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Posts Tagged ‘language

“I have a great respect for the semicolon; it’s a very useful little chap.”*…

 

semicolon

 

Consider the semicolon. It’s beloved by some and assailed by others; in the annals of punctuation lore, no other symbol has sparked as much debate. A handful of years ago it was even the subject of a very funny parody song by The Lonely Island and Solange that poked fun at hashtag rap. (Though, in fairness to the semicolon, the song’s punchline is that it was using the semicolon incorrectly all along.) In her new book Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark, Cecelia Watson ventures into the long history and usage of semicolons, and the results are tremendously enlightening.

Semicolon is a slim book, but it deftly covers a lot of ground. Watson explores the origin of the semicolon, demonstrates how it’s gone in and out of linguistic favor over the centuries, and thoughtfully explored how a host of disparate writers — including Rebecca Solnit, Irvine Welsh, and Martin Luther King, Jr. — have memorably used it in their work. Watson also explores some of the surprisingly severe impacts the semicolon has had on society, such as the semicolon in a Massachusetts law that wreaked havoc on the state’s alcohol consumption, or the way the semicolon in a judicial sentence caused one man’s life to hang in the balance…

Tobias Carroll gets the lowdown from Cecelia Watson on how she learned to stop worrying and love the semicolon: “My Teachers Said We Weren’t Allowed To Use Them.”

* Abraham Lincoln

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As we pause to connect, we might spare a thought for Georges Joseph Christian Simenon; he died on this date in 1984.  A prolific author (who published nearly 500 novels and numerous short works), he is best known as the creator of the fictional detective Jules Maigret.  His work is featured in the collection La Pléiade (inspiration for the Library of America), and in 1966 he was awarded the Mystery Writers of America’shighest honor, the Grand Master Award.

Georges_Simenon_(1963)_without_hat_by_Erling_Mandelmann

SIMENON, Georges, 1963, Ecrivain (F) © ERLING MANDELMANN ©

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Written by LW

September 4, 2020 at 1:01 am

“To paraphrase Oedipus, Hamlet, Lear, and all those guys, “I wish I had known this some time ago”*…

 

irony

 

“Irony” is a term that everyone uses and seems to understand. It is also a concept that is notoriously difficult to define. Much like Winona Ryder’s character in the 1994 rom-com “Reality Bites,” whose inability to describe irony costs her a job interview, we know it when we see it, but nonetheless have trouble articulating it. Even worse, it seems as if the same term is used to describe very different things. And following your mother’s advice — to look it up in the dictionary — is liable to leave you even more confused than before.

Uncertainty about irony can be found almost everywhere. An American president posts a tweet containing the phrase “Isn’t it ironic?” and is derided for misusing the term. A North Korean dictator bans sarcasm directed at him and his regime because he fears that people are only agreeing with him ironically. A song about irony is mocked because its lyrics contain non-ironic examples. The term has been applied to a number of different phenomena over time, and as a label, it has been stretched to accommodate a number of new senses. But exactly how does irony differ from related concepts like coincidence, paradox, satire, and parody?…

A handy guide to distinguishing the notoriously slippery concept of irony from its distant cousins coincidence, satire, parody, and paradox: “What Irony is Not,” excerpted from Irony and Sarcasm, by Roger Kreuz.

* Roger Zelazny, Sign of the Unicorn

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As we choose our words, we might recall that it was on this date in 1483 that Pope Sixtus IV consecrated the Sistine Chapel (which takes its name from his) in the Apostolic Palace, the official residence of the Pope in Vatican City.  Originally known as the Cappella Magna (Great Chapel), Sixtus had renovated it, enlisting a team of Renaissance painters that included Sandro Botticelli, Pietro Perugino, Pinturicchio, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Cosimo Rosselli to create a series of frescos depicting the Life of Moses and the Life of Christ, offset by papal portraits above and trompe-l’œil drapery below.  Michelangelo’s famous ceiling was painted from 1508 to 1512; and his equally-remarkable altarpiece, The Last Judgement, from 1536 to 1541.

