Foreign Languages and SF

Monday, May 23rd, 2016

Army Special Forces is the only combat arms element in the US military that requires every member to have some mastery of a foreign language:

Why not just use interpreters?

Well, can you trust an interpreter the way you can a team member? Maybe. In time. With a certain subset of interpreters. But right from the beginning? No.

You also need to have linguists on the team as a safety check on those interpreters. If they think they can get away with it, they’re going to put their own spin on what you’re saying — at the very least. It’s human nature.


But some people find language learning inordinately hard. We don’t know the neuropsychiatric explanation for this, but some bright people struggle to learn a language, just like some people are (at least in their youth) natural language sponges. It seems to be correlated with verbal reasoning in one’s native language, but not perfectly (or it would track IQ, most measures of which are half dependent on verbal reasoning). So there is a Language Aptitude or “L” factor which is only weakly correlated with Spearman’s “G” factor of general intelligence.

The Army (and now DOD) has a test that purports to measure one’s language aptitude. It’s recently been subject to a little drama, as the test scores tend to have a correlation with race, which is anathema to all right-thinking people, but so far they have not race-normed the scores (i.e., provided some affirmative action points to popular ancestries). Your performance on the DLAB, Defense Language Aptitude Battery is a usable indicator, albeit an imperfect one, of your general “L” factor, and the military will often assign languages based on DLAB performance. (The military assesses languages in Categories. Cat I is an easy language, for an English speaker, like Spanish or French. Cat IV is a tough one, like Chinese Mandarin or Arabic). For an 18X starting out in Special Forces, your language may also determine what Group you go to, although all bets are off in time of war. A trainee may get an opportunity to pick the language from within the category, depending on the needs of the Army. So if you’re a Category III, picking Russian might get you assigned to Europe-oriented 10th Group (although some Russian speakers are needed in other groups). Pick Chinese or Korean, and you will be wearing the yellow flash of the 1st Group; select Farsi, and you’ll be wearing the freshly-restored Vietnam-era flash of the 5th. Or a trainee may just be told “You start language school Monday. Roster Number 107, to French. Roster 116…”

People who scored high on the DLAB often find language learning easier than people who scored low. There’s a mountain of data on this after decades of DLABs. While the cut-off score for Cat I languages in 95, cut-off scores are a bit rubbery… if they don’t have enough students to fill a class, they may bend on admissions requirements. This bending often does the candidate no favors. Few people with scores below 100 complete a long-term language school like DLI, although with good study habits, hard work, and self-discipline, someone with limited aptitude can bull through the shorter SF language school. And the higher the score, the better. While you can get into a Cat IV language school with a 110, the cluster of people down around the minimum score are often not there on graduation day.

Of course, SF and other linguist positions in the military sometimes luck into a native speaker. This is a good thing, subject to CI investigation of the student and his or her family. (If the CI work is botched, you get situations like the Naval flight officer now sitting in the brig, charged with spying for China).

Not everyone in SF thinks language is worthwhile.

This idea tends to be concentrated in the officer corps, especially in those who have spent much of their career in Direct Action units (like the Rangers, for one example). One such officer was Colonel (later Brigadier General) Frank J. Toney, who had been a protegé of James Guest, in an environment where only door-kicking counted. When Toney took over SF Command, he brought his attitude with him: “My men don’t need any language training. They can speak 5.56 and 7.62!”

We leave as an exercise for the reader, why his nickname was Blank Frank.

The Voice of the Airline Pilot

Sunday, May 8th, 2016

Anyone who travels very much on airlines in the United States soon gets to know the voice of the airline pilot, Tom Wolfe explains:

