Tuesday, 28 February 2012

'Throes of Passion' and Other Frequently Bastardized Expressions

By Rachelle Drouin

In the first in what I hope will be many guest posts on Brush Talk, it is my honour to welcome friend, colleague and fellow word nerd Rachelle Drouin. Rachelle has also just launched a new blog of her own, Metaphortuitous, which I encourage you to check out.

Having read literature from the Golden Age to the modern era and studied French, Italian and Spanish, I’ve developed a keen interest in word origins and also in the variances in expressions from one language to another. For example, why is it that, in English and in French, we say “It’s a small world”, whereas in Spanish, people say “El mundo es un pañuelo” (literally, “The world is a handkerchief”)?

My interest in the social, religious, economic and other factors shaping etymology and the development of language is more than a fascination and correct word usage more than an obsession. That’s why I really get my knickers in a twist when I see people misuse and misspell common expressions such as these.

(Author’s note: I sourced the Oxford English Dictionary for the citations and quotations herein.)

In the throes of passion. (Or gratitude, revolution or despair…)

Nolan Ryan in the
'throws' of passion
This expression traces its origins to the Middle English throwe, perhaps an alteration, first noted in 1615, of thrawe, from the Old English thrawu, meaning the pain or struggle of childbirth. The word þrowes is thought to have entered the English language in the early thirteenth century, in a work from Middle English known as Trin.Coll.Hom.

In the early fourteenth century, the word came to be associated with the agony of death; hence the expression “death-throe” (deid-thraw).

As English evolved, the word came to mean, in a more general sense, a violent spasm or pang. Used in this way, it first appeared in Shakespeare’s Tempest (1623) II. i. 236: “A birth ••Which throwes thee much to yeeld.”
Misspelling this throws sends me into, well, paroxysm. Spell it correctly, or risk the wrath of writers in the throes of revolution!

Toe the line.

A more recent entry into the English language, this expression appears to have first been used in 1813 in the second edition of Hector Bull-Us’s Diverting History of John Bull & Brother Jonathan: “He began to think it was high time to toe the mark.” Here, one stands with the tips of his toes exactly touching a line, mark, scratch, crack or trig.

In his 1826 Naval Sketch-book, William Nugent Glascock notes “The brigades of seamen embodied to act with our troops in America, as well as in the north coast of Spain, contrived to ‘ship a bagnet’ on a pinch, and to ‘toe’ (for that was the phrase) ‘a tolerable line’.”

Misspelling this one is an intolerable error, showing one’s reluctance to adhere to doctrines. Again, conform conscientiously to the rules of grammar.

In Dijon this stuff
doesn't 'pass muster'.
Pass muster.

A military expression, “to pass muster” (also “to pass the muster”) means to undergo muster or inspection without censure, to come up to the required standard, or to be taken or accepted as something.

George Gascoigne, in Hundreth Sundrie Flowres (1573), wrote “It was deuised in great disquiet of mynd, and written in rage, yet haue I seene much worse passe the musters”.

The expression also means to be above reproach or criticism; those choosing to say instead “pass the mustard” or to misspell the two aforementioned expressions leave themselves open to both of these.

Those interested in learning more can refer to The Story of English, a book by Robert MacNeil, Robert McCrum and William Cran. Twice revised since its original printing in 1986, the book details the development of the English language. Episodes of the nine-part, Emmy-award winning television series by the same name can be seen on YouTube.

Rachelle Drouin, BA (Hons), Dip PR, (@rachelle_drouin on Twitter) is a public relations professional and freelance writer currently residing in Edmonton, Alberta. Passionate about language and wordplay, she has written on contemporary women’s issues and feminism, design theory and art history, music, health and technology. She is presently working on a work of historical fiction chronicling the history of Alberta’s early Black pioneers.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Top 10 Songs for PR Practitioners

It's been a month of fairly serious posts here on Brush Talk, making it high time, in my mind, for something a bit lighter. It's also been a while since we had a Top 10 list on this blog, and in honour of one of my favourite movies of all time, the priceless audiophile-themed dramatic comedy High Fidelity, I give you my Top 10 Songs for Public Relations Practitioners.

