Innovation or error?

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Towards the end of Will Self's recent meditation on "other people's nether garments" ("Garment District", NYT 8/26/2008), he writes:

Mal had on a suit of blue denim that made him look like an aging sociology lecturer at the Sorbonne, the type who conducts fraudulent anecdotes of mixing Molotov cocktails with Guy Debord during les evenements of ’68. [emphasis added]

When I read this, I took it for a word-substitution error, with "conducts" swapped for "concocts".  But in the 90 comments posted so far on the NYT site, no one else mentioned this possible malapropism. In contrast, when Bill Poser wrote about an article "entitled 'Barriers that are steep and linguistic'", he was quickly incorrected in the comments section.

There are a couple of differences here. First, Bill's "entitled", though in continuous use since Chaucer, is a common prescriptivist bugbear; and second, LL readers may on average be more focused on proofreading than NYT readers are. (Well, another factor might be that Bill set up his target in the first sentence of a 500-word post about languages of the Caucasus, while Self's sentence was at the end of 1700-odd words about his reactions to hiking and bicycling shorts on Mt. Ventoux. And to comment on Self's "conducts fraudulent anecdotes", you'd have to make it past a number of other linguistic curiosities, like "the fructals of a juniper", which introduces a word new to the OED and to Merriam-Webster's Unabridged.)

But still, what would it mean to conduct an anecdote, fraudulent or otherwise? In order to conduct an anecdote as you conduct an orchestra, the anecdote would have to have many independently-operating parts that you coordinate in real time. I do know people who tell stories that way, but somehow I doubt that Self had this in mind. Alternatively, you could try to conduct an anecdote in the sense that you conduct clinical trials, or public hearings, or military operations, or a formal interview.

No, none of these really make sense to me. I bet he meant "concoct".

[To avoid misunderstanding, I should state explicitly that I'm not objecting to Self's self-conscious and explicit coinage of "fructals" to refer (I guess) to what are usually called  juniper "berries" or "cones". I'm just noting that this may well be the first time that this word has been used in an English-language publication (other than as a brand name, or a quotation in Slovenian, etc.), and that it's one of a number of striking linguistic features that occur earlier in Self's article.]

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47 Comments »

  1. jva said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 8:49 am

    On topic – it might be used as "to act as a medium for conveying or transmitting" (www.webster.com). In this case "conducts" would equal "retells".

  2. Mark Liberman said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 8:59 am

    jva: [conduct] might be used as "to act as a medium for conveying or transmitting" …

    As in "conducts electricity"? Interesting idea. On this view, would the anecdotes be not only fraudulent, but also plagiarized?

    I like it. But I'll still put my money on the malapropism theory.

  3. Stephen Jones said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 9:04 am

    It seems a malapropism to me to.

  4. Polly Glot said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 9:14 am

    Mark Liberman: …linguistic curiosities, like "the fructals of a juniper", which introduces a word new to the OED and to Merriam-Webster's Unabridged.

    Will defines it himself, earlier on:
    if not fractals, why not fructals? Namely, the symmetrical shapes assumed on the ground by discarded tangerine peel, and seen ubiquitously in nature;

    He got people very upset; here are two adjacent comments: 'What a pretentious exhibition of the author’s “command of language”', and 'Beautiful language. This article sings with words'.

  5. Rob P. said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 9:16 am

    At least he seems to define "fructals" earlier in the article: "The drive compresses consciousness — the plodding explodes it: if not fractals, why not fructals? Namely, the symmetrical shapes assumed on the ground by discarded tangerine peel, and seen ubiquitously in nature." There's even a picture of said peels.

    No such luck with "conducts."

  6. Polly Glot said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 9:27 am

    Malapropism is a put-down word, which likens people who don't know the real meaning of what they've said to a comic character of Dickens. I find that hard to believe about Will Self. I think you're all safer and less rude just saying you think he made a mistake.

  7. Sili said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 9:44 am

    Malaprop seems right, but in my eagerness to make sense of it, I arrived at the same interpretation as jva. Though I was thinking along the lines of someone who retells these stories wholly believing them to be true because they fit his own dreams and prejudices.

    So is "fructals" pronounced 'frittles'?

  8. Dan Milton said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 9:54 am

    Mrs. Malaprop wasn't a Dickens character but rather in Sheridan's 1775 play The Rivals.

