The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Scotland’

Revere the Fig, Pity the Fig Wasp, and Other News

August 12, 2016 | by

From a package of California Fig Syrup Company’s “Syrup of Figs” laxative.

  • Friends, the great march of progress continues apace. The word bawbag—“a Scots word meaning scrotum, in Scots vernacular a term of endearment but in English could be taken as an insult”—has been added to the Macmillan Open Dictionary. Now the official record will never forget the rich, protean history of this fine word: ‘Bawbag made the headlines five years ago when hurricane force winds hit Scotland in a storm dubbed Hurricane Bawbag by Twitter users—a name which quickly went viral. It was also one of the many insults leveled at the US Republican party’s presidential candidate when he arrived in Scotland earlier this summer—the Daily Record reporting that anti-Trump protestors held up signs reading ‘Trump is a bawbag.’ The Ukip leader Nigel Farage was met with cries of ‘Nigel, you’re a bawbag, Nigel you’re a bawbag, na, na, na, hey!’ in Edinburgh three years ago.”
  • I eat figs as I eat most things—hell-bent on my own delectation, and totally ignorant of the food’s history or provenance. Ben Crair has taught me the ancient ways of the fig, though, in all their beauty and tragedy: “Because a fig is actually a ball of flowers, it requires pollination, but because the flowers are sealed, not just any bug can crawl inside. That task belongs to a minuscule insect known as the fig wasp, whose life cycle is intertwined with the fig’s. Mother wasps lay their eggs in an unripe fig. After their offspring hatch and mature, the males mate and then chew a tunnel to the surface, dying when their task is complete. The females follow and take flight, riding the winds until they smell another fig tree … When the insects discover the right specimen, they go inside and deposit the pollen from their birthplace. Then the females lay new eggs, and the cycle begins again. For the wasp mother, however, devotion to the fig plant soon turns tragic. A fig’s entranceway is booby-trapped to destroy her wings, so that she can never visit another plant. When you eat a dried fig, you’re probably chewing fig-wasp mummies, too.”
  • In the media, to call a piece of writing “academic” is to condemn it in the worst terms. David Wolf and Jo Livingstone discuss the eroding reputation of professorial prose: “People talk about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ writing as if it’s obvious what they are … In a journalistic context, extremely formal and exhaustive academic writing can come across as so pretentious and ridiculous when, in fact, there’s a lovely humbleness to it. The academic is saying, ‘Look! I’ve acknowledged all these people that have thought really hard about this’ … But, I think, one way in which academics writing for journalistic audiences can go wrong is not appreciating that the world which you are writing for is completely different … It’s not the job of the readers of the Guardian, say, to read you. They’re either going to read you because they’re interested, or they think it’s really important, or they’ll do it for pleasure or entertainment, but they’re not doing it out of any sense of duty.”
  • The National Library of France has digitized the 1588 manuscript of Montaigne’s seminal Essays. It is, yes, in French. But if you can jump over that hurdle, you’ll see that Montaigne’s handwritten annotations (allongeails) are intact here. (Previously, the manuscript lived for many centuries in a convent in Bordeaux.)

The Whole Rigmarole

June 30, 2016 | by

Ben Jonson bares all.

drummond-johnson

From left: Ben Jonson, William Drummond.

Pretty soon it will have been four hundred years since Ben Jonson (1572–1637) walked from London to Edinburgh. I don’t know the whole story. I know he stayed at some length with William Drummond of Hawthornden, a few miles south of Edinburgh. Jonson was around forty-seven at the time; Drummond was around thirty-four.

Both of these guys were poets, were into languages, bought a lot of books. Jonson was of course right in the middle of things in London. He knew Shakespeare, knew Donne. Drummond, meanwhile, had money.

People still read Jonson, with how much love I don’t know. There are a number of famous lines. “Drink to me only with thine eyes.” “Though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek.” Drummond got a boost with Palgrave’s Golden Treasury (1861), eight items to Jonson’s three. Still, these days, if you love Drummond’s poetry (I do) you pretty much feel you have him all to yourself. Read More »

Happy Tartan Day

April 6, 2016 | by

April 6 marks Tartan Day: on this day in 1320the Declaration of Arbroath was signed, asserting Scottish independence. As the BBC describes, Read More »

“A Garish Nightmare of American Annihilation,” and Other News

July 22, 2015 | by

hiroshimabiggs

Geoffrey Biggs’s Hiroshima cover (detail), 1948.