Anyone who travels very much on airlines in the United States soon gets to know the voice of the airline pilot… coming over the intercom… with a particular drawl, a particular folksiness, a particular down-home calmness that is so exaggerated it begins to parody itself (nevertheless! — it’s reassuring)… the voice that tells you, as the airliner is caught in thunderheads and goes bolting up and down a thousand feet at a single gulp, to check your seat belts because “it might get a little choppy”… the voice that tells you (on a flight from Phoenix preparing for its final approach into Kennedy Airport, New York, just after dawn): “Now, folks, uh… this is the captain… ummmm… We’ve got a little ol’ red light up here on the control panel that’s tryin’ to tell us that the landin’ gears’re not… uh… lockin’ into position when we lower ‘em… Now… I don’t believe that little ol’ red light knows what it’s talkin’ about — I believe it’s that little ol’ red light that iddn’ workin’ right”… faint chuckle, long pause, as if to say, I’m not even sure all this is really worth going into — still, it may amuse you… “But… I guess to play it by the rules, we oughta humor that little ol’ light… so we’re gonna take her down to about, oh, two or three hundred feet over the runway at Kennedy, and the folks down there on the ground are gonna see if they caint give us a visual inspection of those ol’ landin’ gears” — with which he is obviously on intimate ol’-buddy terms, as with every other working part of this mighty ship — “and if I’m right… they’re gonna tell us everything is copacetic all the way aroun’ an’ we’ll jes take her on in”… and, after a couple of low passes over the field, the voice returns: “Well, folks, those folks down there on the ground — it must be too early for ‘em or somethin’ — I ‘spect they still got the sleepers in their eyes… ’cause they say they caint tell if those ol’ landin’ gears are all the way down or not… But, you know, up here in the cockpit we’re convinced they’re all the way down, so we’re jes gonna take her on in… And oh”… (I almost forgot)… “while we take a little swing out over the ocean an’ empty some of that surplus fuel we’re not gonna be needin’ anymore — that’s what you might be seein’ comin’ out of the wings — our lovely little ladies… if they’ll be so kind… they’re gonna go up and down the aisles and show you how we do what we call ‘assumin’ the position’”… another faint chuckle (We do this so often, and it’s so much fun, we even have a funny little name for it)… and the stewardesses, a bit grimmer, by the looks of them, than that voice, start telling the passengers to take their glasses off and take the ballpoint pens and other sharp objects out of their pockets, and they show them the position, with the head lowered… while down on the field at Kennedy the little yellow emergency trucks start roaring across the field — and even though in your pounding heart and your sweating palms and your broiling brainpan you know this is a critical moment in your life, you still can’t quite bring yourself to believe it, because if it were… how could the captain, the man who knows the actual situation most intimately… how could he keep on drawlin’ and chucklin’ and driftin’ and lollygaggin’ in that particular voice of his—

Well! — who doesn’t know that voice! And who can forget it! — even after he is proved right and the emergency is over.

That particular voice may sound vaguely Southern or Southwestern, but it is specifically Appalachian in origin. It originated in the mountains of West Virginia, in the coal country, in Lincoln County, so far up in the hollows that, as the saying went, “they had to pipe in daylight. ” In the late 1940′s and early 1950′s this up-hollow voice drifted down from on high, from over the high desert of California, down, down, down, from the upper reaches of the Brotherhood into all phases of American aviation. It was amazing. It was Pygmalion in reverse. Military pilots and then, soon, airline pilots, pilots from Maine and Massachusetts and the Dakotas and Oregon and everywhere else, began to talk in that poker-hollow West Virginia drawl, or as close to it as they could bend their native accents. It was the drawl of the most righteous of all the possessors of the right stuff: Chuck Yeager.

The Secret Strategies of Skilled Listeners

Friday, March 18th, 2016

Annie Murphy Paul explains the secret strategies of skilled listeners:

Studies of skilled language learners have identified specific listening strategies that lead to superior comprehension. What’s more, research has shown that learners who deliberately adopt these strategies become better listeners. Last year, for example, University of Ottawa researcher Larry Vandergrift published his study of 106 undergraduates who were learning French as a second language. Half of the students were taught in a conventional fashion, listening to and practicing texts spoken aloud. The other half, possessing the same initial skill level and taught by the same teacher, were given explicit instruction on how to listen. In the journal Language Learning, Vandergrift reported the results: The second group “significantly outperformed” the first one on a test of comprehension. The improvement was especially pronounced among the less-fluent French speakers in the group.

So what are these listening strategies? Skilled learners go into a listening session with a sense of what they want to get out of it. They set a goal for their listening, and they generate predictions about what the speaker will say. Before the talking begins, they mentally review what they already know about the subject, and form an intention to “listen out for” what’s important or relevant. Once they begin listening, these learners maintain their focus; if their attention wanders, they bring it back to the words being spoken. They don’t allow themselves to be thrown off by confusing or unfamiliar details. Instead, they take note of what they don’t understand and make inferences about what those things might mean, based on other clues available to them: their previous knowledge of the subject, the context of the talk, the identity of the speaker, and so on. They’re “listening for gist,” and not getting caught up in fine-grained analysis. All the while, skilled learners are evaluating what they’re hearing and their own understanding of it. They’re checking their inferences to see if they’re correct, and identifying the questions they still have so they can pursue the answers later.

Such strategies are all about metacognition, or thinking about thinking, and they yield a variety of benefits. Research indicates that learners who engage in metacogition are better at processing and storing new information, better at finding the best ways to practice and better at reinforcing what they have learned. In a 2006 study by researchers from Singapore, Chinese speakers who were learning English as a second language reported increased motivation and confidence after they were taught metacognitive strategies.

Why Do We Know so Little about China in World War Two?

