Frederick Douglass’s Agitation

August 14, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

I hate to see a good word fade and get folded into another word that doesn’t mean quite the same thing.

A Twitter link yesterday took me to a sociology blog whose post consisted entirely of a quotation from Frederick Douglass.  It contained this sentence:

Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning.

Depreciate agitation? Surely Douglass must have said “deprecate.” That little “i,” a slender stroke and dot barely noticeable, makes a difference.  Or at least it used to.  In Douglass’s time, to deprecate meant to disapprove strongly, and depreciate meant to reduce in value. We depreciate assets. We deprecate sin. 

“Deprecate” as a percentage of both words took a dive starting around 1970, falling from 40% to 20%. 

Today, the distinction between the two is fading to the point that many readers and writers either do not know the difference or are simply unaware of the word deprecate.  Authors have rewrite Douglass’s words; their books now become sources for other books and blogs.  The sound of deprecate grows fainter and fainter. If you search Google for the Douglass quote, the first screen gives you a chance of finding the right word.

(Depreciate is circled in red, deprecate in blue. Click on the graphic for a larger view. )

Still, when I searched for both kinds of agitation, Goggle returned more than three times as many “depreciates” as “deprecates.” 

Google too seems to think that the revised version of the Douglass quote is the correct one. When I asked for “deprecate,” Google suggested that maybe I (and Douglass) had made a spelling error. 

Language evolves.  But it’s one thing for that evolution to make for changes as we move forward in history; it’s quite another for us to make those changes retroactive.  I fear that in the next edition of Frederick Douglass’s writings, some alert copy editor will see “deprecate agitation,” assume that it’s a typo, and insert the “i.”  And Douglass will turn over in his grave knowing that his powerful language has been depreciated.

The Last Time I Saw Betty Joan Perske

August 13, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

One late autumn day about five years ago, I had come out of Central Park and was walking east on W. 72nd St.  Dusk on a weekday. The entrance to the Dakota was free of tourists. Nobody leaning forward to peer in through the vertical bars to see the spot where John Lennon died – just the silent doorman in his gray coat.

I walked on.  An old lady,  bent over and walking slowly, almost painfully, with her tiny dog, was coming towards me. Her face  looked so familiar, but I couldn’t place her.  Who was she? Where had I seen her?  After she had gone past, I turned and watched her move slowly on. A few moments later, she turned and went into the Dakota.

She looked something like this:

I waited till she had gone inside, then walked back and approached the doorman.  “Excuse me,” I said as politely as I could, “but who was that woman who just came in here?” 

He paused for a minute as if trying to decide whether this was a violation of a tenant’s privacy. “That,” he said, “was Miss Lauren Bacall.”

Lauren Bacall 1924 - 2014

[I used this story in an earlier post about names. Until the late 20th century, performers with ethnic or difficult  names changed them (or had them changed by Hollywood studios) to something more “American.” Now, they are more likely to stick with what they’ve got. I’m all for being multicultural, but I still think that Lauren Bacall is a perfect name for her. I have a hard time imagining what Betty Joan Perske would look like.]


August 11, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

It’s not “laughing out loud” any more. Or not just “laughing out loud.” The meaning has seeped out of that narrow box and is now broader and thinner, a generic sign of connection.*

“Lol creates a comfort zone by calling attention to sentiments held in common.”  (John McWhorter in the New York Times.)

I have a  hunch that this LOL-as-connection is a not guy thing. I don’t know the research on texting and gender, but I would expect that it is mostly women who are dropping these LOLs into their texts. 

Laughter itself – the kind you hear, not the kind you text LOL – also has multiple meanings and uses. And the question of whose laughter and what it means has a lot to do with gender.

Mark Liberman, at the Language Log, posted recently  about speech and gender – men and women, and what they say. Not surprisingly, they talk about different topics, and they use different words – when was the last time you heard a man say something was “adorable”?  But they also differ in the not-word sounds that punctuate their conversations – especially laughter.

These tables show the frequencies per million words (MW) and the log odds of male and female use, of what people say in conversations.  (See Liberman’s post, here.)

(Click on the chart for a slightly larger view.)

(The markers (( and )) indicate sounds – starting or ending – that the transcribers couldn’t make out; i- and th- are false starts – words the speaker started but then changed.)

Number one among female-dominated items is [laughter]. Liberman, who is usually a great source of insight on language, has disappointingly little to say:

It's less clear why women should laugh 60% more often than men do — are women on average happier, or more overtly sociable? Or do men feel constrained not to express positive emotions?

