Thursday, April 30, 2015

“Kit” Revisited - Not OK with “Kit” Commentary!


In my last post I tried really hard to lead my readers away from using “kit” to refer to bike clothing.  My strategy wasn’t to definitively prove that Americans who use this word are dorks, but rather to introduce an alternative that was so clearly superior, further debate would be needless.

Well, the debate continues.  And if that’s not bad enough, one of my readers—an American living in New Zealand—got his knickers in a twist over a couple of gross inaccuracies in my essay, which were particularly jarring due to my  “smug confidence.”  (I suppose I should point out that I use the chiefly British expression “knickers in a twist” not because I’m trying to sound un-American but because it’s slightly less vulgar, to my ear, than “panties in a wad.”  And please note that I say “un-American” instead of “Euro” because “Euro” is one of the words that got me in trouble last time.)

In this post I shall first apologize, and then go on the offensive because another of my pals persists in trying to advance a nonsensical “living language” argument that really needs to die.

An apology

My first error, as pointed out by the Kiwi correspondent, involved this assertion:
Absolutely everybody who wears a jersey calls it a jersey.  This is a very useful word because it differentiates between a basic t-shirt and that funny Lycra thing with the zipper in front and the pockets in back.
I should not have said “absolutely everybody.”  I should have said “everybody in the United States.”  Obviously, in other countries people would have other words for this garment.  In the Ukraine, they’d call it “Джерсі,” which would phonetically sound like “dzhercee” (the “zh” is my approximation of the sound the “s” makes in “pleasure” and if you have trouble with it, just imagine Chekov, from the original “Star Trek,” saying “jersey”).  I don’t know what they’d call a bike jersey in China, and that’s a shame, because that’s my blog’s third biggest audience (after the US and the Ukraine).  Of course, those who don’t speak English probably don’t spend a lot of time on albertnet.

So why does it matter that I said “absolutely everybody”?  Well, I may have confused some non-American English speakers.  I’ve been advised that while “Antipodean club cyclists would understand [my] usage from exposure to American media,” “non-cyclist Australasians might NOT recognise [my] usage of ‘jersey.’”

Dang it.  I was totally unaware of any of this, and moreover I had to look up “Australasian” (which I’d have guessed means “Australian/Asian fusion cuisine,” as in “throw a couple ginger-infused shrimp tempuras on the barbee!”) and “antipodean.”  The first two dictionaries I checked defined “antipodean” as “being as different as possible” or “on opposite sides of the earth,” which obviously don’t work here.  The third dictionary (the really thick one) had the definition that fit the context; this meaning was flagged “chiefly British.”

Now, it’s really tempting to defend myself here.  How come my Kiwi critic gets to use confusing British terms, wacky spelling (i.e., “recognise”) and single quotation marks, but I have to be aware of every connotation of “jersey” among English speakers worldwide?  How come when I read an original (i.e., non-Americanized) version of a Harry Potter book to my kids, I’m tickled by “jumper” for sweater and “trainers” for sneakers, but my confusing use of “jersey” is grounds for criticism?  Don’t worry, I’m not naive about the truth behind this apparent paradox.  As everybody knows, Brits are charming, but Americans like me are merely annoying.  I get that.  I also accept that for me to be so narrow-minded and insular with my America-centric perspective, while posing as an authority on how best to use the English language, is nothing short of sickening.

Perhaps even worse, as my New Zealand friend points out, I “seemed to equate ‘British’ and ‘European’ in a way that would make many Brits and not-a-few Europeans uncomfortable.”  I have nothing to say in my defense.  I’ve never bothered to interview Brits or continental Europeans about how they feel about one another, and though I believe I accurately represented the way in which many Americans, such as the ones who use “kit” to mean bike clothing, lump all members of the EU together when trying to emulate their cycling heroes, I did so without acknowledging, or perhaps even recognizing, how lame this is. 

But before I actually issue the formal apology, I have to figure out whom exactly I’m apologizing to.  The confusion I have caused among my overseas audience (2.5% of whom hail from the UK) is perhaps offset by the delicious satisfaction they must have derived from decrying my ignorance.  On the whole, was their discomfort greater than the pleasure they got from issuing scathing, probably profane, judgments about me and my ilk?

Well, just in case it was, I hereby apologize to all Europeans and Brits.  I’m sorry I’m a stupid, narrow-minded American, and that my blog is spreading my corrosive ignorance across the world.

It’s very tempting to apologize to Americans as well, but that’s a complicated matter.  After all, both my geopolitical ignorance and my smug confidence are core American values.  If I act apologetic about embracing freedom and patriotism, well, maybe the terrorists win.  So let me say this:  I hereby apologize to American expatriates worldwide, and any other progressive American who thinks we should be knowledgeable about other cultures, be humble about our beliefs, and use air-quotes around “beliefs” to indicate how tentative we are in believing in anything.

I suppose I could go fix my previous post, to be more inclusive of every meaning of jersey and more discerning about British vs. Euro, but that would make this post rather confusing.  And really, repentance isn’t the point; acknowledging my ignorance is.  So, knowing my original essay will be read by more people in the future, I want to make a special apology to any non-American or expatriate-American English speaker who reads it on his or her birthday.  I truly hope I don’t ruin anybody’s birthday.

(Note that I cannot bring myself to apologize separately for being smugly confident.  I believe I am incapable of blogging timidly.  Blogging, as far as I’m concerned, is an intrinsically audacious act.)

