September 29, 2013
The short clip below is from the BBC Four documentary Mechanical Marvels: Clockwork Dreams on the history of automata, narrated by Prof. Simon Schaffer. It shows a mechanical boy known as the writer, the brainchild of Pierre Jaquet-Droz (1721–90), a Swiss watchmaker who became renowned for this and similar works.
The writer comprises about 6000 parts and contains 40 replaceable interior cams that allow it to write – using a goose-feather quill – any text of up to 40 characters. In other words, it’s programmable. The machine has an uncanny quality charged by the movement of its eyes as they follow the composition of letters and the refilling of the quill with fresh ink (which it briefly shakes, to prevent blotting).*
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August 27, 2013
I’ll assume readers know that the ‘Eskimos have X words for snow’ idea is essentially a myth and a hackneyed journalistic trope. So I won’t elaborate on it here, except to note that the claim is so notorious in linguistic circles it gave rise to snowclone, a handy term for this kind of clichéd phrasal template.
It turns out, though, that there are quite a few words for snow (and, OK, ice) in Scotland.* Ian Preston sent me a recent photo he took of an art installation in the lobby of the Cairngorm Funicular Railway, republished here with his permission:
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July 31, 2013
“Support”, by Tom Humberstone:
[click to enlarge]
I love Exclamation Mark’s happy bafflement, and the last two frames tie the strip together very nicely (though for comic timing and pathos I’d have put the ellipsis between them rather than before them).
I don’t think I have anything to say about the Jay Z hyphen non-story – but if you do, I’m all ears.
You can see more of the artist’s work at the New Statesman and on Humberstone’s own website.
May 31, 2013
Marcus Lodwick’s The Gallery Companion: Understanding Western Art describes Saint George as “a totally legendary saint whose existence has been in doubt since the fifth century”.
The flavours of both totally and legendary have – for me at least – shifted markedly through informal usage, interfering with the intended tone. Reading the line, I was (totally) distracted by the phrase totally legendary, even though the relative clause (“whose existence has been in doubt…”) and general context left no doubt as to its meaning.
painting by Raphael
In common currency totally is like absolutely: often more a general intensifier or expression of hearty agreement than anything necessarily to do with totality or absoluteness. An example from the GloWbE corpus: “Seems totally harsh for them teachers huh?”
Legendary has been weakened by loose usage to the point where almost any degree of renown or achievement may be granted the description; similar trends with legend and its spin-off ledge(bag) – peculiarly Irish, I think – complete the inflationary effect.
The following (mildly parodic) fictional dialogue may serve to illustrate:
This bus driver is always on time – such a ledge!
Remember the time she gave us chocolate?
Yeah, that was totally legendary.
Completely. Hey, is that Saint George you’re reading about?
Didn’t he, like, slay the dragon?
What a legend!
I mean like existentially.
February 18, 2013
Image from Anarchy Comics #1, 1978, edited by Jay Kinney.
For readers unfamiliar with the idiom: eat one’s words means retract what one has said, take back a statement, admit an error. So it’s similar to eating humble pie (whose origins are surprisingly visceral), and worth comparing with laughing on the other side of your face.
“You gotta break an omelet to make an egg”, of course, reverses the natural entropic order, playing with a proverb (“You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs”) to make a political point. If you’re interested in the comic’s history, here’s a recent interview with Kinney at BoingBoing.
February 5, 2013
The current issue of Words Without Borders has an interesting comic about language and identity by Taiwanese artist Li-Chin Lin, translated from French by Edward Gauvin.
Tongue-tied, excerpted (I think) from her début graphic novel Formose, vividly explores the politics of dialect and language, social attitudes towards their use, and the complications of squaring one’s sense of self with these conflicting pressures.
Li-Chin Lin is interviewed here about her work; the page is in French, so drop the text into Google Translate or similar if you want a rough version in English or another language.
October 18, 2012
As a child I used to draw things like animals and people using only the letters in their names. I would stretch and contort each word’s curves to evoke the shape of what it referred to. It’s a game I’m sure many have played. And I liked drawing faces that were also faces when you turned the page upside-down – like this matchbox set, but simpler.
So you can imagine the appeal ambigrams held. There’s an example above, or see Wikipedia for a basic introduction. I think I first encountered these shapes, also known as inversions, in Douglas Hofstadter’s books. They involve an artfully contrived symmetry whereby a word can be rotated, reflected or otherwise shifted but remains readable.
I recently came across the beautiful ambigram below: a perfectly symmetrical mirror alphabet from puzzle-designing wizard Scott Kim.
It’s immediately recognisable as the modern Latin alphabet, but the ingenious warping and blending required to make it symmetrical gives it a striking, quite exotic appearance. Ambigrams are “so purely visual,” Kim has said: “You can explain them in words, but it’s like describing a dance.”
The symmetrical alphabet is available as a poster, and you can see more of the artist’s ambigrams, many of them animated, on his page of inversions. The image is copyright © Scott Kim, scottkim.com, and is used with permission.