Monday, February 15th, 2016

Why do we know so little about China in World War Two? Well, the Chinese theatre wasn’t decisive, there’s no consensus narrative about the war there, and China’s archives were off limits for years. But there’s another, more pedestrian factor, Peter Harmsen explains — the difficulty of the Chinese language:

According to the Foreign Service Institute at the State Department, it takes 2,200 class hours of devoted study to achieve proficiency in Chinese. This is about twice the amount of time needed to learn Russian or Vietnamese, and four times as much as the time invested in learning French or Dutch.

This is just in order to learn the modern Chinese language. To truly grasp the Second Sino-Japanese War in all its complex intricacy, knowledge of the classical Chinese language is a definite advantage, too. For example, Chiang Kai-shek’s diary, possibly the most important primary source of them all, was written in a terse and elliptical style which comes across as archaic even to many Chinese.

Unfortunately, knowledge of the Chinese language is absolutely crucial in order to do more than just scratch the surface of the complex events in China in the years from 1937 to 1945. Speaking from personal experience, if I hadn’t been able to read Chinese, I could never have completed my own two books on the subject, Nanjing 1937: Battle for a Doomed City and Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze.

(Hat tip to T. Greer.)

Buy the Farm

Friday, August 21st, 2015

The phrase buy the farm is US slang, from the WWII era — the first printed record goes back to the US Air Force in the 1950s:

Similar expressions like buy the plot and buy the lot also existed, although buy the farm is the only one to have survived. When a military pilot with a stricken airplane attempted to crash land in a farmer’s field, he would destroy a portion of the farmer’s crops for which the US government paid reimbursement to the farmer. If it were a bad crash-landing destroying most of the crops then the crash would cause the buying of the whole farm, shortened susequently to the current idiom.

Probably related to older British slang buy it, buy one or buy the packet, both seemingly ironic references to something that one does not want to buy. May come from the common reflection that once someone had finished his service he would go home and buy a farm to settle on.

Also, it may be in reference to the book Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. [Spoiler alert!] Main characters George and Lennie always talk about owning their own farm where they will have to answer to no one and “live off the fatt’a the land.” Later, when George must kill Lennie they talk about how they will buy the farm when George pulls the trigger and shoots Lennie to kill him painlessly.

A Plea Regarding “Liberal”

Monday, August 10th, 2015

Dan Klein issues this plea:

Please do not describe leftists, progressives, social democrats, or Democrats as “liberal.”

The word liberal began to take on a political meaning around 1770, he notes:

By virtue of textual digitization, we now can pinpoint the inception with remarkable precision and certainty. In figure 4 we see the introduction of liberal in a political sense, in the expressions liberal policy, liberal system, liberal plan, liberal government, and liberal principles.

Liberal Figure 4

The inception of liberal as a political term should be credited to the Scottish historian William Robertson, who published a book in 1769 that uses the term repeatedly to mean principles of liberty and commercial freedom.(3) Adam Smith embraced and made important use of the semantic innovation in The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776. Smith used the term repeatedly in a signal way to refer to the sort of policy he advocated, a system that gives a strong presumption to individual liberty, and hence commercial and market freedom.

If all nations, Smith says, were to follow “the liberal system of free exportation and free importation,” then they would be like one great cosmopolitan empire, and famines would be prevented. Then he repeats the phrase: “But very few countries have entirely adopted this liberal system.”(4) Smith’s “liberal system” was not concerned solely with international trade. He used “liberal” to describe the application of the same principles to domestic policy issues. Smith was a great opponent of restrictions in the labor market, favoring freedom of contract, and wished to see labor markets “resting on such liberal principles.”(5)

Klein has considered himself a classical liberal for decades:

Today conservatives and libertarians often use the term liberal to refer to leftists, progressives, social democrats, and Democrats. Here I beg you to stop doing so. But if you are not to say “liberal,” what are you to say? One option is to put “liberal” in quotation marks or to say “so-called liberal.” But even better is to use the words that have always signified the mentality of governmentalization: the terms left, progressive, and social democrat.

Prior to the twentieth century, in English-language discourse there was very little talk of “left” and “right,” as shown in figure 8. As the political term left emerged in the twentieth century, it has always signified political and cultural state centralization, through the governmentalization of social affairs. The extreme left is communism. A supposedly more liberal collectivism is socialism. The meaning of the left has changed somewhat, but, despite its verbiage and false consciousness, it still basically remains centered on the governmentalization of social affairs (although we must recognize that on a few issues, the left does lean toward liberalization). The left pretends to favor diversity, but that slogan is in reality just an agenda for people of diverse backgrounds to come together in a broadly uniform set of leftist beliefs.

