He Likes 'Like'

NPR's language libertarian approves of a changing English while finding plenty to criticize in political doublespeak.

There's an episode of Fawlty Towers in which the repressed innkeeper played by John Cleese is terrified to find himself under the gaze of a psychiatrist couple staying at his hotel. "You know what they think everything's about, don't you?" he whispers to his wife. "Sex!" That's kind of what it feels like for someone in the word profession to interview linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, a man whose ear for every insincere inflection, every fashionable prefix, every fatuous habit of media expression, is so acute that you can't help feeling a bit verbally naked in his presence. For almost 20 years, Nunberg has been reading his wry, two-minute essays on language and culture on the NPR show Fresh Air. More recently, his work has also been running in the Sunday New York Times, where his humor and insight totally outshine the better known "word buff" William Safire. Going Nucular: Language, Politics, and Culture in Controversial Times (Public Affairs, $18.95) offers 66 selections of Nunberg's work from the last three years. While the title piece examines Dubya's habit of mispronouncing "nuclear"—which Nunberg posits as either a "faux-bubba thing" or else "a bit of borrowed Pentagon swagger"—the Stanford professor does not waste much time on W's overchronicled mangling of the English language. He has fresher fish to fry, noting, for example, how "legend" has been displacing the word "hero." ("That shift . . . is the media's backhand way of celebrating their own power. . . . ") He also tracks the revival of the word "chastity" among the abstinence crowd, who've left behind its broader-minded meaning. ("As one group puts it: 'Chastity is a lifestyle. One date may be too late.' St. Augustine would have cut teens more slack than that.") He's hilarious on corporate mumbo jumbo, observing how today's favorite term of contrition, "unacceptable"—as in, "Our last quarter's revenues were unacceptable"—provides "an elegant way of appropriating the indignation without accepting the blame." Speaking from his office in San Francisco, in the midst of writing a Times column on the Republicans' new "ownership society" coinage, Nunberg affirms that "what I do on Fresh Air isn't linguistics as linguists would use the term. I try to see what words are in the air and see where thinking about them will take you. Words reveal things about how we're thinking that may not be revealed anywhere else." Nunberg typically likes to dissect the simple, unnoticed terms like "special interest," "regime," and "patriot" rather than transparently duplicitous inventions like "tree-density reduction" or "faith-based initiative." "The words that everyone takes for granted are usually the ones that work the most mischief in our political life," he writes. For example, "It says something about our changing sense of national purpose that liberty has been losing ground to freedom over the past century." Nunberg is definitely not one of those grammar scolds who decry the decline of English. "No, that's so boring," he says. In the book, he dispatches conservative language cops and liberal hotheads alike. "If you have tried to figure out the structure of the language and the unconscious rules that we learn," says Nunberg, "you realize how daunting it is, and how complicated they are, and how presumptuous it is for someone to sit there and rule on what one ought to say." In one essay, Nunberg even offers a (not entirely convincing) defense of "like." "'Like' is a really interesting word," he tells me, "whether used as a qualifier—'So I was, like, sitting there'—or what we call the quotative use—'I was like, hey we gotta get out of here.' They come up when they do for a very good reason. They do something that no other expression does; they serve a purpose. To merely say this is another mindless tic misses what's going on." Not that Nunberg has an entirely laissez-faire attitude (he is, after all, the usage editor for the American Heritage Dictionary). His work is marked by a strong faith in the natural evolution of speech as well as a deep suspicion of attempts to engineer it. "There's something very democratic about the way words like 'like' come into the language," he observes. "They have to be chosen over and over. There's a kind of collective decision that we're all going to start saying, 'Whatever.'" By contrast, words such as "empowerment" "are imposed top-down—those are the ones you want to be careful of; [they're] trying to create a sensibility rather than responding to one." So what terms will he be watching most closely in the final weeks of the presidential campaign? "I'll be writing a piece about why 'liberal' is making a comeback now," he says. "I thought the word was dead in the water, but there's been a very sharp jump in the last three or four months in the number of Americans who are willing to describe themselves as liberal. And I think it has to do with the sort of Crips-versus-Bloods rhetoric of the talk shows. You tune in Bill O'Reilly, and you think, 'What an asshole. I guess I must be a liberal.'" info@seattleweekly.com Geoffrey Nunberg will appear at University Book Store at 7 p.m. Thurs., Sept. 30.

 
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