220px-Sistina-interno source

 

“There’s no such thing as an unabridged dictionary”*…

 

dictionary

 

Write with a better dictionary. Modern dictionaries have lazy definitions that focus too much on simplicity at the cost of precision. Instead of using the default one on your computer, bookmark this site, and start using the Webster’s 1913 dictionary…  – @david_perell

The connoisseur’s reference to American English – a dictionary for writers and wordsmiths: Webster’s 1913.

[TotH to @Frauenfelder and Recommendo]

* Jack Lynch, The Lexicographer’s Dilemma: The Evolution of “Pro 

per” English, from Shakespeare to South Park

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As we choose our words carefully, we might send amusingly-composed birthday greetings to Don Knotts; he was born on this date in 1924,  An actor, screenwriter, and comedian, he’s best known for his role as Deputy Sheriff Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show, a 1960s sitcom for which he earned five Emmy Awards (though he’s also pretty well-known for having played Ralph Furley on Three’s Company and for several films, including The Ghost and Mr. Chicken and The Incredible Mr. Limpet.  In 1979, TV Guide ranked him #27 on its 50 Greatest TV Stars of All Time list.

When you work with words, words are your work  – Don Knotts

Don_Knotts_Barney_Fife_1966 source

 

“I got stood up by the letter Y, he was hanging around with his X”*…

 

How_Did_X_Become_the_Most_Edgy_Letter-1280x533

 

It’s perhaps not pornography’s fault that it’s cashing in on a global crisis. As, around the world, whole societies confine themselves to their quarters, traffic to major porn sites has been spiking everywhere, telling us all we need to know about how humans with a broadband connection tend to deal with exceptional levels of boredom and anxiety. From the point-of-view of page views, the season of self-isolation might well be the porn industry’s historical high point — but in terms of reputational damage, it also marks a new low for one of Western culture’s most enigmatic figures.

Once, the letter X was the holiest of all alphabetic symbols, standing for nothing less than the triumph of Christendom itself. The Roman emperor Constantine I imposed his adopted religion on Europe and the Middle East, with armies marching under the banner of an “X,” and for centuries, Latin scribes used it as shorthand for “Christ.”

But at the present moment… the 24th letter of the English alphabet is synonymous not even with professionally lit kissy porn, but rather the explicitier, extremier world of hardcore sharing platforms.

It’s a remarkably stratospheric fall from grace, especially for such a shy and retiring character — X is the second-least-common letter in written English (after Z), and the one that begins by far the fewest number of words. Oh X, what happened to you? Where did it all go so badly wrong that you’re hanging out in NSFW corners of the internet…?

From holiest hallmark to horniest sex symbol — the X-treme, X-haustive story of how the wild child of the alphabet lost its way: “How Did X Become the Edgiest Letter?

See also: “What’s So Fascinating About the Letter X?” and “Before X Was X: The Dark Horse Story Of The 24th Letter.”

* Norah Jones

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As we mark the spot, we might recall that it was on this date 1397 that Geoffrey Chaucer “told” (read aloud his ribald, if not X-rated) The Canterbury Tales for the first time at the court of Richard II.

220px-Canterbury_Tales

A woodcut from William Caxton‘s second edition of The Canterbury Tales, printed in 1483

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Written by LW

April 17, 2020 at 1:01 am

” ‘Opsimath’: a person who begins to learn late in life”*…

 

Words

Fun with words: dive into the Twitter thread

* Merriam-Webster Dictionary (entry for March 30)

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As we enlarge our lexicons, we might spare a thought for Noël François de Wailly; he died on this date in 1801.  A grammarian and lexicographer, he published Principes généraux de la langue française (1754) which revolutionized the teaching of grammar in France.  The book was adopted as a textbook by the University of Paris and then more generally used throughout France in an adapted form in primary education.

Wailly grammar

Title page of the 1757 edition

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Written by LW

April 7, 2020 at 1:01 am

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