Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Zander, Montana, and The Ministry of Sanctioned Words

DERP

* * *
For the latest word-controlling proclamations 
from the Ministry of Sanctioned Words, see here.

As it is the clear and simple duty for poets and novelists in all times and all places to stand for absolute, wild, untrammeled freedom of speech on behalf of their narrators and characters, I draw my weird line in the sand right here in opposing the recent fracases caused by those in the academic community and elsewhere who would strive to create and rule The Ministry of Sanctioned Words. This line has nothing to do with whether banned words are "nice" and everything to do with the power of literature, whose makers have long stood against the dictatorial hive-minds of the world.

* * *

Zander and Montana are texting their friends, talking, and drinking lattes at a corner table in a freshly-renovated lounge at Alastair College.

Zander: Do you ever think about the abyss? I mean, like, space and death and stuff like that.
Montana: I hate philosophy. I went to two classes and dropped. I prefer thingness, you know--like a pebble. Something heavy in the hand. Tactile.
Zander: But just imagine being dead.
Montana: Um. No.
Zander:  Or like the weeping angels got you, tossed you back in time. Use your brain!
Montana [Silence]
Zander: Well?
Montana: I dunno. It's no good.
Zander: What?
Montana (laughs): My brain, you nutcase!
Zander: Hey, shh--you'll be reported to the Ministry of Sanctioned Words.
Montana (drops her phone and fumbles around to pick it up): What Ministry of Sanctioned Words?
Zander: Shh. The Ministry. Haven't you seen the "oppressive impact" posters? At first there were only two or three around campus, but now they're like everywhere. Even in the toilets.
Montana: You're making it all up--maybe not the abyss but the Ministry of Sock-puppet Words.
Zander (lowers his voice): No, you'll get hauled off for questioning if you use words like crazy, girl, you guys, wuss, lame, retarded, gimp--
Montana (shouts): Gimp!
Zander (jerks back and looks around): Shhhh!
Montana (irritated): I'm a budding novelist. I want to write the Great American Novel. How can I do without a word like gimp? It's a really good word. I mean, it's so full of gimposity--it's like essence of gimpness. My characters need to use words with gristle and blood and muscle, not some white-bread, Wonder-loaf words. Would Herman Melville let them take away the gristle words? No, he would not! You are crazy.
Zander: I'm going to have to move to another table if you don't shut up.
Montana: What?
Zander (leaning close and whispering): Shhh. Don't say crazy. 
Montana (stares for a long time before speaking): So what do you say instead of crazy?
Zander: Like, "person with a mental health challenge" or "person with a cognitive disfunction."
Montana: What?
Zander: What what?
Montana: You have a cognitive disfunction?
Zander: Of course not. Didn't you go to the last town hall meeting on campus? About how the culture is racist and patriarchal and even transphobic! Homophobic. Ableist. Symmetricalist. Humorlessnessist. Cellulitist. Orbist. Ageist. Heterosexist! Folliculatist. Honestly, Montana, I really like you a lot, but--
Montana interrupts, making a loud sucking noise with her straw before she crumples up her cup, smiling. She leans close to Zander, making a little twirly motion with her finger close to her ear as she speaks.
Montana: Derp-a-derp-a-derp-a-derp-a-derp.

22 comments:

  1. Forbidding words for whatever reason is a mistake. It isn't as though forbidding the word will eliminate the concept. This might have worked for eliminating smoking, which is as prone to involuntary imitation as yawning, but not for racism, homophobia, etc.

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    1. Yes, making the use of certain words into a speech crime is no help...

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    2. And simply creates a new, different problem, particularly if those influenced by language policers don't see the problem--which it seems many do not.

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    3. Words are a part of our cultural history - they carry meanings that are nuanced and complex and pull together many concepts. Losing words is losing language, and language shapes how we think, so 'banning' words from the vocabulary is an attempt to stop us all from making decisions on how we think about life.
      What interests me is that words can change in meaning over time quite naturally all on their own, and I think that's a far better solution than censoring them out of the language altogether!
      The use of the word 'bossy' (to refer to an earlier blog posting of yours on this subject, Marly) is really rather specific. To be bossy is not to be authoritative, but to be the kind of person who tells others what they should be doing all the time (regardless of merit behind what is being told to do).
      I find it hard to find another word that does quite what 'bossy' does. I have seen little girls who have leadership, I have seen some who have an authoritative air about them, and I have also seen little girls who have been quite bossy!
      By removing the word are we losing that kind of behavior? Nope. We'd have to come up with a completely new word for that - and then get that banned too.
      Better just to ban bossy girls. HA!