Is that all – happiness and sociability? Surely there are other kinds of female laughter – from a tween’s embarrassed, conspiratorial giggle to Phyllis Diller’s aggressive guffaw.  Somewhere on that axis lies the female apologetic laugh, the one designed to take the edge off any sharpness in what a woman is saying.  When Terry Gross, in her “Fresh Air” interviews, asks a question that might put her guest on the spot, she will often insert this kind of laugh.

Here are two examples. In the first, she suggests to Hillary Clinton that Clinton might have tried to sneak in under the radar with changes in the State Department’s internal LBGT policies.  In the second, she asks QuentinTarantino about the violence in his films.**

The trouble is that when the transcript shows “[laughter],” you cannot know what kind of laugh it is.  Sometimes you can’t know even when you hear it.  Sociologist Freed Bales spent years developing a schema for classifying interactions in small groups, years in which he listened to countless hours of group discussion. The result was Interaction Process Analysis or IPA (in 1950, craft breweries were not even a speck on the horizon).  It had twelve categories – six paired opposites:
  • Shows Antagonism / Shows Solidarity
  • Asks for Orientation / Gives Orientation
and so on.

Laughter was coded as “Shows Tension Release”; its counterpart was “Shows Tension.”  True, some laughter showed tension release, but much did not, and twenty years later, in a revised IPA, Bales put laughter in the category “Shows Tension” under the general heading of “Negative and Mixed Actions.”  Still, much laughter doesn’t fit into that box.  

Sometimes we ourselves don’t know what our laughter means. In Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments, subjects often laughed when the learner-victim cried out in pain. Clearly, this was nervous laughter. But when, in the famous film of the experiment, Milgram asks one subject why he laughed, the man says, “I thought it was funny, I guess.”

* To avoid ambiguity, when texters want to indicate “I got the joke,” instead of “LOL,” they use “haha.”

** Gross, especially in the Tarantino excerpt, uses the word like. A lot.  This may be a sign of her nervousness at asking a tough question. Or it just may be the way she usually speaks.

Sports, Markets, and Ficitons

August 9, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Owners of money-making operations can make more money if they pay their workers less. But they paying less is possible only if others are not offering to pay more. This often requires that the business form a cartel – an agreement among owners not to compete. That way, they can all pay their workers less than market value. 

As Adam Smith pointed out long ago, businesses don’t really want competition.  What’s interesting political conservatives who are not in business, despite their talk about freedom and capitalism and the free market,  often want to shelter hugely profitable business from competition.

Thus it was that yesterday Claudia Wilken,  a liberal judge appointed by Bill Clinton, told the NCAA it would have to start paying their workers.  The NCAA and its affiliated businesses (sometimes known as “universities”) didn’t just pay their workers less.  They didn’t pay them at all. Even better.

Of course, the NCAA claims that the football and basketball players are not workers creating a product that the NCAA sells for huge amounts of money. No, these are “scholar athletes.”  And for years, the courts have gone along with this fiction. With yesterday’s court ruling as a start, that may soon change.

The ruling, which would take effect in 2016, does not mandate that players be paid. But it could allow universities to engage in bidding wars for the best athletes, though the N.C.A.A. would probably try to prevent that by capping payments, which Judge Wilken said was permissible. [NYT]

We’ve been here before. In sport, the courts have long been slow in recognizing what was obvious to everyone else. In 1922, the Supreme Court exempted major league baseball from the Sherman Anti-trust Law, ruling that baseball was an “amusement,” not a business. Another fiction. Even in 1969, when the Court admitted that baseball was a business, the conservatives on the Court still continued to allow teams to enforce the “reserve clause,” which prevented players from seeking a better deal with another club.  If Mickey Mantle didn’t like the contract the Yankees offered, his only option was to retire.  Dissenting were three of the Court’s great liberals – William Brennan, Thurgood Marshall, and William O. Douglas.

The reserve clause finally disappeared, not because of a court ruling but because the players had formed a union.  In negotiations with the owners, the union was strong enough to force them to give up the reserve clause. College athletes have never been able to form a union.  Recently, athletes at Northwestern voted to form a union. In April, the NLRB ruled that the athletes were employees and could unionize.  Of course, those who were getting rich off the atheletes’ unpaid labor – the university and the NCAA – objected.  Just last month, they filed briefs arguing against the NLRB decision.

Still, it may be hard for college athletes to form unions given the short tenure of each member. And I expect that the NCAA and its universities will, like admittedly for-profit corporations, do everything they can to prevent or bust the unions.  So for now, the courts are the only hope for bringing any real pay, let alone competitive wages, to college atheletes.  So for now the courts are the workers’ only hope. Yesterday’s ruling offered that hope.

So when it comes to money-making athletics, who’s for competition?  Liberal judges and unions.