Posts Tagged ‘Language’

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Every night before bed I read at least two books to my girls. I have been doing this since they were born.  As such, I have become a bit of connoisseur of children’s books.  Like every other area of literature, some books are good and some are 51Ny20bi-eLnot so good (I’m looking at you Rainbow Magic Series!). I have my favorites, and sometimes, but not always, these favorites are the same as my daughters.

As they have grown their tastes have changed and so have mine.  At this point of fatherhood, I think I can safely say the worst genre are the books intended for the smallest of babies. These books can be cute, but there are only so many times you can read ‘Goodnight Moon’ by Margaret Wise Brown, or ‘The Going to Bed Book’, by Sandra Boynton before you want to scream.  Luckily the toddler books are a bit better.  The ‘Olivia’ books by Ian Falconer, ‘Madeline’ by Ludwig Behelmans, and Jon Muth’s ‘Zen Shorts’ were some of our favorites.

Finally, in the last couple years we have started with chapter books.  We’ve completed some classics, such as Roald Dahl’s ‘James and the Giant Peach’, and E.B. White’s ‘Charlotte’s Web’. But most commonly these days we read more recently published series. Usually these series have female protagonists, such as ‘Judy Moody’ by Megan McDonald, ‘Nancy Clancy’ by Jane O’Connor and Annie Burrows’ ‘Ivy and Bean’. All three of these sets are pretty enjoyable, but I highly doubt the ‘Ivy and Bean’ or ‘Judy Moody’ books will have the same classic cache as the works of E.B. White. Most are just a bit too formulaic to live on beyond one generation of kids.

imagesStill, there is something incredible about children’s books nowadays. In one way at least, modern books have a leg up on the works of Dahl and White. Though perhaps not as strong in the area of story-telling, the newer books seem to be more pedagogical.  I have noticed that many books written during the last decade deliberately, though not obviously or annoyingly, attempt to assist children in growing a large vocabulary.

Let me give you just the latest example from our nightly readings:

During the last week, the girls and I have been reading a book called ‘Hamster Princess: Harriet the Invincible.’  Yes, it is not exactly Dickens or Hemingway, but it is a pretty fun read. Plowing through it, I have been awed by the number of college-level words sprinkled within an elementary school level book.  Here are just a couple of examples of words that forced my girls to ask, ‘what does that word mean’ as we were reading:

  • Ethereal.
  • Melancholy
  • Deportment
  • Praetor
  • Cower
  • Thwarted
  • Crone
  • Blighted
  • Snit
  • Haughtily
  • Dubiously

And this list is just from a quick glance through the book as I sit at my keyboard. I think it is realistic to say that there is a ‘vocab’ word each page or 618dqurp5PL._SX386_BO1,204,203,200_so.

So why the change from those old classics?  Well, I think authors of children’s books have an understanding of how important reading and hearing words are to developing the minds of children.  As I mentioned in a post a couple years ago, ‘it has been estimated that children who have parents that read books to them  will have heard 30 million more words in their lives by the time they start school than those that have non-reading parents.’  If this is the case, why not use as many words as possible?  Instead of ‘witch’, why not use ‘crone’; instead of ‘run-down’, why not use ‘blighted’; instead of ‘sad’, why not use ‘melancholy’?

At the very least, it keeps us parents on our word-definition toes.


By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Ah, yes….Fall is in the air.  Though the weather doesn’t really say so (I HATE 90 degrees in September!), the television screams Autumn.  This past weekend marked the beginning of our yearly national obsession: Football season.  College football kicked off a week ago, and the NFL gets going tonight. Like millions of other Americans, my wife and I can’t wait. 

But, I try not to be simply an unthinking fanatic; I cannot ignore the sport’s troubling aspects.  As it is so popular, and influential, football as a cultural phenomenon must be closely read.  During the season though, it is easy to lose yourself in the action. The spectacle takes over, and analysis of said spectacle falls by the wayside.  These games are intended to be Heinz Fielddistractions. We inevitably pay attention to what happens on the field, and not off. 

The physicality of the game enraptures the viewer, providing us with the ‘circuses’ that makes him/her forget about real world issues. But this distraction has another layer, since most spectators of the game may be thousands of miles away from the action. The majority of fans sit at home, or at a bar, and watch the game on television. In this, we depend upon the commentators and play-by-play color men to describe, and explicate what occurs on the gridiron.   The Keith Jacksons, Al Michaels, Gus Johnsons and Mike Tiricos give meaning to the events on the field. Their voices are as much a part of the game, as the play itsefl. These men and women ‘talk the’; they make language central to our viewing experience.

