The devolution of blasé

Celebrity author blurb on the cover of the book I’m currently teaching (meaning I have to stare at it all the time, which led me to vent in this post):

“David Foster Wallace turns the short story upside down and inside out, making the adjectives ‘inventive,’ ‘unique,’ and ‘original’ seem blasé.” –T. Coraghessan Boyle

It’s been twitching in my craw, this use of the word “blasé” as if an adjective can feel detached or unconcerned or filled with ennui (or anything at all). In trying to rationalize how that usage could possibly work, I realized that I was hoping that there was another meaning of “blasé” that I didn’t know about, one that would make this usage right and smart and appropriate; barring that, that there was a way in which TCB would be using the word creatively to give it a new meaning so I could continue to trust my authors, especially these authors, to know more about language than I do. It’s TCB! His linguistic artistry created the goshdarned Tortilla Curtain! It’s on the cover of DFW’s book, for Pete’s sake, and DFW has published a long list of commonly misused words and phrases that infuriate him– “quotes” for “quotation marks,” for example, or “the reason why.” Several of the entries in this list fill me with shame because I don’t know why they’re wrong, but you better believe David Foster Wallace does. How, oh how, could he have let this blurb stand? Did the original blurb say “very unique” and he felt like he could only edit one thing out without jeopardizing his blurb karma for his next book?

My frustration and disappointment after learning that “blasé” did indeed mean only as much as I already thought it did, and no more, led to a more abstract conversation with Scott about the malleability of language and grammar—a conversation that I’ve had before and one that always makes me feel vaguely uptight. I do believe that language is organic and should evolve with the times. I think the distinction for me is whether something becomes accepted or approved usage as a result of an acknowledgement of times and usage progressing, which is fine with me, or whether it becomes accepted because so many people say it wrong that it becomes normalized and it sounds funny to say it the right way now that it’s so uncommon. So “Cyberspace” being in the dictionary: Yes. Whatever. It didn’t used to be a thing, and now it’s a thing. “I could care less”: No. It was never a thing and it never should be a thing. It doesn’t need to be a thing just because so many people don’t know any better that we all of a sudden need to dumb down the rules. I like the rules, even if my own language doesn’t always reflect that.

Pursuing this further to try to figure out exactly what my problem with normalizing misusages was, I said, “I mean, it’s so lowest common denominator,” to which Scott responded, “But you’re doing exactly what you’re objecting to.” I don’t quite agree. Using a noun (or in this case, a noun phrase) as an adjective or a verb is deliberate, even creative (though once we get into the realm of corporate speak, as in “let’s roundtable via webinar until we brainstorm a solve for this so we can close the loop,” it’s a whole nother story). Using “who” instead of “whom” because you just don’t know the difference, or “Keep this between you and I” because you think it sounds all “correct,” is not creative; it’s ignorant, and it must be flushed out like the word-turd it is.

Scott’s position here is that the “norms” of language, the loss of whose universal understanding I was mourning, were only “norms” for a short time. I was arguing that at one point “when people were better educated,” more people knew how to use grammar correctly. He pressed me for when exactly that exalted time was, and yes I know that women and non-rich people only got access to education relatively recently in the grand scheme, but I was talking about the way in which 100 years ago, a classical education included Latin and Greek (neither of which I have) and the proper way to diagram a sentence (ditto). He pointed out that this was a tiny window from sometime in the 19th century up to about 30 years ago, when people stopped caring about it. “Just because the guys in top hats cared, it’s supposed to be meaningful, but in the big picture, that stuff only mattered for a short blip,” he argued, rather convincingly. And while I’d love to strut around with Latin and Greek and sentence diagramming in the holsters on my tool belt, the reality that any of my students would point out to me is that they have no real use in the modern world (I could handily disagree, of course, but would be outshouted).

