Sunday, October 14, 2007

Colbert update

I've been thinking about Colbert's new 'book', I am America (and so can you!) for a while. He joked long ago about it being a unique title, which was pretty cute — I think it does work as a kind of non sequitur / classical ungrammatical string. Even "colorless green ideas" took quite a while to become widely used. (Google it … poems, songs, op-ed columns.)

Then there was the thing about it not actually being a book, since books are for 'pantywaists'. (Maybe a gentle jab at the redefinition of 'torture' by our government?)

Today, he's taken over (most of) Maureen Dowd's space in the NYT. Nice job, even if some of the reviews of the book are right that his stuff works better live than in print given his delivery.

What really caught my eye, though, was his quip (If you can use that comfortably for a written text — I keep hearing his voice when I read the column.) about Fred Thompson:
In my opinion, "Law & Order" never sufficiently explained why the Manhattan D.A. had an accent like an Appalachian catfish wrestler.
Is this Low Country southern broadbrush stereotyping of their western cousins? First, Thompson was born in north central Alabama and raised in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, southwest of Nashville. Hardly the mountains. Second, by catfish wrestling he presumably means noodling. Catfish wrestling is surely associated with the South generally, like here, and I gather that it's known in the southern highlands, but it's pretty famously associated with areas farther west, like Arkansas and Oklahoma. Is the deal that he's simply trying to label Thompson an ├╝ber-redneck? I guess bootleggers are not hip and current enough and NASCAR drivers are too upscale.


The Ridger, FCD said...

I think it's fascinating to try to explain just why the title is ungrammatical.

Clearly, the modal "can" can be used with "to be", and "you can be America, too!" is perfectly acceptable.

We're used to the second clause following a modal in the first (I can be America, and you can be, too!) but things like on the order of "I lost weight on this diet and you can, too!" are also perfectly fine. And note that here, "lose weight" doesn't need repeating.

But while, "I lost weight and you can, too" works, "I am thin, and you can be, too" is the only way to say that. Not "I am thin and you can, too".

So what is it, exactly, that makes "I am America, and you can, too!" not work? Why does the verb "be" have to be repeated? Because it does.

The Ridger, FCD said...

I forgot to say, when I was editing that, that with a modal in the first clause (I can be America) you actually can get away without the "be" in the second: I can be America, and you can, too!

Mr. Verb said...

Good point. Yeah, I assume it's that verb issue, where the deletion requires identity, and this violates that.

But the weird thing is, when I first heard/saw the title, I tried to read it as utterly disconnected clauses … like "I am America (and violets are blue!). That is, it took a minute to realize it was a single, ungrammatical utterance.

The title has grown on me, by the way.

Ollock said...

As for the Appalachian quip, being from West Virginia I know Thompson definitely doesn't sound like anyone from around here. Maybe like someone from the southern part of the state or maybe in Virginia, but his accent definitely makes me think more of Alababma or Georgia before I ever think of the more mountainous regions.

Joe said...

As someone from western North Carolina, I definitely agree ... Thompson's not mountain.