Category Archives: Language

About words, rhetoric, doublespeak, maybe elegance on occasion

Words, Palabras, Geiriau, Слова, Mots, Зборови, Kelimeler, Orð*

Obscene Greek pottery

Greek warrior celebrating the Battle of Marathon

For nigh on six years I have been meticulously crafting this amazing blog—every week!—most of the time almost doing what I said I would do, focusing on writing and literature, as well as language and rhetoric. The very concept of this blog depends on the fact that long, long ago human beings who probably had more hair than us began making up words.

Words are mysterious to me, as they’re only sounds made mostly with the mouth, and by social accord we agree that certain sounds will mean certain things, like “shivviness” means…actually, I don’t know what that means. The system is a lot less perfect than we sometimes think, and we argue a good bit over what words are “supposed” to mean.

I like knowing where words come from, how they change, and how we use them. Here’s an interesting example. The word “marathon” comes from the name of a Greek town, and a marathon as a long-distance run was named for a historical incident associated with that town. At Marathon, about 2,500 years ago, the Greeks fought a battle against a huge number of Persians and unexpectedly won.

The Greek winners thought people in the city of Athens would assume they had lost, and that when the Persian navy sailed around to Athens, the Athenians would surrender. In that age of pre-internet, pre-radio, pre-telegraph (pre-almost everything, really), how could the soldiers in Marathon tell the Athenians they had won? One guy took off running, and ran twenty-six miles to Athens, which is why the modern marathon race is around twenty-six miles long. According to the story, the guy who ran—I mean, I hate this—but the story is, after he announced the victory, he dropped dead.

A long run requires great endurance, and sometime in the 20th century, someone took the word “marathon” and arbitrarily cut it in half, using “-athon” to mean endurance, which had nothing to do with the original meaning as the name of a town. Thus was created the word “telethon” for a TV show asking people to call in on the telephone and pledge money for charity. The endurance idea came from the fact that the show lasted for hours, but no one dropped dead (so far as I know).

Much later the ending “–athon” changed meaning again, because of the TV show, and came to mean “collecting for charity”, and I’ve seen things like a “can-a-thon” collecting canned food. It’s crazy, what happens with words, and cool as hell.

In addition to words being interesting just for themselves, it’s tremendously fun as a writer to put them together to do things. Sometimes using words might involve a rather plain language to convey ideas, or at other times the words might be used more for their own sake to create striking phrases. In that case we can get into things like metaphors, where a word or combination of words represent something very different—and yet similar in some way.

Metaphors are incredibly common, a basic aspect of how our brains work, but most metaphors have become so common we don’t recognize them anymore (rivers and bottles do not have actual “mouths” nor do clocks have actual “faces” or “hands”). The most interesting metaphors are new ones. Last week on a day of unpleasant cold wind, I said to someone at work that it was as if the air was full of tiny wild dogs, and she liked that description.

Even though not everyone feels the fascination for language that I do, humans inherently like playing with language, and almost everyone does it. Puns are common, and even if you moan about how unclever a pun is, it’s nevertheless a form of language play. Even very young children play with words as soon as they’re able, because this is such a common human activity.

Let’s end with a word play joke: A drunk walks into a bar with jumper cables around his neck. The bartender says, “You can stay but don’t try to start anything.”

And don’t you try to start anything, either. Next week will be the last entry in the Write or Take a Nap? blog before I go on a break, a hiatus, that is, a respite, a recess, to rise blinking from the dusty desk and go out into the sunlight. Maybe I can find a pub that’s open.

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* The title says “words” in these languages: English, Spanish, Welsh, Russian, French, Macedonian, Turkish, Icelandic.

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Next Question?

Book of Latin words

I’m writing a press release

Not long ago I saw a quote from a politician, or maybe from one of their word puppets, saying they would “not comment on a hypothetical question”. What that phrase means—always, every time you hear it from now until the Apocalypse—is “If I say anything on that topic, everyone will recognize that what I said is stupid and offensive.”

Another way of saying the same thing is “Since I don’t want to be honest, I prefer to hide behind a big Latin word like hypothetical.”

