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Posts Tagged ‘language’

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.”

Tickle the Feline Ivories, and Other News

July 17, 2015 | by

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Illustration of the cat piano from La Nature, vol. 11, 1883.

  • Earlier this year, Donald Antrim gave a commencement speech at Woodberry Forest School. His subject was “the unprotected life” and coping with its devastations. For years after a long suicidal depression, he said, “I did not write. It was enough to be restored, and I deeply and sincerely regretted ever writing at all. I’d seen what it could do, what my own choices, my own work, had done to me. I was afraid of what I might write, and afraid, too, that, were I to sit down to it, were I to try, I would only learn that I was broken, and that it was no longer possible for me to bring out a word.”
  • Time was, if you didn’t like any of the real musical instruments out there in the world, you’d just make one up in writing. The rich history of “fictophones”—imaginary musical instruments—includes Francis Bacon’s pluperfect sound-houses (“where we practice and demonstrate all sounds and their generation”), the tublo cochleato (an enormous French horn-ish megaphone thing for amplifying the voice), and the torturetron (an organ that sends spikes into the sides of anyone near it, thus adding their pained groans to its own sounds). Best of all, though, is the cat piano, “a set of cats arrayed as sound-producing elements to be activated by the fingers,” which dates to the sixteenth century and was rumored to have cured an Italian prince of his melancholia.
  • Information overload is often depicted as one of the most tragic fates of the media age, anathema to all who prize the human condition. But it could be pretty good for poets, who can drown themselves in the “information sublime”: “Poets have not been passive victims of the proliferation of information, but rather have actively participated in—sometimes benefiting from, sometimes implicitly advocating, sometimes resisting—that proliferation … Poetries of information overload—by which I mean poetries and poems that relate either formally or historically to information saturation—demonstrate an extraordinary range of innovative responses to changing technological conditions.”
  • Today in the shifting sands of interlingual communication: German phrases have begun to yield to their English equivalents in interesting, not to say insidious, ways. “Germans are noticing that English is changing their fixed phrases, and even grammar. In English, something ‘makes sense.’ For Germans, though, ‘es hat Sinn’ (it has sense) or ‘es ist sinvoll’ (it’s sensible). The German is actually more logical. How, as in English, is something sensible actually making sense? The question is unanswerable; language is weird, and idioms especially. But nonetheless, many Germans are starting to say es macht Sinn, a loan-translation straight from English. Germans are proud of being thoughtful and logical; the idea that making sense is something they would have to borrow from the English might give a traditionalist the shivers.”
  • New York has a long, sad history of demolishing architectural wonders: the original Penn Station, the Roxy Theatre, St. John’s Church, the City Hall Post Office. The establishment, in 1965, of the Landmarks Preservation Commission did something to stop the destruction, but it was late in coming—a new exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York, “Saving Place: 50 Years of New York City Landmarks,” reminds of all that’s been lost.

Good Literary Citizens: An Interview with Ladan Osman

July 13, 2015 | by

Photo: Tariq Tarey

Photo: Tariq Tarey

The past two years have been eventful for Ladan Osman. Last year, her chapbook, Ordinary Heaven, was selected for inclusion in the box set Seven New Generation African Poets, a project of the African Poetry Book Fund, and she received the 2014 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets for her manuscript The Kitchen-Dweller’s Testimony, which was published in April by the University of Nebraska Press.

“I have rarely encountered a young poet whose work was so completely its own thing,” writes Ted Kooser in his preface to Ordinary Heaven. The speakers in Osman’s poems are often women, and the book tackles themes of love and loss, displacement and authority. At its heart is the notion of bearing witness and what that means both in a larger political sense and in very intimate ways. The language is rich and playful and can be both brutal and transformative—sometimes in the same poem.

Osman spoke with me recently by phone from her home in Chicago about metaphor, translation, and family influence.

How has your background informed your work?

