Happy Birthday, H.P. Grice!

In honor of this anniversary of H.P. Grice’s birth on March 13th, 1913, let me share an undergraduate paper I had an especially good time writing. For a much less slang-littered and more complete exploration of his ideas, Richard E. Grandy and Richard Warner have written an excellent profile of this brilliant philosopher of language for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Enjoy!

Slang and Grice’s Cooperative Principle

In “Logic and Conversation”, H. P. Grice outlines the unspoken but fixed rules of conversation that not only explain the workings of ordinary language, but account for implicature.

In a paper written only three years later in 1978, “Is Slang a Word for Linguists?”, Bethany K. Dumas and Jonathan Lighter develop a set of criterion for distinguishing slang from other language, through analysis of historical definitions and attitudes and description of its characteristics. In the contemporary F**k, A Documentary, Steve Anderson presents a more informal exposition of a particularly controversial yet ubiquitous slang word, interviewing a host of linguists, politicians, social critics, and entertainers on issues surrounding the use, abuse, and censorship of the term. These interviewees contribute a variety of insights into the nature of slang and its influence on language generally as well as on social thought and attitudes. In this paper, I explain how Grice’s rules of conversation, besides accounting for implicature, also provide an excellent explanation of the mechanism by which slang originates, develops, and conveys meaning.

Question: if sentences and terms refer to things in the world and/or express thoughts, how is it that so many utterances actually convey meaning without using apparently appropriate or specific terminology?

In his paper, Grice considers this phenomenon of pragmatics, or language behavior. He explains that implicature, the ability of a statement to convey meaning without including literal or explicit terms, is possible because acts of language are governed by rules and maxims. The Cooperative Principle (1) contains four rules: quantity, quality, relation, and manner. Each rule, in turn, contains one or more maxims, or principles of linguistic etiquette. Grice proceeds to explain how exploiting these rules and maxims enables a speaker to implicate what they want to say without expressing it literally. Implication serves countless linguistic functions: irony, the discreet sharing of gossip, insult, raising doubts, avoiding or expressing rudeness, social and political critique, proclaiming membership in a social group, artistic expression, etc. Implication is so integral to conversation, so effective for conveying meaning while tailoring the needs of expression to the context of a given situation, that Grice argues that a philosophic theory of language is incomplete without an explanation of it.(2)

Dumas and Lighter are concerned with formalizing a set of criteria for determining what constitutes slang. Prior to their paper, ‘slang’ was a variously defined, often maligned, and poorly understood category of language.(3) The paper opens with a series of descriptions and characterizations of slang over time by linguists, academics, and authors, many of whom dismiss slang as, at best, an unfortunate habit engaged in by the uneducated, lazy, and the thoughtless, or at worst, a corrosive force on language and morals. A few of these figures, however, are much more impartial in their assessment, characterizing slang as a side product of social change or simply a sort of code; a few (Walt Whitman, for example) even approve of its use. Dumas and Lighter demonstrate an attitude of professional detachment in their exploration of slang, considering their paper a much-needed contribution to this academically neglected subject; they recognize, contrary to the dismissive commentary of their peers, that slang is an important area of pragmatics. Like Grice, they narrow their criteria of what constitutes slang language to four: it lowers the dignity of formal/serious speech or writing; it implies a special familiarity between speaker and hearer or speaker and referent; it’s taboo in higher-status social circles; and it’s a euphemism to protect the user from social discomfort or the necessity of elaboration.(4)

Anderson’s documentary, unlike the scholarly works summarized above, is an informal and irreverent romp aimed at a mainstream audience, yet it provides informative insights into the usage and functions of slang.(5) It’s an exploration into a specific slang term, ‘fuck’, widely considered offensive and confrontational by society generally. Yet, it’s a subtle term as well, capable of conveying very complex meanings in various shades, and often considered especially useful for ‘expressing the inexpressible’. (Comedian Billy Connolly provides a particularly charming example of this: “…’fuck off!’…is international; I don’t care where you are…if someone’s fucking with your bags…in Tibet…and you say…’fuck off!’ …he knows exactly what you mean…and off he will fuck!”) Some of the interviewees in this documentary enjoy using this word, some consider it obscene and find hearing or using it offensive, and some are uncomfortable with it, but consider right to free speech so democratically essential that they oppose any sort of coercive censorship of its use. Many of the interviewees (even some of those who disapprove of it generally) acknowledge that ‘fuck’ and other slang/obscene terms have historical significance for challenging and testing social norms and institutions, and many entertainers, authors, academics, and reporters consider this category of language as an important element in artistic and political expression. The academics interviewed in the film, such as Geoffrey Nunberg and Reinhold Aman (the latter humorously billed as ‘a cunning linguist’) discuss why ‘fuck’ is an interesting word strictly linguistically as well, including for its venerable pedigree and for its variety of forms.

Dumas and Lighter’s quote from James Sledd: “the most crucial feature of slang: it is used deliberately, in jest or in earnest, to flout a conventional social or semantic norm”(6) neatly dovetails Grice’s characterization of the way implicature likewise works, by flouting or exploiting conventions of use. Between the the two, Dumas and Lighter’s paper and Anderson’s documentary contain at least one specific discussion or pragmatic example for each rule and maxim of Grice’s Cooperative Principle; and I’ll present and explore these examples following Grice’s arrangement.

The first Cooperative Principle is Quantity, containing two maxims; the first is “Make your contribution as informative as required”. ‘Fuck’, ‘dude’, and other slang terms can abbreviate a large amount of information (7) (as demonstrated previously by Billy Connolly), especially between the speaker and an ‘insider’ audience, a subgroup who uses terms familiar to the speaker. So, using any of these terms exploits this maxim by violating it when speaking within the wider community, since using this term either conveys no information, or is ambiguous meaning in meaning, in this context. However, the maxim is not violated if such a term is used within the subgroup. The mirror maxim, “Do not make your contribution more informative than is required”, is exploited in one way by the element of connotation essential for slang, another method of using a term or expression to informally convey an additional amount of information not gleanable from the general term or expression itself. (8) For example, this information can include contextual information about the speaker, approval or disapproval of the content of the discourse, or compliments or insults directed at the audience.

