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Posts Tagged ‘words’

Always Right

April 11, 2016 | by

New York City subway, May 1973.

The other day I noticed something for the first time. “Please allow all customers off the train,” said the recorded voice over the subway sound system. Customers. Not passengers, not riders: customers. 

What did it mean? Something bureaucratic, obviously—but philosophically? Had the transaction at last been stripped of all artifice? Had the civic connotations of public transit been cast off in favor of naked commercialism? Or was this a simple acknowledgment that we’re paying for the ride—and that, in the way of all American customers, we are always right? Read More »

Language Leakage: An Interview with Sarah Thomason

March 30, 2016 | by

The linguist discusses how technology shapes culture and culture shapes words.

A uniform for the Spokane Indians in Salish.

The first time Sarah “Sally” Thomason and I spoke, she’d just completed her annual two-day, eighteen-hundred-mile drive from her home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she teaches, to rural northwestern Montana, where she spends her summers studying Montana Salish. For thirty-four years, Thomason has been assembling a dictionary of this Native American language, which is spoken fluently by fewer than forty people. Thomason, a linguist, is fascinated by what happens when one language meets another, and how those languages change, or don’t. I had contacted her because I was interested in how certain words—say, e-mail, or google, or tweet—had been exported worldwide by American-born technology. I’d already called several linguists, and they all said I had to speak to Sally. No one, they said, had more insight into how linguistic traits travel, how pidgins and creoles are born, and how languages interact and change over time.  

The French government tried very hard to resist American loanwords like e-mail, promoting in its place messagerie électronique or courriel. They’d formed a whole agency for this purpose. Laws were passed and enforced. And yet e-mail prevailed—it was simply more efficient. But Sally was especially excited about languages that resist such borrowing, even in the face of extraordinary cultural influence and dominance. Montana Salish was one such language. Our conversations followed a pattern: I arrived expecting one thing and ended up somewhere entirely distinct, thinking differently about language and human culture.

Is it fair to say that you study what happens when languages meet? Is meet too friendly a word? I suppose there’s a whole range of things that happen, and sometimes it’s friendly and sometimes it’s not.

Right, but having a language disappear because all the speakers got massacred is actually really rare. There are a couple of examples where all the speakers of some language got wiped out by a volcanic eruption on an island. And there are a couple of examples, at least one in this country, where almost everybody was wiped out by smallpox and then the remainder was lynched by a mob.

What languages are those? Read More »

Twenty Brutal Years of Tuscan Sun, and Other News

March 14, 2016 | by

A still from the film adaptation of Under the Tuscan Sun.

