The Daily

On Language

Losing Count

April 16, 2015 | by

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

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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 »

On the Shelf

More Than Just a Haircut, and Other News

April 16, 2015 | by

Audrey Hepburn, the ur-gamine, in the trailer for Roman Holiday.

  • 92Y has released recordings of Tomas Tranströmer reading his poem “Reply to a Letter” in 1989 and Seamus Heaney reading in 1971. “Heaney is in his early thirties on this 1971 recording,” Pura López-Colomé writes in a breathless commentary, “already in full command of his capacities—a Beethoven, more than a Bach … he poet-visionary’s vibrant voice, about to be swallowed by dichotomy, banishes all evil through a salutary tension coil.”
  • Adam Thirlwell on Ulysses and the scandal that continues to surround it: “Joyce happened on a whole new way of writing novels. And the first, most intoxicating invention was the discovery of how comprehensive it was really possible to be. Even sexual fantasies, to choose an extreme example, could suddenly find their form … If transgender fisting occurs earlier in the history of the novel, I would be surprised.”
  • A visual history of the gamine, with her boyish charm, reminds us that she is “more than just a haircut.”
  • On the increasingly gendered use of the exclamation point: “For many women, they are the most common, or neutral, way of ending sentences. Leaving them out indicates negative intentions, while including them simply shows an expected level of enthusiasm.”
  • “My father once split an infinitive, and I did not attend his funeral.” “I got a tattoo of a comma splice and then had it removed.” “I disregard ransom notes if their punctuation is incorrect.” The bona fides of true grammar nerds.

Arts & Culture

Still Golden After All These Years

April 15, 2015 | by

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A mask of Wordsworth made in 1815.

The most famous version of Wordworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” or “Daffodils”—that landmark of English Romanticism, a pedagogical perennial that’s inspired thousands of stock photos of daffodil fields—turns two hundred this year. Most of us remember it fondly; some do not. “I am sure it is a great poem,” one YouTube commenter wrote in response to a spoken rendition, “but every ten-year-old Indian is tortured and tormented by [it] … As a kid I remember I had to memorize pages dissecting this poem, but one question always remained—What the hell is a daffodil? No Indian kid ever laid eyes on that flower.”

The poem had its genesis in a walk Wordsworth took with his sister, Dorothy, on April 15, 1802, which she described in a journal entry with a moving lyricism that rivals her brother’s: Read More »

Our Daily Correspondent

Nailed

April 15, 2015 | by

nails

Anger may in time change to gladness; vexation may be succeeded by content. But a kingdom that has once been destroyed can never come again into being; nor can the dead ever be brought back to life. ―Sun Tzu, The Art of War

I’m very prone to cuts and bruises and scrapes of all kinds—seeing my profusion of scars and Band-Aids and burns, you’d be forgiven for assuming I’m clumsy. I think it’s the certainty of my own nimbleness that leads me to take all kinds of stupid chances. In fact, I average far fewer injuries than I should, given my recklessness. 

No one was exactly shocked, then, when I showed up at a party not long ago with a bruised fingernail. I’d banged my right hand on the heavy metal door of my apartment while trying to snap back and grab a sock that was falling out of the laundry basket; I almost got away with it. It hurt so much that I ran outside and buried my finger in the snow. The pain abated after a few days, but then the nail turned pitch black.

The black fingernail became a source of great fascination for me. I was extravagantly proud of it. “This fingernail is the most exciting thing to happen to me in years,” I said one night, admiring it by the light of the bedside lamp. “Thanks a lot,” said my boyfriend. Read More »

On Travel

Farewell to Meat

April 15, 2015 | by

At Masopust, the Czech festival for spring.

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Photo: Carleen Coulter

In February, I took the night bus to Prague for Masopust, the old spring festival—abandoned under Communism—that has made a steady resurgence in the Czech Republic in recent years. The bus pulled into a neighborhood adjacent to the Vltava, north of Old Town, late on a Thursday evening. According to centuries-old tradition, Czech farmers would have slaughtered pigs earlier in the day to make blood sausages, headcheese, and other treyf dishes for the coming feasts. At the bus station, though, there was only a Burger King, a McDonald’s, and, beyond them, the famous Prague spires. Pill-shaped tramcars rumbled along the quiet streets, their interiors as bright as roadside diners.

Saturday morning, I boarded a local bus bound for Únětice, a village about five miles outside the city. With its muddy streets and modest Brueghelian cottages clustered alongside a wide, frozen lake, Únětice presents a fairy tale, or at least preindustrial, vision of Central Bohemia. It was bright and cold, the streets still empty save a few Lycra-clad joggers puffing out steam—Brueghel’s rotund peasants, slimmed down for the new millennium. Cracked and faded village walls suggested an attentively maintained desuetude, and the local tavern was selling strong black beer brewed locally for the occasion. Inside the tavern, I found the tables full of locals eating little open-faced sandwiches called chlebíčky and waiting for the festival to start. Read More »

On the Shelf

Do Not Let This Man Paint, and Other News

April 15, 2015 | by

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Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Autoportrait, ca. 1875.

  • “How do you rehabilitate your love for art works based on expired and inhuman social values—and why bother?” Elif Batuman reckons with racist literature. (Which is, after all, most literature: “These Turks took a pleasure in torturing children,” Dostoyevsky wrote in The Brothers Karamazov.)
  • Frida Kahlo’s love letters to José Bartoli are being exhibited and auctioned, thus granting “small-minded people the chance to grub about, imagining what it’s like to be a great artist enjoying a great love affair, with its epic arc, operatic decline and poignant afterlife … This is all being served up like a tray of fast food, yet more low-grade fodder to fuel the Kahlo myth with sexualised details, emotional prurience and papery relics. People will pore over her handwriting in a way they never pore over her work.”
  • “Irritated by Renoir’s intrusion, Manet is reported to have told Monet, ‘He has no talent, that boy. Since he’s your friend, you should tell him to give up painting!’”
  • On the continued importance of close reading as an academic tool: “The attentive inspection of the verbal texture of poems, novels, and plays continues to be the methodological basis of what we do in our most important venue: the college classroom, especially the Intro to Lit classroom … teachers found that students lacking specialized knowledge of the ins and outs of English history or the finer points of Aristotelian logic could still get excited by talking about the form of a Donne lyric or image-patterns in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man it allowed public-school trained students at the University of Illinois or Iowa to have as much to say about texts as their preppie counterparts at Yale or Harvard.”
  • An ode to the lowly breakfast sandwich, that quiet workhorse: “The great virtue of the bacon, egg and cheese on a roll, or its variations, is in what it doesn’t do. It doesn’t divide New Yorkers by class, income or neighborhood. It doesn’t seek publicity. It doesn’t convey status or bragging rights. It just conveys nutrition and, if you need it, settles your nerves. It is a secret handshake that New Yorkers exchange, not with one another, but with the city.”