My parents are from Mogadishu, Somalia. I grew up in Columbus, Ohio, in neighborhoods that were largely populated, if not by Somalis, then by East Africans. So many different elements go into my work, but there’s a very direct link to the way my parents would tell stories—their comfort using parables, making leaps in language, speaking in metaphors. My father would often point to a complex image or something strange and say, Look, it’s a metaphor. But he wouldn’t explain further. My parents speak English and other languages, but they’re most comfortable speaking Somali and they would speak Somali to us. So I always felt like I was doing some kind of translating. And things that are untranslatable—that’s poetry, too. Read More »

Practice Safe Selfies, and Other News

July 9, 2015 | by

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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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Quote Unquote

June 30, 2015 | by

A sentence goes viral—why?

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Quinn Dombrowski, The Library, 2010. Image via Flickr

I recently discovered that a sentence of mine, written many years ago in a book that had enjoyed some critical praise but disappointing sales, had gone viral.

I suppose I google myself about as often as any writer does, and I hope not more often, but on the occasion of my discovery I was doing so at someone else’s behest: in preparation for a new book, my publishing house had asked me to compile a portfolio of reviews of my previous books. As I scrolled through the search results, hunting for newspaper and magazine URLs, I became aware that I was seeing the same words and sentence fragments over and over again in the highlights at the top of each hit. “Eating…” “…communion…” “ …hospitality in general…” The combination sounded vaguely familiar. I finally tracked down the full quote at Goodreads.

The book, The Duchess Who Wouldn’t Sit Down, from 2003, is an anecdotal history of hospitality in Western civilization, in reverse chronological order from Nazi Germany to Homeric Greece. The sentence, hidden deep within the body of the book and in no way positioned to draw attention to itself, reads as follows:

Eating, and hospitality in general, is a communion, and any meal worth attending by yourself is improved by the multiples of those with whom it is shared.

Read More »

Don’t Gum Up a Book, and Other News

June 25, 2015 | by

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A poster by Arlington Gregg for the WPA.

  • Looking for good summer reading? Our editor, Lorin Stein, went on NPR’s On Point to discuss the season’s best books.
  • Between 1935 and the early forties, the WPA issued some two million silkscreened posters. Whatever their subjects and intentions—some were public health initiatives, others supported the parks, and others still were straight-up propaganda—the posters, in their ubiquity, had a profound effect on graphic design and commercial art. “The surge of interest in new typographical design and the influence of the WPA Poster Project’s supervisor, Richard Floethe, had a dynamic effect on the project designers. Floethe had studied at the Bauhaus and genuinely believed in a utilitarian approach to art. The designer, he felt, should be equally at home in industrial design, stage design, typography or painting. Good visual thinking could be applied to any discipline.”
  • If there’s one thing unifying the work Astrid Lindgren, it’s her “affection for the defiant self-possession of some children”: “There is a manuscript scholars call the ‘Ur-Pippi,’ the first draft of the Pippi Longstocking stories that Lindgren, then a young mother, wrote in the 1940s. The original Pippi was more truly a classic trickster … In order to tame that Pippi slightly for public consumption, Lindgren’s publisher persuaded her to tone the story down … For example, Pippi actually apologizes to the schoolteacher she has defied and does not, in her madcap rescue of children from a burning building, accidentally-on-purpose smash a chamber pot (as she did in the draft).”
  • Fun fact: our Southern editor, John Jeremiah Sullivan, is in a band. They’re called Life of Saturdays. We hadn’t known this until earlier today, when we found a review of their debut album So How We Seem in the Wilmington Star News: “Sullivan’s distinctive vocals, which range from a pretty falsetto to a throaty wail, take center stage on rock anthem ‘American Boy.’ Whether it's about the immaturity of the American male, U.S. imperialism or something else is hard to figure, but nothing can mask the awesomeness of the line, ‘Set my phasers on joy / Because I am an American boy.’”
  • Loot, nirvana, pajamas, shampoo, shawl, bungalow, jungle, pundit, thug how did these and other Indian words come to enter the English language? For clues, look to Hobson-Jobson: The Definitive Glossary of British India, first published in 1886.