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.


Wack v. whack, and choosing enthusing

October 15, 2014

I have two new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. The wacky world of ‘wack’ and ‘whack’ looks briefly at these similar (and sometimes overlapping) words with many meanings in informal usage:

Whack meaning ‘hit’, as a noun and verb, is centuries old but remains informal compared to such synonyms as strike, blow, and knock. It may be onomatopoeic in origin, which is why it’s used as a sound effect in comic books and the old Batman TV show. It also has the related meaning ‘kill’, for example in criminal slang.

Wack emerged more recently as a back-formation from wacky. Initially it was a noun used to refer to a crazy or eccentric person – He’s a real wack – with wacko and whacko emerging as slangy offshoots. This was followed by adjectival wack meaning bad, unfashionable, stupid or of low quality, as in the anti-drugs slogan Crack is wack.

I go on to describe some of the ways the two words are used, and the possible limits of their interchangeability.

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Enthusing about freedom of usage considers (and defends) the much-maligned back-formation enthuse:

Lots of words and usages are criticised or considered ‘incorrect’ when really they’re just colloquial, relatively new, or unsuited to formal use. As Michael Rundell wrote recently, ‘what might be inappropriate in a very formal setting may be perfectly acceptable in a conversation between friends’. . . .

What one generation finds ignorant or ridiculous, the next might adopt without fuss. Enthuse retains a semblance of impropriety, and is still frowned on by conservative writers and readers. Others, myself included, may have nothing against it but prefer periphrastic alternatives like ‘show enthusiasm’ or ‘be enthusiastic’.

The post details some of the criticism and commentary enthuse has received, and summarises its status in different varieties of English.

Older posts are available in my Macmillan Dictionary Blog archive.


An interview at Grammarist

October 7, 2014

I’ve been interviewed by Grammarist, a website specialising in words and language use. Among the topics addressed are the origins of Sentence first, whether blogging has changed language use, common mistakes, and how I would change the way people use language.

Here’s one Q&A item:

What is so interesting about language/grammar to you?

I’ve always been drawn to nature and biology, and language is one of its more compelling phenomena – not least because we use it to think and communicate with. As the Modest Mouse song goes, it’s the liquid that we’re all dissolved in. Once you start looking closely at language it opens up worlds of wonder, be it the complex choreography of speech or syntax or the transporting effects of a novel or poem. Sometimes language gets in our way, but it’s hard to imagine human life without it.

You can read the rest here. Despite my tendency to ramble I kept things fairly short and light. Comments are welcome at either location.

Grammarist has a good series of these interviews, with some names that I’m sure will be familiar to you. Anyone in the mood for even more can read earlier interviews I did for Copyediting newsletter and the WM Freelance Writers Connection.


Sleeveen language in Ireland

October 1, 2014

In an article in the Irish Independent this week on privatisation fears and political shenanigans, Gene Kerrigan used a great word borrowed (and anglicised) from the Gaelic:

Is it really okay for the Taoiseach [Irish prime minister] to do what he did, then he makes a non-apology and everyone moves on?

Did Enda Kenny lie to us?

You won’t find a straightforward statement in which he said he had nothing to do with the stroke. Instead, he said, “ministers are free to make nominations to particular boards”. Sleeveen language. Deliberately deceptive, while taking pains not to formally lie.

A sleeveen is a sly, smooth-tongued person, a rogue or a trickster. Oxford Dictionaries defines it as “an untrustworthy or cunning person”, Collins says it refers to “a sly obsequious smooth-tongued person”, while Yeats glossed it as a “mean fellow”. You get the idea.

Despite appearances it can be used affectionately, like most Irish insults, but this is obviously not the case above, nor is it normally.

Sleeveen comes from Irish slíbhín “sly person”, to which Dinneen adds slighbhín. The Irish words’ s can be closer to /ʃ/ “sh”, so the spelling shleeveen is also used – as are sleveen, sleiveen, and slieveen. It’s often used in political contexts, and, like smacht, occasionally makes the headlines:

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Grammar references in ‘Gone Girl’

September 28, 2014

With David Fincher’s new film Gone Girl hitting the cinemas, it seems like a good time to mention the grammar references in the source novel by Gillian Flynn. (Also, I read it just a few weeks ago.) I counted three such references, quoted below.