Quality, the second Cooperative Principle, also contains two maxims. “Do not say what you believe to be false” is exploited when a speaker intentionally breaks with conversational convention by using a term that would not be true or accurate if understood according to its usual definition. (9) The following sentence is an example Dumas and Lighter provide, a slang term inserted into an otherwise conventional sentence, as an instance of flouting this maxim.”The Federal government spends nearly one hundred billion bucks annually for defense.” (10) Traditionally, ‘bucks’, as the term for male deer, would understood according to that definition, and the above sentence would be false. However, ‘bucks’ as a slang term for ‘dollars’, is accurately used within this sentence, but the truth of the statement is only preserved for others familiar with the slang usage, or for those who accept the propriety of its usage. In this case, the choice of the slang usage of ‘bucks’ in place of ‘dollars’ could convey the additional meaning of disrespect for the Federal government, or of identification with the same social group as the audience, and so on. In this way, an apparent falsity actually functions as an more efficient method of conveying the additional meaning with a simple switch of terms. “Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence” is a more idealistic maxim, though I grant that most people expect the speaker to have some justification their statement, be it independently verifiable evidence or at least an accurate, relevant anecdote. However, in ordinary conversation, it’s sometimes important for a speaker to extricate themselves from a difficulty caused by the conversation itself. Perhaps the speaker is in a position to be embarrassed by their own lack of knowledge of the subject discussed. Or, perhaps the speaker is impatient with the conversation, out of lack of interest or in a state of offense at the subject matter, or has a personal dislike of the other participant(s) in the conversation. Whatever the reason, using slang, or more specifically obscenity, can “…protect the user from the discomfort or annoyance of further elaboration.” (11)

Relation is the sole Cooperative Principle with only one maxim: “Be relevant.” Walt Whitman, quoted by Dumas and Lighter, shares the slang speaker’s disdain for strict adherence to this maxim: “Slang, or indirection, [is] an attempt of common humanity to escape from bald literalism, and express itself illimitably….”(12) Whitman here extols the potency of slang terms, in much the same way as entertainers, artists, and free speech advocates such as Billy Connolly, Lenny Bruce, Shakespeare, and Sam Donaldson do, (13) for conveying force and shades of meaning the speaker finds unconveyable in conventional terms. These slang/obscene terms import some of this meaning precisely from the novelty, unexpectedness, or seeming irrelevance of the terms. While singer Pat Boone, for example, may advocate (sometimes humorously) elegant expressions using traditional, even terms for the more intimate functions of the human body as creative ways to express wrath, insult, or depths of passion (14), this general manner of speaking simply doesn’t convey other shades of meanings, such as disapprobation of a political body or philosophy, or declaration of membership in a subgroup, or disgust with corruption, or humorous social commentary, and so forth, that’s essential to political or artistic discourse or is more relevant to the context in which slang is used.

Grice’s final Cooperative Principle, Manner, contains four maxims. Sam Donaldson, veteran anchorman of ABC news, enjoys the term ‘fuck’ as an all-purpose word unlike most others, for its versatility as a substitute for an amazingly large number of other terms while retaining its own particular shade of meaning. (15) Yet ‘fuck’ clearly violates, on its face, the first maxim “Avoid obscurity of expression”, as it seems to rarely denote its original and specific referent, but instead any one of a numerous other things (often within in a noun phrase): as a substitute for actions such as ‘destroy’, ‘harm’, or ‘undermine’, descriptions such as ‘drunk’, ‘wrong’, or ‘in trouble’, or exclamations such as ‘that’s wonderful!’, ‘that’s awful!’, or ‘that’s amazing!’ It appears to be an obscure expression until the context is considered, making it an excellent one for interpersonal and other specific conversational usage but inexcusably ambiguous (according to the maxim) for formal discourse. With ‘fuck’, as with all slang, novelty is important (16), as is the speaker’s intention (17). What the speaker wishes to express is often something they find ordinary words insufficient for: conveying such additional meanings as mentioned earlier: biographical details, general attitudes about life or mood of the moment, or status in society or with a particular subgroup, to give a few examples. (18)

“Avoid ambiguity” is closely related to the obscurity maxim. Again, ‘fuck’ provides an excellent example of slang interpreted through Grice’s Cooperative Principle. As funnyman Billy Connolly explains, it has a guttural sound which aids its expressiveness; a “primal word” (19) that, while to Connolly is unambiguous in its general meaning, is ambiguous in reference to literal translatability: the hearer can understand the word to mean a whole variety of things, depending on the circumstances. Slang is also often used as a euphemism to allay the discomfort of the speaker in a given situation, for example, saying “I love you” can seem too formal, or serious, or connote a level of commitment to the hearer that the speaker is not prepared to make. Instead, a slang phrase such as “you’re cool” or “I dig you” conveys the meaning of some level of affection of the speaker for the hearer, but in a strategically ambiguous way.20 The speaker can later claim that the statement expressed merely friendly feelings or passionate emotion, whichever best suits the speaker at the time.

Some slang actually exploits the third maxim “Be brief” (or, “Avoid unnecessary prolixity”) by obeying it to a fault. ‘Fuck’, ‘dude’, and other slang words are often used to abbreviate longer sentences, as briefly discussed two paragraphs earlier in the “Obscurity”section. Many pop-culture favorites such as commercials, video skits, and comedy films such as “Baseketball” feature characters who conduct entire conversations mostly or even entirely composed of repetitions of a single slang term, variously inflected, to express entire statements of approbation, anger, surprise, inquiry, or command (a web browser search for videos, using the single keyword ‘dude’, will quickly provide multiple examples of this). Yet, this brevity of speech is only successful in conveying the desired meanings when the speaker and hearer belong to the same social group that uses the slang term this way. (21) The general community that conducts conversations according to the Cooperative Principle will not understand such usage. The fourth and final maxim, “Be orderly, is exploited by slang terms (rather obliquely) in their function of punctuating sentences with unconventional words so as to make them more informal, less “dignified”. (22) A more direct example of this, once again, is a particular way the word ‘fuck’ is used: this time, by inserting it in the middle of another word or phrase, interrupting its expression so as to lend it additional dynamic force, in a positive (“fan-fucking-tastic”, “abso-fuckingly-lutely”) or negative manner (“no-fucking-way” or “jeezus-fucking-christ”) (23). Besides the slang classification of such terms by the conversational community, the slang terms inserted into sentences in such a way obtains its forcefulness from the very fact that it interrupts an otherwise orderly sequence of syllables or words.

From my very first reading, I was impressed, and remain so, by Grice’s explanatively powerful, tidy, and intuitive theory for how ordinary conversation and implicature function.

As my research for this paper progressed, I was also surprised by how neatly Grice’s Cooperative Principle and Dumas and Lighter’s description of slang fit together. From Dumas and Lighter’s retelling of historical descriptions and accounts of slang, it appears that there was a poverty of theoretical work on its origins and pragmatics. It appears clear that this was due to an attitude of academic aloofness, if not outright disdain, towards this essentially populist form of expression. Yet slang provides a living laboratory for observing the dynamics of the evolution of language and the way new terms and expressions come into being, as slang originates, changes, and disappears so quickly. It’s the linguistic fruit fly for evolutionary research! And the sheer number of scholarly articles I found on the subject of slang while I was doing my research indicates that scholars of language have discovered this.

