The curses and adjectives of Luis Buñuel

June 24, 2014

This week I read The Last Breath, the autobiography of one of my favourite filmmakers, Luis Buñuel. Mischievous, opinionated, and full of eye-opening anecdotes from his long and frankly surreal life, it also has a couple of passages on matters linguistic that may be of general interest.

First, on the importance of choosing a good name, in this case for artistic works:

In my search for titles, I’ve always tried to follow the old surrealist trick of finding a totally unexpected word or group of words which opens up a new perspective on a painting or book. This strategy is obvious in titles like Un Chien andalou, L’Age d’or, and even The Exterminating Angel. While we were working on this screenplay [The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie], however, we never once thought about the word “bourgeoisie.” On the last day at the Parador in Toledo, the day de Gaulle died, we were desperate; I came up with A bas Lénin, ou la Vierge à l’écurie (Down with Lenin, or The Virgin in the Manger). Finally, someone suggested Le Charme de la bourgeoisie; but Carrière [Jean-Claude, screenwriter] pointed out that we needed an adjective, so after sifting through what seemed like thousands of them, we finally stumbled upon “discreet.” Suddenly the film took on a different shape altogether, even a different point of view. It was truly a marvelous discovery.

The next passage concerns an incident during the Spanish Civil War. Buñuel has left Madrid for Geneva on the instruction of the Republican minister for foreign affairs, but he is warned en route that his identification papers will not get him past the border. Sure enough, a panel of “three somber-faced anarchists” halt his passage: You can’t cross here, they tell him. Buñuel has other ideas:

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Crooks’ names from Dashiell Hammett

July 21, 2013

Dashiell Hammett tells tight, twisty detective tales with colourful casts and propulsive plots, but half the fun of reading him comes from the language itself: the wisecracks, the tough talk, the economical detail.

Dashiell Hammett - The Big Knockover and Other Stories - book coverThe title story in his collection The Big Knockover has a huge cast of criminals, crooks, and assorted no-goodniks, many with stereotypical nicknames. Here’s 30 or so, some with additional description from Hammett:

Red O’Leary

The Shivering Kid

Itchy Maker

Darby M’Laughlin

Happy Jim Hacker, round and rosy Detroit gunman twice sentenced to death and twice pardoned

Alphabet Shorty McCoy

Donkey Marr, the last of the bow-legged Marrs

Rumdum Smith

Lefty Read

Toots Salda, the strongest man in crookdom

Sylvia Yount

The Dis-and-Dat Kid

Bernie Bernheimer, alias the Motsa Kid

Sheeny Holmes

Snohomish Shitey

Bluepoint Vance

L. A. Slim, from Denver, sockless and underwearless as usual

Spider Girrucci

Old Pete Best, once a congressman

Fat Boy Clarke

Red Cudahy

Pogy Reeve

Tom Brooks, who invented the Richmond razzle-dazzle and bought three hotels with the profits

Big Flora Brace

Nancy Regan

Denny Burke, Baltimore’s King of Frog Island

Bull McGonickle, still pale from fifteen years in Joliet

Johnny the Plumber

Paddy the Mex, an amiable conman who looked like the King of Spain

Paperbox-John Cardigan

Angel Grace Cardigan

Toby the Lugs, who used to brag about picking President Wilson’s pocket in a Washington vaudeville theatre

*

Alphabet Shorty McCoy offers two nicknames for the price of one. I don’t know if he got both at the same time or was just Shorty McCoy for a while first.

Hammett himself went to jail for a while. His long-time partner Lillian Hellman tells the story in the book’s fine introduction.


“Fortune is bald behind”

April 28, 2013

The Chicago Tribune had a brief article in January on baby naming trends, specifically the practice of naming children after places. It mentions the importance of timing:

“Fashionable names risk a kairos problem,” says speech consultant Jay Heinrichs . . . . “Kairos is the rhetorical art of timing. The Romans called it Occasio and made it a god with a beautiful youthful body who was bald on the back of his head,” Heinrichs says. “The occasion, such as a moment of fashion, ages quickly – hence the wonderful expression, ‘Fortune is bald behind.'”

That’s twice lately I’ve seen the same striking phrase. For a fuller exposition of its meaning I defer to Dr Stephen Maturin, in colourful conversation with Captain Jack Aubrey in Patrick O’Brian’s historical novel The Mauritius Command:

‘Far be it from me to decry patient laborious staff-work,’ said the Governor. ‘We have seen its gratifying results on this island: but, gentlemen, time and tide wait for no man; and I must remind you that Fortune is bald behind.’

