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.


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.


Where George Bernard Shaw got his style

January 30, 2014

An anecdote from G.B. Shaw’s Everybody’s Political What’s What (1944), quoted by James Sutherland in the Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, reveals the Irish author’s early stylistic inspiration:

That I can write as I do without having to think about my style is due to my having been as a child steeped in the Bible, The Pilgrim’s Progress, and Cassell’s Illustrated Shakespeare. I was taught to hold the Bible in such reverence that when one day, as I was buying a pennyworth of sweets in a little shop in Dublin, the shopkeeper tore a leaf out of a dismembered Bible to wrap them in, I was horrified, and half expected to see him struck by lightning. All the same I took the sweets and ate them; for to my Protestant mind the shopkeeper, as a Roman Catholic, would go to hell as such, Bible or no Bible, and was no gentleman anyhow. Besides, I liked eating sweets.

That the Bible was already dismembered suggests it was a routine source of raw material for the shopkeeper. Had he a secular alternative to hand – old newspapers, for instance – he might have made a tóimhsín for the sweets and allayed his damnation.


Percy Shelley’s reading addiction

December 10, 2013

Books accompany me almost everywhere. Because you never know. On a walk or cycle I may decide to sit on a bench or rock or by a tree and pass an hour with the view, and while there in the fresh air might feel the urge to visit whatever portable parallel world I’ve packed. Or I might be in a slow queue and tired of looking around, so out comes a book and the wait dissolves.

Some books are especially engrossing and greedily demand every moment even tenuously available. Though reading over a work-break cup of tea or while on the loo is normal enough, reading while walking to the kettle or bathroom might not be. (This, at any rate, is just an occasional indulgence.) But I know I’m not as bad as Percy Bysshe Shelley – for one thing, I don’t forget to eat. Not habitually, anyway.

Shelley . . . was always reading; at his meals a book lay by his side, on the table, open. Tea and toast were often neglected, his author seldom; his mutton and potatoes might grow cold, his interest in a work never cooled. He invariably sallied forth, book in hand, reading to himself, if he was alone; if he had a companion reading aloud. He took a volume to bed with him, and read as long as his candle lasted; he then slept – impatiently, no doubt – until it was light, and he recommenced reading at the early dawn. . . . In consequence of this great watching, and of almost incessant reading, he would often fall asleep in the day-time – dropping off in a moment – like an infant. He often quietly transferred himself from his chair to the floor, and slept soundly on the carpet, and in the winter upon the rug, basking in the warmth like a cat; and like a cat his little round head was roasted before a blazing fire.

(Extract from Thomas Jefferson Hogg’s biography, quoted in the Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, edited by James Sutherland. I do like that use of “impatiently”.)

Fellow readers, how conventional or extreme are your reading habits?

Joseph Severn, Posthumous Portrait of Shelley Writing ‘Prometheus Unbound’, oil on canvas, 1845


The man who spoke with perfect sentences

November 5, 2013

Anyone who has ever transcribed an interview, conversation, or unrehearsed speech of any sort will be very aware of how disfluent this form of language is. We start and stop and stall, repeat ourselves, insert filler phrases and sounds, search for forgotten words, abandon trains of thought, deal with interruptions and distractions, follow tangents, and double back.

It’s a far cry from writing, which gives us the luxury of time to prepare and arrange the translation of our thoughts. Grammar is therefore normally much tighter in writing than in speech. And because we learn about language through writing, significantly later than we develop speech, we cannot help but find speech wanting when we (unfairly) compare the two.

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Climbing Croagh Patrick, the holy mountain of Mayo

July 19, 2013

Photos, for a change. Last weekend three old friends and I climbed Croagh Patrick, a mountain in County Mayo in the mid-west of Ireland. (Croagh is an anglicisation of cruach, Irish for stack.)

The Reek, as it’s also known, has a cone-shaped peak that dominates the surrounding skyline. You can see it in the distance here on the road to Westport town, our home base for the day.

stan carey - croagh patrick mountain climb - road to westport, county mayo

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Folk etymology: from hiccup to hiccough

July 2, 2013

Folk etymology is when a word or phrase is changed – phonetically, orthographically, or both – to better fit a mistaken idea about its origin. It’s why some folk call a hiccup a hiccoughhic-cough may seem more plausible or comprehensible. The original impulse, says Arnold Zwicky, is “to find meaningful parts in otherwise unparsable expressions”.

Asparagus officinalis, also "sparrow grass"

Asparagus officinalis, also “sparrow grass”

So asparagus is sometimes written as sparrow grass, much as chaise longuechaise lounge and coleslawcoldslaw (which also count as eggcorns – sort of distributively limited folk etymologies). Many remain incorrect or restricted to small groups, but some become standard: penthouse came from pentis, lapwing from lappewinke, and hangnail is a modified Old English agnail.

Most people would probably assume that shamefaced comes from “shame-faced”, but the word was once shamefast, literally “restrained by shame” (fast as in “held firm”). The idea of shame manifesting in a person’s face motivated and sustained the alteration.

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