The Daily

On Language

Quote Unquote

June 30, 2015 | by

A sentence goes viral—why?

quinndombrowskithelibrary

Quinn Dombrowski, The Library, 2010. Image via Flickr

I recently discovered that a sentence of mine, written many years ago in a book that had enjoyed some critical praise but disappointing sales, had gone viral.

I suppose I google myself about as often as any writer does, and I hope not more often, but on the occasion of my discovery I was doing so at someone else’s behest: in preparation for a new book, my publishing house had asked me to compile a portfolio of reviews of my previous books. As I scrolled through the search results, hunting for newspaper and magazine URLs, I became aware that I was seeing the same words and sentence fragments over and over again in the highlights at the top of each hit. “Eating…” “…communion…” “ …hospitality in general…” The combination sounded vaguely familiar. I finally tracked down the full quote at Goodreads.

The book, The Duchess Who Wouldn’t Sit Down, from 2003, is an anecdotal history of hospitality in Western civilization, in reverse chronological order from Nazi Germany to Homeric Greece. The sentence, hidden deep within the body of the book and in no way positioned to draw attention to itself, reads as follows:

Eating, and hospitality in general, is a communion, and any meal worth attending by yourself is improved by the multiples of those with whom it is shared.

Read More »

Losing Count

April 16, 2015 | by

“Eeny, meeny, miny, mo” and the ambiguous history of counting-out rhymes.

Cedar-Central

A Works Progress Administration poster for the Cedar Central Apartments in Cleveland, Ohio, ca. 1936.

Eeny, meeny, miny, mo
Catch a tiger by the toe
If he hollers, let him go
Eeny meeny miny mo

“Eeny meeny miny mo” is one of those rhymes that’s ingrained in our cultural limbic system—once we hear the first two syllables, the rest unspools whether we want it to or not. No one knows what eeny or meeny might mean; everybody knows what “eeny meeny” means. It turns up in strange places: in Pulp Fiction, in the Great Vermont Corn Maze, in Justin Bieber songs. But where did eeny meeny come from? Kipling tells us that “Eenee, Meenee, Mainee, and Mo / Were the First Big Four of the Long Ago,” but that’s not such a good lead.

What we do know is that once Eeny Meeny appeared on the scene, it was everywhere. In the fifties and sixties, the formidable husband-and-wife folklorists Iona and Peter Opie recorded hundreds of varieties in England and America, including, to name just a few: Read More »

Perfect Paul

March 5, 2015 | by

Our ongoing quest to personify the weather.

Arthur Rackham, 1912.

As I write this, the ominously named Winter Storm Thor is bringing his hammer down on the tristate area. Thor is pelting. Thor is dumping. Thor is lashing, coating, and causing havoc. He has an image problem, as all storms do, these days. Led by the heedless call of the Weather Channel, the media has depicted Thor—like Juno, Neptune, and others before him—as a creature of blind wrath, fueled by an amoral, motiveless lust for destruction. If you believe in the banality of evil, then Winter Storm Thor belongs with Eichmann and Iago in your rogues’ gallery.

The Weather Channel has named winter storms since 2012, as part of a dumb and widely impugned media strategy that sensationalizes the weather in a shameless bid for more clicks. “The previous model was: How does weather affect you?” Neil Katz, who runs Weather.com, told The New Republic last year. “Now we’re really asking: How does weather affect everything in the world?” By becoming the very embodiment of vengeance, is one answer. Read More »

You Get What You Deserve

January 13, 2015 | by

Sir Thomas Wyatt’s “They Flee From Me” and the history of the word deserve.

Angelica_Kauffmann_-_Ariadne_Abandoned_by_Theseus

Angelica Kauffmann, Ariadne Abandoned by Theseus, 1774.

The best I-just-got-dumped pop song ever, beating out such classics as “Wild World,” “Don’t You Want Me,” “Nothing Compares 2 U,” “You Oughta Know,” and “Irreplaceable,” is six hundred years old: Sir Tom’s “Runaway,” known to poets and scholars as “They Flee From Me” by Thomas Wyatt. You can read the original lyrics here (old spelling, modern spelling), but the structure and arc couldn’t be simpler: three verses, no chorus.