The relationship between PR and rock 'n' roll is a long and storied one. Behind every great band and music star has been a shrewd publicist. People like Bill Harry (the man who coined the phrase 'Mersey Beat' and was instrumental in promoting a little band called The Beatles) and Howard Bloom (the former ABC Records PR captain who helped launch the careers of Billy Joel, Prince and Styx) might not be household names, but it's fair to say that the face of modern music would have turned out very differently without them.

Sometimes artists show their own flair for public relations and communications troubleshooting - particularly in the digital age. Upon their reunification last year, Canadian 1990s hard rock icons The Tea Party faced a difficult connundrum in that their band name had effectively been hijacked by the US political movement by the same name. Their response? Rather than forfeit their domain name www.teaparty.com, which would have been a very un-rock 'n' roll move, they owned the situation by adding the catchy byline "No Politics, Just Rock 'n' Roll" to their banner. Problem solved.

Other artists have, at various points, shown an astute understanding of the complexities of the PR profession in their lyrics and creative themes. Some have essentially stumbled over them, while others most definitely grasped the essence of what the profession is all about. In my humble opinion, the following ten songs would make for a decent soundtrack for the PR profession.

1) Led Zeppelin, Communication Breakdown

This one was a pretty obvious choice. Lyrically, there's not much to the song - definitely not Led Zep's most inspired wordcraft of all time - but the song's title and iconic stature makes it a shoo-in for this list.

2) The Beatles, Help!

This song sums up perhaps better than any other the way PR people view themselves and their role. We're always trying to help people in the midst of existential crises. That's our job. Consider the line "And now my life has changed in oh so many ways; my independence seems to vanish in the haze." If that's not a cry for help to a professional communicator capable of transmitting clear, concise messaging, I don't know what is.

3) Lady Gaga, Telephone

Gaga's genius for messaging meant that it would have been criminal for her not to be included on this list, and this song is probably the closest thing to a PR anthem among her chart-toppers. As a PR professional, you're basically supposed to be on call - all the time. And that's what this song is about, and the frustration that leads to. That and guest star Beyoncé's line "The way you blowin' up my phone won't make me leave no faster" is one that every professional communicator can relate to.

4) R.E.M., Radio Free Europe

As annoyingly indecipherable as Michael Stipe's vocals are on this song, Radio Free Europe is the perfect anthem to the PR ideal - bringing down walls through the media. The communications profession's relationship with electronic media is perhaps best summed up by the line "Resign yourself that's radio's gonna stay; reason: it could polish up the grey." Breaking through media noise, through walls and through national boundaries. R.E.M.'s on the list.

5) U2, Zooropa

Another song about noise, albeit a sort of perverse celebration of it. The opening track to the 1993 album starts out with a litany of advertising slogans like 'Vorsprung durch Technik' ('Advancement through technology' - Audi's longtime marketing catchphrase) followed by what sounds like a plea for a decent communications plan. ("I hear voices, ridiculous voices; out in the slipstream; let's go overground; get your head out of the mud baby.") Given the current state of the European project, this EU marketing anthem sounds eerily prophetic now. Time for a new compass and map.

6) Pink Floyd, Is There Anybody Out There?

A mostly instrumental track from the iconic Wall album - an album that could, hypothetically, be taken for a big allegory for the communications profession (We definitely don't need no thought control!), this track neatly sums up the question every professional communicator asks on a daily basis: is there anybody out there truly benefitting from the content I slave away at producing?

7) David Bowie, Space Oddity

Of all the fictional characters thrown up by rock 'n' roll, few have stood the test of time better than David Bowie's melancholy astronaut Major Tom, whose presence has since popped up in songs ranging from 1980s German synth-pop icon Peter Schilling's Major Tom (Coming Home) to Def Leppard's Rocket. Interestingly, though, Bowie's 1969 breakthrough hit is less about space exploration than it is about media relations, as the line "And the papers want to know what shirts you wear; step outside the capsule if you dare" reveals. It's about the guys on the ground, not him.

