Saturday, July 9, 2011

My attempt to be suitably perspicacious.

Definitions appear to be all the rage, as two sets of boneheads feel the need to define (and misdefine) words that have long been part of my active vocabulary. Those who know me beyond my CC persona will testify to the fact that I enjoy words—everything about them, actually: derivations, definitions, and all manner of word play. So it troubles me to no small degree when others, especially those who should, by virtue of their jobs, be expected to know better, fail miserably.

First up: the apparent need of the “This Week” editors/producers to define “perspicacious,” a perfectly useful, not at all pretentious, adjective. In an Independence Day weekend discussion about the drafting and ratification of the U.S. Constitution, host Christiane Amanpour said of Benjamin Franklin that he “was amazingly perspicacious when this Constitution was signed.” For reasons that boggle the mind, the cretins in the booth (I do apologize for the apparent redundancy) decided that the audience watching a Sunday morning news show—an audience watching not only the articulate Amanpour, but columnist George Will (himself armed with an impressive vocabulary), Harvard professor Jill Lepore, Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson, and Time editor-in-chief Richard Stengel—wouldn’t know that awful, multi-syllabic p-word, so they slapped a definition up on the screen. Yes, really.

OK, several points need to be made. First, at least on the video shown on Raw Replay, the definition actually appears on screen (at 6:21 of that tape) before Amanpour even says it (at 6:24). That little editing feat, were it not so stupid at its core, might be regarded as prescient, even (dare I say it?) perspicacious.

Secondly, I’m not sure that “perspicacious” is actually the word Amanpour was searching for (unless, as is possible, she was quoting Lepore): the context suggested she might have been better off with “contemplative,” “visionary,” or even “whimsical.”

Thirdly, the screened definition, “Having keen vision; clear-sighted,” isn’t really quite right: the word means “perceptive” or “discerning”; references to sight, except metaphorically, are deemed archaic or obsolete by every source I’ve consulted.

Finally, it’s difficult to tell whether some of the media accounts are tongue in cheek, but I suspect, alas, that they are not. Thus I must be a little concerned by Raw Replay’s Kase Wickman’s description of “a serious $10 word” or Mediaite’s Matt Schneider’s laundry list of appellations—“fancy word,” “showcasing an SAT-worthy word” [doesn’t the SAT purport to measure students’ readiness for college, not for Mensa?], “such a big word…,” “‘elite’ language.” Schneider closes with an admonition not to the idiots in the booth but to Amanpour for “using such fancy language so that viewers in the future don’t mistake her show for a Rosetta Stone class teaching the English language.” (Side note: adults who don’t know the meaning of “perspicacious” also won’t know “Rosetta Stone,” at least not as anything but a brand name.)

I despair.

The other case was at first glance just another squabble between a homeowner who stretches the rules a little and a city planner who needs more fiber in his diet. In this case, the battle is in Oak Park, Michigan, where Jason and Julie Bass made a decision in the spring when their lawn was torn up to replace a sewage pipe. Rather than replanting grass, they decided to set out five vegetable planter boxes filled with herbs, cabbages, tomatoes and the like. Interviewed by a local Fox News affiliate, Ms. Bass cited several reasons for starting their vegetable garden: “the price of organic food is sort of through the roof,” “we thought it would be really cool to do it so the neighbors could see; the kids love it. The kids from the neighborhood all come and help.” She says her plants “are fine, they’re pretty, they’re well-maintained.”

The case all boils down to a regulation requiring that “all unpaved portions of the site shall be planted with grass or ground cover or shrubbery or other suitable live plant material.” (You see where this is going, don’t you, Gentle Reader? That’s because you’re perspicacious.) Bass says her vegetable patch “is definitely live, it’s definitely plant, it’s definitely material, and we think it’s suitable.”

City Planner Kevin Rulkowsky demurs: “That's not what we want to see in a front yard. If you look at the definition of what ‘suitable’ is in Webster's dictionary, it will say ‘common.’ So, if you look around and you look in any other community, what's common to a front yard is a nice, grass yard with beautiful trees and bushes and flowers.” Bass counters on her blog (newly created for the occasion) that Oak Park’s official position seems to be, among other things, “ugly flowers and overgrown weeds- good. vegetable plants -bad…. tacky lawn plant arrays -good. neat, tidy, food-producing plants- very bad.” Certainly the yards shown on the television news feed seem a lot worse than the Bass’s, and apparently those owners aren’t being harassed by the city.

OK… whereas I side with the Basses on the central issue—a possible 93-day jail sentence for pepper propagation? Really?—I do understand the objections of the apparently small but extant cohort of neighbors who aren’t impressed by the garden and who point out that back yards are equally capable of growing vegetables. And Bass’s “why shouldn’t I” argument rings hollow, especially if (and it’s by no means a given) Rulkowsky is telling the truth to a different local news team, this one the ABC affiliate, when he claims Ms. Bass contacted him in April: “I told her don't do it, and she went ahead and did it anyway.“

All that said, let’s go back to that claim about the definition of “suitable” in Webster’s Dictionary. Having a pretty good idea Mr. Rulkowsky was full of crap, I looked the word up. There is no mention of “common,” although the obsolete meaning of “similar, matching” is certainly close. The contemporary definition, however, the one that can be approximated by any reasonably intelligent 10-year-old, has nothing to do with ubiquity. What is clearly intended by the city ordinance’s use of the word “suitable” is, in Merriam-Webster’s terms, “satisfying propriety: proper.” Duh.

In other words, whether the Basses’ vegetable garden is a “suitable” use of the front yard is subject to personal interpretation. That Kevin Rulkowsky is a moron, on the other hand, is simply tautological.

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