We

Theodore Rockwell, who served as technical director for the U.S. Navy’s nuclear-propulsion program in the 1950s and ’60s, shared a telling anecdote about his onetime boss, the famously irascible Adm. Hyman G. Rickover. “One time he caught me using the editorial we, as in ‘we will get back to you by. . . .’ ” Rockwell recalled in his memoir, “The Rickover Effect.” “He explained brusquely that only three types of individual were entitled to such usage: ‘The head of a sovereign state, a schizophrenic and a pregnant woman. Which are you, Rockwell?’ ”

Rickover was hardly alone in his abhorrence of the editorial we — so called because of its usage by anonymous opinion columnists. In fact, his barb has been told in many different ways over the years. Consider another volatile personality, Roscoe Conkling, who served as senator from New York after the Civil War. In 1877, Conkling objected to how the new president, Rutherford B. Hayes, overused the word we, and The St. Louis Globe-Democrat reported his rejoinder: “Yes, I have noticed there are three classes of people who always say ‘we’ instead of ‘I.’ They are emperors, editors and men with a tapeworm.”

Conkling’s formulation was picked up by we-haters far and wide. The trifecta of “kings, editors and people with tapeworm” has been widely attributed to Mark Twain, but like so many witticisms credited to him, there’s no record he ever said it. It’s also unlikely that Henry David Thoreau ever made the remark once ascribed to him: “We is used by royalty, editors, pregnant women and people who eat worms.”

Worms, or more specifically tapeworms, figure prominently in we-­related humor. The earliest known joke to combine parasites and pronouns comes from George Horatio Derby, a humorist from California who assumed the pen name John Phoenix. “I do not think I have a tapeworm,” he wrote in 1855, “therefore I have no claim whatever to call myself ‘we,’ and I shall by no means fall into that editorial absurdity.”

What is it about the presumptuous use of we that inspires so much outrage, facetious or otherwise? The roots of these adverse reactions lie in the haughtiness of the majestic plural, or royal we, shared by languages of Western Europe since the days of ancient Roman emperors. British sovereigns have historically referred to themselves in the plural, but by the time of Queen Victoria, it was already a figure of fun. Victoria, of course, is remembered for the chilly line, “We are not amused” — her reaction, according to Sir Arthur Helps, the clerk of the privy council, to his telling of a joke to the ladies in waiting at a royal dinner party. Margaret Thatcher invited mocking Victorian comparisons when she announced in 1989, “We have become a grandmother.”

Nameless authors of editorials may find the pronoun we handy for representing the voice of collective wisdom, but their word choice opens them up to charges of gutlessness and self-importance. As the fiery preacher Thomas De Witt Talmage wrote in 1875: “They who go skulking about under the editorial ‘we,’ unwilling to acknowledge their identity, are more fit for Delaware whipping-posts than the position of public educators.”

Given the accumulated resentment of “nosism” (using we for I, from the Latin pronoun nos), it’s little wonder that modern literary writers have rarely tried to write narratives in the first-person plural. But the device of collective narration has worked effectively on occasion, from William Faulkner’s “Rose for Emily” to Joshua Ferris’s “Then We Came to the End.” Most recently, Lisa Birnbach has taken the nosist route in “True Prep,” her 30-year follow-up to “The Official Preppy Handbook.” (Opening lines: “Wake up, Muffy, we’re back. O.K., now where were we?”)

The royal and editorial we are examples of the exclusive we, meaning that the person being addressed is not included in the scope of the pronoun. English, like many languages, uses the same word for the inclusive first-person plural, encompassing the notional “you” along with “me.” The inclusive we seeks out a bond of empathy or common understanding between the speaker and the receiver of a message. Writers rely on it to establish rapport with readers, and teachers with students (“as we shall see”). But this is not always a welcome rhetorical move, especially when it comes across as pedantic or condescending. At worst, it can recall the we of caregivers for the very young and very old: “How are we feeling today?”

The overreaching effect of the inclusive we has sparked its own humorous traditions. In August 1956, the Los Angeles Times columnist Gene Sherman introduced into print what was already a well-traveled story about the Lone Ranger and his faithful sidekick, Tonto. Surrounded by “wild, screaming Indians,” the Lone Ranger desperately asks Tonto, “What will we do?” Tonto replies, “What do you mean ‘we,’ paleface?” Later versions changed “paleface” to “white man” or “kemo sabe,” Tonto’s endearing epithet for the Ranger. The joke is so well known in the United States that just the punch line is usually sufficient for rebuffing an overly inclusive we.

