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Friday, September 11, 2020

THE CURIOUS ENGLISH LANGUAGE

 

Surely all of you who live in the United States have now listened numerous times to the audio clips of Trump talking to Bob Woodward. Never mind the sheer awfulness of Trump revealed by these clips – that goes without saying. I was fascinated by their tone. Trump was clearly sucking up to Woodward, trying to impress him, trying to show him that he, Donald Trump, had the inside scoop on the virus and understood it. Once again, I was struck by Trump’s language. Explaining to Woodward how dangerous the virus is, Trump described it as worse even than a “strenuous” flu. Quite obviously, Trump does not know what “strenuous” means, simply that it is a big word for “very bad.” Just like his father, Trump reveals himself there to be a wannabe from the outer boroughs trying to make it with the big boys in Manhattan. (A personal note: I was reminded of the fact that the year after the big 1968 uprising at Columbia University, which hysterical professors and administrators thought would ruin the University, it was revealed that those same big deal Manhattan real estate brokers had so mishandled Columbia’s endowment during their time as trustees that it took the next president of Columbia 10 years to repair the damage.)

 

This morning, as I was musing on all of this, I found myself for no reason that I can explain thinking about all the words in the English language that end in –umble. I have in mind bumble, crumble, fumble, grumble, humble, jumble, mumble, rumble, stumble, and tumble. To which can be added numb and dumb. What a strange language English is.

17 comments:

LFC said...

Re Trump and "strenuous":

Trump is also unfamiliar, I wd presume, w Theodore Roosevelt's speech "The Strenuous Life" (delivered April 10, 1899, in Chicago). Basically a hymn to rugged masculinity, as TR perceived it, and the virtues of imperialism, though it's been a while since I've had occasion to look at it.

Etymology (acc. to the dictionary on my shelf): From the Latin strenuus, vigorous, active; also mentions Greek strenes, strong.

"Strenuous" can mean or imply, among other things, "arduous" or "difficult," so you can talk about a strenuous assignment, I suppose, though that phrase sounds a little weird. More typical wd be, as the dictionary suggests, "a strenuous game of handball [or tennis, or whatever]."

(Prob the best justification for "strenuous flu" is that it suggests a flu that is difficult to deal with, but in that case it's really not the flu itself that is "strenuous". That wd be to anthropomorphize a virus.)

LFC said...

In the case of a "strenuous game of X," it's to illustrate the definition "requiring or characterized by great effort or energy."

Ecrasez said...

Connecting RPW’s first paragraph with his second: scumball?

marcel proust said...

That would be scumble, no? As in, "Donald Trump is such a scumble".

Ecrasez said...

@Marcel: great minds think alike. (I was brought up to shake little fingers and name a poet when that happens.)

Nick Pappas said...

Although I've never noticed that phenomenon, I have thought about a similar phenomenon with words ending "-allow": tallow, sallow, callow, shallow, fallow. If not thoroughly pejorative, they all have some undesirable overtones.

As for "strenuous" -- I can't figure out where, but I could have sworn that an early-twentieth-century author like Mencken complained about that word as a neologism. Does that ring a bell with anyone?

Christopher J. Mulvaney, Ph.D. said...

That Covid is worse than a strenuous flu is completely different than saying it is at least 5x more deadly than the flu, While he says Covid is worse than the flu, it nonetheless less minimizes its severity compared to his using one of those words he claims to know, like virulent.

Jerry Fresia said...


I read this morning that Biden promises to increase troop levels in the Middle East as well as the entire "defense" buget - and get tough with Russia. Such a jumble. I only read about what he had said. Did he mumble and stumble as he usually does I wonder? I wish this were a bumble or a fumble. But this was no stumble. The Dems are to the right of Trump when it comes to imperialism. And have you noticed how Biden lies too? Yesterday he was saying how he was against NAFTA. As with the current occupant of the White House, he's a long way from humble. Yes, I will vote for Joe and Kamala but I fear they are not up to the task of moving things toward justice. The bottom half, at least, of Americans will continue to live in a state of precariousness. Stability will crumble. But once Joe is in power, the left will rumble, and Joe and Kamala may tumble. I'm thinking 2024.

Danny said...

'Explaining to Woodward how dangerous the virus is, Trump described it as worse even than a “strenuous” flu. Quite obviously, Trump does not know what “strenuous” means, simply that it is a big word for “very bad.” Just like his father, Trump reveals himself there to be a wannabe from the outer boroughs trying to make it with the big boys in Manhattan.'

