Thursday, December 11, 2008

On Being a Snob

Isn't it great to know that there are all kinds of snobs? Fashionistas, gourmets, any kind of connoisseur (particularly wine or cheese), video-game junkies, film buffs, even those who decry snobbery--all terms that describe a particular genre of snob. My preferred snobbery? A secret inkling of superiority to those who misuse English--although I will generally find amusement at others' expense for any kind of unusually acute ignorance.

My pet peeve du jour is the overuse (would it be too strong to say "misuse" or "abuse" here?) of 'myself' as in "please make sure you return this form to Mr. Smith or myself." Besides being WRONG (you cannot use the reflexive unless it is, ahem, reflexive, as in "I amuse myself" or "I admire myself"), it gives the impression of elevated self-importance. Why not just say "me"? Perhaps it is the sinking realization that one doesn't know how to choose between "I" and "me." I have never tested this, but I have a suspicion that people who misuse "myself" in the way mentioned above also say things like "just between you and I."

As you can imagine, I enjoy books like Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, where the author writes to a specific, identifiably snobby audience about such travesties as the incorrect omission of an apostrophe in the film "Two Weeks Notice" (should be "Two Weeks' Notice", in case you were wondering). The first section of the book is really the funniest, with the succeeding sections much weaker, as the author proceeds to explain all the rules of punctuation to readers who enjoyed the first pages so much because they identified with feeling unreasonably frustrated by those who need the rules explained to them.

I am currently reading another such title, called Alphabet Juice. The book is arranged, naturally, alphabetically, the author having chosen certain words that he calls "sonicky", or having a sound that conveys the essence of its meaning, in order to argue that linguists aren't quite correct when they say words besides onomatopoeia are arbitrary. At least that's the author's professed goal; the book really is more about the author's love, or even obsession, for words. I relish the passages where he takes on the misuse of "myself" and laments words that lose their bite when used too freely (as in "awesome" or "terrific"). This is my particular brand of snobbery. But what I love even more is the way Blount (that's the author) mocks himself and purposefully misuses words and grammar exactly in the way that he criticizes. It's brilliant really; someone who reads a snob like Blount is bound to look for and notice any unintended slip up, so why not beat them to the punch and claim it's all very self-referential and post-modern? If I were smarter (and it weren't already an hour and a half past my bedtime), I would have done the same, as I am sure this post contains some unintended errors. If nothing else, I have some suspicously long sentences and I arguably overuse parenthetical comments. But I digress (see--I DID it there, a bit!).

What is the antidote to such snobbery? Strangely enough, as a teacher, I feel zero superiority when my students are ignorant or misuse English (a good thing, considering they are all non-native speakers of English). By definition, first of all, I am supposed to know more than they do, so it would be a bit of a cheap shot--like a 250 pound linebacker taking on a 14 year old cross country runner--to bask in my superiority. More than this, with students it is my responsibility to bridge the gap from ignorance to understanding. And when I really try to study how to do this, I suddenly see students as human beings rather than a source of cynical amusement: their ignorance stems from lack of exposure, not from any basic inferiority. Sigh. And it can be so satisfying to feel that myself is so much more refined!

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