Signing and sociolinguistics in Ed McBain’s ‘Axe’

December 9, 2014

I went on a binge of Ed McBain’s crime fiction recently, enjoying his keen ear for language and tight storytelling style. Below are three language-themed excerpts from Axe, written in 1964, which features detectives Steve Carella and Cotton Hawes investigating a grisly murder.

First, to continue the theme of whom usage, is a doorstep encounter the detectives have with an old woman of unsound mind:

‘We’re detectives,’ Carella said. He showed her his shield and his identification card. He paused a moment, and then said, ‘May I ask who I’m talking to, ma’am?’

‘Whom, and you may not,’ she said.

‘What?’

‘Whom,’ she said.

‘Ma’am, I . . .’

‘Your grammar is bad, and your granpa is worse,’ the woman said, and began laughing.

The ellipsis in Carella’s last line, which shows he’s being interrupted, is a stylistic device known technically as aposiopesis. An em dash is also commonly used in this context.

Carella later meets his wife, Teddy:

Teddy Carella watched his lips as he spoke because she was deaf and could hear only by watching a person’s lips or hands. Then, because she was mute as well, she raised her right hand and quickly told him in the universal language of deaf mutes that the twins had already been fed and that Fanny, their housekeeper, was at this moment putting them to bed. Carella watched her moving hand, missing a word every now and then, but understanding the sense and meaning, and then smiled as she went on to outline her plans for the evening, as if her plans needed outlining after the kiss she had given him at the front door.

‘You can get arrested for using that kind of language,’ Carella said, grinning. ‘It’s a good thing everybody can’t read it.’

ed mcbain axe - pan books cover 1964Leaving aside the naive reference to the “universal language of deaf mutes” (signing, far from being singular, comprises many languages and dialects), it struck me as a laudable description, presenting signing as a normal activity and showing its potential for humour and seduction. I don’t read enough such accounts in fiction.

The final excerpt has Detective Hawes visiting an accountancy firm where he talks to Mr Cavanaugh, a portly businessman “born in Philadelphia and raised on that city’s brotherly South Side”, about someone previously employed by the firm:

‘We’re investigating a murder,’ Hawes said flatly.

‘You think Siggie killed somebody?’

‘No, that’s not what we think. But certain aspects of our information don’t seem to jibe, Mr Cavanaugh. We have reason to believe Mr Reuhr is lying to us, which is why we felt we should look into his background somewhat more extensively.’

‘You talk nice,’ Cavanaugh said appreciatively.

Hawes, embarrassed, said, ‘Thank you.’

‘No, I mean it. Where I was raised, if you talked that way you got your head busted. So I talk this way. I got one of the biggest accounting firms in this city, and I sound like a bum, don’t I?’

‘No, sir.’

‘Then what do I sound like?’

‘Well, I don’t know.’

‘A bum, right?’

‘No, sir.’

‘Okay, we won’t argue. Anyway, you talk nice.’

I liked this exchange a lot too. That McBain, he writes nice.


Misheard lyrics, and ‘overall’ criticism

November 13, 2014

I have two new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Mildew all around me, and other mondegreens looks at misheard song lyrics, including some famous, favourite, and personal examples:

Everyone’s experience of a song is unique, so new and idiosyncratic mondegreens keep appearing. Others are common enough to be famous in the field, like Jimi Hendrix’s ‘kiss this guy’, instead of kiss the sky. Some mondegreens might begin as accidents of perception but be amusing enough to then be deliberately adopted, replacing the original words. Wright herself [Sylvia Wright, who coined the term] wrote that they were ‘better than the original’, and some singers even embrace the mondegreens.

Among my favourites are ‘Shamu the mysterious whale’ (She moves in mysterious ways) and ‘R-G-S-P-E-P-P’ (R-E-S-P-E-C-T). I also summarise how they got the name mondegreens and explain the titular ‘Mildew all around me’, which is family lore. There are also great examples in the comments (‘All we are saying is kidneys and jam’).

*

This week’s post, Overall, there’s nothing really wrong with it, examines the use and criticism of the word overall. It’s part of a critical series at Macmillan on prescriptivism. I’m particularly interested in how long overall has been labelled a ‘vogue word’:

In The Complete Plain Words, first published 60 years ago, Ernest Gowers described as ‘astonishing’ the word’s growth in popularity, then spent two full pages showing how it was being used as a synonym for more than a dozen other words. A few years later, overall was described (fairly, I think) as a ‘vogue word’ in Eric Partridge’s Usage and Abusage. Vogue words are ‘faddish, trendy, ubiquitous words that have something new about them’, writes Bryan Garner in his Modern American Usage. One of the vogue words in this 2009 book is… overall. Just how long can a word be in vogue?

The post goes on to report other complaints about overall, weighs up the evidence, and offers advice on whether you should use it.

You can browse all my older posts for Macmillan Dictionary Blog here.


Word magic from Shalom Auslander

October 21, 2014

Browsing books at random in Galway, I picked up Shalom Auslander’s novel Hope: A Tragedy because the title caught my eye, and I bought it based on a cursory scan of its contents and reviews. The author’s name was also interesting to me, and the book turned out to be the most entertaining thing I had read in months.