  • Ice cream: delicious summertime treat or agent of moral turpitude? In fin de siècle Scotland, ice cream parlors “with mirrored walls and leather seats” became “the scourge of the prudish bourgeoisie, who saw them as papist dens of vice”: “Among the more egregious crimes committed by the shops’ proprietors was that of allowing young people of both sexes to intermingle and smoke. One inspector had said that he had seen girls of ‘tender years’ smoking cigarettes in the shop. They were also seen dancing to ‘music supplied by a mouth organ’ … It was concluded that ice cream shops embodied ‘perfect iniquities of hell itself and ten times worse than any of the evils of the public house. They were sapping the morals of the youth of Scotland.’ ”
  • Frances Kroll Ring, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s longtime secretary, died last month. She had many critical tasks in his life, one of which was to rid him of his anti-Semitism: “It’s entirely possible that Frances Kroll was the first Jewish person he ever spent any time with … ‘Jews lose clarity,’ he jotted in his Notebooks. ‘They get to look like old melted candles, as if their bodies were preparing to waddle’ … As Kroll tells it, Fitzgerald displayed a great deal of curiosity about Jewishness, pestering her about Jewish characteristics and customs. He was fascinated by ‘the Passover feast’ and the practice of keeping kosher.”
  • Jack London spent his youth shoveling coal in a cannery, so he really, really, really wanted to become a successful writer and leave that hell behind. He had a good year in 1903: The Call of the Wild was serialized in the Saturday Evening Post, bringing the success that allowed him to write full-time. He conveyed his newfound wisdom to aspirant writers in a piece called “Getting Into Print.” Some of it’s still true in this century: “Don’t quit your job to write unless there is none dependent on you.” Other parts are not: “Fiction pays best of all, and when it is of a fair quality is more easily sold.”
  • When John Hersey’s Hiroshima appeared in paperback, it sported a new, terrifically misguided cover, becoming what Paula Rabinowitz called “a garish nightmare of American annihilation”: “In this image, two people, not Japanese, are fleeing an explosion just beyond the frame. They are young, white, and stylish: she epitomizes New Look fashion in her loafers and gathered skirt, he sports pleated cuffs and a fitted trench coat … The cover artist, Geoffrey Biggs, wasn’t trying to be deceptive. As he says, in a note that sits just before the copyright page, he was trying to be universal: ‘I just drew two perfectly ordinary people—like you or me—and had them portray alarm, anxiety, and yet wild hope for survival as they run from man-made disaster in a big city—a city like yours or mine.’ ”
  • In which the Argentine writer Sergio Chejfec dissects names, first and foremost his own: “Some years ago I had the idea of asking several writer friends if they wouldn’t care to reflect on their own surname … This task—to speak about one’s surname and to portray oneself through it—contains, I think, a touch of transcendence that brings us closer to death. We insert a mark—which is our emblem, i.e. the commentary—into an undefined series of fairly indistinct moments which is characterized precisely by the absence of marks … That common coin which is our surname, received at times like a baton, needs us so as to take on substance and, as it were, identity.”

Sherlock Holmes Defends Civil Engineering, and Other News

February 20, 2015 | by

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An illustration of Sherlock Holmes from The Strand, 1920s.

  • In Selkirk, Scotland, a man has found a previously unseen Sherlock Holmes story in his attic. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle apparently wrote it around 1904 to help raise funds for a new bridge. “It is believed the story—about Holmes deducing Watson is going on a trip to Selkirk—is the first unseen Holmes story by Doyle since the last was published over eighty years ago.”
  • Why is To Kill a Mockingbird so beloved? Probably just because everyone was forced to read it growing up—in reality, it’s a “white-trash gothic” that infantilizes blacks and demonizes poor whites: “The central struggle in To Kill a Mockingbird involves class, not race. The book’s theme is the class war within the white South between the noble gentry and the depraved poor. In a clever twist, thanks to the community’s racism the white underclass villain wins in court, but the gentry hero enjoys revenge at the end, thanks to a killing that is covered up by the local sheriff.”
  • While we’re at it, we’ve made a mess of Huck Finn, too: “We persistently misread Twain’s messages on race and children for a simple reason: Americans still subscribe to many of the same myths and prejudices as their nineteenth-century ancestors. Twain’s novel is not a hymn to the carefree pleasures of a rustic childhood; it’s a barbed critique of precisely the sort of standardized education that has now led to the book’s adoption in countless classrooms … Common readings of the book are now trapped in the same sanctimonious clichés that Twain both punctured and perpetuated.”
  • How quickly is our spoken language changing, and how many of those changes should be reflected in print? “There is a natural problem, found the world over: how quickly to allow writing to adapt to changes in the spoken language? If spelling were adapted to pronunciation, the result would be a radical and destabilizing break with centuries of tradition … English-speakers are stuck with an archaic and anarchic system. Liberties with grammar—making the written language look like the spoken one—should be few and cautious. Giving the written language a little room to change, but not too much, is the only way to enjoy the best of both stability and vitality.”
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates remembers David Carr, who was his boss at the Washington City Paper: “David—recovering crack addict, recovering alcoholic, ex-cocaine dealer, lymphoma survivor, beautiful writer, gorgeous human—knew something about how a life of fucking up burrows itself into the bones of knuckleheads, and it changes there, transmutes into an abiding shame, a gnawing fear which likely dogs the reformed knucklehead right into the grave. Perhaps that fear could be turned into something beautiful. Perhaps a young journalist could pull power from that fear, could write from it … ”

To S. R. Crockett

December 5, 2014 | by

Bank_house

Bank House, Penicuik: Crockett lived here from around 1886, and J. M. Barrie often stayed with him.

Today, the Oxford English Dictionary brings us a splendid word of the day: the little-used draffsack. Because we can always use alternatives to glutton

Not that there’s anything wrong with glutton! Glutton is one of the finest of all words. It is evocative, it feels delicious in the mouth, and it’s also an alternate name for a wolverine. (Personally, I’d much sooner see a movie called Glutton. Although, I guess Hugh Jackman would have to put on a few pounds.)

But draffsack refines the concept. A draffsack is not merely a glutton, but a lazy glutton—as opposed to all the industrious, Diamond Jim Brady–style gluttons one encounters. It can also mean “paunch.” From the old Norse word draff (“brewing derivative”) and sack (“sack”), it is, apparently, Scottish. 

Which brings us to Samuel Rutherford Crockett. The OED cites the usage of the term in Crockett’s 1894 novel The Lilac Sunbonnet. S. R. Crockett’s career was a result of his era’s mania for Lowland Scots fiction; his many, many sentimental romances include Flower o’ the CornThe Surprising Adventures of Sir Toady LionMad Sir Uchtred, and, of course, his 1894 breakout, The Sticket Minister. Crockett was an ordained minister, and many of his forty titles had Christian themes, as well as muckle lowland color and Victorian-style syrup. Read More »