Category Archives: Language

About words, rhetoric, doublespeak, maybe elegance on occasion

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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It’s Hard to Describe What I Feel

two people standing on a cliff

What are you thinking about?

Picture yourself back in high school, and the bully who has been paying attention to you recently comes along in the hall, pretends to accidentally bump into you, and knocks everything you’re carrying into the floor. “God, you’re so clumsy!” he says, walking off laughing. Later in the day, if you happen to see him slip on the ice in the parking lot and smack down on the ground, what emotion instantly goes through your mind?

The Germans have a word for this emotion: Schadenfreude (if you don’t know German, it’s pronounced something like SHAH-den-froy-duh), to take pleasure from the suffering of another person. This week I read that Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, the one who paid off the porn star, suddenly had his office and home searched by Federal investigators. I knew what Trump’s unhappy reaction would be—something along the lines of screaming and cursing at the TV.

I don’t think Schadenfreude is a positive emotion. It’s just the opposite, in fact, but we don’t choose our emotions, they choose us. Given what a horrible person Donald Trump is, I could not have been more delighted to learn about the raid on the lawyer’s office. Schadenfreude, baby.

I’ve read that psychology researchers have identified six basic emotions: happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise, and disgust. Notice how common each of those words is, so common you would expect to easily find a translation into any other language. All humans experience those six emotions in some form, but in the complexity of our lives, we can experience more than one emotion at the same time, or subtle gradations of an emotion, or the emotion can be evoked for various reasons.

Language is limited. As it’s based on cultural and social interaction, language can only do so much. In the vast ocean of human psychology, we might experience and feel many things that we actually don’t have words for. As an example of this complexity, take the Japanese word “natsukashii”, which means to long for the past with a mix of being happy for having the memory of something that was good, together with sadness that the thing you remember is gone.

I don’t intend here to simply make a list of such words, but let’s have one more example. The French phrase “l’appel du vide”, which we could translate as something like “the call of the void”, describes a feeling that comes from realizing we could throw ourselves into a great empty space, like jumping off a building. It doesn’t mean you actually want to, but rather that you experience both exhilaration and fear from the thought of it.

If you care to find more such words, you can easily go online and find lists. I think the existence of all these words is one of the wonderful things about the human mind, that we create words for the variety of our experience of the world. By analogy, we’ve done the same thing with other aspects of life. In English, for instance, we have the words teal, vermillion, and mauve, not limiting ourselves to green, red, and purple.

It is possible to live without all these words. Years ago I read that there was a language in which the people had only two color words, basically meaning “warm colors” and “cool colors”. It’s not that they couldn’t see the range of colors, they just didn’t have words for them, because they didn’t need them. In the same way, you may have experienced “l’appel du vide” when standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon, but maybe you didn’t have a word for that creepy idea that you could just jump off.

I think we’re better off to have a wide range of words, representing some of the small intricacies of our lives. The more words we know, the more we can think about things in subtle ways, so that we possibly live richer and maybe even more civilized lives. So if you’re in the mood to invent words, how about more words to describe garlic? We could use words for things like: a slight hint of garlic in the air, the strong smell of garlic cooking, the zing of raw garlic in a dish, the mellow savor of garlic cooked in food, and so on. Don’t we need special words for all of this? We could use those words in my house.

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I Know Your Name

woman in sunglasses

Italian?

A piece of writing from ancient Egypt describes one of the pharaohs in mythological terms, saying he is so powerful that “even his mother does not know his name”. It’s a striking—even weird—phrase, and it must have been just as strange in ancient Egypt. Children’s names normally come from the mother, and if his own mother didn’t know his name, what was going on there?

The story illustrates something about ancient Egyptian belief. In aggrandizing the pharaoh, the story might have said how much gold he had, how many slaves he controlled, or how much grain was in his storehouses. These physical signs of power would be expected. But the ancient Egyptians believed that knowing someone’s name carried a certain amount of power over that person. Thus the pharaoh was compared to the gods themselves, able to keep his name hidden. That’s how powerful his was. Even his own mother didn’t know his name.

