Sunday, May 06, 2007

Safire: "Thinking linguistically"

Ya, right. Sometimes on the day our trash is picked up, I put off taking the can out to the street. I know it's got to be done, that it's not going to take that long, etc., but something about the job makes me put it off for a while until I finally figure "gotta get this over with before I forget." You see where this is going on the day when I normally post about Safire's latest.

Today's "On Language" is all about a (non-)problem with middle age, after a maven, Erik Smith, wrote in to assert that calling a 64-year-old (Harrison Ford) middle-aged says that Ford can expect to live to be 128. Actually, I think we'd prefer to use 'median-aged', 'at life's midpoint', or something for that. Obviously, where the midpoint of life falls can only be determined post facto and it seems both uncomfortable and absurd to give it much thought, really.

In fact, it never really occurred to me how far beyond the halfway point of my life I am. Gee, thanks, Prof. Erik Smith of Concordia University in Montreal. Wait a minute: The Concordia faculty directory shows no such person. What is that about? Safire making stuff up? Surely he's not protecting the guy's identity. Happier view: Probably getting scammed by one of the several excellent linguists on staff there. Need support for that view? There is a stat prof listed by this name at another university, in this country. OK, the spelling is different (c/k) and it is a common name. But hey.

Safire makes his transition this way by suggesting that he's "thinking linguistically and not statistically". Nobody addressed any statistical point (or other point about numbers) beyond misinterpreting the meaning of the common English word middle, and he doesn't go on to think linguistically, of course. At least he does deal with the usual meaning relying on OED, namely that middle age is "between young adulthood and old age". (And no, no references to work by language professionals beyond checking the OED.) In the end, he suggests that we should use midlife to refer to this stage of our moment on earth. While he calls it "untainted", surely the association with midlife crisis is too well-established for most of us for that to work. Google midlife and you'll see what I mean … it's about careers, relationships, neck pain, etc. "Untainted"? Nice one, Einstein. (Slow clapping.)

Ironically, after I've recently been using Jan Freeman's "The Word" as a contrast to Safire's "On Language" on ways of writing for a general public, Freeman's column today is actually called "May I do your homework?" It's about how high school kids write to her asking her, in essence, to do the research for their papers. (Professors all know this you-do-the-work, I'll-get-the-grade routine.) She rightly notes, "They were asking me to do the fun part of their assignment." The relevance to Safire is obvious: If most of us had his job, we'd be poring over cool data ourselves. He doesn't even just have his assistant collect stuff to pore over, but they send out fairly regular requests to ads-l asking people to do their research.


The Ridger, FCD said...

I know what you mean: I wish someone would pay me to chase around through piles of lovely linguistic data.

Mr. Verb said...

Yeah, if we won the lottery, that's how we'd spend a lot of our time, right?