In this case, the word is being used not in reference to the scientific method,* considering a hypothesis of what might be true and then testing to find out. In the diminished, cretinous political usage, hypothetical means “hasn’t happened yet”.

But of course politicians do “comment on hypothetical questions” all day long. When they run for office, if they aren’t busy telling us that their opponent wants to kill baby lambs, when they’re talking about what they’re going to do if they get elected, then they’re talking and talking and talking—let me catch my breath for a moment—and talking about what they will do in situations that haven’t happened yet.

And ha ha!, if you do elect them, then by God, they won’t answer your questions. They’ll call them hypothetical and pretend it’s just not worth their trouble to respond.

Refusing to answer questions is such a basic aspect of political speech that we not only expect it, we just shrug our shoulders. It’s what they do, hah? If you’ve ever listened to a politician being questioned by a journalist, then you’ve heard a person totally ignore the question and instead say whatever random shit they want. It is rare, if it even happens at all, for a journalist to stop cold and say, “Wait. You didn’t answer my question. It’s completely pointless to ask you anything else.”

And it is rare, if it even happens at all, for TV viewers or readers to stop cold and say, “Wait. This journalist didn’t do their job. They allowed the politician to sleaze by with a bunch of noise and never actually answer the question.”

The politician did, however, use a big Latin word. And that’s cool, yeah?

If we are getting trash and lies and deliberate refusal to communicate from our politicians, it is because we’re OK with that. Do you demand clarity and honesty from the politicians who you agree with, as well as from those bastards who you don’t like?

Here are some basic facts of human psychology: 1) We do not like to be embarrassed or punished. 2) Sometimes, nevertheless, we will do things or at least want to do things that will cause us to be embarrassed or punished. 3) If we are forced to talk honestly about these things, we will suffer for it. 4) If we can’t get out of talking, we try to hide or avoid the topic. Even a four-year-child knows to do this.

These basic facts will be the same even a thousand years from now. Politicians—strange as it is on occasion to think so—are human beings, and like other human beings, if they think they will suffer for telling the truth, they will try to hide or avoid the topic, if we let them.

The difference is, they want power over our lives. And if we give them power, then let them refuse to communicate honestly, we deserve it.

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* I certainly don’t mean to imply that these illiterate buffoons would actually know what the scientific method is. Or what “science” is. Or what a “school” is.

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How Many Colors Were You Thinking?

woman with colored hairAs I’m writing the book Moonapple Pie, part of the background for working on it is that I’m making a point of reading southern writers. I’ve found some who I didn’t know and have really liked (Lee Smith, Edward P. Jones, Mary Hood), as well as some who are just famous.

One writer who I decided to look at was Thomas Wolfe, from Asheville, North Carolina. Back during the summer I was in Asheville, which probably made me think more about Wolfe. I had known of him before, and a movie was made about his life in the past year. I had never read him, so I decided to try Look Homeward, Angel, which I finished recently, though I read it slowly (and it was more than 500 pages).

Although the book is a novel, it is also in some sense an autobiography of Wolfe and his family. Two characters in the book die, for instance, and Wolfe gives them the actual names of two of his own brothers who died when he was young. Even as he kept those names, however, Wolfe changed place names, so that Asheville was mysteriously renamed as Altamont.

Very little plot entices the reader through this novel, so that you wonder what is going to fill up those 500 pages. What plot the book has mostly concerns the character Eugene, who represents the author, but you have to read quite a ways before Eugene is born. We then watch him gradually grow old enough to graduate from college, though the book regularly focuses on someone other than Eugene.

For me, at least, what makes Look Homeward, Angel an interesting book is not the pale plot but the language, a brilliant display the flows and dances and sings on every page. Not everyone, of course, would want to read a book like that. If you don’t enjoy language for its own sake, this is probably not the book for you.

The one thing about this novel that really put me off was the occasional ugly racism. I understand Wolfe was writing the book in 1926, not a time of enlightenment in this country, but it was still unpleasant when I ran into it. There is no viciousness about the racism, but rather a striking lack of empathy, though to be sure, Wolfe is not exactly kind to a single character in the book.

