04 July 2008

Miracles Wanted

I mentioned that the timely completion of Proper Words in Proper Places is contingent on a series of miracles happening between now and late October. I'll be glad for one of them now.

As a gimmick, I've decided the subtitle of each chapter will be a short declarative sentence starting with a proper name:

  • The Age in Which I Live: Dryden Revises His Works
  • Fixing the Language: Swift Demands an Academy
  • Enchaining Syllables, Lashing the Wind: Johnson Writes a Dictionary
  • The Art of Using Words Properly: Bishop Lowth Lays Down the Law
  • The People in These States: Webster Americanizes the Language
  • Words, Words, Words: Murray Surveys Anglicity
  • The Taste and Fancy of the Speller: Shaw Rewrites the ABCs
  • Tools of the Trade: Strunk & White Show the Way
  • Sacking the Citadel: Philip Gove Stokes the Flames
  • Grammar, and Nonsense, and Learning: We Look to the Future
(All are provisional, but you get the idea.)

Here's the trick: I'm planning a chapter on "bad language" — that is, naughty words — and want a good name for the subtitle. The chapter will focus on attempts to restrict offensive language, looking back to early laws on blasphemy and such, but dwelling mostly on C19 and C20 British and American concerns with obscenity on the one hand, and "political correctness" on the other. I'm dealing almost exclusively with verbal censorship, so visual stuff doesn't count.

The proposal for the book had "Expletive Deleted: Moralists Police the Borders," but since then I've decided to use personal names in every chapter. All the others have more or less fallen into place, but I'm stumped on this one.

Best one so far: "Expletive Deleted: Justice Stewart Knows It When He Sees It," alluding to Jacobellis v. Ohio, in which U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart took up the definition of "hard-core pornography":

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.

Not bad, but I hope to do better — not least because Stewart was discussing a film, not literature, and because he argued that the film in question was not obscene. I'd rather have someone who's concerned with words. Ideally it'd be a name recognized throughout the Anglophone world but, if it's not universally known, it should at least be familiar in the US.

Another possibility, brought to mind by a much-lamented premature loss, is "George Carlin Can't Say Them on Television" or some such.

But I'll be glad for suggestions, and will count them toward my expected quota of miracles. So, smart and creative people: make with the suggestions already.

Reprieve from the Warden

I had agreed to teach a summer class, a World Literature Survey, to run from 7 July into the middle of August. I recently got word, though, that it was a few students shy of the limit, meaning it's been canceled.

(This isn't a problem I face often. I haven't taught a course that's been below the maximum limit in four or five years, and I'm usually stuck with more students than I'm supposed to have, as when I taught an intimate little graduate seminar with twenty-seven students. I've grown accustomed to teaching undergrad classes of sixty; in September I'll be teaching an upper-level undergrad class on the eighteenth-century novel to eighty, by gum. Don't these people know the eighteenth century is insufferably dull, unrelentingly boring, and irredeemably stultifying? And who knew it'd be hard to round up ten in a summer session?)

In most respects, this is a cause for rejoicing: I really need the time to work on my book-in-progress, Proper Words in Proper Places, which I'm supposed to deliver to the publisher in late October. (I should still be on track to finish on time — provided, of course, that a long and elaborate series of miracles happens in precisely the right order.)

In one respect, though, the cancelation is a cause for much wailing and gnashing of teeth, because we've now got a half-finished wall in our bedroom and construction going on everywhere. Last week, accounts payable went up by $3K and accounts receivable down by $5K. I may have to resort to wearing a placard reading, "Will Do Moose Stuff for Money."