• Monthly Archives: April 2009

Backing into the Past

April 30, 2009

Over the last decade or more, what used to be the standard manner of referring to events in the past by designating their dates in a prepositional phrase is being replaced by a longer form whereby the word back is inserted before the preposition regardless of the proximity of the past event to the speech event. Here are some recent examples:

(1) “There was a moment back in 2002 when . . . [opening sentence]” (Caryn James, “Aniston Agonistes: Good Girl, Bad Choices,” The New York Times [henceforth NYT], 6/5/06, p. B1);

(2) “The author of seven other books, she was a fellow at the library when she first got the idea back in 2001, on 9/11″ (Patricia Cohen, NYT, 2/14/08, p. B9);

(3) “back in January” – said in February (unidentified man, viva voce; cf. [way] back [when]).

(4) “Back in the seventeenth century, the original text had been registered for publication as” (Jonathan Bate, Soul of the Age (New York: Random House, 2009], p. 341)

The last is a particularly telling example. The context is entirely localized temporally in the seventeenth century, i. e., all the events are dated to that time, making the use of the word back utterly otiose. Moreover, it is from a contemporary British author (a university professor at that), showing that this linguistic feature has taken hold cisatlantically.

One hears such examples constantly on the radio and from ordinary speakers; moreover, the preposition in question can be on or during as well as in (back on Thursday, back during the war). And whereas the appearance of back was formerly conditioned strictly by the remoteness of the past event relative to the speech event––a form of emphasis––now the emphatic meaning is apparently being neutralized: the appearance of back is becoming obligatory regardless of the degree of proximity of the past event.

How to explain this development? One more or less speculative explanation comes to mind.

This new––habitual but redundant––use of the locative adverb back with designators of time could be motivated by what might be labeled the avoidance of placeless existence. A past event is by definition no longer existent in the same sense as a present event. This fundamental “non-is-ness” of a past event makes its designation unstable, and thereby in need of extra temporal determination. The most routine way in which all languages fix or anchor time expressions, with their quintessential instability, is by localizing them through the use of words denoting space. Accordingly, the near-obligatory extension to non-emphatic contexts of the emphatic word back before prepositional phrases as a designator of remoteness in time in contemporary American speech may be yet another example of what is clearly a general grammatical tendency.

Michael Shapiro

Fatuity and the Phatic

April 6, 2009

If one is a regular listener to NPR News and the BBC World Service, for all the Americanization of the British source one is still struck by the differences in the way that the readers/hosts on the BBC deal linguistically with reporters by way of their closing acknowledgement of the latter’s reports. Unlike their American counterparts, who trip all over themselves to thank each other, the BBC hosts either say nothing or limit themselves to repeating the name and location of the reporter, occasionally thanking them ex parte (i.e. without waiting for or expecting a response). This is as it should be. After all, courtesy is totally out of place in such exchanges. The reporters are only doing their job, and thanks are not in order. This utterly fatuous misemployment of the phatic function is tantamount to a worker on an assembly line thanking a fellow-worker for passing along an item.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition defines phatic as “Of, relating to, or being speech used to share feelings or to establish a mood of sociability rather than to communicate information or ideas.” The habit of NPR on-the-air personnel’s exchanging the phatic tokens “Thanks,” “You’re welcome,” “My pleasure,” etc. is a kind of linguistic perversion of the speakers’ status and roles. This kind of aporetic speech reaches grotesque proportions when, for instance––as was heard recently––an NPR reporter is thanked by the host for a report on the death of victims of a mass murder and responds “My pleasure.”


The (We)evil of Banality

April 1, 2009

34. Particularly Odious Locutions

On the same page; at the end of the day; give back, reach out, step up, step down, move on; out there, in place; the bottom line is, the fact is, the reality is is that; the whole nine yards, the whole ball of wax; do the math, pay the price, connect the dots, bite the bullet, stay the course; twenty-four seven; blessed, driven; quality time, bad guys, tipping point, poster child, level playing field, slippery slope; on board; going forward; best/worst-case scenario; wake-up call, skill set; from the get go; comfort zone, learning experience, learning curve; (I have) issues; on board, in harm’s way; quite simply; closure, put it behind me, get on with my life; if you will, if you like; speak truth to power; empower, empowerment, empowered; gender, gendered; that said, having said that; you’re correct; absolutely; exactly right; thanks for taking my call, thanks for having me, thanks for asking.

35. Fatuity Is The Bane Of One’s Existence

Fatuity is the bane of one’s existence. Pure posh-lust suppurates from the mouths of the publicum. Their skill set includes connecting the dots before getting on board and staying out of harm’s way. The tipping point comes when they are about to step up or step down––going forward, of course. It is very important to have closure and get on with your life––put it behind you, if you will. That said, at the end of the day, quite simply, the reality is is that they’ve done the math––which is always a good learning experience––so they can move on. Empowerment––especially the gendered kind––is a slippery slope, but if you can get into your comfort zone and stay the course, you’ll end up being the poster child for all those who’ve heard the wake-up call. They have no issues.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO (excerpted from the author’s book, My Wife the Metaphysician, or Lady Murasaki’s Revenge, pp. 83-84)