#banish #these #please

selfie

Selfie is the past year’s word that would bring the greatest good to the greatest number if it were never used again.

The term for extending your phone to arm’s length and snapping your beautiful self is at the top of the 2014 Banished Word List, published each New Year’s Day by the folks at Lake Superior State University.

Following a trend I noted last year, the comments offered by those nominating the words aren’t sufficiently witty to put overused and annoying usages such as   Twittersphere and Obamacare firmly in their proper place. But none of the nominees made me say, “No, I like that word.”

For instance, I was done with twerking right around the time I looked up what it meant. That was probably the day after Miley Cyrus introduced the concept to  much of the nation.

Number 3 on the list is hashtag. I can recall a time when I didn’t know what a hashtag was. I knew what hash is. For a long time that was enough.

Two others, Mister Mom and T-Bone I don’t hear around, except T. Bone Burnett.

Then there are _____ on steroids,

___ageddon and

___pocalypse,

which are now given to every storm that isn’t getting its own name.

There are a couple more, but you get the picture. I kept putting off submitting my own nominations: hunker down and shelter in place,  and never did. Even so, I’d be mighty happy if nobody used them the during the next snowpocalypse or stormageddon.

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Seven cool books

Labor-Day-Parade-New-York-City-Jewish-Garment-Industry-End-Child-Slavery small

My top 7 for 2013. What were your favorite books that you read this year?

This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz (2012) American immigrant stories from the Dominican experience.

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel  (2012) To hell with Henry. Give us more Cromwell!

Harvard Square by Andre Aciman  (2013) Memory and artifice among North African immigrants in 1970s Cambridge. I’ll never think of Walden Pond the same way again.

Overweight Sensation by Mark Cohen (2013) The rise and bellyflop of the greater-than-we-realized musical parodist Allan Sherman.

War Over Lemuria by Richard Shaver (2013) I’ve written about this chronicle of the pulp science fiction craze and what happened when a writer insisted that his stories were really true.

The Unpossessed by Tess Slesinger (1934) Leftist New York intellectuals, struggle and seduce each other into the modern age. I learned about this book on an NPR review by Maureen Corrigan of a different book.

Jews Without Money by Michael Gold (1930) I’ve known about it since I prepared my bar mitzvah speech. But this is the first time I read it through. One hundred years later, poverty is still poverty.

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Everything but creepy organ music

Too old to be true: University of Michigan Law School

Too old to be true: University of Michigan Law School

During my years at the University of Michigan, I had a special disdain for the law school — not for the school itself, which I knew nothing about, but for the law school building. It was a Gothic heap, with tall windows, parapets, finials, turrets and buttresses, and and it seemed to be pretending to be older than it was. In my mind it was an affront to the egalitarianism of the post-Watergate, post-Vietnam 1970s.

It was a visceral dislike. The law school was an emblem of a university that was self-satisfied and elitist, with almost sacred traditions to uphold — I never knew what to make of the obsession with the Wolverines football team, school colors, the fight song. If there had been zombies in those days I might have made such an analogy. What I wanted instead was a stew of people and ideas and passions, a place where we would focus on the new.

You’d no longer get me to denounce the law school and all the rest as part of an Orwellian conspiracy to lure a generation into mindless conformity. Now I tend to think of it more as a marketing gimmick.

That’s the point Robinson Mayer makes in his article “How Gothic Architecture took over the American College Campus,” in the Atlantic.

“The American college campus, and its Gothic filigree, seem timeless, pristine constructions,” he writes. “Nothing could be farther from the truth: They are historical eruptions, made possible by philanthropic economics, continental envy and racism.”

Initially, American colleges were modest places and their hodgepodge of buildings reflected their identities as new, unassuming institutions. But by the end of the 19th century, Mayer writes, state governments were severely underfunding institutions of higher learning. And so they turned to donors and future students to maintain their long-term viability.

“Colleges would stake their case to donors and future students on their own long history, deep tradition and historical importance,” according to Mayer. “An old university was patriotic… So the ‘old’ came to be treasured.”

“But why the Gothic?” he asks.