Football, perhaps more than any other sport, is marked by language. Repeated metaphors, analogies and euphemisms are utilized by football announcers to make the game and players more human; more understandable.  But, language manipulates, as well as explicates. Metaphors, analogies and euphemisms have the ability to deceive, as well as simplify. There is a dark side to the football lexicon, though it can be hard to catch.

Here is a necessary, and necessarily quick, primer for the upcoming football season.

  • Racial codes:

 Racial profiling and stereotypes are commonly coded into commentator speech. Perhaps the most obvious example occurs when announcers compare one player to another, either of the same era, or a previous one.  Very rarely, if ever, do white players get compared to black players, or vice versa.  This is especially the case when discussing players at positions that have been traditionally composed of a different racial group  So, for instance, Russell Wilson is compared, not to Tom Brady, but to Michael Vick. Wes Welker is not compared to possession receivers such as Marvin Harrison, but guys like Steve Largent. The list goes on.

Such comparisons may be natural.  We inherently look for similarities between groups and people. But, commentators’ racialized understanding of the game goes beyond player comparisons. Coded racial language is also commonly utilized to describe players and their abilities. The obvious example of this is the term ‘athletic’ being constantly used as a descriptor for black players.  Similar and related terms, such as ‘explosive’, ‘physical specimen’ and ‘natural ability’, are simply different versions of ‘athletic’  Rarely will you hear white football players being described in this way.  Instead, white players will often be labelled as ‘hard-workers’, ‘intelligent’, and ‘dedicated to the game’.  If white players ever get the ‘athletic’ moniker, it usually comes with a disclaimer: the white player in question is ‘surprisingly’, or ‘sneakily’ athletic. On the other hand, if black players ever get the ‘intelligent’ moniker, it too comes with disclaimers: the black player has ‘football intelligence’.

  • Euphemisms for criminal activity

Arguably, the most common code word used during football broadcasts is ‘off the field issues’.  Watch any football game this year, and you will be sure to hear that common refrain.  Of course, this is not the same as the racial code words; those are terms that have been utilized for years, based upon very old racial stereotypes. Racial codes play upon the audiences’ subconscious racial absolutism.  ‘Off the field issues’, on the other hand, is simply a euphemism.  It is used to make the viewer forget many of the horrible things the players have done. Such euphemisms ensure that the ‘real world’ is pushed further afield for the viewer. The ‘off the field issues’ (ie. what is happening in real life) seems to occur in a foreign dimension.  During the game, the viewer is meant to forget about what is happening ‘off the field’.  The term itself is extremely broad ranging.  It can, and has been used when discussing a player’s divorce, or sick child. Most commonly though, it is a euphemism reserved for a player’s criminal, or immoral conduct. 

For example, the other night I watched the Florida State/Oklahoma State game.  FSU is led by Heisman Trophy winner Florida State v PittsburghQuarterback Jameis Winston.  The announcers mentioned that Winston ‘looked excited’ to be playing football again; being in the huddle would allow him to forget about his ‘off the field issues’.  What are these issues? Did he fail a class?  Did he get a little too drunk at a Tallahassee party?  No, his ‘issues’ that he wanted to forget about (and that we should forget about too) were petty theft, and more disturbingly, being accused of rape.  ‘Off the field issues’? Yes, I would say so. 

The NFL is by no means free of ‘off the field issues.’ This euphemism will undoubtedly rear its’ ugly head starting tonight, when the Seahawks take on the Packers.  If not tonight, then on Sunday, when the Baltimore Ravens play their opening game.  If you watch that contest, I will bet that ‘off the field issues’ will be mentioned in the same breath as Baltimore Running Back Ray Rice. Rice’s ‘off the field issue’ that made the news recently happened when he punched his girlfriend (soon to be wife) in the face, and dragged her unconscious into their apartment. Unfortunately, Rice is not the only player with this ‘off the field issue’.