  9. Gary said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 10:03 am

    She did say "caparisons are odorous and don't become a young lady". We should take this sentiment to heart.

  10. Crown, A. J.P. said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 10:19 am

    (By Dickens, I did of course mean Thackeray).

  11. Mark Liberman said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 10:20 am

    Polly Glot: Malapropism is a put-down word, which likens people who don't know the real meaning of what they've said to a comic character of Dickens.

    First, as Dan Milton said, it was Sheridan, not Dickens. But in fact the word has long since been generalized as a convenient way to refer to a kind of word-substitution error that we all commit from time to time. The locus classicus of this generalization is David Fay and Anne Cutler, "Malapropisms and the Structure of the Mental Lexicon", Linguistic Inquiry 8(3), 1977; but I think they were reflecting a usage that was already current among psycholinguists, rather than suggesting a new role for the word. From their first paragraph:

    But not all errors involving substitution of one word for another result from ignorance of the correct usage: on the contrary, inadvertent use of the wrong word is a common variety of speech error. in this article, we will examine such word substitution errors (which we will call malapropisms, although they do not arise, as Mrs. Malaprop's did, from ignorance); we will show that they reveal some interesting aspects of the structure of the mental dictionary used in producing and understanding speech.

    An example of a Fay/Cutler malapropism: meaning to say "Lizst's second Hungarian rhapsody" and instead coming out with "Lizst's second Hungarian restaurant". This is a real example from one of the classical speech error corpora. And the person who produced it surely knew the difference between rhapsody and restaurant; but the two words are both nouns three syllables long, with initial stress, starting with /r/; and both have high conditional probability following "Hungarian". Such substitutions are very common, and (at least among linguists) it's not in any way a put-down to observe that one has occurred.

    In the case under discussion, I'm sure that Self knows the difference between "concoct" and "conduct". But they're both two-syllable verbs, etc., and their morpho-syntactic and phonological similarities create the context for a exemplary malapropism, in the Fay/Cutler sense, not in the Sheridan sense.

  12. John Cowan said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 10:35 am

    Behold the wisdom of crowds: that which one eyeball overlooks in the reading, another picks up with ease, and now we have "fructal", a hybrid of "fruit" (latinized) and "fractal".

  13. Dan T. said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 10:50 am

    I thought of "conducts" in this case as being akin to the use in "conducts a seminar"… like it is trying to make an implication that his anecdotes are presented in the context of formal interactions with his colleagues.

  14. Arnold Zwicky said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 10:52 am

    [Mark Liberman got his comment in while I was writing this one.]

    "Polly Glot": "Malapropism is a put-down word, which likens people who don't know the real meaning of what they've said to a comic character of [Sheridan]. I find that hard to believe about Will Self. I think you're all safer and less rude just saying you think he made a mistake."

    "Malaprop(ism)" has a long-standing use as a technical term in (psycho)linguistics. In fact, two long-standing uses, for different sorts of mistakes.

    First, there are classical malapropisms, mistakes of the sort committed by Mrs. Malaprop: someone produces W in the belief that W is the word with the intended meaning, but the word almost everyone else uses is the phonologically similar W', while W means (to these many other people) something quite different from W'. Mrs. Malaprop: "an allegory on the banks of the Nile". (See my 1979 article on classical malapropisms in Language Sciences and my piece in the 1982 Obler & Menn collection on exceptional language.)

    Then there are Fay/Cutler malapropisms, which David Fay and Anne Cutler just called "malapropisms" in their 1977 Linguistic Inquiry article on the subject. These are inadvertent errors, glitches in word retrieval in language production (based on phonological similarity). From my collection: "a biological orgasm [organism] that reproduces by …"

    So in classical malapropism, what's stored is wrong (from the point of view of other speakers), while in F/C malapropisms, what's stored is fine, but the wrong thing is retrieved in language production. More discussion in my 1980 Mistakes booklet, available here:

    http://www.stanford.edu/~zwicky/mistakes.pdf

    I take "Polly Glot" to be saying that Self's mistake was a F/C malapropism, not a classical malapropism.

  15. Polly Glot said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 11:20 am

    Thank you both. Not only off the topic, but mistaken. At least I'm consistent, though.

  16. Josh Millard said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 1:57 pm

    But still, what would it mean to conduct an anecdote, fraudulent or otherwise?

