Thursday, November 8, 2012

Plain English

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Monrovia, California

Barack Obama won on Tuesday, as we knew he would.  Congratulations to the self-serving and self-perpetuating news media for making the outcome look less certain than it always was and creating a little extra drama, even to the point of suggesting that the president’s actions after Hurricane Sandy made the difference.  Everyone should have been aware that Obama had been assured—assured, mind you—of almost the requisite 270 electoral votes from as far back as the end of the summer.  Mitt Romney was assured of just 190 or so.  This means that Romney would have had to pretty much run the table with Colorado, Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina, New Hampshire, and Florida in order to win, whereas Obama would have had to take just a couple of those states.  But the media’s melodramatic sleight of hand made many people lose touch with that reality, proving once again that the purpose of modern television "journalism" is not to report the news but to create it.  At any rate, most of my readers should be, as I am, pleased with the outcome of the election.  And to those who aren’t, as they say in French, tant pis pour vous.

Speaking of foreign phrases, you’ve got to love those Brits.  I read in the LA Times last week that the London-based department store chain Debenham’s has decided to use what it calls “plain English” in their labeling of the dizzying array of cutesy coffee drinks available at their outlets.  They don’t need no stinking Eye-talian terms to describe their java, so they’ve gone to straight-from-the-shoulder names for the various sizes and flavors of coffee drinks they serve.  A cappuccino is now called “frothy coffee,” a caffe mocha is “chocolate flavoured coffee,” and an espresso is “a strong shot of coffee.”  Gone are those baffling and completely undescriptive Eurotrash and Starbucks-inspired size labels—tall, grande, and venti—replaced by their sensible English equivalents (which I tend to use in ordering anyway), “small, medium, and large.”  But my favorite piece of Debenham’s newspeak is the anglicized version of caffe latte, which is now called “really really milky coffee.”  Tell it like it is. 

Like the French, the English have always been rather pettish in their attitude toward what they quite rightly consider, from a historical and geographical perspective at least, to be “their” language.  The French accomplish this by insisting that people not presume to try to speak French at all unless they mean business and are willing to speak it pretty much impeccably.  In this regard they are like chefs who would rather serve nothing than to serve poorly-cooked food, even to those who are starving, an attitude also very much in keeping with Gallic sensibilities.  This is fine, really, since most Frenchmen speak passable English, and comparatively few people worldwide speak French.  (It ranks about eighteenth among world languages, while English is fourth, after Mandarin Chinese, Hindi, and Spanish.)  It’s okay that the French would rather speak English to an English speaker, since most native English speakers don’t mind if their language is spoken poorly, incorrectly, or with an outrageous accent, so long as it is intelligible.  Good thing, too, because the majority of Continental speakers of English never manage to master the simple voiced and unvoiced dental fricative consonant sounds (“th” as in “the” and “thing”) which serve more or less as the mainstay of our mother tongue.  (That letter combination occurs 33 times in this paragraph alone.)

The English do not show their conviction of the superiority of their language in the same way the French do.  Instead, they do it by insisting on not using terms they know to be of foreign origin if a sturdy Anglo-Saxon word will do.  There are no “elevators” in the UK, since such a term has an unsavory French or Latinate tang.  Instead, there are “lifts.”  An “exit,” straight from the ancient Roman, must instead be a “way out.”  Even something as basic to American English speakers as “dessert” loses out, due to its pure Frenchness, to the more anachronistic and rather absurd “pudding,” or “pud” for short, even if the dessert isn't pudding at all, but something like ice cream.  But the British don’t stop there.  If indeed they must use a term they know to be of foreign origin, they insist on pronouncing it in as loutishly English a way as possible, just to emphasize their disdain.  Taco and pasta thus become “tack-o” and "passed-uh," and “jaguar” turns into “jagg-u-er.”  But nowhere is the British penchant for anglicizing foreign terms more pronounced than in the way they say the names of countries other than their own.  Nicaragua is “Nick-er-agg-u-er,” for instance.  And when Neville Chamberlain went to visit with Herr Hitler, the subject was not Czechoslovakia but “Check-o-slow-vack-ee-er.”  It’s not that the English possess no ear for foreign languages so much as that they possess no real interest in foreign languages.  

Small wonder, then, that a nascent movement is afoot in London to eliminate such oily southern European nomenclature as “caffe” and “latte” and “cappuccino” and “espresso.”  By contrast, we Americans love to incorporate foreign terms into our vocabulary, especially for food, just as we have traditionally incorporated foreign people into our country, even if we sometimes abuse both the terms and the immigrants.  This may bespeak an unfulfilled wish to be more cosmopolitan and worldly, isolated as we are from the other cultural centers of the world.  Or it might be because the native cuisine of the English, which we brought with us to this continent, is just so awful.  

But the English solution to what they term “coffee confusion” makes me wonder whether we might take a page from our linguistic parent on the other side of the Atlantic, and start to convert foreign terms into things that are a bit more from our own language and more descriptive, to boot.  The ubiquitous “hamburger” is named, correctly or not, for the city of Hamburg, Germany.  Similarly a “frankfurter” and a “wiener” are named after their supposed cities of origin.  Might we not take the liberty of renaming these foods so as to describe them more accurately and to remove their alien taint?  A hamburger could become “a greasy flat round piece of fried ground beef served on a bun,” for instance.  (Hey wait, that might already be a McDonald’s slogan.) A hot dog, or frankfurter, or wiener, could be renamed “a sausage made from something that might be meat.”  Bologna, named after a city in Italy, would be “a thin slice of an even bigger sausage made from something that might be meat.”  Pizza could be “tomato sauce, cheese, and other stuff baked on a round piece of dough.”  Most of the rest of Italian food—things with mysterious names like fettuccine alfredo, spaghetti parmigiana, and mostaccioli carbonara—could be summed up as “noodles with sauce.”  The majority of Mexican food items—tortillas, quesadillas, burritos, enchiladas—could be called “rice, beans, tomatoes, cheese, peppers, and meat with soft flat bread.”

But why stop with food?  What about the field of politics, since I opened on that subject?  A senator could be renamed “a wealthy person who gets to spend six years between elections doing nothing.”  A congressman could be called “a person who is forced to lie to the public every two years.”  A president, that most august of politicians, could be better termed “a man, usually white, who appears to lead the country.”  The term “presidential election” could be more accurately described as “a contest between two extremely ambitious men to see which one is better at arousing knee-jerk patriotism and making the most absurd promises imaginable.”  The possibilities here are endless, and I must apologize to the memories of the likes of Ambrose Bierce and Mark Twain, who would have done a much better job of it.

The truth that the British seem to have lost sight of at Debenham's is that we use the terms we do, whether for coffee drinks or food dishes, not to confuse ourselves but to elevate the ordinary and to infuse it with a sense of the exotic, and perhaps to make it seem to taste better.  From a purely digestive point of view it all goes down the hatch and comes out the other end looking pretty much the same--yellow and brown--whether it’s a grande caffe latte or a medium-sized cup of really really milky coffee; a plate of linguine bolognese or a serving of noodles with ground beef sauce.

As for politics, I think we can agree that it’s pretty much all shit at both ends.