Saturday, June 19, 2004

Ciao Italia 

I'm off to Italy in the morning. Blog entries will be patchy to non-existent for the next month or so, as I'll also be going to England. Updates on my activities and perhaps a few photos will eventually make it to this space.

Thursday, June 17, 2004

Chaucer and sports scandals at the University of Colorado 

Medieval literature has recently entered the ongoing scandal of the University of Colorado sports programme. Here is the account as reported by ESPN. I reproduce a few excerpts for commentary:

The University of Colorado president was criticized Tuesday for refusing to condemn a vulgar anatomical reference allegedly used to describe a female football player who says she was raped by a teammate.

University President Betsy Hoffman's comments in a federal court case sparked a fresh storm of protest surrounding Colorado's flagship school. Women's groups and a member of the Board of Regents said they were appalled by what they called Hoffman's lack of sensitivity.

The comment came during a deposition given this month in a lawsuit filed by three women who say they were sexually assaulted by football athletes in 2001.

One of the women's attorneys told Hoffman the vulgar term had been used by a football player against teammate Katie Hnida. The attorney asked Hoffman whether she thought the term was "a filthy and vile word."

Hoffman replied it was a "swear word" and that its meaning depended on the circumstances in which it was used, according to a copy of the deposition released by the school.

Asked if it could ever be used in a polite context, Hoffman replied: "Yes, I've actually heard it used as a term of endearment."

Hoffman defended her answer Tuesday in a meeting with Durango Herald reporters and editors, but said she should have phrased it differently.

"I was immediately sorry I said it," she said.

Hoffman began to cry at one point in the discussion at the Herald and left the room briefly to compose herself, the newspaper reported.

University spokeswoman Michele Ames said Hoffman knows the word has "negative connotations" but it did not in its original use centuries ago.

"Because she is a medieval scholar, she is also aware of the long history of the word dating back to at least Chaucer," Ames said. English writer Geoffrey Chaucer lived in the late 1300s and used the word in "The Canterbury Tales."

The rest of the article provides more context, though it must be said that the story has to be followed in several publications in order to understand the full contexts which prompted Hoffman's statement. A few things should be noted immediately:

  1. Hoffman never referred to the Middle Ages in her statement; that reference was made later by university spokeswoman Michele Ames.

  2. Hoffman was once an historian (not a literature specialist); but she is really a career administrator. She is known for hiring Stanley Fish at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

  3. The word referred to in the article was cunt, and Hoffman's claim to have heard the word used as a "term of endearment" could be taken as a legal strategy of denying the premises of opposing counsel. That is, the word need not have been intended to have offensive meaning (though, of course, it was).

The last point is where Hoffman made an error of judgement by seeming to deny the gravity of the offence. But the subsequent statement by Ames compounds the error beyond belief. I am not quite clear what it is intended to prove. That medievalists are nitwits so lost in the past that they are insensitive to present-day meaning? That because the word did not have negative connotations in the Middle Ages, we should not see them now?

The second option requires some more commentary since it forms part of a trend to use the Middle Ages to justify present-day deviant behaviour. An even more absurd example is the notorious Abercrombie and Fitch Christmas Field Guide, which was wrapped in a paper sleeve reading "280 pages of moose, ice hockey, chivalry, group sex & more" and containing statements like "Orgies and group sex were common in the Middle Ages. Promiscuity was popular with both the peasantry and the nobility. Since divorce was forbidden by the Church, adultery was common and socially accepted."

The context (which I have not quoted) of this statement is a recommendation for sexual promiscuity. Even more than the "it was once a term of endearment" argument, this seems to be adopting the medieval as an authority for present immoral behaviour. Viewed objectively, this is striking, since the "medieval" in modern parlance represents backwardness and barbarism. That today's use should wish to emulate "medieval" practices or to accept these practices as legitimising their own is quite amazing, given the long history of modern disparagement of the Middle Ages.

