Category Archives: linguistics

Her name

            My junior year of high school, I took English from Mr. K, who was somewhere in the vicinity of totally mad.  He sometimes went over the edge and hurt students’ feelings, like the time he waved a fake gun at a kid whose father was being tried as an organized crime boss and told the kid he might need said item some day.  That was not so nice.  Nor was it kind of him to make me cry one day, although I will grant that making me cry was not particularly challenging in those days.

            Nonetheless, he was the best English teacher the school had to offer.  He might have had an alarming tendency to holler “BEEEEEEE! I’m ExPECting you!” at random moments, but at least he was not halfway to unconscious as was my freshman/senior year teacher.  Mr. K had experience in the theater, serious experience in the theater, but he was never given management of the drama club, probably because the administration was a little afraid of what he might do.  I don’t blame them, given that he spent much of the unit on Tennessee Williams telling us how he had seen A Streetcar Named Desire performed “at Café La Mama… In draaag.” 

           I guess I don’t need to tell you that he was gay, although knowing the town in which I grew up, I suspect it was a don’t-ask, don’t-tell-the-impressionable-young-minds kind of situation, which is ironic now that the school, like every other, has a LGBT club listed alongside the Chess team.  In the eighties in Massachusetts, however, it was better to pretend to be liberal than to actually be liberal.  Maybe Chris can shed some light on what happened to Mr. K, but I suspect the administration finally found some way to get rid of him that would not engender a lawsuit.

            That was not before, however, he had the chance to teach us The Scarlet Letter, a book with a structure and complexity he clearly revered.  We spent an awful lot of time on the carefully constructed scaffolding scenes, the character development and the (I now know) rather heavy handed symbolism.  In later years, when I would go on to teach the same book to children the same age I had been that year, my greatest goal was to show them I loved that book as much as Mr. K had.  I suspect, in fact, that is was his early influence that led me to believe, for a short time in graduate school, that I might want to specialize in Nathaniel Hawthorne, a delusion from which I was awakened when I met Henry James.

            What I did not like about the way Mr. K taught The Scarlet Letter was that he always referred to Hester Prynne by her first name.  The minister was Dimmesdale, the mysterious creepy man was Chillingworth, but the woman with the big A on her chest was Hester.  Like her daughter, she was reduced to her first name.

            This struck me as infantilizing at best and sexist at worst.  Men, who go out into the wider world, are referred to by their last names, but women are kept more private.  Women are domestic, and so are addressed by the name a family member would use, but men are worldly and so are addressed as Mr. plus their family name.  They are given the respect accorded to their professions.  Women are treated like children and so called by their first names.

            This, of course, was not entirely Mr. K’s fault.  After all, generations of scholars also have referred to Mistress Prynne as “Hester.”  They probably do this because Hawthorne refers to her this way.  Hawthorne was deeply steeped in his times, and the cult of domesticity was full-swing.  He was not exactly a feminist; although he was rather close to a very forceful and intellectual young woman, he chose to marry her sickly and domestic sister, instead.  He would never have thought to refer to a female character by her last name.  You can hardly blame an eleventh-grade English teacher for following suit.

            Nonetheless, when I handed in my (completely brilliant) paper on The Scarlet Letter, I was careful to refer to her only as “Prynne,” just as I referred to her pathetic excuse for a lover as “Dimmesdale.”  I was breaking new ground, blazing trails, and getting my grade knocked down in the process.  Yep.  When he handed that paper back, Mr. K had crossed off every single “Prynne” and written “Hester” next to it.

            In retrospect, he was right.  I should have referred to her as the author did, unless I stated a good reason otherwise.  But, Mr. K did not explain this.  He just corrected me, which pissed me off and made me wonder what kind of a woman-hating, foaming at the mouth kind of cretin he was.

            So, no matter for whom you intend to vote, I ask you to do me one little favor.  I ask you to join me in remembering that Senator Clinton is just that, a U.S. Senator.  She is not a private, domestic figure; she is a very public person.  Yes, I know she has branded herself as “Hillary,” probably so we don’t confuse her with the other Clinton.  I wish she had not done that, because it sets back feminism in subtle and powerful ways.  It sends the message that her gender makes her less worthy of common courtesy, of the respect we give people in the public realm.

The American electorate should treat its public servants with linguistic parity, referring to the men and the women in the same way.  (With the exception of those you truly wish to denigrate; it is your business if you want to refer to the President as “The Shrub”; personally, I think that until he is out of office, he deserves some linguistic dignity so as to treat the office with respect.)  So, either the candidates are “John, Barack, and Hillary,” or they are “McCain, Obama, and Clinton.”

Do we really need to mark one of them with a scarlet W?

