• Monthly Archives: March 2020

Repeating A Post from May 2013: “That’s A Really Good/Great Question”

March 27, 2020

During the last few weeks, when all sorts of politicians and others are being interviewed by the media, one cannot help observing how often these persons respond to every question by beginning their answers with the utterance, “That’s a really good/good/great/excellent question…” Therefore, Y-H-B has been moved to repeat a post first published here in May 2013, as follows:

Speakers of (American) English not infrequently start answers to a question with one or another variant of the sentence “That’s a good question.” It can be heard, for instance, in broadcast interviews, but not only. This opening can be annoying to the questioner (or to someone listening/overhearing the conversation) because it may seem utterly otiose. However, it does have the multiple communicative effect of: (1) complimenting the questioner for posing the question; (2) informing the questioner that an adequate answer may not be in the powers of the interlocutor, and forestalling a censorious judgment (silently) resulting therefrom; and (3) keeping the channel of communication open withal.

The last effect fulfills the so-called PHATIC FUNCTION, i. e., that of keeping the conversation going. Speech gambits that keep the channel of communication open include not only whole sentences but a range of vocables that are not really words sensu stricto but sounds such as “uh-huh,”hm,” grunts, and even audible intakes of air. These are all (largely unconsciously) meant to avoid creating the effect that one of the parties to the conversation is not listening or not interested in keeping it going. All genuine conversations (unlike speeches or declarations) are embedded in a social matrix, in which mollifying one’s interlocutor is an intermittently necessary goal among others.


Trump’s Incessant Repetition of Certain Words as an Indication of an Underlying Pathology

March 22, 2020

To prove the proposition that has been enunciated in a previous post, viz. “You are what you say,” no one listening to Donald Trump’s public speech this week during press briefings by his Coronovirus Task Force can be unaware of the fact that he incessantly repeats the adjectives “incredible,” “tremendous,” “amazing,” “great,” and “unbelievable,” applying them as qualifiers to nearly every substantive he utters. What is to be discerned in this indiscriminate usage is just that: the inability to discriminate between the items being qualified by these adjectives as to the items’ SEMANTIC VALUE. If everything is “incredible, unbelievable, tremendous,” etc., then this is tantamount to NOTHING BEING DIFFERENT FROM ANYTHING ELSE.

This linguistic habit (along with the catastrophically error-ridden syntax) pervading Trump’s speech is a sign of an underlying pathology––perhaps even of one pathology among several, including anosognosia, the pathological absence of self-awareness. Whatever else is true of Trump, this deficit alone is true and undeniable, and it alone disqualifies him from continuing to serve as the president of the United States.


Grammar in the Time of the Plague: The Malleability of Language

March 20, 2020

The so-called COVID-19 crisis may not be the Black Death of the Middle Ages, but in the digital age it has brought out the fact that the media have utilized the malleability of contemporary American English to couch their utterances in ways that may seem to wreak havoc with the boundaries between traditional grammatical categories, namely the fundamental distinction between nouns and verbs.

That is what is happening when media language takes a noun phrase like “social distance” and makes a verb out of it; or “self-quarantine,” etc., etc. English in the twenty-first century (on both sides of the Atlantic) increasingly feels no compunction about making verbs out of nouns, or for that matter, nouns out of verbs, e.g. “good read,” “recent ask,” etc., etc.

At a time when social communication of all kinds is at a premium, we all benefit from the digital revolution that will ultimately conquer even the contemporary iteration of the Plague.


[ADDENDUM: Readers who know Russian may wish to (re)read Pushkin’s so-called ‘Little Tragedy’ “Пир во время чумы” (“Feast During the Plague”), loosely based on a scene from John Wilson’s poem “City of the Plague” (1817). For a definitive analysis of all four ‘Little Tragedies’ see my “The Metonymic Structure of Pushkin’s ‘Little Tragedies’,” which is chapter 8 in Michael and Marianne Shapiro, Figuration in Verbal Art (Princeton University Press, 1988).

The Glossary of Useful Words 15: ‘redoubtable’

March 8, 2020

A very useful word that no longer seems to be part of public speech and is not heard from ordinary users of English is redoubtable, first borrowed from Middle French and attested in the fifteenth century, viz. the adjective defined by the OED as follows:

“Esp. of a person: that is to be revered, commanding respect; formidable, esp. as an opponent; that is to be feared or dreaded.”

The latter part of the definition (“that is to be feared or dreaded”) has largely fallen out of mind when used today.

Merriam-Webster Unabridged online lists this aspect of the meaning first but follows it with the more contemporary definitions “inspiring awe or reverence: august, eminent” and “doughty, illustrious” in third place.

Y-H-B has used it recently with reference to the best bartender in Christendom, Patrick Honan, and his stalwart wife, Kelley Ramsey.


You Are What You Say (Redivivus)

March 5, 2020

This blog has relentlessly and unabashedly pursue the principle that every speaker is what they say. This underlies the title of my book, The Speaking Self. If more evidence for the rightness of this view were needed, Y-H-B encountered it on the streets of Manhattan this morning when going to fetch his car from a garage on East 73rd Street, when he passed a woman on Lexington Avenue who looked to be in her fifties or sixties talking on her cell phone and uttering the phrase “fucking putzoid,” which Y-H-B had never heard before. The word putz is known and used well enough, but the combination “fucking putzoid” was new to me. That a woman would utter such a profanity was strange to me, but it must have been something that she had used before. That she was willing to say such a thing was indirect but powerful evidence of her forma mentalis. QED.