Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
The Genres Tell You So
January and February are big birthday months among my family and friends, with multiple generations celebrating that they were born. Birthdays to some, though, mean regretting that they’re older—rather than rejoicing that they’re still alive—and make them “feel old.” That’s whether they’re turning 79 or 39, 63 or 33.
Of course, we are older when our birthday comes around—though we’d be older that day even if it weren’t our birthday. But I’ve been curious about what makes us “feel old” in a negative way, and when that starts to happen.
When I was a kiddo, being older each year was a great thing. New freedoms!
I could walk to the drugstore near downtown with my friends! (I could already play with friends or ride my bike in the neighborhood unsupervised—it was a different day.)
Then I got older and I could babysit! Then I got older and I could get my learner’s permit! Then I could get my driver’s license!
Then I could buy 3.2 beer (I lived in Colorado, where 18-year-olds could buy low-alcohol beer with their pizza, and I was one of the first of my friends to hit 18. Boy was I special for a few months!). Then I hit 21 and could buy alcohol anywhere, anytime (until I moved to a state with tight laws on where you could purchase alcohol. I still can’t buy a bottle of wine in grocery stores. Thank you, Kansas!)
After hitting 21 . . . I started getting older. And it wasn’t supposed to be such a great thing.
My 20’s were a bit of a neutral time—going to grad school, getting my first full-time job, taking the next step each time. But at the end of my 20’s, I started hearing that I was supposed to be sorry I was adding a year. I learned that 29 was the last year of my youth.
Women are supposed to want to stay 29 forever, which I never understood. I looked forward to turning 30! I was finally an adult—finished grad school, in my first full-time job, where I wanted to be. Life was good and going to get better in my 30's.
Who tells us when getting older is bad? How do we know?
Well, lots of genres help carry that message.
There are the famous quotes, like this one that has become a common saying:
Don’t trust anyone over thirty. -Jerry Rubin
Then there are the jokes, for another genre. Lots of jokes.
There are jokes starting for those who are turning 30. 30!
When you’re a teenager, all you want to do is buy beer. But once you hit 30 all you want to do is to get carded.
-Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City
Even Robert Frost got in on the act:
Time and Tide wait for no man, but time always stands still for a woman of thirty.
- Robert Frost
Well, maybe that one’s fake news.
The quotations, the jokes, they were telling me and everyone else that getting older was now a bad thing, especially for women.
Every decade had another set of getting old jokes.
Good Housekeeping published a whole excerpt from the book—yes, book!—published with the title You Know You’re 40 When.
Turning 50 is another milestone for jokes. Here’s a classic:
Prayer for turning 50:
God grant me the senility
to forget the people I never liked,
the good fortune to run into the people I do,
and the eyesight to tell the difference.
The best form of birth control for people over 50: nudity.
The jokes include both men and women:
You know you’re 50 when:
But women at 50 start getting special attention for the approach of menopause.
You know you’re 50 when
Once you hit 60, it’s all over. The jokes are just about how old you are and near death. What a laugh, huh?
There’s a whole web page (more than one) just for jokes about “You know you’re getting older when . . .”
Some of my faves:
You know you're getting older when
In a hostage situation you are likely to be released first.
People call at 9 p.m. and ask, "Did I wake you?"
The clothes you've put away until they come back in style... come back in style.
You begin every other sentence with, "Nowadays..."
When you're told to act your own age, and you die.
Most of those jokes are for people being really old. You don’t get a joke about acting your age and dying unless you’re really old.
I think I see another genre within the joke genre: The “You know you’re [age] when” genre: You know you’re turning 50 when; you know you’re middle-aged when; you know you’re over the hill when; you know you’re getting older when . . .
Of course, all those jokes end up in another genre—birthday cards. But now to go along with those hysterical jokes we have funny illustrations of old, saggy, wrinkly women and fat, bald men.
I was going to show some “funny” getting older birthday cards, but, surprisingly (NOT—oops, I just showed my age using that old slang), not a lot of people post open-access photos of the birthday cards they got making fun of their getting older. Hallmark cards has a whole series with their cartoon character Maxine, saggy and craggy and full of witticisms about old bodies.
50 is an especially mean—I mean, funny—birthday. Hallmark has 10 cards available for sale on their website with jokes about turning 50, with only 8 for turning 40 and 30, and even fewer, 6, for turning 60 or 70.
The biggest birthday for birthday cards on Hallmark’s site is your 1st birthday, with 21 cards. None of those cards, though, make jokes about getting older. They could, though. Just imagine the “you know you’re [age] when” jokes we could make about turning 1 year old.
You know you’re 1 year old when:
The sayings, jokes, birthday cards, gag gifts, and more all tell us in our US culture that the 20’s are our peak. It’s all downhill from there. And boy, 50 is some kind of turning point. You’re old enough to get really mean jokes in your cards and black birthday balloons as gag gifts, but you’re not so old that you really are seriously wrinkly and saggy and close to death and it would probably be less funny to make fun of those facts.
