The ‘heighth’ of embarrassment

August 17, 2016

Cynthia Heimel’s entertaining collection of short articles If You Leave Me, Can I Come Too? has a funny piece on mispronouncing a word – something we can all probably relate to. In this case it’s a common word, the speaker discovers the ‘mistake’ relatively late in life, and, as we’ll see, it’s not really a mistake at all.

The piece is presented as a letter to an agony aunt, originally published, I think, in Heimel’s column for The Village Voice:

Dear Problem Lady:

All my life I’ve said “heighth.” I thought that’s what you said. Then today my friend said to me, “It’s ‘height,’ isn’t it? At least I think so.”

“Oh. Yeah, I guess it is, now that I think about it,” I said casually.

“I thought so,” she said.

I wanted to kill myself.

She knew damned well it was “height,” and she finally couldn’t stand it anymore.

I see the word clearly in my mind and it sure doesn’t have an h at the end of it. I’ve been obsessing for ten hours now. Forty-two years, I’ve said “heighth.” And I’m a horse trainer, can you guess how many times I’ve said “heighth” in my career? I’m so mortified I think I should go up to everyone I know and say, “Look, I know it’s really height, okay? I’m not stupid or anything.”

But then they’d think I was stupid and insane.

Should I just find a way to inject “height” into every conversation I have for the rest of my life?

Abby

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Book review: Abby Kaplan: ‘Women Talk More than Men: And Other Myths about Language Explained’

August 14, 2016

Humans are highly prone to cognitive bias. We habitually make bad judgements and draw unreasonable inferences from the available facts. These tendencies lead to many myths that persist in popular culture, and our beliefs about language show the power, prevalence, and persistence of such myths.

We may believe, for instance, that dialects are substandard English, or that texting harms teenagers’ literacy, or that women talk more than men. This last myth gives the name to an excellent new book of popular linguistics by Abby Kaplan, a linguistics professor at University of Utah: Women Talk More than Men: And Other Myths about Language Explained. Cambridge University Press kindly sent me a copy for review.

The book has 11 chapters, one myth per chapter. Each is structured logically, like a textbook, starting with an overview of popular ideas about a topic, comparing them with what linguists have found, and finishing with a conclusion, summary, bibliography, and so on. The bulk comprises a careful case study aiming to resolve a key question: Can animals talk to us? Are some languages more beautiful than others?

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Siblings with identical names

August 4, 2016

I don’t know a family personally that has siblings with identical names. But I know of some anecdotally, and the phenomenon occasionally appears in the news or discussion forums for one reason or another. George Foreman famously has five sons named George (‘so they would always have something in common’). In my culture it’s unusual, but it happens.

Toni Morrison treats this familial anomaly with comedy and flair, albeit with non-biological siblings, in her acclaimed novel Sula (1973). In Medallion, Ohio, in 1921, when Sula is eleven years old, her grandmother Eva – ‘operating on a private scheme of preference and prejudice’ – takes in three boys and disregards their given names:

They came with woollen caps and names given to them by their mothers, or grandmothers, or somebody’s best friend. Eva snatched the caps off their heads and ignored their names. She looked at the first child closely, his wrists, the shape of his head and the temperament that showed in his eyes and said, ‘Well. Look at Dewey. My my mymymy.’ When later that same year she sent for a child who kept falling down off the porch across the street, she said the same thing. Somebody said, ‘But, Miss Eva, you calls the other one Dewey.’

toni morrison sula book cover triad granada owen wood‘So? This here’s another one.’

When the third one was brought and Eva said ‘Dewey’ again, everybody thought she had simply run out of names or that her faculties had finally softened.

‘How is anybody going to tell them apart?’ Hannah asked her.

‘What you need to tell them apart for? They’s all deweys.’

It’s as if Dewey had gone beyond the conventional function of a name (if it ever really had it, here) and become the word for a certain category of people. The first Dewey is a dewey, the second is ‘another one’, and by the third even Morrison is lowercasing them on Eva’s behalf.

And yet:

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Pelecanos: the words, the rhythms, the slang

July 28, 2016

I’m slowly catching up on the back catalogue of George Pelecanos, who has written about 20 crime fiction novels (and also wrote for The Wire). Recently I read Hell to Pay (2002), which contains several items of linguistic or metalinguistic interest.

The book is one of a handful by Pelecanos that centre on private detectives Derek Strange and Terry Quinn, the first black, the second white, the two ex-cops.

