You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Monday, November 02, 2009

The Years of Talking Dangerously

Geoffrey Nunberg is a linguist who provides commentary for NPR and national newspapers like the New York Times. The Years of Talking Dangerously is a collection of his pieces on linguistics from the last few years.

Nunberg brings a much needed perspective to our use of words. He reviews several popular words and how their use has grown over the decades. Some of the recent "word of the year" candidates get discussed, such as crackberry or truthiness.

In the second section he talks about politics and language. He brings up issues such as the redefinition of torture, the throwing around of the word socialism, and how the name Joe became symbolic for the average American citizen. An interesting piece compares the words liberal and progressive, trying to define how they are different. His conclusion is that since liberal has become a weapon of conservatives, people have moved to progressive, since their usage really can't be pinned down any better. The coarsening of political, he argues, goes hand in hand with the attitude that anybody who can't take the rhetoric is whining.

A lot of media attention is paid to the Internet (such as whether to capitalize the word itself) and its affect on language. Nunberg comments on the exaggeration around technology's affect on language, going back to the days of the telegraph. It's always interesting to discover that the alarms heard today have been heard before in history. He also talks about how patriotism is used as a weapon. "The less it costs to proclaim yourself a patriot, the less your political adversaries have to do to be accused of being patriotic--it's enough that they question the wisdom of a policy or leave their lapel pins on their other suit." I think it's important to study how words are used, especially in any discussion or argument. It's even more important when words are used to shut down discussion.

I enjoyed the insights that Nunberg brings in his commentaries. The pieces are short and easy to read, while being insightful. Nunberg shows how we come to use certain words instead of others, or why we avoid certain words--like whether the people fleeing hurricane Katrina were refugees or something else. There's a lot of meaning behind our choice of words. B+

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