Tag Archives: language

Open thread on the way some people, right, sort of really talk these days

Speaking extemporaneously in public is difficult. Since I’ve been on radio and TV a few times, and then reviewed the tapes afterward, I’ve developed my own internal criticism (drowning out that critic’s voice is sometimes difficult even while I’m talking). And I’ve also become even more aware of how people talk, to the point of speaking back lines I hear, trying out alternative expressions, and generally driving myself nuts.

Anyway, all that “really, sort of, right,” seems to be ascending toward some kind of peak. I heard this passage on the radio recently (no need to identify the speaker, is there?), and had to jot it down. The discussion was about Google and other tech workers and their buses to San Francisco. That’s enough context:

Look, I think, I mean, so all the data suggests, right, from the recent Census in the last two years, that obviously that center city areas are growing faster than suburban areas. But I think what’s actually interesting that’s happening, when you start to think about the city/suburbs divide, is really what we’re starting to see is are cities and suburbs become more and more alike. And that is to say that cities are having to deal with a lot of the issues that suburban areas have dealt with for a long time, right: crime, density, housing, all those issues. And now I think what we’re starting to see is suburbs, for instance, having to think about themselves becoming more attractive to folks who are looking for this urban lifestyle. So you’re starting to see suburban areas really focus on this idea of creative place-making: how do you really create a unique, authentic place, where people want to live. I think the other interesting thing is for suburbs is that they’re connected on transit, right – this idea of transit-oriented development is really important – how can they be connected to the city in terms of becoming a really sort of key node here. And so, you know, I think what we’re seeing, again, is this sort of shift, right, is what we call sort of this blending, of both cities and suburbs. You know, and just for a second to go back to the point about sort of young people and sort of being – not thinking about community as much – I think what’s interesting is you sort of see this shift of technology workers, back to city centers. What’s interesting is that a lot of technology workers are wanting to live in city centers because they want to have access to a unique, diverse community, they want to be engaged in their communities, so you see more of them taking public transit, you see more of them sharing resources. So it is about I think this sort of you know, it is perhaps a different perspective, but it is about sort of this engagement that we’re starting to see among young technology workers, Millennials, Creatives, etc., that are really going to sort of not be the problem for our cities, but really help us think about the solutions and what’s sort of to try to fix those issues.

Without picking on individuals (too late), any thoughts?

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Academic puffery watch: ‘Utilizing’ edition

If you split hairs, you can argue there is a use for utilize that differentiates it from use. In the Oxford English Dictionary it’s all pretty circular:

  • Utilise: To make or render useful; to convert to use, turn to account.
  • Use: To put to practical use; esp. to make use of in accomplishing a task.

You could get into variants, inflections, and origins. But it’s not worth it. In academic writing I don’t think people do that. I think they use utilize when they are committing puffery (“The action or practice of ‘puffing’ someone or something; extravagant or undeserved praise, esp. for advertising or promotional purposes; writing, etc., intended to have this effect.”)

So it is with heavy heart that I report what could be a comeback for utilize, or at least a stall in the course of its demise. I have this from two sources. First, from the JSTOR academic database:

utilize-coming-back.-jstor

And second, from the general corpus of published material (mostly books) that is in Google Books, using the American English collection for a longer period:utilize-coming-back.

Both show a rise of utilize from obscurity to a peak in the 1970s. Note the peak in academia is about twice as high as the peak in the general collection, at 10.7% compared with 5.3%. But both showed very promising declines until the early 2000s. In retrospect, we see the decline was slowing already in the 1990s. We should have been more vigilant.

Maybe this is just a reversal of progress toward pretending we are above excessive puffery. Which I think is a shame.

This all has something to do with this passage from the chapter titled, “Is a Disinterested Act Possible?” in Practical Reason by Pierre Bourdieu (including the length of the sentence itself):

bourdieu-disinterested

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What’s been queered?

How much has the term, and concept, of queer penetrated the discourse of sexuality, politics and identity?

In the overall use of the terms queer sexualityqueer politics, and queer identity, according to the Google ngrams database of American English usage, queer politics occurs most often, and queer sexuality is last.

queer-useSource: Google ngrams.

On the other hand, as a fraction of references to politics, identity, and sexuality respectively — what you could call the relative penetration of queer — the order is different: queer sexuality has most successfully entered the discourse on sexuality, with queer politics and queer identity quite behind in their relative niches:

queer-penetration

Source: Google ngrams.