While I share the scholar’s high valuation of precision in discourse, I also value vibrancy of expression in many forms including that such as that slang provides, as Walt Whitman did, and as the contemporary comic and author Stephen Fry does: “Imagine if the structure, meaning and usage of language was always the same as when Swift and Pope were alive. Superficially appealing as an idea for about five seconds, but horrifying the more you think about it. If you are the kind of person who insists on this and that ‘correct use’ I hope I can convince you to abandon your pedantry. Dive into the open flowing waters and leave the stagnant canals be. But above all let there be pleasure. Let there be textural delight, let there be silken words and flinty words and sodden speeches and soaking speeches and crackling utterance and utterance that quivers and wobbles like rennet. Let there be rapid firecracker phrases and language that oozes like a lake of lava. Words are your birthright …Don’t be afraid of it, don’t believe it belongs anyone else, don’t let anyone bully you into believing that there are rules and secrets of grammar and verbal deployment that you are not privy to. Don’t be humiliated by dinosaurs into thinking yourself inferior because you can’t spell broccoli or moccasins. Just let the words fly from your lips and your pen. Give them rhythm and depth and height and silliness. Give them filth and form and noble stupidity. Words are free and all words, light and frothy, firm and sculpted as they may be, bear the history of their passage from lip to lip over thousands of years.” (24)

Damn straight, Stephen Fry!

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NOTES:

1 – Grice, H.P. “Logic and Conversation” in The Philosophy of Language, ed. A. P. Martinich, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2008, 173
2 – Ibid, 172
3 – Dumas, Bethany K. and Jonathan Lighter. “Is Slang a Word for Linguists?”. American Speech, Vol. 53 No. 1 (Spring 1978) pp 5-17, 10
4 – Ibid 14-15
5 – Anderson, Steve. F**k, A Documentary, 2005
6 – Dumas and Lighter, 12
7 – F**k
8 – Dumas and Lighter, 13
9 – Ibid, 13
10 – Ibid, 14
11 – Dumas and Lighter, 15
12 – Ibid, 5
13 – F**k
14 – Ibid
15 – Ibid
16 – Dumas and Lighter, 7
17 – Ibid 11-12
18 – Ibid 13-14
19 – F**k
20 – Dumas and Lighter, 15
21 – F**k
22 – Dumas and Lighter, 14
23 – F**k
24 – Fry, Stephen. “Don’t Mind Your Language” Stephenfry.com.

New Podcast Episode: New Salem, in Search of Abraham Lincoln

Statue of Abraham Lincoln as surveyor at New Salem, Illinois

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

New Salem, Sunday, July 31st, 2017

From the Michael J. Howlett building in downtown Springfield (part of which stands on the site of the Ninian Edwards house where Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln were married and where Mary died), I head northwest on highway 97 to New Salem Historic Park. This is the site of New Salem, the small frontier commercial village which played no small role in Lincoln’s life as a young man striking out on his own. It’s a pleasant drive through farmland with homes and farm buildings and gas stations and tiny general stores scattered here and there. In a little under half an hour, I reach a wooded area, and soon after that, take the turnout to my left to New Salem. I stop for a snack at the little cafe offering a modest selection of hot dogs, nachos, sandwiches, and other things that take the edge off but don’t suffice as a meal. The park’s visitor center buildings are all closed because the air conditioning system isn’t working. I don’t blame them at all for not opening up: it feels very much like a summer day in the Midwest, hot and humid, and I imagine a full day indoors would get stuffy and miserable. But the park itself is open to roam, so I do… Read the written version here

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New Salem, in Search of Abraham Lincoln

Statue of Abraham Lincoln as surveyor at New Salem, Illinois

New Salem, Sunday, July 31st, 2017

From the Michael J. Howlett building in downtown Springfield (part of which stands on the site of the Ninian Edwards house where Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln were married and where Mary died), I head northwest on highway 97 to New Salem Historic Park. This is the site of New Salem, the small frontier commercial village which played no small role in Lincoln’s life as a young man striking out on his own. It’s a pleasant drive through farmland with homes and farm buildings and gas stations and tiny general stores scattered here and there. In a little under half an hour, I reach a wooded area, and soon after that, take the turnout to my left to New Salem. I stop for a snack at the little cafe offering a modest selection of hot dogs, nachos, sandwiches, and other things that take the edge off but don’t suffice as a meal. The park’s visitor center buildings are all closed because the air conditioning system isn’t working. I don’t blame them at all for not opening up: it feels very much like a summer day in the Midwest, hot and humid, and I imagine a full day indoors would get stuffy and miserable. But the park itself is open to roam, so I do.

I find that some of the volunteer interpreters are not deterred today by the heat or the lack of an air-conditioned space to retreat to. Two men in early-to-mid 19th-century costume roam the park under shady, battered straw hats, recounting the history of New Salem and anecdotes from Lincoln’s life here. Some kind soul(s) placed large coolers here and there filled with ice water as well. It’s a lovely place to wander, and I take my time exploring. Though I visit all of them, there are so many structures that I’ll just show and tell of the ones that have some connection to Lincoln. The park contains 22 reconstructed and one original building from the New Salem of Lincoln’s time. The reconstructions are based on the findings from archaeological digs, on descriptions of the town from former residents, and on other representations of buildings, furniture, and tools from the same time period. Most of the buildings, as far as could be determined, are built on or near the original foundations. Many of the furnishings, equipment, dishes, and more are from that time period, too, collected locally.

Lincoln’s first sight of New Salem was from the Sangamon River, which powered the little town’s gristmill and sawmill. On that day in April 1831, to be more precise, he was in the river: barefoot, hatless, and soaked to the skin, working frantically to dislodge Denton Offutt’s flatboat from where it had gotten stuck going over the dam. Lincoln had helped build the flatboat whose cargo of bacon and grain, en route to New Orleans, was in danger of going overboard. His efforts to save the boat and cargo succeeded, and Offutt, impressed and relieved, offered Lincoln the management of the new general store he planned to build for New Salem. It took Offutt longer the get the store up and running than he planned, but eventually, it did open in September of that same year, and Lincoln did run it after all.

Henry Onstot’s cabin, right, and cooper shop, left, New Salem, Illinois. The cooper shop is the only original building from New Salem; the rest have been reconstructed

Interior of the Onstot cooper shop where Lincoln would retreat and light a fire to read by.

Henry Onstot, whose house is the first I visit, was the area cooper, maker of barrels and other implements that required the same wood-steaming and bending techniques. His cooper’s shop next door is the only original building that still stands in New Salem. After the village was abandoned in 1840, Onstat moved his business, building and all, to nearby Petersburg. The building was returned to New Salem in 1922, not long after the park was opened to the public by the State of Illinois. Sixteen years earlier, in 1906, William Randolph Hearst purchased the site and surrounding lands and donated it to the Old Salem Chautauqua Association, who had invited him to speak and had sparked his interest in the site and its history. (Chautauqua is an adult education movement founded in the 1870’s, named for the New York lake near which the first meeting was held.) The Association, in turn, donated it to the state. This building is the only thing on this site that Lincoln was sure to have touched. William Herndon, Lincoln’s future law partner and biographer, tells us that Lincoln frequently would retreat to the cooper shop to read by the light of the fire he’d build using the leftover barrel-making materials.

The Trent brothers’ residence behind Henry Onstot’s house and cooper shop, New Salem, Illinois. Alexander Trent served with Lincoln in the Black Hawk War in 1832, and the next year, he and his brother Martin took over the Lincoln-Berry store.