In the last couple of weeks I’ve thought about several completely unrelated instances of naming in our own society, and what they say about us.

Empty names

Surprisingly often, you can find poems that the poet has titled “Untitled”. If you think about it, that is not a poem with no title. A poem with no title would have a blank space at the top where the title is missing. Instead, such poems have been given a title, which is centered at the top, probably in bold font, reading Untitled.

Are those poems supposed to be a literary equivalent of an Egyptian pharaoh? “This poem is so great, even the poet does not know its name.” What is that nonsense about? I believe this is an example of a lazy poet. I know how hard it is to come up with a good title, and sometimes I will have a work completely finished (poem, short story, or novel) and still can’t think of a title I like. I know it’s hard. So I work at it, the way anyone who claims to be good with words should. If you just don’t bother, and instead use some stupid pretense of a title, what does that say about you?

Grovel names

You may have heard the phrase “civic pride” even though we said goodbye to that foolishness long ago. A century ago, large public projects, such as theaters, stadiums, or train stations were considered to be embellishments to a city, something people took pride in for the place where they lived. Here in our modern age, however, we have become frantic to the point of psychosis to avoid paying for public facilities, so we engage in ubiquitous groveling before large companies in naming public entertainment facilities.

Here in the Atlanta Area, for example, we have an electric power company called Cobb EMC, and in exchange for their financial support, the electric company was given the opportunity to disgrace an arts center by naming it after themselves, as the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center. Isn’t that charming? Doesn’t it evoke art and beauty? I might have said the city embarrassed themselves by doing this, but of course modern cities are not capable of embarrassment. The kind of gray drones who thought this was a good idea probably really and honestly cannot tell the difference. We can easily find hundreds of examples of municipalities stooping to debase themselves in this way. It’s what we do now.

Considered names

I have a friend who wants to open a business in Puerto Rico. He’s thinking that a store selling eye glasses might be lucrative and is considering this seriously. When he told me about the idea, I asked if he had thought of a name for the business, which he had. In fact, he had given it quite a bit of thought. As he explained it, he thinks good glasses come from Italy (or perhaps he just meant good sunglasses), so that people associate Italy with a quality product in eye glasses. Therefore he made up an Italian name for his store. The idea, of course, is that when people in Puerto Rico see the name, they will almost unconsciously think “Ah, yes.”

My friend told me about the process he used to think of the name, considering various names and how they sound, what they seem to connote, even taking pieces from different languages and putting them together. I respected what he did, as I use a similar process when I name things, including characters in the novels. Coming up with the right name isn’t simple, and it isn’t easy. But if you take pride in what you create, you do the work.

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What Are Those Sounds?

colored rosesLike most people, I do not come from a village where everyone is thoughtful, wise, and tolerant. That doesn’t mean everyone is especially bad, but humans have their limitations. It seems to be our true nature that we are at least wary of what is different from us. And that’s the good version. At worst, that natural feeling runs to the forest, bares its fangs, and we get intolerance, fear, and hatred.

Fortunately, the worst is no more common than the best, yet the big gray middle carries a plenitude of anxiety about The Other. One way the “otherness” of other people is manifest is in the language they speak. This is so obviously true that even very slight dialect differences within the same native language can set people apart. And what if they speak a totally different language? That’s nothing but noise! That’s spooky.

I’m a language lover, however. When I lived in New York Ciy, I liked to go to a section of Brooklyn called Brighton Beach, as it was filled with Russians, which was cool for me as a person who had learned the language. I don’t know that I really tried to speak the language much there, but I just liked that it was all around, with many of the signs in Russian: книги (books), ресторан (restaurant) овощи (vegetables). Of course if you crossed over to Manhattan and went to Chinatown, you got exactly the same thing, but in Chinese.

In the last twenty years or so, the city of Atlanta has become remarkably diverse in ethnic and cultural terms. That’s not to say all that interesting ethnicity holds much power, but it’s here. I live near a road in the city that is famous for the multitude of immigrants, and you can drive along seeing signs in Spanish, Vietnamese, Korean, and Chinese for mile after mile, with a tiny bit of Ethiopian thrown in.

