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Posts Tagged ‘Oxford English Dictionary’

Just Another Filthy Sewer, and Other News

January 12, 2016 | by

Cloaca Maxima.

  • Good help is hard to find. The late nineteenth century was a fecund period for the Oxford English Dictionary, which began to add and sift through words at unprecedented speed—in large part because Dr. William Chester Minor, a murderer locked up in the Broadmoor insane asylum, was volunteering for the dictionary by mail. “In 1879, Minor began to submit thousands of words to the Oxford English Dictionary via a mail-in volunteer system to the dictionary’s editor, Dr. James Murray … Murray and Minor wrote each other often, but Murray didn’t learn that his most prolific contributor lived in a psychiatric hospital until he traveled fifty miles to see him in 1896 … Haunted by a branding he was forced to give an Irish deserter in the American Civil War, he suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, and had believed he was being molested and poisoned as revenge by Irish men, nightly, for years.”
  • Henry James’s late memoirs A Small Boy and Others (1913) and Notes of a Son and Brother find him recounting—with apparent joy, at that—the adventures of his youth: Adam Gopnik thinks the books deserve a wider audience. “The charm of the memoirs—the first book in particular—is helped, too, by their evocation of New York. Fourteenth Street and Sixth Avenue and Washington Square all register as the places they are now and were then, and yet are dazzlingly unlike. We are both in a city we know and in another city entirely, bearing the same street names, and this double vision delights us on each page. Nothing is more charming than James using the full weight of his scrutiny on the simple attractions of his youth, the Crystal Palace and P. T. Barnum’s American Museum.”
  • Everyone cheers for the innovative spirit of Roman plumbing. Roman bathhouses! Roman sewers! Roman latrines and toilets! Fine inventions, all, but filthy ones, too—research suggests that these advances in sanitation really didn’t do much to improve public health. “In some baths the water was only changed intermittently, and could acquire a scum on the surface from human dirt and cosmetics … They were afraid of connecting their houses to the sewers, since they feared what might climb out of a sewer into one’s house … They also feared the mephitic gas fires that sometimes burned in sewer holes or in the open seats in public toilets … And when they did go to the public latrines, one of the things they used to wipe themselves was a sponge on a stick, which was shared by everybody.”
  • Who needs monuments? What good has a monument ever done anybody, really? Jed Perl argues that Rodin, “with his zigzagging enthusiasms, may have been the first sculptor to conceive of the monument in ways that unmade the monument. He set the stage for the twentieth-century sculptor’s conflicted allegiances to grandiosity and intimacy, as well as what many have come to see as modernism’s embrace of ambiguity. Although Rodin was capable of placing an expressive figure on an imposing base, as in his beguiling salute to the seventeenth-century landscape painter Claude Lorrain, often he aimed to destabilize the monument, suggesting with The Burghers of Calais that heroic figures might have no need for a pedestal and transforming the imposing, cloaked figure of Balzac into a mountainous talisman, a primordial plinth.”
  • Few would call this a golden age for much of anything—but it is, maybe, a golden age for immersive theater. In New York alone there are at least eight immersive theater productions showing now or soon to open. Whether this is a wondrous bounty or an epidemic depends on what kind of a theatergoer you are: “In the last six weeks or so, I’ve gone to ten events involving all levels of participation, from not much to nonstop; varying in price from $18 to $200 a ticket; and ranging in personal discomfort level from mildly embarrassing to horrifically mortifying. I have experienced many interesting things … I cannot say that this investigation made me want to join an avant-garde acting troupe, but my self-conscious little internal voice, the one that keeps experiences at bay by critiquing them even as they happen, took itself off to a bar and got pleasantly drunk. Some productions were so compelling that you could not help but lose yourself in them, and that was exciting and unexpected.”

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Premium Unleaded, and Other News

December 16, 2015 | by

Frank Lloyd’s gas station in Cloquet, Minnesota.

