Tuesday, May 11, 2004

On 'Stuff' and 'Ass'

Too many people use the word ‘stuff’ nowadays. I was brought up to believe that it is a piece of slang best avoided in all but the most informal of contexts. So when I hear a good scholar make mention of all the ‘stuff’ he has published on this topic or that, I wonder how long before he starts using ‘crap’ instead of ‘stuff.’ “You know, Bill, I’ve published a lot of crap on anaphora; I think you’ll find it excellent.” But why stop with ‘crap’? “Professor X has published a fine piece of shit in Nous on temporal indexicals. Have you read it?”

If you ask me to read your ‘stuff,’ I may wonder whether you take it seriously and whether I should. But if you ask me to read your work, then I am more likely to take you seriously and give you my attention. Why use ‘stuff’ when ‘work’ is available? Do you use ‘stuff’ so as not to appear ‘stuffy’? Or because you have a need for acceptance among the unlettered? But why would you want such acceptance? Note that when ‘stuff’ is used interchangeably with‘work,’
the former term does not acquire the seriousness of the latter, but vice versa: ‘stuff’ retains its low connotation and ‘work’ drops out. The net result is linguistic decline. As George Orwell might well have said, any effacing of a distinction cannot be good for thought.

No doubt there is phony formality. But phony informality is just as bad. An example of the latter is false intimacy, as when people address complete strangers using their first names. This is offensive, because the addresser is seeking to enjoy the advantages of intimacy (e.g., entering into one’s trust) without paying the price.

‘Ass’ is another word gaining a currency that is already excessive. One wonders how far it will go. Will ‘ass’ become an all-purpose synecdoche? Run your ass off, work your ass to the bone, get your ass out of here . . . ask a girl’s father for her ass in marriage? In the expression, ‘piece of ass’ the reference is not to the buttocks proper, but to an adjoining area. ‘Ass’ appears subject to a peculiar semantic spread. It can come to mean almost anything, as in ‘haul ass,’ which means to travel at a high rate of speed. I don’t imagine that if one were hauling donkeys one could make very good time. So how on earth did this expression arise? (I had teenage friends who could not refer to a U-Haul trailer except as a U-Haul Ass trailer.) Or consider that to have one’s ‘ass in a sling’ is to be sad or dejected. Here, ‘ass’ extends even unto a person’s mood. Robert Hendrickson (Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, p. 36) suggests that ‘ass in a sling’ is an extension of ‘arm in a sling.’ May be, but how does that get us from the buttocks to a mental state? I was disappointed to find a lacuna where Hendrickson should have had an entry on ‘haul ass.’

‘Ass’ seems especially out of place in scholarly journals unless the reference is to some such donkey as Buridan’s ass, or some such bridge as the pons asinorum. The distinguished philosopher Richard M. Gale, in a recent piece in PHILO (Spring-Summer 2003, p. 132) in which he responds to critics, says near the outset that “...my aim is not to cover my ass. . . .” Well, I’m glad to hear it, but perhaps he should also tell us that he has no intention of ‘sucking up’ to his critics either.

In On the Nature and Existence of God (1991), Gale wonders why anyone would “screw around” with the cosmological argument if Kant is right that it depends on the ontological argument. The problem here is not just that “screw around” is slang, or that it has a sexual connotation, but that it is totally inappropriate in the context of a discussion of the existence/nonexistence of God. The latter is no joking matter, no mere plaything of donnish Spielerei. If God exists, everything is different; ditto if God does not exist. The nonexistence of God is not like the nonexistence of an angry unicorn on the far side of the moon. As Nietzsche appreciated (Genealogy of Morals, Third Essay, sec. 27), the death of God is the death of truth. But to prove that Nietzsche was right about this would require a long article or a short book. One nice thing about a blog post is that one can just stop when the going gets tough by pleading the inherent constraints of the genre.