In fact, the jokes and cards for people 70 and over have a different feel for me. More like you’re in on the joke, instead of being the butt of the joke. You know you’re old when your lucky day is finding your car in the Walmart parking lot. Ha ha, so true! Your idea of a good time is a recliner and reruns of Murder She Wrote and Columbo on the same night. Yep, it’s true! Ha ha
Maybe there’s another turn as we get even older. We look forward to each birthday as we’re growing up, and then we look forward to each birthday as we’re getting old. We’re still here! If we’re lucky in genes and health and money, we might be enjoying life. There also are a lot of sayings about life beginning at 40 and “you’re not getting older, you’re getting better” and “with age comes wisdom.” There’s even a great saying that goes with women turning 50—the “f**k-‘em 50’s.” So there are some counter-messages to the birthday gags, jokes, cards, sayings. There’s another side to turning older.
In some future post, I want to explore more seriously the whole notion of what we consider “old” and how that changes—both in our culture and as we age. You might know you’re getting old when you check the obituaries every day to see if you’re in them (ha ha, that’s a classic one). But turning 80 can mean you’re having the most fun of your life or you’re having the most pain of your life. So the word “old” and its meanings deserves its own post.
Ah, with world enough and time. Who knows? I have a birthday coming up. If I make it to the day, I’m planning to approach it like all my others, with enthusiasm and joy and expecting on this one day to be treated as very special.
If you’re very fortunate, you know it’s your birthday when you expect birthday cards and the happy birthday song and calls and messages from friends and family and good wishes and gifts and maybe even a joke or two. And maybe even time to watch a favorite TV show, whether Murder She Wrote or Game of Thrones.
To each of you, whenever your birthday may be and whether you’re turning 20 or 100, whether you’re struggling to find a job that day or struggling to get out of bed, please do your best to enjoy your birthday!
If not enough people around you celebrate you, let me know your email address and I’ll send you a birthday card, no mean getting older jokes included. I’ll notice, and I’ll celebrate you.
Cuz getting older may not be for sissies, to paraphrase Bette Davis or H.L. Mencken [edited after correction, see comment below], but it’s definitely for celebrating
Like many of you, I’ve been following intently in recent weeks the revelations about and upheavals over sexual harassment and abuse. From media mogul Harvey Weinstein to recent celebrity Aziz Ansari, in workplaces and personal experiences of all kinds, the stories of exploitation, abuse of power, and straightforward abuse have been many and frequent. Our eyes are newly opened, or opened wider, or no longer averted. And time’s up.
There is so much to say about the issues and effects of sexual harassment and abuse, and many wise people have been commenting (here and here, for two examples) and posting much more expert responses than I could possibly make. But I’ve also been mulling over some of the ways that language and genres may be influencing the actions and explaining some reactions. So I thought I’d try some initial thoughts out today. And because I want this blog to extend beyond university folks, I’ll be trying to write without some of the precise nuances and academic complications that the topic surely needs.
So here’s some of what I’ve been thinking.
Both genres and language give us the usual ways of saying and doing things, ways that seem “normal” to us.
Some of those usual ways are simple responses. In the US, if someone says “Thank you” we respond, “You’re welcome” (or “no problem” more commonly these days). If someone asks us for directions, we usually start giving directions, if we can. If we don’t offer directions, we make an excuse instead—“I’m sorry, I don’t know where that is,” or “I’m sorry, I’m really late for an appointment.” I hope we don’t rudely say, “Look it up on your phone, idiot!” But that response is possible—just not usual.
Most of us tend to go with the usual way of doing things. It’s an easier path.
The usual way of doing things and what seems the normal way of acting are not always as simple as giving directions—and they’re not necessarily a good thing. The usual way is not necessarily, in the end, an easier path.
From some of the reports out of the entertainment world, “business as usual” involved some men of power requiring sexual acts from women (and men) over whom they had power—and the less powerful women and men responding by complying or not.
And after that initial response, there was more response—or non-response
“Business as usual” included the less powerful ones shutting up about it, being silent, telling friends perhaps but not reporting it.
“Business as usual” also included the less powerful ones reporting it and complaining, using whatever genres were available to them.
“Business as usual” sometimes included payoffs or settlements with non-disclosure agreements, or the less powerful ones losing their jobs or losing future jobs.
What happens when “business as usual” doesn’t work anymore? What happens when we want to respond differently, maybe even “rudely”?
What happens when time’s up for the usual way of doing things?
The usual way can no longer be the usual way. Now more powerful women (and men) have been speaking up, supporting the less powerful and rejecting the usual way. Time's up on business as usual.
After “business as usual” is not only disrupted but no longer normal, what will become the new usual actions?
How do we know what to do, how to behave when the usual way is no more?
We go searching for other ways and genres that might already exist, for one thing. For women and the less powerful, leaders have shown the way with new actions already becoming the usual ones. No longer responding with silence, people post #MeToo and #TimesUp or share their stories or give speeches and protest and so much more. These new actions and new words disrupted the usual, and now they’re showing the new ways to behave, what could become the new usual in response to sexual harassment and abuse. Speaking up. Publicly shaming. Reporting and demanding consequences.