(In all of these I used both capitalized and un-capitalized versions. Follow the links to modify the codes yourself.)

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What are we becoming a nation of now?

In Jonathan Haidt’s TED talk, “How common threats can make common political ground,” he mentions an influential New York Times article about how people with college degrees are more likely to get and stay married compared with those without college degrees.

At about 15:20 in the talk, Haidt says: “We are becoming a nation of just two classes.”

And I got to thinking about that phrase, “become a nation of…” It puts the reader at the moment of a transition from an assumed past to a specified future. A Google Books search reveals that we have become a nation of many things over the years:

1805: Becoming a nation of free men.

1815: becoming a nation of drunkards.

1822: becoming a nation of castes.

1840: becoming a nation of bull-dogs.

1856: becoming a nation of music lovers in the legitimate sense of the term.

1905: becoming a nation of dreamers, and then, in the next sentence, becoming a nation of money lovers and materialists.

1905: becoming a nation of physicians or even of lawyers.

1944:  fast becoming a nation of neurotics.

1953: becoming a nation of coffee drinkers instead of one of tea drinkers, like England.

1969: becoming a nation of two societies— one white and one black— separate and unequal. (from this awesome issue of Ebony:)

ebony1969

1977: becoming a nation of the elderly.

1985: Becoming a Nation of Readers.

1987: becoming a NATION OF ILLITERATES.

1988: becoming a nation of hamburger stands, and, in the same sentence, becoming a nation of management consultants, doctors, software designers, and international bankers.

1989: Becoming a Nation of Burger Flippers?

2008: becoming a nation of joiners.

2008: becoming a nation of orthorexics (people with an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating)

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Tripping on tipping points

There you have it: since 2007, the number non-Hispanic White women having babies has fallen faster than the number of babies born to women from all the other race/ethnic groups in the U.S. combined — enough so that the Census Bureau determined that births from the second group outnumbered those in the first for the first time ever in 2011.

If that’s not an exciting enough lead sentence for you, how’s this?

TIPPING POINT!!!

If you followed my Twitter feed yesterday, I’m sorry. At first, my reaction to the New York Times story was disturbed…

Again @NYtimes says 50% is a “tipping point.” Agh! They even published my letter objecting to this & now ignore it.

The too-detailed history of my objecting is here, but it involves the same demographer, William Frey, repeatedly pitching 50% as a “tipping point” to the news media in reference to a series of demographic events. I don’t have anything against the term tipping point, I just don’t like to see it used to hype trends. Also, the figure is mislabeled, since the “Non-white” population there specifically includes White Hispanics. So the dark line should be labeled, “non-[non-Hispanic White],” and the light line should be labeled “non-Hispanic White.”

You’re probably beginning to see why these reporters rarely call me back, and attributing my tirades to sour grapes (which really turned soured after my slogan, “We are the 75%!” failed to catch on).

Anyway, after I settled down, I realized that the reporter, Sabrine Tavernise, had really written a very good third paragraph that attempted to capture the historic moment:

Such a turn has been long expected, but no one was certain when the moment would arrive — signaling a milestone for a nation whose government was founded by white Europeans and has wrestled mightily with issues of race, from the days of slavery, through a civil war, bitter civil rights battles and, most recently, highly charged debates over efforts to restrict immigration.

But then when I got to the Washington Post editorial, my tweeting devolved back to deranged…

America at a tipping point: http://wapo.st/JVflcF <– tipping point in headline, AND “milestone” in lede?! Now they’re gaslighting me.

In fact, that Post editorial also used the term watershed, which they possibly picked up from Andrew Cherlin, who was quoted using it: “This is a watershed moment. It shows us how multicultural we’ve become.”

What is the right way to say it?

The Post was really just using terms randomly. But there must be a way to describe things. I think this event was definitely a milestone. In the Oxford English Dictionary, that is,

A significant stage or event in the progress or development of a society, a career, an individual’s physical and mental growth, etc.; a measure of progress or change.

I would additionally stress the socially-constructed nature of a milestone, since its namesake is a marker placed by humans at arbitrary intervals along a continuous path.

Cherlin may be right that this news will turn out to be a watershed, sometimes called a “watershed divide,” or the point at which water has to choose which way to flow:

Watershed can refer to an important point of division in time as well as geography, as in this from 1878:

Midnight! the outpost of advancing day!‥ The watershed of Time, from which the streams of Yesterday and To-morrow take their way.

