Horace Walpole coined the word serendipity in a letter to another Horace—Mann—dated January 28, 1754. The occasion was pretty unremarkable—it was a happy accident, after all—and almost archetypally British: Walpole had used a talisman to discover a link between two families by investigating their coats of arms in an old book. At least Walpole was aware of the dullness of his eureka moment: “I have nothing better to tell you,” he writes, before launching into the fascinating etymology of his new word. It would take nearly two centuries for the adjective form, serendipitous, to come on the scene—its first recorded usage was in 1943. —D. P. Read More
- Whatever you’re reading these days, it’s probably not as popular as Amish romance novels, which owe their meteoric rise, perhaps, to an old-fashioned yen for the patriarchy: “There’s no mistaking the potent commercial lure of the ‘bonnet books’—so called because of the young Amish women plastered on their covers. In less than a decade, bonnet titles have overtaken bestseller lists, Christian and non-Christian alike … these novels seldom offer fare any more lurid than a much-regretted kiss. Sex is always offstage, and mere carnal longing is usually mastered by the more powerful desire to do God’s will … their treatment of spiritual questions is itself oddly lustful, given their penchant for containing spiritual inquiry and experience within the strict bounds of faintly illicit-sounding modes of sectarianism and separatism.”
- Bromance, mandels, mansplain, man-icure, man-purse, bro-hug, manscape, man-date: whither the explosion of Neologisms for Men™? We could laud these new words as evidence of a long overdue recovery: “A popular online collection of old photos shows how much American men used to casually touch each other: Victorian gentlemen posing with hands clasped; grizzled cowboys sitting with arms entwined, and a striking amount of lap-sitting. But such pictures from the middle of the twentieth century and later are rare. The culprit is homophobia … It turns out that straight men’s need for intense, intimate relationships with each other never went anywhere, as evidenced by the ebullient burst of words celebrating it.”
- Why, when we read, do some of us hear a voice in our head while others proceed in total quiet? And why, for that matter, did we ever begin reading in silence to ourselves, rather than aloud, to friends? “Silent reading had become the norm for educated readers by the fifteenth century but even four hundred years later, La Cagnotte, Eugène Marin Labiche’s 1864 comedy, mocks a farmer for reading a private letter aloud; the bumpkin retorts that he can’t understand what he reads unless he hears it … Recent neurological research questions whether silent reading actually is silent. Evidence grows that the brain interprets ‘silent’ reading as an auditory phenomenon.”
- More art from Aidan Koch, whose portfolio lit up our Summer issue: her work will be on view next month at And Now, in Dallas.
- Bored? Hang out with H. P. Lovecraft fans at the Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast, why don’t you. And have a croissant while you’re at it. “In time, we were tapped to hit the buffet line, which snaked down the hotel’s corridor. ‘An ouroboros!’ exclaimed my neighbor, as we shuffled towards bacon and croissants. A sliver of fruit fell to the carpet. ‘The cantaloupe of Thoth!’ someone cried.”
I dislike the term hangry, a neologism conflating hungry and angry and thus describing the rage induced by hunger. Like PMS, it seems to conveniently dismiss any legitimate anger that may arise in the course of a blood-sugar crash. And for those of us who are both frequently ravenous and frequently furious, it doesn’t allow for the possibility of much reasonable irritation. Besides, it rests on the supposition that there is such a thing as unclouded judgment, and that feels potentially very dangerous.
Aside from that, the word itself is ugly. It evokes airplane hangars and chewy steaks and public executions and boring games played on pieces of scratch paper. It does not trip off the tongue. Hunger and anger, as words, both have such dignity, such grace—they are serious feelings in response to real stimuli. They are noble marble statues. Hangry, by contrast, is a Shoebox greeting card.
But it is spiritually ugly, too. To be hangry is a luxury. The very use of the term suggests that hunger and suffering are so remote as to be irrelevant to the conversation. I don’t mind telling you that now that I think about it, it gets me absolutely furious.
That said, only the other day, in the supermarket, I felt an almost overwhelming wave of rage crash over me because someone happened to already be standing in front of a spice I wanted to inspect. The intensity of the rage alarmed me, and I had to give myself a little talking to, and a bag of gummy bears besides. It is, after all, this sort of behavior that leads to charges of irrationality.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review and the Daily’s correspondent.