What about the harassers and abusers? Their usual way has been disrupted because of those powerful responses to their usual actions. Actions and genres are linked, one responding to another. If the usual action doesn't get the usual response, it's changed. A response to an action can change that action.
Historically, for language and genres, if a usual way no longer works for us, we might stop doing it. When was the last time you referred to a mimeograph machine? Or responded, “Groovy, man”—non-ironically? Or left a calling card at someone’s house? Or handwrote a personal letter on stationary rather than sending an email? (Well, some of you might be gracious enough to have posted personal letters rather than status updates.)
So (in a historically rational world) the powerful may stop harassing and abusing the less powerful, not only because it’s no longer considered the usual way but because it’s no longer an easy path. Not because the usual harassing ways have changed so much as that the responses to that harassment have changed.
For sexual abusers and the sexually abused, I’m hopeful that the usual ways in US workplaces are gone for good, with sexual demands becoming unusual and charges and consequences against those who act abnormally becoming usual.
But not all of the new usual is so clear. Some new ways of acting and speaking are still developing, and the new usual hasn’t fully developed. For genres and language, change most often takes time. It sometimes takes generations for new ways to become the usual, the norm.
And genres rarely operate in a void; they’re related to other genres. So if one usual way of acting changes, others around it will feel the effects. (How will flirtation change? In what new ways will the powerful abuse their power?)
New genres often develop from old genres, even when the old ones don't fit well. And there is some danger that people will take up old ways of doing things before new ones are fully established. Have you heard acquaintances or commenters worry that women will now be treated with Victorian propriety or placed on pedestals or excluded from workplace settings for fear of harassment? Those commenters are looking to use previously existing genres, lamenting, “How do we know what to do, how to behave when the usual way is no more?”
They’re looking for the new usual, for an easier path. But they’re looking behind rather than forward. They’re looking at past usual ways that have already been rejected and replaced. In the long run, we would no more return to those old ways of acting without change than we would dig out the old mimeograph machine.
It will take time for new ways to develop and even longer for new ways to become the usual ways. The disruption of the usual harassment didn’t happen overnight, even though the news of it appeared in a relatively short space of time. The replacement of the old ways with new ways won’t happen overnight, either.
If these usual ways work at all like language and genres, the old ways won’t die quite so quickly or easily as we’d like. In the transition time, new words and genres will be tried, some will work better than others, some will be more popular than others, and some will become the new usual ways of speaking and acting.
But if these usual ways work at all like language and genres, the old ways aren’t likely to come back either. No more creating the usual carbon copies of powerful men abusing their power. Now that’s groovy, man.
Lots of tempting topics this week, with the Golden Globes and use of "Time's Up" and a variety of insults being thrown around. It's also syllabus time again, so I thought of repeating some of my popular syllabus entries. You can find those syllabus posts here.
But I'm a language nerd, so the winner for me this week is the announcement January 5 of the American Dialect Society's Word of the Year.
American Dialect Society Word of the Year
News almost as big as the Golden Globes was the annual announcement of the Word of the Year, voted on by the members of the American Dialect Society (ADS) in attendance at the annual conference. Last year, I pointed out multiple organizations that choose a word of the year. The winner this year in the ADS vote was no big surprise:
Yes, that's a phrase not a single word, but the ADS rules allow that.
The choice of "fake news" is not too surprising. There's a longer list, though, of all the words nominated for WOTY and nominees in other categories. Here are my favorites this year:
Political word of the year: "take a knee"
Hashtag of the year: #MeToo
Euphemism of the year: "alternative facts"
That one seems like old news to me, but I wrote about Conway's use of the term a while ago.
I had to read the definitions of a few of the winners.
Digital word of the year:
* shitpost: Posting of worthless or irrelevant online content intended to derail a conversation or to provoke others
That one might have gotten my vote for most Useful word of the year, too, but the winner of that category was:
* die by suicide: A variant of “to commit suicide” that does not suggest a criminal act.
Most Creative word of the year:
* broflake: Man or boy who lacks resilience or coping skills in the face of disagreements or setbacks
Broflake is funny, but I'm not a fan of the politics behind the word it's based on, "snowflake," so I might have cast my vote for "caucacity" whose meaning I thought was pretty transparent, and the word was funny and timely and useful
The funniest one to me is one based on pronunciation, which makes it even better for us language nerds. It's also one I'd never heard of (which probably says something about me). The winner of Slang/Informal Word of the Year:
* wypipo: Humorous phonetic spelling of “white people” used to flag white privilege, cluelessness, or absurdity.
If you go to the ADS press release, you'll find lots of interesting new words to explore and even to start using, including persister and persisterhood, get the zucc, askhole, procrastination nanny, caucacity, and milkshake duck
Ain't language fun!!
Happy new year, you unicorns! (look it up ;)