As you know, there are people here in America who feel threatened by cultural changes, and their lurch into fear often gets expressed as a reaction to language. In some places, the change has been dramatic. In my hometown of Gainesville, an hour from here, there has been a massive Hispanic influx, and a road I remember as small-town southern white is now lined with signs in Spanish. I mentioned this fact to a family member, who had an instantaneous negative reaction, along the lines of “They need to learn English if they’re going to come here!”

And of course, over time they do learn English (not that actual facts are part of this anxiety). A little over a hundred years ago there were towns in this country where German newspapers were published, because so many people there spoke mostly German. Now the great-grandchildren of those people probably don’t know ten words of German. New immigrants obviously speak the language they know the best, and I have observed the process—with more than one language—where immigrants speak to their children in the native language, and the children understand but reply in English.

Still…fear of The Other, you know. Plenty of people in this country, based on nothing much more than their own anxiety, declare as a fact that “The Hispanics don’t want to learn English.” Last week when I was in Miami, I took a bus tour that went through the famous Cuban section of Miami, called Little Havannah. Surely if you can live in this country speaking nothing but Spanish, it would be there. As we rode through on the bus, down the main street called Calle Ocho (which means Eighth Street, but in Spanish!), I was noticing how many signs I saw in English. Yes, I saw Spanish, but English signs were everywhere I looked. Clearly, people in Little Havannah are not speaking only Spanish.

I want to be sympathetic to people who feel anxious and afraid of change. I know their uneasiness is natural, but when it comes to language, I love languages so much that I think “ah, the more the better”. I would love to step outside my door and see signs in Polish, hear people speaking French, and walk down to stores with names in Ethiopian. That sounds beautiful to me.

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Many Thoughts From the Same Words

Greek pottery with a laurel wreath

Rewarded with a laurel wreath

On a warm sunny afternoon this past Saturday, I went with my girlfriend to Emory University, where I ignored a sign saying “Lot Full,” drove around it, and pulled into a parking garage where there were, in fact, empty spaces. Ha, lot not so full after all.

While I’m still parking the car, you’ve no doubt heard the phrase “poet laureate,” a phrase with an interesting etymology. It’s odd in English to have the adjective “laureate” come after the noun, but we just think of the whole phrase now as a type of poet. The adjective refers to a wreath made from the leaves of the laurel tree, something started in ancient Greece as a way to recognize people who won contests, such as the Olympics.

So technically, maybe “poet laureate” means a poet wearing a wreath made from the leaves of the laurel tree. Or nowadays, it means the official poet of some place, such as the United States. This past Saturday, we were at Emory because my girlfriend had heard that the Poet Laureate of the U.S., Tracy K. Smith, would be giving a reading, and we wanted to hear it.

Thus we found ourselves at the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts, an impressive building with an extremely high ceiling, whose purpose appeared to be creating grandeur, although there could be an acoustic purpose as well, I guess. The building does have a two-story high organ against the far wall, behind a stage.

We had assumed we’d have to arrive well ahead of the event to be able to find a seat, so we got there at 3:00, an hour early. When we arrived, only five or six people were in the lobby, and I wondered if the place could be filled already. In fact—the doors had not yet opened. Those five or six people, plus us, was who had arrived that early. So my girlfriend and I sat and talked, and that was good, because we can both do that.

People drifted in gradually, and about twenty minutes till 4:00, the doors were opened, and we hurried to get seats, but we need not have hurried. We looked around and wondered whether the light turnout would be embarrassing to the poet. I said, however, that if the poet had reached the status of Poet Laureate, she had spent years going to small events, hoping to read her poetry to someone, and lucky if twenty people showed up. By the time the reading started, the auditorium actually looked quite full, though seats were still available.

Before that afternoon I didn’t know Tracy K. Smith, as I don’t really follow contemporary poets. There was something about her manner when she spoke that made her very appealing to me, a sort of calmness and intelligence. I found the reading interesting, and I was very glad to be there, but she only read for about thirty minutes, so I didn’t feel like I had been exposed to her poetry enough to say much about it.

