January 2, 2012

"My love of footnotes as art form, as commentary, as the place to embed sneaky and wry asides..."

"... that do not belong in the text, only grew and grew through childhood, until I reached college."

A woman who loves footnotes so much she had "n.b." tattooed... on her foot. The woman, s.e. smith, links to Wikipedia to help people understand "n.b." — nota bene — and Wikipedia just gives us the literal and semi-literal translation: "note well" or "pay attention"/"take notice."

Now, I've listened the the audiobook of David Foster Wallace reading "Consider the Lobster" about a thousand times — n.b. David Foster Wallace gluttonously indulged in footnotes — and he does an aside:
n.b. - which means "nota bene," which the audio commandant wants me to tell you means "note well," but actually really means "by the way"...
Here's a reddit discussion of that Wallace aside. They seem to think he's joking. But what's the joke? Is it that people use "n.b." when there's no reason to pay any more note to the thing after the "n.b." than to anything else in the text? Or is it not a joke, and Wallace is giving the abbreviation the meaning it has genuinely acquired in use over the years, which is to designate an aside?

At this point, you might wonder whether Wallace is a prescriptivist or a descriptivist when it comes to word usage, and the cool thing about that is there's an essay in the "Consider the Lobster" essay collection* — it's not all about lobsters! — that has about a million things to say on that subject, but since it's not one of the essays in the audiobook — which is an abridgment — his resolution of that issue is not lodged in my brain. The essay is "Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage." Key passage:
Garner's A Dictionary of Modern American Usage is thus both a collection of information and a piece of Democratic rhetoric.49 Its goal is to recast the Prescriptivist's persona: The author presents himself as an authority not in an autocratic sense but in a technocratic sense. And the technocrat is not only a thoroughly modern and palatable image of Authority but also immune to the charges of elitism/classism that have hobbled traditional Prescriptivism.

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49(meaning literally Democratic — it Wants Your Vote)
Thus, I take it, Wallace wasn't joking. He was seeking votes for assigning the meaning "by the way" to "n.b."

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*Even though I have the audiobook of "Consider the Lobster" and the paperback of the unabridged text, I bought the Kindle version just now so I could cut and paste text for blogging purposes. But when I made my first attempt at copying, I got a pop-up window — the first I've ever seen in a Kindle book — "Due to publisher restrictions, copy is not allowed for this title." That was pretty annoying. I found a few key words — hypereducated snoot egghead — Googled and found copyable text here. Feel free to read it free. N.b., it has 52 footnotes [at the free link; 124 footnotes in the Kindle text].

45 comments:

MikeR said...

In Jewish classical religious texts, the letters beit"nun = n"b (though written right to left) means "nichtav b'tzido" = written on the side = note. Hmm.

Pogo said...

"n.b." — nota bene — .... "note well" or "pay attention"/"take notice."

n..b. was the alternate title for Death of a Salesman.

Well, it should have been.

KenK said...

Footnotes make tough reading damn near impossible by breaking up the narrative flow in order to digress over minutia if there are too many of them. Maybe that was DFW's "infinite jest"?

Triangle Man said...

I like footnotes in books, but have found that the implementation of footnotes in the Kindle app on iPad does not do what I would expect. Namely, when I click through to read a footnote, I want to be able to easily return to the text when I am finished with the footnote. The result is that I do not click through footnotes anymore.

fivewheels said...

Elitist prescriptivism is ok too.

As the linked piece notes, the key unanswerable question of prescriptivism is "Who makes the rules?" True. But the key well-answered question of descriptivism is the same, and the answer is: The uneducated, the ignorant, the uncaring, the lowest common denominator.

It's no choice. Any philosophy that says, in effect: "If enough people are wrong, that makes it right" -- well, only a liberal could love it.

Mumpsimus said...

According to this post in the rare-book blog Bookride, Wallace was a big fan of low-rent self-help books.

"...One surprise was the number of popular self-help books in the collection, and the care and attention with which he read and reread them. I mean stuff of the best-sellingest, Oprah-level cheesiness and la-la reputation was to be found in Wallace's library."

(Not entirely OT -- just a footnote.)

edutcher said...