Lighter. Stay tuned for fluffy.

            “I think we should see other people.”

            “I promise.”

            “You’re invited!”

            “Count this as your final warning.”

            “I now declare you husband and wife.”

            Linguist J.L. Austin, in his famous book, How to do Things with Words, turned linguistic theory on its ass.  (Wait – before you click away at the mere sight of the words “linguistic theory” – I am going somewhere with this.  And PLEASE don’t tune out before you get to the request in the last three paragraphs.)  Words, he tells us, can actually do things, rather than just reflecting the “real” world. 

Take, for example, my college-friend I, who we are going to call Ian here to avoid confusion.  Some years ago (never mind how long precisely), we were at the Brickskeller in Washington, D.C.  This was a place we often gathered when 30 or so college friends converged on our nation’s capital, probably because it has over 1000 types of bottled beer.  We started doing a lot of celebrations there, branching out to include friends from work, high school buddies, and random people we met on the sidewalk.  So it was that, one evening, Ian was down one end of the table with some of my co-workers.  I was regaling them with the story of how — once upon a time — I fixed Ian up with a woman I had met for 20 minutes, a woman he had dated for almost a year before she had moved away.

“Of course,” Ian piped up, “I have since come out of the closet.”  Now, it was no surprise to anyone that Ian is gay.  The man worked in the theater, for heaven’s sake.  But, until that moment, he had not used those words.  By telling me he had come out of the closet, Ian actually was, at that very moment, coming out.  His words did the very real work of outing him.  (He then turned around and lobbed a hand grenade at the closet, blew it to tiny smithereens, and began sending us all email updates that included snarky comments about what everyone wore to the Golden Globes.)

Those words did something, just like saying “I do” does something very real and very legal at a wedding – although, in Ian’s case, it did not do anything legal when he said that at his wedding, but that’s a story for another time.  (For those of you who are still actually reading and have not wandered off to play internet poker, please note that I borrowed the example of coming out of the closet from some queer theorist or another, probably Eve K. Sedgwick.  But Ian really did come out to me at the Brickseller.)

So, while there are debates flying around just now about whether—here in the blogosphere—we are actually doing something or just talking out our asses, I would like to posit that the exchange of words it incredibly powerful.  This is why the framers of the constitution told Congress it was not allowed to make any laws restricting the freedom of expression.  This is why journalists go to prison to protect their sources.  This is why Amnesty International sends all those darned letters out to the governments that are putting people in prison for writing or saying what they think.  As I have said here before, words do real work.  This is also why English teachers get paid so well still exist.  ‘Cause we kinda know it is important to teach people how to express themselves. 

It is also important that people know how to respond to the words of others.  That free exchange of ideas is the only way words can accomplish anything.  For the last two decades, the journaling movement has been gaining speed in English curriculums.  Students write in their journals, and, in the best of the scenarios, they pass them along to another student who responds.  Free exchange of ideas, less work for the teacher.  Nifty.

Here, one the internet, we have one giant journal-passing session going on.  I read your blogs, you read mine, we post in response to each other.  This is why I focus almost all of my blog reading on people who are here reading me.  (You’ll notice I never respond to memes, but that’s just because I am lousy at coloring inside the lines; I love to read your memes but cannot stand the posts I try to write in response.  I’m sorry!)  I am absurdly, passionately interested in the way that words and ideas can bounce off of one another.  I guess I sort of have to believe in the power of language, otherwise why in tarnation am I trying to become a writer?

I have, however, hit a snag.  I don’t know who you all are.  I know who some of my readers are, but if my blog stats are not lying, there are more of you out there.  And that’s cool.  You do not have to comment if you do not want to.  It isn’t for everyone.  But, I sort of have to cut back on the blogs I am reading, because every now and then I need to carve out time to brush my teeth or acknowledge my children.  So, do me a favor, huh?  Leave me a comment today or email me and just say, “Dude, I’m over here.  Read my blog.”  Even if I already do read your blog, give a little holler today so that I know you and I are in the midst of a conversation.

And, if you still doubt the power of words, I have two examples for you.  One is Laura, who read my words about a very sick little girl and is now using her words to make Julie feel better.  Today, she emailed me a letter for little Julie, and she is sending along a card.  If you would like to join in and use your words to cheer up Julie, you know where to find me.  I’d be happy to give you her address if you shoot me an email or leave a comment.

The second example?  The House just passed a bill.  A bill the Senate already passed.  A bill that, believe it or not, George W. may actually sign.  Words, just words.  But they are going to require more fuel-efficient cars and greener appliances.

Now them’s some powerful words.

 My email address is emily(dot)r(dot)rosenbaum (in the vicinity of) gmail(dot)com.