Liberal Figure 8

As for progressive, the essence was aptly described in 1926 by H.?L. Mencken: “The Progressive is one who is in favor of more taxes instead of less, more bureaus and jobholders, more paternalism and meddling, more regulation of private affairs and less liberty.”(13) That is, the progressive is one who favors greater governmentalization of social affairs. The description has been largely accurate since the word progressive emerged as a political term. As Jonah Goldberg has shown in his regrettably titled book Liberal Fascism, early American progressivism contained rich veins of racism, eugenics, and all-around statism. In figure 9 we see that the political term progressives emerged around 1910.

Liberal Figure 9

Sometimes conservatives and libertarians balk at calling the left “progressive,” not wanting to concede the idea of progress. But I say, let them have it. Not only has progressive always signified statism, but the idea of progress is not suited to true liberalism. The idea of progress is goal-oriented: “Are you making progress on your term paper?” It suggests a goal or destination. But in politics the notion of a social goal or destination is baneful. That collectivists should join together for what they imagine to be progress is perfectly fitting. For them the term progressive is suitable. By contrast, conservatives and libertarians look to, not progress, but improvement.

Another fitting term for leftism is social democracy, which is standard in Europe. Social democracy is a compromise between democratic socialism and a tepid liberalism. The socialistic penchant is foremost, but a vacillating liberalism gnaws at the social democrat’s conscience. In figure 10 we see that the term social democracy emerged around 1900.

Liberal Figure 10

With the onset of the social-democratic age came a confusion of tongues, a Tower of Babel. Over the course of the twentieth century, as the left came to dominate most cultural institutions, its partisans set the semantic rules, and one either played by their rules or found oneself marginalized or excluded. Besides arrogating “liberal” to themselves, they created categories along the lines of “you’re either with us or against us.” There was the left, and then everything else — classical liberals, defenders of tradition, status-quo interest groups, or whatever else — was “the right.” For good measure they would throw in the Nazis, even though they stood for national socialism. With their absurd construction (“the right”), the left, by demonizing any of the groups placed therein — from religious extremists to skinheads to business-interest cronies — would damage and discredit every group within the set of groups denominated as “the right,” most important the true and perennial threat to the leftists’ worldview and selfhood, the classical liberals. How many times have Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, both of whom described themselves as “liberal,” been called “fascist” and “right-wing”?

How Dare You Say That! The Evolution of Profanity

Tuesday, July 28th, 2015

John H. McWhorter (The Language Hoax) explores the evolution of profanity:

In medieval English, at a time when wars were fought in disputes over religious doctrine and authority, the chief category of profanity was, at first, invoking—that is, swearing to—the name of God, Jesus or other religious figures in heated moments, along the lines of “By God!” Even now, we describe profanity as “swearing” or as muttering “oaths.”

It might seem like a kind of obsessive piety to us now, but the culture of that day was largely oral, and swearing—making a sincere oral testament—was a key gesture of commitment. To swear by or to God lightly was considered sinful, which is the origin of the expression to take the Lord’s name in vain (translated from Biblical Hebrew for “emptily”).

The need to avoid such transgressions produced various euphemisms, many of them familiar today, such as “by Jove,” “by George,” “gosh,” “golly” and “Odsbodikins,” which started as “God’s body.” “Zounds!” was a twee shortening of “By his wounds,” as in those of Jesus. A time traveler to the 17th century would encounter variations on that theme such as “Zlids!” and “Znails!”, referring to “his” eyelids and nails.

In the 19th century, “Drat!” was a way to say “God rot.” Around the same time, darn started when people avoided saying “Eternal damnation!” by saying “Tarnation!”, which, because of the D-word hovering around, was easy to recast as “Darnation!”, from which “darn!” was a short step.

By the late 18th century, sex, excretion and the parts associated with same had come to be treated as equally profane as “swearing” in the religious sense. Such matters had always been considered bawdy topics, of course, but the space for ordinary words referring to them had been shrinking for centuries already.

Chaucer had available to him a thoroughly inoffensive word referring to the sex act, swive.

I think that qualifies as the word of the day!

We are hardly beyond taboos, McWhorter notes; we just observe different ones:

Today, what we regard as truly profane isn’t religion or sex but the slandering of groups, especially groups that have historically suffered discrimination or worse. Our profanity consists of the N-word, that C-word once suitable for an anatomy book discussion of women’s bodies, and a word beginning with f referring to gay men (and some would include a word referring to women beginning with b).

It might seem strained to compare our feelings about the N-word with a bygone era’s appalled shuddering over the utterance of “By God!” But do note that I have to euphemize the N-word here in print just as someone would have once have felt compelled to say, “By Jove!”


