The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘language’

Greetings from Kingston Pen, and Other News

February 16, 2015 | by

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Photo: Geoffrey James, via Slate

  • The Book of Mormon may be a dull, plodding testament to the assorted lunacies of America’s Second Great Awakening—but it’s also “a Great American Novel, or, failing that, a priceless artifact from the Old, Weird America—a uniquely American product, like jazz music and superhero comics, that deserves our attention.”
  • What role, if any, does the “public intellectual” have in 2015? “It might be to participate in making ‘the public’ more brilliant, more skeptical, more disobedient, more capable of self-defense, and more dangerous again—dangerous to elites, and dangerous to stability … It is perhaps up to the intellectual, if anyone, to face off against the pseudo-public culture of insipid media and dumbed-down ‘big ideas,’ and call that world what it is: stupid.”
  • The English language has been in decline for a long time—a very, very long time, in fact, and along the way plenty of people have seen fit to remind us that we’re swirling in the toilet bowl. “It was William Langland, author of Piers Plowman, who wrote that ‘There is not a single modern schoolboy who can compose verses or write a decent letter.’ He died in 1386.”
  • “There’s something about making a diagram or calendar for an imagined world that feels over-the-top or maybe borderline delusional,” but everyone does it anyway—see this collection of novelists’ visual aids.
  • Kingston Penitentiary, which had a rep as “Canada’s Alcatraz,” opened in 1835 and closed only a few years ago. The photographer Geoffrey James was one of the few to document life inside it before it shut down—his photo-essay is bleak.

Ten Hours a Day, Ten Days a Week, and Other News

February 12, 2015 | by

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A French revolutionary clock.

  • Two newly discovered letters by Jane Austen’s brother, Charles, “shed a suggestive and unexpectedly saucy light on the ways her literary reputation was kept alive in the decades after her death in 1817.” (That sauciness is literal and figurative, I’ll have you know.)
  • The politics of the calendar: Why have so many nations attempted to change the way we mark time? “In perhaps the most famous example, the French Republican Calendar not only reorganized the days and months around a ten-day week called a décade, but also restarted the entire thing at Year I. At the time John Quincy Adams decried it as ‘superficially frivolous’ and ‘coarsely vulgar,’ not to mention ‘irreligious’—but this was of course the point: the de-Christianization of the calendar.”
  • On the photographer Duane Michals, a retrospective of whose work is currently at the Carnegie Museum of Art: “In a career spanning more than half a century he has worked in both utilitarian black-and-white and luxuriant color, produced slapstick self-portraits, evoked erotic daydreams, pamphleteered against art world fashions, and painted whimsical abstract designs on vintage photographs.”
  • The war on sadness in language: “A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences examined 100,000 words across texts in ten different languages and found ‘a universal positivity bias.’ ” We demand more sad words.
  • Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s orgies happen four times a year. What else happens four times a year? We can think of a thing or two …

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Golden Brown

February 3, 2015 | by

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E. Lomont, An Alchemist, 1890.

Here’s a phrase you don’t read much nowadays: brown study. First cited in the sixteenth century (specifically in a book called Dice-Play), the expression—which describes a state of intense, sometimes melancholy reverie—really seems to have hit its stride in the nineteenth. Dr. Watson describes “falling into a brown study” in the course of “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box.” In Louisa May Alcott’s Eight Cousins, Uncle Alec “paced up and down the lower hall in the twilight for an hour, thinking so intently that sometimes he frowned, sometimes he smiled, and more than once he stood still in a brown study.” In David Copperfield, Dickens uses it like this: “I fell into a brown study as I walked on, and a voice at my side made me start.”  Meanwhile, here’s Conrad, in “Thrift and the Child”:

He ceased and sat solemnly dejected, in a brown study. What day? I asked at last; but he did not hear me apparently. He suffused such portentous gloom into the atmosphere that I lost patience with him. 

These were all books written for a popular audience; presumably the phrase was in regular use in both the English and American vernacular. What seems puzzling now would not have to a population who knew brown as a color associated with sadness. Indeed, brown was once used the way we do blue today—to connote melancholy. And it’s a good phrase, well suited to stories sustained by brisk narrative pace; in such cases as these, it was doubtless useful to be able to sketch interiority in a couple of words. Read More »

I Swear

January 30, 2015 | by

In 1904, Roland D. Sawyer launched a crusade against obscenity.

In 1904, Roland D. Sawyer launched a crusade against obscenity.

No one ever heard my grandmother, in all her eighty-three years, utter a bad word. I can only once remember her even raising her voice. “It’s all fouled up!” she cried then, shaking a broken TV set. She said it with such frustration and despair that it expressed at least as much as any curse word might have. In fact, besides the time I heard a four-year-old in my brother’s playgroup call his sister Mary-Ellen a “fuckindamnshit,” it was the most shocking thing I’d ever heard.

Her husband, my grandfather, was considered foul-mouthed in the family; his language was a constant cause of distress to her. But in fact, he didn’t use real swear words either—certainly not compared to that little boy. It was usually a savage Goddammit! Or Hell’s Bell’s! His worst outbursts were reserved for his weekly gin game. It was then that he’d reach for the worst epithet of all: “I’ll be dipped.” Read More »

Fast Asleep and Wide Awake

January 27, 2015 | by

But shouldn’t that be the other way around?

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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 »