Let’s think about a dead Grammarian

I thought it was worth doing a little reflection on this picture of yours truly from a trip to Edinburgh in 2007.

First off, how about all those sweet jobs you could have back in the 17th and 18th century? Grammarian was a life work? (This brings to mind a Jeopardy question fielded at TJ’s house the other month: the worlds most famous diarist? Samuel Pepys, 1633-1703. Wouldn’t it be great/pointless to be a famous diarist!?). Regent of Scotland? Tight. Mathematician is a little more familiar, as is Poet, but how about the need to differentiate “Gaelic Poet,” probably thought by some to be a lower calling, by others higher.

Possibly the best though is Henry McKenzie, “The Man of Feeling.” Nice little quote about this guy from Wikipedia: “Mackenzie had attempted to interest publishers in what would become his first and most famous work, The Man of Feeling, for several years, but they would not even accept it as a gift.”

Ouch! Not even as a gift? Hint taken. (That he succeeded in later publishing it anonymously seems an even greater insult). Without having read the book, I can’t help but consider myself to be a man of feeling (and  even compared myself to Candide in an article I wrote on the RSBS blog, a claim whose implications I probably didn’t fully consider, as highlighted in the comments section, but that’s being needlessly referential for you) towards poor old Henry.

It’s interesting for me to think that your every day working stiff back in the 1700s probably didn’t have a lot of time to dedicate to these high-minded persuasions; they were the provenance of the wealthy. But today we all have the same opportunity that the landed gentry had to dedicate ourselves to grammar, or poetry, or bookselling, if it’s our passion.

The matter of the Grammarian sticks with me. To commit your life to the pursuit of grammar seems simultaneously pointless and full of meaning. Language and writing are constant and crucial aspects of our existence, but can glide by with little contemplation. (One of the after-school teachers where I work actually wrote “I Had a Dream” on the blackboard in front of children, vis-á-vis MLK’s speech. Professionals encounter laughable/cringe-worthy gaffes via the little-policed grammatical backwater of daily email correspondence. One of my girlfriend’s most loathed corporate-speak written blunders: “just wanted to touch basis“).

Early in school an English teacher informed us that language is fluid, the unacceptable today becomes standard grammar and speech practice tomorrow through nothing more than common usage. Cataloging these developments seems like an exercise in futility that is immediately interesting to me.  There seems little reason to make note of these changes other than as a post-script, a handy reference for some future pedant with time on her hands, who wonders, “why do we say/write it that way? have we always? when did we start/stop?”

It is a fascinating thing to make up words, to alter parts of speech over time, to monitor changes in the acceptable, like a river carving rock. When the uncommon becomes quotidian, when things that are held to be irrefutable are then proven false. It’s happened throughout history: the solar system was geocentric, babies came from homunculi, eating eggs is healthy, then unhealthy, then healthy again. The ancient Greeks and Roman were real open about homosexuality, and then it got pretty dangerous to be open about it for about 2000(+) years. With the plethora of internet information, confirming almost any belief is as simple as googling the corresponding dogmatic website.

One can find reliable evidence to back up either side of most contemporary debates.  For example, the Center for American Progress  and the Heritage Foundation  both have accredited, intelligent-sounding professionals claiming the exact opposite views on virtually every topic. How is it possible? Is everyone right? Is everyone wrong? I find it so horribly confusing that it makes me want to halt contemplation altogether and watch Netflix, which makes me wonder, is this why half the people in the U.S. don’t vote?

Which leads me to believe that Chuck Klosterman has it right in Chuck Klosterman IV (reprinting an Esquire article he wrote in 2004):

It strikes me that every wrongheaded sentiment in society ultimately derives from the culture of inherent, unconditional rightness. As I grow older, I find myself less prone to have an opinion about anything, and to distrust just about everyone who does . . . If you want to truly deduce how intelligent someone is, just ask this person how they feel about any issue that doesn’t have an answer: the most certainty they express, the less sense they have. This is because certainty only comes from dogma . . . People used to slag on Bill Clinton for waffling on everything and always relying on situational pragmatism; as far as I’m concerned, that was the single greatest aspect of his presidency. Life is fucking confusing. I don’t know anything, and neither do you.

Now here I go, quoting something because it confirms the view about reality that I hold to be (at least mostly) true. (Klosterman is using this to decry unthinking nationalism surrounding the Olympics, which I’m not even connecting to, so this is perhaps disingenuous from the start.) So in reality I’m doing the same one-sided posturing.

This all brings me to the conclusion that what we believe is less important than how we started believing it, and how often, and when, and what that means about us. What I learn from the Grammarian is perhaps less about the import of knowing empirical truth, and more about how, why, and when truth was empirical, and to whom. Now I wonder, what would Thomas Ruddiman have to say on the subject?

1 Comment

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One Response to Let’s think about a dead Grammarian

  1. Rex

    I believe the correct usage here is, “you’res truly.”

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