Sunday, October 10, 2010

Game 1: Rivulous

Never try to learn a foreign language. Learning a foreign language is a process of being beaten over the head with grammar rules, and it sucks, and nobody but prodigies would bother if we weren’t convinced it made us cooler and/or wealthier. Every language, from English to Persian to Chinese, will whip out its dustiest, fussiest, most difficult, classical, and obscure rules just to torture poor students who don’t know any better. It’s brutal, it’s unnecessary, and it results in a lot of textbook-trained twenty-four-year-olds backpacking around the countryside confusing the locals with archaic syntax and still not knowing the word for toilet paper.

Now, in any given language, there are inevitably grammar obsessives who consider it their holy duty to beat everyone over the head with language rules, particularly language rules as found in the dry post-war usage manuals they had to memorize during their stultified 1950s education. These people proceed from the belief that there is no such thing as a good or useful change in the language, no matter how many native speakers unconsciously or consciously adopt a new practice as useful, beautiful, or pleasurable. The great example of this is the use of 'they/them' to stand in for a generic, genderless third person singular. Every since feminism was feminism, everybody in university everywhere has been forced to fill their writing with the clunky, awkward “he or she” or the visually assaultive “him/her”. It’s annoying, it’s unmelodious, and when speaking, almost nobody bothers with it. We just use ‘they’, and it works fine. It’s a new development in the language, and it harms no one. It has not hurt our ability to communicate, and yet there remains a subset of people who consider it a moral crime on par with puppy rape. Personally, I think it highly likely that these people go home at night, dress up in latex body suits and get flogged by dominatrices screaming in a particularly shrill, rural Southern dialect. “You git down on them there knees, boy, aforin’ I wallop you about yer testicles like they was some butter fer churnin’.

Anyway, point being, language is going to move in the directions people need it to move for the kind of communicating they want to do, and ain’t nothin’ wrong with that. But more than that, I consider it to be one of the privileges of native-speaking to be able to make up new words and structures. It is also perhaps the single greatest pleasure in blogging. No editorial policy can constrict my use of language! I am beholden to no style guide! Here, safe within the battlements of my own private blog, I can fiercely defend the legitimacy of ‘y’all’ against any onslaught, and if I am truly in the wrong, I suffer no retribution other than snarky comments and probably a boost in site stats. Eat your hearts out, professional journalists. You wish you could use the phrase ‘them that ________’ with impunity.

Which is all a way of getting around to my new favorite word I recently made up: rivulous. This is an awesome word. Firstly, it’s got a nice set of consonants going for it, what with the voiced fricative in the middle contrasting with the alveolar bookends, trailing off into a little hiss at the end. But it shares nearly same consonants as its more conventional cousin, rivalrous, so you have to figure that the real beauty is that central u. It gives it a little bit of a lighter touch, and just a hint of the aquatic, redolent of rivulet and rivulus.

Usage-wise, I figure rivulous means something on or about the nexus of ‘rivalrous’ and ‘malcontented’, something a bit pettier and less formal than rivalry. Something you might use to describe the claims of uppity younger siblings and the bitter, pointless squabbles of striving junior academics. And, of course, sports.


The Canadiens opened the season against the Maple Leafs. Again. I have not done the research and am not going to because I have to finish this in ten minutes, but it feels like every damn year the Canadiens open against the Maple Leafs, and every damn year it blows. The Leafs are supposed to be our great rivals, but increasingly it feels like a petty obligation. It’s not really a sports rivalry any more, it’s just a stand-in for the big ol’ Canadian culture issue, the whole French vs. English, Quebec vs. Ontario thing. Ain’t got hardly nothing to do with hockey at all, other than the fact that Canadians struggle with means of expressing outright cultural conflict without using hockey is a proxy.

