The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘language’

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 »

Nostalgia for the Future, and Other News

April 9, 2015 | by

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Illustration by Dan McPharlin. Via Beautiful/Decay

  • Writers love to hate M.F.A.s; they also love to brag about them. Are the degrees worthless? Essential? Expansive? Detrimental to one’s creative impulses? “It’s no surprise that the promise of the M.F.A.—to make you, if you’re lucky, a famous, well-paid author—strikes so many people with even the smallest literary dream as utterly irresistible.”
  • To master the subtleties of another language is no mean feat—and getting prepositions right is often the most frustrating part. They can seem entirely arbitrary: “Spaniards dream with (not about) something. In the unlikely event that Germans schedule something at an approximate time, it is gegen (against) seven o’clock, not about or around. The ancient Greeks, progenitors of western logic, had many prepositions that do bizarre double duty to the English eye: meta means both with and after; kata means both according to and against.”
  • Lydia Davis, meanwhile, has faced struggles of her own in learning Norwegian: “You see how you are suddenly able to unlock so many words, just by studying the pattern? Take the words beginning with ‘Hv.’ I guessed they were used in questions: ‘hva’ meaning ‘what’, ‘hvorfor’ meaning ‘why’. But it took me a long time to figure out ‘hvis’ was ‘if.’ ”
  • Then there are contranyms, auto-antonyms, antagonyms, Janus words, and/or antiologies—words that can function as their own opposites. Take no, for instance, which increasingly means yes. (Only, mind you, in certain situations.)
  • Dan McPharlin makes art “derived from blueprints laid down decades earlier on the pages of battered sci-fi paperbacks, fantasy art books, and mid-century design quarterlies.”
  • On the “mind-numbing chatter” of the art world: “There is a debate about whether or not something ‘posits something about its ability to posit something.’ One critic tells a student, ‘You have to make better paintings fail.’ One exchange between student and critic involves the critic demanding, ‘What does that paint can stand for, in that painting?’ When the student doesn’t reply, the critic continues, ‘Stop squirming! Is there a political implication to this paint can or not?’ ”

“Grammatico-political Monstrosities,” and Other News

March 31, 2015 | by

Survival_of_the_Fittest

From Puck Magazine, 1900.

  • In which Tom McCarthy, Rachel Kushner, Paul Muldoon, and other writers are photographed in their offices: “Helicopters, the L.A.P.D.’s crazy hobby, thunder overhead, chasing some guy who stole a Honda Element,” Kushner writes of her home office in LA. “The whoop-whoop of sirens comes next. I sit at my desk, less than a mile from the criminal courts and the jail, structures of human sacrifice, where people’s lives get wrecked.”
  • “I talked about the times he had slapped me and the times he had locked me in the cellar, and the point of these stories was always the same: his fury was always triggered by some petty detail, some utter triviality, and as such was actually comical. At any rate we laughed when we told the stories. Once I had left a pair of gloves on the bus and he slapped me in the face when he found out. I had leaned against the wobbly table in the hall and sent it flying and he came over and hit me. It was absolutely absurd!” A new excerpt from the long-awaited fourth volume of Knausgaard’s My Struggle.
  • A strain of occultism runs through Yeats’s poetry—“do-it-yourself religion,” as Seamus Heaney called it—and sure enough, “as a young man, according to the scholar Kathleen Raine, Yeats had a pack of Tarot cards among his ‘few and treasured possessions.’ In London, in 1887, he was initiated into the Hermetic Society of the Golden Dawn, one of those secret societies that tend, as Raine remarks, ‘to relate everything with everything—letters with numbers, with cycles of months, years, and the signs of the zodiac, with parts of the body, celestial and infernal hierarchies of angels, with minerals, metals, plants, and animals.’ ”
  • On Obadiah Slope, the “calculating curate” at the center of Trollope’s Barchester Towers: “Isn’t Slope just a man seeking a better job and, into the bargain, a wife with a comfortable income? What exactly does he do, and why is he so disturbing? Ruthlessly fawning, constantly trying to wriggle his way into favor with the rich and powerful, and in the process tread on the heads of others, Slope is a particularly poisonous example of the kind of creep that haunts almost any organization or social group.”
  • Reports by the World Bank are torturing the English language like never before—these “grammatico-political monstrosities” amount to a new form of expression, “Bankspeak.” “In the world of ‘management’, people have goals and agendas; faced with opportunities, challenges and critical situations, they elaborate strategies. To appreciate the novelty, let’s recall that, in the 1950s–60s, issues were studied by experts who surveyed and conducted missions, published reports, assisted, advised and suggested programs.”

Who’s Number One?

March 17, 2015 | by

Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy and the role of the first person.

Eugen_Rosenstock-Huessy

Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy

It can be staggering to realize, suddenly, that something you’ve never thought about—something you’ve always accepted as real—is just an article of faith. Language is often what turns the lightbulb on: someone defines reality afresh with a new word (mansplaining, Rebecca Solnit) or by showing the hidden powers and interconnections of an old word (debt, David Graeber). Rarely is the realization about language itself.

