Tuesday, June 21, 2016

When in doubt, dig out the Whitman

      There's a lot of crazy in the world, and from time to time, the on-line world funnels a few quarts of it in your direction. Imagine every junior high school bully who ever lived, packed into one scrabbling sulfurous snake pit in hell, all snarling with one voice.
      The experience was a little ... dispiriting. That's the word.  Not just to see hundreds of trolls prancing about, waving my old dirty laundry over their heads, convinced their worldview is proven, which would be the outcome no matter what I wrote. 
     But to think about what they represent. Something deeply sad about America, about its current moment of paranoia, fear and self-hatred. Shake it off. We should never be sad about America, what Abraham Lincoln called "the last, best hope of earth." 
     So I turn to the nation's supreme poet, Walt Whitman, as a boost. Uncle Walt never disappoints. I pulled down "Leaves of Grass" and was immediately rewarded: "We are not merely a nation, but a nation of nations." He knew that in 1855. The Republicans still haven't figured that out, to their sorrow. Looking to share something more substantial, I poked around Nexis and found this old column, ironically prompted a decade ago by a different terrorist.  It was from when the column was run as a series of small items. I can't remember who the pal was in the second bit.


     "I want to kill Americans," said Zacarias Moussaoui, "I believe every American wants to kill me."
     "I loaf and invite my soul," wrote Walt Whitman, "I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass."
     It would never occur to me to juxtapose the would-be Muslim terrorist and the 19th century American poet, except they share one unexpected common aspect: Moussaoui is identified in press reports as "the 37-year-old al-Qaida conspirator." And Whitman refers to himself, in "Song of Myself," as "thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin/Hoping to cease not til death."
     So two men, both 37, separated by a century and a half of time and an enormity of culture. One an American, drunk on life, wandering the docks and alleys, his heart athrob with goodwill and not a little lust for his fellow man, savoring the sweat of work, the warmth of the sun.
     "Clear and sweet is my soul," he writes. "And clear and sweet is all that is not my soul."
     The other -- and let's all say this together out loud, shall we? -- is a native FRENCHMAN, born in FRANCE, of Moroccan parents. Twisted into a knot of hate, contemptuous of this great nation and its people, facing a quick death strapped to a gurney, or a slow death in a tiny metal room.
     "We want to inflict pain on your country," said Moussaoui.
     I hope you read Moussaoui's comments carefully, as I did. Because to see the lunatic hatred of Moussaoui and to compare it to the expansive humanity of Whitman, the poet of the American soul, is to be reassured.
     Yes, the future is uncertain. There will be dark days -- the armies of Moussaouis still out there will see to that.
     But the spirit of freedom that was rattling around Walt Whitman's head in 1855 has spread across the globe, toppling dictatorships, striking fear in the hearts of repressive parodies of faith.
     We are winning -- in fact, have already won. That's why they hate us so much, though the hate -- as hate inevitably does -- only pulls them down faster.


     Did the word "juxtapose" in the above upset you? Did it cause you to turn the page (it did? But you're still here!) Did you know the meaning? Or take a guess? Did you look it up in a dictionary?
     It's a good word -- it means "to place close together for contrasting effect." I didn't use it to show off, but because it seemed the right word. Nexis says it was used 114 times by U.S. newspapers in the past month. So I'm not alone.
     I say this because you can't imagine the crap I get for using big words ("crap" -- now there's a good short Middle English word for you).
     The common wisdom is that this is a newspaper, where the average reading level is about 12 years old, and thus nothing complex or difficult should be offered. Put the slop where the pigs can get at it.
     I reject that. I think you're smarter than that. I've been fighting this battle for years. I still remember our beloved, regal city editor, Dick Mitchell, rising up from his desk, pointing at me across the newsroom, and shouting, "Polygonic? Polygonic Steinberg!?!" Then a shivering shake of the head and shoulders, as if disgusted to his core. "Nooooooo!"
     Just today, I was walking with an old pal.
     "I've stopped reading your column," he announced.
     "Because you used 'soliloquy' yesterday. Who are you writing for, ancient Greeks?"
     "It was clear in context,'' I stammered, defensively. "Hamlet's soliloquy."
     "Doesn't matter," he said. "Nobody knows what it means."
     "Let's find out," I said, desperate, marching us into a shop and approaching a man in a blue work shirt with his name embroidered over the pocket.
     "Excuse me, we're from the Sun-Times," I said, "and we were wondering, if I referred to 'Hamlet's soliloquy,' would you know what I'm talking about?"
     "Sorry, no" he said, grinning uncomfortably and edging away from me.
     "See?" my pal said. "But is that going to influence you? No way. You're going to cling to your 'soliloquy' " -- you can't imagine the sarcasm and contempt in his voice -- "and your 'ubiquitous' and your 'anachronism' until you don't have any readers left at all!"
     I like to think of myself -- whoops, two syllables, too long -- I like to think of Neil as a guy who can change. So I want to know: is my friend right? Do you find big words bad? Or is the occasional— whoops, four syllables—or is the rare hard word good?
    —Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 16, 2006.


  1. a large vocabulary once was a source of pride. we now live in a world where the mumble is celebrated.

    1. Agreed. I've been castigated at work and by my girlfriend, no less, for using the periodic "big word". It's annoying as hell.

    2. Agreed. I've been castigated at work and by my girlfriend, no less, for using the periodic "big word". It's annoying as hell.