  • In November 1994, George Plimpton interviewed Garrison Keillor at 92Y as part of a collaboration with The Paris Review. You can listen to a recording of their interview here—and now the PBS series Blank on Blank has animated part of it. “I think that you’re only obliged to be a humorist from maybe the age of eighteen until you turn thirty,” Keillor tells Plimpton. “Past the age of thirty, I don’t think there’s any obligation to be clever at all. After that, you, I think, are supposed to settle down, be a good person, raise your children, and be good to your friends, which you may not have been when you were very clever, and try to atone for your cleverness. Humor has to surprise us. Otherwise it isn’t funny, and, it’s a death knell for a writer to be labeled humorous, because then, of course, it’s not a surprise anymore, it’s what expected of him. And when you come to expect humor of people, you will never get it.”
  • Last month, Oxford Dictionaries named the “tears of joy” emoji its Word of the Year; now Merriam-Webster has followed suit, choosing a suffix, -ism, as its Word of the Year. Now, before you get all exercised and sit down to write an indignant op-ed about all these nonword words the dictionaries insist on force-feeding us, be advised that “Merriam-Webster notes that the version of -ism without the hyphen actually is a word, specifically a noun meaning ‘a distinctive doctrine, cause, or theory’ or ‘an oppressive and especially discriminatory attitude or belief’ … Last week, Dictionary.com bravely bucked this year’s trend by naming a word as their word of the year. They selected identity, citing increased conversation this year over gender and sexual identity, in large part because of former Olympic athlete Caitlyn Jenner’s decision to come out as a transgender woman.”
  • Fact: Frank Lloyd Wright designed a gas station. It was but one element in a vast, unrealized utopia he’d planned to erect in Buffalo, New York, which remains, alas, a largely dystopian place. But in 1958, when Wright was ninety, one part of his idyllic vision found its way to Cloquet, Minnesota, and an historic gas station was born: “Wright had designed a house for a resident of Cloquet named R. W. Lindholm, who happened to be in the petroleum business. Wright never gave up on his utopian city, and knowing what his client did for a living, he convinced Lindholm to build a gas station that was similar in design to the Buffalo station … Wright saw the car as a way to personal freedom for Americans, so he gave the drivers of Cloquet what he thought that future needed in a gas station, including an observation deck where the attendants could watch for cars in warmth and comfort.” Forget Fallingwater. This is Tricklinggasoline.
  • “I have in fact only once corresponded with anyone … who was as good at writing letters as I am,” Iris Murdoch once told the philosopher Philippa Foot. So this new book of her correspondence must be a veritable tour de force of jocularity and fluent intellect, yes? Well. John Mullan hates to break it to you, but “the brilliant thinker, witty conversationalist and powerfully idiosyncratic novelist are hardly here at all … Some have responded to the publication of these letters by depicting Murdoch as a rather shocking sexual adventuress, but this is not quite right. Really, she seems more interested in writing letters to people she found attractive than in having sex with them.”
  • What was the deal with Hawthorne and Melville? The heat that emanated from the hearth of their friendship was … well, hot. Melville once wrote, for example, that Hawthorne “shoots his strong New-England roots into the hot soil of my Southern soul.” But, as Jordan Alexander Stein notes, anyone wishing to prove some erotic intent on either writer’s part has a heavy burden: “Writers of the mid-nineteenth century did not have available to them the same expressive concision as those of us today who might speak glibly of topping and bottoming … Melville wrote of Hawthorne with undeniably sexy language. What proves more elusive are the feelings to which, with any precision, this language can be said to refer … The issue, then, is whether serious scholars writing about famous authors can reasonably deign to take dick jokes as evidence. And if we are indeed willing to take them as evidence, just how do we go about determining what kind of evidence they are?”

Notes on Vape

November 18, 2014 | by

jonwilliamsecig

Photo: Jon Williams, via Flickr

Last night, Oxford Dictionaries announced its Word of the Year—vape—and it was hard not to feel, at first, a twinge of disappointment. After all, 2013’s Word of the Year was selfie, which was so ubiquitous, so contentious, so undeniably germane to our times, that think pieces are still being written about it a year later. Selfie was a gift from the lexical gods, a soft disyllable that contained within it the whole winding story of our evolving relationship with technology. Choosing it was almost an act of synecdoche: it stood for a massive and increasingly vexed conversation about our lives online.

But our neology isn’t always so supple; Oxford Dictionaries is on the lookout for words that “reflect the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of that particular year,” and not every year delivers a pluperfect sign of the times. You play the hand you’re dealt. And 2014 has dealt us a lot of duds—slacktivism, budtender, bae, and normcore were on the shortlist this year, all clever and evocative as far as they go, but none of them with that era-encapsulating magic.

And none of them with the guarantee of longevity. I asked Allison Wright, an editor at Oxford University Press, what she and her colleagues look for in the Word of the Year, and she emphasized the importance of finding a word that isn’t “a flash in the pan.” Hence, she said, the ultimate appeal of vape—(v.) inhale and exhale the vapor produced by an electronic cigarette or similar device; (n.) an electronic cigarette or similar device; an act of inhaling and exhaling the vapor produced by an electronic cigarette or similar device—which promises to be around for a little while. Read More »

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Advanced Studies in Time Wasting, and Other News

November 18, 2014 | by

Gallen_Kallela_Symposion

Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Symposium, 1894.

  • The Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year is vape, which can function as a noun or a verb and “arose to fill a gap in our lexicon.” One can only imagine all the e-cigarette manufacturers presently scrambling to send complimentary samples to Oxford University Press’s offices.
  • At last, someone’s teaching a course at the University of Pennsylvania called “Wasting Time on the Internet.” “Although we’ll all be in the same room, our communication will happen exclusively through chat rooms and listservs, or over social media. Distraction and split attention will be mandatory. So will aimless drifting and intuitive surfing.” I’ve been auditing this class unknowingly for my entire adult life. I must owe UPenn hundreds of thousands of dollars by now.
  • Today in algorithms: a new one “automatically generates an independent ranking of notable authors for a given year.” It’s intended to help archivists learn which books in the public domain were the most popular—but it also has huge ramifications for ego massage and ego damage.
  • “He leans his right elbow on several grapefruit-size balls he has made from rubber bands people have given him during his daily circuit of social pit stops in Manhattan. He keeps hard candy in his pockets and a box of dog biscuits in the trunk, for dispensing.” This is New York’s oldest cabbie.
  • The oldest leather shoe, by comparison, has been around for 5,500 years and can be seen at a museum in Armenia.

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The Logistics of Ark-Building, and Other News

April 23, 2014 | by

Noah's_Ark_on_Mount_Ararat_by_Simon_de_Myle

Simon de Myle, Noah's Ark on the Mount Ararat, 1570

 

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Calling All Princesses, and Other News

March 17, 2014 | by

princess_telephone

Bell Telephones debuted the Princess phone in 1959. Image via Attitude Analyst

 

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