Continuing my series from yesterday, I present an overview of my favorite linguist-writer, Geoffrey Nunberg.
I first encountered Nunberg through his 2001 book The Way We Talk Now, a collection of his essays largely based on transcripts of his "Fresh Air" pieces on NPR since 1989. He examines modern culture through the lens of the words we use.
For example, in an essay written around the time of the Gulf War, he notes how some TV announcers coined the word Baghdadi. He goes on from there to note that most nationalities in the Middle East end in an -i, and it's unusual for a suffix to be reserved for one area of the world. He connects this observation with the unique history and relationship the West has traditionally had with the Middle East.
Another essay comments on how the words force and violence are used as synonyms yet have a subtle distinction in meaning, which he connects to the way we tend to view abuses in power as premeditated, but violence from civilians as erratic.
In 1996, Nunberg put the combined speeches from the Republican Convention into a summarizing software, which returned a surprisingly eloquent paragraph. But when he tried the same thing with the speeches from the Democratic Convention, it returned, in Nunberg's words, "word salad."
Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book:
"If machines could play games no better than they could produce human language, they'd have a hard time keeping up with an eight-year-old at tick-tack-toe."
"You have to feel sympathy for those drivers who roll around all day in company vans with stickers on the bumper that say 'How am I driving? Call 555-1234.' It's just a sophisticated version of the 'Kick me' game, though I suspect the trucking companies justify it by saying that they want the drivers to feel a sense of ownership about their turn signals."
"Wherever you look, irony's moving out and sarcasm's moving in. Johnny Carson was ironic, David Letterman is sarcastic. Peanuts was ironic, South Park is sarcastic."
"The number of people who sit down at a keyboard every day has probably increased tenfold over the past few years--quite a few of them people whose writing used to be seen only on their refrigerator doors. They're people who were never able to spell very well, but over the telephone you couldn't tell."
"Was the outcome of an American presidential election really going to depend on the interpretation of a word [shall] that no American since Henry James has known how to use properly?"
As that last quote indicates, his commentary often intersects with politics. But this first book of his did not go much into partisan matters, and his liberal perspective was only hinted at on occasion. In his second book Going Nucular (which has many essays that are available at his webpage), he moves more in the direction of conventional punditry. But he's no hack. He usually takes an angle you're not expecting, and he is more interested in analyzing an issue than in pushing an agenda.
His first non-essay book, Talking Right, which contains the memorably long subtitle How Conservatives Turned Liberalism into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show, is his sharpest foray into political commentary. Published in 2006, this was one of a handful of books that tried to gauge why Democrats have had trouble winning elections. For a summary, see the Wikipedia page (written mostly by yours truly). How important this particular book was in the subsequent Democratic takeover of Congress, I do not know. But it's an interesting read, nonetheless.
You can hear many of Nunberg's "Fresh Air" pieces at NPR's webpage. Being more a reader than a listener, I have only rarely listened to the radio show.
Nunberg is also in charge of most of the "usage notes" in The American Heritage Dictionary.