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Category: Language

Just Say Suck
Perhaps I should be more forgiving. At this point, however, I think it’s too late to change. I am perfectly happy, it seems, to hold people fully accountable for their sins of pronunciation.

The day I have dreaded for so long arrived last week. I knew it would come eventually, but it still hit me hard. I actually heard someone say that they had managed to successfully “access a web page.” That may not seem alarming because you are reading this, not hearing it. My torment came from how the word was pronounced — “assess,” rather than “ak-sess.”

I had waged a brief, hopeless war in the 90s against the conversion of “access” into a verb. I knew I could not win against any coinage backed by the full force of the digital revolution, which had adopted the new usage without question. Part of me recognized that it filled a growing need in that province of our brave new world. I still don’t like hearing it, but I have come to accept (“ak-sept”) it.

This new experience with the word, however, has delivered a setback to my belief system. As an avowed Prescriptivist, I tend to fret over any change to the language, including to its pronunciation. Perhaps I just like having a reliable set of rules that we can all go to when communication needs to be clear and precise. Or maybe I’m just a control freak. Either way, I don’t feel comfortable with the Descriptivists’ philosophy. For them, acceptable standards of usage are simply reflections of whatever convention happens to be current at any given moment. If enough people are using the language in a certain way, then that fad becomes a guidepost for other users.

To me, this is chaos. There are no rules in a Descriptivist universe, only whims that shift with the latest meme. I have no doubt that those subscribing to such a doctrine lead lives uncomplicated by stress or lexemic guilt, but such an existence is not for me.

My theory is that the trend away from the hard /k/ sound in access and other similar words began with some folks’ dislike of the sound of the word succinct. The correct prescriptive pronunciation here is “suck-sinct.” It is my belief that people didn’t like to hear the ugliness of “suck” come out of their mouths and began (mis)pronouncing the word as “sussinct.” This misplaced value judgment has now opened the door to a changed pronunciation of other double-c words.

Descriptivists no doubt shrug their shoulders at such mutations. It is my curse that I cannot. What is happening here is a loss of clarity. I prefer the use of “ak-sess” to “assess” because assess is already a word, and it means something entirely different from the new one. Among other things, this is highly unfair to a perfectly good word. Assess has now lost its integrity, at least as a spoken word. It has become two-faced, with two etymological lineages, and two confused meanings.

There would be no such confusion with the mispronunciation “sussinct,” of course. Saying it, in fact, simply creates a whole new word. Still, I sense that it is wrong to do this. Do we need a new word? Do we just forsake the old word? Is the only reason for this change our delicate sensibilities? Do we really want to abandon the opportunity to say “suck” any time and place we want without fear of objection?

So, you see that there are consequences to these willy-nilly changes in our language. I do not endorse the Prescriptivist view just because I am a control freak (that’s just a happy accident [ak-sident]). In my view, we are tempting the forces of darkness each time we countenance these “harmless” alterations to our native tongue.

Let me acknowledge, however, that spellings that employ the double-c are a problematic oddity in the English language. As you know, the unaspirated allophone for the phenome /k/ with an accompanying palatal coarticulation is not always called into play in such a configuration. Accordion, tobacco, impeccable, accuse, and many other words fall in this category. So do some of our Italian imports, such as broccoli and piccolo.

Yes, it’s confusing, but are we going to let that keep us from doing the right thing? Of course not. There are layers and layers of sound linguistic reasoning we could delve into here that explain how all this works, but I don’t want to bore you with that. Instead, let me bore you with this sad truth: follow the rules, or everyone will suffer.

There is no Language God to enforce this edict, and no Language Hell to threaten as punishment. As a control freak, then, my only power is your common sense. I know I can count on you to try to do the right thing. In that, I wish you suck-sess.
Bilk
I was glad to see the word “bilk” enter our public discourse here recently. Our new provisional Attorney General, Matthew Whataker, Esq., has been accused of bilking disabled veterans, among others, out of their meager savings as part of his duties for World Patent Marketing. That was one of his last gigs before becoming Jeff Sessions’ chief deputy at the Department of Justice.