Footnotes are the best example of the old wheeze, "Less is more".

Surfed said...

The best footnotes ever are found in the series of Flashman novels written by George McDonald Frasure. They are almost more delightful than the stories themselves.

John Burgess said...

I like footnotes, but I prefer they actually be at the foot of the page, not endnotes at the back of a chapter or the entire book. Those are too disruptive.

@fivewheels: I'm a conservative in politics, but a descriptivist in language. Language is what people make of it, not what's engraved in some textbook and then, largely based on what the author learned in grades 3-9.

fivewheels said...

o, U r? OK ThAn.

rcommal said...

Cool post!

Mark said...

Mumpsinus:

Ann has already addressed the fact that DFW had 'low-rent self-help books' in his library. By way of background, a DFW expert wrote an interesting article about her research into DFW's library (now stored at the University of Texas Library, iirc). That expert focused on those self-help books and the DFW marginalia in those books. That expert posited that DFW drew much from those books. In light of his tragic loss a great deal of personal info about DFW can be read into (or extracted from) the marginalia if one assumes the marginalia reflects DFW's thoughts. I read that article and thought it pretty interesting.

On the other hand, the Professor theorized (again, iirc) that DFW may have read those books simply as a form of research for his fiction writing. Even the marginalia could have been nothing more than DFW analyzing the work as he would have if he was one of the characters in his books.

I can't say the Professor is right (I don't think any of us could), but I found her analysis insightful. As someone who mourns the loss of DFW (as a "fan"), I hope the Professor was right.

Mumpsimus said...

Thank you, Mark. I had missed that post.

themightypuck said...

A reading of Infinite Jest and some of DFW's short stories (Brief Interviews with Hideous Men) suggested to me that DFW had a great deal of respect for AA and 12 step. He was fascinated by the paradox of ego and how being smart makes one stupid.

bagoh20 said...

It's amazing what the chattering class resorts to to avoid manual labor.

bagoh20 said...

I'm mostly a WYSIWYGavist.

rhhardin said...

Will Cuppy specialized in footnote humor.

rhhardin said...

[1] I always use eg or eg. instead of e. g. because I don't think e is an abbrevation.

The Crack Emcee said...

I've listened the the audiobook of David Foster Wallace reading "Consider the Lobster" about a thousand times,...

That explains a LOT,....

Mark said...

Mumpsinus: well, I actually have a bit of egg on my face. I went back and read Ann's post about DFW and the self-help books. It was not Ann who theorized that the self-help book marginalia was not personal, but just "novel fodder." It was a commenter named "Rob" who said that as a comment on the Althouse post where Ann addressed the topic. Click
HERE to read Ann's post and the comments. Rob's comment is the nineteenth comment, if I'm counting correctly.

Regardless of who said it, I think it's a pretty interesting theory.

Chip S. said...

I always use eg or eg. instead of e. g. because I don't think e is an abbrevation.

"e.g." is an abbreviation of the Latin phrase exempli gratia. Ergo, you're wrong not to write e.g.

Q.E.D.

Mark said...

As for "Bagoh"'s comment that it is amazing what the chattering class resorts to so as to avoid manual labor, I will note that I'm supposed to be working on a brief right now, but instead I'm researching old Althouse posts (and comments) about DFW. I don't think writing a brief is manual labor, and I don't count myself a member of the chattering class, but I get your point.

Mumpsimus said...

Mark: Thanks again. And yes, it is an interesting theory. Might be true, might not. We don't like to admit our idols may have feet of (common) clay.

rhhardin said...

eg. e gratia (ablative case), as a favor

traditionalguy said...

Is this more about Football?

If so, N.B. would be a Yellow handkerchief thrown in by a funny dressed prescriptivist with a loud whistle.

If this is about written communication, then it is the old fashioned Yellow highlighter method predating Yellow highlighters.

Either way, yellow rules over footnotes and footballs on 1/2/12

Chip S. said...

That's actually ex gratia, so it would still be "e.g."

But that's not what "e.g." stands for anyway.

Hagar said...

N.B. means "nota bene" as in "N.B. Though the Professor voted for Obama, she is not to be considered a Democrat(ic)!"

kcom said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
kcom said...

