comma-hunting

October 17, 2006

Apologies for being three weeks late on this but news sometimes takes a while to reach this part of the world. Now the dust has settled on Bush’s infamous characterisation of the Iraq violence as ‘just a comma’ I thought I’d draw together some of the threads that were spun. Commas normally denote a pause in speech but, as the White House spokesman later ‘clarified,’ Bush meant ‘a relatively short period of time’: “when you look at the history book a ten month period is a comma.” So far so innocent. But then a bit of Googling revealed a widely-quoted witticism by comedienne Gracie Allen: “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.” By whom is this aphorism extensively quoted? By evangeicals and the religious right. So this was Bush speaking in politicode, the comma was actually a dog whistle to his evangelical base, the message being ‘forget the lies, the incompetence, the cock-ups, mistakes, God will sort it out in the end.’ Britain, too, has a leader who believes that God will pick up the tab in the end. I wonder whether it isn’t better to have leaders who sort out problems and take decisions themselves rather than hoping that God will tell them what to do and sort out the ensuing mess in the fullness of time.
Now we don’t know President Bush’s views on semi-colons or parentheses but others have suggested some appropriate punctuation marks. including Greg Mitchell: “One can think of other punctuation that might be apt, including “?” for the 140,000 Americans still deployed there, “!” for the cries of the gravely injured, and “$” for Haliburton and other contractors. Or perhaps, as in the comics pages, when an angry character really wants to curse: “!@#%^&*()#*” But I’d like to offer one more, the simple period, to replace the hopeful comma. Below you will find some 2,700 periods, each standing for an American life lost in Iraq.” (and he does).

Here from Wonkette is a punctuated map of the area:

000000jesacomma.jpg

Others have dug further into this comma business (see here):
‘From The Youth’s Companion, July 31, 1919, p. 412:
Don’t get to thinking in ultimate terms too quickly about life, my dear. There are not so many finalities in life as you young folks think. Remember the old saying, “Man’s periods are God’s commas.” Someone else comments: “I thought you would like to know that for a modern Hebrew speaker, there’s nothing odd about the Bush comma metaphor. We use comma quite a lot to designate small things, or things of no or little significance. Bush has linguistically blown his cover: He must indeed be an undercover Mossad operative, after all.” So, the plot thickens. Language log probes even further back and quotes, ‘from the middle of the 17th century, Samuel Sheppard’s Epigram 31, “Disorder the fore-runner of Ruine” [from Epigrams theological, philosophical, and romantick (1651)] which attributes periods as well as commas to the divine plan, though not in a way that will provide any comfort to those concerned about the situation in Iraq:

Both bodies Politick, and Naturall,
By this ill-shaped enemy doe fall:
Christendomes whip, who now doth soare so high,
By this in her own ruine low shall lie,
Factions those Comma’s are, ordain’d by God,
When he’l bring Kingdomes to their period.’
Going even further back, the word ‘comma’ apparently comes from the Greek ‘komma’ meaning ‘a piece cut off’ though in present circumstances it is not clear which or whose piece should be cut off.
Moving away from Bush for a moment, another blog reader reported seeing a billboard promoting the cardiac care department of a local hospital: heart attack. or heart attack,
How soon will it be before we see protestors with placards saying “Blair. not Blair,”?
My favourite comma quotation, though, is by Mistinguette: “A kiss can be a comma, a question mark or an exclamation point. That’s basic spelling that every woman ought to know.” (note: for those kissing cobras it can also be a period).
Two final scary thoughts. In the original tape of the 26 September interview it appears Bush corrected himself and what he actually said was “I like to tell people when the final history is written on Iran. er Iraq, it will look like just a comma.” And is it purely coincidence, I wonder, that only a few days after I came up with a post that poured scorn on the comma the US President suddenly starts referring to some pretty bad business in Iraq as ‘just a comma’? In case, you’re still reading, Mr President, I would just like to say that to refer to you as an ‘asshole’ is totally unfair. To a highly valuable part of the anatomy that is very good at its job.
A final quotation warning us of the ultimate futility of comma-hunting from Francis Cornford: “Another sport which wastes unlimited time is comma-hunting. Once start a comma and the whole pack will be off, full cry, especially if they have had a literary training…But comma-hunting is so exciting as to be a little dangerous. When attention is entirely concentrated on punctuation, there is some fear that the conduct of business may suffer ”
Well, here we positively lap up excitement and danger and in this case the business is the punctuation.
P.S. If you enjoy a piece of verbal fisticuffs I highly recommend the clip of Bill Clinton walloping Chris Wallace, Fox News and his critics Wonderful stuff and not a comma in sight.

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