All the media attention to this trend may in fact have made it a watershed moment in public discourse. But that is quite different from making it a tipping point, defined now nicely by the OED:

tipping point n. the prevalence of a social phenomenon sufficient to set in motion a process of rapid change; the moment when such a change begins to occur.

It’s very hard to announce the arrival of either watersheds or tipping points when they happen — which is one reason milestones are so useful for marking distance. Looking at the trends in births above, and projections of future demographic change, there is no reason to think this moment is a demographic tipping point. Here is the population projection to 2050, based on the Census Bureau’s current calculations (and using mutually-exclusive race/ethnicity categories):

Based on the 5-year intervals they use, I don’t see anything too non-linear here, suggesting an actual tipping point.

Finally, for some longer-range perspective:

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Why are mothers becoming moms?

Listening to the debate about motherhood in the last few days reminded me of something that’s been nagging me for a while: what does it mean that mothers are becoming moms?

On the Republican side, in his NRA speech Friday, Mitt Romney said, “I happen to believe that all moms are working moms.” (The right-wing radio personality Laura Schlesinger always said, by way of introduction, “I am my kids’ mom,” as the most salient piece of her identity.) On the other side, both Hilary Rosen and President Obama used mom as the toughest-job-in-the-world’s title.

Why is it mom? Back in the 90s, poor single women weren’t “welfare moms.”

Here’s the trend in “working mother” versus “working mom” from Google Ngrams – the occurrence of these terms in the Google Books database:

20120414-001003.jpg

The same pattern appears with just mother versus mom.

I don’t know why this is happening or what it means. Do you?

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Marriage rights, writ wrong

With the big decision striking down California’s Proposition 8 — which banned homogamous marriage — the terminology used is not today’s lead story. But it is a good time to reflect on it.

So, here are the results of last’s weeks Family Inequality reader poll, which asked two questions:

  • When the state permits marriage between pairs of men or women, what do you call it?
  • What to you call marriage between a man and a woman?

With more than 400 page views, there were 58 responses to the first question, 42 to the second, and here is how they broke down:

As I wrote in, “Homogamy Unmodified,” we appear to be largely in an uncomfortable terminological state that pairs “marriage,” which refers to unions between men and women, with “same-sex marriage.” In other words, for a good share of readers, “the normative or hegemonic case requires no specification while others carry a modifier.” It’s not our fault; it’s a tough situation.

Here’s a little bit of perspective to help sort it out.

First, on the positive side, this response from someone who I don’t know:

I adopted your terms for it when you first published the post on hetero/homogamous. These words are so incredibly useful, since I write about sex and gender a lot, and have discussed heterogamous couples with the same gender presentation, etc. It sounds nicer than same-sex marriage and provides an equal term for “opposite-sex” (bleh!) marriage.

That’s the leading 3% for you: Bold, confident, comfortable in her terms. Much more common is a response like this, which I received via email:

[Homogamy] is a fine term for researchers, and I fully get why you like it. But it will never catch on with the press and public, and anyone using it in a speech or a press statement would be met with blank stares and/or hostility for using such big academic words…

I know for a fact this person is wiser than I am, and I can’t disagree. But I hope that’s not true in the long run.

The long run

Consider one piece of historical precedent: polygamy and monogamy. There was a time when monogamy and polygamy were obscure scientific terms. Here’s a footnote that might have elicited some blank stares in 1887, when Herbert Spencer published the third edition of The Principles of Sociology:

The federal government’s war on Mormonism at the end of the 19th Century brought polygamy to the American reading public’s attention, both as a practice and as a term. Here’s the ngrams chart showing the frequency of polygamy and monogamy from 1840 to 2008 in American English:

Most of the references to monogamy back then seem to have been in scientific writings or political discussion of polygamy. Now, of course, it’s a commonly-understood term for a lifestyle choice:

So, try not to get too hung up on the moment, on today’s research paper or the way you learned “homogamy” in grad school. We should try to take the long view (especially those of us who have tenure).

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Chinese: Maternal grandmothers, outside women

Ancient family traditions embedded in Chinese characters. (Or, beginning Chinese meets intermediate demography.)

When a married couple moves into the husband’s family home, it’s an extended family. When that’s the expected arrangement, social scientists call it a patrilocal system (OED defines patrilocal as the “custom of marriage by which the married couple settles in the husband’s home or community.”)

Image used with permission of National Academy of Sciences, PNAS.