An equally colorful but less common American retort to the inclusive first-person plural pronoun is “We? You got a mouse in your pocket?” Curt Johnson, publisher of the Chicago literary magazine December, remarked in a 1966 article that he heard the line from a student talking back to a college instructor. Many other regional variants have sprung up, with “rat” or “frog” standing in for “mouse.” Another more sex-specific inquiry is about “a mouse in your purse.” Dabblers in nosism beware: whether it’s tapeworms or rodents, saying we where I would do can expose you to accusations of infestation.

Ben Zimmer will answer one reader question every other week

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Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/03/magazine/03FOB-onlanguage-t.html

Uncommon knowledge

What makes people vote

Although an important role for the government is helping poor people, the poor themselves are less likely to vote than more affluent citizens. Some of this may be due to transportation or job constraints, but an experiment with public housing residents in Boston before the 2007 municipal elections confirms that motivation plays a big role. Residents were divided into three groups. The first group was not contacted. The second group was visited where they lived, and urged to vote. And the final group received visits, but also copies of their turnout history. While a simple face-to-face appeal improved the odds that someone would vote from around 10 percent to the 15-20 percent range, showing voters their turnout history boosted the voting odds to around 25 percent. 

Davenport, T., “Public Accountability and Political Participation: Effects of a Face-to-Face Feedback Intervention on Voter Turnout of Public Housing Residents,” Political Behavior (September 2010).  

The age advantage

Many parents delay their kids’ entry into kindergarten to make sure their kids are at the top of the class from a developmental standpoint. A recent study is sure to reinforce this strategy. Compared to kids born right after the age-eligibility cutoff date, kids born right before the cutoff date are 60 percent more likely to be diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). As a result, kids born right before the cutoff date are more likely to be using drugs like Ritalin, and this disparity persists as they move into higher grades. The author of the study found that teachers were much more likely than parents to report concerns about ADHD — consistent with the theory that some teachers are misinterpreting normal age-related behavioral differences in the classroom. 

Elder, T., “The Importance of Relative Standards in ADHD Diagnoses: Evidence Based on Exact Birth Dates,” Journal of Health Economics (September 2010).  

Time is more than money

Contrary to the old saying, time is not always money. A researcher at a top business school has found that thinking about time causes people to behave differently than thinking about money. In one experiment, people who walked into a cafe were asked to fill out a questionnaire — laced with words related to either time or money — after which participants continued to go about their business in the cafe, while being surreptitiously watched. Those who had been exposed to words about money spent more time working; those who had been exposed to words about time spent more time socializing. When participants exited the cafe, those who had been exposed to words about time were happier, on account of their socializing. 

Mogilner, C., “The Pursuit of Happiness: Time, Money, and Social Connection,” Psychological Science (September 2010).  

When not to interrupt

You’re just about to complete that 20-page report. You’ve spent hours on it. All of a sudden, your boss walks up and asks you to work on something else. How frustrating! And new research suggests that your productivity on the next task will take a hit. In several experiments, people were asked to complete a task (e.g., sorting cards, finding hidden words) and were then interrupted early in the task, late in the task, or after completion. People who had been interrupted late in the previous task were significantly more impaired on the subsequent task. The authors attribute this to the extra self-control — and associated mental depletion — required to break away from a task just as you’re about to finish it. 

Freeman, N. & Muraven, M., “Don’t Interrupt Me! Task Interruption Depletes the Self’s Limited Resources,” Motivation and Emotion (September 2010).  

We misunderstand our friends

How well do you know your friends? Researchers at Yahoo conducted a survey via Facebook in early 2008 to gauge actual and perceived agreement among friends regarding politics. For example, “Does [your friend] sympathize with the Israelis more than the Palestinians in the Middle East situation?” or “Would [your friend] pay higher taxes for the government to provide universal health care?” Although friends agreed more than strangers, there was still plenty of disagreement. There was also more ignorance of each other’s positions than one might expect, even among friends who discussed politics, and especially in areas where positions differed. Instead of relying on issue-specific discussion, friends seem to be projecting their own views and stereotypes on each other. 

Goel, S. et al., “Real and Perceived Attitude Agreement in Social Networks,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (forthcoming).  

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist. 