- “The kinds of books we’ve decided to ‘note’ have changed over time, and so have the books that loom largest in our imaginations or that we urge on our friends, even if similar books have been around all along. In other words, it may be the readers who have changed as much as (if not more than) the titles made available to us.” A history of the New York Times Notable Book list …
- … and a history of humankind’s antipathy for drunkards—specifically their drunk, decaying bodies. “To [Edward] Bury, the most comparable creature to the drunkard was the swine, as drunkards seemed to take great pleasure in wallowing in their own vomit, dung, and the dirt. Drunkards even came to resemble swine by crawling about, after losing control over their ability to walk; though, while beasts are serviceable in this manner, Bury remarked, ‘the Drunkard [is] good for nothing but to spend and consume.’ ”
- “There are Mayakovsky Streets in forty-five Russian cities and fourteen Ukrainian cities. There are three Mayakovsky Streets in St Petersburg, more than there are in the whole of Kazakhstan, which boasts only a couple, one in Almaty and one in Ust-Kamenogorsk. Triumph Square in Moscow was called Mayakovsky Square from 1935 to 1992; the metro station that serves it is still called Mayakovsky. Omsk seems particularly fond of the poet: as well as a street, it has a cinema and a nightclub (or rather a ‘youth relaxation complex,’ which I hope is a nightclub) blessed with the great man’s name.”
- Want a way of predicting if a new word will become a fixture of the language or simply fade away? Use the FUDGE system (Frequency of use; Unobtrusiveness; Diversity of users and uses; Generation of other forms and meanings; Endurance of the concept).
- Pantone’s color of the year is Marsala, “a reddish-brown shade that’s not quite as bright as Adobe clay but not as deep as brick … slightly more pink than your basic brown.”
Last night, Oxford Dictionaries announced its Word of the Year—vape—and it was hard not to feel, at first, a twinge of disappointment. After all, 2013’s Word of the Year was selfie, which was so ubiquitous, so contentious, so undeniably germane to our times, that think pieces are still being written about it a year later. Selfie was a gift from the lexical gods, a soft disyllable that contained within it the whole winding story of our evolving relationship with technology. Choosing it was almost an act of synecdoche: it stood for a massive and increasingly vexed conversation about our lives online.
But our neology isn’t always so supple; Oxford Dictionaries is on the lookout for words that “reflect the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of that particular year,” and not every year delivers a pluperfect sign of the times. You play the hand you’re dealt. And 2014 has dealt us a lot of duds—slacktivism, budtender, bae, and normcore were on the shortlist this year, all clever and evocative as far as they go, but none of them with that era-encapsulating magic.
And none of them with the guarantee of longevity. I asked Allison Wright, an editor at Oxford University Press, what she and her colleagues look for in the Word of the Year, and she emphasized the importance of finding a word that isn’t “a flash in the pan.” Hence, she said, the ultimate appeal of vape—(v.) inhale and exhale the vapor produced by an electronic cigarette or similar device; (n.) an electronic cigarette or similar device; an act of inhaling and exhaling the vapor produced by an electronic cigarette or similar device—which promises to be around for a little while. Read More
- The world’s first rhyming dictionary: 1570’s Manipulus Vocabularum. (What rhymes with horseleach? Ouerreache.)
- On writers and neologisms—how does a writer invent a good word? “Successful coinage, like happiness, may be more likely the less you aim directly at it. A writer who is obsessed with creating a popular new word is like a footballer who devotes all his energies to breaking the world record for keepy-uppy rather than playing well for his team. It’s a stunt rather than the real game. When composing Paradise Lost, John Milton probably wasn’t rubbing his hands at the thought of all the people in coming centuries who might borrow his invented term for the place where all the devils dwelt (pandemonium); he was just getting on with the job of writing an immortal poem.”
- A linguist analyzes our use of emoji and emoticons: “He discovered a divide, for instance, between people who include a hyphen to represent a nose in smiley faces— 🙂 —and people who use the shorter version without the hyphen. ‘The nose is associated with conventionality’ … People using a nose also tend to ‘spell words out completely. They use fewer abbreviations.’”
- The triumphant return of interactive fiction and “text adventures.”
- The Reading Rainbow app is a sign of the times: “In the television version, a soothing voice read books to viewers as illustrations drifted across the screen like fish in an aquarium … The Reading Rainbow tablet app is busier.”