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Posts Tagged ‘language

“Being crazy isn’t enough”*…

 

There are only three foodstuffs in American English the names of which can also mean “crazy”; learn the (fascinating) story of each at “Why Are Bananas, Nuts, and Crackers the Only Foods That Say ‘Crazy’?”

* Dr. Seuss

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As we entitle insanity, we might spare a thought for the man who introduced “crazy” to literature, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra; he died on this date in 1616 (though some scholars put it a day earlier)– the same day as Shakespeare died, and (most likely) Shakespeare’s birthday.  As Somerset Maugham said,”casting my mind’s eye over the whole of fiction, the only absolutely original creation that I can think of is Don Quixote.”

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Written by LW

April 23, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Create your own visual style… let it be unique for yourself and yet identifiable for others”*…

 

Before you see the latest animated feature from your barista’s favorite director, relive his meticulous works from the past that made you kind of happy, kind of sad, and kind of unsure – It’s Every Wes Anderson Movie!

* Orson Welles

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As we celebrate symmetry, we might recall that it was on this date in 1839 the “OK” entered the English language when it was printed in The Boston Morning Post….

Meant as an abbreviation for “oll korrect,” a popular slang misspelling of “all correct” at the time, OK steadily made its way into the everyday speech of Americans.

During the late 1830s, it was a favorite practice among younger, educated circles to misspell words intentionally, then abbreviate them and use them as slang when talking to one another. Just as teenagers today have their own slang based on distortions of common words, such as “kewl” for “cool” or “DZ” for “these,” the “in crowd” of the 1830s had a whole host of slang terms they abbreviated. Popular abbreviations included “KY” for “No use” (“know yuse”), “KG” for “No go” (“Know go”), and “OW” for all right (“oll wright”). [Think LOLZ, OMG or NBD today…]

Of all the abbreviations used during that time, OK was propelled into the limelight when it was printed in the Boston Morning Post as part of a joke. Its popularity exploded when it was picked up by contemporary politicians. When the incumbent president Martin Van Buren was up for reelection, his Democratic supporters organized a band of thugs to influence voters. This group was formally called the “O.K. Club,” which referred both to Van Buren’s nickname “Old Kinderhook” (based on his hometown of Kinderhook, New York), and to the term recently made popular in the papers. At the same time, the opposing Whig Party made use of “OK” to denigrate Van Buren’s political mentor Andrew Jackson. According to the Whigs, Jackson invented the abbreviation “OK” to cover up his own misspelling of “all correct.”  [source]

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Written by LW

March 23, 2018 at 1:01 am

“I’ve been accused of vulgarity. I say that’s bullshit.”*…

 

The author of A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue

Thirty years after Dr Johnson published his great Dictionary of the English Language (1755), Francis Grose put out A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785), a compendium of slang Johnson had deemed unfit for his learned tome. Grose was not one for library work. He preferred to do his lexicography in the sordid heart of after-hours London. Supported by his trusty assistant Tom Cocking, he cruised the watering holes of Covent Garden and the East End, eating, boozing, and listening. He took pleasure in hearing his name punningly connected to his rotund frame. And he produced a book brimming with Falstaffian life.

In Vulgar Tongues (2016), Max Décharné called Grose’s dictionary, “A declaration in favour of free speech, and a gauntlet thrown down against official censorship, moralists and the easily offended.” While a good deal of the slang has survived into the present day — to screwis to copulate; to kick the bucket is to die — much would likely have been lost had Grose not recorded it. Some of the more obscure metaphors include a butcher’s dog, meaning someone who “lies by the beef without touching it; a simile often applicable to married men”; to box the Jesuit, meaning “to masturbate; a crime, it is said, much practised by the reverend fathers of that society”; and to polish meaning to be in jail, in the sense of “polishing the king’s iron with one’s eyebrows, by looking through the iron grated windows”. Given this was the era of William Hogarth’s famous painting Gin Lane (1751), it’s not surprising to find the dictionary soaked through with colourful epithets for the juniper-based liquor: blue ruincobblers punchfrog’s wineheart’s easemoonshinestrip me naked. The Grose dictionary also contains hundreds of great insults, like bottle-headed, meaning void of wit, something you can’t say about its author.

Via Public Domain Review; read the Dictionary at the Internet Archive.

* Mel Brooks

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As we choose our words carefully, we might recall that it was on this date in 1865 that Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (or, in more recent editions, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) was published in the U.S.  Routinely listed among the greatest American novels, it was one of the first to be written in vernacular English.

Upon issue of the American edition in 1885 several libraries banned it from their shelves.  The early criticism focused on what was perceived as the book’s crudeness. One incident was recounted in the newspaper the Boston Transcript:

The Concord (Mass.) Public Library committee has decided to exclude Mark Twain’s latest book from the library. One member of the committee says that, while he does not wish to call it immoral, he thinks it contains but little humor, and that of a very coarse type. He regards it as the veriest trash. The library and the other members of the committee entertain similar views, characterizing it as rough, coarse, and inelegant, dealing with a series of experiences not elevating, the whole book being more suited to the slums than to intelligent, respectable people.

Writer Louisa May Alcott criticized the book’s publication as well, saying that if Twain “[could not] think of something better to tell our pure-minded lads and lasses he had best stop writing for them.”

