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Posts Tagged ‘language’

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 »

Peckish

August 20, 2015 | by

Ludwig Knaus, Mein Napf ist leer, 1886.

I dislike the term hangry, a neologism conflating hungry and angry and thus describing the rage induced by hunger. Like PMS, it seems to conveniently dismiss any legitimate anger that may arise in the course of a blood-sugar crash. And for those of us who are both frequently ravenous and frequently furious, it doesn’t allow for the possibility of much reasonable irritation. Besides, it rests on the supposition that there is such a thing as unclouded judgment, and that feels potentially very dangerous.

Aside from that, the word itself is ugly. It evokes airplane hangars and chewy steaks and public executions and boring games played on pieces of scratch paper. It does not trip off the tongue. Hunger and anger, as words, both have such dignity, such grace—they are serious feelings in response to real stimuli. They are noble marble statues. Hangry, by contrast, is a Shoebox greeting card.

But it is spiritually ugly, too. To be hangry is a luxury. The very use of the term suggests that hunger and suffering are so remote as to be irrelevant to the conversation. I don’t mind telling you that now that I think about it, it gets me absolutely furious.

That said, only the other day, in the supermarket, I felt an almost overwhelming wave of rage crash over me because someone happened to already be standing in front of a spice I wanted to inspect. The intensity of the rage alarmed me, and I had to give myself a little talking to, and a bag of gummy bears besides. It is, after all, this sort of behavior that leads to charges of irrationality.

Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review and the Daily’s correspondent.

Camping for Everyone, and Other News

August 18, 2015 | by

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From Wiser Counselors, Better Camps, Happier Children, 1929.

  • Anyone who maintains that writers play a pivotal role in advancing and transforming our language is dead wrong—the real engines for linguistic change are teenage girls, who have served as “disruptors” since the fifteenth century, if not earlier. Linguists who have studied six thousand letters from 1417 to 1681 “found that female letter-writers changed the way they wrote faster than male letter-writers, spearheading the adoption of new words and discarding words like doth and maketh.”
  • Next year will see the release of a new Cormac McCarthy novel called The Passenger, the first since 2006’s The Road. (There’s a joke to be made here about how The Road and The Passenger together sound like a spin-off of Car and Driver, but … ah, forget it.) The new book, scuttlebutt suggests, is “set in New Orleans around 1980. It has to do with a brother and sister. When the book opens she’s already committed suicide, and it’s about how he deals with it. She’s an interesting girl.” As for McCarthy, he spends most of his time “at a science and mathematics think tank in New Mexico, the Santa Fe Institute (SFI), where he is a trustee.”
  • Reminder: Ottessa Moshfegh doesn’t need your praise or acceptance. “I don’t care about being a literary personality—that doesn’t appeal to me, especially because the literary world doesn’t appeal to me. I actually don’t feel like I even belong in it … If this was high school, I would be sitting with the goths, looking at everyone, being like, Whatever.”
  • In the early twentieth century, with the nineteenth amendment finally ratified, the writers of camping guides realized at last that women can enjoy camping, too—thus ensued a slew of new camping and hunting books for women. “Somehow, out of the neglect, arose the impression that woods’ joys were for men alone,” Woodcraft for Women begins. “Gradually a few women discovered that the lazy drifting down a pine and rock-bound stream calms feminine as well as masculine nerves and that the dimly blazed trail into an unknown country arouses the pioneering instinct in them as truly as it does a man.”
  • Looking back at Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques: “If the voice of this French anthropologist conveys to you nothing more than academic curmudgeonliness, let’s leave it there. But isn’t it a kind of fastidiousness that seems to belong to a vanished intellectual world? It seems a promise that he feels his discoveries too important not to be told, and perhaps they are.”

Burgers and Copters, Shelves and Pants

August 13, 2015 | by

How rebracketing gives us new words.

Find_the_differences_(painting_by_Peter_Klashorst)

From Find the Differences, a series of paintings by Peter Klashorst.

How is a helipad like a cheeseburger? It’s all about arms being legs, and having an ear.

