The Daily

On Language

Power Tools

July 15, 2014 | by

The wonders of industrial-supply catalogs.

Photo: Jjron, via Wikimedia Commons

When I was nine or ten, riding in the backseat of my mom’s car as we drove the gauntlet of strip malls, car dealerships, big-box stores, and fast-food franchises that constituted our suburb’s commercial district, I realized that all of the tall signs and buildings had been constructed and erected by actual people, different crews of people. I thought about all the Burger King and Mattress Discounters signs in the world, how each had been shipped from somewhere, delivered to someone, received, assembled, mounted, electrified. I attributed a lot of power and reach to corporations, especially those that advertised on TV, and to understand that they comprised real people was something of an epiphany—especially in suburbia, where corporate authority rests in the illusion that no human labor has gone into transforming and homogenizing the landscape. All the stores were just there. What else could there be?

That moment is part of what informs my fascination with the Grainger catalog, a massive, 4,322-plus page industrial-supply inventory with which I first became acquainted last year, when a friend gave it to me for my birthday. Released annually on February 1, it’s an omnibus of 590,000 products—power tools, fasteners, pneumatics, hydraulics, pumps, raw materials, janitorial necessities, HVAC and refrigeration components—a work of pure utility, designed, honed, and focus-grouped to provide ready access to its most arcane sections. I can’t get enough of it. For the uninitiated, it provides a glimpse at the invisible infrastructure girding the world of construction, maintenance, repair, and operations. Grainger’s aggressively salt-of-the-earth slogan is “For the Ones Who Get It Done,” and the joy of perusing its catalog is in seeing how very many things there are to get done, and how many ways we have of doing them.

And so I often reach for it in pursuit of a kind of materialist awe. It makes for a reading experience more engaging, imaginative, and informative than almost anything that passes as literature. I’ve put down novels to pick up the Grainger catalog, which holds court on my coffee table and which could, in a pinch, serve as a coffee table unto itself.

Grainger sells mail-room organizers, carpet deodorizers, hairnet dispensers, and gutter-deicing cables. They sell a three-stage, heavy-traffic floor-matting system designed to entrap heavy debris. They sell miniature high-precision stainless-steel ball bearings with extended inner rings. They sell 550-foot rolls of foam for protecting electronics and an oil-filtration system for high-viscosity fluids. Their catalog contains a proliferation of heavily modified nouns that denote things I never knew existed, or things I’d intuited to exist, but had never really considered.

Metalized polyester film tape.

GMP/GLP data output moisture analyzers.

Electrostatic dissipative (ESD) gloves.

Cup point alloy steel socket set screws. Read More »

6 COMMENTS

Speaking American

July 7, 2014 | by

The varying temperaments of British and American storytelling.

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Lower Basswood Falls, Superior National Forest, July 1961.

In 1890, a thirty-seven-year-old Scot named James F. Muirhead arrived in America with the intention of carrying out an extensive survey of the republic for the “Baedeker’s Handbook to the United States.” Muirhead spent the next three years traveling to almost every state and territory in the Union, approaching his vast subject matter with none of the condescension often expressed by Victorian Englishmen of the era. In 1898 he published The Land of Contrasts—A Briton’s View of His American Kin, which he considered to be a “tribute of admiration and gratitude.” His colorful chapter headings show the range of his interests: “An Appreciation of the American Woman,” “Sports and Amusements,” “American Journalism—A Mixed Blessing,” and “Some Literary Straws.”

In that last chapter, Muirhead attempts to throw some light upon the “respective literary tastes of the Englishman and the American.” While he notes the grammatical wrongness of the American idiom—at least to his ear—in phrases such as “a long ways off” or “In a voice neither could scare hear,” he is most interested in “the tone, the temper, the method, the ideals” of an American writer. He singles out William Dean Howells—who challenged American authors to choose American subjects—as “purely and exclusively American, in his style as in his subject, in his main themes as in his incidental illustrations, in his spirit, his temperament, his point of view.”

But what does it mean to have an American point of view? Muirhead keeps trying to put his finger on this elusive quality: “Mr. Howells … possesses a bonhomie, a geniality, a good-nature veiled by a slight mask of cynicism, that may be personal, but which strikes one as also a characteristic American trait.” And then: “To me Mr. Howells, even when in his most realistic and sordid vein, always suggests the ideal and the noble.” Read More »

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The Last Word

June 6, 2014 | by

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Albert Goodwin, Apocalypse, 1902.

Late in 2007, a poet and programmer named Adam Parrish started @everyword, a Twitter account dedicated to tweeting all the words in English. The very first tweet, from 6:53 A.M. on September 2, 2007, seems to have been blasphemous, but after that came a, and things settled into a familiar alphabetical rhythm.

In the days of the early letters, we felt footloose and fancy-free. It seemed, for a while, that the dictionary and its roughly 109,000 entries would last us for the rest of our natural lives. Years passed. Words came and went at a stately pace. The most retweeted among them were sex and weed, those poles of the human condition.

