November 6th, 2006

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Recommended link; Nunberg discusses the Lakoff/Pinker flap...

Highly recommended: Geoffrey Nunberg's "Frame Game," at http://www.tnr.com/blog/openuniversity?pid=54417 . It begins by telling readers that linguists "of mature age" are finding it hard to read the Lakoff/Pinker Commotional because it carries us back. Way back. This is a really interesting and informative post, and it explains many otherwise mystifying matters. This particular linguist of mature age enjoyed it tremendously.
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Secretarying; this I remember....

The "This I Believe" essay on NPR this morning was by Yolanda O'Bannon and its topic was her job as an "executive assistant," which she acknowledges as a fancy way to say "secretary"; you can read it (or listen to O'Bannon read it aloud) at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=6431548 . She loves her job, but has a bit of a struggle with the way other people -- especially people who know about her impressive background -- perceive it.

When I was a young girl, nobody looked down on you for being a secretary. And if you were an executive assistant (the term for which, in those days, was "private secretary") -- meaning that you weren't just a typist in the secretarial pool but did only the clerical work for a single individual -- people respected you for that. When I worked in Washington DC for Charles Rhyne's Committee on World Peace Through Law, I came very close to feeling reverence for his private secretary, who was one of the most elegant women I've ever encountered in my life. When she came into a room where I was -- which didn't happen often -- I always felt as if I ought to curtsey; I resisted the temptation, but that's how I felt.

I was a topnotch secretary. I could go anywhere, walk into an employment agency, and have an excellent job by five o'clock that afternoon. I could type 160 words a minute with almost no errors; I could take shorthand licketysplit -- and could accurately transcribe my notes afterward; I could alphabetize and file at blinding speed; I could run even a huge switchboard, in a pinch; my telephone voice gave the impression [misleading and erroneous] that I was someone elegant and well-groomed; I could keep secrets; I had no objection to making coffee or running errands; I could translate business correspondence from half a dozen languages into English [an easier task than you might think]; my spelling and punctuation and grammar were at a level that meant my letters almost never had to be re-typed; and I was a hardworking woman. A month after I left my last secretarial job in Washington DC I got a letter of apology from my boss saying that he was now very embarrassed at the salary he had paid me while I worked for him, since his firm had found it necessary to hire four people to do the work that I had been doing by myself.

And all those years I secretaried, every woman who worked in an office with me hated me. I had found that out by the time I was sixteen, but -- social klutz that I was -- I never figured out why they hated me. I'd been unpopular even in kindergarten, and I took unpopularity for granted; the idea that there was something I could do about it never entered my thick head. The department secretary at my university hated me, too, because I expected her to do an impossible amount of work; I didn't understand that either, and was heartsick when the department chairman told me that I had to do my clerical work myself because the secretary had told him she'd quit if she had to work for me any longer. I wondered what I had said to her to make her dislike me so intensely, and I went to her to apologize for whatever it was, and the more I apologized, the more furious she became, until finally she just threw up her hands and walked out on me. My recollection is that I was well into my forties on the day when the truth dawned on me out of nowhere, like a divine revelation, and I suddenly understood the reason for all that hatred. I wished, that day, that I'd kept a list of the names and addresses of all those women who'd hated me, and kept it up to date, so that I could have sent each and every one of them a letter of apology -- better late than never -- but I hadn't. I don't know why I hadn't; it was just the sort of thing that would have been typical of me, but somehow I'd managed not to.

Final note... It's very odd (and very fortunate!) that I type as fast as I do. When I took typing in high school I got stuck at 22 words a minute. No matter how much I practiced, no matter how hard I tried, I could not get past that 22-word barrier. In April of that year I was still expecting to get a charity D in that class, and my teacher was planning to give me one. And then in May -- SHAZAM! -- something drastic happened in my cognitive wiring, and I went from 22 words a minute to 160 words a minute over the span of a couple of weeks, and I got an A. I'm the world's slowest learner.