8) Lily Allen, The Fear

After several years as a magnet for media scrutiny for her off-stage antics and disparaging remarks about fellow stars, Cockney starlet Lily Allen sought to highlight a more self-aware side to her persona with this part-confessional, part-critique song about the UK's toxic gutter-press culture. While criticized by some as trite and hypocritical, The Fear if nothing else succeeds at encapsulating the apologia theory of crisis management, which requires that you explain what's happened and then, when appropriate, distance yourself from it by redefining the situation along the lines of 'it's not me; it's the system'. Well done, Lily!

9) Morrissey, The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get

Had he chosen a different career path, Steven Patrick Morrissey probably would have made a very good PR professional given his knack for introspection and punchy, unambiguous wordcraft. Morrissey has always been a refreshingly straightforward songwriter and this crisis communications anthem one is no exception. It neatly sums up the first rule of crisis communications, which is 'deal with the situation immediately or it'll get worse' and even hints at hearkens to the all-important court of public opinion with the line "I bear more grudges than lonely high court judges." Beautiful!

10) Styx, Mr. Roboto

No list of songs about communications could ever be complete without this rock opera tirade against censorship and media-muzzling set in a futuristic prison for 'rock 'n' roll misfits'. While digital media experts will dispute the assertion that the problem is "too much technology," none will dispute the idea that the human element always needs to be front and centre and that machines can indeed "de-humanize" when online content is being written for bots rather than human readers. Tormented by being misunderstood and prevented from responding, our hero Kilroy is a tortured PR guy for sure!

Honourable Mention - Jimmy Buffett, Public Relations

As a PR professional myself, I take some offence to this song, particularly the chorus "Public relations, public relations; boozing and schmoozing, that's what I do; PR's my vocation and I'm a sensation; public relations, such hullabaloo." I have yet to meet a professional communicator whose life resembles the ostentatious Palm Beach businessman and Coral Reefer Band frontman's misrepresentation of this normally hullabaloo-free profession. Nevertheless, it's a song called Public Relations and as such it gets an honourable mention by default.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

When Bad Communication Kills: Remembering Valerie Wolski and the Nord-Ost Tragedy

Valerie Diane Wolski
Valerie Wolski (Source: Edmonton Journal)

Thursday marked the one-year anniversary of the death of Valerie Wolski, the Alberta mental health worker who was strangled to death by her patient, Terrance Saddleback. She was working alone, providing care to Saddleback, an enormous, severely developmentally challenged man who was prone to psychotic rages. Saddleback was initially charged with manslaughter, but the charge was dropped as he was unfit to stand trial.

In a recent op-ed article in the Edmonton Journal, columnist Paula Simons chastized the Alberta government's Persons with Developmental Disabilities (PDD) central region board for failing to inform the Canadian Mental Health Association (the organization responsible for which Wolski worked) of Saddleback’s violent history. The board had previously determined that the man presented an 'extreme' and 'catastrophic' risk and that he should never be left alone with a care worker, especially a woman. Unfortunately, nobody told the Canadian Mental Health Association - and Valerie Wolski paid the ultimate price for bureaucratic secrecy.

You would think that after such an egregious communications failure that the government would have implemented an immediate audit of its communications processes. Shockingly, nothing of the kind happened. In June of this year, Occupational Health and Safety also issued an immediate safety order, compelling the central region of Persons with Developmental Disabilities to change its practices. This week the board announced that it was appealing the findings, with a three-day appeal hearing scheduled to begin on February 28.

The case of Valerie Wolski is a textbook example of how bureaucratic secrecy and poor crisis communications are a ticking time-bomb. While PDD argued that the agency had an obligation to uphold privacy laws, the Wolski tragedy clearly demonstrated gross negliegence on the part of a government agency specifically set up to prevent this sort of tragedy. Moreover, PDD further compounded the situation by obfuscating, deflecting blame and completely disregarding the Canadian Mental Health Association's concerns. These organizations are invariably well staffed with well-trained communications officers. Are these people even being allowed to do their jobs?

