Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
When is an insult not an insult?
When the insulted has to look up your insult in the dictionary.
That’s the case for Donald Trump, I imagine, when North Korean president Kim Jong Un called the president a “dotard”--or, that is, when the translator for Kim Jong Un interpreted the insult with the word "dotard."
Now maybe the president is a dotard for having to look up the word, if he took the time to look for information in such a mundane and relatively factual source as a dictionary. Much social media teeth gnashing ensued, including expressions of horror over the many who did not know the term “dotard.”
Well, count me among them. I confess that I first thought, “Oh, is he trying to use the horrible insult of ‘retard’ but missed the word?” I even pronounced the word “do-tard” rather than “dote-erd” as I understand it now.
My more learned friends (especially of older literature) corrected my mistake, informing me of this wonderful old word connected to “dotage.” That I could understand.
Merriam-Webster dictionaries on Twitter offered a link to the definition of the word:
But I missed the insult completely. I knew it was supposed to be an insult, but like many sit-com and comic strip characters, I had to go look it up to know exactly what was being insulted. According to some on social media, that makes me an idiot.
That insult I understand.
Here’s another way an insult can go awry.
When the insult brings to mind a pleasant old song without the intended insult (whatever that might be).
All I thought of when Donald Trump used his UN speech to call Kim Jong Un a “rocket man” was the Elton John song. Ah, “rocket man.” Maybe it’s the line, “I’m not the man you think I am at home” that was supposed to sting. Or “Burning out his fuse up here alone.”
Oh no, wait. That was supposed to refer to the president of North Korea, not the president of the United States.
On YouTube, I even found this wonderful reinterpretation of Elton John’s “Rocket Man” by Iranian filmmaker and refugee Majid Anin.
but now we have this headline from the NY Daily News:
North Korea’s top diplomat says Trump’s ‘rocket man’ insult makes missile attack on U.S. ‘inevitable’
What does it take to make an insult work—to make it sting, burn, embarrass?
Apparently, only to know that it was an insult, intended to reduce, degrade, humiliate.
That's enough to provoke. Just maybe, that's enough to start nuclear war.
Maybe that insult really was an insult. Maybe insults never were funny. Maybe insults aren't fun to analyze as a genre either, to figure out what the requirements are for understanding an insult as an insult. I know I don't much care anymore. (well, maybe I still care a little bit)
Maybe all it takes for an insult to happen is one mean person intending to inflict harm on another, whoever that other may be and however mean that other person may be.
Maybe insults always burn, always sting, always make us say "ouch." Even if we then have to go look up the words.
Maybe our world will always be unsafe as long as insults are hurled, from one leader at another. But maybe that's people, hurling insults from one person at another, from one social media friend at another, from. one family member at another.
May we all be kind to one another. May we all be safe.
Sunday night was the Emmy award show for television. I like TV, and I like award shows (I know, there’s something not right about me). But at the Emmy’s this year, the acceptance speeches were remarkably dull. Maybe because they were so formulaic.
I wrote about acceptance speeches after the Oscars in February, when the announcers screwed up the Best Picture winner and the folks behind La La Land gave a non-winning acceptance speech. When is an acceptance speech not an acceptance speech? When the speakers didn’t win.
But last night’s Emmys held no such surprises. In fact, the show held almost no surprises, as almost every winner was the expected one (go Julia Louis Dreyfuss! And oh yeah, The Handmaid’s Tale)
So the expected winners gave the expected acceptance speeches.
Here’s the acceptance speech formula, at least from last night, move by move:
In most award shows, I can point to a particularly funny or awkward acceptance speech, somebody who goes off script for at least a word or two. Other than “Lizzy” Moss being bleeped a couple of times, I remember only two different moments.
One was Sterling K. Brown, who won Best Drama Actor, objecting to how loud the music was when it was playing him off and he kept talking anyway, even though he was right it really was loud and you couldn’t hear a word he was saying and then they went to commercial. Somehow he missed the part of the formula about how long an acceptance speech can be.
The other was Ann Dowd, because she made the genre visible. At the end of her quite nice and moving acceptance speech, she finished with, “My husband is here and I love him so. He’s Larry Arancio. And my children. I have some beautiful children and their names are Liam, Emily, and Trust, and I love them to pieces.” I heard it as a recognition that, oh yeah, that’s what people do at the end of their speeches. And I may not be thanking them for my own independent life and work, but I have family, too, don’t ya know.
Maybe I’m reading into it. But I noticed it. And I liked it.
So there you have the Emmy award show this year. There were also, of course, the announcements of the awards. The one off-script moment from that genre was probably the funniest line, other than Stephen Colbert’s opening monologue. Dave Chapelle was set to announce the nominees for an award, and he commented on the number of black people at the show (he counted 11). After saying he’d skipped rehearsal (and was clearly adlibbing), he said he'd start reading off the teleprompter--"Shout out to DC Public Schools.”