  1. Wait, what? They used to come running after me.
  2. Especially this one girl. Man, she was so hot.
  3. It’s true. Now she won’t even talk to me. I must have been too nice.

At least she’ll get her comeuppance: “But since that I so kindly am served / I would fain know what she hath deserved.”

To paraphrase: since she was so nice to me (sarcastic!)—and/or the now-obsolete meaning: since she treated me so in keeping with her kind, just the way you’d expect her to act (that bitch!)—I’d like to know what she has coming. The strange word to modern ears is the last one. Doesn’t the singer already know what she deserves, just not what she’s going to get? Read More »

5 COMMENTS

A Penny Saved Is a Waste of Time

November 4, 2014 | by

How our coins got their names.

1909_US_Penny

The 1909 penny.

Election Day is here again, and I know there are some single-issue voters out there who haven’t forgotten an issue of our time that Congress has repeatedly failed to act on, despite the introduction of bills HR 3761 in 1989, HR 2528 in 2001, and HR 5818 in 2006. President Obama has stated that he is in favor—the lobbyists for outnumber the lobbyists against—and yet the Price Rounding Act, the Legal Tender Modernization Act, and the Currency Overhaul for an Industrious Nation (COIN) Act, respectively, have all failed to pass. As a nation, we have yet to abolish the penny.

A penny costs more to produce than it is worth (even after the 1982 change from a 95 percent copper composition to 97.5 percent zinc), so the U.S. loses tens of millions of dollars a year minting them; the sheer cost of lost time spent hunting for pennies, waiting in line behind someone else hunting for pennies, and disposing of pointless pennies once we have them has been estimated at as high as a billion dollars a year. No coin in U.S. history has ever been worth less than a penny is today, by a long shot: the half cent, eliminated in 1857, was worth more than a dime in today’s buying power. A penny saved may be a penny earned, but it is about two seconds of income for an average American, so who cares. Yet again, the Ben Franklin for our time turns out to be Andy Warhol: “I hate PENNIES. I wish they’d stop making them altogether. I would never save them. I don’t have the time. I like to say in stores, ‘Oh forget it, keep those pennies. It makes my French wallet too heavy.’ ”

One thing we’ll lose, when the penny eventually goes the inevitable way of the half cent and the Canadian penny (extinct as of 2012), is the last possible link between our language of money and the everyday physical world. Read More »

9 COMMENTS

The Beauty of Code

September 5, 2014 | by

1

Dependency diagram (Image via TheDailyWTF)

This is what ugly code looks like. This is a dependency diagram—a graphic representation of interdependence or coupling (the black lines) between software components (the gray dots) within a program. A high degree of interdependence means that changing one component inside the program could lead to cascading changes in all the other connected components, and in turn to changes in their dependencies, and so on. Programs with this kind of structure are brittle, and hard to understand and fix. This dependency program was submitted anonymously to TheDailyWTF.com, where working programmers share “Curious Perversions in Information Technology” as they work. The exhibits at TheDailyWTF are often embodiments of stupidity, of miasmic dumbness perpetrated by the squadrons of sub-Mort programmers putting together the software that runs businesses across the globe. But, as often, high-flying “enterprise architects” and consultants put together systems that produce dependency diagrams that look like this renowned TheDailyWTF exhibit. A user commented, “I found something just like that blocking the drain once.”

If that knot of tangled hair provokes disgust, what kind of code garners admiration? In the anthology Beautiful Code, the contribution from the creator of the popular programming language Ruby, Yukihiro “Matz” Matsumoto, is an essay titled “Treating Code as an Essay.” Matz writes:

Judging the attributes of computer code is not simply a matter of aesthetics. Instead, computer programs are judged according to how well they execute their intended tasks. In other words, “beautiful code” is not an abstract virtue that exists independent of its programmers’ efforts. Rather, beautiful code is really meant to help the programmer be happy and productive. This is the metric I use to evaluate the beauty of a program.

Read More »

19 COMMENTS