A view of Lincoln’s New Salem, Illinois

The doorway to Jack Kelso’s place, New Salem, Illinois

I visit the Trent brothers’ house next, then the Kelso-Miller house. The Kelso-Miller house is a sort of duplex sometimes called a ‘dogtrot house’. The front doors face one another across an unwalled roofed and floored passage between the two halves. Jack Kelso, who New Salem historian Benjamin Platt Thomas describes as ‘a lazy dreamer’ and ‘the village philosopher,’ was a hunter, trapper, fisher, and odd-jobber. He loved Shakespeare and Robert Burns and could recite from them at length, to the surprise and delight of many. Lincoln became a lifelong fan of both.

Especially during his early years here, Lincoln, who never owned a house in New Salem, would board with them. It amazes me that Kelso and his wife could host Lincoln: the tiny size of this place makes it difficult to imagine that it could hold three cooking, eating, sleeping people, especially given the girth of Kelso and the height of Lincoln.

The interior of Jack Kelso’s residence; there’s not much more of this one-room house than what you can see here. Can you imagine three adults staying in this tiny place?

Kelso-Miller building, New Salem, Illinois. The Kelsos’ place is to the left, the Millers’ is to the right. Miller’s blacksmith shop can be seen at the far right and in the two photos to follow

Joshua Miller was the village blacksmith and wagon-builder. His wife and Kelso’s were sisters. Unlike Kelso, Miller was not a bit lazy. His skills were in high demand in the growing village so he was kept constantly busy. Now that Miller was here, the villages’ horses could remain properly shod; the doors and windows could have metal fittings instead of wood ones; plenty of wagons would have been needed to carry grain to and from the gristmill, and would require regular maintenance and repair as well.

Exterior (left) and interior (right) of Joshua Miller’s blacksmith shop, New Salem

Interior of Mentor Graham’s schoolhouse. It also served as a church on Sundays.

Nxt, I visit the schoolhouse. Mentor Graham, the schoolmaster, was among those impressed by Lincoln’s ability, attentiveness to detail, and friendly concern for his neighbors and customers. According to New Salem historian Thomas, Graham assisted him in his continuing self-education, finding him a ready, apt, and diligent student. He helped Lincoln learn surveying as well, often working with Lincoln late into the night doing and checking calculations. Yet another biographer, Michael Burlingame, disputes the story that Graham was much of a help to Lincoln educationally, despite Graham’s and Lincoln’s friend Robert Rutledge’s claims. According to many of his former pupils, Graham had very poor math skills and was, in fact, a poor teacher overall. He had barely passed his teaching certification exams. Lincoln and Graham must have gotten along well enough, in any case: Lincoln boarded with his family for six months. If Graham’s former pupils spoke the truth, however, Lincoln likely mastered the skill of surveying on his own.

Mentor Graham’s schoolhouse, exterior view. It was originally located about a half mile southwest of the site of this reproduction.

A reproduction of the house of Isaac Guliher, or Golliher

First location of the Berry-Lincoln store in New Salem, from late 1832 to January 1833

Next, I stop by the house of Isaac Guliher or Golliher, variously spelled in my sources. His only significance in this account is that he also served with Lincoln in the Black Hawk War, one of the little troop that’s described in Thomas’ history of New Salem as “…a hard-looking set of men, unkempt and unshaved” who “made war on the pigs and chickens,” and one of whom replied “go to the devil” when Lincoln gave his first command. Though Lincoln was very proud of being elected their captain, it sounds as if would have been a tough job.

Two buildings past the house of Isaac Guliher stands a little pointy-roofed shop. The Berry-Lincoln store building, the first of its two locations, looks very like most of the other buildings here, sturdy but modest, strictly utilitarian with its rough-hewn log structure, pointed shake roof, and small door and windows. In 1832, Lincoln entered into partnership with William Berry, buying out James and J. Rowan Herndon’s share of the general store. Lincoln, as usual, was broke. The modest compensation he received for his service in the Black Hawk War that spring and early summer wouldn’t go far. He paid his share with a promissory note, as he did for his share of the stock he and Berry purchased from a defunct local store. The store was never very busy so Lincoln read quite a bit. In his New Salem years, he mostly read Shakespeare, Burns, and the Bible, as well as law books, Kirkham’s Grammar, and other practical books. Other than poetry and Shakespeare, he didn’t read much literature, in which he had little interest.

The store limped along and, to save it, Berry decided to apply for a license to sell liquor in small quantities, which made it effectively a tavern as well. This didn’t suit Lincoln, who didn’t drink and saw the ill effects on those who did. He released his interest in the store in April of 1833. Once again, Lincoln was broke, and this time, in debt. He became an odd-jobber again like his friend Kelso, but not a lazy one. He split rails, worked on the farms, in the mill, and tended Sam Hill’s store, and when he got the chance, took any jobs he could get relating to voting, politics, and the law. In May, thanks to one of his very numerous friends, he was appointed to the job of village postmaster. It paid poorly but it was a social job, suitable for this friendly and often gregarious young man, and it gave him access to all the newspapers coming through the post. Since it was only a part-time job, this again gave him some time to read and study, though his odd-jobbing continued. A friend had recommended he try for the job of assistant to the newly appointed county surveyor John Calhoun. That job, coupled with his postmaster’s salary, should give him enough to live on. So he borrowed Calhoun’s books and learned surveying, took the job, and from January 1834 to late 1836, he made a success of it. But when his debts began to come due from the failed partnership with Berry and other speculations, what he was earning turned out, yet again, not to be nearly enough.

Berry-Lincoln store, interior view, New Salem, Illinois

Lincoln the Ranger by Fred M. Torrey, portraying Lincoln as a soldier in the Black Hawk War, at the Lincoln Tomb, Springfield, Illinois

When it the time to elect state legislators began to come around in 1834, Lincoln’s friends encouraged him to run again. He first ran for that office in 1832, and his platform had included state investment in making the Sangamon River more navigable instead of putting in a much more expensive railroad line. He knew the river well, having been a flatboat pilot on it, and he knew just where it needed to be straightened, cleared, and dammed to get the goods flowing cheaply and easily to market. He also promoted public education, the lack thereof which had caused him so much frustration, and limits on predatory lending practices. Lincoln didn’t win the race, but made a respectable showing for a very young man of no means who had only been there about a year. In 1834, however, things were different. He had been a local businessman and postmaster, and his education and circle of friends had both increased. Among those who most encouraged Lincoln to run again was the justice of the peace Bowling Green.

So run he did, and he was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives on August 4th, 1834. Lincoln would be reelected to that office four times, serving as state legislator from 1834-1842.

During his 1834 run for office, Lincoln would develop his interest and education in the law. John Todd Stuart, who served with Lincoln in the Black Hawk War, also ran for state legislature in 1832 and won. He would eventually become Lincoln’s first law partner, took an active interest in his prospects and loaned him his law books. Lincoln’s friend and mentor Bowling Green (what a name!) also recognized that Lincoln’s sharp mind took right to his legal studies. As justice of the peace, Green allowed Lincoln to comment on his court cases, which in turn led to many turning to Lincoln for advice and assistance drafting legal documents.