The fact that this whole musing started with that troubling blurb is all the more ironic because DFW Tha Wordmasta Himself has written the most in-depth exploration I’ve ever read on this topic (okay, it’s also the only one I’ve ever read, but unsurprisingly, it goes into excruciating, tangled, funny, and copiously footnoted detail, for 60 pages). In this essay, called “Authority and American Usage” (originally in Harper’s as “Tense Present”), he delves into the differing schools of thought about the evolution of language (Prescriptivists, who believe Tea Partyishly in a literal interpretation of and strict adherence to the Elements of Style, versus Descriptivists, who believe that as long as a form of language is common usage for some subset of native speakers, it counts, yo). The arguments for either side are fascinating, as are Wallace’s accounts of growing up in a family of “the sort of people who feel that special blend of wincing despair and sneering superiority when they see EXPRESS LANE—10 ITEMS OR LESS.” It also contains the list of grammar and usage violations I mentioned above. The man gets into it.

DFW, he cared. He acknowledged that caring about this would put any kid on the fast track to social outcastville, but that he was raised to care and he couldn’t help caring. He also tried to get his students to care, with the consequence of having an official complaint lodged against him by one who thought he was being racist. I’m just burning to know what he thought about that “blasé” blurb in his secret mind.

I guess my question here is why I still care. (David Foster Wallace, at this point, does not.) I use the traditional arguments with my students, that these conventions (of, say, correctly placed commas) help us to communicate cooperatively with each other by using shared conventions on which we all agree, in the same way that we agree that red means stop and green means go and this agreement helps our society to flow smoothly. But language IS organic, and usage IS the primary determinant of understanding and context. If every single fucking person in the world is going to use “mortified” to mean “horrified,” which apparently they are, at some point it won’t even mean “humiliated” anymore, and I’ll just have to sit there stewing and be all mortified by that change. So if Mister Big Pants T.C. “Tortilla Curtain” Boyle wants to refer to some unsentient adjectives as blasé, maybe that’s something I, Little Miss Never Even Wrote a Novel, just need to be more blasé about.

21 responses to “The devolution of blasé”

  1. PB says:

    I have been reading a lot lately about how culture develops and how we can change it. Most of my reading discusses the role of language in defining culture. Language is how we label reality and shared language is particularly powerful whether harnessed for good or evil. If you can change common language you can change the way people perceive or actually feel about a thing – but it is changing deep collective brain grooves and it is very difficult. It is facinating to read about this on an organizational level – but to your point a little scary on a grander societal level. Like you, what troubles me is the lack of respect for or study of or curiousity about language. They are just words, anything goes, whatev. But each word is a construct that carries its own history and human narrative, are we so willing to throw it out or mangle it without pause because it is too long or hard to pronounce or we were just too lazy to look up the real definition? I get heckled all the time because of my “quaint” vocabulary and I say, go figure out how “impacted” you are by my language in another room please.

  2. Rachel says:

    Things actually said to me by administrators at work this week:

    “I would like to get together and do some visioning with you.”

    “How would you operationalize that strategy on a going-forward basis?”

    People in business hate language, or at least I used to think so. More likely, they’re exhibiting a desire to conform combined with a serious lack of imagination.

    One aspect of written usage that seems like it will disappear in our lifetimes is the apostrophe in the possessive plural noun. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve received memos that refer to “meeting students needs.” It gives me a sad, as the lolcats would say.

    That DFW essay is pure gold. I, too, struggle with teaching students “standard English” as a tool of empowerment, an upward-mobility thing (that a lot of my former students in Chicago WANTED to master for precisely that reason) and respecting the grammatically logical, endlessly expressive non-standard English that they have already mastered. Add written communication to that and the problem is very ideologically charged. But questions of literacy always have been so, as you observe.

    Then there are students, like many of the people I teach now, who grow up smack in the middle of the mainstream and just can’t be bothered to learn their own language. Again, I has a sad.

  3. F. P. Smearcase says:

    Argh this has like forty things in each paragraph I have something to say about. I’m short-circuiting.

  4. Unique says:

    Listen, I only seem blasé. It’s part of my act. Part of what makes me so very unique.

  5. swells says:

    Do you like how the pronoun I used for the referent “person” in the last paragraph is “they,” and how the entire post ends with a preposition?

    Just wavin’ from my glass house.

  6. LP says:

    Swells, I love this post! I love the outrage, and the image of you wearing a tool belt with holsters and whipping out your diagrammed sentences or whatever.

