In Virginia Heffernan’s August 20th New York Times piece What ‘Fact-Checking’ Means Online, she relates,
"The day I became a fact-checker at The New Yorker, I received one set of red pencils and one set of No. 2 pencils… . The red pencils were for underlining passages on page proofs of articles that might contain checkable facts… . The No. 2’s came next. With them you would draw strike marks through words - and sometimes individual letters - that were confirmed with the help of reference books from the magazine’s library."
What a “quaint old procedure,” as she later describes the now-outdated process. As a self-professed linguophile (which Urban Dictionary regrettably defines as “one who loves language so much that it becomes an irritation to all those in contact with said person”), it appeals to my interest in all things academic: books, notebooks, the meticulous world of copyediting. Not to mention the cuteness of school supplies - which, year after year, continue to tantalize me, and unfathomably so. (Cue ridiculous scene from chick flick “You’ve Got Mail” in which Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks drool over a bouquet of freshly sharpened No. 2 pencils.)
This interest is partly due, perhaps, to some of my childhood heroes, Cam Jansen and Harriet the Spy. In the first, Cam solves mysteries with the aid of her photographic memory. Whenever she wants to remember something, she closes her eyes and says “click” - a gesture which now seems ridiculously annoying, but which at the time caused pangs of jealousy! In the second, Harriet loses friends when they discover her notepad filled with juicy “observations” that would put Gossip Girl to shame. I’m sure I read the book, but it’s the image of Harriet from the 1996 Nickelodeon film that remains in my mind.
Played by a young Michelle Trachtenberg, Harriet is a clever girl with braided hair. She walks around notepad-in-hand, pencil neatly tucked behind her ear, waiting to uncover the next big story in her neighborhood. I found her bold and daring, and being a bit bossy myself (I can’t help it, I’m a Taurus!), I identified with her desire to uncover secrets and set things straight.
Whenever I came home from school beaming, it was over a 100% on a spelling test. For a kid in a turbulent world, it was a way to measure control. And it came with rewards. One time, after a series of good spelling tests, my mom came to pick me up from school with a parakeet in the trunk - my first real pet! The shame of mistakes was equally as manic - I remember skipping dinner to cry after my failure to include a “o” in Luxembourg. There was just something so awful about not knowing something so apparent to the rest of the world.
I have tried to trace my obsession with words back to my childhood, and it occurs to me that perhaps it has to do with the fact that English was my third language and is now my native tongue. With a Swedish father and Finnish mother, I was transplanted to Los Angeles at the age of four. Thinking it might slow me down, my mom opted not to put me in ESL (English as a Second Language). With no idea why no one could understand what I was saying, I engaged in full-immersion: I went to English pre-school, sat in front of Sesame Street and soaked in the flashing images and words until it somehow made sense. Now, English is my best language and I can’t imagine feeling about it the way I do about my varying levels of competency in Swedish, Italian, Spanish, or German - that I just can’t get it completely right.
Along with St. Lucia’s Day and Christmas on the 24th, I rejected Swedish and Finnish in the household. I wanted to be like everyone else - and it is perhaps this youthful overcompensation, this need for control, that led me to my perfectionism today.
For its obvious connotations, I dislike the term “Grammar Nazi” but there’s no other way to describe my fixation with proper spelling and punctuation. I can tolerate - and myself play with - creative punctuations. I am also not that GOOD at grammar. (“Is it equally AS manic, or equally manic?” I g-chat to friends who couldn’t care less.) But I will not date someone who mistakes “they’re” and “their” (not to mention theyre!). Friends berate me for it, but for me, it’s a non-negotiable. I can’t count the number of times I’ve started an interesting email correspondence with a love interest only to have it fizzle after a barrage of poorly spelled replies. (Maybe his right pinky spazzed out? Maybe his keyboard malfunctioned? Maybe he wrote it in the middle of the night?)
As an adult, good spelling and proper punctuation (though not as standard as they should be) go mostly unrewarded. As a copyeditor of my college’s art and lit mag I stayed up late correcting capitalization, and, two years later, comfily employed while my friends prayed every night for jobs, I edited resume after resume in an attempt to help them gain even an ounce of leverage in this dog-eat-dog recession job market. It is not a hope for recognition or reward that motivates me; there is no metaphorical parakeet I strive for. For other word-obsessed comrades I think you will agree with me - my need for perfection in this area is somehow ingrained in my very being.
I now freelance for art blogs with varying degrees of small staff size; none have paid fact-checkers and all expect their writers to have a high standard of writing. Each come with their own set of style guidelines, but most is just common sense. If I submit a typo-filled article to sites, these mistakes could go unnoticed and will reflect poorly on both me and the site. Although I don’t have a printer or a set of red and No. 2 pencils by my side, I don’t want to miss dinner due to a long, shame-filled cry session once the articles have gone live. I read, re-read, and re-read again.
I’ve been thinking a lot about words and language lately. One, because I’m moving to my homeland and have to switch from English. Two, because I babysit a 10-month-old who (when she’s not busy blowing spit bubbles) is figuring out how to make sounds.
A few semi-related realizations:
Take barnyard animal sounds, for instance. In English, dogs says bow-wow or ruff-ruff — in Chinese they say wong wong (cats say meow in both, but that’s the only overlap, apparently). Cock-a-doodle-doo in Finnish is ki-kiri-kee. How utterly absurd that we associate animals with sounds they don’t quite make - and that a room full of Chinese highschoolers would fall apart laughing when the word “ribbit” is written on a chalkboard next to a picture of a frog.
Isn’t language acquisition fascinating?
I’m a huge fan of words that sound like what they mean - onomatopoeia for you fancypants grammer lovers. Bonk, whizz, and other comic-booky words, but also more sophisticates like ricochet and nonchalance. Needless to say, kids love these.
Intonation is everything. While geeking out with a fellow languophile last night, we were talking about intonations— I claimed that Swedish is the most melodic of Western languages, and he objected, saying that almost everyone must think that about their mother tongue. [Side note: mother tongue- such an interesting phrase!] I thought my claim was common knowledge; after talking to a Dane and a Norwegian last weekend we all agreed! The topic came up because said languophile was explaining four different intonations of “ma” in Chinese and how each meant very different things. I personally don’t like the way Chinese sounds - it’s too harsh and monosyllabic - but so is German, and I love the sound of that.
Fun non-cognates: Kala (Greek) what’s up Kala (Finnish) fish Kissa (Finnish) kitty-cat Kissa (Swedish) pee Fika (Swedish) afternoon coffee Fica (Italian) naughty word for female sex organ - also means “hot girl” with that connotation in mind.
Also on intonation: my mom is Finnish and occasionally pronounces words in such a lol-tastic way they’re unforgettable (and make great dinner party stories).
HAIRy-dee-TARRy = hereditary app-o-cal-YP-sie = apocalypse
Should have been a linguist! (There’s still time!)