  • The Language of Injury

 Football’s most controversial topic over the last decade has been the prevalence of concussions during the games, and footballwhat this may do to players’ long term neurological health.  With this in mind, I heard a disturbing euphemism during a college game last week that is extremely prevalent.  After a player got knocked out the game, and was on the sideline being checked for concussion type symptoms, the sideline sports reporter relayed the ‘good’ news that the player would be coming back in the game soon.  Evidently, the 20 year old was fine, and simply got ‘his bell rung’.  What a dangerous term!  I have never had a concussion, but I assume the term ‘bell rung’ means that you are confused, and perhaps, literally, ‘hearing a ringing sound’, as though you were inside a bell.  Using such terminology does two things. First, it covers up with folk language what could be a serious medical injury. Second, by using the ‘bell rung’ term as euphemism, it allows us to judge the player.  If he ‘only’ got his ‘bell rung’, then why is he not back out on the field?  He needs to keep going, as getting your ‘bell rung’ is simply a common part of the game.  If a player sits out for too long after getting his ‘bell rung’, the announcers and the audience often start to question the player’s toughness.   Is he a true football player?

Unfortunately, that is what we really want to know. Everything else is secondary.


By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Teaching a course on the Holocaust is challenging.  What should be the goal of the course: To explain why the event occurred, or how it transpired?  What should the course focus upon most: The perpetrators of the crime, or the auschwitz-birkenauvictims of the massacres?  How should we remember the legacy of the nightmare: As a unique moment in history, or simply another horrendous chapter in the unending book of human cruelty?

As an instructor, I have other, more personal hurdles as well.  I naturally attempt to use humor, and irony to make points in my courses.  This is not possible when analyzing Auschwitz-Birkenau.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, I attempt to use images and video as learning tools.  There is no shortage of documented images from the Shoah, but where do you draw the line between necessary illumination of horror, and macabre voyeurism?

These are difficult questions I face every Tuesday and Thursday at 10AM.

But, this quarter I am finding that I have a new, more disturbing challenge.    During the last couple weeks, I have come to realize that  I was using the language of Nazism to explain the historical context of the genocide. I know this sounds….not good, so let me explain.

When investigating the Nuremberg Laws, Kristallnacht, and Nazi propaganda, I must analyze Nazi ideology with my students.  They must understand that the Nazi weltschauung was Manichean in nature.  Good vs. Evil, right vs. wrong, light vs. dark.  Hitler and the Nazis understood humanity and individual identities utilizing such antithetical notions.  Supposed racial essence, most obviously the difference between Jews and Aryans, was all important. During 1933-1939, the period that Saul Friedländer has termed the ‘Years of Persecution’, Hitler and his Nazi movement regularized such ideas throughout German society.  The Nazi’s initial end during these early years was not to annihilate the Jewish people, but to destroy the Jewish community within the German homeland.  German Jews were to subjugated and relegated to secondary status, with the hope that the community would disintegrate through emigration. Thus, the Nazi state constantly and ubiquitously portrayed an ineffable and unbridgeable gap between the true German, the ‘Aryan’, and the parasitic outsider, ‘the Jew’. This portrayal of complete difference allowed the ‘German Aryan’ to feel superior to his German Jewish neighbor, and have no problem with any legal discrimination against the latter that was passed.  This was incredibly, and horrendously effective.

Victor Klemperer

Victor Klemperer

The success of Hitler and the Nazis in this realm can be seen in the fact that my students are surprised that many German Jews felt they were Germans first, and Jews second.  In 1933, there were only about 500,000 German Jews living within the Reich, and a great number of these men, women and children constructed their personal identity upon national, not religious or racial, terms.  German Jews were proud of German influence in world affairs, in German technology, German education, and, most particularly, in German high culture. Just like non-Jewish Germans, they lionized Beethoven, Kant, Goethe.  In fact, a good number of German Jews were disgusted by what they understood as Hitler’s theft of the German cultural heritage, since they believed Hitler was wholly antithetical to this legacy.  For instance, Victor Klemperer, a German First World War veteran, diarist, and German Jew, viewed the Nazi movement, and Hitler in particular, as a horrendous befouling of the German Kultur and Bildung that he loved so much Hitler and his Nazi thugs smeared the true Germany that so many German Jews adored.

This brings me back to my newest challenge.  I understand the complexity of German Jewish identity, the stealing of Germanness from the nation’s Jews, and yet, I find myself linguistically differentiating Jews and Germans in my lectures.   As I explain Nazi methods and ideas, I inadvertently, yet unthinkingly, fall into the Nazi usage of antithetical identity language.  Looking at German history during the Hitler years causes me to separate ‘Jews’ from ‘Germans’, in an absolute, essentialist manner.  I inform my students that ‘Jews’ and not ‘Germans’ were most effected by the Nuremberg laws.  I explain to them that the ‘Jews’ and not ‘Germans’  faced persecution on Kristallnacht.  I illustrate that it was the Jews and not ‘Germans’ who were transported to Auschwitz-Birkanau, Treblinka, and Belzec.  In this, I teach the fallacy that Jews were not Germans, and Germans were not Jews.

