Monday, July 9, 2018

The amazing Maggie Balistreri talks about The EVASION-ENGLISH DICTIONARY, why we must say what we really mean, and how speech shapes politics--and more, more, more.

The very cool book with a tiny inset of Maggie

Maggie Balistreri
Here is a better portrait of the artist as unbelievably cool

Maggie Balistreri is a namer, taxonomist, and extraordinary author of THE EVASION-ENGLISH DICTIONARY. Hey folks, it's a must-have for these difficult times. So buy several copies and give to everyone you know. I did.

Thank you, Maggie.

I almost always ask people what was the why now moment for writing a book, but it seems like you have timed this one perfectly. Care to talk about this?

I wanted the book published before books are banned.

Tell us about what you call “evasion English.”

Evasive English = “I say this but I mean that” or “I say this because I mean that.” It’s the difference between my speech bubble and my thought bubble. I identify terms that help us avoid the intimacy of a direct statement; or words that, like icebergs, have unspoken depths of meaning.

Another way to think of the term “Evasion-English” is through its anagrams, which range from identification to interpretation:

      heaviness lingo
      gosh, insane evil
      asshole veining
      legion vanishes
      eases living, hon

Phrases that “lead to what we really mean” is also revolutionary, and a great way to decode politicians, I think. Should we be speaking up more about this when we encounter it? I wish we all would.

Some evasions intend to spare someone else’s feelings. Other evasions are revolting manipulations. Some of the book is descriptive, and some is prescriptive according to my whim and fancy. It’s really choose-your-own-adventure when it comes to speaking up or modifying your own speech. I’m fascinated to hear which words annoy you.

I don’t take my own advice. The whole “I don’t know = no” entry (“They want to stay here with us? for the week? Huh. I don’t know”) was me Thursday. Sometimes I speak up and sometimes I fuck up.

Jason Bateman was in a movie with Katharine Hepburn in the 90s. Yup. Anyway here’s how he described her: “She only wore white Reebok high-tops, so for a dress-up scene, she’d just pull black socks over them. That’s what she was like. She hit ‘Fuck it’ a long time before I met her.”

We’ve all hit “Fuck it” by now. The time is shorter now for us to not speak up when it comes to larger, political discussions. And people are speaking up, thankfully. I could not bother living if I didn’t have the sanity check of hearing and reading so many and such quick interpretations of evasive language from public figures, more and more every day, getting back to your point about the timing of this book to coincide with the dismantling of wor(l)ds and meaning.

We see tweets with edit marks and “fixed it for you” or “you misspelled xxx” with the translation added. All of this is a reaction to evasion and bullshit and shows how many people are for holding people accountable for their words. Who could have predicted that editing marks would emerge from behind the curtains as much as they have and that the dictionary would be as cited as it is outside of the uninspired opening sentence to a class assignment.

Editing, correcting, rewriting, interpreting, translating, and analyzing are different ways to care and pay attention, and if anything can get us out of this mess of the boast of unpreparedness; the reliance on off-the-cuff bumbling; wielding power instead of employing authority, it’ll be those caring actions. Keep hitting pause and saying, “Wait, wha? That doesn’t make sense. I don’t get it because it’s not gettable.”

How did you come up with the terms that confuse meaning—like actually, but, whatever—What was your whole writing/research process like? What surprised or disturbed you?

The book comprises 2 types of entries: taxonomies of alternately maligned and defended words (like, actually, so, sorry, whatever) and terms with suggested translations that I present as equations (if = that as in “I’m sorry if I hurt you”; but = bu(llshi)t as in “We see the merit in this word and thank you for sharing it with us... but we have decided not to accept it for publication”).

For each entry, I wrote example sentences to illustrate the nuances or to show how the substituted term could work. Those illustration sentences are from my imagination informed by years of hearing and saying stuff. With only two exceptions in the book, I didn’t include a quote verbatim. I wrote the sentences by improvising monologues or dialogues, sometimes out loud like a lunatic until I got the characterization they way I wanted it; and then selecting the sentences that show the term’s range.

An entry comes together with four ingredients: the term up at the top, a one-sentence interpretation or definition, an intro, and then example sentences.

I write down everything, starting in my Notes app. I have a good memory. Don’t sit behind me in a restaurant.