    This made me think of family dinners. The conversation drifts to one or another bit of historical narrative—the time I stuck a peanut up my nose, the day my brother fell off the porch, the time Mom got chewed out by a severe little octogenarian woman for bringing balloons into a Catholic church—and the telling becomes a kind of collaboration of recollections.

    And someone with an investment in seeing that the story stays historically grounded jumps in with corrections or clarifications, countering revisionisms small and large. Conducting, in short, the anecdote that everyone is collectively producing.

  17. mollymooly said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 3:11 pm

    A subhypothesis is that "conduct" was originally a thinko for "concoct" but, upon proofreading his work, Self decided to let it stand. It would be in keeping with his style.

  18. Bird's One View said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 3:14 pm

    It seems like a joke — the kind of substitution the French character he is describing might make when speaking English.

  19. John S. Wilkins said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 8:29 pm

    Terry Pratchett is occasionally accused of committing acts of literature; maybe it's a similar sense?

  20. misterfricative said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 9:26 pm

    I read this as an intentional — if ungrammatical — elision. It evokes an image of the denim-clad lecturer conducting fraudulent anecdotes into the world, much as Charon conducts souls to hell.

    For the record, I am generally repelled by Mr Self's over-egged, self-conscious, unsonorous style (case in point: the grotesque mileage he tries to squeeze out of the minor pun 'fructal'; presumably he is paid by the word?), but every now and then he hits upon a felicitous phrasing, and I think this is one of them.

  21. marie-lucie said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 11:42 pm

    It seems like a joke — the kind of substitution the French character he is describing might make when speaking English.

    Why would a French speaker substitute conduct for concoct when the latter verb (concocter) is closer than the first (conduire), which (as in English) could not be used with the word anecdote (the same in both languages) anyway?

    (p.s. I use substitute … for in the [I think] older meaning of use … instead of, not in the [I think] newer meaning of exchange … for).

  22. Polly Glot said,

    August 29, 2008 @ 3:06 am

    The best way to settle this and questions like it would be to ask the culprit. Mark could quite easily email Will Self. I know Self has a full-time assistant dealing with his website and this sort of thing. He's married (Will Self, not the assistant) to Deborah Orr of The Guardian, so you could always if necessary contact him through her.

  23. Polly Glot said,

    August 29, 2008 @ 3:38 am

    I am generally repelled by Mr Self's over-egged, self-conscious, unsonorous style

    I'm quite interested in this hostility Will Self generates. It's very similar in tone to the outrage of the prescriptivists, and I wonder what the connection is. It may have something to do with Will Self being obviously smart and well-educated (and none too modest about it — contrast him with the normally humble Poser, whose exasperation at a comment elsewhere caused him to cutely declare that because he'd gone to Harvard he was 'the standard' and a jolly good speller). Self's image may make his work and opinions hard to take (for example, in the NYT comments there's more outrage that he's a smoker and proud of it) for those who had expected to agree with someone like that, and I think that's part of the problem for prescriptivists: that they had expected agreement about the conventions from other members of the tribe.

  24. misterfricative said,

    August 29, 2008 @ 4:31 am

    @Polly Glot

    I see what you mean, and in general you may well be right. In my case though, any resemblance in tone is probably coincidental. I'm not a prescriptivist, and neither do I have any problem at all with Mr Self's image, intelligence or immodesty. On the contrary, I admire him for going his own way, I'm inclined to applaud his provocative smoking, and I tend to agree with much of what he says.

    Where my hostility comes from, I think, is simply that I find him so unjustly overrated as a writer. To me, his prose is ugly, tangled, difficult to read, and only rarely worth the trouble.

    Having said that, I second your suggestion that Mark contact him. I'd be curious to hear what Mr Self has to say about his alleged malapropism.

  25. Andy J said,

    August 29, 2008 @ 4:54 am

    I would say the odds are 50/50 between innovation and error, knowing Mr Self's penchant for the quirky phrase. But maybe there's a chance of an inadvertent cupertino or some copyeditor's typo. I note that the spelling of labor and color has been Americanised, possibly at the time of writing by the author of course, but equally this could have been run through a spellchecker at the NYT, and somehow it objected to concoct and turned it into conduct. I agree with Polly Glot that the man himself could be asked to resolve the matter.

  26. Polly Glot said,

    August 29, 2008 @ 6:46 am

    @ Mr Fricative,

    I've only once tried reading one of his books, and I gave up half way through because I was completely confused.