    However. I’m wondering if you can elaborate on this:

    “Using a noun (or in this case, a noun phrase) as an adjective or a verb is deliberate, even creative (though once we get into the realm of corporate speak, as in “let’s roundtable via webinar until we brainstorm a solve for this so we can close the loop,” it’s a whole nother story).”

    Why is it a whole nother story? Isn’t it the same story, just in different contexts? I don’t much like corporate-speak either, but there is a certain creativity to it, and it exists for a reason. Yes, I like to mock it as much as the next person, but a little part of me also thinks it’s kind of cool that people are boldly manipulating the language to suit their needs, no matter how goofy it sounds.

    Overall, I’m not too bothered by changes in meaning and language that occur over time. I don’t wish we all spoke English like we did in 1850, though I do enjoy going back and reading things written during that time. In fact, some changes that drive others batty, I welcome. I’m kind of glad that “enormity” is now popularly used to mean “bigness” – I like the word and have more opportunity to use it with that meaning than its actual meaning.

    And re: David Foster Wallace, or “DFW,” as his legions of fans affectionately refer to him. I share Geoff Dyer’s literary allergy to his writing. I recognize that he was brilliant, but I just don’t enjoy reading his stuff. I loved the first few things I read, notably “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” but then the more I read, the more irritated I became by his tics and tricks. I feel bad about this, like I’m a lesser reader somehow for not loving him. But there you have it. As Dyer wrote:

    “It’s not that I dislike the extravagance, the excess, the beanie-baroque, the phat loquacity. They just bug the crap out of me. As do the obsessive parenthesising, insistent italicising, footnote-generating footnotes and typographical gimmickry that reaches a kind of apotheosis of unreadability in ‘Host,’ from Consider the Lobster. And it bugs me, of course, that his style is catching, highly infectious.”

  7. Tim says:

    I’m with Smearcase. Too much to say about this, and too much to do at work to spend the time right now. Howevers, one little thing about usage that you already know. Words change meaning. “Mortify” comes from the Old French “to kill” and came to have a different meaning in religious practice — “to mortify the flesh” meant to subdue one’s bodily needs in an effort to get closer to god. A century later it came to mean “to humiliate”. It’s hard to argue that the extension of a verb to metaphorical meanings — from “kill” to “subdue” to “humiliate” — has to be stopped if it spreads to encompass yet more meanings. If we start insisting that “mortify” can only mean “humiliate”, why stop there? Maybe it should only mean “kill”. Now, as for “blasé” . . .

    P.S. For rules on exclusion of punctuation from inside of “quotation marks”, see that venerable book How to Correct Your Friends Like a Dick.

  8. ScottyGee says:

    I wonder if any of you could address the idea that you’re all (for the most part) pros at the English thing, and you seem to be holding the rest of us to your highest standards. Would this not be unlike Steve Nash rolling his eyes about how none of us have a 95% free throw average?

    I understand the confusion, and maybe my analogy is faulty — we all do speak the same language after all, but still, is Nash going to show up to my Saturday basketball game to school us all on our lack of behind-the-back passing skills?

    Also, I’d like to state that I am a little queasy over my name being in this post. Our conversation over language was one of those couple exploring an idea discussions. I do not for a second claim to be anything other than a complete novice when it comes to language.

  9. ScottyGee says:

    …and how about my lack of grammar skills? Pretty bad, eh?

  10. J-Man says:

    Wow – this is so fascinating. I love watching the arguments being lobbed back and forth. While I, too, agree with Mr. Smearcase that there’s so much to comment on here, I only wish I could participate in a studied and intelligent manner like y’all. Having married One Who not only Cares, but Knows (I thought I was One Who Knows but it turned out I wasn’t) I’ve learned to wince and sneer along with the rest of you at misplaced apostrophes and improper use of words. However, I think I’ll do better to just sit back and watch you all ideate ongoingly.

    All is not lost: the express lane signs at Trader Joe’s in Silverlake say “12 Items or Fewer”.

  11. LP says:

    8: I think that’s a very good analogy. Why do we roll our eyes at people who misuse words? Why do we expect everyone to have the same level of competence in something they may not have been taught well and/or may not care about?

