Monthly Archives: March 2009

Lexicographers take note

The CBC recently announced that they would reduce executive bonuses by 50% next year, to which the Canadian Media Guild members, who face massive layoffs and wage rollbacks in the coming year, replied, “The CBC execs get bonuses?!”

Bonus outrage is officially all the rage these days. Nonetheless, the whole blowup over the AIG bonus debacle–which set this ball rolling in the first place–has its roots in a simple semantic problem. Most people conceive of a bonus as something extra. Business executives conceive of bonuses as a natural extension of their salary, subject to the same contractual obligations and expectations.

When the team of executives hired to fix AIG with the help of $170 billion from the government agreed to work for a salary of $1, it gave the impression to the public that they were taking a huge hit for the good of the world’s financial system. In reality, as people found out a few days ago, they actually agreed to work for a salary of a dollar, plus a million dollar “bonus” at the end of the year, which was just as contractual an obligation as their salary was. The trouble is, when the people who naively conceive of a bonus as being something extra heard that these AIG execs were getting million dollar bonuses, they got outraged, because there was obviously no fiscal success on the part of the company that would justify the distribution of an extra million dollars to each executive at the end of the year.

Of course, the bonus wasn’t extra at all. The executives signed a contract that stipulated they would receive an effective salary of $1 ooo oo1. When Liddy got pressured by Congress to allow clawbacks of %90 of that amount, the execs saw it, rightly, as a clawback of %90 of their salary for that year.

Obviously, in hindsight, calling contractually obligated yearly payments to corporate executives “bonuses” is horribly misleading and disingenuous, especially coupled with the announcement that the AIG bailout team would work for $1 salaries. This was an obvious and flagrant attempt to mislead the public, and it has been ever since the concept of contractual bonuses became the norm in executive retention. Nonetheless, it would be nice if corporate execs just played it straight and called the bonuses “salary,” because at least then we would all be talking about the same thing during discussions of exorbitant executive pay rates.


Surprise! Dora outrage mischaracterized by internet news media

Mattel recently teamed up with Nickelodeon to create a doll based on an updated, more grown-up version of the popular cartoon character Dora the Explorer.


Parents got up in arms about the transformation, and as news outlets picked up the story, they published stories about people characterizing the new Dora as “too sexy.” Here are some samples:

Huffington Post:

Did Mattel turn Dora The Explorer into a tramp?

…parents fear that the shapely shadow suggests well, a real tease.

The cute girl with bangs and baby fat that kept their kids company is being replaced with a scary harlot cloaked in shadow.

Entertainment weekly:

While there was plenty of excitement, it was more of the “How dare they turn our beloved-if-squeaky heroine into a little hussy?” variety.

Yahoo News:

Dora the streetwalker.

Now, I can understand why parents might get upset about a bilingual child explorer being turned into a fashionable tween, because it buys into certain feminine stereotypes about the importance of looking cute, having an expensive hairstyle, and buying fashionable accessories. But since when has it been reasonable to refer to someone as a tramp, a harlot, a hussy or a whore based on what they wear? When these people see young preteens walking down the street wearing leggings and flats, it this what goes through their head? Is a woman not free from accusations of sexual promiscuity unless she is unattractive? Most of the complaints about Dora that originated from real parents, such as the ones associated with the petition at Packaging Girlhood, were reasonable and had very little to do with the sexualization of the new character – they tended to focus on the doll’s advocacy of consumer culture, the erasure of her Latina identity, the capitalist implications of the transformation, and the environmental implications of moving Dora from the jungle into the “city,” effectively. However, it’s sad and distressing to see this twisted around by the news reports who mock the parents’ concerns by reproducing and exacerbating, in a horribly offensive way, the very stereotypes that the parents are conscientiously fighting.

Read this

I often wonder how much the severity of what has been termed “post-abortion syndrome” is influenced by the support services that putportedly exist to treat it. If a woman who has an abortion seeks help from such a group, and is bombarded with one-sided views deriding women for abortion and pathologizing and chastising the whole process, it’s no small suprise that she would end up feeling bad about herself and her decision. Consensus among empirical researchers seems to be that post-abortion syndrome is a crock; for example,  a 1990 study published in Science1 found that 76% of women felt relief and happiness after a first trimester abortion, that most women are more phychologically distressed before the abortion, and that post-abortion syndrome is all but undetectable in women whose anxiety or depression doesn’t have another verifiable cause (such as lack of support from family members); a 1993 study2 similarly indicated that 80% of women felt “relief and satisfaction” after an abortion. It would be interesting to see a comparative study between women who seek help from a pro-life support organizations and those who seek help elsewhere, to verify whether the attitudes espoused toward women during pro-life “post-abortion counselling” have a negative impact on women’s emotional wellbeing.

