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Posts Tagged ‘dictionaries’

The Role of the Poet: An Interview with Solmaz Sharif

July 27, 2016 | by

In 2014, I heard Solmaz Sharif read “Look,” the title poem from her debut collectionLook inserts military terminology into intimate scenes between lovers, refashioning hollow, bureaucratic language from the U.S. Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms with a human touch. (Even the collection’s title has an alternate military meaning: per the Department of Defense, a look means “a period during which a mine circuit is receptive of influence.”) At a time when the U.S. automates acts of murder, Sharif insists that war is still personal—perhaps today more than ever. In one of its most quoted passages, she writes, “Daily I sit / with the language / they’ve made / of our language / to NEUTRALIZE / the CAPABILITY OF LOW DOLLAR VALUE ITEMS / like you.” 

By simply placing words from the Defense dictionary in small caps, and deploying them in scenes of intimacy,” John Freeman wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Sharif has begun the process of renaturing them, putting them in the readers’ hands for examination.” Look confirms what I’ve known since 2014: Sharif is poised to influence not only literature but larger conversations about America, war, and the Middle East. I spoke with her about her influences, the role of the poet in today’s world, and the stories behind Look.

INTERVIEWER

In an essay you wrote for the Kenyon Review, you said, “When I am asked to describe my poetry on airplane flights, at dinner parties, I describe it first as ‘political.’ Then, ‘documentary.’ And these two things seem to, for some, preclude aesthetic rigor.” There’s a popular conception that overtly political can’t have aesthetic value—that a political message degrades the aesthetics. Is your work a deliberate effort to rebut this notion? Read More »

Dord, and Other News

February 24, 2016 | by

Dord!

  • Foupe, adventine, dentize, kime, morse—these and other non-word words have made their way into English-language dictionaries over the centuries, blurring the line between errata and neologisms. Philologists call them ghost words, and they’re mainly the result of printers’ errors. Jack Lynch writes of the most famous example, from 1934: “Webster’s included many abbreviations in its wordlist, and the compilers planned to include the abbreviation for density … One lexicographer—Austin M. Patterson, special editor for chemistry—typed a 3" × 5" card explaining the abbreviation: he headed it ‘D or d’ … But when it came time to transcribe the card, someone misread it and ran the letters together without spaces, producing ‘Dord, density’ … The entry made it into the dictionary as ‘dord, density.’ It took five years for a Merriam editor to notice the strange entry … The printer removed dord from the next reprint, filling the otherwise empty line by adding a few letters to the entry for doré furnace.”
  • While we’re on dictionaries: Are they sexist? Well, yes. Are they irretrievably sexist? That depends … “Feminists and linguists have been talking about the sexism that lurks beneath the surface of dictionaries since at least the nineteen-sixties … In 1987, the radical philosopher and activist Mary Daly wrote an entry for a word of her own coinage: ‘Dick-tionary, n: any patriarchal dictionary: a derivative, tamed and muted lexicon compiled by dicks.’ Rooting out the sexism in dictionaries was a priority for feminism’s second wave. The nineteen-seventies and eighties witnessed a profusion of alternative volumes like Daly’s, which highlighted biases that belied mainstream dictionaries’ descriptive ideals … The choices about what to include in a dictionary, like the construction of any historical record, are, arguably, inherently political … Feminist linguists argue that, in some instances, lexicographers should put a thumb on the scale.”
  • Today in love and the arts: Georg Friedrich Haas, a world-renowned composer, sent an OkCupid message to his future wife. “Wow—your profile is great … I would like to tame you.” Thus began a different kind of courtship: “In a joint appearance with his wife, who now goes by Mollena Williams-Haas, late last year at the Playground sexuality conference in Toronto, then in an interview this month in the online music magazine VAN, he has ‘come out,’ as he put it, as the dominant figure in a dominant-submissive power dynamic. Mr. Haas has chosen to speak up … because he hopes to embolden younger people, particularly composers, not to smother untraditional urges, as he did … Williams-Haas, who described the situation as feminist because it is her choice, said, ‘I find intense fulfillment in being able to serve in this way.’ She conceded the discomfort many may feel with a black woman willingly submitting to a white man … she added, ‘To say I can’t play my personal psychodrama out just because I’m black, that’s racist.’ ”
  • The other nontraditional composer in the news is the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, which has recently detected gravitational waves for the first time in history and converted their signal into audio. “When we listen to the waves that LIGO first played for us, we can tell that the system is quite heavy, since the signal ends a bit lower than middle C on the piano. If the system were lighter, the waves would have ended at a higher pitched note … We know we can hear these waves now, and we want to make our ears better … We want to hear the ghostly whispers of the earliest moments of the universe’s expansion. We want to listen without prejudice and to hear things that for now we can barely imagine.”
  • If space sounds make you anxious, turn your attention instead to Japan’s Kamakura Period (1185–1333), serene statues from which are now on display at the Asia Society of New York: “These mesmerizing sculptures show the sacred being standing quietly above an opening lotus blossom, and dressed in monk’s robes whose folds fall in a cascade of graceful waves. Their power to entrance arises from the near-perfect balance of motion and stillness, symmetry and asymmetry, they display. They do not move and yet they seem to radiate peace … Kamakura statues are miracles of technique. Carved in wood, and hollowed out so that the skin of the sculpture in some parts is not much thicker than cardboard, they weigh almost nothing. They hover on the verge of immateriality.”