The tragedy of Valerie Wolski also reminded me of another upcoming anniversary - of a tragedy that should go down in history as an example of crisis communications gone horribly wrong.

When The Show Didn't 'Go On'

The monument carring names of victims of Moscow theatre siege (AFP Photo / Denis Sinyakov)
Nord-Ost Siege Memorial (Source: RT News)
The date was October 23, 2002 and the scene was the Dubrovka Theatre in central Moscow, located about four kilometers southeast of the Kremlin. The show playing that night was the popular historical musical theatre production Nord-Ost (German for 'North-East'), a play based on the popular novel The Two Captains by Veniamin Kaverin, which tells the story of the 1913 discovery of the arctic archipelago of Severnaya Zemlya in 1913.

Shortly after 9:00 pm as the show was well into Act II, between 40 to 50 heavily armed guerillas identifying their allegiance to the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria stormed the theatre and took 850 spectators and performers hostage. The siege lasted for four days before a squadron of Spetsnaz (Special Forces) under the command of Russia's Federal Security Bureau (FSB) raided the theatre and pumped a mysterious chemical agent into the building's air conditioning system. All of the combatants were killed in the operation, which a spokesperson for the Special Forces lauded as "our first successful operation for years."

The tactic used to bring the siege to an end was unquestionably brilliant - and one that could well have ensured that every single bystander other than the few executed by the Chechen militants survived. Unfortunately, the special forces, whose organizational structure and approach to communications still hearkened back to the Soviet era, refused to disclose the chemical properties of gas in question to the Moscow physicians tasked with reviving the unconscious theatre-goers. In fact, the exact nature of the 'knock-out' gas they used is still unknown, although it is believed to be either fentanyl or 3-methylfentanyl. At least 129 hostages never woke up.

The Nord-Ost hostage crisis is largely remembered as a turning point in Russia's dealing with the ongoing insurgency in Chechnya. The crisis led Putin's government to tighten its grip on the renegade region, a move largely applauded by the Russian people. It also saw increasing repression of Russia's independent media, which had been critical by the government's heavy-handed approach to the situation. Some independent journalists, including the late Anna Politkovskaya, alleged that the FSB itself had been involved in the siege, seeing it as an opportunity for a more hardline approach in Chechnya. Four years later, Politkovskaya was assassinated in her apartment block.

The story that was largely lost, however, was the communication breakdown between the FSB and the Moscow-area medics who were left scratching their heads as to how to revive the unconscious patients being brought to them from the theatre. Had a crisis communications plan been in place (and employed), the special forces would have been able to feed the gas into the theatre, wait for everyone to lose consciousness and then separate the terrorists from the hostages and whisk the latter group off to hospital - giving the doctors ample warning of the situation. As it happened, physicians managed to revive some patients with the drug naloxone, but it was too little, too late.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate!

The cases of Valerie Wolski and the Nord-Ost hostage crisis are similar in that they both resulted from a failure to communicate vital life-and-death information from one organization to another. And while the breakdown in Moscow in 2002 was unquestionably more egregious, it is at the same time somewhat more understandable given that the organization at the centre of the controversy was a direct descendent of the KGB and was still steeped in Soviet-era paranoia and secrecy. When it comes to the Alberta government of 2012, there's really no excuse.

The anniversary of Valerie Wolski's murder is yet another reminder of the importance of the work I do as a professional communicator. When communications break down, people and organizations get hurt - and sometimes people get killed. In the case of a country like Russia whose bureaucrats and government institutions remain in large part products of an authoritarian political culture, it's understandable that fostering new cultures of communication is a tall order. But in this part of the world we could and should be doing a whole lot better at communications.

In the meantime, the appeal hearing regarding the Canadian Mental Health Association's allegations begins on February 28. If you live in Alberta, I encourage everyone to write to George VanderBurg, the minster in charge of the Persons with Developmental Disabilities program, as well as the Minister of Human Services Dave Hancock, to push the agency to change its communications policies to ensure that nothing like this happens again. Read this blog dedicated to Valerie Wolski for more information - as well as for downloadable letter templates.