I just looked at my Notes app and see that many of my notes tend to be:
      one term at the top with a question mark (disrupt; would; empower)
      a sentence that caught my big grandpa ear (“I’d be great at maintaining a double life”)
      a quote, especially if there’s a universal rejection of or love for it (“The future is female”)
      a beautiful typo (after a breakup, I got some forwarded mail on which someone had scrawled “doesn’t love here anymore”)
      a fact that feels like a metaphor (“the fruit of the medlar is edible only in its decaying state”)

I use a spreadsheet to gather the bits and move things around to see what hangs together. When two cards are a match in the big game of Concentration I got going on in my head, I get to it.

What surprised me:
      The first ten terms I wrote about when I started this expanded edition, the terms that got me thinking about updating the book, didn’t make the cut.
      I’ve somewhat warmed to like and so.
      The same familiarity did not breed consent for some of the other terms. The more time I spent improvising with the word actually, the less I could stand hearing it.
      Wow, people are still getting up there and saying “I’m sorry if” in their public apologies even though it has been received warmly and without criticism exactly never times.

What disturbed me:
It disturbs me to think that some people are more disturbed by the word fuck than by the deed of fucking people over.

What comes across so clearly is your absolute love and devotion to language. Where did this come from? Were you a little girl who loved the dictionary?

You got it. I’m first generation and mine is the first in my family to get formal schooling. My parents worked as kids. How they would have loved a childhood in school instead of working. 

their lives:my life::Dickensian:Dickens

We spoke Italian and Sicilian at home, English outside of the home. I was hyper aware of words-as-words because there was a ton of code shifting needed, always.

We were working class. I didn’t know anyone who had many things. The school library was everything. At home we had: the dictionary, an encyclopedia (which my brother read straight through like a gripping serialized novel), and an encyclopedia of the natural world. I mistyped that as “natural word.” I flipped through the dictionary over and over, and here I am all these years later a namer and taxonomist.

I also had a magical teacher in elementary school, Mrs. Fitzpatrick. She flipped the switch from black and white to color. She wasn’t even my teacher, but she ran the library, so we were pals. She used odd words, old-timey slang, and idiomatic expressions. She was wildly funny, and she had a great reading voice. She was the first English speaker I heard doing something with words, for kicks. I wanted a piece of that action. She said, “Read the dictionary. It’s all there, knucklehead.”

 The dictionary is the great equalizer. It’s the democratic artifact, attending equally to every word. Its organization and presentation are marked by a judicious leaving alone; there’s very little in a dictionary by way of editorializing aside from the occasional indication that a word is “obsolete” or “considered vulgar.” Mostly, it leaves it up to you. And by it I mean the greatest humans we have, lexicographers.

Without the context of “This word is on your reading level; that one is not,” I got to decide for myself, sometimes regrettably. In 3rd grade, a classmate asked if I liked fresh figs. I started from Italian and found what I thought was the right cognate. I said, “perforce!” The schoolyard record skipped. The wilds of Brooklyn let me know: “nope.”

As kids, we didn’t have children’s versions of things, whether the things were objects or realities. “That’s the stove and this is a saw; attenzione (sta’ttendu).” I was welcome to sit with my mother and her friends as they discussed how things were, for women, for immigrants, for people without a lot of money. They discussed reproductive health and family scandals and tended to reenact rather than sum up conversations; no idea why I remember that but it’s still my preferred way to hear you tell a story. Don’t come at me with, “I met with Gretchen. She said okay.” No. Act it out for me complete with different voices, please.

I was the neighborhood writer and translator. Letters and phone calls to insurance companies and union reps; drafting a last will and testament. I translated medical information, which still gives me the sweats to think about because the stakes were so high.

Thrillingly questionable unrestricted access to the adult world, for which I’m mostly grateful.

 I also think that not only is this book so helpful with political discourse going on today, but how can it not help us to be wiser, better, more open people?

Fingers crossed. If I use my own suggestions in the book and replace this term with that one, an unavoidable consequence will be intimacy, so it is about being more open. And when I use an evasion, I can consider how the unspoken meaning made you feel. Am I up for it?

What’s obsessing you now and why? (Besides language, of course!)

This morning:
Would codpieces not make men more vulnerable? How would that change everything or anything? Can we try it for 50 years? And which of my neighbors is not breaking down their boxes even though “we’re living in a society”?

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

“If you were to index essential human qualities, what would be the top-tier term with the greatest number of subentries?”

Oof. That’s a tough question, Caroline. I’ll go with:
I considered
...but I think I can subsume compassion under imagination. No surprise a conservative group wanted to ban the word imagination from a children’s book.

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