The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘language’

Don’t Gum Up a Book, and Other News

June 25, 2015 | by

dontgumupabook

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.

Prim and Proper, Crude and Vulgar

April 30, 2015 | by

Enough Said

Mel Bochner, Enough Said, 2012, oil on canvas, 24" x 30". © Mel Bochner

Our Spring issue, available now, features “Thesaurus Paintings,” a portfolio of text-based paintings and drawings from Mel Bochner. They have a focus on ordinary language, specifically the “emotional trajectory” that emerges when one riffs on words and phrases of a certain theme. The direction, Bochner says, is evident in

how one gets from the first word to the last word—from the prim and proper to the crude and vulgar. I concentrate a lot on the sense and sound of the language. The flow of words has to have a certain kind of rhythm—or a certain kind of lack of rhythm. That’s how the narrative of the painting is constructed.

You can see what he means by looking at Easy/Difficult, a painting that wends its way from a breezy, “easy” high point, to, well, “some deep shit,” as optimism shades into fatalism: Read More »

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

mcpharlin-0105_1200

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 »