    I didn't mean that your comment was prescriptivist, just that the levels of anger are similar and my thought is that it might stem from a similar feeling of unfairness — everyone, of course, hates unfairness from the age of about two onwards. So when you say,
    'where my hostility comes from, I think, is simply that I find him so unjustly overrated as a writer'
    (it's unfair), you're not necessarily wrong. It's just that prescriptivists hate neologisms and other things because they find them threatening, (that the changes will undermine their own hard-earned education by playing by a different set of rules) and that that's unfair.

  27. misterfricative said,

    August 29, 2008 @ 8:34 am

    @Polly Glot

    Yes, certainly I think a large part of my antipathy toward Mr Self arises from a sense of unfairness.

    Also, if I were to speculate about the psychology of prescriptivists, I'd agree that they very probably behave as they do because they — their world, their values, their certainties — feel threatened. But I'd say it's the threat itself, not any unfairness that might accompany it, that primarily gives rise to their crusadingly strong emotions.

    Threats engender fight or flight. I think unfairness is too weak to do that on its own.

  28. Polly Glot said,

    August 29, 2008 @ 8:52 am

    Mr F.: Threats engender fight or flight. I think unfairness is too weak to do that on its own.

    Injustice is a strong motivation. Spend a morning observing the events at your local kindergarten, and you might change your mind.

  29. Arnold Zwicky said,

    August 29, 2008 @ 10:04 am

    To add to the mix on Will Self: this week Chris Waigl added an entry on tattermedallion to the Eggcorn Database, with two cites from Self's writing.

  30. Andy J said,

    August 29, 2008 @ 3:00 pm

    @Misterfricative.
    "Also, if I were to speculate about the psychology of prescriptivists, I'd agree that they very probably behave as they do because they — their world, their values, their certainties — feel threatened. But I'd say it's the threat itself, not any unfairness that might accompany it, that primarily gives rise to their crusadingly strong emotions."
    I'm sure that self-interest and the threat thereto could be the motive for prescriptivism, but equally there could be more ultruistic motives – trying to preserve an institution or the values of their community, seen as being under attack – perhaps a junior relative of patriotism?
    "Threats engender fight or flight. I think unfairness is too weak to do that on its own." Many social democratic political platforms are based on eradicating unfairness.

  31. Polly Glot said,

    August 29, 2008 @ 3:42 pm

    Patriotism and its junior relatives are anything but altruistic.

  32. Andy J said,

    August 29, 2008 @ 5:27 pm

    Whoops, just noticed my typo "ultruistic"
    @Polly G. Are you saying that patriotism is invariably selfish and cannot have an unselfish component? I know it may be the last refuge of the scoundrel….

  33. misterfricative said,

    August 29, 2008 @ 9:36 pm

    I agree that a sense of justice or fairness can be a sincere and very motivator.

    I would say though that threat response is mediated by the 'reptilian' part of our brains, and as such it is always going to be more primal.

  34. misterfricative said,

    August 29, 2008 @ 9:43 pm

    Oops! The cat posted that before I was ready. That should be 'a very powerful motivator'.

    I was also going to add that Philip Zimbardo even appears to be looking at how a sense of fair play might be used to combat bullying. More info and links here.

  35. felix culpa said,

    August 29, 2008 @ 11:21 pm

    ‘Ultruistic’— that would be, perhaps generosity done for display purposes, with, as ’twere, ulterior motivation? I like it. The Pharisee meme.

    But…but…but no one has said a thing about “if not fractals, why not fructals?”.
    Maybe I’m far more confused even than I had imagined: But should that not be “if fractals, why not fructals?

  36. felix culpa said,

    August 29, 2008 @ 11:35 pm

    If my recognition is usefully true, I can see no way Self’s usage here, can be justified as literary experimentation.

    I like the proofing and orchestral theses (if we’re voting).
    And applaud the exercise in insight in the Polly/Andy exchange.

  37. Andy J said,

    August 30, 2008 @ 2:32 am

    @Felix C. Thanks for your analysis of 'ultruistitc'; if it was a sub-conscious eggcorn, then I think the 'ulterior motivation' explanation is spot on. Possibly 'extruistic' would give a better sense of selflessness (sorrry, that's not a pun on Self).

  38. Polly Glot said,

    August 30, 2008 @ 4:37 am

    Andy J: Are you saying that patriotism is invariably selfish and cannot have an unselfish component?

