When Bad Prose Happens to Good People might be one way to subtitle this blog’s ongoing and best-known feature, Scathing Online Schoolmarm. SOS identifies and analyzes unfortunate writing – writing so bad that it can get an otherwise blameless person into serious trouble.

A sad and much-discussed current instance is Dr. Lazar Greenfield’s Valentine’s Day column in the official organ of the American College of Surgeons. His column so outraged members of that organization that the entire issue of the newspaper was taken down and the otherwise dedicated and admired Greenfield removed from his editorship. Other high positions he holds within the ACS are also imperiled.

Read the entire column here and get back to me.


… Hokay.

SOS suggests that the heart of the matter, the essential offending language, lies here:

[There are] ingredients in semen that include mood enhancers like estrone, cortisol, prolactin, oxytocin, and serotonin; a sleep enhancer, melatonin; and of course, sperm, which makes up only 1%-5%. Delivering these compounds into the richly vascularized vagina also turns out to have major salutary effects for the recipient.

… [N]ow we know there’s a better gift for that day than chocolates.

SOS read these sentences to a randomly encountered man in the street – Mr UD – and awaited his response.

“Ick,” he said.

“Ick?” said UD.

“In arguments about ethics there’s this thing called The Ick Factor,” Mr UD explained. “The idea is that there might be something revealing about our moral intuitions in the ugh response to a situation or a statement or a person or whatever.”

“You’re talking about what my younger sister calls oogie?”

“Oogie, ick, ugh, call it what you will. Immediate visceral disgust.”


Writing that’s obviously intended to be lighthearted and maybe a tad risqué turns out to be for many readers unfunny and gross. Let’s get clinical about why.

Clinical is part of the problem. This clinician has brought the stark unamusing language of the surgical field (richly vascularized, compounds, deliver/recipient) to his little editorial sally; and while mismatches like these can be funny if they’re self-conscious and over the top, their use here is simply a mismatch, simply an indication that the writer cannot exploit the jargon of his field for comic effect.

In fact there was a comic effect for me when I got to richly vascularized vagina; but it involved my laughing at a clueless writer’s weird paean to an organ.

My response to Greenfield’s language is not so much ick as … what? I mean, yes of course the content is off-putting – the best Valentine’s gift a woman can hope to receive is a spray of semen – but it’s off-putting because the writer is, as the Retraction Watch blog notes, “rather strange.” Good writing is supposed to pull you in, not repel you. Greenfield has written something as weird as it is disgusting, and in this alienating combination lies its failure.

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3 Responses to “Scathing Online Schoolmarm: Richly Vascularized FAIL”

  1. dave.s. Says:

    I read it and actually think it’s kind of cute. I also really hate it that people get huge and nasty penalties for saying things publicly that other people don’t like: you end up with a lot of self-censorship and people saying things privately with their buddies, rather than in any kind of setting where they may get challenged.

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    dave.s. – I think it attains cuteness here and there, but in general is a mess.

    But I entirely agree with you that penalties for things like this – penalties beyond a style-scathe from people like me – are unfair and absurd.

  3. david foster Says:

    Oh, good grief. It’s not exactly the most romantic thing that could have been posted for Valentine’s Day, and I agree it’s just a bit icky (someone I mentioned it to said “Guy must be at least borderline autistic”), but hounding the guy out of his job? Not a good thing.

    Paul Rahe has a post on this, with extensive discussion, at Ricochet.

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