Good communicators can do a lot - but bad policy will leave even the most capable and energetic communications officers straightjacketed. For that kind of change it takes action and public engagement. And in a civil society like ours, that's everybody's job.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

PR, Prejudice and Competent Men Named Steve

It’s been six months since I began work at Merit Contractors Association. For those of you who don’t know it, Merit is an association that represents some 1,300 construction companies across Alberta. Merit provides employee benefit packages for non-union construction firms as well as construction training and industry advocacy.

One of my current priorities has been promoting apprenticeship programs in the trades. Those of you who follow Alberta business news may have heard the dire predictions about looming labour shortages in the construction industry, due primarily to a forthcoming mass exodus of the boomer generation from the labour force. As such, construction training and apprenticeship programs are going to be absolutely vital in keeping the industry going.

As communications guy with Merit, I am tasked with helping promote careers in the trades and combatting stereotypes about them, namely that they’re where people go who aren’t smart enough to get into university. The irony of this, of course, is that I fit just about every stereotype of the egghead types who tend to hold prejudicial views of this industry. With an MA in Japanese History and a serious language study addiction, I might at first glance seem like the worst person in the world to be tasked with promoting careers in the construction trades.

The truth is that I’ve long had an inferiority complex when it comes to people – especially men – who are adept at fixing and building thing, as opposed to me who barely knows which end of a hammer to hold. Humourist Dave Barry famously referred to these types as “competent men named Steve” in Dave Barry’s Complete Guide to Guys, in which he admits his own crippling insecurities vis-à-vis plumbers, electricians and other burly, big-bicepped blue-collar dudes who come into the house and save the day. I do not feel even remotely superior to a pipefitter or a sheet metal worker. Say what you like about crisis communication - if civilization really were to collapse in ruin tomorrow, it's people like me with zero manual skills who would be the most screwed.

Nevertheless, in my professional life I’ve been drawn to one job after another that have pushed me outside my cultural comfort zone. Ironically, my teaching and copy editing jobs in Japan were probably the “safest” jobs I’ve ever had in this respect. At Native Counselling Services of Alberta, where I worked for two and a half years, I grappled with topics like intergenerational trauma, racial and cultural stereotyping and Aboriginal over-representation in the correctional system – from the standpoint of a person of privilege. And now I’m an egghead in the construction industry, a world that's always been foreign and somewhat intimidating.

What does this mean for me as a PR professional? If nothing else, in both my current and previous jobs I brought a certain amount of outside perspective, which is conducive to crafting messages that resonate among external publics. It’s also forced me to do my homework. After six months in the construction biz, I now know a great deal more about the industry than I did before (which admittedly isn't saying much) and I continue to learn more every day. And it’s also forced me to confront my own preconceptions, and in doing so I would to think it’s helped me combat stereotypes and prejudice out in the world.

In PR, much is said about ‘publics’ and ‘stakeholders’. You’ve got your news media, social media publics, external and internal publics, lawyers, regulators, investors and government. But as a PR professional, the first public you have to convince is invariably yourself. Getting to the root of the truth and getting that truth out through all the ‘noise’ of society is the essence of public relations. And if you can’t cut through your own ‘noise’, you’re not going to disseminate anything worthwhile.

It also doesn't hurt to align yourself with the Steves of this world. If and when civilization does collapse, no amount of good PR will put a shelter over your head or protect you from roving predators. But these guys might.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Sugoi Pera-Pera! The Joys of Japanese Onomatopoeia

One of my New Year's resolutions this year was to get back to studying Japanese, and after four classes I'm fully engrossed once again. There are a great many things I miss about life in Japan - from train station ramen to space-age toilets - but probably the single thing I miss the most is the Japanese language itself. I've spent a great many hours of my life studying Japanese and after three-plus years of separation from the language, I decided it was time to reimmerse myself in it.

