[Smt-talk] One Thought on Language Use

art samplaski agsvtp at hotmail.com
Mon Sep 17 14:17:01 PDT 2012

Dear List:

My apologies for the delay in responding--my email access is
limited, and most of the time I can get online I need to be
applying for day jobs and the like.

Re the short flurry of posts about my concern over Dmitri's
writing style, I will reply now and withdraw from any further
debate on the subject. For my second allotted post per day,
I will actually reply to a substantive part of his original

First, many thanks to David Feurzeig for the mention of E. B.
White's comments, which were (just a bit eye-opening and)
fascinating.:) Both his and Dmitri's first section of reply
deserve a good "Touché!":) Re Jim Bennighof's wondering
whether I was being tongue-in-cheek on using combat and pillory
as verbs--nope, those were real. Once we get into length of use
in one sense and appealing to the OED, those two usages have
been around since 1600 or earlier, which is more than enough to
grandfa,er,grant them legitimate status under a grandfather
clause.:) And Michael Morse already replied to Nicolas Meeús'
query re "to chronicle.":)

Getting to the heart of the debate, it seems to me that Dmitri
and like-minded others are taking a stance that can be (somewhat
bluntly) stated as, "Language is always changing; this use has
been around for 40 years, which is long enough to make it
accepted; so get over it, dude." (I'm reminded of the t-shirts
that became somewhat popular--James Cameron is alleged to have
worn one very enthusiastically--at the height of the, ahh,
emotional response by pre-teen girls to _Titanic_, which read,
"The ship sank. Get over it.":) I am certainly not denying the
first part of that phrasing--otherwise we'd all have to go back
to Proto-Indo-European or whatever.

The movie-soundbite version of my reply, and perhaps others who
agree with my stance, is to quote the motto of the Sierra Club:
"Not blind opposition to progress, but opposition to blind
progress." Someone on a different discussion forum had replied
to me about my mention of the misuse, and in like vein noted
that the OED says the first verified use of "transition" as a
verb occurred in a 1975 issue of _Aviation Week & Space Technology_,
something I already knew. A friend wrote back privately and gave
permission to quote their email as long as I removed all identifying
information about him/her/it/them/other, for obvious reasons. I
take the liberty of quoting my friend's material in not-quite-full:

> If something's old enough, it's automatically good, eh? Silly
> wabbit. A bad idea held by many people for a long time is still
> a bad idea.*  
> *Quoted from Lucy Hornstein's blog:  http://dinosaurmusings.wordpress.com
> The language mangling predates the '70s, though. Tom Watson Jr.
> [of IBM] wrote a memo defining it [...]  I kept it posted on my
> cubicle wall for many years. He called it gobbledygook.
> Gobbledygook
> A foreign language has been creeping into many of the presentations I hear and
> the memos I read. It adds nothing to a message but noise, and I want your help
> in stamping it out. It's called gobbledygook. There's no shortage of examples.
> Nothing seems to get finished anymore it gets "finalized." Things don't happen
> at the same time but "coincident with this action." Believe it or not, people
> will talk about taking a "commitment position" and then because of the
> "volatility of schedule changes" they will "decommit" so that our "posture
> vis-à-vis some data base that needs a sizing will be able to enhance
> competitive positions." That's gobbledygook. (February 19, 1970)
> IBM has a page of Watson quotes on its website:
> http://www-03.ibm.com/ibm/history/exhibits/watsonjr/watsonjr_quoted.html

The various Watson quotes are absolutely worth detailed study today.

In the serious portion of Dmitri's reply to me, he writes,
> The goal
> of corpus-based approaches, in both linguistics and music, is to actually *check*
> these intuitions against real data.  The results can often be surprising.

Absolutely no argument here--I've had "???!?!" experiences in my own
corpus-based and empirical work. An example at the risk of blowing my
own horn: in the corpus study of diatonic fugue subjects and keyboard
melody incipits whose results I presented at both SMPC and SMT last year,
to sidestep the minefield of multiple flavors of minor I treated both
inflections of scale degrees six and seven (le/la/te/ti) as diatonic.
(I also did all tabulations solely in terms of solfège syllables to
avoid problems of using pcset-theory sensibilities, which I believe
helped in part to lead to the 20-year impasse re models of tonic
inference.) La and Te almost never occurred except in descending-sigh
patterns. In other words, those melodies effectively were almost all
written in "harmonic" minor!! A finding with potentially significant
implications for aural skills pedagogy, eh?

That said, it's not an issue of how frequently "transition" is being
used as a verb or for how long; I feel it is purely the case that
using it as a verb is a misuse of language. Perceiving that as misuse
is commonly, if possibly inaccurately, associated with management and
bureaucrats, but whether such perception is inaccurate is also besides
the point. The misuse _of itself_ helps foster a mindset that obfuscating
language and pointless jargon is how "professional writing" should be,
and leads to the gobbledygook that Watson--in vain, alas--railed against...
with the result that nobody (especially any stakeholder community that
might object to some proposal) can understand what is really being
discussed. Steve Laitz' absolutely marvelous spoof is exactly the thing
I would wish us all collectively and individually to avoid. (For the
record, I have about 10**75 more respect for NASA than for corporate
bureaucrats; but NASA people need to limit themselves to speaking in
acronyms, not this stuff.:)

My friend also begged:
> Spare a thought for me, for I work at a place where medical, business
> and technical jargon all flourish and interbreed, producing ever more
> obscure pseudo-words and choking the meaning out of any sentence
> unfortunate enough to wander past.

Again, I've long admired Dmitri's clear and thoughtful (and thought-
provoking) posts, and always read them whether I agree with him on
any particular point--*MUCH* more than I would ever do for, say, the
Tea Party. That's why I was so disappointed to see him start his post
in that manner. As for his reply that he finds it perfectly normal
usage, having grown up in (apparently) a world of management-speak,
I can only shake my head. I mean, what am I supposed to say? "OMG
kids 2day--ROTFL!" I don't think so... especially not the last bit.

Art Samplaski
Ithaca, NY

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