Walking away from the Residence through streets placarded with the Governor’s proclamation, Jack said to Stephen, ‘What is this that Farquhar tells us about Fortune? Is she supposed to have the mange?’

‘I conceive he was referring to the old tag – his meaning was, that she must be seized by the forelock, since once she is passed there is no clapping on to her hair, at all. In the figure she ships none abaft the ears, if you follow me.’

‘Oh, I see. Rather well put: though I doubt those heavy-sided lobsters will smoke the simile.’ He paused, considering, and said, ‘It doesn’t sound very eligible, bald behind; but, however, it is all figurative, all figurative . . .’

Does Jack say it “doesn’t sound very eligible” because bald behind could be interpreted as a reference to a bottom instead of the back of a head? Or is it on account of its obscurity?

In any case, it’s a memorable expression, and a search online shows a popular variation: “Seize opportunity by the beard, for it is bald behind.”


Ancient people names in Ireland

October 30, 2012

Gearóid Mac Niocaill’s book Ireland before the Vikings (Gill and Macmillan, 1972) has an interesting passage on the names adopted on the island during the 4th, 5th and early 6th centuries. He refers to “a mosaic of peoples” who are “dimly perceptible” amid the settlements and political changes he has been discussing, and whose names appear in various forms:

ending in -raige (‘the people of’), or as Dál (‘the share of’) or Corco (perhaps ‘seed’) plus a second element, or as a collective noun ending in -ne. Some contain animal names, such as Artraige ‘bear-people’, Osraige ‘deer-people’, Grecraige ‘horse-people’, Dartraige ‘calf-people’, Sordraige ‘boar-people’; others, such as the Ciarraige, the Dubraige and Odraige, have a colour (ciar ‘black’, dub also ‘black’, odor ‘dun’) as the first element; others, such as the Cerdraige, seem to have an occupational term as the first element.

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Curiosities of biological nomenclature

November 9, 2010

Curiosities of Biological Nomenclature is a wonderful website you might not have come across. Its creator, Mark Isaak, introduces it as follows:

Scientific names of organisms are not usually known for their entertainment value. They are indispensable for clarity in communication, but most people skip over them with barely a glance. Here I collect those names that are worth a second look.

And what a collection it is. Virtually every page offers an eye-opening, smile-inducing specimen – often several of them – with succinct and edifying commentary. You’ll find funny facts, strange stories, verbal delights and historical oddities. The site is divided into sections such as Etymology, Puns, and Wordplay, and its many sub-pages amount to a feast of fine browsing material, which is regularly updated.

An example of its taxonomic lore: I learned that Piseinotecus divae, a nudibranch,* gained its peculiar name after an incident in which one of its discoverers “stepped on [a] dog on the way to the kitchen in the middle of the night”. Apparently, Piseinotecus means “I stepped on Teco”, Teco being the name of a dog that belonged either to a diva or to Professor Diva Corrêa.

Chimera fans will appreciate Boselaphus tragocamelus (an antelope, pictured below) whose Latin name translates as “ox-deer goat-camel”; Chaetopterus pugaporcinus (a marine worm) is a “Chaetopterid worm that looks like the rump of a pig” (judge for yourself); while Vampyroteuthis infernalis is, more B-movie-ishly, the “Vampire squid from Hell”. Pun names include Apopyllus now (a spider), Daphoenus demilo (an extinct bear dog), Heerz lukenatcha (a braconid), Pieza deresistans (a fly), and Verae peculya (another braconid).

Offensive names are officially prohibited, but insults and imprecations slip through, sometimes cryptically. Other names are inadvertently indecent. There’s the beetle Foadia (its offence is acronymic), Fukuia (a snail), and Silybum (milk thistle). They get much ruder. Under “Valid Words in Other Contexts” we encounter an insect named Alienates, a beetle named Euphoria, a sea urchin named Disaster, a spinosaur named Irritator, a snail named Provocator, and an arachnid named Oops.

Among the Long and Short Names in the Wordplay section, I met Polichinellobizarrocomicburlescomagicaraneus for the first time; unfortunately, its identity remains a mystery. One page is dedicated to Drosophila melanogaster’s noteworthy gene names, which include currant bun, faint sausage, karst, prospero, skittles, snafu and splat. There are anagrams and tautonyms, rhymes and reversals, onomatopoeia and oxymorons (e.g., Anoura caudifera, the tailed tailless bat).

Names of living things are often redundant and are subject to ongoing revision. One reason for their proliferation is that some namers are “splitters” rather than “lumpers”. All the more reason to be grateful for a website that records and aggregates some of the most interesting and entertaining names in biology.

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* Nudibranchs are sea slugs from paradise.


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