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Full article: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/10/03/what_makes_people_vote/

Banned Words Week

Why people blacklist

This past week was, for those of you who missed it, Banned Books Week. Since 1982, booksellers, librarians, and readers have spent the last week of September drawing attention to the problem of censorship and book bans, by creating displays of challenged books, holding “read-outs” (where authors read from their challenged books), and encouraging people to fight censorship and enjoy their right to read what they please.

We don’t yet have a Banned Words Week, where lexicographers, journalists, and word lovers celebrate our right to use any word in English we please, but during the past 12 months, it seemed that we could have declared one almost any week. In late December of last year, media outlets (including Public Radio International’s program “The World”) covered the news that although the words brat, corner boy (meaning rogue), hypocrite, and yahoo (among others) were banned from use in the Irish Parliament, the f-word was not — which was discovered when a legislator employed that word on the floor.

Back in March, this column covered the 119 terms banned from Chicago’s WGN AM radio station, by order of the CEO of the Tribune Co. That list was more comical than sinister, a ham-handed attempt to discourage stale news phrases (lone gunman, bare naked, senseless murder, sketchy details, and close proximity) and nonstandard pronunciations (such as hunnert for hundred). It didn’t contain any truly shocking terms, probably because those are already banned from the airwaves. Also this past March, local government councils in Great Britain sent around a list of their own banned words, mostly corporatese such as best practices, benchmarking, slippage (in the sense of delay), and democratic legitimacy (having been voted for).

It’s not just English-speaking countries where words are banned, of course. In China this past April, newscasters on the state-owned channels were asked to stop using English-language abbreviations — such as NBA, GDP, and WTO — in their broadcasts, and told to use the Chinese equivalents alongside or instead of the English.

As these examples suggest, word-banning has a variety of motives beyond Orwellian efforts to reframe the language. Sometimes it’s simple truth in advertising. If I were making posters for a Banned Words Week, I’d be sure to include bans like these:

■On June 22, new FDA rules to protect consumers went into effect, banning the use of the words light, mild, and medium from cigarette packaging — since light, mild, or medium cigarettes aren’t any better for you than ones that aren’t marked with those words.

■In July, Goldman Sachs banned its traders from using profanity in e-mails and is using screening software to enforce the new policy. (Traders had already been asked to use “appropriate language” on the televised trading floor.)

■In September, the Obama administration embraced a word ban left over from the previous administration, saying it would fight in court to preserve the FCC’s power to punish networks with hefty fines for “fleeting expletives” — that is, accidentally broadcast swear words. (Before 2004, the FCC held that an occasional, spontaneous expletive did not violate its indecency standards.)

If you’ve noticed that offensiveness is a theme when bans are concerned, you’re right. As with the FCC’s list of words you can’t say on television, many books on the most-challenged list are there because of concern over profanity (“The Catcher in the Rye,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “A Separate Peace”) or racial or ethnic slurs (“Slaughterhouse Five,” “Of Mice and Men,” “To Kill a Mockingbird”). But most of the books that are championed during Banned Books Week were challenged for moral or ideological reasons, by people upset by the books’ topics or themes, especially those having to do with sex or sexuality.

Words, on the other hand, seem just as likely to be banned for being euphemistic, pretentious, or banal as they are for being offensive. The bans are efforts to protect the language as much as to protect young ears. Most of the “official” lists of banned words fall into this category, such as the “Banished Words” list put together every year by faculty and staff at Lake Superior State University in Michigan, which tends towards new tech words, awkward neologisms (often blends of existing words, like staycation), and overused buzzwords (2010’s list included tweet, app, czar, bromance, and teachable moment).

We don’t see books being challenged for being insipid or fatuous: They’re simply ignored. Perhaps we all realize that there are more ways to get around the ban of a word — but when a book is banned, that idea (or the person behind it) is truly silenced.

At heart, though, the spirit that animates Banned Books Week and our so-far-uncelebrated Banned Words Week is similar: the belief that bans, besides being repellent to anyone who cares about language and ideas, don’t really work — that they never do manage to get rid of uncomfortable, awkward, boorish, banal, or offensive ideas. We actually need those books and words to talk frankly about the problems they raise in our minds. And luckily, no matter how often books (or words) are banned, the important ideas always manage to win through.

Erin McKean is a lexicographer and founder of Wordnik.com.

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Full article: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/10/03/banned_words_week/