Of all the dogmas of classical antiquity, only grammar has held its ground. Euclidean geometry, Ptolemaic astronomy, Galenic medicine, Roman law, Christian doctrine—the schools have radically demolished them all. But even now, Alexandrine grammar still reigns.

The quote is from Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy (1888–1973), a deeply idiosyncratic Christian theoretician of the modern era. (All translations are mine, from the two-volume The Language of the Human Race: An Incarnate Grammar in Four Parts [Die Sprache des Menschengeschlechts: Eine leibhafte Grammatik in vier Teilen].) Rosenstock-Huessy inspired a few cognoscenti, including W. H. Auden and Peter Sloterdijk, but he is still, it is safe to say, deeply, deeply obscure. It is hard to know what to do with him. I certainly find off-putting the self-evident all-importance of Christ’s Birth or God’s Divine Purpose, which he regularly tosses into his philosophical arguments. (Auden: “Anyone reading him for the first time may find, as I did, certain aspects of his writings a bit hard to take … Speaking for myself, I can only say that, by listening to Rosenstock-Huessy, I have been changed.”) The grammatical dogma he means, though—and which he spent more than one 1,900-page book in mortal combat against—is the innocent-looking list dating back to the Greeks: first person, second person, third person. I love, you love, he/she/it loves, or, if you studied Latin, amo, amas, amat. Read More »

Systems Bigger Than Ourselves, and Other News

March 16, 2015 | by

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From SimCity, 1989.

  • On SimCity and the value of games that dared to make complex systems their protagonists: “SimCity is a game about urban societies, about the relationship between land value, pollution, industry, taxation, growth, and other factors … the game got us all to think about the relationships that make a city run, succeed, and decay, and in so doing to rise above our individual interests, even if only for a moment. This was a radical way of thinking about video games: as non-fictions about complex systems bigger than ourselves. It changed games forever—or it could have … ”
  • Philip Roth’s misogyny is treated as a given these days; “the women are monstrous because for Philip Roth women are monstrous,” Vivian Gornick once wrote. But: “Maybe Philip Roth loves women? Maybe he, who offers a three-page description of female masturbation, is in fact an advocate for female desire? … While misogynists try to shame women, Roth celebrates women’s sexual power. It’s the men he is out to get.”
  • “That sentence is shit. It’s got to be better. You asshole.” Matt Sumell on writing and doubt.
  • Today in German words that dearly need English equivalents: verschlimmbessert, which can be roughly translated as “ ‘ver-worsebettered.’ In essence, it’s a combination of verbessern (‘to improve’) and verschlimmern (‘to make worse’).  Here, then, is a verb that is able to express the idea of something simultaneously improving and worsening.”
  • In which Benjamin Percy attends the dreadfully named Man Camp and enjoys a surprisingly rousing encounter with masculinity: “When men get together, they tend to speak with irony or rough-throated braggadocio, but [here] there was an uncommon sincerity to everyone’s tone. It caught me off guard.”

Wittgenstein, Schoolteacher

March 5, 2015 | by

What the philosopher learned from his time in elementary-school classrooms.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, who knew how to sully a chalkboard with the best of them.

Every philosophy major has at some point had to answer the standard challenge: “What are you going to do, teach?” It’s especially frustrating after you realize that, for someone with a humanist bent and a disinterest in worldlier things, teaching is a pretty good career choice. Unemployables in the humanities might take comfort from the fact that one of the twentieth century’s greatest philosophers, Ludwig Wittgenstein, made the same choice. He revolutionized philosophy twice, fought with shocking bravery in World War I, inspired a host of memoirs by people who knew him only glancingly—and for six years taught elementary school in the mountains of rural Austria. Biographers have tended to find this bizarre. Chapters covering the period after his teaching years, when Wittgenstein returned to philosophy, are usually called something like “Out of the Wilderness.” (That one’s from Ray Monk’s excellent Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius. The next chapter is called “The Second Coming.”)

By the time he decided to teach, Wittgenstein was well on his way to being considered the greatest philosopher alive. First at Cambridge, then as an engineer and soldier, Wittgenstein had finished his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, at once an austere work of analytic philosophy and—for some readers, Wittgenstein apparently included—an almost mystical experience. In it, he claimed charmingly and not without reason to have solved all the problems of philosophy. This was because of the book’s famous “picture theory of meaning,” which held that language is meaningful because, and only because, of its ability to depict possible arrangements of objects in the world. Any meaningful statement can be analyzed as such a depiction. This leads to the book’s most famous conclusion: that if a statement does not depict a possible arrangement of objects, it doesn’t mean anything at all. Ethics, religion, the nature of the world beyond objects … most statements of traditional philosophy, Wittgenstein contended, are therefore nonsense. And so, having destroyed a thousand-year tradition, Wittgenstein did the reasonable thing—he dropped the mic and found a real job teaching kids to spell. Read More »