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Posts Tagged ‘language’

Fast Asleep and Wide Awake

January 27, 2015 | by

But shouldn’t that be the other way around?

A_Rotting_Am_Morgen_1840

A. Rötting, In the Morning, 1840.

Like Thomas Wyatt, who can’t quite let go, I can’t quite let go of that Wyatt poem about what she hath deserved. He says in it that love was not just a dream: “It was no dream, I lay broad waking.” The last two words are an obvious yet pleasantly unfamiliar double-synonym for wide awake.

But what’s so wide about it?

To see the link between alertness and vast side-to-side extent—and why we’re also said to be speedy asleep—the place to start is with awake. The “a-” is a weakened form of the preposition on or in, by the same verbal laziness that turned one into the article an, and then before consonants into a, pronounced “uh.” To go on board or on shore, to be in bed or on a slant, is to be aboard, ashore, abed, aslant, not to mention astern, abreast, ahead (originally nautical as well), afoot, aloof (on the luff side, to windward, steering clear), far afield, run aground. We don’t think of them as contractions of preposition + noun anymore, but many of our location and direction words have this form: afar, amid, atop, athwart, askew, awry, gone astray, and less obviously across, away, apart, around, aside, taken aback.
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Cold Comfort

January 26, 2015 | by

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Illustration from Die Gartenlaube, 1876.

“Brrr! It’s cold!” I exclaimed the other day, because it was. 

“Did you just say brrr?” my friend asked.

“I did indeed.”

“People don’t say that; they just write it.”

“That’s not true. Do people say ow? Or ouch? Or achoo?”  Read More »

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You Get What You Deserve

January 13, 2015 | by

Sir Thomas Wyatt’s “They Flee From Me” and the history of the word deserve.

Angelica_Kauffmann_-_Ariadne_Abandoned_by_Theseus

Angelica Kauffmann, Ariadne Abandoned by Theseus, 1774.

The best I-just-got-dumped pop song ever, beating out such classics as “Wild World,” “Don’t You Want Me,” “Nothing Compares 2 U,” “You Oughta Know,” and “Irreplaceable,” is six hundred years old: Sir Tom’s “Runaway,” known to poets and scholars as “They Flee From Me” by Thomas Wyatt. You can read the original lyrics here (old spelling, modern spelling), but the structure and arc couldn’t be simpler: three verses, no chorus.

  1. Wait, what? They used to come running after me.
  2. Especially this one girl. Man, she was so hot.
  3. It’s true. Now she won’t even talk to me. I must have been too nice.

At least she’ll get her comeuppance: “But since that I so kindly am served / I would fain know what she hath deserved.”

To paraphrase: since she was so nice to me (sarcastic!)—and/or the now-obsolete meaning: since she treated me so in keeping with her kind, just the way you’d expect her to act (that bitch!)—I’d like to know what she has coming. The strange word to modern ears is the last one. Doesn’t the singer already know what she deserves, just not what she’s going to get? Read More »

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Are You Okay?

January 9, 2015 | by

okay

Illustration: Mohamed Ibrahim

As the hostage situation in Paris unfolds, the correspondents on CNN keep using the word okay. Are the hostages okay, how many are okay, et cetera. Okay means “alive,” of course. It’s a strange euphemism.

We have all heard the theories: OK is of Choctaw derivation, or possibly West African. Some linguists attribute it to the “comical misspellings” craze of the 1830s, while others cite Martin Van Buren’s Old Kinderhook campaign, or attempts to lampoon Andrew Jackson as an illiterate who couldn’t manage “all correct.”  

What is pretty generally agreed is that the first published usage dates from 1839, in the Boston Morning Post. Describing an outing by the Anti-Bell-Ringing Society, the paper reports: Read More »

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The Beauty of Code

December 22, 2014 | by

We’re out until January 5, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2014 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!

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Dependency diagram (Image via TheDailyWTF)

This is what ugly code looks like. This is a dependency diagram—a graphic representation of interdependence or coupling (the black lines) between software components (the gray dots) within a program. A high degree of interdependence means that changing one component inside the program could lead to cascading changes in all the other connected components, and in turn to changes in their dependencies, and so on. Programs with this kind of structure are brittle, and hard to understand and fix. This dependency program was submitted anonymously to TheDailyWTF.com, where working programmers share “Curious Perversions in Information Technology” as they work. The exhibits at TheDailyWTF are often embodiments of stupidity, of miasmic dumbness perpetrated by the squadrons of sub-Mort programmers putting together the software that runs businesses across the globe. But, as often, high-flying “enterprise architects” and consultants put together systems that produce dependency diagrams that look like this renowned TheDailyWTF exhibit. A user commented, “I found something just like that blocking the drain once.”

If that knot of tangled hair provokes disgust, what kind of code garners admiration? In the anthology Beautiful Code, the contribution from the creator of the popular programming language Ruby, Yukihiro “Matz” Matsumoto, is an essay titled “Treating Code as an Essay.” Matz writes:

Judging the attributes of computer code is not simply a matter of aesthetics. Instead, computer programs are judged according to how well they execute their intended tasks. In other words, “beautiful code” is not an abstract virtue that exists independent of its programmers’ efforts. Rather, beautiful code is really meant to help the programmer be happy and productive. This is the metric I use to evaluate the beauty of a program.

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Strange Sights Much Sought, Strange Things Much Bought

December 9, 2014 | by

December through the eyes of an Elizabethan poet.

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Hendrick Avercamp, Winter Landscape with Ice Skaters, ca. 1608.

It is now definitely December. Another November survived, and a grim November it was, too, the month Thoreau used to call November Eat-heart—days “as will almost oblige a man to eat his own heart,” in which “you must hold on to life by your teeth.” “You can hardly screw up your courage to take a walk … If you do feel any fire at this season out of doors, you may depend upon it, it is your own.” Even the life-affirming Nicholas Breton goes dark: “Now begins the Goshawk to weed the wood of the Pheasant, and the Mallard loves not to hear the bells of the Falcon. The winds now are cold, and the Air chill, and the poor die through want of Charity.”

Breton, ca. 1554–1626, was a prolific Elizabethan poet, friend to Edmund Spenser, with a penchant for powerfully balanced rhythms (“Sing a dirge on Spenser’s death, / Till your souls be out of breath”), but he’s justly forgotten today. Justly except for his fantastic Fantasticks: Serving for A Perpetuall Prognostication (1626). Along with lesser vignettes on the elements, seasons, hours, and major holidays, Fantasticks contains twelve little descriptions of the months that deserve to be immortal.

Starting in January, when “Time begins to turn the wheel of his Revolution,” Breton’s vivid natural and social descriptions march steadily through the year: “the Squirrel now surveyeth the Nut and the Maple, and the Hedgehog rolls up himself like a football”; in June, “the little Lads make Pipes of the straw, and they that cannot dance, will yet be hopping”; in September, “the winds begin to knock the Apples’ heads together on the trees, and the fallings are gathered to fill the Pies for the Household.” Each month ends with a kicker as balanced as a brace of oxen: May “is from the Heavens a Grace, & to the Earth a Gladness. Farewell.”

Here is December: Read More »

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