Viewed somewhat less objectively, the modern representations of the medieval in the two examples above are truly appalling. Note that I have placed the word medieval in inverted commas above where it does not strictly indicate the historical Middle Age. In other words, the "medieval" may refer to the "backward", as it is often used today, or to an inaccurate unhistorical representation of the Middle Ages, such as the Abercrombie & Fitch catalogy refers. Where did they get the idea that adultery was "socially acceptable" in the Middle Ages? This is a Middle Ages that reflects their own fantasy rather than historical reality. Nevertheless, there is an explanation for this fantasy, one that is perhaps large than I can deal with in this entry. The clue is the word "chivalry" on their cover. Most likely, they mean the word in its most inclusive sense, encompassing notions of courtly love. Since C.S. Lewis made adultery a central component of courtly love in The Allegory of Love, this practice has often been regarded as synonymous with adultery, at least in definitions widely available on the internet. Lewis's views have been widely discredited; see, for instance, Larry Benson's remarks in Courtly Love and Chivalry in the Later Middle Ages. But it remains widely influential (I often see it in student essays). More could be said about this, but I believe it's a separate topic.

My larger point is that both this and Michele Ames's justification of the use of "cunt" by past usage during the Middle Ages re-makes the medieval to serve modern in ways that are unconvincing but apparently credible enough to have social power. That the medieval can have such power is encouraging; that it should be used to support immoral practices is not. What, then, is the social power of the authentic Middle Ages?

American Idioms Have Gone Missing 

Today's Chronicle of Higher Education contains an article entitled American Idioms Have Gone Missing by Ben Yagoda. The article begins as follows:

One of Peter De Vries's comic novels has a character who accumulates Briticisms. As I recall, he orders shrimp cocktail as a "starter," refers to a friend "called" James (instead of "named" -- that's a subtle one), and fills his car with "petrol" for the ride home. Eventually, he winds up in hospital.

De Vries's conceit, delicious as it was, was an exaggeration. Generally a Yank can get away with at most one such locution in his or her active vocabulary, for example the person I know who likes to refer to his time "at university," the university in question being a large land-grant institution. Any more than that and he would be laughed out the door, like the professor who habitually shows up at faculty meetings in a bespoke suit, Turnbull and Asher shirt, and Liberty of London tie, done in a Windsor knot.

Lately, however, the American press has become that professor.

What follows is a fascinating catalogue of the extent of recent borrowing from British English in the United States, for which readers should view the whole article. Here, I am primarily interested in Yagoda's conclusion:

It's hard to pinpoint the cause of the use of all these Briticisms. Anglophilia hardly seems to be rampant at the moment. Perhaps the success of BBC America is a factor, or maybe the importation of British editors like Tina Brown and Anna Wintour a decade ago is finally trickling down. But I wouldn't underestimate the eternal appeal of sounding classy without seeming pretentious. The gathering storm of Briticisms would seem to provide a perfect opportunity.

At this point, the trend is moving beyond journalism, and to terms that (unlike "go missing" and "run-up") have perfectly good American counterparts. In his campaign for governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger talked about having "a" (not "some" or "a cup of") coffee. A visiting friend of mine talked of "booking" (not reserving) a hotel room. David Letterman recently made fun of Oprah Winfrey's saying that she couldn't appear on his show because she was "on holiday" -- what was wrong, he wondered, with "vacation"? A friend has taken to saying, "I'll ring you" instead of "phone you" or "call you up." From various sources, I have heard repeated uses of "sack" (fire), "row" (argument), and "chat up" (talk to, usually in a flirtatious way). Briticisms all: Together they constitute a cultural equivalent of De Vries's poseur.

I'm afraid I can't resist the inevitable conclusion, so here goes: Briticisms have passed their sell-by date, and the odor (or should I say odour) is getting a bit rank.

The wittiness of Yagoda's conclusion--given in British English--perhaps reveals its insubstantiality and triviality. It does not follow in the least from his discussion--except from the example of fictional poseur, who presumably represents the cultural prejudice that British means classy. If Yagoda finds this offensive, he is surely buying into the prejudice even though he is reacting against it. Moreover, his horror at the loss of "good ole" American idioms sounds a lot like the nineteenth- and twentieth-century passages I teach in my history of the English language classes in which British speakers are horrified by the borrowing of "Americanisms". It seems that Yagoda has inherited that model of linguistic isolation and exclusivity.