But we are just as capable as previous eras of policing our taboos with unquestioning excess. An administrator in Washington, D.C.’s Office of the Public Advocate had to resign in 1999 for using the word niggardly in a staff meeting. At the University of Virginia, there was a campus protest in 2003 after a medical school staffer said that a sports team called the Redskins “was as derogatory to Indians as having a team called n— would be to blacks.” Julian Bond, who was then the head of the NAACP, said that only his respect for free speech kept him from recommending that she be fired. In 2014, the lawyer and writer Wendy Kaminer elicited aggrieved comments for saying, during a panel discussion at Smith College, that when we use euphemisms for the N-word we all “hear the word n— in our head.”


Some might object that we should not check that impulse, and that extremism is necessary to create lasting social change. But it’s useful to recall that, when it comes to profanity, there were once people who considered themselves every bit as enlightened as we see ourselves today, with the same ardent and appalled sense of moral urgency. They were people who said “Odsbodikins” and did everything they could to avoid talking about their pants.

Scrabble Francophone

Monday, July 27th, 2015

The French-language Scrabble world championship just went to a New Zealander — who doesn’t speak French:

The BBC reported that Nigel Richards, originally from Christchurch, defeated a rival from French-speaking Gabon in the final in Louvain, Belgium, on Monday.

He had only started studying the French dictionary about eight weeks ago, said a close friend of Mr Richards, Liz Fagerlund.

“He doesn’t speak French at all, he just learnt the words. He won’t know what they mean, wouldn’t be able to carry out a conversation in French I wouldn’t think.”

Mr Richards, now in his late forties, is a previous English Scrabble champion. He is based in Malaysia.

He has won five US National titles and the World Scrabble Championship three times.


Saturday, July 25th, 2015

Camouflage is “the disguising of military personnel, equipment, and installations by painting or covering them to make them blend in with their surroundings,” from the French:

Camouflage Word Origin

late 19th century (in sense ‘disguise, concealment’): French, from camoufler ‘to disguise’ (originally thieves’ slang), from Italian camuffare ‘disguise, deceive,’ perhaps by association with French camouflet ‘whiff of smoke in the face.’ The military sense originated during World War I.

Camouflage Word Use Over Time

So, a camoufleur would camoufler something, and this camouflage would deceive the enemy.

Camouflage New French Word

If the word had been borrowed earlier, we might all be camoofling our equipment today.

When Birds Squawk, Other Species Listen

Monday, June 1st, 2015

When birds squawk, other species listen:

Studies in recent years by many researchers, including Dr. Greene, have shown that animals such as birds, mammals and even fish recognize the alarm signals of other species. Some can even eavesdrop on one another across classes. Red-breasted nuthatches listen to chickadees. Dozens of birds listen to tufted titmice, who act like the forest’s crossing guards. Squirrels and chipmunks eavesdrop on birds, sometimes adding their own thoughts. In Africa, vervet monkeys recognize predator alarm calls by superb starlings.


So-called “seet” calls, peeps produced by many small songbirds in response to a raptor on the wing, are well-known to ornithologists. Conventional wisdom held that the calls dissipated quickly and were produced only for other birds nearby. However, that’s not what Dr. Greene noticed: chatter sweeping across the hillside, then birds diving into bushes.

Studying the phenomenon, he documented a “distant early-warning system” among the birds in which the alarm calls were picked up by other birds and passed through the forest at more than 100 miles per hour. Dr. Greene likened it to a bucket brigade at a fire.

The information rippled ahead of a predator minutes before it flew overhead, giving prey time to hide. Moreover, while raptors can hear well at low frequencies, they are not very good at hearing at 6 to 10 kilohertz, the higher frequency at which seet calls are produced. “So it’s sort of a private channel,” he said.

Dr. Greene turned to chickadees, which are highly attuned to threats. When one sees a perched raptor nearby, it will issue its well-known “chick-a-dee” call, a loud, frequent and harsh sound known as a mobbing call because its goal is to attract other birds to harass the predator until it departs.

In 2005, Dr. Greene was an author of an article in the journal Science that demonstrated how black-capped chickadees embed information about the size of predators into these calls. When faced with a high-threat raptor perched nearby, the birds not only call more frequently, they also attach more dee’s to their call.

Raptors tend to be the biggest threat to birds nearest their own size because they can match the maneuverability of their prey. So a large goshawk might only merit a chick-a-dee-dee from a nimble chickadee, while that little pygmy owl will elicit a chick-a-dee followed by five or even 10 or 12 additional dee syllables, Dr. Greene said.

The researchers next showed that red-breasted nuthatches, which are chickadee-size and frequently flock with them in the winter, eavesdrop on their alarm language, too.

