A language so precise and secret

November 24, 2015

margaret atwood poems 1976-1986 virago book coverI recently read Margaret Atwood’s Poems 1976–1986, a collection published by Virago Press. While doing so I tweeted an excerpt on her birthday, before I knew it was her birthday: a happy synchronicity. Below are some lines that deal explicitly with language and words.

From ‘Four Small Elegies’:

A language is not words only,
it is the stories
that are told in it,
the stories that are never told.

This verse echoes something Muriel Rukeyser once wrote (‘The universe is made of stories, / not of atoms’), but with a lurch into loss. Atwood’s ‘Two-Headed Poems’ returns repeatedly to the subject of a language’s decline or supersession by another:

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Afterlives of words and birds

October 22, 2015

I have two new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Words change, and that’s OK looks at a new series by Macmillan on word use and language change, and concludes that – despite what language cranks would have you believe – etymology is not the boss of meaning:

This month Macmillan Dictionary introduced its Real Vocabulary series, which assesses word use based on the evidence of usage rather than myth, hearsay, and pet preference. In a video about awesome, for example, Scott Thornbury points to the Dictionary’s secondary meaning  for the word, which defines it as ‘extremely good’, labels it ‘informal’, and says it is ‘used mainly by young people’. This supplies enough information and context to understand the word’s recent extension, and is infinitely more helpful than complaining about it or rejecting it as wrong.


john tenniel engraving of dodo, alice's adventures in wonderland by lewis carrollIn The dodo is dead, long live the dodo, I reflect on dodo the word and dodo the bird, now sadly extinct but with an afterlife of sorts in literature (such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – a line from which gave this blog its name) and in expressions like dead as a dodo:

The dodo seems to have got its name from either Portuguese doudo ‘foolish, simple’ or Dutch dodoor ‘sluggard’; alternatively it may be onomatopoeic, mimicking the bird’s call (PDF). In any case, from the late 19thC the word was applied to people thought to be stupid or behaving stupidly: F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in a letter about someone who ‘had been a dodo’ about something. But it’s the phrase dead as a dodo that resonates most strongly nowadays, and serves also as a reminder of a unique creature now lost.

Older posts can be read at my Macmillan Dictionary archive.

A morsel of logic

September 21, 2015

At Macmillan Dictionary Blog I’ve been writing about etymology and Lewis Carroll.

Etymology bites back traces the connections between the words morsel, remorse, and mordant – all of which carry the sense of biting, to a more or less explicit degree:

[The] common word remorse, as you may now guess, literally means to bite back, from re- added to our Latin friend mordere. We might not be accustomed to thinking of remorse as a metaphor, but in a broad sense it is – like depend it tucks a physical idea into an abstract one. Remorse is the feeling of our conscience gnawing at us. There was also once a verb remord, meaning ‘feel remorse’, ‘afflict with remorse’, etc., but it is archaic and hasn’t been in popular use for centuries.

* * *

Language, logic, and Lewis Carroll begins a series of monthly posts celebrating the 150th anniversary of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, first published in 1865. It looks at the relative importance of logic in different types of English, and at the uses to which authors may put this variation:

Grammatical agreement is observed much more strictly in standard and formal varieties of English than in casual speech or non-standard dialects. Authors may exploit this to convey certain facts about a character or sociolinguistic context. . . .

Lewis Carroll did this too. In his short story ‘Eligible Apartments’ he uses non-standard dialogue liberally: ‘Here you has them on the premises’ (instead of have), ‘So we grows them ourselves’ (instead of grow), and ‘It do scratch, but not without you pulls its whiskers’ (do instead of does; pulls instead of pull).

Comments are welcome, and older articles can be seen in my Macmillan Dictionary Blog archive

From language to life

September 15, 2015

Find a way to make beauty necessary; find a way to make necessity beautiful. —Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces

anne michaels - fugitive pieces - book coverJust a quick post to praise Anne Michaels’ novel Fugitive Pieces, which I recommend without reservation. As a general reference point I might suggest Primo Levi, or Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation, but these are only approximate markers.

For a proper flavour of this extraordinary book, see her Guardian interview and the excerpts below, which I’ve chosen only because they’re language related; every page contains treasure of a different sort – on memory, loss, love, longing, pain, grace, and connection.

The narrator of part I, a Polish child hiding from Nazi forces in ‘a delirium of sleep and attention’, starving and terrified, remembers his sister, Bella, crying at the end of Jack London and Romain Rolland stories:

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The place for toilet euphemisms

August 27, 2015

Molly Keane’s exceptional and darkly comic novel Good Behaviour (1981) has a telling passage on euphemisms for toilet in upper-class Anglo-Irish society a century or so ago. The first paragraph below is not of immediate linguistic interest but supplies context for what follows and no little amusement in its own right.

The narrator, a memorably antisocial creation, reports on her brother’s visit to the hospital when they were both children:

molly keane - good behaviour - abacus book coverThey took Hubert off to Cork that same night, and he had an appendix and tubes and nearly died. I prayed night and day for his recovery and that he might get a reprieve from pain. Constantly with me was the thought of his black hair, peaked on his forehead, smooth on his head as if painted on an egg. As I cleaned out his budgies and his mice his eyes haunted my work – his eyes that never lit and sparkled as blue eyes should, as I knew mine would, if only they were big and blue.

When at last he came home he was a very great disappointment to me. The nuns in the nursing home had spoiled him so that he was really unbearably demanding, sending me in all directions and inventing tasks for me while he lay on a chaise longue under the cedar tree with lemonade constantly at his elbow. In those days thrombosis had not been heard of, and invalids, young and old, were allowed a comfortable rest after their operations. Hubert even had a po in the bushes “in case.” Another thing these kind nuns had done was to teach him to say “the toilet” when he meant the po or the lavatory, which was a vulgarity no one seemed able to straighten out. If circumstances forced Mrs. Brock to mention it she called it the Place. “Have you been to the Place, dear?” or “Have you been?” Or else “Hubert, shouldn’t you run along the passage?” when Hubert was fidgeting frighteningly from foot to foot.

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Sharp enough to shave a mouse asleep

August 25, 2015

Laura Huxley’s essay ‘Love and Work’ (1962), a transcript and description of a guided psychedelic session she undertook with her husband, Aldous (he took psilocybin, she attended), contains an amusing and unusual expression I’ve encountered in an Irish context but have never heard spoken in person.

Towards the end of the session, Huxley is recalling the woodwork activity he practised as a boy. His school had a carpentry room which the children attended for 2–3 hours of official class time a week. They could also spend free time there, making whatever they wanted – a sledge, a bookcase, a box – and indeed were encouraged to do so.

Laura Huxley records Aldous saying the following:

There was this excellent man who did all the odd jobs around the school, but who was an old-time artisan who got through all this himself. But he was a very shrewd man: it was a pleasure to be with him. And he could talk; and he had delightful phrases – like when he sharpened a tool he said, ‘Now it is sharp enough to cut off a dead mouse’s whiskers without its waking up.’ But all that is gone now. But what shouldn’t have gone is the perfectly sensible thing of providing boys with something to do.

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Book spine poem: Broken words spoken here

August 18, 2015

New books mean a new book spine poem, aka bookmash. This one has a language theme.

[Click to enlarge]


stan carey - book spine poem - broken words spoken here

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