An interesting aspect that emerges from the empirical studies is that women who give up their children for adoption often experience greater emotional difficulty than women who have abortions. An essay recently posted at Shakesville expresses this fact anecdotally, and raises the question of why post-giving-up-your-baby-for-adoption depression is virtually unheard of anywhere, despite it’s apparent prevalence. (Of course, I think we all know the answer.)

I have given a baby up for adoption, and I have had an abortion, and while anecdotes are not evidence, I can assert that abortions may or may not cause depression – it certainly did not in me, apart from briefly mourning the path not taken – but adoption? That is an entirely different matter. I don’t doubt that there are women who were fine after adoption, and there is emphatically nothing wrong with that or with them; but I want to point out that if we’re going to have a seemingly neverending discussion about the sorrow and remorse caused by abortion, then it is about goddamn time that we hear from birth mothers too.

Read the full article here.


1. Adler, Nancy E., et al. “Psychological Responses After Abortion.” Science 248 (Apr. 1990), 41-44.

2. Sachdev, Paul. Sex, Abortion, and Unmarried Women. Santa Barbara: Greenwood, 1993.

Passive voice: not what he used to be

As a follow-up to this post, I thought I should point out that Mark Liberman at Language Log officially declared today the end of the passive voice as we know it:

[D]espite this long history, I’m afraid that the traditional sense of passive voice has died after a long illness […] Its ghost walks in the linguistics literature and in the usage of a few exceptionally old-fashioned intellectuals. For everyone else, what passive voice now means is “construction that is vague as to agency”.

And in case you were wondering, yes, the folks at Language Log have the authority to do that.

From the horse’s mouth

Jake at Streetsy posted this photo today:


I consider this evidence in support of my claim about graffiti in this post.

Toilet As Metaphor

Jennifer Baichwal’s film about Ed Burtinsky, Manufactured Landscapes, seemed to set off a sense of public awareness about the problems of e-waste. By now, a great many, if not most, major media outlets have covered the problem of e-waste to some degree or another; the Globe and Mail, CBC television, and National Geographic are three examples that I’ve come across just recently. The revelation that’s being covered by these stories is that when we throw stuff out, it actually ends up somewhere rather than just disappearing off the face of the earth. In a thought paper for my first women’s studies class (Women and the Environment), I remarked that I found it phenomenal how easy it is for my trash to miraculously disappear from my life the moment I decide to get rid of it. I keep putting garbage out on the curb, and it keeps disappearing! It’s like magic!

Regardless of how many news stories cover this issue, I have the feeling that people are still swept up with the fantasy of easy trash disposal. It pains me to imagine how little would be recycled if the city didn’t come right to our doorsteps to pick up our trash; even the effort of separating our recyclables is becoming too much to bear, and city councils are bowing to the pressure to ease their citizens of this burden. One solution to e-waste that has been thrown around is to have the manufacturers of electronics take responsibility for recycling their goods once their useful life is over, but I think that’s merely a stopgap measure as long as our trash keeps disappearing from our curbs. If anything, landfills should go right in the city centers, and the labour of recycling electronics should be a duty like serving in a jury; maybe then people would actually be disillusioned about the reality of waste disposal.

Well-educated people don’t know what passive voice is

For a long time those kooks over at Language Log have railed against people who think that writing in the passive voice simply means writing in a way that obscures the agency of the writer. In fact, the only thing passive voice has to do with is whether the subject of a sentence comes before the object or after it. I’ve made this handy diagram to illustrate the difference between active and passive voice:


That’s it. That’s all passive voice is.

I wanted to add an example from one of the books I was reading this week. Joey  Sprague, in her book Feminist Methodologies for Critical Researchers, writes that using “active rather than passive voice” is a good way to “call attention to the researcher as a person.” Of course, she’s right. But the example she gives, “‘I believe’ rather than ‘it seems,'” is wrong. A sentence beginning with “I believe” would indeed be in the active voice, but a sentence beginning with “it seems” would also be in the active voice, as in the example

……..subject                                        object
………..It          seems         that john ate the cookies.

where the object is a subordinate noun clause. If this sentence was made passive, it would be

……..*That john ate the cookies was seemed

The fact that people can make it through 12 years of postsecondary education without learning this distinction seems to reflect poorly on linguistics education in the North American school system, or something.