And this is what Yagoda acknowledges only obliquely. The two cultures (British and American) interact, and English is not evolving separately in each country. Every day, Americanisms arrive in that sceptred isle through the gargantuan American media; should Professor Yagoda be surprised that the reverse process also takes place. (I'm forced to wonder if, Yagoda, as a professor of journalism, is not in some way trying to protect his own turf.)

Yagoda also misses a larger point. Although he acknowledges that the likely cause of this linguistic borrowing is unlikely to be Anglophilia, he falls back on cultural prejudice as an explanation. He misses the importance of English as a world language. Many of the "Briticisms" he identifies are not just British, but Indian, Australian, South African, and (here's the one that will really horrify Americans) Canadian. American English is as much influenced by English in these countries as English in Britain. Yagoda's desire to retreat from British influence is really a desire to retreat from world influence. From my point of view, linguistic interaction with the rest of the world is part of a larger process of cultural and political interaction from which the United States can only benefit (even if it means that many of its top media positions go to foreigners).

American English is participating in this cultural exchange. Have no fear that it is being entirely replaced on the shelves by goods imported from abroad. Multiculturalism is here to stay, and, as far as I can tell, has no sell-by date.

Thursday, June 10, 2004

More on Asterisk Reality 

The ramblings of my previous post remind me of the debate over the relationship between fantasy and allegory. One is a fictionalised world where meaning "resides in the freedom of the reader", not in the "purposed domination of the author" (I'm quoting here from the Foreward to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings). If allegory dominates, it is an exercise of power, rather like what Tolkien calls magic in "On Fairy Stories". There he describes this "magic" as a fiction that enduces primary belief. I'm not sure that this is exactly an appropriate or accurate way to look at allegory, the function of which seems to me to vary by contest. But it does approach what I have been saying about historical conspiracy theory fiction when you think about the response of readers who are all too eager to embrace conspiracy as historical fact. Fantasy, by contrast, precludes the possibility of primary belief. But is it then truly reconstructive in the philological sense? Philology can only really recover essences, rather than actualities. The Proto-Indo-European word for father was something like *pater, not actually *pater.

When we turn again to reader response, there are some interesting implications. Asterisk-Reality fiction thrills use through the recovery of something that was lost. Historical conspiracy theory fiction thrills us through the discovery of something that was hidden. The former is often accompanied by a sense of regret at what has been lost, the latter by a sense of grievance towards those who do the hiding. Both promise a sort of liberation (perhaps Tolkien's term "escape" would be appropriate), but, whereas recovery delivers something essential--and so factual, if intangible--conspiracy theory delivers a lie. It is truly escapist in the negative sense--a flight from reality--whether you are convinced by it or whether it is pure entertainment. Hence, as reconstructed history, conspiracy theory assembled from historical sources functions quite differently than asterisk-reality fiction.

What happens when there is no conspiracy theory involved? What about historical fiction? This seems to me to be a much harder case.

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Asterisk Reality Fiction and Historical Conspiracy Fiction 

I've been thinking about the differences between the fictional technique Tom Shippey calls "asterisk reality" and the fictional technique we might call historical conspiracy theory. The former refers to the philological technique of reconstructing aspects of cultures of the past based on surviving linguistic and narrative materials. In philology, comparison of, say Latin pater, Sanskrit pitar, and English father (along with a few dozen other languages) enables us to suggest that each of these languages is descended from a common ancestor, called Proto-Indo-European. Further, we can conlude that the word for father in Proto-Indo-European probably began with a p-. Further reconstruction allows us to suggest that the Proto-Indo-European word was probably something like *pater, with the asterisk indicating that the word has been reconstructed rather than attested from surviving evidence. And yet still further, we can take a word like English feed and trace it to the same Indo-European root. This gives us a window into the cultural consciousness of a lost civilisation. But, like its asterisked linguistic forms, this civilisation does not exist in reality. It is an asterisk reality, reconstructed from evidence surviving in cultures (and sometimes multiple cultures) from later periods in history. Shippey's argument in The Road to Middle Earth is that J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth is a sort of asterisk reality; Tolkien has taken surviving evidence to reconstruct languages and cultures unattested by any historical record but possible given the languages and cultures that are attested.