As I was reading the novel, it seemed clear to me that this book was influenced by James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, published in 1922, and I would swear on a tiger’s eyes that Wolfe read Ulysses before he began writing. Sometimes the influence seemed open and obvious, and at other times it was simply the unfettered exuberance of the language that connected the books. Occasionally Wolfe’s language was so outlandishly imaginative that it didn’t even fully make sense, but the fireworks went on. I’ll serve you a few samples of the language, pulled out fairly randomly:

  • “And what Eliza endured in pain and fear and and glory no one knew. He breathed over them all his hot lion-breath of desire and fury; when he he was drunk, her white pursed face, and all the slow octopal movements of her temper, stirred him to red madness.”
  • “He turned his face up to her as a prisoner who recovers light, as a man long pent in darkness who bathes himself in the great pool of dawn, as a blind man who feels upon his eyes the white core and essence of immutable brightness.”
  • “O God! O God! We have been an exile in another land and a stranger in our own. The mountains were our masters: they went home to our eye and our heart before we came to five. Whatever we can do or say must be forever hillbound.”

Just as I would for Ulysses, I would recommend Look Homeward, Angel to other writers, as a way of saying “Loosen your reins on occasion. Look what is possible.”

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I Can’t Emphasize This Enough

whiskey bottle

What kind of boys were here?

I was walking one day in the park back behind me here, and I thought, “That’s a slow-ass couple walking in front of me.” Because I am not only crude but linguistically curious, I began to contemplate the construction I had just used, and it occurred to me that the word “ass” used in such a way functions as an emphatic particle.

An emphatic particle is a small word, really almost just a noise, that adds emphasis to another word. I learned about them while studying Russian. At some point when I was not screaming in anguish from how hard it was, I found the little word же, spelled in English as zhe. Here’s an awkward combination English/Russian sentence: he’s an idiot zhe, which means he’s really an idiot. (And it’s somebody you know.)

Meanwhile, back here in good old English, you don’t want some boring-ass discussion of Russian. I got to thinking about how exactly to use this emphatic particle “ass” in English. From my meticulous examination, it seems like the word only works with adjectives, and given the rude nature of the word, it’s found only in casual or slangy speech.

The types of adjectives you can apply it to also appear to generally be short and not very formal. So you could say “That is an ugly-ass baby you got there” but you would never say “That is an unappealing-ass baby you got there”. Though I can see—purely for poetic purposes—that you might try something more creative like “That is a loathsome-ass baby you got there”. Depending on the baby.

I was also wondering whether the adjective being used always needs to have some negative sense about it. For instance, “Tuesday was such a hot-ass day we had to drink twelve beers” places emphasis on the excess heat. Or if you say to someone “You sure got a big-ass house” do you mean that perhaps it’s a bit too big? As in “what do you pay in taxes on a place like this?” And how do you vacuum it?

Another emphatic particle in English, most common here in the south, is the word “old” but often pronounced without the final letter, like “ole”, or you’ll find it spelled to show the missing letter, as ol’. A common, preposterously clichéd, southern expression is “good ol’ boy” to refer to a grown man. Even though I’m from the south myself, I’d be hard pressed to define that expression. For me it has negative connotations of ignorance and possible bad behavior, but for the people who use the phrase, it’s positive, connoting down-to-earth and perhaps fun to share whiskey with.

Like the emphatic particle ass, ol’ is only used with adjectives. It can have a range of uses, as in “Damn, your mama’s a big ol’ girl, ain’t she?” Notice that both ass and ol’ have to be placed after the adjective that they modify. Similar to ass, the particle ol’ probably cannot be used with very long or formal adjectives. He’s a good ol’ boy, but probably not he’s a judicious ol’ boy.

But I’m not entirely sure. I’m still thinking about that, here in my dumb ol’ blog. Or should that be ill-advised ol’ blog?

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Poetry at a Higher Elevation

Young Harris College

Young Harris College

Though it is hard for me to imagine my grandmother as a young girl just out of high school, no doubt she was once. It is even harder for me to imagine that my farmworking grandmother, who I remember in a print cotton dress and sunbonnet working in the fields, who filled baskets with fresh tomatoes and corn and strawberries, went to college for one year when she got out of high school.

