Sunday, March 8, 2009

Petty Annoyances

I was out on my daily walk, listening to an older episode of "This American Life." The episode is called "Music Lessons," and it's one of the best. David Sedaris describes his father's attempts to make a family jazz trio out of his children. Sarah Vowell discusses what she learned from band. Ann Lemont tells the incredibly touching story of a member of her church learning to love, the small miracle that love can be.

I was enjoying Sedaris' recounting of guitar lessons in Raleigh, NC when he made a remark that caught my attention. "The teacher gave me some purple mimeographed sheets . . ."

Those weren't purple mimeographed sheets, David, They were ditto sheets. This is a ditto machine, or spirit duplicator. It was made by the ditto corporation. Mimeograph was a totally different process - much messier - and less flexible.

My first "journalistic" effort was a ditto'd news paper, published periodically, in 1969, at Augustana College. Called "Period," and sold with a brash and uncompromising commitment to making stuff up, it was duplicated on the English department's ditto machine - though I bought the colored ditto masters with proceeds from each issue. It sold for a nickel - a nickel being the dividing line between greed and stupidity - according to the editor. When run by the staff it was a glorious success. When run by me it was mediocre.

Anyway - it was made on a ditto machine. I didn't really learn the ins and outs of mimeography until I got to my first parish - and it was the end of the era of mechanical reproduction.

This is a mimeograph machine. But people younger than, I'd guess, 30, have no recollection of mimeography or dittography. Those between 30 and 40 have only vague recollections. Soon this will all be dead media (I found the image of the ditto machine on the Dead Media Archive at the Department of Media, Culture and Communication at NYU.

Sad to think that this part of my work life will soon be museum exhibit. Too bad Sedaris didn't know the difference between ditto and mimeograph.

Sarah Vowell committed an egregious error that drives me nuts. It's becoming common now, and may soon slip into common usage and even acceptability. During her tale of her high school music career she used the phrase, "begs the question" to mean "raises the question."

It's a phrase that gets a heap of abuse. "Begging the question," however, has not meant "raising the question, and doing so with some urgency." That's what Vowel took it to mean, what many English speakers use it to mean. And while I'm usually not one to insist that words and phrases must retain their denotative meaning world without end, amen, I think I'll make an exception for this.

Mignon Fogarty (a.k.a. Grammar Girl) agrees. "Begging the Question" is the name of a logical fallacy, "in which the proposition to be proved is assumed implicitly or explicitly in one of the premises" as the Wikipedia puts it.

I wish folks would stop using "beg the question," "begging the question," etc. as synonymous with "raising the question." "Raising the question" works fine - and if people would use "beg the question" properly we might think more clearly, more logically.

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