Mayer writes that American colleges sought to emulate Oxford and Cambridge (where the Monty Pythons went to school). So as they were seeking to reinvent themselves as old, the Collegiate Gothic style was born.

“The newer the campus was,” Mayer quotes historian John Theling, “the older it appeared to be.”

Here’s a shot of the “old” Lawyer’s Club section of the U-M law school when it was new in the 1920s:

University of Michigan lawyersclubconstruction1920s-thumb-646x492-149900

This article describes the law school as an “unusual architectural melange.”

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‘Polyptoton’

Masters of polyptoton John F. Kennedy and David Ben-Gurion.

Masters of polyptoton John F. Kennedy and David Ben-Gurion.

This is a word I’ve been needing to know, in the same way where you see a particular object everywhere but have no idea what it’s called. I finally learned it while reading Fiona Maazel’s new novel, “Woke Up Lonely.”

The example Maazel gives of a polyptoton  is John Kennedy’s exhortation, “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.”

A polyptoton, Maazel-as-narrator explains, is “a redeploying of the same word in different form, fear as noun and verb. It was JFK’s genius to use the polyptoton as much as possible…”

In the hands of a master, this rhetorical tool can open the mind to new possibilities.

When Kennedy said, “My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” he wove a strand of idealism into a generation that was coming of age in the early 1960s.

In the wrong hands, the polyptoton is a cheap parlor trick, a favorite of epigram-mongers because they sound profound even when they’re not. (I will add an example of this when I come across a good one.)

Like Kennedy, Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, was a fount of this kind of rhetoric. As World War 2 approached, before Israel was a state, the country’s British rulers issued the (always referred to as “infamous”) White Paper — a policy barring Jewish immigration to Palestine, just when they needed it most.That policy, along with the world’s refusal to welcome Jewish refugees to safety and the Nazi’s rather efficient genocide led to the murder of one third of the world’s Jews.

It was a knotty problem for the Jews in Palestine: the British on one side and the Germans on the other. A right-wing group, known as the Stern Gang, operated in the spirit of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” They attacked the British and attempted to make common cause with the Nazis to try to save Jewish lives.

Ben-Gurion, the leader of the Jewish community in Palestine, undid the knot. He did it through paradox. And a polyptoton.

His policy was, “We shall fight Hitler as if there were no White Paper, and fight the White Paper as if there were no Hitler.”

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An altogether amazing story

Shaver1-590x845In 1943, a letter arrived at the editorial offices of Amazing Stories, a Chicago-based science fiction magazine that had prospered in the pulp fiction craze that had begun a decade before. The letter told an amazing story: In underground caverns there lived the survivors of an ancient race of people. Radiation had mutated some of them and they had become what the letter called deros, or degenerate robots. The deros had access to the machinery of the ancient civilization, and used it to affect the minds of the humans on the surface.

The letter was nothing less than a wake up call to mankind to the unseen forces in our world. What made the letter different from anything else that showed up at Amazing Stories, was that the letter writer, Richard Sharpe Shaver, insisted that it was not fiction. He held that he had direct experience of the caverns and the mind-influencing machinery.

The associate editor, who had read the letter aloud, tossed it into the trash. But the editor, Ray Palmer, saw promise in it. He fished the letter from the wastebasket, rewrote it to give it a sense of narrative, and published it in 1945 as “I Remember Lemuria.”

For the next three years, Palmer continued to publish stories about what came to be known as the Shaver Mystery. Shaver’s claims that the tale was true and Palmer’s insistence that he believed in the Shaver Mystery’s veracity were transgressive. It smelled of a hoax and it outraged orthodox sci-fi buffs. Richard Toronto’s new book, “War over Lemuria,” looks at the controversy that split the small but fanatic world of science fiction fandom.

Toronto is the editor of the Shavertron fanzine, dedicated to the Shaver Mystery. He knew both Shaver and Palmer, who died in 1975 and 1977 respectively, and other members of what was known the Inner Circle at Ziff-Davis, the publishers of Amazing Stories and other titles. This book is as much as a dual biography of Palmer and Shaver as it is an exploration of the Shaver Mystery.

The associate editor, who had read the letter aloud, tossed it into the trash.