But things took on a sudden urgency earlier this year when x, y, and z came around. None of us felt young anymore—we were living in the twilight of the alphabet, suddenly, acutely aware of our own mortality. @everyword, once a fixture of the Twittersphere, was soon to be snuffed out by Fate, as we all must be. As of this writing, zoril, zounds, and zoysia have just been tweeted, each one a harbinger of doom. The last word is expected to go up this weekend, if not later today. (One never knows exactly when Death’s cold, tenebrous hand will descend upon one’s shoulder.)

In an interview earlier this week, Parrish told The Guardian,

Whimsy is something that I'm very interested in evoking in people. I don’t like the concept of personalization on the web. When I get on the Internet it’s because I want to have a shared experience. I want to see what other people see. The Internet is a way to find out what life is like for other people. One of the goals of the stuff I make is to produce these experiences, and not sell you something, which is what a lot of the Internet is about these days.

Excellent points, but as the end beckons, whimsy is on the wane. (Or not—it was just tweeted a month ago.) Parrish never discussed why he chose to begin his series with blasphemous, but it augurs ill for us, now that we’re in the end-times. Has he been courting Satan with his word spells? Twitter’s eschatologists are predicting the apocalypse. What will happen when the final word goes up? Is there life after zed—or, more accurately, after zyxt?

1 COMMENT

Wiltshire Words

May 30, 2014 | by

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Longleat, Wiltshire: Morris's County Seats, 1880. From Volume II of The County Seats of the Noblemen and Gentlemen of Great Britain and Ireland, by Francis Orpen Morris.

In 1893, George Edward Dartnell and the Reverend Edward Hungerford Goddard published Glossary of Wiltshire Words—it is, as intuitive readers will have guessed, a glossary of words used in the county of Wiltshire. The “Folk-speech,” as the authors call it, is full of evocative terms, some of them familiar—jumble and caterpillar—and others entirely puzzling. (Evidence suggests that Wiltshire residents were often puzzled; they have about three dozen words for the condition.) The best entries tend to be common words with new definitions. Smart, for instance, used to mean “a second swarm of bees”; goggles was “a disease in sheep.”

Here are a few of the most novel words with annotations from the authors. Read More »

5 COMMENTS

Without Compunction

May 20, 2014 | by

Doing verbal battle at the O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships.

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An illustration from the Tacuinum Sanitatis, from the late fourteenth century. (No pun included.)

The only thing harder than crafting a good pun is finding someone to appreciate it. It’s not that puns are universally reviled—though their critics make it seem that way. It’s just that for every person who loves a clever play on words, there exists another who absolutely despises them; in mixed company, puns are, along with politics and religion, best left alone. If only there were an app that could match people by their senses of humor. Tinder? I barely know ’er!

If it’s difficult to pun profitably in the United States, it’s all but impossible in Mexico, where I’ve been living for the past year. Here I’m limited somewhat by my imperfect Spanish, but also by a lack of fellow punning linguists. There’s not even a word for pun in Spanish, which made it difficult to explain to friends here that after ten months of wasting my presumably hilarious wordplay on their apparently deaf ears, I’d bought myself a ticket to Austin, Texas, to compete in the O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships. Despite its grandiose name, there is no qualifying round ahead of this “championship,” and, with the exception of a lanky Englishman in a chicken suit, all the participants were American.

“So a pun is like a play on words?” a Mexican friend asked before I set out, using the Spanish phrase juego de palabras, that most dictionaries list as the translation for “pun.”

Well, yes, I said, but it’s a specific kind of play on words. I tried to find an example, but I hadn’t realized until that moment just how difficult it is to come up with puns on the spot. The example I offered, which defined the exchange of sex for spaghetti as pasta-tution, didn’t translate as well as I’d hoped. Read More »

44 COMMENTS

The Birth (and Death) of Edward Lear

May 12, 2014 | by

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You’d think it would be easy to invent nonsense words. After all, the real lexical bummer usually rests in the burden of definition: your average neologism has to mean something. Nonsense words, on the other hand, are not merely devoid of but entirely divorced from meaning—creating them should just be a matter of aesthetics. Throw a couple consonants together, make sure there’s a vowel in there someplace: voilà. And yet—

Hlerkjer—not a very good nonsense word.

Grimblurp—better, but still aesthetically lacking…

Runcible—now, that’s quality nonsense.

Lear_Runcible_spoonRuncible is a creation of Edward Lear’s, arguably his pièce de résistance—though it faces stiff competition from the likes of tilly-loo, Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò, tiniskoop, cheerious, meloobious, gromboolian, mumbian, bruffled, dolomphious, borascible, fizzgiggious, himmeltanious, tumble-dum-down, spongetaneous, and blatter-platter. Lear, born today in 1812, was a prolific painter and illustrator, but the poem—especially the limerick—is where he really left his mark. In such volumes as The Book of Nonsense; More Nonsense Songs, Pictures, Etc.; Nonsense Botany; The Quangle-Wangle’s Hat; and Scroobious Pip, he cultivated an ear for twaddle, malarkey, and piffle that remains largely unrivaled in letters to this day. His nonsense words have a certain authority to them, so much so that one feels compelled to define them—and on the tongue they have an inimitable springiness, an Anglo-Saxon lilt. When Lear’s characters aren’t named after nonsense or spouting it, they tend to be pursuing it in some form or another, as they do here, in the first stanza of “The Jumblies”: Read More »

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