Patrilocal customs are very old. This 2008 DNA analysis of 4,600-year-old bones from Germany showed patrilocal living arrangements — as well as exogamy (“the custom by which a man is bound to take a wife outside his own clan or group”). Exogamy is good for genetic diversity, but patrilocality is bad for women’s status: as outsiders in their new homes, they are alone and disconnected from their own families.

Patrilocal China

The patrilocal system in China is one of the foundations of its unique form of patriarchy, embedded in the religious tradition of family ancestor worship — and in the language.

This came up because I was learning the Chinese word for grandmother, which, like other family relationship words, differs according to the lineage in question (maternal grandmother, paternal grandmother, etc.). A common traditional term for maternal grandmother is wài pó, 外婆:

Those two characters separately mean outsider and woman. You can see this yourself: Put them next to each other in Google translate and the English translation is “maternal grandmother.” If you put a space between them the translation is “foreign woman.” The first one alone is “outsider.” (The bottom half of the right-hand term, 女 [nǚ], means woman, and the top half means something else, but in this case just tells you the pronunciation.) For comparison, the common term for paternal grandmother is nǎinai (奶奶), which is the word for “milk” twice.

In an earlier post I learned that the word for good is woman+son (好), and the word for man is field+strength (田+力=男). Someone who knows more about languages can tell me whether Chinese reveals more about the cultural contexts of its word origins than do other languages. Seems like it to me.

Anyway, the patrilocal family tradition in China survived the country’s zig-zag historical progression from feudal to socialist to capitalist. Now, in the one-child-policy era, however, the tradition has become especially harmful to women. That’s because the lack of an adequate state pension system has increased the need for poor families to produce a son — a son whose (patrilocal) marriage will bring a caretaking daughter-in-law into the family — and decreased the return on investment for raising a daughter, who probably will leave to care for her husband’s parents.

One consequence, amply documented in Mara Hvistendahl’s book Unnatural Selection, has been tens of millions of sex-selective abortions, resulting in a sex ratio so skewed that, ironically/tragically, many men will be unable to find wives in the coming years — making it that much harder to have a secure old age for their poor parents.

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Homogamy: Start the presses

Have you said “homogamy” today?

The latest issue of the Journal of Family Theory and Review is out. A young journal, in only its third volume, it’s well worth a look. For example, the current issue features an interesting debate on gender display and housework between Oriel Sullivan, Esther Kluwer, Barbara Risman and Paula England.

But the big blog news is that the issue also includes “Homogamy Unmodified,” in which I write:

I propose that homogamy and heterogamy be used to signify same-sex and opposite-sex unions, respectively, including marriage and cohabitation. This is intended to address a terminology impasse that has given us marriage versus same-sex marriage in popular and academic usage. After a brief review of the word origins and scholarly uses of these terms, I conclude that the new uses for homogamy and heterogamy could be adopted relatively easily, with scientific benefits for categorization, and could remove a conservative bias in the current usage.

Briefly, my issues are:

  • Trying to get consistent, accurate language going for something that will be with us for the rest of human society — making a deliberate choice. Letting language evolve “naturally” in this case is just another way of enabling cognitive pathways that are harmful or misleading.
  • Avoiding the terms “same-sex” and “opposite-sex” because the sexes aren’t opposites.
  • Not trying to get the terms “same-gender” and “different gender” going because it seems even less likely to work than homogamy and heterogamy.
  • Making the categories fit with the scientific terms we use for other issues in marriage and mating, such as those of Greek (monogamy, polygamy, hypergamy, etc.) or Latin (matrilineal, matriarchal, matrilocal, etc.) origin.
  • Not presuming we know the sexual orientation of people just because of the gender of their marriage partners (e.g., “gay marriage,” “straight marriage”). That’s a different issue — highly but not perfectly correlated. Lots of gay (or bisexual) people are in heterogamous marriages.

I hope you will consider it. Try it out in a sentence. For example:

To follow some related arguments I’ve made, see:

Update: Here is the Huffington Post version of this post on the “Gay Marriage” news page. No one told me about the big march for homogamy/heterogamy language reform!

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The appearance of the invention of adolescence

In Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood (2004), historian Steven Mintz wrote of the “invention of adolescence.” Here is the passage (from p. 3 of Huck’s Raft):

Reading about that history in the Families As They Really Are reader with my undergraduate family course, I wondered if that were literally true — the invention of adolescence. Looks that way:


Ngrams has great teaching potential for things like this.

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