Shaver appears in Toronto’s telling as a well-meaning if often-lost individual. He began hearing voices, the source of his knowledge about the caverns, in his 20s. The voices got him two lengthy stints in mental institutions, but as Toronto shows, Shaver seems to have largely weathered the auditory hallucinations like a chronic condition, albeit one that colored his understanding of cause and effect in the world.

Ray Palmer was the son of an abusive father. At the age of 9 he was hit by a milk truck and so badly injured that he was expected to die. He survived but with severe internal injuries that stunted his growth and caused him lifelong pain. He compensated for his disabilities by mythologizing himself in grandiose terms and writing bombastic prose that never seemed to need to come up for air.  He was part editor, part huckster. And when Richard Shaver sent his letter to Palmer, he had unintentionally found the Svengali to make the most of his tale.

One of my reasons for my interest in this subject is that Richard Shaver was a relative of mine. In the 1930s, before the Shaver Mystery, he was married to my mom’s oldest sister. So parts of this book are a fleshing out of strange, old family stories that I heard in pieces through the years.  Still, these chapters were hard to read. My family’s role in Shaver’s institutionalization, as seen from today, is far less than exemplary.

The Shaver Mystery still circulates within the UFO, Bermuda Triangle and crop circles crowd. But are the threats these phenomena pose from without or from within our own minds?

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Again with Allan Sherman

Allan ShermanI recently interviewed Mark Cohen, whose terrific new biography of Allan Sherman is Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman. Sherman was the song parodist who sold millions of records briefly in the 1960s, Cohen’s contention is that Sherman’s work — My Son, The Folk Singer, etc. — helped invent the modern Jewish personality.

The article I wrote, based on the book and the interview, is Nothing to be Ashamed of. The transcript of the full interview with Mark is here.  You can read the profile I wrote of Allan Sherman a while back, Hail to Thee Fat Person.

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Spoiler alert

Trending With Tracy Spoiler alert is one of the entries to the 2013 List of Banished Words, published today by Lake Superior State University. The 12 words and phrases are accompanied by comments by those who nominated them:

“I’m sick of chirpy entertainment commentators constantly informing us of what ‘is trending right now.’ I used to like a good trend until this,” wrote Nancy of Victoria, British Columbia.

“(We’ve) lost sight of the metaphor and started to think it’s a real place, like with the headline, ‘Obama, Boehner meeting on fiscal cliff,'” opined Barry Cochran, of Portland, Oregon.

I’ve made the Banished Word list a New Year tradition for a number of years, but I can’t help feeling it’s losing some of its pizzazz. Certainly the comments seem tired, even cranky. On the term YOLO (You Only Live Once), Daniel of Hickory, North Carolina, groused,  “Just gives people, especially teens, a reason to do stupid things. I find it annoying and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone here.”

Well, yeah, all the phrases on the list are annoying. But for the first time, the comments are starting to become annoying, too. In their complaining that certain words and phrases are overused and predictable, the nominators themselves are becoming predictable.

Still. with his comment about Job Creators, Bob Fandrich of Fredericksburg, Virginia, makes a valid point:

“If these guys are capitalists, as claimed, they are focused on reducing expenses and maximizing profit. Jobs are a large part of expenses. So, if anything at all, they minimize employment to maximize profits. Up is down, black is white. Job creators are really employment minimizers.”

Two of my favorites on this year’s list stood outside the election cycle: Passion/Passionate and Guru.

“Diabetes is not just Big Pharma’s business, it’s their passion! This or that actor is passionate! about some issue somewhere. A DC lobbyist is passionate! about passing (or blocking) some proposed law, said George Alexander of Studio City, California, who called it a “phony-baloney word.”

“Unless you’re teaching transcendental meditation, Hinduism or Buddhism, please don’t call yourself a guru just because you think you’re an expert at something, “Mitch Devine of Rancho Santa Margarita, California, practically pleaded. “It’s silly and pretentious.”

I don’t remember which term I nominated this year or what my comment was. (I really should write these things down.) But my nomination for the 2014 list is that the Wise Ones at LSSU weigh the quality of the comments as they choose which words to banish.

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