At least from this reading, the main idea I got was Smith’s interest in history and for using that in her poetry. The use of history was not as simple as writing poems about events in the past, but rather writing with a sense of history, which might even form a kind of “substory” to a poem that takes place in our own time. I don’t know if I’m getting her exactly here, but maybe I have some sense of what has influenced her.

Smith also read some poems written with a technique I’d never heard of, using the original words from historical documents to create a poem. To me this felt a bit like pushing the envelope for what a “poem” is—though I’m in favor of pushing the envelope in art (maybe in life). She had one poem, for instance, that seemed to consist entirely of quotes from the Declaration of Independence (which I recognized), quotes that were pulled out and read to create a new sort of work from the fragmentary phrases.

I came away from this reading thinking about the concept of a poem, and more broadly, thinking about the concept of any kind of literary work. We had sat in an auditorium listening to the poet speak, and speech itself is, after all, just sounds. As those sounds reached us, our brains turned them into thoughts, then took those thoughts and went where they would go.

Every person in the auditorium was creating different thoughts based on the sounds of the speaker. Tracy K. Smith read us poems consisting of her words, or words from other documents, giving us the sounds to send our minds in multiple directions. Many thoughts from the same words. I suppose that’s part of what poetry does.

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Magical Words

surface of the sunIs this an English word: dkimbi?

I’m pretty sure it’s not. I don’t think any English word begins with those two consonants. It’s just a combination of sounds, a noise.

How about this one: stick?

Now that’s a word. Or a more interesting one: ribald. Words are so strange. Both stick and ribald are also combinations of sounds, but in both cases—if you know those words—the sounds bring a meaning to the mind. Every word in reality is just a noise, like “dkimbi,” but when we know them, they’re like magic spells that put thoughts and dreams in our heads.

And if we allow them to, the magical spells of words can take us places, so that inside our mind, where all our sensations are processed, we really are there. Assume, for instance, that you’ve never been to St. Petersburg, Russia, and therefore you’ve never been to a little café called Жили-Были (which might be translated as something like “Once Upon a Time”). The café is on the main boulevard downtown, Nevsky Prospect, so crowded with people and with bridges across the Neva River. If you go into the café, you find a small space with tables where people already sit eating and talking. Obviously the Russian language is all around you, so pretend you speak it. Then you can walk up to the glass case containing dishes of salads and other items, looking to see what you want. “What is that one, with the white?” you can ask the young woman waiting on you. She has black hair cut short, three silver earrings in each ear, and a tattoo of Mickey Mouse on her arm. Seeing what you’re pointing at, she says, “Спаржа,” and since you know Russian, you think to yourself that you’ve never seen asparagus that looked like that. Then you order an apple tart and a coffee and sit down at a small table to look at your phone.

Finishing your apple tart, what if it were now possible to get on a bus, close your eyes for a few minutes, and when you open them to get off, you’re only one block away from St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, Ireland? If that happens, you can enter the enormous cathedral and stand in the wide nave looking down the aisle at the high ceiling, the pointed arches along the sides, and the distant altar. When you finally look down, you’re just as struck by how exotically the floor is decorated with patterns of colored stones. And at that moment, a tourist standing near you, someone with an American accent, says, “Wow, look at this floor!” It also occurs to you that you never before thought about the fact that there’s such a thing as an American accent, but it’s pretty obvious that woman in the red T-shirt and straw hat is an American. As you continue to look around, near the door where you entered, you find a grave in the floor and—holy moly!—it’s Jonathan Swift. Jonathan Swift is buried here? A few minutes later as you walk around, a choir begins to practice, and the sound of their voices in that stone space is ethereal. You sit down, unable to leave, listening to them.

There seems to be literally no limit to where we can go and what we can do with words. I was thinking of taking a stroll across the surface of the sun, because I just crazy love the sight of those vast mountains of fire that rise up higher than the Himalayas, then collapse again. And there’s that strange crackling feeling from so many atoms being disrupted by the incredible energy. But I need to go get another glass of wine. When I do go walk on the sun, you can come, too.

That’s what writers do.

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