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Posts Tagged ‘words’

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 »

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Fast Asleep and Wide Awake

January 27, 2015 | by

But shouldn’t that be the other way around?

A_Rotting_Am_Morgen_1840

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

Die_Gartenlaube_(1876)_b_177

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 »

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You Get What You Deserve

January 13, 2015 | by

Sir Thomas Wyatt’s “They Flee From Me” and the history of the word deserve.

Angelica_Kauffmann_-_Ariadne_Abandoned_by_Theseus

Angelica Kauffmann, Ariadne Abandoned by Theseus, 1774.

The best I-just-got-dumped pop song ever, beating out such classics as “Wild World,” “Don’t You Want Me,” “Nothing Compares 2 U,” “You Oughta Know,” and “Irreplaceable,” is six hundred years old: Sir Tom’s “Runaway,” known to poets and scholars as “They Flee From Me” by Thomas Wyatt. You can read the original lyrics here (old spelling, modern spelling), but the structure and arc couldn’t be simpler: three verses, no chorus.

  1. Wait, what? They used to come running after me.
  2. Especially this one girl. Man, she was so hot.
  3. It’s true. Now she won’t even talk to me. I must have been too nice.

At least she’ll get her comeuppance: “But since that I so kindly am served / I would fain know what she hath deserved.”

To paraphrase: since she was so nice to me (sarcastic!)—and/or the now-obsolete meaning: since she treated me so in keeping with her kind, just the way you’d expect her to act (that bitch!)—I’d like to know what she has coming. The strange word to modern ears is the last one. Doesn’t the singer already know what she deserves, just not what she’s going to get? Read More »

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Are You Okay?

January 9, 2015 | by

okay

Illustration: Mohamed Ibrahim

As the hostage situation in Paris unfolds, the correspondents on CNN keep using the word okay. Are the hostages okay, how many are okay, et cetera. Okay means “alive,” of course. It’s a strange euphemism.

We have all heard the theories: OK is of Choctaw derivation, or possibly West African. Some linguists attribute it to the “comical misspellings” craze of the 1830s, while others cite Martin Van Buren’s Old Kinderhook campaign, or attempts to lampoon Andrew Jackson as an illiterate who couldn’t manage “all correct.”  

What is pretty generally agreed is that the first published usage dates from 1839, in the Boston Morning Post. Describing an outing by the Anti-Bell-Ringing Society, the paper reports: Read More »

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Power Tools

December 26, 2014 | by

The wonders of industrial-supply catalogs.

MuralesRome

Photo: Nicholas Gemini

When I was nine or ten, riding in the backseat of my mom’s car as we drove the gauntlet of strip malls, car dealerships, big-box stores, and fast-food franchises that constituted our suburb’s commercial district, I realized that all of the tall signs and buildings had been constructed and erected by actual people, different crews of people. I thought about all the Burger King and Mattress Discounters signs in the world, how each had been shipped from somewhere, delivered to someone, received, assembled, mounted, electrified. I attributed a lot of power and reach to corporations, especially those that advertised on TV, and to understand that they comprised real people was something of an epiphany—especially in suburbia, where corporate authority rests in the illusion that no human labor has gone into transforming and homogenizing the landscape. All the stores were just there. What else could there be?

That moment is part of what informs my fascination with the Grainger catalog, a massive, 4,322-plus page industrial-supply inventory with which I first became acquainted last year, when a friend gave it to me for my birthday. Released annually on February 1, it’s an omnibus of 590,000 products—power tools, fasteners, pneumatics, hydraulics, pumps, raw materials, janitorial necessities, HVAC and refrigeration components—a work of pure utility, designed, honed, and focus-grouped to provide ready access to its most arcane sections. I can’t get enough of it. For the uninitiated, it provides a glimpse at the invisible infrastructure girding the world of construction, maintenance, repair, and operations. Grainger’s aggressively salt-of-the-earth slogan is “For the Ones Who Get It Done,” and the joy of perusing its catalog is in seeing how very many things there are to get done, and how many ways we have of doing them.

And so I often reach for it in pursuit of a kind of materialist awe. It makes for a reading experience more engaging, imaginative, and informative than almost anything that passes as literature. I’ve put down novels to pick up the Grainger catalog, which holds court on my coffee table and which could, in a pinch, serve as a coffee table unto itself.

Grainger sells mail-room organizers, carpet deodorizers, hairnet dispensers, and gutter-deicing cables. They sell a three-stage, heavy-traffic floor-matting system designed to entrap heavy debris. They sell miniature high-precision stainless-steel ball bearings with extended inner rings. They sell 550-foot rolls of foam for protecting electronics and an oil-filtration system for high-viscosity fluids. Their catalog contains a proliferation of heavily modified nouns that denote things I never knew existed, or things I’d intuited to exist, but had never really considered.

Metalized polyester film tape.

GMP/GLP data output moisture analyzers.

Electrostatic dissipative (ESD) gloves.

Cup point alloy steel socket set screws. Read More >>

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