I nauseously realized that I may be providing Hitler with a posthumous victory.

I can’t let that happen.

By Peter Stern, Philosophy Faculty.

Somewhere in my distant past, now lost in time’s shifting mists, its haze suggesting the delicate beauty of impressionist landscapes and panels containing mauve Japanese flower drawings, a fast fading thought flies by leaving my brain before I can be sure what it was trying to tell me. But later in the day, as if by magic, the thought returns or what I think must have been the thought quietly comes back reminding me of memory’s quirky hold on the past.

What I wanted to remember but couldn’t regardless of how hard I tried is the day or week or month or even the year when a new term was coined which, almost overnight, gained currency nationwide, sweeping through the halls of higher learning we call academia, and the plethora of learned professions linked to higher learning’s hallowed halls with bonds of silken thread as strong and tough as a Caterpillar Tractor plowing through rich, hard packed, Midwest soil in early March.

To me, when the new term first surfaced, it seemed hum drum, even boring, but perhaps that was part of its charm. Bells and whistles—glitz in all its tawdry splendor–were no longer in favor; for higher learning’s fashion wheel had turned: glitz was out, bare bones was in.

The new term I’m referring to is now old hat, at least that’s how it seems to me. The term is tattered, worn out, but unwilling, so far, to say goodbye. So with us it remains, still used often enough, even if the alacrity and aplomb which initially gave it its first push long ago left it for another shore and a new generation. And you, dear reader, wise, open minded, and forgiving with, like us all, a certain penchant for nostalgia may not have noticed, at least not consciously, how shop worn this term has become. Yet I’m convinced it’s definitely overstayed its welcome.

Oh! And before I forget, let me mention the term I’ve become increasingly unhappy with—and, in all candooor, assure you I’m convinced that deep down, you share my displeasure with the term’s continued use. Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if unbeknownst to yourself, you’ve already figured out the term I’m thinking of, but let me mention it anyway, so we can be sure we’re all together on the same page. Yes, the tattered term I’ve been ranting about is, of course, “thinking outside the box.”

What could be more banal, more humdrum than a box? Nothing at all special about a box, wouldn’t you agree? No special color scheme, nor size, nor hotshot brand name necessary. Oh, it’s 070128_008_NewYorkerCollection P175a gotta be a box from Whole Food, or Starbucks, or Trader Joe’s, or Target, or Neiman Marcus, or Tiffany’s! Wrong. The box can be any box; the important thing is simply to have one, and then think outside of it.

And as soon as you’ve done this, you’re home free. You hit the jackpot. The target. The target’s bulls eye. Sound too simple. Not really. For this common place object—a box, any box—actually possesses a magical power that can lift you out of your everyday world unto creativity’s sacred shores. Follow that famous mantra and you’re all set: you too can be creative, original and, hopefully, become rich as well. Who in their right mind wouldn’t want this? I don’t know about you but honesty compels me to admit that I certainly would.

That’s the term’s claim in any event, and it’s certainly enjoyed a remarkable career. But I believe it’s ready for retirement—indeed, it’s retirement is long overdue. For strangely enough, at least to me, intellectual terms or products are subject to fancies and fashion cycles in ways that closely resemble fashion cycles for cars, hem lines, lipsticks, and eye shadow. When everyone wants to drive an SUV, you don’t want to be caught driving a clunky 4 door sedan, wouldn’t you agree? Ditto phrases like “thinking outside of the box.” Besides, thinking out of the box no longer works. It’s like a gold vein which has been drained dry.

So starting next month, promise me you’ll at least try to go an entire morning without thinking you need to think outside the box. If you find at first you can’t make it, don’t beat yourself up. Forgetaboutit and get a good night’s sleep. But on the next day, try it again. Give it another shot. And I’ll bet you’ll be successful. Then shoot for a morning and whole afternoon. After that, aim to get through an entire day without thinking you need to think outside the box. Then celebrate. And as your final act of liberation, switch gears entirely and think about thinking inside the box.


By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

Just take three minutes, and watch this wonderful video.  Underneath will be the rest of this entry.

I absolutely love this song; catchy, warm, touching.  I bet many of you feel the same way.  But I see something else. This Mr. Rogers dub will be a teaching tool for me.  I am going to utilize this video for two disparate classes.  First, Intro to Communications and second, Western Civilization.  Now you may be saying, “What? I can see Communications, maybe, but Western Civ?  Surely you jest MSJ?”  Nope, I am completely serious.

