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.


Non-life-threatening unselfconscious hyphens

October 10, 2014

Happy the reader who is unselfconscious about hyphens. Or is it unself-conscious? Un-selfconscious? When we add a prefix to a word that’s already (sometimes) hyphenated, it’s not always obvious whether and where a hyphen should go in the new compound. Tastes differ. Even un-self-conscious has its advocates.

I’m all for the solid, unambiguous unselfconscious, recommended by the Oxford Manual of Style among others. But different compounds raise different issues, and there’s variation and disagreement in each case over which style works best. That may be understating it: Fowler referred to “chaos” and “humiliation” in the prevailing use of hyphens.

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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.


Oxford commas, Nelson Mandela, and Stephen King

September 15, 2014

The Oxford comma (the one right before and in the title of this post) has been in the news again. It never really goes away, but now and then it intrudes more noticeably into general and specialist discussion. I’ve a couple of brief points to make about it, but anyone unsure of the terrain should first read my earlier post on the Oxford, Harvard, or serial comma, as it is variously known.

The Oxford comma is one of those in-group niceties that some wordsmiths use to mark their editorial or writerly identities. It has become a sort of tribal badge of style, reinforced by whether your preferred authority prescribes it – for example, the Chicago Manual of Style strongly recommends it, while the AP Stylebook says leave it out.

It’s remarkably divisive, so I’ll restate for the record that I’m not a die-hard Oxford comma user or leaver-outer. I like it, and I tend to use it, but not always. Neither its use nor its omission is a universal solution – ambiguity can arise either way, so it doesn’t make sense to be inflexible about it.

This tweet is a case in point:

@socratic tweet - oxford comma on mandela, 800-year-old demigod and dildo collector

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Link love: language (59)

September 7, 2014

Link love is back! I took a break from this regular feature a year ago, for reasons, but never intended that break to be permanent. So here’s a selection of language-related articles and other material that caught my eye over the last while. It’s a bumper crop.

10 words that are badly broken.

How do you rhyme in a sign language?

What to say to peevers.

Podcast on accent diversity and prejudice (22 min.).

How do our brains treat metaphors and idioms?

Sending text messages in calligraphy.

When nouns verb oddly.

Ammosexual.

The defensive/impatient use of Look.

What were medieval scriptoria really like?

Timeline of 870 madness-related slang terms.

De-extinction: when words come back from the dead.

Who can save Ayapaneco?

The fevered art of book blurbing.

Google’s global ‘font family‘.

On loanwords and the Dictionary of Untranslatables.

The strange hidden logic (not hidden strange logic) of adjective order.

For a president today, talkin’ down is speaking American.

Unpacking America and Americans.

The origins of bum’s rush.

The problem of socialised male speech dominance.

Graphing the frequency of English letters and their position in words.

A good podcast on linguistic relativity.

On the birth of italics.

Crowdsourcing linguistic explanations.

Stand-up comedy in a second language.

Samuel Beckett and the voices in our minds.

Comparing the language of climate change in Germany and the US.

10 ‘grammar rules’ it’s OK to break.

The bodacious language of Bill & Ted.

Microaggressions in metacommunication.

Lovecraft and the art of describing the indescribable.

Why a painting in the White House has a deliberate spelling error.

How slang wilding was used to uphold a narrative of race and crime.

:) vs. :-) – Stylistic variation in Twitter emoticons (PDF).

Is erk related to oik?

Learning the language of love, 1777.

Interesting interview with Games of Thronesresident conlanger.

Also, GoT is more linguistically sophisticated than you might think.

Against editors? Make that For writers.

What goes in a dictionary when the dictionary is online?

A list of words coined (or notably used) by Edgar Allan Poe.

Recreating silent-film typography.

How to market a dictionary, 1970s-style.

That will do for now. If you’ve the appetite and time for more, you can browse the language links archive, or visit some blogs and sites linked in the sidebar – they’re all good. You can also follow me on Twitter – on the days I’m there I usually post a few links, among other things.

One last thing, lest it get lost in a list of ling-lust: the Speculative Grammarian book, which I reviewed positively last year as a feast of satirical linguistics, is now available as a PDF for $5.95 – or $4.95 for Sentence first readers.


Fear of feet and relative ambiguity

September 3, 2014

In Lucy Ellmann’s sharp comic novel Varying Degrees of Hopelessness there is a minor but interesting ambiguity:

Later, she formed an alliance with a man much younger than herself, a man with small feet that didn’t scare her, a man who earned his living by entering supermarket competitions and the occasional raffle.

The question is, what didn’t scare her (she being the narrator’s mother) – the man or his small feet? I don’t think the book mentioned fear of feet elsewhere, so my first inclination was to assume that that in a man with small feet that didn’t scare her referred to the man.

But then why use a man who in the next clause? If the variation is meaningful, and not motivated by whimsy or euphony, etc., we could reasonably assume the fear refers to the feet. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

In a post on animals and pronouns, I summarised as follows: that can refer to things or people, which refers to things but not normally people, and who refers to people (and sometimes animals, or entities that are humanlike or have an implication of personality).

So a man with small feet which didn’t scare her would definitely imply that the feet didn’t scare her, while a man with small feet who didn’t scare her would connect the lack of fear decisively to the man. But that is ambiguous. How would you read it?


Book spine poem: The Name of the World

September 1, 2014

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[click to enlarge]

 

stan carey book spine poem - bookmash - the name of the world

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The Name of the World

Everybody dies
In search of memory –
The first word, my last breath,
The name of the world,
The world without us.

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One of these, you may have spotted, is a library book, while another appeared in an earlier bookmash and I still haven’t read it. I discussed Buñuel’s book in a recent post on curses and adjectives; Kenneally’s featured some years ago in a brief post on language evolution.

Other than that, I have nothing to add except my customary thanks to the authors: Lawrence Block, Eric Kandel, Christine Kenneally, Luis Buñuel, Denis Johnson, and Alan Weisman; also to Nina Katchadourian.

Older bookmashes and links to other people’s are browsable in my archive of book spine poems. Join in if you like.


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