Besides being a good, organic example of Anglo-Saxon punchiness, bilk is a particularly appropriate word choice in this case. It carries a connotation of sleaziness which nicely matches the quality of this scam. “Defraud” or even “cheat” just don’t have that odor of lowlife we detect coming off bilk.

Some might argue that “hoodwink” could be a contending choice here. You’ve got to love the word hoodwink, but let’s remember that Mr. Whitaker’s involvement in this scam went far beyond mere theft. He was also called upon to menace customers with criminal action if they dared to complain about their mistreatment by WPM. Bilk, I think, offers a hint of muscle behind the con, of the domination of a weak victim by a powerful deceiver. To hoodwink seems more like simple duping. For instance, when Kim Jong Un tricked Trump by agreeing to denuclearize while secretly supernuclearizing, he was hoodwinking him.

Nor can we fairly call Mr. Whitaker a mere “chiseler.” That term should be reserved for the likes of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and his relentless efforts to profit from his position of public trust. EPA chief Scott Pruitt set the benchmark for this field until his chiseling began to undermine the pedestal of Trump himself, and had to go. Whitaker’s crimes are less opportunistic and more meticulous in their planning.

“Weasel” doesn’t fully capture Whitakers identity, either, though there’s little doubt that he is one. Weaseling bespeaks the kind of unctuous, self-serving deception we expect from, say, Ted Cruz or Mike Pence. Lyndsey Graham is also a weasel, but it’s unclear why he’s suddenly gone all in with that role.

“Flimflam” and “bamboozle” certainly convey the spirit of Whitaker’s schemes, but perhaps not their corporate, white collar nature. Roger Stone and his fancy suits are closer the essence of this type of political grifter.

It is clear, however, that Whitaker “swindled” his clients. He also “fleeced” them and “rooked” them and “ripped them off” good and proper. It’s just that bilked feels like the perfect nomenclature for deceits perpetrated as a part of his training by the acting chief law enforcement officer of our nation.

Trump, of course, fits into all of these categories. For starters, he is the boss, and therefore responsible for every misdeed committed in his name. But all it takes is a cursory glance at his resume to find corroboration of almost every kind of corruption, from weaseling to swindling — including bilking. He is, in fact, the bilker-in-chief in this rogues’ gallery of miscreants. And if Robert Mueller has anything to say about it, we might be adding some other descriptors to that list, including “treason.”
F**k!
You see f**k in print a lot these days. It used to be spelled “f—k” or sometimes “f__k”, but because it’s thought to be so vulgar, so obscene, the whole word is rarely seen or heard. Up until recently, it was spelled “f___” in an even sterner attempt to honor civility and good taste. The K, apparently, was thought to bring the reader dangerously close to the actual expletive. “____“ has also been an option, though that choice requires parenthetical elaborations such as “a harsh vulgarity” or “a four-letter-word” or some such prim phraseology.

“The F-word” still enjoys wide usage for this purpose, as does “F-bomb” and ponderous evasions like ‘rhymes with mukluk.” For those of you who don’t know, by the way, the word we’re figleafing here is “fuck.”

F**k is an old, if not honorable, word, but only in the last decade has it gotten the attention it deserves. F**king, it should be mentioned, is a very common practice among humans, and it is certainly not obscene in and of itself. Even so, it didn’t appear in the Oxford English Dictionary until 1972. Even now it is kept hidden in most public reporting when the usage is thought to be gratuitous (as in “that’s fucking gratuitous, dude”).

F**k has been getting a lot of play recently, mostly in connection with politics. Robert De Niro, for example, shouted “Fuck Trump!” from the stage at this year’s Tony Awards. That event brought on a storm of controversy. Since Bob’s usage was anything but gratuitous, many outlets printed the word (as I just did) or said it out loud. The nut of the controversy, however, was not the word itself but the effectiveness of the usage. Many thought that throwing the F-bomb was counter-productive and gave Trump a rare chance to seize the high moral ground in our political discourse. Rather than winning support for De Niro’s sentiment, the epithet was dismissed by critics as simply cursing to the choir.

