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Posts Tagged ‘words’

The Coconut Cupcake

April 18, 2014 | by

cupcakes

Yesterday I made some Easter-themed cupcakes, topped with cream-cheese frosting and dusted with green-tinted coconut. Within each nest, I placed four jelly beans. Brand: Teeny-Been. They were, if I do say so myself, pretty cunning.

When I was asked to contribute a word to Let’s Bring Back: The Lost Language Edition, I was thrilled to have a chance to agitate for my favorite adjective. It’s not that the word has disappeared, exactly, but it has shed one of its meanings. While one usage always denoted craftiness, the other meaning was benign, even infantile. Something cunning was dear, precious, made with craft and care. Read More »

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Moist, and Other News

April 5, 2013 | by

wetnaps-moist-towelette-photo

  • “Other books I can’t throw away because—well, they’re books, and you can’t throw away a book, can you?” In memory of the late Roger Ebert, an essay on libraries and love.
  • Amazon is in the process of testing an automated cover generator. Well, of course they are, silly.
  • Why do so many people hate the word moist, anyway? On word aversion.
  • Lizzie Skurnick, the Boswell of the world of YA literature, is launching Lizzie Skurnick Books, an imprint that will “bring back the very best in young adult literature, from the classics of the 1930s and 1940s, to the thrillers and social novels of the 1970s and 1980s.”
  • Short version: Scotland is giving back some of George Washington’s books.

 

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The Indescribable Frankenstein: A Short History of the Spectacular Failure of Words

March 5, 2013 | by

frankenstein-jj-001Mrs. Chesser taught me that there is never any reason to use the word indescribable. Invoking the indescribability of something does no work except to tell everyone, quite explicitly, that you are incapable of describing. Indescribable is not a quality something can possess, only a failure that can overwhelm a writer. Even now, years later, I can practically hear Mrs. Chesser, her voice languid with existential weariness, pleading with all of us in third-period English: “For the love of God, ask ourselves why a thing is indescribable and then write that down. Never be so lazy as to just dash off, ‘It was indescribable.’ It’s a waste of everyone’s time.” I remember her making profound eye contact with me just as the words “waste of everyone’s time” escaped her lips. Chastened, and most likely the prime offender, I made a note to myself, much of it capitalized, and have since made all-out war on the indescribable in my life.

But the indescribable has a history, and a distinguished one at that. In her novel Frankenstein, Mary Shelley uses the word “describe,” or some version of it, twenty-one times. Of those twenty-one, fourteen are coupled with a negation. Which means that approximately 66 percent of the time Mary Shelley uses the word “describe,” it is to describe how she, in fact, cannot describe something. “I cannot describe to you my sensations,” or, “How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe,” or, “I cannot pretend to describe what I then felt,” or, “a hell of intense tortures such as no language can describe.” But these romantic, brain-feverish testimonies to descriptive incompetence are often immediately paired with very precise descriptions, as in, “Over him hung a form which I cannot find words to describe—gigantic stature, yet uncouth and distorted in its proportions,” or when the explorer Robert Walton writes his sister, “I cannot describe to you my sensations on the near prospect of my undertaking. It is impossible to communicate to you a conception of the trembling sensation, half pleasurable and half fearful, with which I am preparing to depart.” What is that indescribable sensation? Well, trembling, half-pleasurable, half-fearful, which is actually quite descriptive. Read More »

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A Man Pronounces the Longest Word in the World

December 13, 2012 | by

If you so choose, watch one Dmitry Glubovskyi pronouncing the longest word in the world, the 189,819-letter chemical name for titin (which is, appropriately enough, the largest protein in the world). Warning: it takes three hours. To quote the Daily News, “It gets really good at the 1:32:54 mark, when a pack of corgis invades.” We’ll take their word for it.

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It Is Hoped

April 24, 2012 | by

Linguists and grammarians the world over may weep into their Manuals of Style, but the march of progress continues: as of this week, the AP Stylebook has altered its definition of hopefully. As they tweeted, “We now support the modern usage of hopefully: It's hoped, we hope.”

(Previously, the accepted definition was, “In a hopeful manner.”)

As the AP deputy standards editor David Minthorn told the Washington Post somewhat mournfully, “We batted this around, as we do a lot of things, and it just seemed like a logical thing to change. We’re realists over at the AP. You just can’t fight it.”

Naturally, the decision has been controversial. While some have heralded the AP’s flexibility, others, like editor Rob Rheinalda, take a dimmer view, opining, “It’s lazy and it’s subjective. The speaker presumes that everyone shares that hope.” The WaPo piece had generated 680 comments as of this writing. Is Rome burning? Or is language simply in perpetual flux?

We are reminded here of the immortal words of Ken Kesey, who, in his Paris Review interview, remarked, “As you get older and hopefully wiser, you find that blame and punishment beget only more blame and punishment.” Amen.

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Semantic Thrills; Yes, Generalissimo?

June 3, 2011 | by

Dear Lorin,
The Portuguese word
saudade connotes this beautiful expectation of nostalgia for a current moment. There’s a word that describes the place where your collarbone meets the neck. Tom Robbins makes up erleichda, a combination of a command, interrogation, and request to “lighten up.” Are there any such words in English? I know Shakespeare made up the word encorpsed, but it doesn’t seem to have settled in as comfortably to our vernacular.
Best,
Alex

You pose a deep question, Alex. By “any such words,” I take it you mean words with highly specific functions, words that it is hard to believe are single words. But seen in a certain light, most words are like that. Just now at the sandwich place down the street, the barista asked a customer whether he wanted a tray, then she pulled down one of those egg-carton thingies with the indentations in it for cups. And suddenly it seemed strange to me that we have such a short word, tray, for such a specific tool—a portable horizontal surface on which to carry prepared foodstuffs—that comes in so many shapes and sizes.

After all, get has the longest definition in the OED.

But maybe you are thinking specifically of new words. And yes, English is always full of those. In the sixteenth century, it must have been a semantic thrill to hear words like scapegoat and beautiful, both coined by William Tyndale for his translation of the Bible. Until then, no one knew a word for “the goat that you send off into the wilderness with your iniquities on its back,” or to say a thing was “characterized by beauty.” Some words still surprise me that way. German friends tell me they have no word for ear, in the sense of “you have a good ear.” To them the word is magic. (“That is why we will never have an Elmore Leonard.”)

And if saudade sounds exotic to you, try explaining to a Portuguese the exact meaning of fun.

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