The college my grandmother attended was in the north Georgia mountains, in a town with the very strange name of Young Harris. From picking cotton, she earned enough money to buy a large trunk to carry her belongings, and off she went to Young Harris College. After one year, however, she was too homesick and never went back.

Last Saturday I went to the town of Young Harris myself, the first time I’ve ever been there, to the very school my grandmother attended. I went with my girlfriend to a meeting of the Georgia Poetry Society, which she belongs to (and which my father used to belong to). I didn’t mind going to a poetry meeting, but I really just went to spend the day with her in the mountains. I got up at 6:00 in the morning, which is still the middle of the night, in my opinion, as we had a two-hour drive to get there and needed to get on the road.

I find the mountains of north Georgia peacefully beautiful, and the road we followed for a while writhes back and forth like a frantic snake. That contorted road led us up Blood Mountain, up and up for miles, with no hint of descent, and all that way we passed thin muscular bicyclists, in tight cycling outfits, pushing hard on the pedals, to work their way maniacally up the mountain.

On our drive, we also passed the farmstead home of the poet Byron Herbert Reece, an Appalachia boy who published novels and poetry, and who was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, earned Guggenheim Awards, and was a writer-in-residence at UCLA and Emory. When we finally reached Young Harris College, where the meeting was being held, I was a bit astonished by what a pretty campus it is. The view takes in those wonderful low mountains, and the campus itself is an interesting mix of new and old architecture, incorporating some pleasant landscaping.

We met in the faculty and staff dining room of the student center, where one wall was lined with bookshelves filled with bound volumes of old magazines (I know because I checked to see what they were), and with framed black and white photographs. Along the other side of the room were glass doors looking out at the mountains.

The meeting began with an open mic, which I signed up for and read a poem about sailing to Saturn while drinking wine with friends. We also had a longer reading by a featured poet, Karen Paul Holmes, who read from a new book, and she did some quite nice pieces. I had seen her before in Atlanta at the Callanwolde Arts Center, so we recognized one another.

The events for the day were scheduled to have two workshops run by poetry professors from the college, but instead of workshops we ended up having lectures. I didn’t really mind, as I have little interest in poetry workshops (i.e., no interest). I don’t wish to write poetry when someone says “write”, nor do I have any great interest in studying how to write poetry. Unconsciously, perhaps I do study poetry, as I’ve thought quite a bit about how to write it, but if someone were to ask me to study the topic, it would grow dismal for me and lose all interest.

While we were in that room, those words that had taken their place in line for history sat on the shelf in bound volumes. The words that were still participating in the messy chaos of life were moving about in the air around us.

Here is a bit of poetry by Byron Herbert Reece:

My heart’s contracted to a stone.
Therefore whatever roads repair
To cities on the plain, my own
Lead upward to the peaks; and there
I feel, pushing my ribs apart,
The wide sky entering my heart.

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We Have Tongues As Pure As Snow

Vladimir Putin on screen

I heard what you said

This evening I read an article on the BBC Russian language website, and I have to tell you a quote in that article from a Senator in the Russian government. He was referring to the fact that the head of the government youth organization (they have such a thing), who was talking about how to raise a child to be patriotic, used the word “quest”, apparently from English (spelled квест in Russian).

The Senator said (my translation from the Russian):

“If we don’t raise our young people, someone else will. If we use phrases, words, and expressions imported from other languages, we’re not raising our children to be dedicated to our Russia. Instead, they will will live according to the formulas, interests, standards, and models of other countries.”

In the article I read, three different senators were quoted as objecting to this word. We can draw two conclusions from this incident. (1) There are no actual problems in Russia that Senators need to spend their time on. (2) Just like the United States, Russia has some really fucking stupid politicians.

Given the behavior of one of our political parties here in the U.S., we can now say that there are politicians in both countries who see their main function as not doing anything that might upset Vladimir Putin.

Look at that translated quote again. That’s a pretty heavy bag for one word to carry, but “quest”—I bet that word is up to it. Notice that the Senator used not one, or two, or three, but four nouns (“formulas, interests, standards, and models”) to emphasize the perniciousness of foreign words, like . . . um, Senator (spelled сенатор in Russian).

