Book spine poem: Unlocking the language

November 7, 2014

Bookmashing, for the uninitiated, is when you stack books so the titles on their spines form a poem, or a mini-story, etc. It also has the more transparent name book spine poetry. It’s a fun game – and challenge – for word lovers, and a great excuse to browse your bookshelves. You’ll see them in a new light.

I’ve made several bookmashes over the years, and would do them oftener if most of my books weren’t in storage. Usually there’s no special theme, but some have been explicitly linguistic, e.g. Evolution: the difference engine, Forest of symbols, The web of words, Ambient gestures, and Cat and Mouse Semantics. So today I imposed the restriction of only using books from the ‘language’ shelf:

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stan carey book spine poem bookmash - unlocking the language

Unlocking the language

The professor
And the madman
Defining the world,
Shady characters
Unlocking the English language –
Is that a fish
In your ear?

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Thanks to the authors Simon Winchester, Henry Hitchings, Keith Houston, Robert Burchfield, and David Bellos. (I’ll try to be less gender-skewed next time.)

I got the idea originally from artist Nina Katchadourian, and it has spread to public radio and around the web. Last year a British drama group ran a bookmash competition, and now Jump! Mag (an educational magazine for children) is holding one for young readers.

Millie Slavidou, who set up the contest, has put several bookmashes on her Glossologics blog, which I wrote about last year. Seeing the idea featured in Jump! Mag prompted today’s simple effort, and I look forward to seeing any competition entries they make public. New players are always welcome.


Bang, pling, boing, shriek, gasper, screamer, Christer! And other exclamation mark aliases

March 28, 2013

Henry Hitchings’s terrific book The Language Wars has a brief note on old names for exclamation marks (aka exclamation points):

Exclamation and question marks were not much used until the seventeenth century. Ben Johnson referred to the former as admiration marks, and they were casually known by the names shriekmark and screamer before exclamation mark became standard . . .

Admiration mark? Exclamation mark in Times New Roman Shriekmark? Screamer? Amused, I went looking for more and found that exclamation marks also went (and maybe still go) by the names shriek and Christer. The resulting tweet prompted a flurry of responses, so I want to extend the discussion here, where there’s more space.

Read the rest of this entry »


Who cares about English?

January 8, 2013

I’ve been meaning to share this for months, and a tweet today by @OxfordWords has prodded me into action. Late last year the British Council and the OED sponsored an expert panel discussion on the state of the English language, titled ‘Who cares about English?

The talk is chaired by John Knagg, head of English research at the British Council. He takes questions from the audience and puts them to panel members John Simpson, chief editor of the OED; Prudence Raper, former honorary secretary of the Queen’s English Society; novelist Romesh Gunesekera; and author and critic Henry Hitchings.

Among the topics covered are language regulation and correctness, change and innovation, history, social media, favourite words, and regional and global varieties of English. The speakers offer insight, learning, and humour, and there is some inevitable (and extreme) peeving from the floor.

You can watch part 1 below, or go here for the full video, which lasts a little over an hour. Enjoy!

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Bookmash: Don’t Sleep

November 23, 2012

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Don’t Sleep

Don’t sleep –
There are snakes, bugs,
Creatures of the earth
In the shadow of man:
Mythmakers and lawbreakers
Defining the world.

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With thanks to the authors: Daniel Everett, Theodore Roszak, John McGahern, Jane Goodall, Margaret Killjoy, and Henry Hitchings; and special thanks to Nina Katchadourian for her Sorted Books project.

Lots more of these in the bookmash archive, along with links to other people’s. Let me know if you join in, and I’ll update accordingly.

More:

Adrian of The Outer Hoard had the marvellous idea of rearranging my older bookmashes to make two “stanmashes”.

Laura E. (aka @Soulclaphands) made a lovely bookmash beginning with the line “All these voices.”

Olivia (@peeriepics) shared her first bookmash, evoking a nature walk in winter.

Debbie Bambridge’s (@caret_top) first bookmash is very funny: “This charming man…


A radical awareness of language’s mutability

March 28, 2012

I recently read Henry Hitchings’s Defining the world: The extraordinary story of Dr Johnson’s dictionary, and I recommend it heartily to those of you who enjoy its principal fields of interest: words, history, literature, biography, and lexicography.

As well as recreating the history of Johnson’s Dictionary, which was first published in 1755, Hitchings’s book serves as a frank and affectionate portrait of Samuel Johnson himself, and as a vivid profile of 18th-century England. It’s an elegant and enthralling account that includes a keen analysis of Johnson’s linguistic attitudes and shows how these developed over the course of creating his mighty work.

Before beginning the Dictionary in earnest, Johnson wrote a lengthy Plan of an English Dictionary, in which he presented his ambitions for the book and his suitability for the task. It was addressed to the Earl of Chesterfield in order to win his patronage. Chesterfield, we read, was “obsessed with propriety of usage . . . and with embalming or even bettering the language”. Johnson said the dictionary’s chief intent would be “to preserve the purity, and ascertain the meaning of our English idiom”.

The order of these aspirations is no accident. Johnson’s characterisation of English as “licentious” and “inconstant” has what Hitchings refers to as “a distinctly moral cast”. But although the emphasis on stability was “consistent with [Johnson’s] own political instincts”, Hitchings suggests that it was probably exaggerated for Chesterfield’s sake: years later the Dictionary’s preface would contain a sober and eloquent acknowledgement of the irresistibility of linguistic change.

From Defining the world:

Linguistic conservatives like Chesterfield were afraid that unchecked changes in general usage would cause the English of the eighteenth century to become as bewildering to its inheritors as the language of Chaucer was to them. They were correct, of course, in seeing that their language was in flux. Then and now, the engines of this change include international commerce and travel, which involve contact with other languages; shifts in political doctrine or consensus; translations, which frequently preserve the idiom of their originals; fashion (in Johnson’s age, the nascent cult of sensibility), whose adherents require a special figurative language to articulate their refined and rarefied perspectives; and advertising, which uses foreign terms to connote mystique. These transfusions are what keep a language alive, but this is a modern view. Chesterfield could not begin to see that change was a force for the good. With time, Johnson’s conservatism — the desire to ‘fix’ the language — gave way to a radical awareness of language’s mutability. But from the outset the impulse to standardize and straighten English out was in competition with the belief that one should chronicle what’s there, and not just what one would like to see.

250 years later, Johnson’s Dictionary remains “not merely readable, but vital”, Hitchings writes, its every page brimming with philological lore and choice quotation. It is not just a landmark in lexicography but a great work of literature, described by Robert Burchfield as “the only dictionary compiled by a writer of the first rank”.*

The sixth edition of the Dictionary (1785) is available in multiple formats from the Internet Archive: Volume 1 and Volume 2.

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* My Tumblr blog has a short passage by Burchfield on semantic drift.


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