What I mean by historical conspiracy theory is the fashioning of fictional histories (generally ones in which there are secret societies conspiring to control historical events over the course of centuries) based on a piecing together of diverse scraps of historical evidence, mythological material, and linguistic ambiguities. A perfect example is Dan Brown's, The Da Vinci Code, which I have already discussed at some length. One obvious difference between the historical conspiracy theory of this type and Tolkien's asterisk reality Middle Earth is that the one claims to represent our immediately accessible history (i.e. it concerns events taking place in the present, near future, or near past in locations we can visit) and the other takes place in a time so distant that it can only be accessed through a single (fictional) surviving manuscript and in a location unrelatable to any we can visit. But I'm not sure that this really represents a necessary generic difference; it may just be a product of the individual works I've used as examples. But what other differences might there be? The historical conspiracy story generally purports to unveil a hidden and suppressed truth about history. The asterisk reality aims at the recovery of what has been lost.

Well, I'm not really sure where this thinking is leading, but hopefully I can return to it in a future entry.

Saturday, June 05, 2004

Folk Etymologies 

The Daily Telegraph is running a series of extracts from Michael Quionion's Port Out, Starboard Home, which tells the stories of common folk etymologies. Follow the link to read the full text or have a look at a small clip below:

Bee's knees

Something that is the "bee's knees" is stylish and the height of excellence. It is sometimes explained as being from an Italian-American way of saying "business". I've also heard it argued that it is properly "Bs and Es", an abbreviation for "be-alls and end-alls".

Both are wrong. "Bee's knees" is actually one of a set of nonsense catchphrases from 1920s America, the period of the flappers. You might at that time have heard such curious concoctions as "cat's miaow", "elephant's adenoids", "tiger's spots", "bullfrog's beard", "elephant's instep", "caterpillar's kimono", "turtle's neck", "duck's quack", "gnat's elbows", "monkey's eyebrows", "oyster's earrings", "snake's hips", "kipper's knickers", "elephant's manicure", "clam's garter", "eel's ankle", "leopard's stripes", "tadpole's teddies", "sardine's whiskers", "pig's wings", "bullfrog's beard", "canary's tusks", "cuckoo's chin" and "butterfly's book".

None of these made much sense – but then, slang fashions often don't – and their only common feature was the comparison of something of excellent quality to a part of an animal with, if possible, a bit of alliteration thrown in. Another example was "cat's whiskers", which is sometimes said to have been the first of the bunch to arise, from the cat's whisker that was the adjustable wire in early radio crystal sets.

However, "cat's miaow" and "cat's pyjamas" (an exception to the anatomical rule, referring to the then new fashion of wearing pyjamas at night) are both recorded slightly earlier, in about 1921. The first appearance of "bee's knees" in print was found by Barry Popik in a flapper's dictionary in the Appleton Post-Crescent of Appleton, Missouri of April 28, 1922, glossed as meaning "peachy, very nice". Clearly, by then it must already have been well established.

It was a short-lived, frivolous slang fashion and only a very few such expressions have survived, of which "bee's knees" is perhaps the best known. A British example from the same period is "dog's bollocks". This, too, indicates something excellent, admirable or first-rate. Eric Partridge suggests it arose as a term for the printer's mark of a colon followed by a dash. This fits the pattern and period of the others, but its first sense suggests it came out of a different tradition. Certainly, it only became a general slang term much later.

Curry favour

It's an odd phrase. Why should "curry" have anything to do with winning the favour of somebody or ingratiating oneself with him?

It becomes even weirder when you discover that the phrase really means "to stroke a fawn-coloured horse".

Its origin lies in a French medieval poem called the Roman de Fauvel, written by Gervais de Bus in the early 1300s. Fauvel was a horse, a conniving stallion, and the poem is a satire on the corruption of social life. There are several layers of meaning in his name: fauve is French for a colour that is variously translated as chestnut, reddish-yellow or fawn. A close English equivalent is the rather rare "fallow", as in "fallow deer", an animal that has a brownish coat.