Dr. Greene, working with a student, has also found that “squirrels understand ‘bird-ese,’ and birds understand ‘squirrel-ese.’ ” When red squirrels hear a call announcing a dangerous raptor in the air, or they see such a raptor, they will give calls that are acoustically “almost identical” to the birds, Dr. Greene said. (Researchers have found that eastern chipmunks are attuned to mobbing calls by the eastern tufted titmouse, a cousin of the chickadee.)


Thursday, April 16th, 2015

Legendary foes grow larger with every retelling of the tale of their defeat, but I didn’t realize this was so true of the giants of Greek mythology:

In Greek mythology, the Giants or Gigantes (singular Gigas) were a race of great strength and aggression, though not necessarily of great size, known for the Gigantomachy (Gigantomachia), their battle with the Olympian gods. According to Hesiod, the Giants were the offspring of Gaia (Earth), born from the blood that fell when Uranus (Sky) was castrated by their Titan son Cronus.

Archaic and Classical representations show Gigantes as man-sized hoplites (heavily-armed ancient Greek foot soldiers) fully human in form. Later representations (after c. 380 BC) show Gigantes with snakes for legs. In later traditions, the Giants were often confused with other opponents of the Olympians, particularly the Titans, an earlier generation of large and powerful children of Gaia and Uranus.

The vanquished Giants were said to be buried under volcanos, and to be the cause of volcanic eruptions and earthquakes.

Draft No. 4

Thursday, April 2nd, 2015

John McPhee offers his advice on getting out Draft No. 1, the hardest draft to write:

Block. It puts some writers down for months. It puts some writers down for life. A not always brief or minor form of it mutes all writers from the outset of every day. “Dear Joel… ” This is just a random sample from letters written to former students in response to their howling cries as they suffer the masochistic self-inflicted paralysis of a writer’s normal routine. “Dear Joel… ” This Joel will win huge awards and write countless books and a nationally syndicated column, but at the time of this letter he has just been finding out that to cross the electric fence from the actual world to the writing world requires at least as much invention as the writing itself. “Dear Joel: You are writing, say, about a grizzly bear. No words are forthcoming. For six, seven, ten hours no words have been forthcoming. You are blocked, frustrated, in despair. You are nowhere, and that’s where you’ve been getting. What do you do? You write, ‘Dear Mother.’ And then you tell your mother about the block, the frustration, the ineptitude, the despair. You insist that you are not cut out to do this kind of work. You whine. You whimper. You outline your problem, and you mention that the bear has a fifty-five-inch waist and a neck more than thirty inches around but could run nose-to-nose with Secretariat. You say the bear prefers to lie down and rest. The bear rests fourteen hours a day. And you go on like that as long as you can. And then you go back and delete the ‘Dear Mother’ and all the whimpering and whining, and just keep the bear.”

Draft No. 4 sound much more pleasant:

fter reading the second draft aloud, and going through the piece for the third time (removing the tin horns and radio static that I heard while reading), I enclose things in boxes for Draft No. 4. If I enjoy anything in this process it is Draft No. 4. I go searching for replacements for the words in the boxes. The final adjustments may be small-scale, but they are large to me, and I love addressing them.


You draw a box not only around any word that does not seem quite right but also around words that fulfill their assignment but seem to present an opportunity. While the word inside the box may be perfectly O.K., there is likely to be an even better word for this situation, a word right smack on the button, and why don’t you try to find such a word? If none occurs, don’t linger; keep reading and drawing boxes, and later revisit them one by one. If there’s a box around “sensitive,” because it seems pretentious in the context, try “susceptible.” Why “susceptible”? Because you looked up “sensitive” in the dictionary and it said “highly susceptible.” With dictionaries, I spend a great deal more time looking up words I know than words I have never heard of—at least ninety-nine to one.

Make sure you’re using the right dictionary though.

You’re probably using the wrong dictionary

Monday, March 30th, 2015

You’re probably using the wrong dictionary, James Somers suggests:

The way I thought you used a dictionary was that you looked up words you’ve never heard of, or whose sense you’re unsure of. You would never look up an ordinary word — like example, or sport, or magic — because all you’ll learn is what it means, and that you already know.

Indeed, if you look up those particular words in the dictionary that comes with your computer — on my Mac, it’s the New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd Edition — you’ll be rewarded with… well, there won’t be any reward. The entries are pedestrian:

example /ig?zamp?l/, n. a thing characteristic of its kind or illustrating a general rule.

sport /spôrt/, n. an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.

magic /?majik/, n. the power of apparently influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces.

Here, words are boiled to their essence. But that essence is dry, functional, almost bureaucratically sapped of color or pop, like high modernist architecture. Which trains you to think of the dictionary as a utility, not a quarry of good things, not a place you’d go to explore and savor.

