but obviously it has to do with enormous breasts, the number-one focus of millions of people both old and young.

8.  Usher and I only want women who are polite in public but wild in the bedroom (or vehicle).

Rap singers have enormous influence. By constantly inferring that women are nothing but whores and that flashy jewelry, cars, and double D size breasts hold the highest priority, they set the worst example possible for young listeners.

New Word Rants—Don’t Kill the Messenger

Oxford University Press periodically publishes new words, and they recently announced a small sampling from the list of 400 new words that appear in the now-available twelfth edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary. These words will not appear in print for a while in OUP’s flagship American dictionary, the New Oxford American Dictionary, as the 3rd edition was just released last fall (with the addition of about 2,000 new words and senses), but updates are available online. As I browse blogs, I encounter indignant rants from folks who just don’t get it.

I am proud to be part of the New Words Program. Each month, a group of readers submit 20 new words. Our job is to read, read, read—and though we are all assigned specific subjects, any new submissions are accepted. Sometimes we find older words that slipped through the cracks, sometimes new senses of old words emerge. OUP in no way inserts as actual entries all the submissions they receive—after the group submits them, the lexicographers further research them to determine the number of times they are used in everyday language.

So you’re mad that “sexting” went in. Lexicographers don’t create new words or make judgments on their suitability, unless they are considered too obscene. The lexicographer’s job is to record the language. If they don’t define new words, the dictionary becomes stagnant and unhelpful to a person needing a definition. Without new words, we’d still be speaking like we did hundreds of years ago. Many words become dated or archaic as new words dominate our culture. That’s progress.

If millions of idiots are sexting every day, it has to be in the dictionary. I’ve read angry posts calling for a stop to this—this is the downfall of English! They’re ruining our language! No, they’re not—our culture is. What they don’t realize is hundreds of new words are defined each year from the fields of technology, science, medicine, computers, government, cosmetics, mental diseases, weather catastrophes, fashion, architecture, culture, and a host of other subjects. Note that not long ago, even “blog” was a new word, and someone had to research it and make a decision whether to insert it as an entry. I wonder if the people who are now fuming about “retweet” were also mad about “blog” ten years ago.

Yes, some new words are a sad reflection of our times, but a dictionary has no need to apologize. If you don’t want to see sexting in the dictionary, then make it obsolete. If you don’t want to see jeggings, stop wearing them. If you can put an end to cyberbullying, then we won’t have to record it. If you don’t want to see social media terms in, then check your obsession with Facebook and Twitter. Because this is what people do, it must be documented. If these words bother you, there are still hundreds of thousands of other exquisite words in our beautiful language you can use to express yourself.