Posts Tagged ‘language’
March 27, 2013 | by Spencer Woodman
Earlier this month, after it was reported that several prominent dictionaries had expanded their definitions of literally to include “figuratively” as an informal usage, grammar-sensitive commentators launched into another wave of condemnation of the word’s expansive use.
“The dictionaries have begrudgingly bowed to the will of the grammar-averse public,” wrote The Week. “As anyone who paid attention in grade school knows, ‘literally’ means ‘in a literal or strict sense, as opposed to a non-literal or exaggerated sense,’ and is the opposite of ‘figuratively,’ which means ‘in a metaphorical sense.’”
Criticisms of the word’s unorthodox use are, strictly speaking, accurate. They reflect well-founded fears that society is coming to care less about clear and beautiful linguistic expression. So I often worry that I might be alone in my enjoyment of the nonsensical images created when the word is misapplied. For me, the usage can introduce gratifying little flashes of surrealism into everyday conversation.
Just think of Joe Biden’s remark last September: “We now find ourselves at the hinge of history, and the direction we turn is not figuratively, it’s literally in your hands.” Here Biden is ambitiously making two metaphors concrete: both that history can have an actual hinge and that this can be in someone’s hands. This remark conjures, for me, an image of the vice president heroically grappling, both hands (perhaps amid a howling thunderstorm), with a mighty vaulted door glowing iridescent with the sum of human destiny. It gives me a tickling look at the vice president’s imagination and his sense of the palpability of something as abstract as world history. Read More »
March 5, 2013 | by Jason Resnikoff
Mrs. Chesser taught me that there is never any reason to use the word indescribable. Invoking the indescribability of something does no work except to tell everyone, quite explicitly, that you are incapable of describing. Indescribable is not a quality something can possess, only a failure that can overwhelm a writer. Even now, years later, I can practically hear Mrs. Chesser, her voice languid with existential weariness, pleading with all of us in third-period English: “For the love of God, ask ourselves why a thing is indescribable and then write that down. Never be so lazy as to just dash off, ‘It was indescribable.’ It’s a waste of everyone’s time.” I remember her making profound eye contact with me just as the words “waste of everyone’s time” escaped her lips. Chastened, and most likely the prime offender, I made a note to myself, much of it capitalized, and have since made all-out war on the indescribable in my life.
But the indescribable has a history, and a distinguished one at that. In her novel Frankenstein, Mary Shelley uses the word “describe,” or some version of it, twenty-one times. Of those twenty-one, fourteen are coupled with a negation. Which means that approximately 66 percent of the time Mary Shelley uses the word “describe,” it is to describe how she, in fact, cannot describe something. “I cannot describe to you my sensations,” or, “How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe,” or, “I cannot pretend to describe what I then felt,” or, “a hell of intense tortures such as no language can describe.” But these romantic, brain-feverish testimonies to descriptive incompetence are often immediately paired with very precise descriptions, as in, “Over him hung a form which I cannot find words to describe—gigantic stature, yet uncouth and distorted in its proportions,” or when the explorer Robert Walton writes his sister, “I cannot describe to you my sensations on the near prospect of my undertaking. It is impossible to communicate to you a conception of the trembling sensation, half pleasurable and half fearful, with which I am preparing to depart.” What is that indescribable sensation? Well, trembling, half-pleasurable, half-fearful, which is actually quite descriptive. Read More »
February 22, 2013 | by Ezra Glinter
One of the best things I’ve ordered on the Internet recently is a Yiddish translation of The Hobbit. After getting lost in the mail in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, it finally arrived: a medium-sized white-on-black paperback titled Der Hobit, with a dedication to the “workers and residents of the Newtonville Starbucks (my office).” The translator, Barry Goldstein, is a retired computer programmer, and reworking The Hobbit is only one of his hobbies. He is an arctic traveler who has taken several trips to Greenland, and he has rendered accounts of Shackleton’s voyages into Yiddish. He is also on the editorial team of a more momentous, if not quite as whimsical, project: the new Comprehensive Yiddish-English Dictionary, released in January by Indiana University Press. Now, thanks to Goldstein, I have the Yiddish Hobbit, and the means to read it.
A dictionary is meant to be a reflection of a language (or a prescription for it, depending on your view), but the Comprehensive Yiddish-English Dictionary reflects an entire culture. (In the interest of full disclosure, the dictionary received a grant from the Forward Association, which publishes the newspaper for which I work.) Unlike previous dictionaries, its audience is mainly English speakers, not Yiddish. It is aimed at readers of Yiddish literature (or Yiddish translations of children’s fantasy novels), rather than people who want to speak or write the language, though an English-Yiddish dictionary is also on the way. In the battle between descriptivism and prescriptivism it takes a middle path, erring on the side of the descriptive. Taken with its predecessors, it tells the story of Yiddish in America. Read More »
February 1, 2013 | by Ariel Lewiton
I grew up outside Boston, a resident of Red Sox Nation, but mine was not a sports-loving household. My father watches football regularly these days, but he didn’t when I was a kid. He’d watch a game if it was on, distractedly, while doing something else. The rest of us did not. We didn’t follow game schedules or scores. I’ve never been to Fenway Park, though my middle school was less than a mile from the Green Monster. When they tore down Boston Garden I expressed manufactured dismay—I’d never been there either. Until I moved to Chicago after college and bought tickets to a few Cubs games on the cheap, at a yard sale, the only professional sporting event I’d ever attended was an early round of the 1994 World Cup—South Korea versus Bolivia—which ended in a tied shutout.
My sister and I played soccer. She was better than me. I figure skated and entertained deluded fantasies of making it to the Olympics, but I couldn’t get any height on my jumps and my spins were too loose and wobbly. Eventually I switched to ice hockey, which I played with the same poor-to-barely-adequate ability as each of my prior athletic endeavors. In college I spent a week on the women’s rugby team before quitting because it hurt. Read More »
September 18, 2012 | by Pamela Petro
It’s pronounced “here-eyeth” (roll the “r”) and it’s a Welsh word. It has no exact cognate in English. The best we can do is “homesickness,” but that’s like the difference between hardwood and laminate. Homesickness is hiraeth-lite. A quick history lesson is a good idea before a definition: in 1282 Wales became the first colony of the English empire. Because England eventually ruled half the globe, we all know its first colony by the name the colonizers gave it: Wales, which means “Place of the Others,” or “Place of the Romanized Foreigners.”
So that’s how the Welsh—the original Britons—became “foreigners” on their own island. Talk about a semantic insult. To Welsh speakers Wales is Cymru (pronounced Kum-ree): home of the Cymry, or fellow countrymen. But not too many schoolkids outside Llandysul know that. Arthur—the once-breathing chieftain, not Merlin’ s once-and-future pal—lived around the time the name “Wales” stuck, in the sixth century. He tried to hold back the English (really the Saxons) and failed. Then in 1282 Llywelyn failed too. He was the last Welsh-born Prince of Wales, aptly named The Last, and he was killed in battle by soldiers of Edward I. After that Wales became a subject state. Since then time’s centrifuge has spun it to the margins of history. Wales is a poor, rural place of mountains and ribboning hills with empty underground pockets where its coal used to be, but which, miraculously, has clung to its birthright language. Twenty years ago Welsh was spoken by eighteen percent of the population, mainly elderly folk in isolated areas. Today twenty-two percent speak it, including a burgeoning segment of young professionals who’ve helped create things like Gweplyfr (Facebook) and Twitr (Twitter).
May 29, 2012 | by Sadie Stein