As to foot tattoos, blech! I was out on new years and saw a woman walking toward me with a nice pair of cream-colored hose and cream-colored high heels on and this big, dark splotch right on the top of her right foot above the area covered by her shoe. I thought she'd spilled something but as she got closer I realized it was just a big, ugly tattoo that was spoiling the look.

Jose_K said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jose_K said...

not endnotes at the back of a chapter or the entire book... blame Gao. They discovered that the useless notes at the end allow to save money.
For Kindle are better endnotes. PDF once converted are unreadable because of footnotes

Jose_K said...

Who makes the rules?" usually who cares as soon there is one. Everybody drive by the right but the british only because they defeated Napoleon, but one or the other is the same. It was not the same in ancient times. Driving by the left allowed to have your sword handy.

Jose_K said...

I'm a conservative in politics, but a descriptivist in language..so you favor free market in language. Where is the contradiction?

rhhardin said...

Latin has both e and ex, as in e pluribus.

fivewheels said...

I tend to think the attitude of "rules are for suckers" is more a left-wing state of mind. And if you think that enough people breaking a rule makes the rule automatically obsolete, well, your stand on illegal immigration or drug laws might be predictable.

Lem said...

P.S. I Love You

Dear, I thought I drop a line
The weather is cool
The fooks are fine
I'm in bed each night at nine
PS I love you

Yesterday we had some rain
But all in all I can't complain
Was it dusty on the train
PS I love you

Write to the Brown's just as soon as you're able
They came around to call
And not burn a hole in the dining room table
Now let me think; I guess that's all
Nothing else for me to say
And so I'll close, but by the way
Everybody's thinking of you
P.S. I love you

Biff said...

I've always loved footnotes and endnotes. They're the analog era's version of hyperlinks.

Simon said...

As much as I support the use of both latin and footnotes when helpful, and as amusing idea as it is, in execution it's an ugly tatoo. Not that that should surprise, since it's a tatoo (usually ugly) exists at the confluence of tatoos on feet (usually especially ugly) and unadorned textual tatoos (usually especially ugly). I don't understand the increasing prevalence of tatoos—it seems stupid.

rhhardin said...
"I always use eg or eg. instead of e. g. because I don't think e is an abbrevation."

It is. You're wrong.

Chip S. said...
"That's actually ex gratia, so it would still be 'e.g.'"

Classical usage allows for e to stand in for ex if the following word begins with a vowel—e.g. "e pluribus unum." But as you point out, that's not what "e.g." stands for.

Chip S. said...

It's so hard to find good arguments about Latin these days. This is part of what makes Althouse worthwhile.

In the spirit of bonhomie, I'll point out that ex gratia is the form of the expression that's actually used in business law. So while "e" is acceptable, it's by no means mandatory or even standard.

Ex libris and all that.

Simon said...

Chip S. said...
"In the spirit of bonhomie, I'll point out that ex gratia is the form of the expression that's actually used in business law. So while "e" is acceptable, it's by no means mandatory or even standard."

"Eg." might be an acceptable abbreviation for ex gratia (albeit a decidedly strange one: When are two word phrases ever so abbreviated? One would never abbreviate afortiori as "af."). But ex gratia (or e gratia) isn't a synonym for exempli gratia, and so using it (and thus using "eg.") to introduce an example is incorrect. :)

John Burgess said...

@fivewheels: Whatever draws you assume that I equate language and law? I can deal with separate intellectual realms! I am multitude.

Paddy O said...

I love footnotes. Love them.

I love the art and craft of a good footnote. Everything about 'em. I teach 'em. I appreciate them. I make very good use of them.

In the appropriate places, that is.

Beth said...

Thanks for that link. I copied it into MS Word, and mailed that document to my Kindle.

Insufficiently Sensitive said...

One of the joys of reading Gibbon is reading the magnificent bashes against his scholarly rivals in the footnotes. Even better if you can read the Greek and Latin ones.

Insufficiently Sensitive said...

I tend to think the attitude of "rules are for suckers" is more a left-wing state of mind.

Only until they have a lock on making the rules. Then, it's obey or die.