The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘words’

Bring on the Dedicated Smell Words, and Other News

November 9, 2015 | by

Paul Thévenaz, Untitled (Nude smelling flowers), 1922.

  • Today in language and sensory perception: the verdict is in and English is a laughably inadequate language when it comes to describing scents. We must close the smell deficit, giving the olfactory its due in a mad rush of neologism. “In English, there are only three dedicated smell words—stinky, fragrant, and musty—and the first two are more about the smeller’s subjective experience than about the smelly thing itself … the Jahai people of Malaysia and the Maniq of Thailand use between twelve and fifteen dedicated smell words … ltpit describes the smell of a binturong or bear cat—a two-meter-long animal that looks like a shaggy, black-furred otter, and that famously smells of popcorn … Another word is used for the smell of petrol, smoke, bat droppings, some species of millipede, the root of wild ginger, the wood of wild mango, and more. One seems specific to roasted foods. And one refers to things like squirrel blood, rodents, crushed head lice, and other ‘bloody smells that attract tigers.’ ”
  • In her quest to compile a kind of contemporary ars moriendi, Robyn K. Coggins has taken an exhaustive survey of how people would like to die: “Sometimes I think getting sniped while walking down the street is the best way to go. Short, sweet, surprising; no worries, no time for pain. Sure, it’d be traumatic as hell for the people nearby, but who knows—your death might spark a social movement, a yearlong news story that launches media, legal, and criminal justice careers. What a death!”
  • I can think of where not to die: in Gore Vidal’s pool, which has apparently fallen into disuse. “The pool was … filled with dead fish with bruised purple backs hovering beneath the dark green surface. Abandoned sun chairs lay by the side.” You can change all that, though. Vidal’s 10,500-square-foot property on the Amalfi coast, La Rondinaia, is for sale for a cool $21.1 million. Invite me over once you’ve fixed the place up. Don’t let me die in the pool.
  • Far beyond the walls of the academy, poets like Tyler Knott Gregson are pouring their hearts out online, putting forth page after page of unvarnished verse. They’ve found that most coveted thing: a wide readership. Gregson’s new book of haiku has a first printing of a hundred thousand copies; he “belongs to a new generation of young, digitally astute poets whose loyal online followings have helped catapult them onto the best-seller lists, where poetry books are scarce. These amateur poets are not winning literary awards, and most have never been in a graduate writing workshop … Their appeal lies in the unpolished flavor of their verses, which often read as if they were ripped from the pages of a diary … The rapid rise of Instapoets probably will not shake up the literary establishment, and their writing is unlikely to impress literary critics or purists who might sneer at conflating clicks with artistic quality. But they could reshape the lingering perception of poetry as a creative medium in decline.”
  • In the late eighties, the artist Kembra Pfahler decided to sneak subversive commentary into the most accessible vehicle around: a rock band. “The first performance I ever did … was when I came home and looked around and there was nothing in the house except an egg. There wasn’t anything to use, I didn’t have a guitar, I had an egg. So I stood on my head and cracked an egg over it … I decided in 1989 to start a classic rock band … so I could slide the imagery into the consciousness of the viewer a little easier. This was The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black … The band allowed me to squeeze in all the strange images I’d been working on for all these years, what I now call my ‘manual of action,’ my own vocabulary of images: the sewn vagina; the egg piece; all of the costumes, like Abra Kedavour; the flowing anal bead shirt; the shark piece; the upside down Crucifix piece, where I hang upside down on the cross; the wall of vagina; the bowling ball piece. For the most part, the performances happened during the guitar solo, and were over before you knew what happened.”

How to Say No in Turkish

October 20, 2015 | by

Navigating a new language.

A postcard of the harbor in Constantinople, ca. 1914.

Some people see learning a language as an obstacle course or, more euphemistically, as a second coming of age. Whichever way you look at it, when it comes to Turkish, English speakers are faced with a much harder task than with an Indo-European language.

Why does the Turkish alphabet not contain the letter w? Very few Turkish words remind me of their equivalents in the languages I know; nothing follows a familiar pattern. Over and again, I read meanings into words that turn out to be false friends. Why does engel mean “obstacle,” kalender “unconventional” (it can also be a male first name), tabak—“dish”? Why do you “drink” a cigarette—sigara içmek? Why is a sunflower called a “moon flower,” and a hornet a “donkey bee”? Who came up with the idea to choose inmek for “get off”? Will I ever learn to stop dotting the ı? Read More »


October 19, 2015 | by

Yeah, real spooky, Austin.


I dreamt last night of the three weird sisters:
To you they have show’d some truth. —Macbeth

In the Austin airport, there is an ad for a major national bank. “You keep it weird,” it says. “We’ll keep your rates low.” (Okay, so I’m paraphrasing that second part—I stopped paying attention.) It refers, of course, to the famous Keep Austin Weird campaign launched in the early aughts by the Austin Independent Business Alliance. The movement was designed to promote small businesses and maintain the place’s idiosyncratic character, and was later adopted by cities around the country in the face of corporate encroachment. 