A Loaded Deck, and Other News

January 28, 2016 | by

Image via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

  • It feels like only yesterday that I was lugging my hardcover of 2666 around town, regularly having my mind blown on subway cars, buses, park benches, et cetera. Imagine how much easier it would’ve been to have that experience in one prolonged five-hour session at the theater! Robert Falls and Seth Bockley are bringing Bolaño’s opus to the stage next month, at the Goodman Theatre: “The play is being presented with three intermissions. To keep things moving, Mr. Falls and Mr. Bockley boiled the novel down to essential characters and story lines, though they would periodically restore some of the stories-within-stories-within-stories, like the tale of a painter who attaches his mummified hand to a self-portrait … The directors and the design team worked to create a distinct style for each of the five parts, keyed to the radically different literary genres Mr. Bolaño drew on: fairy tale, hard-boiled crime novel, academic satire, lyrical short story, Don Quixote–style picaresque.”
  • Meanwhile, in Chile: Ariel Lewiton is on the hunt for Neruda’s ghost. “Isla Negra was the home Neruda loved best, the one for which he’d written: The house … I don’t know when it was born in me … For the first time I felt the prick of the scent of the winter sea—a mixture of laurel and salty sand, seaweed and thistle, struck me. It was here I believed I would finally find Neruda … I had not thought to bring flowers. I walked past the grave to where the hill gave way to the sea. At the shore, waves thrashed the rocks. I took off my shoes and waded out from the land. The water was so cold it burned and I stood there for a while with the ocean biting at my ankles.”
  • And while we’re focusing on the Spanish language, Janet Hendrickson has translated entries from the letter in a seventeenth-century Spanish dictionary. Among the words: apio (celery), “the symbol of sadness and weeping”; alba (dawn), “What is that? Nothing but the dawn as it walks among the cabbages”; and andrógeno (hermaphrodite), “Some say that women have three wombs on the right and three on the left and one in the middle; some wombs create males, the others females, and the one in the middle hermaphrodites. And others attribute even more wombs to women, and many allow for none of this.”
  • Did you know? Between long bouts of poverty, disease, and malnutrition, people in the Middle Ages occasionally had fun. They did this by playing cards, mainly. And you should see these cards, on display now at the Cloisters Museum here in New York: “The decks on view are often beautiful, and sometimes poetic; a number are humorous and a few downright bawdy. For instance, on one card (pictured above) a woman with long blonde braids sits on a stool milking a grumpy cow—which on inspection proves to be a bull. Another portrays a woman passing a phallic-looking tree on her way to market. One hand balances the basket of geese on her head, the other lifts her long skirt above her knee. Geese are not all that is for sale.”
  • There’s been plenty of attention paid to Nabokov’s recently collected letters to his wife, Véra—but why hasn’t anyone told me before now that he used those letters to chronicle everything he’d eaten for the day? The Nabokov diet, writes Nina Martyris, was hardly gourmet: “Nabokov kept his promise of sending her a daily bulletin, which included a scrupulous itemization of his meals. Listing every meal he ate was clearly a drudgery, but he hurried on with it by squashing the menu between parentheses: ‘(A couple of meatballs—cold-cuts, sausage, radishes)’; ‘(cold-cuts, fried eggs, a cold meatball)’; or ‘(liver and gooseberry jelly—a sort of frog caviar).’ Occasionally, there was a dry barb: ‘incomprehensible meat,’ and more rarely, a stab of praise, ‘magnificent blueberry soup.’ But mostly it was a boring plod of cold cuts and compotes.”

Practice Safe Selfies, and Other News

July 9, 2015 | by

John_William_Waterhouse_-_Echo_and_Narcissus_-_Google_Art_Project

John William Waterhouse, Echo and Narcissus, 1903.