  2. That was quite enjoyable. Nice juxtaposition, and thank you for the chuckles the second part gave me.

  3. That was quite enjoyable. Nice juxtaposition, and thank you for the chuckles the second part gave me.

    1. Why do you double post everything?

    2. @Clark St. -- Three guesses why things sometimes get double-posted, and the first two don't count. Okay, I'll tell you: because sometimes, after typing out a comment and entering the profile and clicking on the blue "publish" box, the post does not immediately appear. It's happened to me often, but I've learned to just be patient, and then, it does finally show up. Just look at the times when Edward Bass's posts were typed -- 6:50 AM and 6:52 AM -- and you can easily figure it out.


    3. Oh, I know that's why he does that, the question is, why doesn't he understand not to keep doing it?

    4. It seems to happen when I leave a reply from my Android phone. I don't purposefully post it twice, that's for certain. Some software quirk is my assumption. Apologies for that.

  4. Word wise, it's good to be challenged.

  5. I think we all enjoy your occasional sesquipedalian ventures Neil. While the current fashion to eschew prolixity and shun showy words is generally appropriate in journalistic reportage, our English language, with its polyglot heritage, has an unusually large vocabulary, and it seems a shame to delimit it's riches and always deny them to the under-educated hoy-p'loy.

    And one really wonders where the journalism school wisdom that readers are at a 12 year old level comes from. What studies were conducted? What indeed comprises a 12 year old level?

    Poets, of course are not so constrained, and are free to set the occasional verbal exotic to shimmer like a jewel in a plain setting.

    "When, as in silks, my Julia goes,
    Then, then (methinks) how sweetly flows
    The liquefaction of her clothes."

    Tom Evans

  6. Once I used "oleaginous" in a newspaper story. My editor shook his head and said, "You send me to the dictionary more than any reporter I've ever had. I used to think I had a good vocabulary until you came along."

    At the time, I took that as a compliment. But looking back on it many years later, I think I would have just gone with "oily."

    Bitter Scribe

  7. I was reading what those Twit trolls have been spewing out at you, it's more like gallons of idiot speak. Where do they get all the time? The mind boggles. May I suggest watching some you tube videos of baby sloths or pandas playing when you've had enough of that ugliness. It's hard not to smile at a baby sloth.
    Chalk me in as another who enjoys your use of multi syllabic vocabulary, a person shouldn't feel they have to dumb it down so that all of the audience understands it. Unfortunately, it seems that even shorter and what I thought was simple words are not as understood. That 12 might have to go down to 9 yrs. Two separate conversations recently, I had to explain what the words harem and bigotry meant. These people were college age.

    1. Thanks Nikki. I also went to Margie's Sunday night and had a Hot Fudge Atomic sundae with pistachio ice cream. That helps too.

  8. I love that you sometimes send me to the dictionary! And I was a linguistics minor in college.

  9. I'll never be too old (auld) to learn something new. Keep up the good work).

  10. Growing up, I was taught if I didn't know the meaning of a word, go look it up in the dictionary.

    Part of the problem is, nobody reads. Too much effort.

    I never understood people who say "I only read when I have to."


    When does one NOT have to read?

    It's one of the things that makes us human beings. We are able to understand life, the universe and everything by virtue of our ability to READ and exchange knowledge with each other.

    And it's a helluva lot more fun if you understand what you're reading.

    Reading expands your vocabulary and, oh, what a delight it is, when one word is leaps and bounds more appropriate, more succinct, more precise, more exquisite in its description than another! FInding a new word is like opening a gift!

    It is what elevates the experience of communication above the mediocre.

    But being more than mediocre takes effort.....

    1. Beautifully put. A little poem by that well-known author "Anonymous" goes:

      "When your light is on all night.
      You're either reading
      Or you're dead,
      Or you're having fun in bed."

      One option is unlooked for. Another a diminishing prospect. But reading is a gift that can keep on giving, usually until the very end.


    2. hahaha, wow.
      the ability to read has literally nothing to do with being human. all of that you listed could just as easily happen without reading. the written language is just a way to communicate, share and record history and/or ideas.

  11. It depends upon your audience. I would not use a word like "soliloquy" in a piece intended for a general readership if I suspected that many of them might have no experience with Shakespeare's "Hamlet".

  12. I don't have any problems with big words, but a lot of journalists overuse them, and metaphors, to the point where it seems like they're trying to justify a college degree that they're still paying off loans for. Just because the word is the biggest you could use, doesn't mean it's the best you could use. The mark of a great writer is brevity, and I think that more journalists should keep that in mind. (Of course, I realize that a lot of the time they're just trying to fill page space with a story that doesn't deserve it.)

  13. Good point, Alex. Same with readers who always quote literature on blogs. After a while, one can see it's just about showing off.

  14. So what's the harm in showing off? Just curious.


  15. i agree with your friend. as a journalist, youre writing for the masses, not for yourself. and you have already had people criticize your vocabulary before, you just choose to continue sounding pretentious. the worst part is you most definitely come off quite pretentious and 'douchey' (for the middle american as you say- another pretentious phrasing) even writing this blog entry, complaining that the common man is too simple minded to understand juxtapose and soliloquy, and continuing to mock insinuating that 2 syllable words must be out of the question.
    ^^ Alex F. & Private couldnt be more accurate, youre coming off like a HS senior with intelligence to prove and a better-than-most attitude. we get it, youre educated, dont be an asshole about it and then complain when people call you out on it.


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