Of those four Russian nouns, by the way, the first three are very obviously borrowed from English or French. But this blog entry is not just about ignorance. Every country on earth has plenty of people who firmly believe that patriotism and stupidity are the same thing. A more interesting point is why purity of language is seen as a sign of patriotism.

You can find this attitude everywhere. The French even have an Academy that most people ignore, which tells them how to speak proper French. Here in America we have no Academy, but we’ve had plenty of politicians propose laws we don’t need to make English our official language, not because we need to communicate better—we already speak English here—but from xenophobia and distrust of other languages.

If we were to take the cynical point of view, we could say that every single thing human beings touch, they will find a way to turn into a howling mob and break it. Naturally, I’m not going to take the cynical point of view. Instead, I’ll say that this obsession with imaginary purity of language, and how important that is, is a sign of the great importance of language. Even people what don’t know no rules in English and ain’t got no reason to learn none, even those people will insist on how important English is here in America, by God.

I just look at them and say, “Moi? I’m not arguing.”

If you read Russian and want to see the original that I quoted up above, here it is: “Если не мы воспитываем нашу молодежь, ее воспитывает кто-то другой. Если мы вводим формулировки, термины и формулы на импортных языках, мы воспитываем не людей, преданных нашей Родине, а живущих формулами, интересами, стандартами, шаблонами других государств”, – заявил сенатор Алексей Кондратьев (Тамбовская область).

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Huh? What Did You Say?

statue of boy peeingDo you know we have a word in English that means “to piss at night”? Or rather, that would be a verb. I guess it just means “pissing at night”. A noun. I was quite surprised to find this word, which I did in the last week or so in one of the articles I was editing for the medical journal. The word is “nocturia”. Given the medical context, I suppose the more proper meaning is probably something like “getting up at night to urinate”.

Why is there a word like that? My theory is that it’s because men complain about having to do it. Maybe it’s not just men complaining, though when a man reaches a certain age, like…um, mine, that’s just how it is. In any case, it’s the complaining that created the word. I’m pretty sure there are no medical articles about people going to the doctor saying, “Doc, can you help me? I have to pee during the day.”

Down the hall on the right.

From editing that same article, I also discovered the word “alguria”, which means “painful urination”. OK, I see a need for that one, if you’ve been places you shouldn’t have been.

Cheerful words about urination aside, an interesting word I’ve learned on this job is “catastrophize”. I had never heard it before, but it’s actually fairly common in the articles I read. The word is used to mean a patient who takes whatever medical condition they have, focuses on it, and exaggerates how awful it is. Catastrophizing is actually considered to make some patients worse, like the opposite of the famous placebo effect that makes people get better even without treatment, just because they believe they’re getting treated. When a person is catastrophizing, they get worse because they believe it.

But of the grim medical words I’ve learned, the one I like best is “claudication”, with the meaning “pain in the legs from limited blood flow”. It comes from Latin claudicare meaning “to limp”. What makes this a cool word, however, is not its strangely narrow medical meaning. What makes it cool is that the word is connected, at least by Latin etymology, with the Roman Emperor Claudius, who reigned in the years 41 to 54. The connection is that Claudius had a medical condition that made him limp, so we can see the connection in his name.

Since humans first grunted a loud exclamation, several hundred thousand years ago, meaning “danger”, we’ve done amazing things with the noises our mouths can make. First, we probably worked up some specialized danger exclamations meaning “tiger” or “snake” or “big hole”. Now look at the kind of subtle words we’ve got: carburetor, sautée, piddle, indubitably. It’s a plethora, a veritable surfeit, an expansive cornucopia of words.

We have far more words in English than anyone could ever come close to knowing, but many of them are technical words, like alguria. Then again, why not just say “painful urination”? Is that too clear? As a matter of fact, probably yes. I’ve read that as modern medicine developed, doctors wanted to set themselves off as professionals, and having a special language that only they could understand would help to do that. Given what I know of human nature, that explanation makes sense to me.

I have a special language that sets me off as a professional, too. I can’t tell you what it is, though, because if anyone else knew it, then it wouldn’t be special.

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