In addition, fauve can be the collective name for a class of wild animals whose coats are at least partly brown, such as lions and tigers (the fauverie in a French zoo is the section devoted to the big cats). In the poem, the name Fauvel is also an anagram of the initial letters of the French names of six sins: flattery, avarice, depravity, fickleness, envy and cowardice. And his colour evokes the old medieval proverbial belief that a fallow horse was the symbol of dishonesty.

The poem was well known among educated people in Britain, who started to refer to "Fauvel", variously spelled, as the symbol of cunning and depravity. That quickly became "curry Favel". "Curry" here has nothing to do with Indian food (that word arrived in the language from Tamil via Portuguese much later, at the end of the 16th century) but is the term for rubbing down a horse. The idea behind "currying Favel" is that the horse in the poem was susceptible to flattery, figuratively a kind of stroking.

Among people who didn't know the poem – then, as now, that was nearly everybody – "Fauvel" or "Favel" meant nothing at all. "Favour" seemed a much more sensible word; by the early part of the 16th century popular etymology had changed it to that and so it has remained ever since.

Friday, June 04, 2004

More on Plagiarism 

Here is an update on yesterday's story about the the British student suing his university for not catching his plagiarism. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports:

Michael Gunn, an English major at the University of Kent at Canterbury, could not be reached for comment, but last week he told The Times Higher Education Supplement, "I did plagiarize."

"But I always used the Internet, cutting and pasting stuff and matching it with my own points," he continued. "It's a technique I've used since I started the course. I never dreamt it was a problem."


University officials have declined to comment on Mr. Gunn's situation, but they point out that students are told of the university's ban on plagiarism when they enroll. Kent's Web site features a discussion of cheating and plagiarism that includes the following warning: "There's the chance of being found 'guilty' even if the crime happened accidentally."

Dan Ashley, a spokesman for the National Union of Students, said he was unaware of any lawsuit similar to the one Mr. Gunn is contemplating. But he acknowledged that the number of university students in Britain who plagiarize may be increasing, in part through ignorance.

"We're completely opposed to plagiarism," he said. "But we do understand that there are much greater pressures on students these days and the Internet has completely changed how students research. The key is that if any student is unsure of what the guidelines are, they need to speak to their lecturer."

So here's the scenario. A student does research (e.g. Googles a topic) on the internet. The student then copies text from the internet into their paper. A simple source citation would avoid any chance of plagiarism. The omission of such a citation would have to come from dishonesty. To me the ignorance excuse would only apply if the student somehow failed to realise that he was doing research. But it seems to me that a student could only re-classify his activity if he viewed it as belonging to some other activity: say, deliberate cheating.

There remains an unlikely scenario that the student was never given any intellectual foundation for research activity, in which case he probably should not have been admitted to university. But, leaving that aside, what if the university failed to supply that foundation. Is having a web page enough. What if the student does not visit this page? In America, composition courses (supposedly) introduce students to the forms and consequences of plagiarism. I'm not a great fan of composition courses, but it seems to me that they do play a role as a required introduction to plagiarism issues early in the student's career. This at least provides the university with protection against the ignorance excuse.

Thursday, June 03, 2004

Discussions on Tolkien 

This morning the Chronicle of Higher Education hosted a live question and answer session with Mike Drout on Tolkien scholarship. I thought I'd provide a link to the transcript here. There was a good range of questions, though the scholarly response to Peter Jackson's films was predictably dominant. I am not sure what to do with this question. Jackson's divergences from the book have provided me with some insights into how to read the original text (although that was not the purpose of the divergences), but this type of "scholarly" response can't lead to much actual scholarship. The films are of interest to the field of film studies, but it seems to me that this interest does not focus on the study of Tolkien's work per se, except as a source for the films. If the study of the films is to be scholarly, it seems to me that it will have to move in different directions from the study of Tolkien's literature.