Rutledge Tavern, New Salem, Illinois, 2017

Rutledge Tavern kitchen

Almost three-quarters of the way down the main street, I take the right turn to that leads to the Rutledge Tavern. Its proprietor, James Rutledge, was one of the founders of New Salem in 1828. Rutledge was one of those who encouraged Lincoln to run for state legislator. This one and a half-story structure first served as the Rutledges’ home, but when the town began to grow, it was converted into a tavern or inn, with a low sleeping area overhead and a public dining room. This was one of the places where Lincoln regularly lodged and ate his meals.

In his biography of Lincoln, Herndon made much of a story that Ann Rutledge, James Rutledge’s daughter, was not only the first, but also the true love of Lincoln’s life. They certainly would have seen each other frequently, and as a petite, pretty, and plump young woman, she likely would have caught his eye (all of the women Lincoln is known to have courted or loved were curvy). Ann died in 1835, probably of typhoid, when she was only 22 years old; Abraham was 26. There are many stories of a courtship between Ann and Abraham, and of a tentative engagement contingent on an earlier beau’s reneging on his own promise. Some of the stories of their love affair claim that Lincoln wept by her deathbed, others that Lincoln was so distraught after her death that his friends kept suicide watch over him. Yet these stories are fragmentary, hearsay, and recalled many years or decades after the fact. It’s a sweet story, but we may never know how much of it is true. We must keep in mind that Herndon pushed the story within a larger narrative of Lincoln as a man who had lost in love, ending up with a difficult woman unworthy of him. As I have written previously, it appears to me that his portrayal of Mary Todd and her relationship with Lincoln is slanted based on Herndon’s personal dislike of her, and is not a balanced assessment. In any case, Ann and Abraham almost certainly shared an attraction and possibly love, and Abraham was certainly grieved by the early death of the sweet and pretty innkeeper’s daughter.

Rutledge Tavern, interior view, New Salem, Illinois

I return to the main road and straight ahead of me, across the street, I find a large milled limber structure with a nice shady porch. This is the second location of Berry and Lincoln’s general store.

Second Berry-Lincoln store, image credit Learning Abe website. (The photo I took of the outside of the shop is missing, I must have accidentally deleted it.) Lincoln and Berry moved the business here in January of 1833 when this larger, nicer-looking lumber building came available

Second Berry-Lincoln store, interior view. The building had been owned previously by John MacNamar, the absent fiancée of Ann Rutledge, Lincoln’s storied first love

Next, I spot a large sign in a grassy area followed by a series of smaller signs in a row leading toward the Sangamon River below the bluff. I read the sign and find that this is an archaeological site that has not be reconstructed.

Archaeology Walk in New Salem, Illinois. The sign reads: ‘The reconstructed buildings at New Salem are based on archaeological excavations conducted in the 1930’s. In 1994, two archaeological sites were discovered in this field which were missed by the 1930’s researchers. Unlike most of the other sites in this village, no deed records exist for these sites, and there are no stories of the families who lived here. Only a single hand drawn map, published by R.J. Onstot (son of Henry Onstot) in 1909, pictures houses in this location, but they are mysteriously unlabeled…’ The path here follows the old roadbed that ran across here. Many of the places associated with Lincoln in and around New Salem have not been reconstructed here, including Bowling Green’s and the Abells’ homes about a mile north of here

It reminds me that there are many inhabitants of New Salem who Lincoln befriended, did business with, and lived with whose homes have not been reconstructed. For example, Lincoln lived with his friend Bowling Green’s neighbors Bennett and Elizabeth Abell for a time. Lincoln would regularly borrow books from them and Elizabeth, especially, thought he showed promise. She took such a liking to him that she introduced him to her sister, Mary Owens, in 1833, as a potential beau. They courted briefly a time but, despite Elizabeth’s eagerness that they marry, their relationship didn’t work out. Years later, she wrote to Lincoln’s law partner and biographer William Herndon that though she thought Lincoln a good man, nevertheless, he was ‘deficient in those little links which make up the chain of a woman’s happiness.’ She broke off the relationship; Lincoln, apparently, regretted ever getting involved and had written her letters hinting that they’d be better off without each other

J. Rowan Herndon residence, New Salem, Illinois.

I continue east along the main road, and to my right, I see the Herndon brothers’ house. One of them, J. Rowan Herndon, was married to Mentor Graham’s sister Elizabeth, and Lincoln lived with them for a time. Herndon was Berry’s original partner in the general store but since they didn’t get along, Herndon sold his share to Lincoln on credit. In 1833, Herndon accidentally shot and killed his wide when he was preparing to go out hunting. He left town to escape the rumors that he killed his wife on purpose, but it was no good: the rumors followed him for the rest of his life. Lincoln moved to Graham’s house when Rowan left.

Denton Offutt Store, New Salem, Illinois.

Continuing onto the last little road which veers off to the left from the main road, I find the first store Lincoln worked in when he moved to New Salem. It was from Offutt’s flatboat that Lincoln first saw New Salem, and it was Offutt’s promise of a job managing his new store that caused Lincoln to move here in 1831. So this humble little store is the one that brought Lincoln to this place so formative to his life and education. It’s not much to look at, but it brings home to me anew how amazing Lincoln’s story really is.

Perhaps it was the fact that New Salem was both a tiny frontier village and a commercial community reaching hard beyond itself, seeking to become a hub of skilled trade and interstate commerce, that Lincoln found it such an effective springboard. From 1831 – 1837, this close-knit and ambitious village nurtured an uneducated, awkward, poor farm-boy into a canny lawyer, a political powerhouse, and a great moral leader, perhaps the greatest President the United States will ever see.

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Sources and inspiration:

Abraham Lincoln Online: Lincoln Early Life Timeline, Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic SiteLincoln Timelines and Highlights, and Pre-Presidential Political Timeline

Burlingame, Michael. Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume 1. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012

Carwardine, Richard. Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power. New York: Random House, 2003

The Chautauqua Movement‘, Chautauqua Trail website

Denton Offutt.’ from Kentucky’s Abraham Lincoln by the Kentucky Historical Society

Donald, David Herbert. Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995

Gannett, Lewis. ‘”Overwhelming Evidence” of a Lincoln-Ann Rutledge Romance?: Reexamining Rutledge Family Reminiscences.’ Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Volume 26, Issue 1, Winter 2005, pp. 28-41.

Herndon, William H. and Jesse W. Weik. Herndon’s Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life. 1889

Lehrman, Lewis E. Lincoln at Peoria: The Turning Point. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2008.

Lincoln’s New Salem‘, Illinois Historic Preservation Agency website

Lincoln’s New Salem.’ In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Lincoln’s New Salem 1830-1837‘, National Park Service website

New Salem: Virtual Tour, Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site website

Nicolay, John George. An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln: John G. Nicolay’s Interviews and Essays. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2006

Shenk, Joshua Wolf. ‘The Suicide Poem‘, The New Yorker, June 14, 2004

Simon, John Y. ‘Abraham Lincoln and Ann Rutledge, Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association,
Volume 11, Issue 1, 1990, pp. 13-33

Thomas, Benjamin Platt. Lincoln’s New Salem. Springfield, Ill.: The Abraham Lincoln Association, 1934; republished Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Library, 2006.