Nihongo might just be the most fun language in the world to study. It's not the impossibly difficult language that many make it out to be, although it certainly has some fiendishly complex aspects to it. Pronunciation-wise, it is probably one of the world's easiest languages, and while much is made of the difficulty of learning kanji (the Chinese characters that comprise the bulk of its written form), I personally have always found kanji to be a labour of love - and one that definitely gets easier the further along you get. Grammar-wise, it's no tougher than any other language, and while the system of honourifics gets pretty complicated, it's all very learnable.

While Japanese may not be as uniquely difficult as many people (particularly Japanese people) will tell you it is, the Yamato tongue might just be the world's quirkiest language. It is the only language in the world that has a separate writing system for foreign loan words (katakana) or separate counting systems depending on the size, shape or attributes of the objects being counted. As I noted in my January post on portmanteaus, Japanese wordplay and punnery is a true art form, although any true stinker of a pun will elicit cries of Samui! ("Cold!"), which is the Japanese equivalent of booing and hissing at a terrible joke. Sometimes people won't even say it and just mime shivering from cold.

My absolute favourite attribute of the Japanese language, however, is its vast treasure trove of onomatopoetic expressions. All languages have onomatopoeia, but the Japanese live and breathe the stuff. Pick up any Japanese manga (comic book) and you'll see onomatopoetic expressions for everything from the earth shaking to rustling leaves which completely defy translation. (English translations of manga generally leave these in the original Japanese.) But Japanese onomatopoeia doesn't stop at actual descriptions of sound but also encompasses feelings like, joy, anxiety, anger and fear - and approximates what these might sound like if they had a sound.

A full list of Japanese onomatopoeic expressions would run into the hundreds. Here are 20 of my favourites that you can use for your next onomatopoeia trivia game.

1) Doko-Doko (ドコドコ) - Heart pounding from excitement.

2) Hara-Hara (ハラハラ) - Also refers to heart palpitations, but from anxiety rather than excitement.

3) Pera-Pera (ペラペラ) - To speak fast and fluently; used as a synonym for fluency in a language.

4) Pika-Pika (ピカピカ) - Sparkly, shiny, new-looking, as in a well-polished pair of shoes.

5) Zaa-Zaa (ザーザー) - The sound of pouring rain.

6) Goro-Goro (ゴロゴロ) - Laziness, loafing around. (Can also be used to describe the sound of a thunder storm.)

7) Bisho-Bisho (ビショビショ) - When something is sopping wet.

8) Giri-Giri (ギリギリ) - Just barely making it, squeaking through something.

9) Peko-Peko (ペコペコ) - Empty stomach, hunger pangs.

10) Bara-Bara (バラバラ) - Scattered, dispersed.

11) Chika-Chika (チカチカ) - Flickering light.

12) Gan-Gan (ガンガン) - Pounding sensation (e.g. pounding headache).

13) Hiri-Hiri (ヒリヒリ) - Burning sensation.

14) Uki-Uki (ウキウキ) - Over-the-top joy, happiness.

15) Waku-Waku (ワクワク) - Thrilled, excited.

16) Pocha-Pocha (ポチャポチャ) - Splashing in water.

17) Niko-Niko (ニコニコ) - Smiling, happy expression. (Can also mean smirking or leering, depending on the context.)

18) Puka-Puka (プカプカ) - Floating and bobbing in water or in space.

19) Choki-Choki (チョキチョキ) - Snipping, cutting.

20) Goso-Goso (ゴソゴソ) - To rummage through, dig for something.

For more, check out the Yomiuri Shimbun's "Pera-Pera Penguin" guide to onomatopoeic expressions.

Friday, 10 February 2012

From BA to BS

Why Most 'Academese' Is Simply Bad Writing in Disguise

Academese-A new language

As a person who has straddled the academic world and the 'real' world of journalistic and business writing, I've gained some perspective on so-called 'academese'. Any reader with a liberal arts background like mine knows exactly what I'm talking about. We're talking essays with monstrous titles like 'Postdialectic narrative and neodialectic submaterial situationism in post-Heideggerian hermeneutic analysis' and other such tripe. We've all read this stuff, or, should I say, we've all tried to digest as much of it as possible before frisbeeing it across the room and then turning our attention to skateboarding dog videos on YouTube.