Terry Quinn goes looking for information from sex workers. He bums a cigarette as a way into conversation, but being a non-smoker he has nothing to light it with. Then he encounters Stella, a ‘pale’ girl ‘maybe knocking on the door of seventeen’:

She sat down without invitation. He handed her the cigarette.

‘You got a light?’

‘Sorry.’

‘You need a new rap,’ she said, rooting through her shoulder bag for a match. Finding a book, she struck a flame and put fire to the cigarette. ‘The one you got is lame.’

‘You think so?’

‘You be hittin’ those girls up for a smoke, you don’t ask ’em for a light, you don’t even have a match your own self?’

Quinn took in the girl’s words, the rhythms, the dropping of the g’s, the slang. Like that of most white girls selling it on the street, her speech was an affectation, a strange in-and-out blend of Southern cracker and city black girl.

‘Pretty stupid, huh?’

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Book review: But Can I Start a Sentence with “But”?

July 20, 2016

Editors are necessarily a fussy lot. We hunt typos, errant commas, and assorted orthographical aberrations and inconsistencies with the industry and pleasure of a bumblebee in a high-summer meadow. And if we’re any good at it, we consult authorities – often. Because we know (oh, how we know) what assumption is the mother of.

For academic writers and editors, the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) is one of the biggest and best authorities, especially for US English. Even here in Ireland, I check CMOS often and with great regard. (After years of frequent use, editors become intimately familiar with style guides: our feelings for them are not always friendly.)

The team behind CMOS run a monthly Q&A for subs, proofreaders, writers and the stylistically uncertain. Many queries can be resolved by reference to the relevant section in CMOS, though at 1026 pages it can take some digging, while others are more esoteric puzzles that offer no obvious solution. The editors’ answers are clear and helpful, as you’d expect, but they’re also sometimes… sassy. Snarky, even.

And now there’s a book, But Can I Start a Sentence with “But”?, a selection from the Q&A. (Its publishers, University of Chicago Press, kindly sent me a complimentary copy.) The foreword is by Carol Fisher Saller, who is responsible for many of the As in the Q&A and whose book The Subversive Copy Editor, 2nd edition, I reviewed recently.

but can i start a sentence with but - chicago style q&a book coverSaller and her colleagues are a fount of level-headed sense, and it’s manifest throughout this short book. On the very first page we read: ‘In style matters, there are often competing options, all acceptable.’ This, as you may imagine, is music to my ears. Page 2: ‘When consistency gets silly, you can rebel.’

These are solid maxims of the editing trade, yet they are unknown to some professionals who assume there is always a Right Way and who sacrifice sense and compromise clarity to avoid deviating from a rule, however trivial. So it’s reassuring and constructive to see editorial flexibility upheld and indeed stressed by so august an arbiter.

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Book spine poem: The Accidental Grammar

July 15, 2016

Every so often I make a poem by stacking books on top of one another so their titles line up felicitously. I call them book spine poems, or bookmashes for short. Here’s a new one.

*

The Accidental Grammar

Voices in stone
breaking the rock:
the accidental grammar,
the loom of language,
the awakening of intelligence,
the mind’s eye reborn –
Renegade presence,
gifts of unknown things.

*

stan carey book spine poem - the accidental grammar

 

Some of these are recent additions to the bookshelf; a few are old favourites. There’s a strong bias towards non-fiction here, with Ali Smith’s the only novel. In 2013 I found a close ratio of fiction to non-fiction in my bookmashes, but I’ll have to review the figures, maybe when I’ve done 40 or 50 (we’re at 37 now).

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Truly, funly, tilly: language notes in Dark Places

July 5, 2016

After reading Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn I blogged briefly about its references to grammar; this post does likewise for her previous book, Dark Places (2009) though the items concern spelling and punctuation more than grammar this time. Slight spoilers follow.

The narrator, Libby Day, as a young girl survived her family being murdered. For most of her adult life she has been living on the money sent to her by donors via her banker, Jim Jeffreys, who:

used to hand me bulging shoe boxes full of mail, most of them letter with checks inside. I’d sign the check over to him, and then the donor would receive a form letter in my blocky handwriting. “Thank you for your donation. It is people like you who let me look forward to a brighter future. Your truly, Libby Day.” It really did say “your” truly, a misspelling that Jim Jeffreys thought people would find poignant.

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