Trenholm, Sandra. ‘Abraham Lincoln, Mary Owens, and the Accidental Engagement.’ The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History website

Four Days in the Bitterroot Mountains

A view from Lochsa Lodge, Bitterroot Mountains, January 2017

A view from Lochsa Lodge, Bitterroot Mountains, January 2017

For four days and five nights I’ve been at Lochsa Lodge near the northern end of the Bitterroot Mountain range, about 12 miles southwest of the Idaho / Montana border. To celebrate the beginning of my fortieth year, I gave myself the gift of a humanities retreat with about twenty other curious, thinking, engaged people, and I had a wonderful time. The retreat is put on by Clay Jenkinson, a humanities scholar, writer, and speaker who did me the honor of being my first podcast interview guest, and Becky Cawley, a warm, welcoming, all around delightful woman who took great care of us and additionally warmed my heart by reminding me of a favorite auntie of mine. Clay introduced each session with a topic question, quote, or a talk, and then guided the ensuing discussions.

I have few pictures to share with you because I wanted to stay true to the spirit of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden by not mediating the scenery through a screen for awhile. I wanted to keep my immersion in the beautiful natural world around us and in the conversations of my retreat companions as uninterrupted and undistracted as possible. I appreciate technology very much, of course, since I’m writing to you here, but I think it’s good practice to step away and remember it doesn’t need to dominate so many of our waking hours. Walden was one of our books under discussion; as you likely know, it’s about nineteenth-century transcendentalist Thoreau’s experiment of living in a simple home by a lake in the woods for a little over two years. He built the little house mostly by himself, with some trees he cut down and some salvaged lumber from another old house. He also grew some of his own food there. While he didn’t ‘rough it’ as thoroughly as many readers would have liked, he had great insights about, as he called it, living deliberately; the benefits of immersing oneself in nature; the hazards of owning too much stuff; living in unthinking conformity with laws and social mores; and many other things besides. It’s more than a worthwhile read if you can look past the preachiness and even self-righteousness that creeps in now and again.

Caliban and Ariel, illustration for The Tempest by Robert Anning Bell, 1901, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Caliban and Ariel, illustration for The Tempest by Robert Anning Bell, 1901, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

We also discussed Shakespeare’s The Tempest, one of his more difficult plays for a modern reader to take because of the racism inherent in his portrayal of Caliban, the native inhabitant of a lonely island. Born of a witch, he is taken in by Prospero, an exiled duke and self-made wizard of sorts who is marooned there with his daughter after his usurping brother puts them to sea on a ramshackle boat. It’s quite a complicated and convoluted plot with a highly artificial set-up so I won’t go into it here. The artifices, however, are there to set up some interesting conundrums and provoke what-if questions about human nature; power over others; guilt and innocence; crime, punishment, and forgiveness; knowledge, wisdom, and ignorance; and the perils of magic. One of the primary topics of the play that we discussed, however, was the notion of The Other, why and how human beings often feel about and treat others with disdain, disgust, and even cruelty when they are perceived as not being ‘one of us’.

Wooden Leg in 1913, image public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Wooden Leg in 1913, image public domain via Wikimedia Commons

This discussion set us up for the main subject of our readings and discussions: the culture and history of the Native Americans of the Great Plains, their long and disastrous encounter with the expansionist United States and its European-Americans settlers, and how this led to the current protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock. It was the sort of discussion that should be happening more widely, informed by the history of Native American-United States relations which is marked throughout (on both sides but vastly more on the U.S. one) by bloodshed, racism, injustice, glory-hunting, broken treaties, misunderstandings, greed, short-sightedness, and ignorance, ignorance, ignorance. We read and talked about the tragic story of Crazy Horse, the series of events which led to the Great Sioux War and its sad aftermath, what it was like to live on the Plains (from the biography of the Cheyenne warrior Wooden Leg), and much more. I was quite ignorant myself of this long and complex history, aware only of some of the broad details. What I learned thus far, from the reading, Clay’s talks, and our discussions has made me anxious to learn much more, and to hope others are similarly inspired. I don’t think the protests will be rightly understood or have good outcomes if people don’t have sufficient understanding of how the history of this part of the world brought us to this point.

Besides all this reading, thinking, learning, and discussing, we played too: we cooked together, went on a little hike to the river, ate good food, talked and sang around the campfire, and drank (not too much, or, well, not most of the time) and made merry. One of my favorite things we did was a trip to some natural hot springs by Warm Springs Creek, where we soaked in warm pools among the snow and the tall trees, with the large creek rushing right near and a little below us. There are two pools a little ways up from the creek and one right at the side of it, or rather, forming a part of it, where a hot little waterfall tumbles down. Being the only one foolhardy enough to go down about a hundred extra yards in below-freezing weather in my wet swimsuit, I was rewarded by the exquisite experience of lying across a little rock-edged ledge which forms a shallow pool, barely large enough for one person, as I gazed up at the misty blue sky ringed by soaring snow-topped trees and the dark reddish rocks from which the warmth flowed down and over me. When overheated, I would occasionally cool myself with a shift of an arm or foot into the cold river water, the contrast providing such a delicious sensation. I don’t believe any spa could deliver bliss like this however hard they tried.

So I had a quite a time, enriched in mind and soothed in body. Thank you to all who made this a wonderful week, and I hope against hope I’ll be able to join you this summer for the Lewis and Clark tour!

lochsa-lodge-in-the-bitterroot-mountains-january-2017-amy-cools

Lochsa Lodge in the Bitterroot Mountains, January 2017

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Slang and Grice’s Cooperative Principle

In “Logic and Conversation”, H. P. Grice outlines the unspoken but fixed rules of conversation that not only explain the workings of ordinary language, but account for implicature.

In a paper written only three years later in 1978, “Is Slang a Word for Linguists?”, Bethany K. Dumas and Jonathan Lighter develop a set of criterion for distinguishing slang from other language, through analysis of historical definitions and attitudes and description of its characteristics. In the contemporary F**k, A Documentary, Steve Anderson presents a more informal exposition of a particularly controversial yet ubiquitous slang word, interviewing a host of linguists, politicians, social critics, and entertainers on issues surrounding the use, abuse, and censorship of the term. These interviewees contribute a variety of insights into the nature of slang and its influence on language generally as well as on social thought and attitudes. In this paper, I explain how Grice’s rules of conversation, besides accounting for implicature, also provide an excellent explanation of the mechanism by which slang originates, develops, and conveys meaning.

Question: if sentences and terms refer to things in the world and/or express thoughts, how is it that so many utterances actually convey meaning without using apparently appropriate or specific terminology?

