December 22, 2005

A Short Preliminary Review of a Present I Bought Myself Recently

That would be Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door. I bought this after having been alerted to it by Andrea, but also, subconsciously at least, to annoy the brother of a friend of mine, who sees red at the mention of Truss's other book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, because his own grammar and style guide didn't sell nearly as well. He'll probably never know I did this, and would only think me stupid if he did know, but nonetheless, I take perverse satisfaction in it: Ha, ha--I bought a book by that whore, Lynne Truss.

Okay, it's probably not a good idea to start this review off by calling Lynne Truss a whore, even if I'm only kidding. So much for my manners.

Anyway, good stuff so far. She wanders a bit; I did not really need to know the 200-500-year evolution of spitting conventions in polite society, as I figure the disappearance of the word "spittoon" tells me all I need to know about that and, besides, it's just gross.

Still, the book is worth the purchase price for the section headed "Why am I the One Doing This?" alone, because that sums up my complaint with the way people behave (or rather, don't behave) perfectly: The onus for achieving politeness is now on the person who values politeness the most, and not on each person equally. When it comes to manners, I am a collectivist: Everyone should behave. In my dream world that sentence continues, ". . . or it's off to the gulag with you." Have you noticed we don't live in my dream world? I have.

But leaving it up to the one lone holdout who's fed to the teeth with rudeness results in that one lone holdout becoming the aggrieved, the picked-on and, in the eyes of the rude, the actual offender. It's now considered rude to ask people to please quit being rude.

"What do you care if I'm talking on my cell phone? I'm not bothering you." (I'll be the judge of what bothers me, thanks.) "Oh, well like I'm so sorry I didn't hold the door open for you, Your Highness." (I'm not asking you to hold it open for me, but was slamming it into my face strictly necessary?) "Maybe if you ever have children, which I doubt, because who would ever want to reproduce with you, you'll understand better how difficult it is to get them to behave"--this always being uttered after the speaker's offspring has subjected you to continual torment, maybe kicking the back of your seat for half the flight, or shrieking for 30 solid minutes just below the frequency only dogs can hear, or ramming their kiddie cart into your calves in the store, with not one word of reproval offered by the parent. Okay! Children are difficult. I get this. But you expect me to apologize to you when you, the parent, make no attempt whatsoever to correct them? Wow. Fuck you.

Which is a whole other section of the book: "The Universal Eff-Off Reflex." I haven't got to that part yet, but the title is already making me itch. Can we . . . do something about Eff, f'n, f**k, etc.? I am all in favor of polite fictions but these are stupid fictions. There's a difference. Whenever I see "Eff you," or "So-and-so is on f'n fire today," or "I guess that means the rest of us are f**ked," I immediately substitute "fuck"--and so does everyone else, and that's the entire point of this business: It permits the writer to say "fuck" without incurring the social penalties associated with saying "fuck."

And yet everyone who reads these shorthands is automatically substituting the real word mentally, so what exactly are we accomplishing with this? I don't get it. I know I have sometimes tried to reign in my cussing habits by using "freakin'" or even "frigging," but these are at least entirely different words. If I write "freakin'," chances are you read it as "freakin'," and then think "what a geek she is, I can't believe she said 'freakin',' how Mormon is that?" But at least you can pronounce "freakin'" in ordinary speech, whereas I defy anyone to pronounce "f**k" in a way that doesn't sound exactly like "fuck." "Eff," while it can be pronounced in a way that does not sound like "fuck," nonetheless makes it too clear that "fuck" is what was intended, because what other word is universal enough to be referred to by only its starting letter? We don't write "G" or "Gee" for "goodbye" because--"G?" That could be anything. But Eff--oh, we know what that one is, all right.

Either say "fuck" or don't. It can be a fun exercise to try not to use it, especially now that everyone does. You find you have to rewrite sentences entirely. I wish anyone well who attempts it; it's not that easy to do anymore. But if you're sufficiently enraged to say "Eff" you're sufficiently enraged to just say "fuck."

