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Language Log

Friday, Nov. 24, 2006 - 8:44 a.m.

Just a short entry today [note: this has turned out to be completley false. Shows how well I can predict my own behavior]. Yesterday, I was a pie-makin fool. I overate, and then visited with friends and family. A proper Thanksgiving!

My mom was at home with just my brother for company. Called her in the evening; it seemed to have gone as well as it could. I was worried that he would disappear and leave her to eat alone. He did not. Thank goodness for small miracles.

I always feel conflicted this time of year, with all of the news stories of people helping the less fortunate. Turkeys for the homeless, etc. One part of me is very sympathetic and agrees; another part is filled with festering rage at my brother and all those like him who, I cannot help but feel, deserve what they get. Who could have bought their own turkey if they had a little backbone. Who gush about what good people the volunteers at the homeless shelters are, then turn around and steal from family members who have done so much more for them. They appreciate people who give without requiring anything in return, in situations where accepting the kindness does not morally obligate them to any sort of reciprocity.

I try to keep it in perspective; many, even most people getting help this time of year are not in that category; even for those who are, they still deserve kindness. You can still treat them with dignity even if they refuse to treat themselves with dignity. And that is not the same thing as forgiveness or excusing them. The giving or withholding of kindness is not a tool of reward or punishment. They are punishing themselves enough already. There's kindness of the here-have-some-cranberry-sauce-you-poor-bastard variety, and there's kindness that wanders over into self-endangerment, and just because you show the first doesn't mean you show the latter.

I can think all of these things through, and still have a visceral reaction, "but what has that ungrateful bastard done to deserve that turkey?! How many family members did he screw over and abuse before he got to the point where he needed charity turkey in the first place? How many of his own family's THanksgivings did he ruin? No!"

Anyway. It really was a nice Thanksgiving.

One other nitpick: we're here in a house full of liberal Democrats, but often the subject of names comes up. Interesting names given to their children by people semi-literate and poor. They are a source of great amusement, coupled with pity. I find the exercise nauseating and covertly racist. No one here is consciously racist; many of them have given much of themselves to combat racism. I'm talking racism in that patronizing sort of way, oh, the poor, sad, ignorant dears, this is why we need better education. Some of the names are really attested, and not a friend-of-a-friend sort of thing, while others are questionable; the one that I am CERTAIN is an urban myth is the one about the mythical twins LemonJello and OrangeJello. I have heard this one coming from different parts of the country, from doctors and Hollywood celebrities--it's sort of infamous at this point, but no one has ever produced these famous twins. I have a hunch that the misread you would have to do get from a box of Jello (where the meaning and reference is clearly indicated in color pictures, so there's no mistaking the referent no matter how illiterate you are or what language you speak) to that stress pattern-- da DA da da-- well, I don't find it credible. If someone reanalyzed the product name as one word, it would get a primary stress on the first syllable of the first word and a secondary stress on the first syllable of the second word, NOT simply one primary stress on the second syllable of the first word, as in the name-pronunciation.

It's a pretty big leap, which is what makes it striking. Even people who can't talk about stress assignment KNOW that the jump is big, and that to have gotten from Lemon Jello the product with the compositional morphology to Lemonjello the amusing name, a person would have to do one of the following: 1) be inconceivable dumb to the point of not having mastery of English phonology, or 2) be very clever and creative, displaying a sense of fun and linguistic prowess while also being willing to reject mainstream naming norms.

Okay, one of these interpretations is the one you will get if you basically think of a person who might have done this as belonging to a powerless demographic whose language you have noticed does not always go by the same rules as your own; moreoever, sometimes this demographic suffers from educational and social problems for a variety of historical reasons. You will get reading #1 if you think that they are basically stupid/illiterate and dumb, for whatever reason. Giving them credit for having a clever sense of humor and creative spirit will not be the preferred reading. And indeed no one who I've heard bring up the famous twins has ever said, "Wow, way to play with English stress assignment!"

Well, maybe these kids really do exist, and maybe their mom really was borderline illiterate and dumb enough to have made the mapping from yellow jiggly food to name without so much as spark of creativity, cleverness, or intentional flouting of hegemonic naming norms. (I mean, that's the crux of it, isn't it? Not just that she could make the phonological jump, but that she would then think that those names would be Good Names). We haven't met them nor her, though, so who they really are is irrelevant. It's still a judgment built on a foundation of racist assumptions, and sadly paraded about for amusement by people who would no doubt kick my ass if they ever heard me accusing them of racism.

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