Back on the offensive

Okay, enough of that.  It’s time to beat back a burning bush some more.  I’m talking about the ongoing attempt of another correspondent to justify “kit.”  His first shot is the rhetorical equivalent of an air ball:  “Living language Exhibit A.”  In case you’re reading this essay after that link has gone stale, it’s to a website called Cool Hunting (headline:  Three Fresh Cycling Kits for Spring) selling a wide variety of awful things:  ugly brown leather cycling gloves that look like Isotoners with the fingers cut off; a coffee cup holder for your handlebars; a hand-painted bike bell; underwear for cycling; a suit described as “Movement-Minded Suiting” that could make anybody look like a d-bag; and a whole bunch of particularly ugly Rapha clothing.  (I know “ugly Rapha” is redundant, but I thought “particularly Rapha clothing” might confuse somebody.)  In other words, it’s a purveyor of awful, overpriced, over-precious, totally needless crap for pretentious dickwads with too much money.  That Cool Hunting uses the term “kit” does not, in my opinion, validate the word whatsoever.  I’m astonished anybody would say so.  If this website hadn’t been trotted out by a defender of “kit,” I’d have cited it myself to explain exactly why “kit” is a term any old-school, non-hipster, self-respecting bicyclist might wish to avoid.

The person who trotted out the Cool Hunting justification for kit was quickly rebuked (by others, not me, I might add).  So he  replied, “Call it Bay Area slang, if it that'll make it go down easier. An idiomatic usage in a micro-dialect, if you like. But what you cannot deny is that there ARE people using the word ‘kit’ to mean a cycling jersey and cycling shorts. Living language at its best.”

Okay, first of all, I can’t see how impugning the Bay Area would make anything go down easier.  I do like the idea of micro-dialect just fine, and have embraced it for decades.  (For example, my brothers and I have long used the term “tranja”—pronounced “tron-ya” and taken from a 1960s “Star Trek” episode—to indicate any flavored beverage, and my daughter has now adopted the term.)  But the mere fact of people in any community using a word does not justify promotion of that word, and is not necessarily “living language at its best.”

Consider this:  so far, I have never heard any member of my bike club use the word “bidon,” despite all of us knowing what it means (a water bottle, in Velominati/cool-hunting/poseur/d-bag parlance).  We rightfully avoid “bidon,” despite knowing what it means,  because, evidently, we just don’t like it.  Word choice is a matter of taste, and those who respect language have far higher standards than “what others will be able to grasp.”

I think it’s crucial to understand the difference between evolution and mere change.  Evolution implies progress:  in nature, to evolve generally means becoming better suited for survival.  But when we say language “evolves,” we’re not talking about natural selection.  Sloppiness is just as likely to transform a language.  For example, the word “biweekly” used to mean something specific.  It either meant “every two weeks” or “twice a week,” but not both.  But because people began using it both ways, dictionaries eventually accepted the second meaning as legit, and now the word “biweekly” is utterly useless—it is impossible to tell from context what is meant.  From a usability perspective, this word has been pushed toward extinction.

Even when changes to a language don’t dilute meaning, choosing words carefully is worthwhile.  Often, when two words are equally precise and do an equal job of getting a point across, one is still better than the other.  If we say, “Pass me a facial tissue please,” that sounds stilted and odd, and begs the question, “Why didn’t you say ‘Kleenex’?”  And if my daughter asked her mother for a “snot rag,” she would be rightly reprimanded. 

Clarity is sometimes overrated.  To simply grasp a word’s meaning is nothing special; even a beast can do that.  My daughter did a science experiment with our cat.  It has been well established that our cat knows her name and will actually respond to a call of “Misha!” (particularly if it is issued from the kitchen).  The other day Alexa and I were on the sofa, with the cat on Alexa’s lap.  “Hey Mom,” Alexa said, “Call out ‘feces’ in the same voice you’d call out ‘Misha.’”  My wife called out from the kitchen, “Feeee-ces!”  This summoned the cat just as effectively as “Meeee-sha!” ever did.  So we brought the cat back to the sofa and tried again, but this time with “Eggplant.”  Despite being uttered in the same singsong way, it produced no reaction from the cat.  My wife called “Feeee-ces!” again, and immediately the cat trotted back in there, tail held high.  Following this breakthrough, my daughter started calling the cat “Feces” all the time.  I put my foot down.  “We named her ‘Misha’ because we like that name,” I told her.  “I do not like the word ‘feces.’  You are forbidden to use it in reference to the cat.”  Now, is that bad parenting, on the grounds that the cat does understand the particular meaning of “feces” within our household’s micro-dialect?  I truly hope nobody thinks so.

I am not a fan of “kit,” but I’m not interested in continuing to debate its aesthetic merit, nor the question of whether its (supposed) utility is enough to offset its Velominatic air.  But what I’m trying to do here is squash the idea that the elasticity of language can be trotted out as justification to blithely adopt any new usage that manages to convey meaning.

You still think all linguistic change is for the good?  Well, think about all the corporate jargon so many of us are subjected to on a daily basis.  If you were to hear the following on a conference call, you might only find it a slight exaggeration:  
At the end of the day, the value proposition needs to by synced up with our bottom line, so if we’re going to step up our game, tee this thing up, and swing for the fences, the reality is that—candidly—we’ve got to get Product’s skin in the game, and really incent those folks to add value up the whole stack, because when you peel back the layers of the onion, you can see that business synergies are table stakes in this business, and shareholder value demands that we either reinvent ourselves with some disruptive technologies or we’re going to be in the position of having to ventilate this workforce.  I mean, this is the world we live in.  It is what it is.
If you’re not gagging right now, you’re on the wrong web page.  Maybe you should head over to Cool Hunting.

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