Thursday, December 01, 2016

“It was a Euphenism”

I’ve graded thousands of student essays over the years. I’ve long considered such work one of the more important and meaningful aspects of teaching, regardless of the subject matter. Helping students learn how to communicate effectively is another way of helping them learn how to think in logical, constructive ways. That’s what they’ll carry forward and will help them later, more so than anything else they learn in a given class.

As important as it is, though, I’ll admit grading papers is among my least favorite things to do. It can be especially challenging when the essay is so riddled with problems -- both “surface-level” errors (grammar, usage, punctuation, etc.) and issues having to do with the content (poor reasoning, factual errors, improper citation, etc.) -- that it becomes hard to decide where to start with one’s response.

In such cases, it becomes necessary to prioritize the problems, picking one or two big ones to concentrate on rather than fuss over every detail and thus overwhelm the student with negative feedback.

Imagine the poker pro hearing a novice player describe a misplayed hand riddled with mistakes at every step. Rather than highlight each one, the pro decides to focus on the decision to limp in from early position with king-six offsuit as an initial misstep. Let’s talk about position and starting hand selection, thinks the pro, and for now leave aside other errors coming later in the hand.

Earlier today our president-elect gave a brief speech during the afternoon in Indianapolis, and I happened to tune in as it began. He spoke at a facility belonging to Carrier, the company that manufactures and distributes heating, ventilating, and air conditioning systems. The point of the speech was to celebrate news that the company would not follow an earlier plan to outsource jobs to Mexico and shut down its Indianapolis plant, with Trump himself claiming credit for having brokered the deal.

It was a complicated bit of propaganda, frankly, and a few (though not many) reporting on it have already pointed out the claims made by Trump regarding both the deal itself and the planned-for outsourcing of jobs aren’t necessarily to be taken at face value. It’s also highly unorthodox and even threatening to a free-market system for a president or president-elect to be directly involved in attempts to save individual companies or jobs in such a fashion. Again, some have noticed that, but most seem not to be focusing on that so much with their reports.

Setting those deeper issues aside, though, near the start of Trump’s remarks he referred to having made a promise on the campaign trail that the Carrier plant wouldn’t close and jobs wouldn’t be outsourced. In telling the story, he confessed he’d forgotten he’d ever made such a promise for Carrier specifically, though did recall making more general statements about keeping jobs in the U.S.

Apparently, Trump saw a worker -- “great guy, handsome guy” -- on television reiterating Trump’s assurance, saying “Trump promised us that we’re not leaving.” He had no memory of making such a pledge, but then he saw a video showing that indeed he had said exactly that. “They played my statement,” said Trump. “I said ‘Carrier will never leave.’”

“But that was a euphenism,” Trump continued. “I was talking about Carrier like all other companies from here on in.”

I had to rewind the DVR to make sure, and indeed that was what Trump said. Like a teacher grading a paper, it was one of those “where to begin?”-type moments.

In fact, transcripts and articles of the speech are silently editing out Trump’s weird mispronunciation, with those responsible perhaps feeling too embarrassed to bother drawing attention to the mistake.

But I will.

First, the word is euphemism, not “euphenism.” As they say on Monday Night Countdown, C’MON, MAN!

Second, what Trump is describing is not a euphemism. That would be choosing a less harsh way of describing something in order to remain polite or observe a certain level of decorum. You know, like saying “to pass away” instead of “to die.” Not really Trump’s style, if you think about it. I mean, after all, his catch phrase on Celebrity Apprentice wasn’t “You’re being let go.”

No, it was more accurately metonymy, although no one outside of English class is going to say “I was using metonymy” there. That’s when a speaker refers vaguely to something specific (like, say, “Washington”) in order to suggest something more general (like “the government”).

Third, it seems more clear that what Trump really intended to say was that the promise he’d made (and forgotten) on the campaign trail regarding Carrier shouldn’t have been taken literally. “I didn’t mean it that way,” said Trump, implying a kind of amazement that the worker he’d seen on TV had taken his words at face value.

“I wonder if he’s being sarcastic,” added Trump when recalling how he initially responded to seeing the fellow saying “Trump promised us that we’re not leaving.”

You can see where this is going.

There’s a surface-level problem, a bald-faced, easy-to-spot “error” that can be easily corrected by circling a word and writing out the correct spelling nearby.

But the word is the wrong word, so that would require more writing in the margin to correct.

But there’s an even more serious problem being demonstrated regarding a lack of appreciation of the relationship between words and what they normally signify. The speaker doesn’t believe what he is saying, and when someone else does he’s surprised, thinking his auditor perhaps isn’t being truthful (is “sarcastic”) when expressing such belief.

There’s not enough room in the margin to explain all of this. And even if there were, someone with such a strange understanding of words and their meanings would likely have a hard time following the explanation, anyway.

I think this is the position in which a lot of media covering Trump might be at present, finding it a lot easier to make “silent edits” than to try to investigate and explain all of the deeper, more profound errors being demonstrated just about every time he opens his mouth.

I liked the tweet appearing below that popped up in my timeline yesterday after the speech. Its conclusion is not really an available option to the writing teacher, but it’s one the present circumstance seems to be forcing upon a lot of people:

Image: “blah blah blah” (adapted), Michelle Milla. CC BY 2.0.

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