Maybe all the winners should add to the formula a thanks to the teachers who taught them to read and write. But no, that would make the speeches go on waaaaaay too long, and the orchestra would have to bring in trumpets to drown them out, and I’d be way past ready for bed.
Or is it Them?
On this particular day in the US we’re dealing with two devastating events--
Both disastrous events causing lost lives and physical destruction. Both causing shocking trauma and lifelong fears. Both changing how people act in the world, what they trust, how safe they feel.
Some say the hurricanes are bringing us together like 9/11 did, reuniting Americans after such a long period of divisiveness politically and socially. But I’m not so sure.
I’d have to ignore the fact of economic divides—yes, the hurricanes hit neighborhoods of different economic strata, but the residents differed in their abilities to evacuate and will differ in their abilities to recover financially.
And then I’d have to ignore the language used. Writing and speaking about the hurricanes, people express horror and sympathy for what has happened or is happening to “them.” Not “us.” “Them.”
After 9/11, even though the murders happened in specific East Coast locations, the terrorism happened to us, to Americans. It was directed at us, so we took it that way.
Of course, hurricanes are (mostly) natural events, not political plots, no matter what Rush Limbaugh claims. Harvey didn’t have it in for Americans. Irma isn’t trying to destroy the United States and its people.
But when politicians give speeches to rally support and uplift spirits, they haven’t been talking about how much damage the hurricanes are doing to us, the US. When governors or mayors encourage “us” to keep our spirits up or tell us “we” can make it, they explicitly include only the residents of their states. Texas and Florida, not the United States.
Yes, in some ways, that focus on the states makes sense. Governors represent their states, so you might expect them to address their own residents first and foremost. Governors have authority only within their state, to make proclamations and send aid. And the hurricanes did cause damage, death, and suffering directly to Texans and Floridians, not to all Americans.
But the governors’ emphasis has been on what makes the residents of their states especially strong, or especially able to deal with hurricanes, or especially resilient and helpful—separate and apart and explicitly not as Americans. It’s not Americans coming together to help each other, to rebuild, to prepare. It’s Texans. It’s Floridians.
I’m certainly not resentful that I was left out of reassuring speeches, even though I’ve watched the events with horror. Luckily I was watching, after all, not experiencing. But that is true for most residents of Texas, too. They were watching, sometimes from some distance. But the governors have chosen to emphasize the unity of the state, not the United States.
The results for Florida are still to come, as I’m writing this, so I’ll be listening to hear how Governor Rick Scott addresses the people afterward. Early on, he tweeted that "FL knows how important it is to be prepared.” Texas Governor Greg Abbott, on Good Morning America, praised not Americans but Texans for their on-site actions:
"You have to be proud to see the way our fellow Texans have responded," Abbott said, "whether they be the first responders or just neighbors helping neighbors to deal with this overwhelming catastrophe."
Even for actions that everyone in the world could take, Gov. Abbott still referred only to Texans. When he called for a day of prayer, August 31, he called for a day of prayer in Texas alone, calling people of all faiths in Texas, not in America, to pray as "one united people." He can’t declare a day of prayer for all Americans, but he didn’t even invite all Americans to join in.
I don’t mean to take anything away from the governors or from the anguish dumped on Texans and Floridians. They have every right to band together as Texans, as Floridians, and to be proud of how they unify to act together.
I’m simply pointing out that there are times when we in the United States see ourselves as Americans, and times when we see ourselves as members of smaller communities. Texas. Florida. After 9/11, New Yorkers had a special place of honor for enduring the greatest loss of life. And I’m sure there were speeches at the time encouraging New Yorkers and praising the resilience of New Yorkers. But they were also Americans, and the hit was taken by all Americans.
What does it mean that the hit of the hurricanes is being taken by Texans and Floridians, not Americans?
If that attack on our shores were being seen as an attack on America, we might all see ourselves as responsible for the recovery. To some extent that’s happening. The federal legislature is planning an increase in funds for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. National relief for Hurricane Harvey has already been promised. And announcers at sporting events everywhere are calling for donations, and people everywhere are donating.
If we saw the hurricanes as threats to all of us, not just Texans and Floridians, we could be rallying and fund-raising for our cities, our houses, our infrastructure, not for theirs.
If we saw the hurricanes as threats to all of us, not just Texans and Floridians, we could be talking about what happens after immediate cleanup and repairs, about what caused this to happen and what we need to do to keep this from happening again, in the future—to us.
If we saw the hurricanes as threats to all of us, not just Texans and Floridians, we could be talking about how important it is for all of us to be prepared for the next weather catastrophe.
But it’s not happening to us, just to them. So we can donate money, and we can stay glued to the Weather Channel until the most recent hurricane has passed by or weakened. Then we can return to our lives, those of us who are Americans but not affected directly by that particular hurricane, by that particular bit of weather, by that particular change in the climate.
And we can pretend that it’s not happening to us, just to them.