Worse, the words themselves take on the character of their definitions: they are likewise reduced. A delightful word like “fustian” — delightful because of what it means, because of the way it looks and sounds, because it is unusual in regular speech but not so effete as to be unusable, is described, efficiently, as “pompous or pretentious speech or writing.” Not only is this definition (as we’ll see in a minute) simplistic and basically wrong, it’s just not in the same class, English-wise, as “fustian.” The language is tin-eared and uninspired. It’s criminal: This is the place where all the words live and the writing’s no good.

The New Oxford American dictionary, by the way, is not like singularly bad. Google’s dictionary, the modern Merriam-Webster, the dictionary at they’re all like this. They’re all a chore to read. There’s no play, no delight in the language. The definitions are these desiccated little husks of technocratic meaningese, as if a word were no more than its coordinates in semantic space.

John McPhee — one the great American writers of nonfiction, almost peerless as a prose stylist — once wrote an essay for the New Yorker about his process called “Draft #4.” He explains that for him, draft #4 is the draft after the painstaking labor of creation is done, when all that’s left is to punch up the language, to replace shopworn words and phrases with stuff that sings.

The way you do it, he says, is “you draw a box not only around any word that does not seem quite right but also around words that fulfill their assignment but seem to present an opportunity.” You go looking for le mot juste.

But where?

“Your destination is the dictionary,” he writes.

The dictionary McPhee went to was Webster’s — just not the modern one:

You can see why it became cliché to start a speech with “Webster’s defines X as…”: with his dictionary the definition that followed was actually likely to lend gravitas to your remarks, to sound so good, in fact, that it’d beat anything you could come up with on your own.

Take a simple word, like “flash.” In all the dictionaries I’ve ever known, I would have never looked up that word. I’d’ve had no reason to — I already knew what it meant. But go look up “flash” in Webster’s (the edition I’m using is the 1913). The first thing you’ll notice is that the example sentences don’t sound like they came out of a DMV training manual (“the lights started flashing”) — they come from Milton and Shakespeare and Tennyson (“A thought flashed through me, which I clothed in act”).

You’ll find a sense of the word that is somehow more evocative than any you’ve seen. “2. To convey as by a flash… as, to flash a message along the wires; to flash conviction on the mind.” In the juxtaposition of those two examples — a message transmitted by wires; a feeling that comes suddenly to mind — is a beautiful analogy, worth dwelling on, and savoring. Listen to that phrase: “to flash conviction on the mind.” This is in a dictionary, for God’s sake.

And, toward the bottom of the entry, as McPhee promised, is a usage note, explaining the fine differences in meaning between words in the penumbra of “flash”:

… Flashing differs from exploding or disploding in not being accompanied with a loud report. To glisten, or glister, is to shine with a soft and fitful luster, as eyes suffused with tears, or flowers wet with dew.

Did you see that last clause? “To shine with a soft and fitful luster, as eyes suffused with tears, or flowers wet with dew.” I’m not sure why you won’t find writing like that in dictionaries these days, but you won’t. Here is the modern equivalent of that sentence in the latest edition of the Merriam-Webster: “glisten applies to the soft sparkle from a wet or oily surface .”

Somers points us in the right direction:

The closest thing you can get to a plain-text, easily hackable, free, out-of-copyright version of the dictionary McPhee probably used is Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913 + 1828).

Enlightened Hard-Boiled-Ness

Wednesday, December 31st, 2014

Marine Major Sherwood F. Moran found himself facing a fanatical and implacable enemy in a brutal war in which the old rules no longer seemed to apply, and he was under intense pressure to achieve quick results as an interrogator. He went on to write an influential document on the complexities and difficulties of dealing with an enemy from such a hostile and alien culture and how to extract useful information from prisoners:

The successful interrogators all had one thing in common in the way they approached their subjects. They were nice to them.

Moran was writing in 1943, and he was describing his own, already legendary methods of interrogating Japanese prisoners of war.


Part of why Sherwood Moran became such a legendary figure among military interrogators was his cool disregard for what he termed the standard “hard-boiled” military attitude. The brutality of the fighting in the Pacific and the suicidal fanaticism of the Japanese had created a general assumption that only the sternest measures would get Japanese prisoners to divulge anything. Moran countered that in his and others’ experience, strong-arm tactics simply did not work. Stripping a prisoner of his dignity, treating him as a still-dangerous threat, forcing him to stand at attention and flanking him with guards throughout his interrogation — in other words, emphasizing that “we are his to-be-respected and august enemies and conquerors” — invariably backfired. It made the prisoner “so conscious of his present position and that he was a captured soldier vs. enemy intelligence” that it “played right into [the] hands” of those who were determined not to give away anything of military importance.