I'm sure someone will make the point that maybe, in a book on manners, you shouldn't say "fuck." Well, obviously. My point is only that "Eff" is a lousy substitution. Besides, if you're going to talk about how awful it is that everyone gets told to fuck off all the time anymore, pretending that they're not actually saying what they're saying, which is, again, just for review, fuck off, seems silly. It's like writing a book about cancer that never once uses the word "cancer," instead littering the text with euphemisms like "the big 'C'."

Other than the use of Eff, though, so far so good. More later, maybe.

UPDATE: It grieves me to be so rude towards a book about manners, but this was ultimately disappointing.

In the author's defense, that could just be my pathological hatred of cell phones talking: You show tolerance for cell phones, I lose all tolerance for you. Truss says hearing people talk on their cell phones "humanizes them." That only reminded me, yet again, that I don't really like humanity.

I used to live across from some neighbors who had their washer and dryer repossessed. They began hanging all their laundry out to dry on clotheslines strung across their back patio.

It totally humanized them to me; I'm just not sure that was a good thing. Do I need to know that my neighbor prefers briefs to boxers? Do I need to be able to estimate his wife's bra size? Look at the way the cups catch the wind! That's got to be at least a 38C, don't you think?

A little humanity goes a long way.

Anyway, I'm forced to remember the criticism leveled at Eats, Shoots & Leaves by the grammarian mentioned above: He said he understood that it wasn't intended as a style manual, but only as a rant against bad grammar. The problem, he said, was that there were better rants available. And then, in a moment of stunning vanity, he linked "better rants" to his own book.

And here it is. Because if Eats, Shoots & Leaves is as tepid and disjointed as Talk to the Hand, my friend's brother is probably right.

Posted by Ilyka at December 22, 2005 03:22 PM in navel gazing

About fuck and other delightful curse words: I have full command of that language when I need it but I generally don't need it in my writing. I never say or write effin, freakin, friggin, or any variation thereof however I have used a$$hole. I'll try not to in the future.

Posted by: Rob at December 22, 2005 07:36 PM

I can actually think of a very reasonable defense for writing a$$hole--the same one you use to defend writing "pr0n." It keeps the would-be masturbators and spammers from hitting your site. If you think about it, it's actually being polite to the wankers, because you're saving them from bitter disappointment.

"dEAR sITE oWNER, i thought there would be LIVE ASSHOLES PICS AND there werent i am relly pissed OFF WHAT A RIPOFF its false advertizing ps YOURE SITE SUX!"

Anything that keeps email like that out of your inbox, I favor.

Posted by: ilyka at December 22, 2005 07:43 PM

One thing I've found that helps is to never, ever, ever leave the house.

Posted by: Jim Treacher at December 22, 2005 10:00 PM

Fuck, fuck, fucking fuckity fuck.

I can't agree more about the deceptive calumny against fuck. If you want to say fuck, then say fuck. I think I railed against this myself, way back when I used to rail.

Besides, "fuck" is way easier to type than "F!bomb".

Posted by: Jim at December 24, 2005 07:26 AM

Oh, now THIS is ironic: on preview, got the error "Your comment could not be submitted due to questionable content: theonion dot com". Fine, then: go to the Onion's homepage, and type content/node/32208 after the .com part.

Posted by: Moebius Stripper at December 24, 2005 10:22 AM
Oh, now THIS is ironic: on preview, got the error "Your comment could not be submitted due to questionable content:

Yeah, one of the hazards of having a communal spam blacklist (anyone with a blog at can add entries) is that sometimes stupid people get all up in there. In this case some fellow, "Mark," whoever the hell he is, had added both and, thereby making enemies of fans of humor AND Tolkien. Nice going, jackass.

Anyway, I took it out. For the rest of you, Moebius Stripper's link is:

Oh, and Mark's a dumbass.

Posted by: ilyka at December 24, 2005 11:20 AM

I thought Talk to The Hand was mildly amusing until I got to the cell phone portion. She lost me there. I have no tolerance for noise pollution and being subjected to phones ringing and private conversations just irritates the crap out of me. Now we have the added joy of people using the damned things to play music. It's obnoxious.

Posted by: Janette at December 28, 2005 01:40 PM