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    4. Hah, yourself! Yes, I think time winnows with more genuine authority than we can, and words will always be transforming to meet cultural change. Let it work...

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  2. Mary and I were just talking last night about how the dystopian novels keep coming true, and look, you: now we're living 1984.

    Social change by decree is always successful, right?

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    1. We've had similar conversations... I'll bet a lot of people have, these days.

      "In our age there is no such thing as 'keeping out of politics.' All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia." -Orwell

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    2. I like this Orwell bit: "Language ought to be the joint creation of poets and manual workers."

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  3. One of the small pleasures of self-publishing: I can happily ignore any and all such strictures. Example from Corvus: ‘Listen, sugar, some things never change. Once a nigger lover, always a nigger lover. Only now they call them augers.’

    And if as a writer you aren't offending someone, somewhere, you're probably not doing your job very well.

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    1. These days it's utterly impossible not to offend if you write because genres (literary hates sf, sf hates literary, and so on) and forms have become things to despise for many writers. So one can't actually make a move without offense. All the more reason to defend the word rights of the free maker.

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    2. Yes, indeed. The question is, why? Why so much hatred?

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    3. I can't seem to bother my head about how all that works when there's so much to be bothered about in the world and in the world of books. My fantastical, illusory, mad goal is to write a book that floats up above the level of "good book," and we all know just writing a "good book" is hard.

      But I do see a certain amount of fearfulness in all these fences and barriers. And some people in speculative fiction land seem to be upset about the migration from literary fiction land. Likewise, some of the migrators are defensive and insisting they aren't citizens of speculative fiction land. There's safety in knowing all the inhabitants and fighting wars with your own people--then all of a sudden the little apple cart on which your world is balanced is upset, and everything changes. Is that it? I don't know.

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  4. 'My fantastical, illusory, mad goal is to write a book that floats up above the level of "good book," and we all know just writing a "good book" is hard.'

    It's not a mad goal, though one I don't share. My goal, rather, is simply to write a book that is less awful than the last.

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    1. I expect that in some practical way it boils down to the same thing--that is, exceeding what we were capable of making in the prior book.

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  5. Perhaps, though thinking in negative terms has its impact. But I seem to have got rather off topic, apologies.

    ReplyDelete
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    1. Thinking in negative terms seems to be fruitful for certain writers...

      And off topic wanderings are fine! They often lead to interesting places...

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  6. I have a word for the prisses at The Ministry of Sanctioned Words: POOP.

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    1. And that's why they call you Ms. Mary Boxley B. Profundity! XD

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  7. Folliculatist. Tricotillamaniac. So there! I see the real prob is that I didn't enter seriously into the conversation, Marly. In fact, I confesses, I skimmed the comments rather than read all of em. Oh, well. To Paul Tree: there is a perfectly acceptable grown-up word for "bossy"--the word is "officious." But it doesn't suit all occasions. We wouldn't want to find ourselves speaking of "officious cows," unless we weren't really talking about bovine milk-machines on 4 hooves.
    And to everyone--"dystopian novels" are always coming true, and have been since the beginning of literature as we know it. That is the primary subject of Euripides--and of Dante's Inferno.
    Trichotillamaniacs unite! (Unless, of course you are primarily a gimp or a wuss.)

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    1. Hey, you fast lady, you--there's an article on the web somewhere about Romney being repeatedly called "bossy" in the press, so that blows a hole in the argument that "bossy" is only used against women, I suppose. More than 40 people called him that in print, it seems! Maybe it's just women and Romney.

      Good thought about dystopian visions--makes complete since that the little signs that are used to build a world actually point toward real changes and real elements in the world.

      Meanwhile in other news, The Young Crones Club comes out very strongly against the condemnation of the word "crone."

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  8. I see my grammar is imperfect and I omitted a necessary parenthetical comma at the end. Alas! Wellaway!

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    1. 'Tis what comes of being a fast lady. You are like Mr. Bingley in "Pride and Prejudice."

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.