In his report (written in the form of a letter of advice to interpreters newly assigned to interrogation duty) Moran stressed that he would usually begin an interrogation by taking almost the opposite tack.

I often tell a prisoner right at the start what my attitude is! I consider a prisoner (i.e. a man who has been captured and disarmed and in a perfectly safe place) as out of the war, out of the picture, and thus, in a way, not an enemy … Notice that … I used the word “safe.” That is the point: get the prisoner to a safe place, where even he knows … that it is all over. Then forget, as it were, the “enemy” stuff, and the “prisoner” stuff. I tell them to forget it, telling them I am talking as a human being to a human being.

Every soldier, Moran observed, has a “story” he desperately wants to tell. The interrogator’s job is to provide the atmosphere that allows the prisoner to tell it.

Begin by asking him things about himself. Make him and his troubles the center of the stage, not you and your questions of war problems. If he is not wounded or tired out, you can ask him if he has been getting enough to eat; if he likes Western-style food … You can ask if he has had cigarettes, if he is being treated all right, etc. If he is wounded you have a rare chance. Begin to talk about his wounds. Ask if the doctor or corpsman has attended to him. Have him show you his wounds or burns. (They will like to do this!)


On [one] occasion a soldier was brought in. A considerable chunk of his shinbone had been shot away. In such bad shape was he that we broke off in the middle of the interview to have his leg redressed. We were all interested in the redressing, in his leg, it was almost a social affair! And the point to note is that we really were interested, and not pretending to be interested in order to get information out of him. This was the prisoner who called out to me when I was leaving after that first interview, “Won’t you please come and talk to me every day.” (And yet people are continually asking us, “Are the Japanese prisoners really willing to talk?”)

Moran spoke fluent Japanese, but more important, he was thoroughly familiar with Japanese culture, having spent forty years in Japan as a missionary. He used this knowledge for one of his standard gambits: making a prisoner homesick. “This line has infinite possibilities,” he explained. “If you know anything about Japanese history, art, politics, athletics, famous places, department stores, eating places, etc. etc. a conversation may be relatively interminable.” Moran emphasized that a detailed knowledge of technical military terms and the like was less important than a command of idiomatic phrases and cultural references that allow the interviewer to achieve “the first and most important victory” — getting “into the mind and into the heart” of the prisoner and achieving an “intellectual and spiritual” rapport with him.

Moran’s whole approach — and Hans Joachim Scharff’s, too — was built on the assumption that few if any prisoners are likely to possess decisive information about imminent plans. (And as one former Marine interrogator says, even if a prisoner does have information of the “ticking bomb” variety — where the nuke is going to go off an hour from now, in the classic if overworked example — under duress or torture he is most likely to try to run out the clock by making something up rather than reveal the truth.) Rather, it is the small and seemingly inconsequential bits of evidence that prisoners may give away once they start talking — about training, weapons, commanders, tactics — that, when assembled into a larger mosaic, build up the most complete and valuable picture of the enemy’s organization, intentions, and methods.

Moran’s report had an immediate impact. The Navy and the Marines recruited second-generation Japanese-Americans to teach an intensive one-year language course for interrogators that included a strong emphasis on Japanese culture. James Corum notes that the graduates of this course were among the most effective interrogators in the Pacific Island campaigns of 1944 and 1945: Marine interrogators deployed to the Marianas in June of 1944 were able to supply their commanders with the complete Japanese order of battle within forty-eight hours of landing on Saipan and Tinian.

In contrast, in late 2002 the military’s Southern Command had so few interrogators and interpreters that it was forced to employ inexperienced and untrained civilian contractors to perform these jobs at Guantánamo./blockquote>

Late Vulgar Adûni

Sunday, December 14th, 2014

As the appendices explain, The Lord of the Rings is simply Tolkien’s translation of the Red Book of Westmarch, an ancient manuscript written in Late Vulgar Adûni — which Austin Gilkeson decided to translate for himself:

Tolkien’s original translation is justly famous and beloved. He treeherds an unwieldy ancient text into lyrical modern English and captures the vast scope and romance of the epic.

It is also deeply flawed.

Tolkien refers to Quendi people as “elves,” a common term in his time, but considered highly offensive today. And while Tolkien was a great scholar of the Quenya and Sindarin languages, his command of Late Vulgar Adûni was rudimentary at best, and his translation of the Red Book suffers for it.

In the most infamous instance, Tolkien botched The Hobbit’s “Riddles in the Dark” chapter in the first edition. He was so confused by the text’s use of pronomial prefixes in the subjunctive that he has Gollum leading Bilbo to safety in the goblin caves, rather than pursuing him with murderous malice. Tolkien corrected this blunder in later editions, but the damage was done. Similarly, he describes there being nine Nazgûl, when in fact there were only three.