"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 21 February 1997. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Going in Style



As "knowledge workers" and

"content providers" ferment in

their cubicles, sucking on the

fag end of the millennium and

feeling the burning tip of the

Apocalypse beginning to singe

their nostril hairs, it's

suddenly occurring to many

simultaneously that the roach

clips known as style manuals

might somehow save them from a

nasty case of burnt fingers.


The world may be going to hell in

a hamper, but that's no reason

to slack off on dotting your

"i"s, crossing your "t"s, and

speaking good ol' SAE. The

reasons behind the recent

miniboom in style manuals, etiquette

books, and op-eds are

so obvious it's amazing we

didn't predict the trend sooner,

and whether you're flinchy with

rage or twitchy with delight

about the current fluidity of

the language, there's likely to

be an "acknowledged authority"

for verbiage partisans of every




Ebonics might seem the most

obvious point of entry into the

current skirmishes of the style

wars, but only because that

particular issue comes

prerigged, like the battle

royal in Ralph Ellison's

Invisible Man, to pit blacks

against each other for the

entertainment of whites. The

swiftness with which Jesse

Jackson denounced the Oakland

School Board's decision made the

issue fair game, and left the

field open for a pile-on of epic

tumidity; Newsweek's daftly

appalling front-of-the-book note -

"Goofy debate's silver lining:

dissing 'black English' no

longer taboo" - showed a naive

racism whose economy rivaled

Time's thousand-word blunder of

over a year ago.


So instead of debating the pros

and cons of Ebonics as a

"self-esteem strategy" (it was

never just that), why not search

for the reasons behind usage

ululations in the pages of a

newsletter dedicated to the

subject? Copy Editor, a national

newsletter for professional

you-know-whats has recently

devoted more and more column

space to issues surrounding the

Way New Vocabulary, proving in

the process that the corporate

boardroom is a much better place

to look for metastasizing

idioms. Recent articles have

included subjects like email

(which CE will denote as

"E-mail" until Random House sees

fit to change its dictionary

entry), the "10 advantages of

the web" (are there really that

many?), and "Digital dos and

don'ts" (make your own joke




CE covered this last subject, of

course, when it reviewed Wired

Style. If Schopenhauer was

right, and style is the

physiognomy of the mind, then

the minds who put together Wired

Style are a pretty homely lot,

and despite the hype,

Wired Style does little

to make the content of

electronic communication

as clear as the signal.

Though attractively packaged as

a fetish "book" in a fetish box

in the standard fuchsia and

chartreuse Wired uses as

surrogate brand identity, Wired

Style is little more than a

strung-together series of

Post-Its and index cards, a

snotty, insular little

compilation of catchphrases and

acronyms mostly useful as

self-affirmations for the

digerati. While the LA Times'

Michael Hiltzik sounded off with

the most disgust ("It's hard to

think of a more incongruous

environment for real ideas and

communication than Wired

magazine's gimcrack graphics and

organizational perversity"),

even the purposefully politic

Copy Editor sounded a warning to

its readers: adopt Wired Style's

"rule-averse" suggestions at

your own risk, preferably by

adapting them to your own



Anyone who seriously thinks Wired

Style's arch prescriptiveness may

make it one day rival Strunk and

White, or Fowler's Modern

English Usage, obviously hasn't

looked into either volume

lately. The new Fowler's, in

particular, reflects the fact

that "proper" usage is much more

a question of "In what context?"

than "What is correct?" The

linguist R.W. Burchfield has

recast Fowler's on the

linguist's descriptive model

rather than on Fowler's own

idiosyncratic version of English

as it once existed in the

southern counties of England.

Still, there's plenty of room in

its 850-plus pages for

exhibitions of wry humor and

nasty editorializing, including

a bitchy entry on "political

correctness," a fascinating

deposition on "hybrid

formations" (including

television, bureaucracy, and

gullible), and a charming note

on "hard words," which

Burchfield defines as "bands of

vocabulary that lie outside a

particular person's cognizance

at a given moment."



In any case, if the evolution of

language were something we had

any control over, we'd still be

debating the pros and cons of

the Great Vowel Shift. And

Burchfield's book, of course,

reflects a degree of genteel

politeness not normally

encountered on this side of the

pond. Despite Bill Bennett's

attempts to inculcate moral

virtue in our youth, rudeness

still rules the day. Not

everybody is so sure this is a

bad thing, however: last

December, Benjamin DeMott made a

case that "[t]he 'new

incivility' needs to be

recognized for what it is: a

flat-out, justified rejection of

leader-class claims to respect."

We should have used this excuse

that time we got detention for

making farting noises in study



Still, there are occasions when

a well-timed silence cracks at

hegemony more palpably than any

break in the wind, and it's at

those times that we're happy to

have Judith Martin, aka Miss

Manners, on our side. Miss

Manners' Basic Training:

Communication confirms that all

epistolary perspicacity is not

lost. She seems especially

spot-on about the dulling

influence of prefab prattle, and

toward the end of the book she

channels Chomsky (or perhaps we

mean Adorno) rather than

Vanderbilt: "[T]his is a society

which believes that an act of

consumerism... is more creative,

more meaningful, even more

personal, than the amateur act

of improvising from one's own

brain, if not heart."



Miss Manners has also shrewdly

anticipated the objections of

Constance Hale (and others) to

her admittedly antiquated

approach: "Miss Manners is

disgruntled that etiquette,

which is constantly being

accused of taking simple tasks

and making them time-consuming

and expensive, is ignored, if

not chastised, when promoting

simplicity and economy." We can

only concur, because in point of

fact Miss Manners' greatest

advice in her book is the

transcendently serviceable

observation that the occasions

when one should speak or write

are but a tiny fraction of those

which might seem to require it.

RTFM indeed.


For most people, style - even

personal style - is a matter

measured out in degrees so

trifling as to be all but

invisible to the untrained eye.

The width of our Eudora window;

our choice of default font in

Microsoft Word; the old growth

forest ghosted onto our personal

checks; the clothes we wear on

Casual Fridays - we have somehow

swallowed the notion that all of

these panoptically surveilled

and utterly circumscribed spaces

are places we express our

individuality. For better or

worse - but almost certainly

worse - self-fashioning in the

era of late, really late,


capitalism has been reduced to

the level of a

Simpson-Bruckheimer script

pitch, or an advertising slogan

less than four words long.


Be Elite.


Just Be.



courtesy of LeTeXan