Category Archives: language

Fuckin’ words, how do they work?

My very first ever blog post was inspired by a student malapropism, so it’s pretty true to say that students’ struggles to mash words into sentences is part of the bread and butter of blogging for me. That, and swears, of course.

Lately, I’ve seen a rash of students talking about things being “close nit” or even “closenit”, and once “close nitt” (fancy-ass hypercorrection?) which makes me ponder their absolute lack of understanding of the concept of etymology, to say nothing of their ability to relate the meaning of that particular term to its spelling. Being a wag and a trickster, the first time I saw it, I asked if the student thought the term had something to do with lice, which went down about as well as one would expect.

In a related incident, I had one essay that talked about a person being a “gun ho”. Vivid, eh?

Usually, although not always, when I correct misapprehensions about word usage, students are nice enough about it, say “okay” and move on to mutilate new and different words. Last week, I encountered fascinatingly stubborn resistance. Let me regale you.

I have this student, and she’s definitely up on the high end of the business student stereotype scale, which means (for those of you who have had the pleasure not to encounter such a type), that she is extremely literal,  very determined to follow directions exactly, determined that following exactly the exact directions will earn an A, upset when there are no exact directions which will allow this process to occur, and argumentative about all the above. In addition, she’s pretty resistant to new information, and ever so slightly ESL. (To clarify: I understand ESL is like pregnant, and either you are or you aren’t, but generally her English is very good, although also tending to the absolutely literal.) Let us, for the purposes of this exercise, call her Dogged Dora.

The task I had given was to write an analysis of one of a selection of essays. Dogged Dora chose to write about the one written by Margaret Wente, who is insightfully described by one blogger as “the Globe and Mail’s resident imbecile”. A quick review of her recent columns reveals that she wrote one on Valentine’s Day entitled “Why Romantic Love is Overrated,” dear GOD, she is a hack. But I digress. Here in the Empire, teachers of Freshman Comp often fall back on Wente’s essays for these kinds of tasks because they are both dire (lots of easy things for students to comment on) and help to up our percentage of required contain Kanadian kontent. In short, of the list of choices which were better-written and more interesting, Wente was the softball.

Among the stupid things she does in this piece, Wente makes a statement which more than one student described as “racist against Europeans”. That is, she says, “Fortunately, we do a whole lot better than the Europeans. They are the world’s worst cheapskates,” from which you can extrapolate a pretty good picture of the Wente oeuvre. Now, there’s plenty to criticize in that statement, and students can and do call her on generalizing, and using inflammatory vocab and similar.

Dogged Dora, I suspect fooling around with Mr Thesaurus, came up with the word “indiscreet” to describe Wente’s word choice in this sentence. When I marked her essay, I commented on this and said it wasn’t quite the right nuance of meaning, since indiscreet tends to refer to revealing secrets. No big deal, just something to take note of. Everyone moves on, right? Wrong.

See, Dora did a solid job on this task and earned, as a result, the mark Business students hate most – an A-. So naturally she had to move on to Stage 2 of getting a grade – bargaining. Most of my other comments she found acceptable, but this thing about the word, she got really hung up on it. “I looked it up in the dictionary,” she told me, “and it means saying stuff you shouldn’t say. Like Wente shouldn’t say this about Europeans.” I conceded that while that was true, “indiscreet” meant more revealing secrets or things that should be kept private. “Exactly,” said Dora, “if she’s racist against Europeans, she should keep that a secret.” Well, yes, but no. I tried again to explain, and Dora again just couldn’t see the difference in the shade of meaning. All “stuff you shouldn’t say” is in the same category. We were there for 10 minutes on this thing, with Dora digging her heels in harder and harder, and me giving examples of indiscretions, and getting nowhere. I eventually stopped it by saying “look, it was a minor point, and not the main issue with your essay.” So then, Dora was able to move on, not because we came to an understanding, but because I had let her know that this particular error hadn’t been worth marks. “You are still wrong,” she muttered.

Now, it becomes clear that in large part the problem is that she hasn’t encountered the word before, and really, the dictionary definitions (especially in the stupid-ass dictionary.com that all students insist on using even though we have online subscriptions to the OED and half a dozen other good dictionaries and they are only a click away, arg, rant) don’t really do a good job of explaining the shades of meaning of words. You learn that by reading and hearing people with good vocabularies talk. Which she doesn’t do, and let me say, this is in no way about her being ESL or a Business student, although they may be contributing factors.