There are words that sound right in a language and words that sound wrong, and the latter often, as the gangsters say, go on a little trip. A sound or two will be dropped like a stool pigeon with cement shoes (from the front, apheresis: [k]nife; from the back, apocope: memo[randum]), or added or modified, and the word will be domesticated. What’s easier or lazier than changing anything is to leave it as is and see it differently: a process known in life as getting a new perspective or reframing, and in linguistics as rebracketing.

Unusually for such technicalia, rebracketing is a good, solid English word, not Latin or Greek. Other terms for the same thing, false splitting or juncture loss, are also easy to grasp, and in fact each more poignant than the last. False splitting, juncture loss—they sound so lovelorn. It hurts to see things that go together come apart. Read More »

The Library of Babel as Seen from Within

July 23, 2015 | by

Reproducing Borges’s imaginary library online.

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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 libraryofbabel.info, 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 »

This Explosion Brought to You By Hand Coloring, and Other News

July 20, 2015 | by

inventorcrazybrainsandhiswonderfulairship1906

A still from Inventor Crazybrains and His Wonderful Airship, 1906.

  • In its early days, America decided to differentiate itself from its oppressors across the pond by giving the language a bit of a face-lift: we borrowed words from other tongues, reclaimed British words that had fallen into disuse, and—this is the really American part—just made a bunch of stuff up. In 1919, H. L. Mencken published The American Language, a lexicon of uniquely U. S. neologisms: “rubber-neck, rough-house, has-been, lame-duck, bust, bum, scary, classy, tasty, lengthy, alarmist, capitalize, propaganda, whitewash, panhandle, shyster, sleuth, sundae, alright, go-getter, he-man, goof. Only in America can you go upstate for the weekend. Here, we engineer, stump, hog, and squat on a piece of land. We’ve stolen loads from Spanish: corral, ranch, alfafa, mustang, canyon, poncho, plaza, tornados, patio, bonanza, vigilante, mosey, and buckaroo. Americans are very talented coiners of words—including of talented, another new one that sent British writers into spasms of horror.”
  • In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, well before Technicolor, films were colorized, stenciled, tinted, and toned by hand, frame by laborious frame. The results were unlike anything on screens today: “Such coloring provided a sensual quality, making moving images seem enticingly tactile … Because each hand-colored print had to be dyed separately, no two copies were colored in exactly the same way. In rare cases, colorists embellished entire scenes. More often, they painted only particular elements—a scarlet dress, golden coins, red-orange lava erupting from volcanoes, or fountains glittering in pinks, yellows, and golds. Mistakes were common. In one frame, dye might drip from a woman’s costume across an arm or a leg. In another frame, a yellow face might revert to black and white, or a brush stroke might slip outside its edges.”
  • Paradoxically, our definition of “difficult” fiction has remained more or less unchanged since the bloom of modernism nearly a century ago: we look for arcane syntax, twisting sentence structures, vast political symbolism. Shouldn’t difficulty have evolved by this point? “We need difficult books like The Wallcreeper: books that refuse to cater to established appetites, that take the risks necessary to reorient our aesthetic and ideological assumptions. Traditional difficulty is an oxymoronic and empty concept, but truly difficult novels should be praised to the skies, especially considering the political obstacles keeping so many of them from the audiences they deserve.”
  • A new edition of Green Hills of Africa—Hemingway’s chronicle of hunting big game in Africa, first published in 1935—reminds of his talents as a stylist and his bizarre, almost religious fascination with the rituals of killing: “if I killed it cleanly,” he writes, “they all had to die and my interference in the nightly and the seasonal killing that went on all the time was very minute and I had no guilty feeling at all.” And he was such a nice guy, too.
  • Today in thought experiments come to life: What if you took a K-pop band and removed the K from the equation? A new project called I’m Making a Boy Band—think This Is Spinal Tap, but with more social commentary and better teeth—has created EXP, the first K-pop band with zero Asian members. The group poses questions “about nationhood, cultural appropriation, and gender roles.” “We get lots of comments saying, Your boys haven’t worked, or, Your boys haven’t endured the training process … We get comments from fans saying, Your boys are gay. In more Western-centric countries, K-pop is seen as flamboyant. The understanding is that if you’re a K-pop fan, you’re used to this soft look. But suddenly, when non-Asians do it, it’s seen as very strange.”