Friday, June 06, 2014

'the newspaper' and more on the written word

Tonight (22:00/10pm) people in the UK (and maybe abroad?) will be able to hear a new instal(l)ment of The Verb "Radio 3's cabaret of the word". [It's downloadable for the next 7 days.]  I was invited to talk about a piece I'd written a few months ago about American attitudes to dictionaries and, by extension, the written word. And it was a lovely time. The other guests were Nathaniel Mann (with his collaborator, violinist Daniel Merrill) and Nicholson Baker, whose writing I've long admired (and who was contributing over the phone from Maine; as a friend of mine pointed out, I was on the phone with the inventor of phone sex). The host, Ian McMillan, is not only a great radio host and performer, but also a great actual host, as were the rest of the staff there. Who knew we'd get apples before and cake after?

But, of course, one prepares for such events and then one is a bit disappointed when one misses the opportunities to say every fascinating (to oneself, at least) thing that one's thought of. In particular, that I've thought of. So, I'm typing this on the train back from the recording. L'esprit de railway.

The original essay and the radio piece both make a big thing out of what may be a very little thing: some evidence of differences in attitude to the written word in the US and UK. My contention is that Americans like written authorities, while the British tend not to turn to the written word as authority as much. On the program(me) I talk about dictionaries, the Bible, supreme courts, and constitutions, as I did in the original essay. In the course of it, I get a Winston Churchill quotation wrong (he actually said: "The English never draw a line without blurring it.") and miss the opportunity to point out a couple of things I had enjoyed discovering this week. So I'll tell you about them now.

The Supreme Court strikes (some dictionaries) again!
On the topic of U.S. Supreme Court use of dictionaries, a particular example of it arose this week. The case, Bond v. United States, involved the question of whether a wife putting caustic powders on her husband's pregnant lover's doorknobs could be prosecutable under the Chemical Weapons Convention Implementation Act. The Court unanimously said 'no', and the opinion, written by Chief Justice Roberts, cites seven different dictionaries — from Johnson's to the 3rd edition of the American Heritage Dictionary (why not the 4th or the 5th?) — in defining weapon and treaty. The two cited definitions of weapon define them as instruments of combat, and Roberts then shifts from dictionary evidence to evidently out-of-his-hat proclamations about "natural parlance", i.e. 'But no speaker in natural parlance would describe Bond's feud-driven act of spreading irritating chemicals on Haynes's door knob and mailbox as "combat."' American Heritage (4th edn) defines combat as 'To oppose in battle; fight against.'. Was Bond fighting against Haynes? Does this mean that, say, the Sarin was not a chemical weapon when it was used in a Tokyo train because the passengers weren't in a battle? Heck, does it mean that a gun used in domestic violence is not a weapon? We can see that court usage of dictionary definitions is a bit wobbly. Or scary, if you prefer. I'm not saying that the use of a rash-inducing caustic powder in a domestic dispute should be subject to international treaties about chemical weapons. But I am saying that if you're going to use a dictionary to support your opinion, you shouldn't hop back and forth between using it and ignoring it. And you probably shouldn't be using it that much at all. (By the way, Slate magazine hails the Chief Justice's "comic stylings" in this case. Yes, Americans can do irony.)

the newspaper?
While thinking further about how we talk about the dictionary even though there are many dictionaries, I wondered about use of the newspaper.  People say things like I read the newspaper every day or I read about that in the newspaper. But, of course, it's a particular newspaper title that they read every day, and it was a particular issue of a particular title that they read a particular fact in. (There's a reason why newspaper is the word that I use to teach first-year students about polysemy.) Saying the newspaper in these contexts, like when people say the dictionary, gives the impression that it's immaterial whether there is more than one possible newspaper that you could be referring to, since it is the news they're telling you. (In contrast, people don't talk generically about how to read the book or say that they read a fact in the book, unless it's clear from context which book they're talking about.) I wondered: do we see a difference in this use of the in AmE and BrE?  Well, I wouldn't be feeling the need to tell you about it if we didn't.

Using the Corpus of Global Web-Based English again, I looked at various newspaper phrases. British websites were about as apt as the American to have the phrases read a newspaper and read in a newspaper. But when we put a the in there, the scale(s) tip(s) to the American, with 106 American instances of read the newspaper to 45 British ones, and 23 American read in the newspaper to 9 British.  (I also didn't get to note that fellow-guest Nicholson Baker has an essay called 'Reading the paper' about newspaper-reading [in his case the New York Times] in his collection The Way the World Works.) This difference is probably much to do with the fact that American newspapers are meant to be 'objective' and 'impartial', while British ones wear their political positions more obviously.  If one believes that all the news is impartially reported in all the newspapers, then, the thinking might go, the news in the papers is interchangeable. (The fact that any news above the local level is likely to be coming from a wire service makes this almost true in some cases.) The American ideal of impartial print media (and until Fox News, broadcast media were held to the same standards) seems tied up with the value of the printed word in American culture.

Iain in the comments mentions 'in the papers" (note: I did newspaper rather than  paper because of the ambiguity of the latter--both are used in AmE & BrE). The plural there acknowledges that there is not a single paper, so more use of the plural would go along with the claim I'm making above (which, I must underscore, is a thought-experiment, like the original dictionary piece. I'm seeing how far I can go with it. And then I might go somewhere else with it!).  Looking at GloBWE again, each country (US, CA, UK, IE, AU, NZ) has only one instance of read it in the newspapers.  But for read the newspapers there are 33 US and 63 UK examples, making it reasonably more frequent in BrE. So the plural form doesn't undermine the thought-experiment.  But keep experimenting!