Book spine poem: Secret Place

August 15, 2019

Here’s a new book spine poem (aka bookmash). For the uninitiated: This is a game where you make a visual poem from the spines of books on your shelf.

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Secret Place

Wild flowers, the wild places,
The birds of the innocent wood –
The secret place on the black hill,
Half a life still life,
The living mountain
Changing my mind.

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Book review: Semicolon, by Cecelia Watson

August 12, 2019

Most books about punctuation aim to prescribe the rules for its use. Few take a single mark as their subject and eschew any such aim. The semicolon, adored and avoided in equal measure, is used with joy, anxiety, flair, and deep uncertainty. But where did it come from? Why is it perceived as difficult? And how should you use it anyway?

Cecelia Watson’s welcome biography Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark (Ecco, 2019) sets out to examine these questions, in some cases not so much answering them as subverting their assumptions. As a historian, writing teacher, and philosopher of science, she is well equipped to tackle this thorny field.

Watson is also, significantly, a reformed stickler who outgrew her annoyance at supposed lapses in approved usage. Semicolon spends little time on rules. What may seem a strange omission makes perfect sense as Watson instead proceeds to show how diversely those rules have been advanced by different authorities at different times – and how authors have continually disregarded them in the service of style.

This variability serves as a prism through which Watson explores the subtleties of English prose as reflected in the semicolon, ‘charting its transformation from a mark designed to create clarity to a mark destined to create confusion’. The semicolon, she writes,

is a place where our anxieties and our aspirations about language, class, and education are concentrated, so that in this small mark big ideas are distilled down to a few winking drops of ink.

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Grey areas in usage and etymology

July 25, 2019

It’s time for an update on my posts at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, where I write a monthly column on language.

First up is A quick dive into ‘dived’ vs ‘dove’ – which is right, or does it depend on where you are? I outline the history and the growing acceptability of dove:

Dove is a relative newcomer, probably formed by analogy with drivedrove or strive–strove. The OED’s first citation is from 1855, in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha: ‘Straight into the river Kwasind Plunged as if he were an otter, Dove as if he were a beaver.’ In later editions Dove became Dived, perhaps under editorial influence.

Is ‘alright’ all right? looks at a common variant spelling but one that usage authorities disagree strongly about:

Alright is not wrong, but many people think it is, so writers are often mindful of where and whether to use it. Editors and publishers will keep ‘fixing’ it until it’s more widely accepted, especially in literary and other elevated contexts. But alright will struggle to gain acceptability until it appears more in those same contexts – a catch-22.

In Where does ‘OK’ come from? I trace the curious etymology of one of the most popular words in the world:

There have been so many suggestions and hypotheses that there’s a lengthy Wikipedia page devoted to all the possibilities. And while each origin story has had its supporters, they all lack persuasive evidence – except one, the case for which was laid out in a series of articles in the 1960s by the American etymologist Allen Walker Read. He showed that OK was based on a running joke among journalists in Boston in the 19th century.

For the 70th anniversary of the publication of 1984, I considered the book’s linguistic legacy in Orwell and the English Language:

That legacy includes compound words and phrases that are now seen sometimes in general usage, among them newspeak, doublethink, thoughtcrime, doubleplusgood (‘excellent’), and doubleplusungood (‘terrible’). The familiar phrases Big Brother and Room 101, as well as entering the common vocabulary, have also become the names of popular TV shows. Other terms, such as thought police, were not invented by Orwell but were popularized by his book.

Finally, Simple in the correct sense of the word shows how language use is often far from simple, despite what pedants may claim or wish:

Over the centuries, simple has meant ‘humble and unpretentious’, ‘unsophisticated’, ‘undistinguished in office or rank’, ‘small and insignificant’, ‘bare’, ‘wretched and pitiful’, ‘lacking knowledge or learning’, ‘foolish or stupid’, ‘not complex in structure’, ‘easily done or understood’, and so on. Some of these senses shade into one another, so it’s not always obvious which one is intended.


‘The most coveted and desirable book in the world’

April 10, 2019

Oliver Sacks is one of my favourite science writers, for many reasons: the remarkable lives he reports, his insight and empathy in doing so, his unabashed honesty, his love for the creative arts. He also excels at conveying technical ideas and complicated phenomena in plain language without compromising their complexity.

Sacks has a flair for the right word, the telling metaphor, the poetic flourish that impresses his stories’ truth. He doesn’t rely on jargon but will use it when appropriate. Though his breadth of vocabulary and command of registers are impressive, they never feel forced or flashy. This is someone whose love of words is obvious in their prose – you might think this would be automatic with authors, but it’s not.

Recently, after reading Sacks’s book The Mind’s Eye, I visited his YouTube channel to catch up on any supplemental material, and ended up watching all the videos (there aren’t many, and they’re short). In one, Sacks reads an anecdote from his autobiography, about his time at the University of Oxford, which chimes nicely with his logophilia:

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Sequoyah’s syllabary for the Cherokee language

April 2, 2019

Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel has an engrossing chapter on the evolution of writing as a communication technology. It includes a brief account of the development of a syllabary – a set of written characters that represent syllables – for the Cherokee language. The syllabary looks like this:

Original Cherokee syllabary, via Wikipedia

Some of the signs (or ‘syllabograms’) will look familiar, others like variations of familiar shapes. But any similarity to the Roman, Greek, and Hebrew alphabets is misleading. For example, in a nice demonstration of the arbitrariness of the sign, the first three, R, D, W, encode the sounds e, a, la. So what’s going on?

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Book spine poem: When the Lights Go Down

March 20, 2019

I almost forgot how much fun it is to make book spine poems. My last one was about a year ago (and led to an interview at the OED), so it’s about time I did another. This one tells a miniature story.

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When the Lights Go Down

Stranger on a train, heading inland,

Civilwarland in bad decline.

Autumn-dark voyage,

The light of evening,

The signal and the noise.

One shot without conscience

when the lights go down:

Death in a white tie, a brilliant void.

Reader, I murdered him.

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A vertical stack of books, with their spines facing the viewer and forming a found poem

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An odd word from Ivy Compton-Burnett

November 10, 2018

Filmmaker John Waters, in his memoir of sorts Role Models, writes that he has all of Ivy Compton-Burnett’s novels but has kept one unread – because when he reads it ‘there will be no more Ivy Compton-Burnett for me and I will probably have to die myself’.

When I read this a few years ago, I wasn’t familiar with the ‘adorably sour’ Compton-Burnett, but Waters painted a picture of her as fiercely exacting about words:

Front cover of 'A House and Its Head', NYRB Classics edition: on a close-up of an off-white door is a blue near-square with the book's title and author's name in yellow and ight blueAccording to the great biography Ivy, by Hilary Spurling, an old friend came to visit Ivy and she woke from a catnap and snapped, “I’m not tired, I’m sleepy. They are different things. And I’m surprised that you should say tired when you mean sleepy.” That Ivy! She was a real laff-riot.

Now, having read A House and Its Head recently, I know what Waters meant. It’s a vicious black comedy about a wealthy family in Victorian England infighting mercilessly over power. It is written almost entirely in dialogue. Slight spoilers follow.

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