Granted, if you've been a liberal arts student - and especially if you've done graduate studies in the arts and humanities - you've almost certainly been required to write something like this at one time or another. It's sort of a rite of passage. I for one have suffered through having to write papers on various aspects of postmodern philosophy that involved using impossibly opaque language. I remember once having to write an analysis of the trial of former East German leader Egon Krenz from the standpoint of Jacques Derrida's postmodernist theory. I even got a good mark on it, which is amazing given that most of Derrida's writings might as well have, from my standpoint, been written in Lithuanian.

This is just academic bootcamp, part of basic training. However, what I do find troubling is when this type of scholar-babble become a modus operandi among academics and is used where it's not only unnecessary but also a barrier to comprehension. A big part of what drew me to the field of history was its proximity to storytelling, wherein clear, polished prose that people actually enjoyed reading seemed to be valued. And yet even here I had colleagues writing papers with titles like 'Microhistoricity: a meta-discursive treatise on hyperreality tropes in post-metahistoriographical analyses' and whatnot. Yup, can't wait to get my hands on that one!

So why do people persist in writing crap like that? To my mind, there are three main reasons for it:

1) Insularity of academic culture - They don't call it the 'Ivory Tower' for nothing. Granted, there are a great many people across all academic disciplines who are very much involved in the outside world and do write with the general public in mind. However, academic culture does tend to be insular and insular cultures have a way of breeding their own dialects that are indecipherable to outsiders. In fairness to academics, the business world is no different, a phenomenon to which the numerous online corporate bullshit generators attest.

2) Academic grandstanding - Gratuitous academese is the ivory tower equivalent of those cheesy guitar-behind-the-head-and-tongue-distended heavy metal guitar solos. It's academic penis-envy, pure and simple. A former historian colleague of mine who was also a gear-head once compared impenetrable academese to muscle car enthusiasts looking for ever-more grandiose modifications for their cars. I personally think a better metaphor is extreme body-modification, sort of a "Let's see how much I can torture the English language before it all unravels" approach to writing.

3) Lack of writing instruction in graduate schools - This, in my humble opinion, is the all-important culprit. I was lucky that when I was a grad student I had one prof in particular who really put us through Navy Seal writing training. That and I also wrote prolifically for student newspapers and whatnot, which probably did more for my craft than any class I ever took. But for a great many grad students, there simply isn't that opportunity - or that emphasis. As a result, students lacking confidence in the written word resort to academic gobbledygook not so much as a means of grandstanding but as a sort of security blanket. And then they get pats for it, which compounds the problem.

To sum up, I think there needs to be a whole lot more emphasis placed on the writing craft at all levels of school - and at the graduate school level in particular. My current scholarly abode (the part-time PR department at Grant MacEwan University) has a mandatory 'Writing Fundamentals' class followed by 'Writing for PR'. I think any scholarly field striving for comprehension beyond its own narrow confines - be it engineering or linguistics - ought to have the same requirement.

In the meantime, here's a Postmodern Essay Generator for your amusement.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Inigo Montoya Teaching Moment #2: The Battle of the 'Genders'

Last month I wrote the first in a series of posts entitled Inigo Montoya Teaching Moments aimed at drawing attention to some of the English language's most chronically misused words. Today's teaching moment focuses on another pet peeve of mine - the continued misuse of the word 'gender'.

Over the past week I've been either a participant or a lurker in a number of Facebook flame-fests on the subject of feminism and 'gender'. Anti-feminist arguments, usually although not exclusively coming from men, come from a wide range of angles and perspectives but all seem to boil down to the same three basic arguments, namely:

  • Feminism, while it had a role to play from around 1918 to 1968, has "run its course" in our society and that women are now "equal" to men, meaning that it's time for women to stop casting themselves as victims and get on with their lives;

  • Women simply need to "get over it" when it comes to the pernicious effects of the absurd and ubiquitous beauty standards created by the media and realize that it's "just a fantasy" that doesn't do anyone any real harm;

  • Women are different from men.

