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Open Letter to The Awl

June 18, 2010 | by

Brothers and sisters, with all respect, your declaration of war is an admission of defeat. We beg you to reconsider this folly.

First you tell us—in what begins to sound like a rage-filled howl against the light—that there is “no such word as snuck.” Then you send us a link to an Internet site, where we learn that snuck “has reached the point where it is a virtual rival of sneaked in many parts of the English-speaking world.” With enemies like that, who needs friends?

You instruct us to look at the OED, yet when we do, we find not only a snuck entry there (“chiefly U.S. pa. tense and pple. of sneak v.”), but also dozens of usage citations, going back to the nineteenth century, many of which are taken from such known language slouches as Raymond Chandler, Jack Kerouac, William Faulkner . . .

Speaking of Faulkner, the coincidence of our being crackers is not, as you imply, irrelevant in this case. The very first appearances of snuck are almost exclusively Southern, and opposition to it has always been inseparable from the idea that it sounds country, or vulgar, or demotic.

That's probably why the dear “ass-people” at your high school taught you never to say snuck. They wanted the best for you, and didn't want your college professors making fun of you in class. That's only proper. High school is the time and place for rigid prescriptivism of the kind you're trying to put over on us. Later on, though, you put away high-school things. You wake up to the idea that English is an ocean, full of words that live, change, and die, and that your task is not to fix them in place but to master their flow, as best a person can.

A story I heard during the course of my own education changed my mind forever on this subject. When William Tyndale was doing his translation of the New Testament in the sixteenth century—the one that got him killed—there was a certain ancient word for which he lacked an English equivalent. His solution was to mash together a French word, beauty, and an old Saxon one, full. That's how we got beautiful. By your logic, we should stop using it, since, after all, it wasn't a word. Nothing is, until it is.

Snuck is a beautiful, almost onomatopoeic word. We've asked you for a good reason not to use it. In return you've given us the opinions of a long-ago ass-person (enjoyable term in itself—your coinage?). That person has been oppressing you. Set yourself free.

Yours in the cause,
JJS

13 COMMENTS

Snuck Redux

June 17, 2010 | by

Dear Lorin,

I'm told a publication calling itself The Awl has blogged about our use of snuck for sneaked, calling out the whole Paris Review masthead for this “transgression of English.”

Transgression against English, they undoubtedly mean. If English had been transgressed by us, we would have stepped across it and begun writing in a foreign language. However solid an ambition that remains, no one will accuse us of it here. I suppose there's no pausing to get basic prepositions correct when you're on your way to obsessing over arcane questions of the irregular preterit. But let's not be pedantic.

Actually, let's be pedantic as hell. It ought to go against any writer's grain when people try to pass off schoolmarmish grammarianism as a concern for style. Style is about getting the maximum effect out of words, eliminating unwanted ambiguities, and writing in such a way that readers see things better—in short, it's about meaning. Grammarianism, which is to say, an out-of-control prescriptivism, is about doing things “the right way,” or more often, about giving others grief for not having done so.

I'm not an antiprescriptivist. Trying to keep your mother tongue honest is noble and even necessary. But a person needs to be objecting to a word on some grounds—that it's inexact or obscure, that it's confusing or unbeautiful. What is The Awl's problem with snuck? As far as one can tell, somebody told them at some point that it was preferable to use sneaked. Why, though? We've been saying and writing snuck for at least a hundred and twenty-five years now, in high and low contexts. Everybody knows exactly what it means. Indeed, a big-deal British linguist has theorized that the reason snuck emerged as a form to begin with is that it sounds more like what it says. It's shorter, faster, more final—it's sneakier. To my ear, sneaked has lost the war, and even smells a bit of the lamp.

Admittedly, I come from a place where people still say y'uns (oldest surviving usage of ye, according to some scholars), which may disqualify me from pronouncing on such matters.

I wish The Awl the joy of its style sheet, and strongly urge the excellent Mr. Cox and the rest of you to stick to your guns.

Devotedly,
JJS

15 COMMENTS

Watching the Oil Spill

June 14, 2010 | by

Dear Lorin,

It’s strange that, right as you confer on me the undeserved (but I hope not wasted) honor of Southern Editorship, this region would reclaim its hold on the American imagination. I refer to the underwater live feed of the oil leak. Are you watching it? Down here we do little else. I made these notes on the experience. They may not be appropriate for the new blog. You said on the phone, if I remember, that you wanted to cover “the intersection of culture and everyday life.” But the leak has simply overpowered culture, to the extent that anything happening in that department now assumes a ghoulish cast.

You can feel the other millions of people watching, especially late at night, and at times there has even been a Lincoln’s Death Train quality to this thing, a sense of shared, and deliberately prolonged, mass shock.

On YouTube, collections have formed of people’s favorite moments from the feed, sequences they found beautiful, or ones that appear to support a theory they developed about something BP did and lied about.

When something odd occurs in the frame—when three orange sponge-looking objects float by, for example, or when a striped tube-shaped thing rises up at the left and vanishes into the oil—there’s this reflex to call out to the others, and verify that they’ve seen it.

One clip going around shows an eel that swims up to the plume and hangs out for a few seconds, like, What the . . .

It looks as if they’ve somehow beamed a Victorian-era smokestack to the bottom of the ocean, and it’s billowing brown ash.

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4 COMMENTS