Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Speech Is Magic

Some favorite topics of mine:

Cuss words
Back to the Future
The Bible

All linked together by Lingamish. Read his post, then read the article Eddie links to: Toward an Evangelical Theology of Cussing.

One could add another section to Svigel's excellent paper covering the relevance of speech-act theory to cussing. More noticeably than most other words, curse or swear words do things. Taken at face value, they invoke a curse or register an oath. Of course, many people no longer believe that God, or the spirits, or the universe itself responds to their oaths and curses. But even when used by someone who believes that speech is potent only in the human realm, the words still act. They intimidate, shock, or impress. They grab the hearer by the collar and demand attention. That's why it's called strong language.

To forestall an inevitable response: the words do this to the extent that they remain strong language. If, in a given social context, the words become so common that they become accepted, inoffensive, even expected, then their status as "cuss words" is thereby diminished. Doing things with words is essentially magic, and you can't deploy the most powerful magic indefinitely without diminishing returns.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Conversing with Chesterton's Portrait

An interview with Chesterton about Dan Brown (HT: American Chesterton Society). The editor who pieced that together did an excellent job. More than anything, though, the piece reminds me of how great Chesterton himself was. How many authors have a body of work that is unified, vibrant, and vast enough to make this kind of reconstruction plausible?

As the title of the post indicates, the article makes me think of conversing with Chesterton in a portrait from the Potterverse. You're talking with an echo of the person; nothing truly new can emerge from the conversation. At least, nothing new from your interlocutor--you are free to experience new thoughts and insights.

I've imagined doing a sort of stitched-together exchange like this in which Chesterton and Oscar Wilde volley wit and witticisms at each other. Of course, Wilde joined Chesterton's church before the end, so it's not inconceivable that they've had a raucous ongoing conversation in the afterlife.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Sterile Irony

Lileks, writing about MadMen's depiction of the 60s, drop kicks the greatest metaphor ever:

"It may seem impossible to some, but people played the accordion without making sure everyone knew it was being done ironically, or was intended to be understood with a certain amount of irony. God knows I love irony, but it’s the condom the culture puts on when it doesn’t want to enjoy something completely for reasons it will regret in the morning."

Monday, September 14, 2009

I want to bank here

You know that scene at the end of The Shawshank Redemption when Andy hands a bank teller some envelopes and says, "Could you put this in your outgoing mail?" I have always wanted to do that: hand off my mail at the bank with an air of confident sophistication. It's like dropping off your laundry at the gas station. Banking + Mail = Awesome. Seriously, I think about that scene every time I slide a letter into a mailbox or drop it into the bin in the mailroom at work. I would so much rather hand this to a gracious, smiling teller, knowing she would dispatch the task with efficiency and discretion.

But I bank at the grocery store. Banking + Food = Not so cool. Can you imagine handing a letter to a twenty-something, stubbled, mumbly teller in an ill-fitting suit from Target, a half-inch gap between the top of his tie-knot and the top of his collar? Inconceivable. It's off the script. He couldn't ask me if I want my balance with that, or if I want to open a savings account. The steely glares of the five people queued up behind me (heretofore directed at the two tellers busily doing something other than assisting customers) would cut through me like samurai blades.

Yes, I'm waxing wistful and snarky about a two-second scene from a movie. But you got to admit, it is a good movie.

Thursday, September 10, 2009


Last night I saw part of a game show while visiting a friend's apartment. The show ("Lingo") was clearly a word game, but I couldn't follow how it worked. The TV was muted and I was making some effort at conversation.

In the wee hours of the night, I dreamed I was on the show. There was a lot of set-up in the dream: people arriving, explaining who they were, finding their seats. When the time came to actually play the game, various delays popped up--more spectators arrived, the host left the stage, contestants disappeared and we couldn't proceed till they returned.

I got impatient and tried to gather the wayward characters. I started grilling my competitors on the rules of the game, since I hadn't played before. They became evasive, started talking nonsense. I got angry, thinking they were trying to make sure I lost.

Suddenly I realized this fact: The characters in your dreams, being contained entirely within your head, have no knowledge that you do not already have. They couldn't give me a straight answer because I didn't know the rules. I awoke laughing.

My question for you is, have you ever heard this point made before? I feel like I've read it somewhere or seen it in a TV show (sounds like something that would show up in a Star Trek episode). Any ideas?