You see Keep Austin Weird merch everywhere in the city, on mugs and tees and coffee carriers, all of it looking as un-weird as possible. But this bank ad was next-level. It was, as magazine people might say, almost too on-the-nose. Read More »


September 21, 2015 | by

Photo: Darwin Bell


Life is an onion—you peel it year by year and sometimes cry. ―Carl Sandburg

Here’s a practical writing tip: if you’re stuck, write “Once upon a time.” Go on, try it—I think you’ll find that even the action is soothing. It’s not just that now you have something on the page, although you do. The words themselves are calming. 

Where did I encounter this piece of advice? I don’t want to rob anyone of credit, but misattribution would be bad, too. I think it was in the cookbook The Splendid Table’s How to Eat Supper, but I can’t swear to it. Anyway, in this book, one of the authors relates a time-honored tip passed down from her grandmother: if you don’t know what to make for dinner, just cut up an onion and put it on to cook. The action, the aroma, the fact that an onion is the basis for so many dishes—these factors will conspire to prompt a plan. And if nothing else, you’ll enjoy the savory smell of industry. Read More »


September 14, 2015 | by

If you know a lot of the words in this thing, you’re probably at least sixty years old.

I’m a little too old, I think, to know how to really waste time on the Internet. I do it, of course, but I don’t think I do it properly: I tend to stay in my rut, visiting the same couple of sites every time, answering the same set of questions. Has there been a world crisis? Is there a vintage oatmeal wrap coat on eBay? Has some foolish tourist made the mistake of asking where to eat in Little Italy on that Manhattan foodie restaurant board? After that, I just sort of sit there, staring blankly. 

So, like many old people, I am susceptible to the carnivalesque lures of online blandishments—clickbait, I mean. Why yes, I do want to know what Jane Austen character I am! I had no idea these former child stars were married? I’ll be the judge of that, sir! And when a link to some quiz site, styled of course in Comic Sans, asked if they could guess my age by my vocabulary, well, I thought I’d take them up on it. Read More »

Do Not Drop These Books, and Other News

September 14, 2015 | by

Books of laminate glass by Ramon Todo. Image via This Is Colossal

  • In which Justin Taylor dissects a paragraph of Sam Lipsyte’s story “This Appointment Occurs in the Past,” in the name of pedagogy: “The only higher-order claims I wish to make today are, attention to language at the molecular level is valuable in itself; second, that anyone can learn it, in or out of the classroom; and third, that once it becomes assimilated as instinct it will enhance your writing as much as your reading, irrespective of whether you ever choose to write or read this way again.”
  • Witness the rise of the smarmonym, a living reflection of our passive-aggressive use of language. What is it? Any word that we’ve “ironized and de-meaninged and re-meaninged”: “Pal, which often connotes enemy … And tolerance—which, when selected as a noun, often suggests its own absence. And classy. And sincerely, whose presence in a sentence is often evidence of, you know, total insincerity. Honestly, for the same reason. Respectfully, too. And, of course, literally 
  • Today in interdisciplinary skirmishes: Simon Critchley remembers his teacher Frank Cioffi, whose philosophy had scientism in its crosshairs. “His concern was with the relation between the causal explanations offered by science and the kinds of humanistic description we find, say, in the novels of Dickens or Dostoevsky, or in the sociological writings of Erving Goffman and David Riesman. His quest was to try and clarify the occasions when a scientific explanation was appropriate and when it was not, and we need instead a humanistic remark. His conviction was that our confusions about science and the humanities had wide-ranging and malign societal consequences.”
  • Paper is obsolete. Paper is wasteful and silly. And pages! Pages are ridiculous. The future of books is glass. Say it with me: the future belongs to glass.
  • Garth Greenwell read Michael Nava’s The Little Death, a mystery novel with a gay Latino hero from an immigrant family in California’s Central Valley: “Henry Rios is a defense attorney whose hardboiled bona fides—world-weariness, wit, a penchant for erotic entanglement—are accompanied by a hyper-attentiveness to class and a commitment to the poor. In a genre that had used queer people primarily as figures of ridicule and contempt, the Rios books offer a vista on gay lives extending from the closet-lined corridors of power to cruising parks and leather bars.”
  • The Paris Review Parisians didn’t fare too well this summer in New York Media Softball League. But you know who did? The High Times. They beat us. They beat pretty much everyone. “The Bonghitters remain an industry powerhouse. They’re the defending league champions … and they’ve been blazing through opponents since forming in 1991 … For the Bonghitters, the first key to winning is showing up.” The second key is getting stoned.