Attack mode

The Baltimore Sun

A while back, at my most recent appearance on Sheilah Kast's Maryland Morning show on WYPR-FM, she asked me about my attacks on the peeververein: Are not your posts just as dogmatic and extreme in tone as those you deplore? 

My wife got a throaty chortle out of hearing me challenged. 

I summoned my wits to offer a distinction: that I consult lexicographers and linguists for evidence on usage rather than relying on mere personal opinion. But yes, the attack mode is congenial. And it is widely popular, as one can see from a handful of page views on the Internet. 

Satire, an attack mode, works because the satirist and the reader who gets the joke share a sense of intellectual, social, and even moral superiority to the butt of the joke. Superiority is an agreeable feeling.

That is why panegyric* is less popular. We praise the work of someone superior to ourselves, and though we may get a mild charge of self-congratulation on our good taste, that is never as satisfactory as superiority itself. On this blog, for example, I have posted eight examples of praiseworthy prose, most recently yesterday, under the headline "Here's how it's done." They have pleased some readers, but the page views have been modest. The bumper crop of page views came when I slapped Gannett up aside the head

The thing about attack mode, which I didn't think to explain on Maryland Morning, is that the object of derision must be worthy. 

I tell my students that I don't care how they talk or how they write in personal emails or text messages. Most people are inexpert writers, and most speech is casual. Most writing is not for publication. Let it all alone. 

As for inexpert student writing, I tend not to comment publicly on work for class or for campus newspapers. As in fishing with dynamite, it is too easy to be morally sound. 

But published work by professional journalists, or a pronunciamento by some self-proclaimed authority on English usage, is fair game. When you set yourself up in public to perform, there is always the hazard that the audience will throw brickbats at you, sometimes deservedly. 

So as long as the members of the peeververein show up to parade their crotchets as laws of the universe and adhere to long-exploded superstitions and shibboleths about language, I will be there to pelt them. Feel free to join in.



*Our word for formal praise, Merriam-Webster explains, comes from "Latin panegyricus, from Greek panegyrikos ... of or for a festival assembly, from panigyris festival assembly, from pan- + agyris  assembly; akin to Greek ageirein to gather."

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