He cursed the curse that would not come

April 14, 2014

Language is a recurring theme in The Reawakening, Primo Levi’s account of his life in the months immediately after liberation from Auschwitz. In particular, the book describes many encounters with people of different tongues and how he and they find ways to communicate based on second, third, or no languages in common.

Other features of language emerge in the book’s frequently wonderful characterisations. A description of the foul-mouthed “Moor from Verona”, for instance, begins with physical detail:

There were about twenty others in my dormitory, including Leonardo and Cesare; but the most outstanding personality, of more than human stature, was the oldest among them, the Moor from Verona. . . . He was over seventy, and showed all his years; he was a great gnarled old man with huge bones like a dinosaur, tall and upright on his haunches, still as strong as a horse, although age and fatigue had deprived his bony joints of their suppleness. His bald cranium, nobly convex, was encircled at its base with a crown of white hair; but his lean, wrinkled face was of a jaundice-like colour, while his eyes, beneath enormous brows like ferocious dogs lurking at the back of a den, flashed yellow and bloodshot.

And from there builds a picture of a man at once enigmatic and larger than life yet who is accommodated comfortably in the expansive pages of Levi’s memoir.

In the Moor’s chest, skeletal yet powerful, a gigantic but indeterminate anger raged ceaselessly; a senseless anger against everybody and everything, against the Russians and the Germans, against Italy and the Italians, against God and mankind, against himself and us, against day when it was day, and against night when it was night, against his destiny and all destinies, against his trade, even though it was a trade that ran in his blood. He was a bricklayer; for fifty years, in Italy, America, France, then again in Italy, and finally in Germany, he had laid bricks, and every brick had been cemented with curses. He cursed continuously, but not mechanically; he cursed with method and care, acrimoniously, pausing to find the right word, frequently correcting himself and losing his temper when unable to find the word he wanted; then he cursed the curse that would not come.

While it’s admirable to take such care over swearing practices, it may be better to just unleash any expletive at all than to compound the frustration in a vain search for the perfect curse. But to each their own.


Language rules of the Third Reich

April 8, 2014

Last week I read Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt, and thought the following passage would be of interest to readers of Sentence first since it deals specifically with the euphemisms and language rules (Sprachregelungen) used by the Third Reich.

In Arendt’s text the following comprises a single paragraph, but I’ve introduced a few breaks to make it easier to read here:

All correspondence referring to the matter [Final Solution] was subject to rigid “language rules,” and, except in the reports from the Einsatzgruppen, it is rare to find documents in which such bald words as “extermination,” “liquidation,” or “killing” occur. The prescribed code names for killing were “final solution,” “evacuation” (Aussiedlung), and “special treatment” (Sonderbehandlung); deportation – unless it involved Jews directed to Theresienstadt, the “old people’s ghetto” for privileged Jews, in which case it was called “change of residence” – received the names of “resettlement” (Umsiedlung) and “labor in the East” (Arbeitseinsatz im Osten), the point of these latter names being that Jews were indeed often temporarily resettled in ghettos and that a certain percentage of them were temporarily used for labor.

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Palindromic poems and related wordplay

April 1, 2014

As a child I was very taken with anagrams and palindromes and similar wordplay. The interest waned or mutated over the years, but not fully, so when I stumbled upon Howard W. Bergerson’s book Palindromes and Anagrams (Dover Publications, 1973) in Charlie Byrne’s bookshop, available for all of €2, I quickly picked it up.

palindromes and anagrams - howard w bergerson, book coverThe book contains most or all of the well-known palindromes, like Madam, I’m Adam, Able was I ere I saw Elba, Live not on evil, and (maybe most famously) A man, a plan, a canal – Panama; to which, incidentally, J. A. Lindon wrote a parody: A dog, a pant, a panic in a Patna pagoda. Other enjoyable one-liners include:

Drab as a fool, as aloof as a bard.

Hell! A spacecraft farce caps all, eh?

Did I do, O God, did I as I said I’d do? Good, I did!

I saw desserts; I’d no lemons, alas no melon. Distressed was I.

The next three invited combination into a cryptic mini-narrative:

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Ghost storties [sic] of Henry James

March 26, 2014

This was on my shelf a while before I spotted the intruder:

Ghost storties (sic) of Henry James - Wordsworth Editions, typo on spine

I love a good ghost storty, and since it’s Henry James I don’t expect these will be very gorty. The book was published by Wordsworth Editions in 2001: not their crowning glorty.

Imagine their fright, though, when they finally spotted it. I’ll be glad if there’s anything in the book as scary as that.


Book review: ‘Odd Job Man’ by slang lexicographer Jonathon Green

March 19, 2014

Chambers Slang Dictionary by Jonathon Green is my usual first stop for slang queries and browsing, because it’s the biggest such book on my shelf – size matters in lexicography – and also the best. A quote on the spine says, “Dr. Johnson would have moaned with delight”, and while I could live without the thought of Samuel Johnson making pleasure-noises on my shelf, the sentiment holds.

2010 saw publication of the eponymous Green’s Dictionary of Slang, a three-volume behemoth based like the OED on historical principles, giving slang the deep scholarship it deserves – and more than it has ever received before. Green has since updated thousands of its entries in his database, but since GDoS might not see a revised print edition, I only hope it goes online one day. [Edit: it did, for subscribers.]

Green’s life and work are the twin topics of his new book Odd Job Man: Some Confessions of a Slang Lexicographer, kindly sent to me for review by Jonathan Cape in London. It aims “both to demystify ‘the dictionary’ and to give some glory to slang, one of language’s most disdained of subsets.” These modest aims it achieves, and then some: this is a belter of a book.*

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Unlocking the language with Robert Burchfield

March 14, 2014

Unlocking the English Language by Robert Burchfield (Faber & Faber, 1989) had been sitting unread on my shelf for far too long, so I let it jump the queue and am very glad that I did. For readers interested in lexicography and word lore it’s a goldmine, with fascinating facts, anecdotes and esoterica on every page.

Robert Burchfield - Unlocking the English Language (faber & faber 1989)Burchfield was a New Zealand-born philologist who spent much of his life working as a lexicographer in England. From 1957–86 he edited the new four-volume Supplement to the OED, and later wrote an admirable third edition of Fowler, among other works. He championed inclusivity when it came to taboo words and global varieties of English.

Like his earlier book The English Language, Unlocking…, though short, is a rich and expansive work. The first four chapters are based on his T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures, the next eight a variety of essays on grammar, vocabulary, and dictionary-making. He assesses grammars as recent as CGEL and as old as Ben Jonson’s; his comments on the latter show his forthrightness and penchant for metaphor:

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Irish doublethink and unknown knowns

February 28, 2014

A couple of excerpts from Ship of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption Sank the Celtic Tiger (2009), a fine polemic by the Irish critic and author Fintan O’Toole:

One of the great strengths of Irish culture [is] its capacity for double-think. For a range of reasons – the simultaneous existence of paganism and Christianity, the ambiguous relationship of indigenous society to a colonial power, the long experience of emigration – Irish culture developed a particularly strong capacity for operating simultaneously within different mental frameworks. This is one of the reasons for the rich inventiveness of Irish artistic life and for much of the humour, teasing and wordplay that enliven social interaction. Irish double-think is wonderfully summed up by the old woman in the 1930s who, asked by Sean O’Faolain if she believed in the little people, replied, ‘I do not, sir, but they’re there.’

Much of this is of course unprovable (and unfalsifiable), and you could probably make a case for the same capacity for doublethink in other countries. But O’Toole’s ideas are, as always, food for thought.

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