Stipulated, that President Trump spent almost all of his childhood in Queens, and still sounds like it. But, lots of people have been said to pass away from a long and 'strenuous' illness -- given that strenuous activity is one in which it is necessary for you to use a lot of effort, energy, or strength, and thus, the fatigue of my long and strenuous ride/journey, a long and strenuous day in the mountains, delivery of a litter of pups, and also, given that I have encountered 'a strenuous person', 'a strenuous intellect' .. I worry, pal, who is revealing himself? Say that what is being revealed, for better or for worse, is what sort of thing it is that is denigrated by Manhattanites as pathetic hangers-on.

decessero said...

oh bad call, Danny: "... President Trump spent almost all of his childhood in Queens, and still sounds like it". Who is your pathetic Manhattanite hanger-on? Our good Professor is born and bred in Queens - guess he doesn't "still sound like it", huh. Perhaps the issue is not the borough of one's upbringing.

s. wallerstein said...

Why is it OK to mock how people from Queens talk, but obviously not to mock how African-Americans talk? Yes, I know that Professor Wolff is from Queens, but managed to learn to talk like a high-status Manhattanite unlike Trump.

My brother-in-law, by the way, is from Queens and I have no idea how he uses the word "strenuous" and I frankly don't care. He does have a very strong Queens accent.

There is a class snobbery running through this post and comment threat, with a few exceptions (I agree with you, Jerry), which is not fitting in people who claim to represent the radical left.

And please don't reply that I "don't get it". I get it all too well.

Matt said...

I would be interested to know more about the mismanagement of the Columbia endowment. I do know a bit about a similar story at Penn. At one point a very large percentage of the Penn Endowment was invested in the Penn Central Railroad company. It, alas, went bankrupt in 1970. But - the biggest investment by the Penn endowment came at an odd time - when things were already going bad for Penn Central. As it turns out, this was because many people on the Board of Trustees at Penn were major share holders in Penn Central, and they were trying to use the Penn endowment in a vain attemt to save their investment. (Most people who take a corporations class in law school would learn the basics of the Penn Central case, as it's a classic of corporations law casebooks, but the malfeasance by the U Penn board of trustees is usually not covered, although we talked about it in my corporations class at Penn Law. In a slightly derivative way, this is also responsible for some of the ugly buildings at Penn - in the 1970s, after the university was hurt badly by these situation, it had to ask the state for money and support, despite being a private university. It wasn't able to build the most fancy buildings, but perhaps more importantly, it had to make use of some architects who were better at having political connections than at making attractive or even well designed buildings. Or so I'm told.) As far as I know, no one was punished for these actions, even though they were almost certainly criminal.

jeffrey g kessen said...

Nick, Mencken complained about everything---that snotty old fart. Great writer. Not so much a great thinker. I prefer Queens over Baltimore ( not least the accent )

LFC said...

s.w.

I see no class snobbery in my comments. I even suggested that "strenuous flu" is not necessarily a misuse of language (as Danny also does, see above) though it's a bit unusual as a locution, probably. This has nothing to do w snobbery, afaict.

s. wallerstein said...

LFC,

Ok, you walk.

The problem is in the original post.

My sister worked for many years in Queens. Most of the people she worked with are Trump supporters (she's not one) and from how she described them, the implicit association in the original post between coming from Queens and misusing the English language as expressed by an ex Ivy League philosophy professor with radical politics views would just confirm them in their support of Trump whom they identify with, among other reasons, because he does not speak like an ex Ivy League philosophy professor with radical views, who they imagine looks down on them.

As the great poet Allan Ginsberg says, why make an enemy if you can make a friend?

One thing is to mock Trump himself, one thing is to mock or implicitly mock potential Trump voters from one of the most populous parts of NYC.

Yes, I know I'm not speaking about social class as Marx defines it, but I'm using the word as most sociologists do. Unscientific perhaps, you all get the point.

If a post made an implicit negative association between a negative stereotype and any oppressed group, African-Americans, Trans people, women, etc., everyone would scream "micro-aggression". There are lots of people in Queens, maybe they weren't educated to use words correctly, but so what?

marcel proust said...

I myself prefer the King's English (aka, as she is spoke in Brooklyn) to the Queen's English, but that may just be ethnic sentiment peering through.

Danny said...

'decessero said...
oh bad call, Danny: "... President Trump spent almost all of his childhood in Queens, and still sounds like it". Who is your pathetic Manhattanite hanger-on? Our good Professor is born and bred in Queens - guess he doesn't "still sound like it", huh.'

There are Staten Islanders, Brooklynites, Manhattanites. There are those who from “da Bronx.”


What do you call someone from Queens? I'm OK with whatever people from Queens wanna call themselves. Just as long as they're not gonna be “Drama Queens” about it..