Let me bookend this with another example from last semester. My students were workshopping thesis statements for their essays, and one student put hers up, and it contained, correctly, if a little hyperbolically, the word “profoundly”. A be-hatted guy who was not generally a dumbass stuck his hand up to comment, and said “you can’t just make up words,” indicating that “profoundly” was the one he had trouble with. “It’s a word,” said the female student, to which I concurred. “Can you explain what it means?” I asked her, and she gave him a solid explanation.

“Huh,” he said.

Huh, indeed.

We are all luvz cat macros.

“They just laughed and stabbed her. She didn’t even try to run away. It was like they were _playing_.”
For some reason Magrat shot a glance at Greebo, who had the decency to look embarrassed.
“Pointy ears and hair you want to stroke,” she said, vaguely. “And they can fascinate you. And when they’re happy they make a pleasing noise.”
Terry Pratchett, Lords and Ladies

I am a member of a discussion forum – supposedly, its main purpose is a forum for some talented modders of a particular computer game, but it has a lively free-for-all discussion area. Well, I say lively; other people would say “terrifyingly cutthroat”. It’s the kind of place where you can post any opinion you want, on any topic you want, and there will be dozens of people ready to tell you what an idiot you are for having that opinion. These are people who will arguing about the merits of The Hunger Site, who will rend you to shreds for posting ungrammatically, who will argue for pages about what is better, Divacup wii or PS3, but post a cat macro, and people will coo about how cute it is, or (more likely) post a bunch more of their own. Everyone loves them.

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It’s clearly not a phenomenon limited to that one weird little community either. I Can Has Cheezburger has been the top blog on WordPress since it moved, and as anyone who was viewing the site a few weeks ago knows, that move was precipitated because ICHC was so popular its cheezservers were repeatedly meltzored by the pressure.

I’ve been thinking and reading a bit about the lolcat phenomenon. Obligatory academic disclaimer: admittedly, this is not my field, and I am not sure I really have the pop culture chops to write a serious critique, so what follows are my observations as a self-confessed lolfrend. Oh, and full disclosure – I have 3 cats.

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Clearly, cat pidgin (awsum pun, hur hur) is a developing language; Anil Dash has analysed some of the important characteristics of it. I think he’s right in saying that lolcat has very quickly evolved its own rules about correctness, which seems very odd in a pidgin that relies on incorrect spelling and grammar for its humour and meaning. As he says “The rise of these new subspecies of lolcats are particularly interesting to me because “I can has cheezeburger?” has a fairly consistent grammar. I wasn’t sure this was true until I realized that it’s possible to get cat-speak wrong.” Anil Dash does an admirable job of explaning the joke without crossing the line into explaining it so hard it isn’t funny anymore (cf with this rather more heavy-handed treatment).

There’s an interplay here between what anyone can read as funny and the in-joke which David McRaney identifies in his interesting discussion tracing of the evolution of lolcats from leetspeak and image macros:

These image macros influence new leetspeak, which in turn influences new spoken leetpeak and new macros. All of this churns at a rapid pace and evolves with each new generation. Eventually, something like the lolcats comes along and splinters the whole language schema into a new branch where all new in jokes, references and acceptable formats are born.

As McRaney notes, the in-joke part of the cycle is clearly being played out at ICHC, where readers often post lolcats which teasingly respond to previous posts. I also have seen the language cycle back into chat – which McRaney identifies as one of its origins. (For example, people going to eat will say “I can has pizza”.)

Lolcat pictures (or lolcat-style) pictures are also evolving into narrative, possibly inspired by the exchange of pictures that occurs on ICHC, and also on forums, where people have been posting macros of various kinds to create conversational responses to one another. Loltrek was created as an answer to the question “what if lolcats had a tv channel;” srsly uses the pictures from a news story about a cat who takes the bus to explain things from the cat’s perspective, while this story uses lolcats’ humour to diffuse the author’s frustration with her computer repair people.

The in-joke nature of the lolcat phenomenon also makes it difficult to explain them to “outsiders”. Sure, some of the pictures are funny on their own, but this one, posted today, raises the layers of self-reference that make it impossible for outside readers to interpret to new heights (just check how many comments are asking for enlightenment):

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So, lolcats evolved from the way we form groups and play with language when we shape our group identities. They also, as Robin Amer points out, appeal to our broader desire to create animals in our own image.