In his paper, Grice considers this phenomenon of pragmatics, or language behavior. He explains that implicature, the ability of a statement to convey meaning without including literal or explicit terms, is possible because acts of language are governed by rules and maxims. The Cooperative Principle (1) contains four rules: quantity, quality, relation, and manner. Each rule, in turn, contains one or more maxims, or principles of linguistic etiquette. Grice proceeds to explain how exploiting these rules and maxims enables a speaker to implicate what they want to say without expressing it literally. Implication serves countless linguistic functions: irony, the discreet sharing of gossip, insult, raising doubts, avoiding or expressing rudeness, social and political critique, proclaiming membership in a social group, artistic expression, etc. Implication is so integral to conversation, so effective for conveying meaning while tailoring the needs of expression to the context of a given situation, that Grice argues that a philosophic theory of language is incomplete without an explanation of it.(2)

Dumas and Lighter are concerned with formalizing a set of criteria for determining what constitutes slang. Prior to their paper, ‘slang’ was a variously defined, often maligned, and poorly understood category of language.(3) The paper opens with a series of descriptions and characterizations of slang over time by linguists, academics, and authors, many of whom dismiss slang as, at best, an unfortunate habit engaged in by the uneducated, lazy, and the thoughtless, or at worst, a corrosive force on language and morals. A few of these figures, however, are much more impartial in their assessment, characterizing slang as a side product of social change or simply a sort of code; a few (Walt Whitman, for example) even approve of its use. Dumas and Lighter demonstrate an attitude of professional detachment in their exploration of slang, considering their paper a much-needed contribution to this academically neglected subject; they recognize, contrary to the dismissive commentary of their peers, that slang is an important area of pragmatics. Like Grice, they narrow their criteria of what constitutes slang language to four: it lowers the dignity of formal/serious speech or writing; it implies a special familiarity between speaker and hearer or speaker and referent; it’s taboo in higher-status social circles; and it’s a euphemism to protect the user from social discomfort or the necessity of elaboration.(4)

Anderson’s documentary, unlike the scholarly works summarized above, is an informal and irreverent romp aimed at a mainstream audience, yet it provides informative insights into the usage and functions of slang.(5) It’s an exploration into a specific slang term, ‘fuck’, widely considered offensive and confrontational by society generally. Yet, it’s a subtle term as well, capable of conveying very complex meanings in various shades, and often considered especially useful for ‘expressing the inexpressible’. (Comedian Billy Connolly provides a particularly charming example of this: “…’fuck off!’…is international; I don’t care where you are…if someone’s fucking with your bags…in Tibet…and you say…’fuck off!’ …he knows exactly what you mean…and off he will fuck!”) Some of the interviewees in this documentary enjoy using this word, some consider it obscene and find hearing or using it offensive, and some are uncomfortable with it, but consider right to free speech so democratically essential that they oppose any sort of coercive censorship of its use. Many of the interviewees (even some of those who disapprove of it generally) acknowledge that ‘fuck’ and other slang/obscene terms have historical significance for challenging and testing social norms and institutions, and many entertainers, authors, academics, and reporters consider this category of language as an important element in artistic and political expression. The academics interviewed in the film, such as Geoffrey Nunberg and Reinhold Aman (the latter humorously billed as ‘a cunning linguist’) discuss why ‘fuck’ is an interesting word strictly linguistically as well, including for its venerable pedigree and for its variety of forms.

Dumas and Lighter’s quote from James Sledd: “the most crucial feature of slang: it is used deliberately, in jest or in earnest, to flout a conventional social or semantic norm”(6) neatly dovetails Grice’s characterization of the way implicature likewise works, by flouting or exploiting conventions of use. Between the the two, Dumas and Lighter’s paper and Anderson’s documentary contain at least one specific discussion or pragmatic example for each rule and maxim of Grice’s Cooperative Principle; and I’ll present and explore these examples following Grice’s arrangement.

The first Cooperative Principle is Quantity, containing two maxims; the first is “Make your contribution as informative as required”. ‘Fuck’, ‘dude’, and other slang terms can abbreviate a large amount of information (7) (as demonstrated previously by Billy Connolly), especially between the speaker and an ‘insider’ audience, a subgroup who uses terms familiar to the speaker. So, using any of these terms exploits this maxim by violating it when speaking within the wider community, since using this term either conveys no information, or is ambiguous meaning in meaning, in this context. However, the maxim is not violated if such a term is used within the subgroup. The mirror maxim, “Do not make your contribution more informative than is required”, is exploited in one way by the element of connotation essential for slang, another method of using a term or expression to informally convey an additional amount of information not gleanable from the general term or expression itself. (8) For example, this information can include contextual information about the speaker, approval or disapproval of the content of the discourse, or compliments or insults directed at the audience.

Quality, the second Cooperative Principle, also contains two maxims. “Do not say what you believe to be false” is exploited when a speaker intentionally breaks with conversational convention by using a term that would not be true or accurate if understood according to its usual definition. (9) The following sentence is an example Dumas and Lighter provide, a slang term inserted into an otherwise conventional sentence, as an instance of flouting this maxim.”The Federal government spends nearly one hundred billion bucks annually for defense.” (10) Traditionally, ‘bucks’, as the term for male deer, would understood according to that definition, and the above sentence would be false. However, ‘bucks’ as a slang term for ‘dollars’, is accurately used within this sentence, but the truth of the statement is only preserved for others familiar with the slang usage, or for those who accept the propriety of its usage. In this case, the choice of the slang usage of ‘bucks’ in place of ‘dollars’ could convey the additional meaning of disrespect for the Federal government, or of identification with the same social group as the audience, and so on. In this way, an apparent falsity actually functions as an more efficient method of conveying the additional meaning with a simple switch of terms. “Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence” is a more idealistic maxim, though I grant that most people expect the speaker to have some justification their statement, be it independently verifiable evidence or at least an accurate, relevant anecdote. However, in ordinary conversation, it’s sometimes important for a speaker to extricate themselves from a difficulty caused by the conversation itself. Perhaps the speaker is in a position to be embarrassed by their own lack of knowledge of the subject discussed. Or, perhaps the speaker is impatient with the conversation, out of lack of interest or in a state of offense at the subject matter, or has a personal dislike of the other participant(s) in the conversation. Whatever the reason, using slang, or more specifically obscenity, can “…protect the user from the discomfort or annoyance of further elaboration.” (11)

Relation is the sole Cooperative Principle with only one maxim: “Be relevant.” Walt Whitman, quoted by Dumas and Lighter, shares the slang speaker’s disdain for strict adherence to this maxim: “Slang, or indirection, [is] an attempt of common humanity to escape from bald literalism, and express itself illimitably….”(12) Whitman here extols the potency of slang terms, in much the same way as entertainers, artists, and free speech advocates such as Billy Connolly, Lenny Bruce, Shakespeare, and Sam Donaldson do, (13) for conveying force and shades of meaning the speaker finds unconveyable in conventional terms. These slang/obscene terms import some of this meaning precisely from the novelty, unexpectedness, or seeming irrelevance of the terms. While singer Pat Boone, for example, may advocate (sometimes humorously) elegant expressions using traditional, even terms for the more intimate functions of the human body as creative ways to express wrath, insult, or depths of passion (14), this general manner of speaking simply doesn’t convey other shades of meanings, such as disapprobation of a political body or philosophy, or declaration of membership in a subgroup, or disgust with corruption, or humorous social commentary, and so forth, that’s essential to political or artistic discourse or is more relevant to the context in which slang is used.