    Sorry to take so long to answer, I just had to have a ten-hour nap. Patriotism can be unselfish, but isn't always would have been a better way to put it. It isn't a moral question in the same way that Kant said morals were altruistic (I'm no philosopher, so beware my reasoning here). This is possibly off the topic, so …

    I think it's amazing nobody except felix spotted “if not fractals, why not fructals?”, that looks fucked-up to me.

  39. Mark Liberman said,

    August 30, 2008 @ 8:33 am

    Polly Glot: I think it's amazing nobody except felix spotted “if not fractals, why not fructals?”

    To anyone who read Self's article, it was obvious that this was a self-conscious and explicit coinage. I'm gradually learning, though, that when I write a commentary on an article, many people don't bother to read the link before they comment on the commentary.

  40. Polly Glot said,

    August 30, 2008 @ 8:55 am

    Mark Liberman:To anyone who read Self's article, it was obvious that this was a self-conscious and explicit coinage. I'm gradually learning, though, that when I write a commentary on an article, many people don't bother to read the link before they comment on the commentary.

    And I'm beginning to realise Mark Liberman doesn't bother to read either the original article or his own comments before he comments rudely back. Why don't you read the fourth comment here, which I made because you obviously hadn't noticed Self's definition when you made the post. You only added the explanatory paragraph at the end after Rob P. and I had commented on your having not read the Self text properly (an acknowledgement of that would not have been a bad idea, either).

    If you bothered to read your own comments you would see that “if not fractals, why not fructals?” refers to felix culpa's comment above mine, in which she points out that there should properly be no negative with 'fractals'.

  41. marie-lucie said,

    August 30, 2008 @ 6:26 pm

    I read Will Self's article when it was first mentioned by Mark, and I just went back to it to check on the context of "if not fractals, why not fructals"?

    This sequence is not an isolated or complete sentence but occurs as Self tries to describe the bits of fruity refuse he encounters on the trail: the regular spiralling of the bit of tangerine peel cannot quite be described as "fractal", the first word which comes to his mind, so he proposes "fructal" instead. Taken in context, the two negatives are completely justified: this is is "not" an instance of a fractal, but why "not" call it a fructal?

  42. felix culpa said,

    August 31, 2008 @ 12:30 am

    Aha.
    Thanks, m-l.

    Mark’s point stands: I failed to seek out the crucial context.

    Thanks, Polly, for giving me credit. (Also thanks for giving me credit for being a member of the superior sex, but I must confess myself to be properly described as male.)

    Worthy thread, despite the subdued extremity of contention. LL is still a place where a person can virtually cross the virtual street without risking virtual life and limb.

  43. Andy J said,

    August 31, 2008 @ 4:26 am

    @marie-lucie. I entirely accept your analysis. But I would suggest the normal construction for a comparison of this type is usually “if not X, then [perhaps] Y”. The structure Self has used is more redolent of the non-comparative “if not, why not?” as in “Are you coming to my party? And if not, why not?”. Maybe this is the reason why the “if not fractals, why not fructals” jars for some people. I’m sure that given his idiosyncratic writing style, Self would like that reaction.

  44. marie-lucie said,

    August 31, 2008 @ 9:44 am

    @Andy J, absolutely.

  45. James Wimberley said,

    August 31, 2008 @ 12:00 pm

    "Fructal" doesn't really work as a coinage because Will Self doesn't show any sign in the quoted paragraph of understanding what "fractal" means. I believe the term relates to complex self-similar patterns at different scales. If you zoom in on a piece of orange peel you get new details, but no self-similarity. If you zoom in on Self's writing, you find his superficial wit disappearing in a self-indulgent fog.

  46. marie-lucie said,

    September 1, 2008 @ 10:43 am

    If you look at the piece of orange peel in the photo, you will see a regular pattern in the way the dried peel curls on itself, but there is no difference in scale, which is why the word "fractal" is inappropriate and Self chooses not to use it but to replace it with "fructal". This means that he does understand why "fractal" is not the right word here. I don't think he is trying to propose a new technical word for actual use in science, just to evoke something related to regular patterning.

  47. Polly Glot said,

    September 2, 2008 @ 4:04 am

    I know it's not quite the same, but:

    "…grow your own. I find myself becoming a fruit evangelist, a fructivist, whose mission is to show people what they are missing."

    George Monbiot, in today's Guardian.

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