Noe Valley Voice June 2004

A Word Is a Word Unless You're Geoffrey Nunberg

By Rosie Ruley Atkins

"I give 'metrosexual' about six more months," says Fair Oaks Street resident Geoffrey Nunberg as he peruses the American Dialect Society's list of Words of the Year for 2003. "It takes a while to truly know what's going to stick around, but 'metrosexual' just doesn't feel like it's going to have legs."

Nunberg, whose pithy commentaries on language are heard regularly on National Public Radio's Fresh Air, cites a list of previous winners--chad, Y2K, information superhighway--to prove his point that new words, like pop stars and diet fads, can suddenly appear in the lexicon and just as suddenly fade into obscurity.

"Take 'cyber' as a prefix," says Nunberg. "In the early '90s, it was brand-new and hip. Nobody uses it now. To use it would be a sign that you're hopelessly out of touch."

For Nunberg, who is always in touch in his capacity as a linguistics professor and senior researcher at Stanford University and a member of the Usage Panel at the American Heritage Dictionary, words are clues to the constant shifts in American culture and politics.

"Gay marriage," for instance, is a term that is evolving, he says. Though the conservative Washington Times newspaper uses quotes around the phrase, "like tongs, holding it at a distance," says Nunberg, "ultimately it will probably be like the term 'mixed couple.'" As same-sex marriage becomes an accepted social norm, people will stop using the qualifier. Already, most San Franciscans have dropped the "gay" from "gay couple," he notes.

Nunberg has been interested in language since he was a kid growing up in New York City, but he was truly hooked when he took his first linguistics course in college. "Lots of people are interested in language," he says. "But you realize you're a linguist when you find you're not captivated by words like 'antimacassar' and 'serendipity,' but by the word 'the'. It's a fascinating word; people have given their lives to it."

Over the past decade, Nunberg has been driven to publish several books, including the top-selling The Way We Talk Now (Houghton Mifflin: 2001). His latest book, which hit the streets in May, is called Going Nucular: Language, Politics, and Culture in Confrontational Times. Published by Public Affairs, it is a collection of Nunberg's commentaries on Fresh Air and pieces he has written for the New York Times Week in Review.

The book's title essay pokes fun at George W. Bush's malaprops and mispronunciations. But rather than simply mocking his "subliminables" and "ambilavents," Nunberg probes Bush's speech patterns for deeper political meaning.

"Bush went to Andover and Yale, and you can be sure he heard the term 'nuclear' at the dinner table in Kennebunkport," he says. "His brothers don't talk like this. His father doesn't. He's chosen to talk like this."

Nunberg surmises that Bush is trying to shed his patrician heritage and proffer himself as a populist, a strategy that worked well against the legendary stiffness of Al Gore in the 2000 election.

As for the current race, Nunberg says, "John Kerry is smart enough to not try to sound like a populist. You get the sense that if you woke him up in the middle of the night, he'd sound exactly as he does all the time."

In another essay in the book, Nunberg traces the transformation of the word 'plastic' from its early 20th century association with everything modern and forward thinking, to its overtly negative association with greed and squareness in the 1950s and '60s. Today, he says, plastic can be both hip, as in a Gucci bag or a Christo installation, and unhip, as in Astroturf and beach flotsam. His essay travels from Bakelite jewelry and DuPont to Frank Zappa and Britney Spears. The piece is, by turns, funny, intellectual, and enlightening. But in the end, Nunberg writes, plastic is "just a word."

Nunberg's popularity as a pundit is likely a result of his democratic approach to linguistics. In fact, while he's more than happy to discuss the anachronistic use of the word "fuck" in the HBO television series Deadwood, he's loathe to split hairs over split infinitives.

"I did an event with Lynne Truss [the author of the bestselling book on punctuation Eats, Shoots & Leaves], and people were coming out of the woodwork to discuss commas and semicolons," Nunberg says. "People are very pleased to be interested in punctuation, but there's something smug about the enterprise."

Suffice it to say, you won't find Nunberg roaming 24th Street, magic marker in hand, searching out menu typos and grammatically garbled signs. In fact, he takes umbrage with those who claim the language is in decline.

"There's a lot of hand-wringing about how the language is going to hell, which it is not," he says. "If you think you're smarter than the English language, you're not going to hear what it's telling you."

Though he is tempted at times to correct the usage of his 14-year-old daughter Sophie, Nunberg listens closely to her jargon to discern what it's telling him about her world. But even though he has lived in Noe Valley for almost 20 years, he has yet to identify any neighborhood language trends.

"I'm probably not the best person to notice this sort of thing," he says, laughing. "I'm working at home most of the time or at Stanford. Those aren't great places to pick up street language."

Still, when he goes up to 24th Street to sip coffee at Martha's or to browse the shelves at Phoenix Books, he can sense the drumbeat. "Noe Valley is a great neighborhood. It's hip, and we get pretty good weather. I guess the trend I notice most is that you have to add an extra zero to everything these days!"

Lately, Nunberg has been preoccupied with the big picture. He has been called upon to help explain the political shadings of language being used to describe the actions of U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. While the rest of the world has generally referred to the incidents as "torture," he says, U.S. media and government officials have referred to it as "abuse," "mistreatment," and even "hazing."

Appearing on Fresh Air in May, Nunberg pointed out that American concepts of torture come from movies such as Marathon Man, which showed a classic Nazi character performing a highly ritualized form of dental torture. As a result, Nunberg believes, we have difficulty applying the word 'torture' to the acts of our middle-American soldiers.

"The clowning poses [in the photos] do look like hazing," he says. "Except that prisoners do not have a choice."

As always, Nunberg's commentary provides his listeners with a new angle on the politics of language, but in the case of Abu Ghraib, his signature humor is absent.

Geoffrey Nunberg will be signing his new book at A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books on June 21. Closer to home, he'll be at Modern Times Bookstore on Valencia Street on June 23.