Twain later remarked to his editor, “Apparently, the Concord library has condemned Huck as ‘trash and only suitable for the slums.’ This will sell us another twenty-five thousand copies for sure!”  [source]

Cover of the first U.S.edition

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“What we call chaos is just patterns we haven’t recognized. What we call random is just patterns we can’t decipher.”*…

 

A “commonplace” book from the 17th century

On any given day, from her home on the Isle of Man, Linda Watson might be reading a handwritten letter from one Confederate soldier to another, or a list of convicts transported to Australia. Or perhaps she is reading a will, a brief from a long-forgotten legal case, an original Jane Austen manuscript. Whatever is in them, these documents made their way to her because they have one thing in common: They’re close to impossible to read.

Watson’s company, Transcription Services, has a rare specialty—transcribing historical documents that stump average readers. Once, while talking to a client, she found the perfect way to sum up her skills. “We are good at reading the unreadable,” she said. That’s now the company’s slogan.

For hundreds of years, history was handwritten. The problem is not only that our ancestors’ handwriting was sometimes very bad, but also that they used abbreviations, old conventions, and styles of lettering that have fallen out of use. Understanding them takes both patience and skill…

A transcriber on the Isle of Man can decipher almost anything: “Where Old, Unreadable Documents Go to Be Understood.”

* Chuck Palahniuk

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As we puzzle it out, we might recall that it was on this date in 1659 that the first known check of the modern era was written.  Early Indians of the Mauryan period (from 321 to 185 BC) employed a commercial instrument called adesha; Romans used praescriptiones; Muslim traders used the saqq; and Venetian traders used bills of exchange— but these were effectively either a form of currency or letters of credit.  The 1659 draft– made out for £400, signed by Nicholas Vanacker, made payable to a Mr Delboe, and drawn on Messrs Morris and Clayton, scriveners and bankers of the City of London–  was the first “check” as we came to know them.  It’s on display at Westminster Abbey.  (The world “check” likely also originated in England later in the 1700s when serial numbers were placed on these pieces of paper as a way to keep track of, or “check” on, them.)

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Written by LW

February 16, 2018 at 1:01 am

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language / And next year’s words await another voice”*…

 

A crescent-shaped, wooden neck ornament from Easter Island made some time in the first half of the nineteenth century. The artifact, decorated with two bearded male heads on either end, contains a line of rongorongo glyphs along its bottom edge. Courtesy: British Museum

Of all the literatures in the world, the smallest and most enigmatic belongs without question to the people of Easter Island. It is written in a script—rongorongo—that no one can decipher. Experts cannot even agree whether it is an alphabet, a syllabary, a mnemonic, or a rebus. Its entire corpus consists of two dozen texts. The longest, consisting of a few thousand signs, winds its way around a magnificent ceremonial staff. The shortest texts—if they can even be called that—consist of barely more than a single sign. One took the form of a tattoo on a man’s back. Another was carved onto a human skull…

Rongorongo is the only script native to the Pacific. Like so much else, it makes Easter Island unique….  Where did the rongorongo script come from? What do its texts communicate?…

The full, fascinating story at “Language at the End of the World.”

* T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

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As we dedicate ourselves to de-cyphering, we might spare a thought for Edward Sapir; he died on this date in 1939.  One of the foremost anthropologists and linguists of his time, Sapir was a founder of ethnolinguistics– the consideration of  the relationship of culture to language– and he was a principal developer of the American (descriptive) school of structural linguistics.  Even more than the specifics of the cultures he studied, Sapir was interested in the more abstract connections between personality, linguistic expression, and socially-determined behavior.

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“That’s what music’s all about, messing with people’s heads”*…

 

Musicians and dancers, stair riser, Pakistan, first century.

I look at music and language in their deep histories, reaching back to a point before there was any music or language in their modern forms. So we’re talking, say, a 500,000-year stretch, perhaps all the way back to Homo heidelbergensis. I see the antecedents of these things falling into place along parallel tracks that overlap one another but are not the same track, and I follow the parallelism and the distinctness of those tracks from a very deep period. Which is to say that what we are left with as human beings in the world today, as the product of those tracks, is in fact a set of overlapping yet distinct capacities, functions, and capabilities in dealing with our world and our environment and in our social interactions with each other.

And so these things are loaded into both language and music in very complex but different ways…

Explore the deep history of humans and music with Gary Tomlinson, author of A Million Years of Music: “The Prehistory of Music.”

* Jimi Hendrix (whose third album, Electric Ladyland, was released on this date in 1968)

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As we get the beat, we might recall that it was on this date in 1965 that the Velvet Underground (see also here and here) made their live debut, playing at Summit High School in New Jersey; the group was paid $75 for the show.

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“I quote others only in order the better to express myself”*…

 

A recent query to the always-illuminating Language Log:

I’m reading my new copy of Soonish and came across a reference to air quotes and I got to wondering about the meme. I remember using them at least 30 years or more ago, entirely un-ironically. How does one go about looking up the history of such a thing? How would you reconcile the discoverable print references to its presumably earlier emergence as a metalinguistic thing in itself? At what point do the words, “air quotes” show up to stand for actual physically-performed “Air Quotes”?

Find the answers at: “Air Quotes.”

* Michel de Montaigne

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As we admit that there’s probably no pithier way to be ironic, mocking, or disingenuous, we might recall that it was on this date in 1726 that Jonathan Swift’s Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships— much better known as Gulliver’s Travels— was first published.  A satire both of human nature and of the “travelers’ tales” literary subgenre popular at the time, it was an immediate hit (John Gay wrote in a 1726 letter to Swift that “It is universally read, from the cabinet council to the nursery”).  It has, of course, become a classic.

From the first edition

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Written by LW

October 28, 2017 at 1:01 am

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