Interrobangs, Pedantry, and Rascism

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April 23, 2022 by libroshombre

            American writer H.L. Mencken’s word-smithing, the courage of his convictions, and his pioneering work on our version of English, “The American Language,” outweigh his considerable faults to me.  His line, “The notion that anything is gained by fixing a language in a groove is cherished only by pedants,” made me pause before blithely relating that the proper way to punctuate a forceful question is with an interrobang: a question mark superimposed with an exclamation point, as in “What the hell‽”  “Interrobang” melds “interrogation point,” the technical name for “question mark,” with printer’s slang for “exclamation point”: “bang.”  The Economist wrote, “The interrobang was invented in 1962 by Martin K. Speckter, a journalist turned advertising executive, who disliked the ugliness of using multiple punctuation marks at the end of a sentence.”  ‽ is neater than !?!, but that’s approaching pedantry. A pedant is “One who ostentatiously exhibits academic knowledge or who pays undue attention to minor details or formal rules,” according to the American Heritage Dictionary, and pedants, especially grammar Nazis, can be irksome. I’m with former Poet Laureate Stephen Pinker: ““Language pedants hew to an oral tradition of shibboleths that have no basis in logic or style, that have been defied by great writers for centuries, and that have been disavowed by every thoughtful usage manual.”  Promoting accuracy is one thing, but parading one’s knowledge is quite another.

            That being said, it’s a natural tendency of librarians to get an endorphin-like charge out of helping people find the exact knowledge they crave.  Degreed librarians study how to effectively answer reference questions in library school; when I graduated, for example, I’d completed courses in basic reference, humanities reference, and government documents.  But even experienced librarians completely answer patrons’ questions an average of 50% of the time without extra training.  It seemed like we answered in the 90% range, but taking a Statewide Training For  Effective Reference class here in Fairbanks made me aware that people seldom work out in their minds precisely how to phrase what they want to know before asking a librarian about it. It’s up to us to determine the real question without prying.   When someone asks, “Do you have books on dogs?”, for instance, we should use open-ended questions (“We do!  Are you looking for something about puppies or older dogs?” “Puppies.”  “OK, are you hoping to choose a puppy or train one?” etc.) to narrow it down to allow the person to provide more detail.  The process is careful and involved, and it improves the librarians’ accuracy rate to 80%+ by always winding up with, “Did this completely answer your question?” 

            Librarians often carry auras of intelligence in the general public’s opinion, but  having  high IQs doesn’t necessarily follow.  An impressive article, “What Is the Average IQ?” was written by Jacquelyn Cafasso and it was medically reviewed by Dr. Timothy Legg, and they insert “Trusted Source” when citing reliable studies.  They assure us that “IQ tests are made to have an average score of 100. Psychologists revise the test every few years in order to maintain 100 as the average. Most people (about 68 percent) have an IQ between 85 and 115. Only a small fraction of people have a very low IQ (below 70) or a very high IQ (above 130).”    While differences between men’s and women’s IQ’s haven’t been observed, “Research has discovered that average IQ differs around the globe.”  The U.S. IQ rate came in at 24th with Asian countries placing in the top six countries (Hong Kong and Singapore – 108, South Korea – 106, China, Japan, and Taiwan – 105).  The bottom ten were all African, ranging from Kenya , Namibia, South Africa, and Tanzania – 72, to Malawi – 60).  However, the IQ tests being used came from Western European sources, and a “trusted source” study noted “that infectious disease may be the only really important predictor of average IQ.  Researchers believe that this is because if a child becomes ill, the body uses its energy to fight off the infection rather than using it for brain development.”  Nonetheless, other contributing factors include good nutrition, “regular schooling of good quality,” and “laws establishing safe levels of pollutants, like lead.”

In 1908 American psychologist Henry Herbert Goddard first translated the French Binet intelligence test, the first practical IQ test, into English, and he distributed 22,000 copies of the test nationwide.  An outspoken eugenicist and segregationist who coined the term, “moron,” Goddard was born in 1866 father to a Maine farming family. When he was young, his father was gored by a bull and died, his mother became an itinerant Quaker preacher, and Henry was sent to boarding school and then Haverford College.  Later Goddard got his psychology degree in 1899 and became Director of Research at the Vineland Training School for Feeble-Minded Girls and Boys, which Wikipedia says was “the first known laboratory established to study intellectual disability.”

“At the May 18, 1910, annual meeting of the American Association for the Study of the Feeble-Minded, Goddard proposed definitions for a system for classifying individuals with intellectual disability based on intelligence quotient (IQ). Goddard used the terms moron for those with an IQ of 51-70, imbecile for those with an IQ of 26-50, and idiot for those with an IQ of 0-25 for categories of increasing impairment. This nomenclature was standard for decades. A moron, by his definition, was any adult with a mental age between eight and twelve. Morons, according to Goddard, were unfit for society and should be removed from society either through institutionalization, sterilization, or both.”   However, “by the 1920s, Goddard had come to believe that he had made numerous errors in his early research” and “devoted the later part of his career to seeking improvements in education, reforming environmental influences in childhood, and publicizing better child-rearing practices. But others continued to use his early work to support various arguments with which Goddard did not agree.”  They still do. 

Stanford University’s first president, ichthyologist/botanist David Starr Jordan was Goddard’s contemporary and a fellow outspoken eugenicist.  Born simply David Jordan in 1851, Jordan’s parents enrolled him at a girls’ high school, and around then he adopted “Starr” as his middle name.  He ran in high circles in California, spoke publicly and stridently about the need for racial segregation and “racial purity,” and in 1916 his university contract wasn’t renewed.  Undeterred, Jordan became a charter board member of the Human Betterment Foundation that pushed for national compulsory sterilization legislation. 

Meanwhile, the wife of Leland Stanford, founder of the university, died suddenly of strychnine poisoning while vacationing in Hawaii, according to the medical examiner.   Wikipedia reports that Jordan “sailed to Hawaii, hired a physician to investigate the case, and declared she had in fact died of heart failure, a condition whose symptoms bear no relationship to those that were actually observed.  His motive for doing this has been a subject of speculation” He wrote “the president of Stanford’s board of trustees, offered several alternate explanations for Mrs. Stanford’s death, and suggested to select whichever would be most suitable … Mrs. Stanford had a difficult relationship with [Jordan] and reportedly planned to remove him from his position at the university.”  

Goddard’s and Jordan’s research has been thoroughly disproven, disparaged, and disavowed but unearthed by today’s white nationalists around the world to bolster their sinister beliefs and vicious political agendas.  At the risk of being one, I tell you, worse than a pedant is a pedant peddling falsehoods.

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