Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Buried titles in a very small place

I trust everybody's been keeping up* with Language Log's thorough coverage of the cop who is accused in the press of -- as kindly Dr. Pullum puts it -- "having a little passive-aggressive fun by peppering his inquest evidence with song titles."

The weight of evidence looks pretty persuasive, I'd say. The British press have their undershorts in a massive wad about a purported correlation that just ain't there -- at least, not to any appreciable degree different from the way everyone else's speech seems to employ song titles (or the sorts of phrases that are attractive to songwriters in the first place). But a comment from the 8:58 traffic report this morning provided a nice reminder that yes, sometimes people do dig deeply into the bin of strange allusions.

First things first. No, we do not actually have more words for "traffic" than other languages do. But we do have a lot of radio stations, a lot of freeway and a lot of cars, so the discourse of traffic does produce some pretty distinctive talk. Pockets of Go would be a really outstanding band name. It seems to be unknown to Google outside of constructions like "pockets of go-betweens," "pockets of go-go bars" and "the deep pockets of Go-Daddy,"** but it's how some trafficaster described one of the freeways a couple of weeks ago: "pockets of go."


Today's example was different. The announcer's introduction to the traffic bulletin was on the order of "And it looks like I-94 is a street without joy, right?" I don't think that was pulled out of nowhere, and it causes me to think we have a closet Bernard Fall fan over at WWJ. Fall was the French academic who -- more or less by accident, in his account -- became an authority on the French and, later, the American entanglement with Vietnam; the "Street Without Joy" provided him with a book title and, years later, was where he died (here's the Time account***).

Fall was a keen observer and an engaging writer, well worth a return visit even at this remove.**** Here's a nice bit of realism-with-a-human-face to season the standard author's disclaimer, from a later edition of "Street Without Joy":

A letter which accompanied a Certificate of Appreciation which I received from the Department of Defense in 1961 referred in part to my "tireless effort to secure the facts and data as they are, and not as one wishes them to be." This has been my guiding principle in all my research work, no matter how painful the process is at times to national pride or to widely held prejudices. I am therefore happy to claim sole responsibility for all views and opinions expressed in this book.

What do you get when you search Google for "street without joy"? Little else but references to the book. There appears to be a band with a page on Facebook, and imdb has a listing for a 1938 French melodrama by that name. Perhaps that's the route by which it snuck into the jargon of the French troops. How it showed up on a Detroit radio station in late 2010 -- help us out there, Language Log.

* Some of our usual suspects are indeed making distinctive contributions to it.
** Or where "pockets of air" breaks at line 60. Go figure.

*** "Stout, cheerful Bernard Fall" is classic Timespeak.
**** Dammit. I thought Fall was the one who described Gen. Navarre as "physically and morally feline"; that was a different author, Jules Roy. But it's far too cool not to mention.

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