In a separate development, I received today a copy of the report I did on the state of Old English in North America for the news Teachers of Old English in Britain and Ireland (TOEBI) Newsletter. The newsletter also contained a couple of articles on whether or not (and if so, how) teachers of Old English should exploit the popularity of Tolkien (books and films). I have certainly engaged in this sort of exploitation in my senior seminar on The Lord of the Rings, and the result has been to raise the profile of Old English immensely. Although a course aimed at seniors is a bit late for moving students into academic scholarship, it does give students an experience at examining the themes of Old English literature and applying them to questions to be found in a broader literary and cultural history. Can we ask for more? Yes. We can ask the students to learn Old English, read the literature in the original, and subject it to the sort of focused discussion that would engage in when taking, say, a Chaucer course. Perhaps this is where the use of Tolkien's work can have minimal effect. It can raise the cultural prestige of Anglo-Saxon studies, but it may not be able to add many students to focused courses on Old English.

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

A Very Public Act of Plagiarism 

I couldn't resist reproducing this short piece from The Week, 4 June 2004:

Alberta's prime minister has been caught cheating, said Ira Wagman in The Ottawa Citizen. And like many high school dunce, it was his own brazen stupidity that got him caught. During a debate, Alberta Premier Ralph Klein recently made a throwaway comment that if you let socialism go too far, you invite dictatorship, just like "what happened in Chile." Canada's expat Chilean community erupted in outrage at the implication that socialism was to blame for the crimes of the Pinochet regime. In his defense, Klein entered into the public record a copy of a paper he'd just written on Chile for a university correspondence course. Big mistake. Once it was published, it was quickly discovered that Klein cribbed most of his paper from the Internet. At 61, Klein should know better: He is not par of the "Generation F" that was raised to think that copying and pasting together interesting paragraphs constitutes research. At the very least, he should have been savvy enough to change a few words here and there to disguise his plagiarism. Instead, "Klein has given those of us in the academic world a poster boy for next year's lectures on academic dishonesty."

We've seen any number of examples of high profile plagiarists in recent years and varying degrees of condemnation. Now we learn that a student at the University of Kent is suing the university for not catching him in the act (from the London Evening Standard). Here's a clip:

A new row over exam cheating erupted today after a student was told he would get no marks for his essays because he copied them from the internet.

The University of Kent at Canterbury has told 21-year-old Michael Gunn he will leave with nothing after a three-year English literature-course - except £11,000 in debts. But he has hit back, accusing the university of allowing him to complete three years of study and giving good marks for the essays it now says are worthless. He is planning to sue the university in the hope of recovering some of his student debt.

Mr Gunn, from Stanford-le-Hope, Essex, said: "I can see there is evidence that I broke the rules. But they've taken all my money for three years and pulled me up the day before I finished. If they had pulled me up with my first essay at the beginning and warned me of the problems and consequences, it would be fair enough. But all my essays were handed back with good marks."

Mr Gunn's father, Leonard, said one tutor told his son: "Everybody does this. You're the unlucky one. You got caught."


"Of course he knew what he was doing. One of his tutors told him everybody did it and that he was just the tip of the iceberg.

"They must have known what was going on but they were happy to take his fees all that time. Now he has been put in an impossible position. Ask yourself who is going to employ him now that this has come out."

Michael's mother, Elaine Gunn, said: "Where is the fairness in the way the university has treated him?"

There is clearly more to this story than the article reveals. Did Gunn plagiarise for more than one tutor? When was his plagiarism actually suspected and when proven? The rhetoric of the article turns the situation around and makes the university the cheater--not only complicity in Gunn's dishonesty, but deliberately so out of institutional self-interest. The final query by Elaine Gunn--"Where was the fairness"--is revealing about society's expectations that academia will pander to the student. Did not Gunn abdicate his expectation of fairness when he engaged in academic dishonesty? If a criminal is caught by the police after three years of committing crimes, can he sue them for not catching him earlier?

On the other hand, the story tells the very real difficulties that academia has in dealing with the problem. It is so widespread and so easy that academics are unable to take systematic effective action. Instead, it can only hold up a few unlucky ones who get caught as examples. Clearly, this is the moral standard for academic dishonesty. It's plagiarism if and only if you get caught.

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