The Daily

On Language

How to Say No in Turkish

October 20, 2015 | by

Navigating a new language.

A postcard of the harbor in Constantinople, ca. 1914.

Some people see learning a language as an obstacle course or, more euphemistically, as a second coming of age. Whichever way you look at it, when it comes to Turkish, English speakers are faced with a much harder task than with an Indo-European language.

Why does the Turkish alphabet not contain the letter w? Very few Turkish words remind me of their equivalents in the languages I know; nothing follows a familiar pattern. Over and again, I read meanings into words that turn out to be false friends. Why does engel mean “obstacle,” kalender “unconventional” (it can also be a male first name), tabak—“dish”? Why do you “drink” a cigarette—sigara içmek? Why is a sunflower called a “moon flower,” and a hornet a “donkey bee”? Who came up with the idea to choose inmek for “get off”? Will I ever learn to stop dotting the ı? Read More »

What Happened to O?

August 27, 2015 | by

The death of an exclamation.

William Blake had me thinking about death.

I was lying on my couch, Norton Anthology in my lap, when I stumbled on Blake’s poem “The Sick Rose.” I’d read the poem before, and I remembered its famous opening lament: “O Rose, thou art sick!”

What follows is a compact poem built of stark imagery. An invisible, amorous worm is flying through a storm at night. It descends on a rose. A death is at hand. And the perpetrator of the rose’s death, Blake warns, is none other than the worm’s secret love.

I reread the poem, parsing its lines for meaning. Then I read it once again. The night was late, and I felt drowsy. As sleep approached, an inchoate thought began to surface.

I sat up. O Rose, I thought. O Muse. O death.

I stood from the couch and found a pen. I tore off a piece of scratch paper, and on it I wrote myself a note: “What killed O?” Read More »

The Library of Babel as Seen from Within

July 23, 2015 | by

Reproducing Borges’s imaginary library online.


Since I first read it in a high school Spanish class, I’ve been fascinated by the theory of language implicit in Borges’s “The Library of Babel.” The story describes a universal library containing, in 410-page volumes, every possible permutation of twenty-two letters, spaces, commas, and periods—every book that’s ever been written and every book that ever could be, drowned out by endless pages of gibberish. Its librarians are addicted to the search for certain master texts, the complete catalog of the library, or the future history of one’s own life, but their quest inevitably ends in failure, despair, even suicide.

Perhaps I was obsessed by the same desire for revelation, or haunted by the same subversion of all rational pursuit. In either case, fifteen years later the idea came to me one night of using the vast calculative capacities of a computer to re-create the Library of Babel as a Web site. For those interested in experiencing the futile hope of Borges’s bibliotecarios, I’ve made, which now contains anything we ever have written or ever will write, including these sentences I struggle to compose now. Here, to give you a sense of the vastness and the unintelligibility of such a project, is a random page: Read More »

Rout the Kimmie in the Boat

July 16, 2015 | by

A glossary of Boontling.


The William Wallach Duff home, whose residents, per local lore, were instrumental in developing Boontling.

Between 1880 and 1920, the residents of a relatively isolated Northern California town called Boonville spoke a secret language. Boontling, as the locals called it, was an elaborate jargon developed either by the men working the hop fields who wished to keep their conversations private, or by women who wanted to gossip unobtrusively about a young lady who had found herself kaishbook (pregnant). Whatever its origins, the language soon spread through the small community, who used it to confuse outsiders. The lexicon included phonologically changed words borrowed from regional Appalachian dialect, Spanish, and the local Pomo Indian language; it later expanded to include invented figures of speech, nouns turned into verbs, onomatopoeia, and other neologisms.

In 1971, Charles C. Adams, who was widely recognized as an authority on the dialect, published Boontling: An American Lingo, a linguistic and historical study on the slang, which came complete with a dictionary. Here are a few of our favorites: Read More »

Quote Unquote

June 30, 2015 | by

A sentence goes viral—why?


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.


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 »