This video is a wonderful example of the rhythm and musicality of speech.  Our society usually identifies a clear demarcation between speech and song, viewing the two as related but separate categories of communication.  Of course lyrics are a central part of song, but we usually don’t find much other commonality between song and our everyday speech, seeing an air-tight delineation between the two categories. Au contraire!  This video proves that this delineation is overstated.  The speech of Mr. Rogers turns to song when simply put to music. We can see that even in our everyday language usage we have a lyrical, rhythmic delivery that is unconscious and inherent.  Another example, and strangely the complete opposite of the Mr. Rogers video, proves this point just as well.  When language is arrhythmic  it sounds inhuman because it loses its evocative, emotional power.  See this video as example:

Now, onto Western Civilization.  In his ‘chorus’, Mr. Rogers informs us that “It’s good to be curious, about many things.  You can think about things, and make believe; all you have to do is think, and they’ll grow.”  This seems like an innocuous statement. But is it really?  The fact that Mr. Rogers is providing this message to children, and doing so with a vast majority of parental approval, provides an insight into our modern mentalities.  Today, his statement about curiosity is almost banal. Five hundred years ago, Mr. Rogers’ song would have been one of cultural revolution.  He could have found himself in trouble with authorities if he had been telling children that “it’s good to be curious”, since curiosity during much of Western history has been understood not as a virtue, but as a vice.

images (2)


images (1)

St. Augustine

Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician and philosopher viewed curiosity antithetically from Fred Rogers.  During the mid-17th century, he wrote that “curiosity is only vanity. We usually only want to know something so that we can talk about it.”  Pascal was not some Negative Nelly, and though he was an original thinker in many ways, he was not saying anything new with this claim.  He was speaking for a long held belief in Christian Europe that curiosity led to nothing but pain, sin, and ultimately, death.  St. Augustine of Hippo, one of the fathers of Western European Christianity put the matter in a straightforward manner a millennium before Pascal. In his Confessions, the great Bishop of Hippo stated,  “From the same motive (curiosity) men proceed to investigate the workings of nature, which is beyond our ken—things which it does no good to know and which men only want to know for the sake of knowing.”

You would be hard pressed to find a more influential individual than Saint Augustine in Western Civilization between the years 500-1500, and like many of his notions, his take on curiosity became standard throughout the so-called “Middle Ages”.  For those influenced by Pascal and Augustine, curiosity was dangerous since it led to  the weakening of two major pillars of the Western heritage:  Tradition and authority.   Perhaps nothing seems as odd to us 21st century Americans than the belief that the authority of tradition should trump any sort of curiosity. The oddity can turn to disdain when we hear this belief travel down the road to absolute dogma.  In anti-Mr. Rogers-ian tone,  Saint Ignatius of Loyola zealously declared that “To be right in everything, we ought always to hold that the white which I see, is black, if the Hierarchical Church so decides it.”  For Loyola, Mr. Rogers’ little song would have been heretical; dare we say a stake-burning offense?


Mr Rogers: Enlightenment Philosopher

So, why are Loyola and Pascal outliers nowadays, and Mr. Rogers the accepted norm?  There is little doubt that the Enlightenment of the 18th century changed everything, and Mr. Rogers is a child of that intellectual movement. The Enlightenment was crucial in transforming our modern, Western mentalities in regards to curiosity. Curiosity slowly became a virtue, not a vice.  We could argue all day if this has been a positive or a negative outcome of modernity, but there is no doubt that Enlightenment thinkers have won the day.  Hence, we hear the forerunners of Fred Rogers in the beliefs of many Enlightenment thinkers and personages, such as Joseph Addison, the 18th century English ‘journalist’.  Using more complex language than Mr. Rogers, Addison relayed the same message when he stated that “Everything that is new or uncommon raises a pleasure in the imagination, because it fills the soul with an agreeable surprise, gratifies its curiosity, and gives it an idea of which it was not before possessed.”  Today, we expect teachers to live by this credo. In Addison’s time, it still had the ring of revolution.

Mr. Rogers’ chorus is the simplified embodiment of Enlightenment discourse.  By the time of my childhood, curiosity had become a virtue to be extolled and encouraged.  Of course, there are still many out there who believe that Augustine’s and Pascal’s argument is correct, but come on, how are you going to disagree with Mr. Rogers?