SpecGram Vol CLXXXI, No 2 Contents The CAPE of Good Hope—How Radical Lexicologists Restored My Faith in Humankind—Rhea Porter

From Our Back Burners to Our After Burners

A Letter from Mergers and Acquisitions Editor Scopperloit Scobblelotcher

In a recent editorial we solicited our readership’s non-financial help to keep the moth-eaten wolf of inapt metaphors away from our door and somewhere off on the way across the river and through the woods, since we’d not want him to miss his rendezvous with whatever Freudian or girl-power metaphor currently favored in the academy he’ll get done in by this time. The outpouring of support in our time of need was deafening.1 While we appreciate the thought, we do not need clippings of the joke column from back issues of your local church circular2 or a subscription at your expense to Reader’s Digest. Perish the thought!3

Moreover, we are in no need of your collected teenage diaries, college notebooks, or the yellowed coloring books you half-finished as a little girl.4 We would remind you we are mongers and purveyors of the better sort of linguistic satire, not a small press, literary journal, or post-modern art magazine. Nor do we need or desire a month-long “weekend” retreat, all (your) expenses paid (by us), at your ashram, church retreat, writer’s workshop, or touchie-feelie emotional group grope passing under the banner of the latest travesty birthed (or emitted) by modern psychological cults.

Indeed, to forestall further efforts along those lines, we shall give as a cautionary example for the unwary only the most flagrant recent attempt by a soi-disant sogennante-que “professional” organization to actually, Heaven forfend, have something to do with us on their own terms. A minister extraordinary and plenipotentiary and his entourage of grad students5 stopped by our office with mealy-mouthed protestations about the good of the entire sector, cooperation, friendship, character, ethics, and other terms familiar from the beginning of Miller’s Crossing. If we merely allowed them, he intoned, to contribute with a slight preference for acceptance and toned down some of our more, as it were, [discreet pause, embarrassed cough] outré flights of fancy from our less, well, well-bred contributors, they could assure us a steady stream of high-quality, high-wit, nay, even high-octane contributions, and unlike the skullduggery they have to go through involving contributions at election time...There followed an expectant, as in pregnant, pause that we preferred to allow to proceed to term.

Finally, he cleared his throat and we asked, “If your contributions are so high-quality, why do you need preferences?”

After an equally expectant, as in “Oops,” pause, the distinguished gentleman, henceforth to be referred to as PS (for Peevin’ Stinker), responded, “It’s not as if you lot have the editorial training to recognize quality, really.”

“So, ‘quality’ is a Humpty-Dumptyish sort of quality then.”

“My dear sir,” PS responded, still somewhat distinctive and chiseled, “quality is determined by a ranking of esthetic and cognitive constraints.”

“Optimality theory is tautological, really, so basically ‘quality’ is a Humpty-Dumptyish sort of quality,” said another of our board.

“What would a computational linguist know about OT?”

“No, no,” pointing, “he’s the compling. I’m the morphologist.

The distinguished gentleman, clearly an old-school generativist, as this sort of Rotarian of the Tenured Academic Radical Elite so often is, suppressed both a shudder and the sign of the cross but instead deftly let his hand, raised for the latter, check his vest’s breast pocket instead, presumably for his antiseptic hand lotion later, and finding it present allowed himself a smile and said, “Pity.” After wiping his glasses, he continued, “There will also be certain, well, shall we say, semi-binding content restrictions.”


“Yes, binding on your party, not ours.”

Amid the almost audible bristling of our raised hackles, the histling in attendance said, “Anyway, I at least find your proposal fascinating and am interested in subscribing to your newsletter. Please, tell me more, more, more! What specific proposals would that entail?”

Smiling, he answered, “Oh, nothing that would constitute a hindrance to the exercise of truly healthy, refined, classical wit, though as you yourself have made perfectly clear, that might be a hindrance for you.” We shushed the sudden explosion of Juvenal, Martial, Aristophanes, and Goethe in the original and sat smiling and expectant, like grad students eager for the next stage of monastic discipline complete with hair shirts (the major fashion accessory separating grad students from SG interns), as he cleared his throat in surprise and continued, “To start, of course, certain sensible, wholesome restrictions on place and language names, especially those of a potentially, er, well, salacious coloration.”

We sat smiling even more broadly as he looked expectantly from face to face, and finally giving in he said, “Well, for starters, you will not be allowed to use the names Bangkok or Phuketno Thai place names at all, reallyBrest, Lushootseed, Poughkeepsie, Beijing...”