I think the lolcats reveal the anthropomorphic way we think of our pets. They’re something more than animals, yet something less than hapless toddlers (or ditzy teenagers). They can communicate with us, but they haven’t quite mastered our codes. They have a life of their own.

And while I agree with this as a general idea, I don’t think it really explains why there aren’t huge numbers of loldogs and other animals. Yes, they exist, but lolcat pictures are overwhelmingly pictures of cats, after all. Far be it from me to dismiss the appeal of the lolrus, but it cannot be denied that a good deal of the appeal of the lolcat relies on the cats in those pictures.

I think part of what is going on here is that lolcats show the dual nature of cats – on the one hand, they are about the cats’ inherent cuteness and appeal, on the other, their inherent nature their desire for comfort, for prey and for world domination. Sometimes, all of these traits are illustrated in one lolcat picture, which, as McRaney notes, is what makes them so effective and funny.

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It is our specific anthropomorphisation of cats which lolcats illustrate, and I think that is partly behind the repetition of some of the recurring lolcat tropes. It is also what makes the humour of them compelling, too. They are funny because they are true – or at least they are true to our imaginary construction of cat personalities.

We may have an intellectual understanding that our cats’ affection for us is rooted in their desire for comfort and food, but we prefer to ignore it because they inspire affection in us. We attribute kindly feelings to our cats because we don’t want to admit that our love is unrequited. Part of the humour here is also based on our sneaking suspicion that cats are in on this whole anthropomorphising lark. They know that we can be manipulated by thinking they are cute; deep down we may know it too, but somehow this doesn’t manage to diminish their appeal. As Terry Pratchett notes, in the voice of Granny Weatherwax, “If cats looked like frogs, we’d soon work out what nasty cruel little bastards they are.”

This idea of cats’ use of cuteness to mask their greed is at the heart of the lolcat trope “i has [an item]”. Not only does your cat take your stuff, he rubs your nose in it. It is interesting that the iconic Cheezburger cat appears to be asking permission, because most of the other lolcats are rather triumphantly claiming ownership of objects they have appropriated (invisible or otherwise).

We see cats as suave; they are usually carelessly graceful, and as any cat observer knows, a cat caught in the act of doing something clumsy will often manage to project an air that the human observer interprets as “I meant to do that.” The “invisible [item]” trope works with this perception; cats caught in odd or compromising positions explain their behaviour by suggesting they are reacting to something we can’t see.

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Likewise, the cat’s nonchalance is illustrated in lolcats that start “Oh, hai/hi.” This trope illustrates both the destructive tendencies of cats, and the fact that they don’t seem to care about human disapproval for destructive acts. While dogs might look, well, hangdog, when they get caught out, cats will try to make an argument that the destruction was actually a good thing.

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The feeling that we care more about our cats’ approval than they do about ours is expressed in the trope “[item] cat is pleased/displeased”.

Our ideas about our cats’ intelligence play a major role in creating all of these in-jokes, of course. We know that they are manipulating us, and yet we let them do it (actually, we know that they know that we know…). Our anthopomorphic concept of cats includes the idea that they are clever tricksters. It seems quite believable that they are on our internetz when we aren’t looking, so of course they are hip to pop culture references. We may even suspect that they are hipper and cooler than we are. Cats probably even know for certain the origin of the “i’m in ur” meme.

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Humans are the butt of many of the lolcat jokes – our cats are kind of mean to us, and then they laugh at us for being hapless. The fact that they can’t even type correctly kind of rubs it in.

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But while the cats in the lolcats may express disdain for their human overlords, pictures which might indicate a real world in which there is cruelty to animals are completely taboo. Indeed, although there are some exceptions, the trend in lolcat pictures is for “natural” pictures of cats – cats just doing what cats do. Manipulation of the pictures is relatively rare, and it seems to be if not strictly against the rules, not quite cricket. The notable exception is in cases where people have made visible the invisible item, or responded in some way to the original photo. Likewise, there seems to be a trend against setting up the picture; good lolcat photos rely on the same kind of serendipity that engendered the phenomenon in the first place. The humour in the captions comes from the things cats do, and the interplay between our understanding of cats and our own common imagination.

Lolcats, at their heart, are about our affection for cats, and our hope that they like us enough to laugh at our jokes.

Note: Thanks to ICHC for the images, and the lulz.