  • Because people are incorrigibly nosy, and because no one seems to find it enjoyable to let an author write her books in peace, an Italian professor has sallied forth with yet another dubious claim as to the true identity of Elena Ferrante. And the professor’s guess isn’t very creative, either; it’s just another professor. “The latest writer forced to deny that she is the creator of the critically acclaimed Neapolitan novels is Marcella Marmo, a professor of contemporary history at the University of Naples Federico II. ‘Truly no, I am not Elena Ferrante,’ she told Corriere della Sera, saying she had only read the first novel in the Neapolitan series and the newspaper should give her the other books as an apology.”
  • Today in super: what a shitty word super is, with its grating long u, its relentless cheer, its strange ties to start-up culture. Teddy Wayne writes “Super followed by an adjective—in other words, in adverbial form—was more than five times as common from 2010 to ’12 as from 1990 to ’94, with the biggest leaps coming in the last decade … What was once reserved for the best, the most awe-inspiring and the wondrous is now routinely deployed for the mundane, the banal and the taste of fro-yo … It is a prefix for a wealth of hard math and science terms (such as superset or superstring theory). It can imbue a nebulous proposition with what sounds like data-tested objectivity: ‘We have implemented a superaccessible user database’ comes off as more authoritative or more high-tech than ‘We have implemented a very accessible user database.’ ”
  • Eileen Myles has become that strangest of subspecies, the famous poet. Arielle Greenberg wonders why Myles’s fame has itself garnered so much attention, and what it might mean for her work: “It is weird for a poet to be famous, and no one feels this weirdness more deeply than poets themselves. It’s even more weird for a poet to be newly more famous—genuinely, glossy-magazine famous—in her mid-sixties, after writing nineteen books … Why is the media so obsessed with Myles’s ascent into mainstream celebrity? I think a host of reasons are at play: the way Americans try to get ‘cultured’ by osmosis so that stylish articles about poetry make us feel more intellectual, the ‘bootstraps’ nature of Myles’s story, the novelty of someone who ran for president as a piece of performance art getting photographed for glossy magazines. I find myself thinking about a term used a lot in my circles in the early 1990s: co-opting. Back then, it seemed that everything authentic and revolutionary and vital—the riot grrl movement, grunge music, hip-hop—was quickly gobbled up by the establishment and spat back out in clean, shiny packages for mass consumption. I worry that the hoopla over Myles is an attempt by the media to take everything underground about her and her work and use it to make itself look cool.”
  • The Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s new film Cemetery of Splendor continues his long, oblique, quiet approach to political cinema, in which characters struggle to awake from the bland dream of history: “By far the most nakedly political film of Weerasethakul’s career, it is a gentle, open-hearted story of human connection, and it is underlain at every moment by rage and dread. Midway through the film, the two main characters, Jen and Itt, go to the movies. In a slick modern multiplex, they watch a trailer for a schlocky horror flick, a fevered montage of impalements, heaving breasts, and prehensile tongues. This sequence is as close to a direct statement of intent as you’ll ever find in a Weerasethakul film. Cemetery of Splendor has no gore, no bug-eyed demons or shrieking victims, and it makes time for flirtatious conversations with the local librarian, a long sales pitch for a miracle skin cream, and several public group workouts (a charmingly inexplicable staple of this filmmaker’s work). But it too is a horror movie, all the more unsettling for its poky, daylit geniality.”
  • It’s been twenty years since Under the Tuscan Sun was published, turning Tuscany into an unseemly pastiche of luxury and authentic European living. What have we done since? Jason Wilson explains: “I have sat on Tuscan-brown sofas surrounded by Tuscan-yellow walls, lounged on Tuscan patios made with Tuscan pavers, surrounded by Tuscan landscaping. I have stood barefoot on Tuscan bathroom tiles, washing my hands under Tuscan faucets after having used Tuscan toilets. I have eaten, sometimes on Tuscan dinnerware, a Tuscan Chicken on Ciabatta from Wendy’s, a Tuscan Chicken Melt from Subway, the $6.99 Tuscan Duo at Olive Garden, and Tuscan Hummus from California Pizza Kitchen. Recently, I watched my friend fill his dog’s bowl with Beneful Tuscan Style Medley dog food. This barely merited a raised eyebrow; I’d already been guilty of feeding my cat Fancy Feast’s White Meat Chicken Tuscany. Why deprive our pets of the pleasures of Tuscan living?”

The Delinquents

March 10, 2016 | by

The language of debt and ethics.

Illustration: Thomas Hosmer Shepherd

When E. E. Cummings wrote “i am never without it (anywhere / i go you go, my dear; and whatever is done / by only me is your doing, my darling),” he was talking about a lover, but he may as well have been talking about a debt. For we are wracked with debt, especially with student debt, which last month the Federal Reserve Bank of New York reported to be the second largest household debt category after mortgages. It’s also the debt category with the highest delinquency rate—perhaps because its balances are unpayable, given the way the global economy is stacked against the young. But still creditors wonder: How can they make their debtors pay up? The key may be in asking with the right words, and for the right reasons. Read More »

Dord, and Other News

February 24, 2016 | by

Dord!