“Excessive risk of appalling color-related puns.”

Our Scottish epigone sat up and took notice and a note on this point and then ran out the door.

We looked at each other and shrugged, “What can you do?”

Our visitor continued, “Or Novosibirsk...”

“Novosibirsk? I fail to see quite where that fits in...”

With an unpleasant grin, PS stated, “Well, no, you wouldn’t, would you? However, others of your coterie are neither so obtusely ignorant nor over-wedded to civilized standards of decorum. In any case, let me see...ah, yes, just as a matter of general decency, in any reviews of classical music, the Panocha Quartet must always be referred to as the Pánoja Quartet so as not to offend or titillate your Hispanophone readership.”

“But you forget that we also have a largish Hispanophobe readership that would not look kindly on such encroachments on a sovereign language’s orthographic autonomy. And are you sure the alternate spelling’s not something equally bad in Czech?”

“That perversion would not surprise me from a lot whose word for ‘fun house’ is panoptikum, but as there are only ten million Czech speakers and over half a billion Spanish speakers, it is clear who must give way.”

Another of us piped up, “When you talk about Spanish speakers, you’re not including Catalan in there, I hope.”

With a steely gaze PS replied with increasingly fading calm, “Would that even matter? Just look at the numbers, woman.” After this curt dismissal he added quickly so as to forestall further skirmishes, “Additionally, you are not allowed to use the word ‘books’ in any articles that also include any content related to Mongolia or Mongolian. Singular subjective or objective, yes; plural and/or possessive, no.”

At this a certain pair of our number began murmuring, “rhubarb rhubarb,” or rather, “бажууна бажууна,” and as one of them grumbled, “Come now, come now, my good man, no one of us would ever show such an egregious breach of good taste,” the more, shall we say, specially learned of them muttered, “Damn, why didn’t I ever think of that?” He then grimaced and shouted, “This aggression will not stand, Man!” and, as usual when he got into such a state, had to be escorted out with a satisfying surfeit of violence.

“Now that the, er, deadwood has been cleared away,” PS continued, “I would like to note that this proposal is fully acceptable to all members of our coalition, the League of Linguistic Decency, and merely needs your signature.”

“So basically,” one of us retorted, “you want us to become just like Linguistic Inquiry or Natural Language & Linguistic Theory? All those guys who started out less funny than Bob Hope in his dotage and simply recycle the same jokes with slight changes at the edges like some sort of phonological cycle? I mean, cripes, how many changes can you ring on that stupid old joke about the Principle of Last Resort? I’ve never seen a борщ-belt comedian tell hoarier chestnuts than you guys going on and on about Pied Piping.”

“That is an unkind way of putting it, but essentially, yes.”

“Why would we want to become like that?”

After polishing his glasses and peering at all of his interlocutors in turn with a steely gaze, he replied, “You do prefer to remain in print, correct? I will just close by saying that we welcome your agreement to our proposal since it is rumored that the more influential of your number are not entirely bereft of either good sense or good taste.”

We put our heads together and replied, “What is this good taste of which you speak? Does it involve marmot chitlings? ’Coz those are yummy.

PS, at this point distinctly grizzled and scarlet-hued, peeved off in a huffing and puffing huff, followed discreetly by Butch McBastard to make sure, as he put it later, that the fellow did not steer and stand near any of our old and costly rugs. While this left us in our earlier state, it was at least more diverting than our usual postprandial morale-building exercises for interns. We have thus collectively pooled the spicy meals bubbling cheerily on our mental back burners for this issue, the first of many savory feasts of the intellect to appear in our fine journal henceforth. And in conclusion, we have just one word to say to you, our gentle readers:


1 In its silence.

2 Though a couple of our editorial board who shall remain nameless did think the contributions of L.W. to the weekly newsletter of Grace Baptist Church of Lower Possum Trot, Arkansas, were hilarious. “Positively out of Theocritus,” one of them said.

3 With a baseball bat. Wrapped in barbed wire. And wielded by a robot assassin.

4 Geez, F.X.Q., you couldn’t color within the lines by the time you were eight? Have you considered seeing a neurologist? And that color schemetruly it is a brave new world you see around you.

5 Our interns were properly chastened to learn that in fact, no, life for the subalterns is not any better in academia, so at least this visit was good for something.

The CAPE of Good HopeHow Radical Lexicologists Restored My Faith in HumankindRhea Porter
SpecGram Vol CLXXXI, No 2 Contents