Grice’s final Cooperative Principle, Manner, contains four maxims. Sam Donaldson, veteran anchorman of ABC news, enjoys the term ‘fuck’ as an all-purpose word unlike most others, for its versatility as a substitute for an amazingly large number of other terms while retaining its own particular shade of meaning. (15) Yet ‘fuck’ clearly violates, on its face, the first maxim “Avoid obscurity of expression”, as it seems to rarely denote its original and specific referent, but instead any one of a numerous other things (often within in a noun phrase): as a substitute for actions such as ‘destroy’, ‘harm’, or ‘undermine’, descriptions such as ‘drunk’, ‘wrong’, or ‘in trouble’, or exclamations such as ‘that’s wonderful!’, ‘that’s awful!’, or ‘that’s amazing!’ It appears to be an obscure expression until the context is considered, making it an excellent one for interpersonal and other specific conversational usage but inexcusably ambiguous (according to the maxim) for formal discourse. With ‘fuck’, as with all slang, novelty is important (16), as is the speaker’s intention (17). What the speaker wishes to express is often something they find ordinary words insufficient for: conveying such additional meanings as mentioned earlier: biographical details, general attitudes about life or mood of the moment, or status in society or with a particular subgroup, to give a few examples. (18)

“Avoid ambiguity” is closely related to the obscurity maxim. Again, ‘fuck’ provides an excellent example of slang interpreted through Grice’s Cooperative Principle. As funnyman Billy Connolly explains, it has a guttural sound which aids its expressiveness; a “primal word” (19) that, while to Connolly is unambiguous in its general meaning, is ambiguous in reference to literal translatability: the hearer can understand the word to mean a whole variety of things, depending on the circumstances. Slang is also often used as a euphemism to allay the discomfort of the speaker in a given situation, for example, saying “I love you” can seem too formal, or serious, or connote a level of commitment to the hearer that the speaker is not prepared to make. Instead, a slang phrase such as “you’re cool” or “I dig you” conveys the meaning of some level of affection of the speaker for the hearer, but in a strategically ambiguous way.20 The speaker can later claim that the statement expressed merely friendly feelings or passionate emotion, whichever best suits the speaker at the time.
Some slang actually exploits the third maxim “Be brief” (or, “Avoid unnecessary prolixity”) by obeying it to a fault. ‘Fuck’, ‘dude’, and other slang words are often used to abbreviate longer sentences, as briefly discussed two paragraphs earlier in the “Obscurity”section. Many pop-culture favorites such as commercials, video skits, and comedy films such as “Baseketball” feature characters who conduct entire conversations mostly or even entirely composed of repetitions of a single slang term, variously inflected, to express entire statements of approbation, anger, surprise, inquiry, or command (a web browser search for videos, using the single keyword ‘dude’, will quickly provide multiple examples of this). Yet, this brevity of speech is only successful in conveying the desired meanings when the speaker and hearer belong to the same social group that uses the slang term this way. (21) The general community that conducts conversations according to the Cooperative Principle will not understand such usage. The fourth and final maxim, “Be orderly, is exploited by slang terms (rather obliquely) in their function of punctuating sentences with unconventional words so as to make them more informal, less “dignified”. (22) A more direct example of this, once again, is a particular way the word ‘fuck’ is used: this time, by inserting it in the middle of another word or phrase, interrupting its expression so as to lend it additional dynamic force, in a positive (“fan-fucking-tastic”, “abso-fuckingly-lutely”) or negative manner (“no-fucking-way” or “jeezus-fucking-christ”) (23). Besides the slang classification of such terms by the conversational community, the slang terms inserted into sentences in such a way obtains its forcefulness from the very fact that it interrupts an otherwise orderly sequence of syllables or words.

From my very first reading, I was impressed, and remain so, by Grice’s explanatively powerful, tidy, and intuitive theory for how ordinary conversation and implicature function.

As my research for this paper progressed, I was also surprised by how neatly Grice’s Cooperative Principle and Dumas and Lighter’s description of slang fit together. From Dumas and Lighter’s retelling of historical descriptions and accounts of slang, it appears that there was a poverty of theoretical work on its origins and pragmatics. It appears clear that this was due to an attitude of academic aloofness, if not outright disdain, towards this essentially populist form of expression. Yet slang provides a living laboratory for observing the dynamics of the evolution of language and the way new terms and expressions come into being, as slang originates, changes, and disappears so quickly. It’s the linguistic fruit fly for evolutionary research! And the sheer number of scholarly articles I found on the subject of slang while I was doing my research indicates that scholars of language have discovered this.

While I share the scholar’s high valuation of precision in discourse, I also value vibrancy of expression in many forms including that such as that slang provides, as Walt Whitman did, and as the contemporary comic and author Stephen Fry does: “Imagine if the structure, meaning and usage of language was always the same as when Swift and Pope were alive. Superficially appealing as an idea for about five seconds, but horrifying the more you think about it. If you are the kind of person who insists on this and that ‘correct use’ I hope I can convince you to abandon your pedantry. Dive into the open flowing waters and leave the stagnant canals be. But above all let there be pleasure. Let there be textural delight, let there be silken words and flinty words and sodden speeches and soaking speeches and crackling utterance and utterance that quivers and wobbles like rennet. Let there be rapid firecracker phrases and language that oozes like a lake of lava. Words are your birthright …Don’t be afraid of it, don’t believe it belongs anyone else, don’t let anyone bully you into believing that there are rules and secrets of grammar and verbal deployment that you are not privy to. Don’t be humiliated by dinosaurs into thinking yourself inferior because you can’t spell broccoli or moccasins. Just let the words fly from your lips and your pen. Give them rhythm and depth and height and silliness. Give them filth and form and noble stupidity. Words are free and all words, light and frothy, firm and sculpted as they may be, bear the history of their passage from lip to lip over thousands of years.” (24)

Damn straight, Stephen Fry!

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NOTES:

1 – Grice, H.P. “Logic and Conversation” in The Philosophy of Language, ed. A. P. Martinich, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2008, 173
2 – Ibid, 172
3 – Dumas, Bethany K. and Jonathan Lighter. “Is Slang a Word for Linguists?”. American Speech, Vol. 53 No. 1 (Spring 1978) pp 5-17, 10
4 – Ibid 14-15
5 – Anderson, Steve. F**k, A Documentary, 2005
6 – Dumas and Lighter, 12
7 – F**k
8 – Dumas and Lighter, 13
9 – Ibid, 13
10 – Ibid, 14
11 – Dumas and Lighter, 15
12 – Ibid, 5
13 – F**k
14 – Ibid
15 – Ibid
16 – Dumas and Lighter, 7
17 – Ibid 11-12
18 – Ibid 13-14
19 – F**k
20 – Dumas and Lighter, 15
21 – F**k
22 – Dumas and Lighter, 14
23 – F**k
24 – Fry, Stephen. “Don’t Mind Your Language” Stephenfry.com.