PC Word Police: Don’t Be So Stingy!

A few years back, I was bored enough to chime in on a forum discussion of “political correctness” and its stifling effect on the technical writing profession — as if technical writing could get any more stifled! Some poor souls’ delicate sensibilities were bruised when other members suggested maybe the word niggardly didn’t have a place in the technical writer’s verbal arsenal, because¬† — um, in case you hadn’t noticed — it sounds kind of like a well-known racial slur.

“Why not just say stingy?” these bullies had suggested, eliciting audible huffs from the indignant plaintiffs. Some went so far as to post detailed etymological information about the origin and meaning of both the noun and the adverbial forms, thus proving (to themselves, at least) the silliness of any attempt to ban this perfectly good word.

“Let’s all take a deep breath,” I suggested, “and think about this from a practical standpoint. You say you don’t see how anybody would complain about the use of this word in an otherwise bland text. You don’t agree with the reasons for choosing stingy:

  1. Your readers aren’t going to be reminded of racist language.
  2. It’s got fewer words and fewer syllables.
  3. People know what the hell stingy means without looking it up.

“OK, fine — you’re obtuse.

“But tell me, please, in 500 words or fewer: when exactly would the concept of parsimony come into play in a technical writing context, or in any business writing situation, for that matter? Have you ever found it necessary to mention stinginess in online help, a user manual, or a set of requirements? If so, please post examples. I’m bored and that would be mildly entertaining!”

I got a couple of bravos and a couple of desperate defensive double-downs, that’s about it — not one piece of technical writing where penury came into play!

Then I had to get back to work.

Very, Very Simple

I had the pleasure of seeing Carla Bley and Steve Swallow play live a number of years ago at Emory University’s Cannon Chapel. Here they are doing her classic hilarious song “Very, Very Simple.” This originally appeared on her big band recording I Hate To Sing.

And here they are doing Bley’s wonderful lush tune, “Lawns”:

If you can read lead sheets and want to learn to play “Lawns,” you’re in luck. You can download the music here.

A Trip to Mannenberg

The wonderful South African jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim tells about the origin of his beautiful, meditative composition “Mannenberg” in the BBC video below. First we get to hear him playing a bit of it in a solo context. Then the camera follows the pianist into the New York jazz club Sweet Basil, where he performs the tune with his band Ekayah. Oh, why couldn’t I have been there that night?

I think if everybody listened to this song once in a while, the world would be a much more peaceful place.

On February 11, 2004–38 years after the the South African government rezoned District Six as a “whites-only” area–former president Nelson Mandela welcomed the first returning residents, Ebrahim Murat (aged 87) and Dan Ndzabela (82), and handed them their keys.

Apartheid Sign, District Six Museum, Capetown, South Africa
photo courtesy of Trip Advisor
District Six Memory Plaque, Capetown, S.A.
photo courtesy of 972 Magazine

Happy Armistice Day, Happy Birthday Kurt

I always think of November 11th first as Kurt Vonnegut’s birthday (born 91 years ago today, may he rest in peace), and second as Armistice Day — the day in 1918 that the Allies and Germany agreed to cease hostilities on the World War I Western Front.

From Vonnegut’s 1973 novel Breakfast of Champions:

Kurt Vonnegut, U.S. Army soldier
Private Vonnegut, early 1940s

“…this book is a sidewalk strewn with junk, trash which I throw over my shoulders as I travel in time back to November eleventh, nineteen hundred and twenty-two.

I will come to a time in my backwards trip when November eleventh, accidentally my birthday, was a sacred day called Armistice Day. When I was a boy, and when Dwayne Hoover [lead character in the novel] was a boy, all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.

Armistice Day has become Veterans’ Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans’ Day is not.

So I will throw Veterans’ Day over my shoulder. Armistice Day I will keep. I don’t want to throw away any sacred things.”

I was lucky enough to see Vonnegut speak at Emory University in the 1990s. He was on crutches, hobbled after spraining an ankle while playing stickball with some kids in his New York City neighborhood. He was droll and funny and sly, as you might expect if you ever seen him speak on TV or in person. Like his books, his talk was a mixture of humor, sadness, wisdom, and silliness. Right up my alley.

Vonnegut offered no encouragement to those contemplating a writing career — perhaps knowing that only the most bull-headed and persistent would ever come close to following in his footsteps; and knowing that even most of those would need some other way of earning a living. (This reminds me of the Frank Zappa quote: “If you want to be a composer, get a real estate license.”) But he did give a version of the chalk talk in the video below — his version of the eternal verities of story construction:

Thanks, Kurt.