  • Foupe, adventine, dentize, kime, morse—these and other non-word words have made their way into English-language dictionaries over the centuries, blurring the line between errata and neologisms. Philologists call them ghost words, and they’re mainly the result of printers’ errors. Jack Lynch writes of the most famous example, from 1934: “Webster’s included many abbreviations in its wordlist, and the compilers planned to include the abbreviation for density … One lexicographer—Austin M. Patterson, special editor for chemistry—typed a 3" × 5" card explaining the abbreviation: he headed it ‘D or d’ … But when it came time to transcribe the card, someone misread it and ran the letters together without spaces, producing ‘Dord, density’ … The entry made it into the dictionary as ‘dord, density.’ It took five years for a Merriam editor to notice the strange entry … The printer removed dord from the next reprint, filling the otherwise empty line by adding a few letters to the entry for doré furnace.”
  • While we’re on dictionaries: Are they sexist? Well, yes. Are they irretrievably sexist? That depends … “Feminists and linguists have been talking about the sexism that lurks beneath the surface of dictionaries since at least the nineteen-sixties … In 1987, the radical philosopher and activist Mary Daly wrote an entry for a word of her own coinage: ‘Dick-tionary, n: any patriarchal dictionary: a derivative, tamed and muted lexicon compiled by dicks.’ Rooting out the sexism in dictionaries was a priority for feminism’s second wave. The nineteen-seventies and eighties witnessed a profusion of alternative volumes like Daly’s, which highlighted biases that belied mainstream dictionaries’ descriptive ideals … The choices about what to include in a dictionary, like the construction of any historical record, are, arguably, inherently political … Feminist linguists argue that, in some instances, lexicographers should put a thumb on the scale.”
  • Today in love and the arts: Georg Friedrich Haas, a world-renowned composer, sent an OkCupid message to his future wife. “Wow—your profile is great … I would like to tame you.” Thus began a different kind of courtship: “In a joint appearance with his wife, who now goes by Mollena Williams-Haas, late last year at the Playground sexuality conference in Toronto, then in an interview this month in the online music magazine VAN, he has ‘come out,’ as he put it, as the dominant figure in a dominant-submissive power dynamic. Mr. Haas has chosen to speak up … because he hopes to embolden younger people, particularly composers, not to smother untraditional urges, as he did … Williams-Haas, who described the situation as feminist because it is her choice, said, ‘I find intense fulfillment in being able to serve in this way.’ She conceded the discomfort many may feel with a black woman willingly submitting to a white man … she added, ‘To say I can’t play my personal psychodrama out just because I’m black, that’s racist.’ ”
  • The other nontraditional composer in the news is the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, which has recently detected gravitational waves for the first time in history and converted their signal into audio. “When we listen to the waves that LIGO first played for us, we can tell that the system is quite heavy, since the signal ends a bit lower than middle C on the piano. If the system were lighter, the waves would have ended at a higher pitched note … We know we can hear these waves now, and we want to make our ears better … We want to hear the ghostly whispers of the earliest moments of the universe’s expansion. We want to listen without prejudice and to hear things that for now we can barely imagine.”
  • If space sounds make you anxious, turn your attention instead to Japan’s Kamakura Period (1185–1333), serene statues from which are now on display at the Asia Society of New York: “These mesmerizing sculptures show the sacred being standing quietly above an opening lotus blossom, and dressed in monk’s robes whose folds fall in a cascade of graceful waves. Their power to entrance arises from the near-perfect balance of motion and stillness, symmetry and asymmetry, they display. They do not move and yet they seem to radiate peace … Kamakura statues are miracles of technique. Carved in wood, and hollowed out so that the skin of the sculpture in some parts is not much thicker than cardboard, they weigh almost nothing. They hover on the verge of immateriality.”

Ornery Little Critters

February 1, 2016 | by

S. J. Perelman, ca. 1957.

From a letter sent by S. J. Perelman to Betsy Drake, dated May 12, 1952. Perelman, one of the most popular humorists of his time, was born on this day in 1904; he died in 1979. Donald Barthelme called him “the first true American surrealist.”I classify myself as a writer of what the French call feuilletons—that is, a writer of little leaves. They’re comic essays of a particular type,” Perelman told The Paris Review in 1963. Here he advises Drake on the miseries of screenwriting. “The mere mention of Hollywood induces a condition in me like breakbone fever. It was a hideous and untenable place when I dwelt there, populated with few exceptions by Yahoos, and now that it has become the chief citadel of television, it’s unspeakable,” he told the ReviewRead More »