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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Jiving with the Cheshire cat

November 19, 2015

I’ve a couple of new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. First, Does a jive jibe with a gibe? attempts to disentangle a knotty congregation of homophones and near-homophones (including gybe, not mentioned in the title), and to explain what lies behind their frequent confusion:

Another common use of the verb jibe is to indicate agreement: ‘if two things jibe, they agree or contain similar information’. Often followed by with, it’s synonymous with match or tally. If you’re familiar with this usage, you might say my description jibes with your understanding of it. Sometimes jive or gibe are used instead, but neither spelling is standard here.

The (mis)use of jive for jibe ‘agree, correspond’ is common, perhaps motivated by metaphor: the idea of two things jiving (i.e., swing-dancing) together is a coherent analogy for harmony. The strong phonetic likeness also contributes to the confusion, with just the similar-sounding bilabial /b/ and labiodental /v/ differentiating a minimal pair.


john tenniel cheshire cat grinning in alice's adventures in wonderlandNext is my post Why do we ‘grin like a Cheshire cat’?, on the obscure origins of this popular phrase. It continues my series for Macmillan on the language of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, a book the publisher introduced to the world 150 years ago:

That the phrase’s origin is unknown has led to some interesting speculation. Martin Gardner, in The Annotated Alice, notes two possibilities: that it derives from grinning lions painted on the signs of inns in Cheshire – where Carroll grew up – or that it comes from a tradition of Cheshire cheeses being moulded into the shape of grinning cats, or marked that way.

Graeme Donald’s Dictionary of Modern Phrase finds the latter hypothesis ‘suspect’ because of the ‘very crumbly texture’ of the cheese in question. He cites Eric Partridge’s suggestion that Cheshire here is ‘a corruption of cheeser’, but doesn’t think cats like cheese enough to make this etymology likely.

I note a couple of other possibilities and also briefly discuss the Cat’s mystique in Carroll’s story. Older posts can be read in my Macmillan Dictionary Blog archive.

He/she finds his/her pronouns a problem

November 3, 2015

kim newman - nightmare movies - horror on screen since the 1960sI’ve been stop-start-reading the revised edition of Kim Newman’s Nightmare Movies, a gift from my brother; it’s an encyclopaedic and thoroughly enjoyable account of Horror on Screen Since the 1960s, as the subtitle has it. (OK, OK, 1960’s.)

One chapter traces the development of the haunted house genre in film and literature, and upon reaching the landmark release of Rosemary’s Baby it offers an eye-catching usage:

There is no ghost, except the angry shade of Beethoven invoked by the unseen pianist’s stumbling attempts to get through Für Elise, but the Bramford [Rosemary’s apartment building] does have a Past. Ira Levin refined the parallel plot, a device that has been used in most subsequent haunted house films. While the protagonist is being overwhelmed by the supernatural forces clinging to his/her new home, he/she does a little detective work and pieces the place’s evil past together from newspaper morgues, friendly occultist know-alls, and ageing eyewitnesses.

This use of his/her . . . he/she I found a bit halting and self-conscious. It took me out of the text, and not simply because I attend closely to pronoun use. Instead of conveying the author’s intent discreetly, it’s orthographically conspicuous enough to be distracting. Especially because it’s repeated: one instance might sneak by, but two is a pattern that draws unwanted attention.

I’m going to rework the line in question a few times, so I’ll give each version a number. Here’s the original again:

1. While the protagonist is being overwhelmed by the supernatural forces clinging to his/her new home, he/she does a little detective work…

He/she and his/her are more equitable than generic he and his (which I see depressingly often), but they still give men precedence of position. S/he avoids this, but only by fragmenting she and leaving readers with something weird-looking and effectively unpronounceable. Simple reversals (she/he) are occasionally used, or the slash may be replaced by a conjunction: she or he, he or she.

But there’s another problem. All of these options implicitly adopt a gender binary that excludes people who do not identify as either he or she (see my post on Mx). Writing manuals and style guides commonly note that he/she is awkward or clunky, particularly when repeated, but they seldom acknowledge its politics. One of the reasons I support singular they is that it circumvents this restrictive paradigm.

In Newman’s text, however, simply replacing his/her and he/she with singular their and they could mislead readers into thinking that the new home is the (plural) supernatural forces’, not the (singular) protagonist’s:

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Book spine poem: Travelling shoes

October 30, 2015
[click to enlarge]

stan carey book spine poem - travelling shoes*

Travelling shoes

Heartsick, left for dead
The Italian girl
Alone in Berlin.
All God’s children need
Travelling shoes:
Travels in dreamland,
Other people’s shoes.


Thanks to the authors: Chelsea Cain, Nick Ward with Sinéad O’Brien, Iris Murdoch, Hans Fallada, Maya Angelou, Phil Patton, and Harriet Walter; and to Nina Katchadourian.

See the archive for older book spine poems, aka bookmashes, and let me know if you join in the game.

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 flitch of etymology

October 19, 2015

I was reading Claire Keegan’s short story collection Antarctica* when I came across a fairly uncommon word:

He talks about sheep and cattle and the weather and how this little country of ours is in a woeful state while Bridie sets the table, puts out the Chef sauce and the Colman’s mustard and cuts big, thick slices off a flitch of beef or boiled ham. I sit by the window and keep an eye on the sheep who stare, bewildered, from the car. Da eats everything in sight while I build a little tower of biscuits and lick the chocolate off and give the rest to the sheepdog under the table.

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Notes on language from Steve Martin

October 14, 2015

Yes, that Steve Martin. I just read Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life, his engaging account of his early years as a stand-up comedian and gag writer for TV, and I’d like to share a few short passages that relate to language.

On one of his endless trips around America as an aspiring freelance comic, Martin began taping his shows with a cassette recorder ‘in case I ad-libbed something wonderful’. This led to his abandoning a routine in which he drank a couple of glasses of wine, because when listening to the tape later he could hear himself slurring. He never drank alcohol before or during a show again.

He also made another significant change based on reviewing the tapes:

Texas-born and California-raised, I realized I was dropping my “ings” – runnin’, walkin’, and talkin’ – and I worked like Eliza Doolittle to elevate my speech. It was a struggle; at first I thought I sounded pretentious and unnatural. But I did it, though now and then I slip back into my natural way of speakin’.

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