  • Admire the tenacity of lit mags yet question their utility? The poet Stephen Burt argues that a new journal simply needs a raison d’être: it should seek to fill a “gap that earlier journals failed to fill, a new form of pleasure, a new kind of writing, an alliance with a new or under-chronicled social movement, a constellation of authors for whom the future demand for work exceeds present supply, a program that will actually change some small part of some literary readers’ tastes.”
  • What can the Greek tragedies tell us about the current Mediterranean refugee crises? Aeschylus’s 470 B.C. play, The Suppliants, concerns the fifty daughters of the Egyptian king Danaus, who flee Africa and seek asylum in Greece. Fitting then that a new production of the play is being reimagined in modern-day Sicily, where “African refugees beg at traffic lights,” and is being staged in the ancient Greek theater of Syracuse, in Sicily.
  • What can the inmates at a Missouri prison tell us about the evolution of language? In compiling a lexicon of facility-specific slang, they found that a viking is a “prisoner with poor hygiene,” a kite is “an informal message sent by a prisoner,” and a pumpkin is, you guessed it, “a term used for new arrivals” (but not for the reason you might expect). After all, “a dictionary is not a book of rules but a description of language as it is used in real life at a particular moment in time,” says English professor Paul Lynch, who volunteers at the prison.
  • Jerry Seinfeld thinks that political correctness is killing comedy; he doesn’t perform at college campuses because “they’re so PC.” it wasn’t always that way: American college humor is historically steeped in offensiveness. Take National Lampoon, an offshoot of the The Harvard Lampoon and precursor to Saturday Night Live, for example, where “getting a rise out of people was precisely the goal, and the magazine was steadfast in its dedication to what it saw as a decidedly non-partisan approach to humor.” 
  • This week in the perils of the modern age: the Russian government released a public-awareness campaign highlighting the dangers of taking a selfie. With a little help from Google Translate, we learn that “when a person is trying to take a picture of himself—he scattered attention, he lost his balance, he does not look around and did not feel in danger.” Have fun this summer. Practice safe selfies.

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He Was Always Right, and Other News

January 20, 2015 | by

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James Rosenquist, Floating to the Top, 1964. Courtesy VAGA New York and Paul Kasmin Gallery.

  • Merriam-Webster has undertaken a daunting project: they’re publishing a new edition of their unabridged dictionary, which hasn’t seen a major overhaul since 1961. Their employees are already hard at work: “Emily Brewster has produced anywhere from five to twenty-five definitions a week. Twerking is ready, she tells me in December. Nutjob (which dates to 1959) and minorly are good to go. Jeggings is, too. The new sense of trolling looks promising, she says, ‘but first I have to finish hot mess.’ Brewster is very excited about hot mess. Thanks to Google Books, she found it in a machinists union trade journal from 1899: ‘If the newspaper says the sky is painted with green chalk that is what goes. Verily, I say unto you, the public is a hot mess.’ ”
  • In 1969, the curator Henry Geldzahler convinced the Met to host “New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940–1970,” a show so vast and intensely contemporary that it remains a watershed—so why not just do the whole thing again? “Henry had a fantastic eye. He wasn’t wrong about anything. He was always right.”
  • A mother from an affluent Texas town would strongly prefer her children to read Ayn Rand in school, not The Working Poor, David K. Shipler’s book about poverty. In other news, Oxfam announced yesterday that 1 percent of the global population holds half the world’s wealth.
  • George Steinmetz traveled by helicopter to take these aerial photographs of New York in winter. He and his pilot “frequently flew so low that they passed in between buildings, with Steinmetz and his camera hanging out of the open door.”
  • Remembering Alice K. Turner, who was Playboy’s fiction editor for two decades. “Fiction is kind of a nuisance,” she once said. “The ad sales guys don’t see the point. They would cut it out if they could, except for the fact that it adds a certain respectability … Playboy stories have beginnings, middles, and ends. They have a kind of general appeal. They are not experimental. They are not terribly modern or forward-reaching but they have real quality, or so I hope.”

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Still Flying High, and Other News

October 22, 2014 | by

hightimes

Detail from the cover of the first issue of High Times, 1974.

  • Ben Bradlee has died at ninety-three: “In his personal vernacular—a vivid, blasphemous argot that combined the swear words he mastered in the Navy during World War II with the impeccable enunciation of a blue-blooded Bostonian—a great story was ‘a real tube-ripper.’ This meant a story was so hot that [Washington] Post readers would rip the paper out of the tubes into which the paperboy delivered it.”
  • High Times turns forty: “It’s easy to forget how radical an outrider of the counterculture this magazine was. Its editors were (and are) brave, subversive and funny. They’ve tended to take nothing seriously except for one crucial thing: the way so many lives have been destroyed by an inept and misguided war on drugs.”
  • A well intentioned, poorly executed update to the Scrabble dictionary has turned into “a clusterfuck,” reliable sources indicate. “There are typos, valid words which have been excluded, and invalid words which have been included … The biggest issue among competitive players is the lack of a publicly available electronic version of the new list … Because of Hasbro’s copyright, and the absence of a public electronic list, errors have been tedious to identify.”
  • Tolstoy’s 1889 novella The Kreutzer Sonata was a famously caustic attack on his wife, Sofiya. She struck back with “Whose Fault?”, a rebuttal in the form of a short story: “Like Tolstoy, Sofiya criticizes the sexual double standard, but she’s far more sympathetic to women, who are kept in ignorance until marriage, then expected to satisfy their husbands and remain beautiful and docile through a long series of pregnancies and betrayals.”
  • “There was a long period when an outhouse was a perfect convenience, and a well-built one could be a luxury good. The Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum in Wethersfield, Connecticut, is trying to recapture their golden age with an unusual kind of restoration project: The refurbishment of three high-end outhouses—or privies—from the late eighteenth century.”

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