Of these three arguments, the first two can be KO'd pretty expeditiously with the help of easy-to-find statistics from the UN or Statistics Canada or even a bit of critical thinking. As for the "women are different from men" argument, this is the old favourite of those intent on justifying the strict gender binary of toys, clothing, decor, TV shows and other cultural accoutrements. While factually and indeed tautologically true, the statement is nevertheless grounded in the incorrect and problematic notion that 'sex' and 'gender' are the same thing.

The word gender is an old word that, like most of our language, comes from French. The French word genre has itself made it into the English language as a synonym for category and thus serves to help differentiate between speed metal and Schubert art songs. The word gender appears only once in the King James Bible, to my knowledge, and refers to 'breed' - and is interestingly used as a verb, as in "Thou shalt not let thy cattle gender with a diverse kind." (Leviticus 19:19)

Prior to the 1950s, the word 'gender' was strictly used in reference to grammatical categories. French and other Romance languages of course have a binary gender system, with languages like German have a third (neuter) gender. Many Asian languages such as Japanese and Thai have masculine and feminine modes of speech, with the Thai language featuring the masculine and feminine concluding particles khrap (ครับ) and kha (ค่ะ), which serve to denote the sex of the speaker.

The point here is that 'gender' is a cultural construct, not a biological condition. It was sexologist John Money who coined the term 'gender role' in 1955 as a means of signifying "all those things that a person says or does to disclose himself or herself as having the status of boy or man, girl or woman respectively, inclusive of but is not restricted to sexuality in the sense of eroticism." In other words, gender has nothing to do with your physical anatomy, but rather the accoutrements of girlhood (Barbie dolls, Disney princesses etc.) or boyhood (GI Joes, Transformers etc.).

However, since around the 1980s the word 'gender' has slowly but surely supplanted the word 'sex' in the English language in reference to the boy-girl dichotomy - probably in reaction to the hysterical frissons the latter word triggers. And today it's pretty much entrenched, with organizations like the US Food & Drug Administration now using the word gender instead of sex. This usage, however, is still incorrect. Thankfully, the UN World Health Organization not only continues to use the word sex to describe biological differences between men and women but also devotes an entire page of its website to explaining its choice of word usage. The WHO explains it thusly:

"Male" and "female" are sex categories, while "masculine" and "feminine" are gender categories.

Aspects of sex will not vary substantially between different human societies, while aspects of gender may vary greatly.

Some examples of sex characteristics:
  • Women menstruate while men do not;
  • Men have testicles while women do not;
  • Women have developed breasts that are usually capable of lactating, while men have not;
  • Men generally have more massive bones than women.

Some examples of gender characteristics:
  • In the United States (and most other countries), women earn significantly less money than men for similar work;
  • In Vietnam, many more men than women smoke, as female smoking has not traditionally been considered appropriate;
  • In Saudi Arabia men are allowed to drive cars while women are not;
  • In most of the world, women do more housework than men.

So why make a big deal out of all this? 'Gender' is fluid, culturally determined and not strictly binary. Many human culture have had - or continue to have - more than two 'gender' categories. Since the mid-2000s, both India and Pakistan have officially recognized a third gender category after decades of lobbying by the hijra (traditional transsexual community) in both countries, and the third gender category 'two-spirit' has gained currency across a wide swath of North American Aboriginal cultures in reference to LBGT people, with cognates in Cree (ayekkwe), Ojibwe (niizh manidoowag), Navajo (nadleeh), Lakota (winkte), Arapaho (haxu’xan) and Apache (ńa-yėnnas-ganne) and Crow (bate), among many other languages.

Sex is what we're born with. Gender is what we do with it, either by choice or by cultural design. And by confounding these two terms, we're erroneously assigning modes of behaviour and cultural expression to biological determinsm, which has been shown again and again to be false. Nobody is born with an innate predisposition to play with Barbie dolls or watch UFC. That's cultural programming, pure and simple.

The sooner we can get back to the proper use of the words 'gender' and 'sex', the better chance we'll have at combatting the entrenched inequalities in all of our human societies that are rooted in traditional gender roles and applied to biology.