Sunday, March 25, 2007

Safire's mavenhood on 'go figure'

Today's Safire column swerves from the relatively positive course of recent weeks: Instead of quoting anybody with expertise on the origins of go figure, today's topic, he turns to his mavenhood.

First, there's an interesting little semantic development there. Merriam-Webster defines maven this way:
one who is experienced or knowledgeable, EXPERT; also FREAK 4a
This definition (I think) stays very close to the Yiddish/Hebrew origins of the word, but 'language maven' has come to mean something very different: It's a self-appointed expert, a person dedicated to upholding rules that in part never existed. But the last part of the definition fits — the M-W reference to 'freak' is to the meaning 'ardent enthusiastic', which they give with a part b: 'a person who is obsessed with something a control freak'. Yeah, that gets closer.

His mavens aren't actual experts, like etymologists, lexicographers, linguists, specialists in lexical semantics. They are people who mostly have a college/university affiliation and/or a PhD. And they bring homey chit-chat to the topic, pleasant enough, but no new facts, arguments or insights.

It's time to pour a little whine: A free Mr. Verb t-shirt to the person who can provide a convincing interpretation of this key sentence from his column:
Amid the elitist Language Snobs and the anarchic Language Slobs, among mediacrities and hip-hopocratic jargonauts shooting the Utubes and pretending to be Serius, there stands the fastest-growing crowd of all: un-self-aware writers and speakers, lovers of the language fascinated by its roots and user-judges of its flowering.
Say whuuuuuuuut? Which pieces are typos? Failed clever turns of phrase? What the hell does it mean? Are those last three descriptions the characteristics of a maven? He'd say "Go and figure it out yourself."


Anonymous said...

Closest Safire can come to writing academic English.

I have a few takes on this (but instead of sending out a t-shirt to all the anonymi on the list, just post a pix).

1) Overall view:
part 1: blah blah blah screw you blah blah blah

part 2: "there stands the fastest-growing crowd of all"; an island of clear prose on which we can rest before going forth

part 3: blah blah blah kiss my flowering-you-know-what

2) This passage could be full of circularity and it isn't clear whether the people he's diss-ing in part 1 are the people he's congratulating in part 3. Couldn't "the elitest (better than being eliter I suppose) Language Snobs" be the "lovers of the language fascinated by its roots"? Couldn't the "hip-hopocratic jargonauts shooting the Utubes and pretending to be Serius" be the "user-judges of its flowering"? Couldn't the "anarchic Language Slobs" be aka "speakers"?

3) This is great for anyone teaching possible adjoining spots in syntax. Suppose the phrase "lovers ... roots" was an appositive modifying "speakers". That would leave "user-judges of its flowering" (the most troubling but somehow attractive phrase) as the third in the series (writers, speakers, user-judges). Or the whole thing after "speakers" could be the appositive and wouldn't refer to those no doubt stoned writers who aren't self aware. Or, are the "lovers" also "user-judges"? Makes language-love seem dirty.

4) Finally, calculating all of the possible adjoining locations for "of its flowering" and understanding the ensuing semantic interpretations makes those annoying Chomskian sentences involving reflexives and the phrase "pictures of" seem very relaxing and rose-like.

Mr. Verb said...

Beautifully done, anonymous. Yeah, it's a bottomless pit for tree-drawing exercises.

The print version at least has 'elitist' rather than 'elitest', but that may not mean he's not trying the kind of pun you suggest.