More recently I read Auslander’s Foreskin’s Lament: A Memoir, which was the funniest thing I’d read since his novel. Not that it’s all jokes – the books are very well written, and work on many levels – but if you like dark and irreverent humour suffused with theological anxiety, there’s a good chance you’ll like his work.

Here’s an excerpt from Foreskin’s Lament on the religious implications of his name. I’ve selected it not for its humour (though it has some of that), but because of its linguistic content. I think word magic is subtler and more pervasive than we often suppose, though what follows is an extreme and obvious case of it:

In the third grade, Rabbi Kahn told me my name was one of God’s seventy-two names, and he forbade me from ever writing it in full. We wrote primarily in Hebrew and Yiddish, so anything on which I wrote my name — God’s name — became instantly holy: tests, book reports, Highlights for Kids — consequently, they could never be mistreated. It was forbidden to let them touch the floor, it was forbidden to throw them away, it was forbidden to place other papers on top of them.

—Name of the Creator! Rabbi Kahn would shout in horror, pointing at the McGraw-Hill American History lying anti-Semitically on top of my Talmud test. —Name of the Creator!

Then I would have to leave the classroom, go upstairs, and walk all the way to the bais midrash (study hall), where they kept a brown cardboard box reserved for holy pages without a home: torn prayer books, old Haggadahs, crumbling Talmuds, and the suddenly holy “What I Did This Summer” by God Auslander.

“Words are holy,” as the narrator subsequently notes. Another passage revisits the complications of being called Shalom, through an awkward conversation with his mother, but I’ll leave that for anyone interested in reading the book. For some background see Auslander’s interview at Bookslut, or visit his website for essays and more.


Outbreaks of contagious laughter (and mewing)

May 10, 2014

Robert Provine’s book Laughter: A Scientific Investigation has a very interesting chapter on contagious laughter. This curious phenomenon has long been exploited in such items as laugh boxes and musical laugh records, as well as being central to laugh tracks (from Ancient Rome to modern TV) and churches of “holy laughter”.

Contagious laughter is, of course, also an everyday occurrence, spreading directly from person to person in normal interaction. But even this activity can become abnormal, when for instance instead of dying down it persists and spreads over a wide area, as happened in the Tanganyika laughter epidemic (though it wasn’t just laughter).

Provine writes:

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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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Pseudotranslations

March 18, 2014

Imgur (pronounced “imager”), a popular image-hosting social website, has a fun thread on translation errors and substitutions in speech.

It starts with a user saying his Russian wife asked for a roll of inches when she meant a tape measure, and the comments soon filled up with more in this vein: some poetic, some amusingly absurd, a few resulting from memory failure in the speaker’s own language.

I did not know the words for ‘ice cubes’ in German so asked for ‘very cold water with corners’ (from user slimydog)

My dutch neighbor called a [merry]-go-round a horse tornado. (disguisenburg)

I have referred to Muffins as bread mushrooms. (zinvader)

When I was learning English I could not remember the English for Reindeer, so I called it a Christmas Llama. (Unusualpretense)

When I was learning Swedish and making plans with friends, I kept telling them “Smells good!” when I meant “Sounds good!” (freegiant)

I went to say “a bee!” in Japanese but said “a jar of honey!” instead. (jlist)

Couldn’t remember “shower” in Spanish once, had to tell the maid my friend was “in falling water” (theblueshell)

My friend from France never said “Go Away”. Instead: “PUT AWAY YOUR FACE!” Its my favorite expression to this day <3

I know I’ve produced some howlers/classics of my own when I was learning languages, or trying to communicate in other countries, but none come to mind this evening. Got any to share? Smells good!

Update:

See the follow-up at All Things Linguistic, which has further examples in the post and comments, and queries the pronunciation of imgur.


A word 3½ hours long

February 11, 2014

If you’d asked me as a child how long it would take to speak the longest word in the English language, I’d have guessed a couple of seconds. Antidisestablishmentarianism would have come to mind, as the longest word in my pocket Collins dictionary at the time, or supercalifragilisticexpialidocious if “made-up” words were allowed.

Later I met other odd giants, like pseudopseudohypoparathyroidism and pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis with their unmistakeably medical morphemes. All these words (Mary Poppins aside) are known chiefly for being very long – but with a bit of practice you could voice any of them in a single breath.

They’re mere pipsqueaks compared with some chemical names, which are probably not words in a strict sense but are impressively massive all the same – especially the protein Titin, aka connectin, whose chemical name begins Methionylalanylthreonylseryl… and goes on like that for 189,819 letters. In this remarkable video, Dmitry Golubovskiy reads it in its entirety. It takes him just over 3½ hours:

You can read along here.

I didn’t watch the whole thing. After a couple of minutes I skipped ahead a bit, then watched the finale. His beard visibly darkens over the course of the performance, and he looks decidedly dazed at the end. The flowers wilt suddenly at 2:09:21 in a cut that suggests a bathroom break, or maybe a breather for sanity’s sake.

Hat-tip to @emordino for the video.


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