    I used to be more snobbish about language. Early in my career, I did a project with a newspaper reporter who was incredibly diligent, asked penetrating questions, got people to tell her important things, and then misused words in her writing and speech. It used to drive me CRAZY when we’d be sitting in an interview and she’d say “I was so incredulous.” I’d just squirm in my seat, feeling smugly miserable.

    But as time went on, I realized that the skills this reporter had were not only rare, but much more vital to her work than the ability to use every word or grammatical construction correctly. She had an editor (and a collaborator, me) to help her with the x’s and o’s. But nobody saw the big picture like she did. After that, I became measurably less snobbish about how people speak.

    I do, however, get exercised when professional writers / editors let usage and spelling errors slip through into published material. These ARE the experts, and such errors in print means they haven’t done their job well. Like Steve Nash missing a key free throw. Then, IMO, it’s okay to say: Argh.

  12. Tim says:

    This is an interesting point, Scotty, to which I say that the role the professoriate (whether professional or amateur) has is more akin to priests ministering to a flock, rather than highly-skilled professionals entertaining a crowd with high achievement. Professional writers like DFW (it always makes me think of Dallas/Fort Worth) take on both roles at various times, both instructing and impressing with great skill.

  13. Ivy says:

    LP, completely agree about the editorial failure thing, and I speak from a position of some empathy, as I AM an editor, and thus know the trials of the job intimately. No matter what, it just isn’t right. What I really object to is ignorance slipping in. Something I have noticed several times recently is the word ‘eek’ used when ‘eke’ is meant. It creates some truly starting and demented sentences, enjoyable, but just wrong, dammit.

  14. jeremy says:

    I love you, Steph, for being such a nerd (a nerd after my own heart, of course). This is like a conversation about Dungeons & Dragons. But dorkier. And awesomer. (Wait, is that a word?)

    Anyway, there was an interesting article in Slate recently, “The ‘nonplussed’ problem,” that asks, “how long should we cling to a word’s original meaning?” It also attempts to rank particular words/phrases by “utility rating.” It’s worth reading:

  15. swells says:

    #7: If you insist on Correcting Your Friends Like a Dick, I must point out that the question of punctuation marks inside quotation marks is absolutely a matter of usage and style, generally divided between British (punctuation marks outside) and American (always inside if it’s a period or a comma). See Chicago Manual of Style. I’m an American, and therefore, etc.

    This rule was beaten into me against my will at my very first job, which was as an editorial assistant at a publishing house. I had always used logic to determine whether the punctuation goes inside or outside the quotes, but it was not the house style, and I really screamed and cried against it until I was forced to submit. It’s been engrained in me ever since.

    Two other things I have been wanting to mention: Jeremy, #14, deserves the credit for exposing me to that Wallace article in the first place, for which I remain deeply grateful.

    And finally, I don’t even remember what the post was, but it has haunted me for a long time that I once misused “This begs the question,” misuse of which is now one of my pet peeves, IN A TGW POST. I would like to acknowledge the kind restraint of every one of you who noticed and didn’t Correct Me Like a Dick, which I bet is most or all of you. I just want you to know that I know better now.

  16. swells says:

    P.S.: Jeremy, did you notice that today I posted that long list of no-nos from DFW outside our office door, under the heading “David Foster Wallace Says: DON’T DO IT!”

  17. swells says:

    And yes that should have ended with a question mark. This is why it’s too risky to bring up topics like this!

  18. LP says:

    11: Ha! Ha! I meant to write “It was so incredulous!” but left off the “t.” No one corrected me! Is it because you didn’t want to embarrass me? Or because you thought I might know some obscure reason why that perfectly correct usage was wrong?

    I kind of wish I had done that on purpose.

  19. swells says:

    I have to say, LP, that comment did make me look up “incredulous.” I didn’t fully understand what was wrong, but thought you might mean she was using it to mean “amazed” rather than “refusing to believe it.” I thought it was just me, not getting the nuances.

  20. AWB says:

    I am out of town and can’t write or read very much well here, but the new DFW is great so far!

  21. AWB says:

    I love this post, Swells. I care too. Yesterday I read a quotation on a wall in a museum in which someone used the word “enormity” appropriately and I felt like putting a gold star next to it. I didn’t have any gold stars.