Gillian Flynn - Gone Girl book coverIf you haven’t read Gone Girl and intend to read it or see the film, you might want to skip this post in case of spoilers. The book is an effective page-turner, and the less you know about how the plot unfolds, the better. If you have read it or don’t care about spoilers, read on.

The book has two unreliable narrators. First, here’s Amy, revealing herself to be self-conscious and pedantic about grammatical correctness and careful to avoid hypercorrection:

The woman remained in the car the whole time, a pacifiered toddler in her arms, watching her husband and me trade cash for keys. (That is the correct grammar, you know: her husband and me.)

Later, a secondary character says “the hoi polloi” and the other narrator, Nick, rejects the redundancy:

Just hoi polloi, I thought, not the hoi polloi. It was something Amy had taught me.

For the record: the hoi polloi is so common, and has such a strong literary pedigree (Byron, Dryden, et al.), that even prescriptivist authorities often permit it. But it remains a popular shibboleth in usage commentary and casual nitpickery.

The third and last example of grammar discussed in Gone Girl echoes the first. It contains a significant plot spoiler, so caveat lector. Amy again:

They say it’s important for Nick and me (the correct grammar) to have some time alone and heal.

I don’t know if any of these (or similar) items appear in the screenplay, which Flynn also wrote, but I’ll be interested to see if they do. If you plan on catching the film soon, enjoy.


Broadcast(ed), critical critiques, and twigging

September 23, 2014

Every other Monday I have a new post at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. It’s several weeks since I reported on this, so here are excerpts from, and links to, the last three.

Broadcast(ed) and forecast(ed) considers the variation in past tense forms of these sometimes-irregular verbs, and what their users and usage authorities have to say about them:

Most people use the shorter, uninflected past-tense forms forecast and broadcast, just as we say an actor was cast in a role, not *casted. Forecasted and broadcasted surged in popularity in the first half of the 20th century, but they are now minority usages.

Forecast and broadcast arose by adding a prefix to cast, and so the argument goes that we shouldn’t say forecasted or broadcasted any more than we would say *casted. But people who choose them may be verbing the nouns forecast and broadcast, independent of the cast–cast–cast paradigm. This would give them more licence to add the -ed suffix. [Read on]

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A critique of ‘criticism’ compares criticise and critique and their associated nouns – words with overlapping meanings but markedly different tones. I begin with criticise and criticism:

The two senses of these words – one judgemental and fault-finding, the other neutral and evaluative – exist side by side in modern English, though the balance is uneven. With set phrases like literary criticism and film criticism, the analytical sense is a given. But more often the word is used negatively (He can’t take criticism), and the same goes for criticise.

When we express an opinion, we usually want to avoid giving offence – and when we offer criticism, the chances of doing so are considerable. So language has many strategies for being polite. . . . Critique probably grew in popularity as a result of criticise gaining pejorative connotations. [Read on]

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Finally, Can you twig it? looks at an informal word of uncertain origins, and examines the possibility of an Irish etymology:

At an early age in Ireland I learned the Irish word tuig, meaning ‘understand’, often used in common phrases like An dtuigeann tú? (‘Do you understand?’). You can hear several regional pronunciations of the word at the excellent Irish dictionary website Foclóir.ie. Comparing tuig with twig we find they sound alike and mean similar things. Of course, this could simply be coincidental – but the correspondence, while inconclusive, is certainly suggestive.

Terence Dolan’s Dictionary of Hiberno-English says this Irish derivation for twig is possible, while Loreto Todd’s Green English says it ‘may well’ be the origin. Bernard Share’s Slanguage is less convinced, indicating instead that the two words have been confused. [Read on]

The full archive of my posts for Macmillan is available here.


The Tironian et (⁊) in Galway, Ireland

September 18, 2014

Over the door of the Warwick Hotel in Salthill, Galway, on the west coast of Ireland, sits a very old and unusual typographical mark. Between Beár (bar) and Bialann (restaurant) there is a Tironian et (⁊), Latin for and.

stan carey - warwick hotel, salthill galway - tironian et

The Tironian et is a remnant of Tiro’s shorthand system, which was popular for centuries but is now almost entirely discontinued. The mark lives on in just a couple of writing systems, one of which is Irish.

Even Irish people who respond to the phrase Tironian et with blank looks are familiar with it from bilingual street signs like this one:

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