Last week another F-bomb dropped after the murder of five journalists at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland. Trump (or at least his twitter feed) responded to the killings with boiler plate condolences about “our thoughts and prayers.” One survivor, apparently unimpressed, shot back that he "didn’t give a fuck” about the President’s thoughts and prayers. This usage hasn’t been critiqued in the same way, perhaps because it is not a direct ad hominem attack. Instead, it calls attention to the shameless hypocrisy of our leader, who regularly refers to the press as “enemies of the people.” The “f**k” in this case (if my outrage detector is functioning properly) was deemed acceptable.

I have tried to be scrupulous within this essay in the use of f**k and its derivatives. I wanted to hold the line against language that might offend you while exploring what the f**k is going on with the word fuck.

Maybe my effort is a waste of time. There was a time when uttering a public F-bomb would draw hard looks or even a punch in the nose. They’re raining down everywhere these days, and rarely get more than a shrug. Gratuitous usage has expanded into overuse. Even on news websites the word is used freely, particularly in sports sections. Sure, it’s vulgar, but it appears to have lost its status as an obscenity. So why try to keep the barn door closed if the f**k has already escaped?

I don’t know whether to lament the coarsening of our culture or celebrate our liberation from the taste nazis. I guess I will simply continue to walk the ever-shifting line between politeness common usage. At least I will be not participating in its overuse, which is an obscenity to me no matter what the word.
I Repeat
This essay will be the 300th Eaganblog. Another two years under the bridge, over the dam, and out to the open sea. As I have done at previous century marks, I will take this moment to reflect on the state of my blog.

I like that series of water metaphors in the first paragraph, especially with the last one being unlike the first two. That form is a classic set-up for a laugh or at the very least a little wrinkle in an otherwise flat stretch of prose. It may be a sin to over-use such forms, but it’s only a venial sin. Mortal sins like using too many modifiers are much more of a cause for concern, and all I can say is that I’m trying. More editing and better verbs are my way to salvation.

I try to avoid repeating anything, though. For instance, I’ve tried to keep things fresh by mixing in some doggerel and a few epigrams to go with all the classic five-paragraph essays. There’s nothing wrong with essays, I suppose. Most columnists never deviate from that format, and they manage to get their points across. But I am not bound by word counts or column inches. There is no reason to limit myself, so I’m always on the lookout for something new. An occasional palindrome, perhaps, or themed lists, or mini-fables. Or just one word, if it’s a good’n.

There is one kind of repetition, however, that I have fallen prey to over the last hundred weeks. I keep coming back to one particular category of subject matter, and I can’t seem to help myself. In case you haven’t noticed, there is a link on my blog archives that will take you to all my blogs in a particular category. [This one, for instance, will go into “Language,” even though that might be a stretch. “Writing” would be a better classification for this piece, but there are only eight choices currently available and that is not one of them.] If you hit that link and bother to look closely, you will find that the “Politics” group has grown alarmingly of late. My last reflective blog (#201, The Upside of Down) was listed under “Politics.” That essay, it appears, was a harbinger for what has been an explosion of blogs under that heading.

Even though I am a political cartoonist, I had tried to avoid writing too much on that topic. Eaganblog gives me a chance to talk about a lot of things that my cartoons never touch. I like that. There were only six “Politics” entries in the first year, for example, while my other writing roamed all over the place. Over the last twelve months, by contrast, I’ve produced twenty-one. I tell myself that we have entered a dangerous time in our domestic politics, and that the elevation of he-who-must-not-be-named requires that I step up and speak.

I try to resist that call, but it’s hard. I’ve got one bubbling up even now that is burning to get out and get heard. It’s better not to suppress such impulses, but I am concerned that “Politics” is now the second-biggest category in a feature I had hoped would be more about the broader world. I need to get back to such categories as “Sports,” which has a mere eight entries to its name. “Humor,” poor thing, only has four. As soon as we get rid of this guy, I hope to get back to Plan A. We’ll all be relieved when that day comes.

So I promise…as soon as the fever breaks and harmony begins returning to our world, I will give politics the rest it deserves. Until then, we will have to wait for explorations of such topics as the LIGO gravity wave detector, the play of Good vs. Evil in athletics, and why farts are funny. See what I did there?
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Trump supporters are people who know what they believe.
~ JC, Bonny Doon