Tag Archives: grammar

Overwhelmed by Anxiety

Sometimes we say that we are overwhelmed by anxiety. Or we might say our anxiety feels or is “overwhelming.” Nobody says, “anxiety overwhelms me,” and maybe that’s telling, or at least a decent place to start.

When we put our overwhelmed selves in the picture, we opt for the passive voice. We are not objects of anxiety but its passive subjects, and it seems we want to keep the focus on our subjective condition – on our experience and on our suffering. Whether this might be a desperate plea for compassion or more hopeless vanity is hard to say. It’s probably both of those things, one feeding the other, and a whole bunch of other things as well.

Or look at it this way: when we say we are overwhelmed by anxiety, we make ourselves out to be patients (in both the grammatical and clinical sense of the word). Anxiety is our affliction, not just a disease or something we caught like a cold, but an external agent having its way with us and working us over. We imagine it as a sort of contagion or miasma, a dark force that pursues and overtakes us.

Then again, the metaphor is more specific than that. We should remember the roots of the verb “overwhelm” in the Old English hwelfan, “to overturn [a vessel].” In the range of illustrations we have, the vessel can be anything from a cup to a pot to a ship; a gardener may also whelve the soil. A storm may whelm a ship. In any case, when we are overwhelmed by anxiety, we are the vessel. Everything is topsy-turvy. Our ship has been tossed about and turned over by the tempest. It’s a wreck. All hands are lost.

It could be an opportunity to acknowledge our own powerlessness, a reminder that the person we refer to with the first person pronoun, I, is not always able to set the course, or stick to the course we’ve set. This is something we all know, somewhere deep down inside, and some of our anxiety surely stems from this knowledge of our plain human frailty, which we try through various ruses to keep hidden from ourselves. Even here, when I say I am overwhelmed by anxiety, I am saying “I” in the face of this threat that overwhelms me, a last “I” before I might disappear. And crying out like that – clinging to that I — only tends to make it worse.

Prone To Error

Earlier today, someone at the YUNiversity of Righteous Grammar posted this tweet:

A good rule of thumb — but, it turns out, not much more than that. Just a few hours later, I came across the word “prone” used to mean both prostrate and supine in Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo (Part 3, Chapter X).

Stuck on the Great Isabel, Martin Decoud, “the brilliant Costaguanero of the boulevards,” is about to die of solitude:

It had been a day of absolute silence — the first he had known in his life. And he had not slept a wink. Not for all these wakeful nights and the days of fighting, planning, talking; not for all that last night of danger and hard physical toil upon the gulf, had he been able to close his eyes for a moment. And yet from sunrise to sunset he had been lying prone on the ground, either on his back or on his face.

The OED defines the adjective prone as “situated or lying face downwards, or on the belly”; and my discovery of this exception to the rule proves only that:
A) Kory Stamper is right: prescriptivists can learn from descriptivists to be a little more accommodating;
B) good writers don’t always follow the rules, and sometimes make mistakes;
C) you never know how one thing you read will connect with another — a lesson in literary serendipity as ancient as the Virgilian dip; and
D) Conrad didn’t need the word “prone” in that sentence.

A Follow-Up to Hitchings’ Follow-Up Post on “The Ask”

Shortly after I posted my thoughts on his Times opinionator blog, Henry Hitchings promised me  a “follow-up blog” on “the dark side of nominalization.” Yesterday that follow-up blog (wait – isn’t “follow-up” a nominalization?) appeared. There, Hitchings echoes what I’ve said about asking:

I touched previously on “What is the ask?” As an alternative to “What are they asking?” or “What are we being asked to do?” this can seem crisp. It takes an aerial view of an issue. But it calculatedly omits reference to the people doing the asking, as a way of keeping their authority and power out of the question.

At the same time, by turning the act of asking into something narrow and impersonal, “What is the ask?” repositions a question as a command. It leaves little or no room for the “ask” to be refused. As a noun, “ask” is pretty much a synonym for “order.” Even when we retain details of agency — as in “What is their ask of us?” – the noun ossifies what could and should be a more dynamic process.

It’s good to see that Hitchings has relented and come around to the view that “the ask” is an insidious and sinister piece of jargon — a view I’ve been developing since my first post on “the ask” just a little over a year ago (and in subsequent posts, here and here, for example).  The other day Hitchings seemed to admire the “distancing” effect the nominative ask creates, and I feared he was advocating doing unpleasant things in order to achieve “polemical or diplomatic” ends. Now he is on the side of “a more dynamic process” in which, I gather, the “authority and power”of the person doing the asking will be openly acknowledged.

I’m all for transparency, attributions of agency and the give and take of dynamic process, but the real power of asking lies elsewhere. Asking transforms power itself; it involves the exercise of a non-coercive power. We tend not even to think of this as power, as Pierre Clastres pointed out in Society Against the State. Instead, we are used to associating power with force (which subjects others to labor, or worse) or commands (which prompt others to do our bidding). But when it comes to asking, nobody’s really in charge — at least as long as someone is making or responding to the request. It’s a moment when things are up for grabs.

The authority and power vested in a person, their title, position, influence over our lives — if any of that is being brought to bear on a request, then we are simply being ordered about with commands disguised as questions. Asking marks a different point of departure — a place where you and I are on equal footing, and we start something, together. It creates “middle ground” between the petitioner and the respondent: not just an area of compromise, but an area that is open, shared, and which nobody can claim entirely as his own.