The way you know it isn’t about hockey is because, if it were about hockey, nobody in their right mind would feel rivulous towards the Leafs. Their only great success as a franchise is being popular, which is not so hard given that they happen to be located in the most densely populated part of the most hockey-obsessive nation on the planet. The franchise could fill its roster entirely with liberated lab monkeys and tickets would sell. Beyond the ability to hawk seats and merchandise to people who will buy whatever hockey paraphernalia is most conveniently located, the Leafs have not produced or achieved anything interesting in forty years. Except for Wendell Clark.

One of the good things about the Canadian wing of the NHL is that most of the teams have a kind of personality. The Canucks have a kind of tortured, ineffectual intellectualism that fits very aesthetically with their recent history of chronic not-quiteness. The Flames have a cultish, eerily Texan bravado that seems blissfully oblivious to any sense of the ridiculous. The Oilers have a kind of sexy, wounded, misty incompetence; and the Senators have been working their own personal scary-wacky spectrum for virtually their entire existence. My own Canadiens should probably just change all their promotional materials to a long sigh and an exaggerated eyeroll, the universal expression of everyone dealing with a batshit crazy girlfriend. The Leafs, though, the Leafs are like a middle-aged dude with a massive beer gut who never stops talking about that one Led Zepplin concert he went to in 1973- an endless retelling of not-particularly-impressive achievements as if they were the BEST THING EVER. Yes, I get it, for a while in the 90s, the team was pretty good. Too bad other teams were obviously better.

Look, I’m not saying the Canadiens are far superior at the moment. Obviously, they’re not, because they done lost that there game. And I’m not going to trumpet Montreal’s vastly superior historical record, because that’s pretty much just emotional Kleenex for the sensitive modern fan. On some level, I sympathize with Leafs Nation, because the two teams are more alike than different: old-time Canadian franchises that will probably survive forever in a state of permanent disappointment, never able to again achieve the likes of the glory they once had. Another twenty-some years of failure, there might not be any difference at all, beyond accent and color scheme. But fortunately, the Habs aren’t there yet, and until they get there, it feels demeaning to treat the Leafs as some sort of great, epic competition. Like we’re conceding that we can’t actually run with the contemporary elite of the League, and we have to rely on these ‘traditional’ hatreds to keep up a sense of passion for our chronically playoff-bubble team. If I’m going to go to the trouble of feeling rivulous about NHL hockey, I want to hate a good team for a while.

Shoulda opened the season in Washington. They gotta be pissed, right?


alice said...

Nice essay...Just one quibble, from my background as a linguist and dialectologist: singular gender-neutral "they" has been around since, at least, Chaucer's time, and has been used by many exemplary writers in the intervening eons.

Anonymous said...

nice read. I love Leafs and have forever and I agree that this match-up is feeling forced. That 73 Zepplin show was great though.

E said...

alice- i'm sure it's been used by all kinds of exemplary writers. it can be found in the kjv bible, for christ's sake, and you'd have a hard time contending that those dudes didn't know their english. but apparently that's not enough to prevent certain people from treating it as a cardinal sign of Bad Writing and The Death of Standards and The Decline of Western Civilization.

anon- i'm sure it was awesome, but face it, ya had to be there to really appreciate the charm.

Krafty said...

Love the descriptions of the Canadian teams. I love reading your blog!

Doogie2K said...

That description of the Flames rather mirrors a certain view of Calgary itself, especially around Stampede.

I mean, Jesus guys, cowboy hats? Really? Fuck that, man, I'm wearing a fedora. That's a classy hat. Toe Blake wore a fedora. Punch Imlach wore a fedora. Dick Irvin and Tommy Gorman wore fedoras. Don Cherry should've worn a fedora. It's a real damn hat, and a real damn shame no one wears one anymore.

E said...

people don't wear fedoras anymore because it's not 1948 anymore.

western kitsch, on the other hand, hasn't changed in a hundred years.

subdoxastic said...

"Everyone watching the gunslinger walk down the street towards the McCoys knew they were crazy."

Maybe, just maybe we can throw the puppy rapists the occasional bone?