Buffaloed by the verb buffalo

April 23, 2018

On a recent mini-binge of James M. Cain novels, I finished a 5-in-1 set from Picador: two I’d read years ago – The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity – and three others I soon raced through: Serenade, Mildred Pierce, and The Butterfly.

Cover image of "The Five Great Novels of James M Cain", published by Picador. Cover is dominated by a black and white photo of a man lying on the ground, his hat displaced; he appears to have been shotCain, in a preface to The Butterfly, reacts to some criticisms of his work, such as that he took his style from Hammett (‘I have read less than twenty pages of Mr Dashiell Hammett in my whole life’).* A blurb from the NYRB hints at his formidable legacy: ‘It is no accident that movies based on three of them helped to define the genre known as film noir: or that Camus used Postman as his model for L’Étranger.’

But the purpose of this post is to examine the vivid verb used, and mentioned, in the title. About midway through The Butterfly, a character’s unexpected appearance prompts the following exchange:

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Compulsive pedantry

March 28, 2018

When someone corrects a family member’s use of English, it usually (I imagine) follows the lines of age and authority: a parent correcting a child, say. But the dynamic is sometimes reversed and can be depicted thus in fiction: Michael Connelly, for example, has Harry Bosch’s daughter criticise the detective’s speech.

A more elaborate case plays out in Ali Smith’s novel How to Be Both (whose conversation without a common language I recently shared). The protagonist in one half of the novel, a teenage girl named George who is grieving for her late mother, compulsively corrects people’s usage – sometimes vocally, sometimes silently.

We notice the habit in the story’s first scene, a flashback. George is travelling in the car with her mother, and her little brother is asleep in the back. She is looking up the lyrics to ‘Let’s Twist Again’, and they annoy her in multiple ways. (Smith doesn’t use quotation marks or other punctuation to mark speech.)

The words are pretty bad. Let’s twist again like we did last summer. Let’s twist again like we did last year. Then there’s a really bad rhyme, a rhyme that isn’t, properly speaking, even a rhyme.

Do you remember when

Things were really hummin’.

Hummin’ doesn’t rhyme with summer, the line doesn’t end in a question mark, and is it meant to mean, literally, do you remember that time when things smelt really bad?

Then Let’s twist again, twisting time is here. Or, as all the sites say, twistin’ time.

At least they’ve used an apostrophe, the George from before her mother died says.

I do not give a fuck about whether some site on the internet attends to grammatical correctness, the George from after says.

As the story develops, seemingly trivial moments like this take on ever more significance. Since her mother died, George has been unable to enjoy music, so she’s seeking a way back in: through music her mother loved. She keeps replaying conversations they had, and the George ‘from before’ and ‘from after’ show shifts in her feelings about all sorts of things, including English usage.

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Transcending mutual unintelligibility

March 25, 2018

A scene in Ali Smith’s wonderful novel How to Be Both (Hamish Hamilton, 2014) depicts a curious but common experience: people with no shared language having a conversation. Given enough time and repeated encounters, such parties may, of necessity, create a pidgin. But for one-off exchanges it’s a different story.

Like the comic Saga, whose use of untranslated Esperanto I wrote about recently, How to Be Both switches to Italian and lets the reader fend for themself. But even if, like the story’s main characters, you don’t know the language, some words and names will be familiar or guessable.

The protagonist, George, a teenage girl, is visiting a gallery in northern Italy with her young brother, Henry, and their mother:

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Irishisms in City of Bohane

March 11, 2018

He was back among the city’s voices, and it was the rhythm of them that slowed the rush of his thoughts. —Kevin Barry, City of Bohane

Kevin Barry’s award-winning first novel City of Bohane (Jonathan Cape, 2011) is an extravagant experiment in language, rich in Irish English slang and vernacular. It may take non-Irish readers a little while to tune in to its sounds and rhythms, but the rewards are considerable.

This post annotates a few items of linguistic interest in the book.

Divil a bit stirred in the Trace that he didn’t know about, nor across the Smoketown footbridge.

Divil (rhymes with civil) is a common pronunciation of devil in colloquial Irish English. The idiom divil a bit has various emphatic negative meanings: ‘not at all’, ‘none at all’, and in Barry’s line, ‘nothing at all’.

Divil is such a frequent feature of traditional Irish English that P.W. Joyce, in English As We Speak It In Ireland, dedicated an entire chapter to ‘the devil and his territory’.

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Anyhow, a hyphen

February 21, 2018

This week I took Alan Furst’s Red Gold (HarperCollins, 1999) off the shelf and am very glad I did. Set in German-occupied France in the early 1940s, it’s an absorbing, rambling spy story full of atmosphere, wry humour, lean characterisation, and suspense.

The protagonist, Casson, is a former film producer scraping by in Paris, hiding from the Gestapo. He becomes a reluctant go-between for various entities in the resistance, and in the following passage has just been told the identity of a contact he hopes to make:

Casson knew him, had sat across from him at a dinner party back in the old days. After that, a handshake two or three times at some grande affaire. Casson hated him. Short and wide, preposterously fat, with thick glasses and tight, curly hair. He floated on waves of amour propre – boundless conceit, in measures rare even in France. He described himself as an ethnologist, no, there was more to it than that, it was better than that. Socio-ethnologist? Psycho-ethnologist? Anyhow, a hyphen. Now he remembered – gods, something about gods. He’d written a book about them.

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Look at the cut of this Irish expression

February 18, 2018

Growing up in rural Ireland, I regularly heard – and still occasionally hear – some version of the phrase the cut of someone. It’s an informal idiom that means the state or appearance of someone and usually incorporates criticism or amusement or both. Here’s an example I just read in Deirdre Madden’s novel Nothing Is Black:

‘Look at the cut of me!’ Claire’s mother had said the last time she’d visited her. She’d been sitting by a mirror, combing out her faded hair. ‘I’m as grey as a badger. How come I look so old, yet I feel no different to what I was forty years ago? Where’s the sense in that?’ She’d started to laugh …

In Irish literature the expression is generally found in dialogue or in vernacular narrative. Madden’s example is typical in a few ways: it’s light-hearted, colloquial, and deprecatory – in this case self-deprecatory. In a similar vein, the next two examples involve mirrors. Marian Keyes, Anybody Out There:

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Hyphenating my little ass-car

January 16, 2018

There’s an xkcd cartoon popular among copy-editors because it combines fussiness over hyphens with gently risqué humour:

Language Log, meeting language lovers’ most niche desires and then some, has a bibliography of suffixal –ass as an intensive modifier. In this vein, you’d expect the hyphen in little ass car to go between the first two words unless you were being seedy, or xkcdy. But there’s an exception, and it’s not rude at all.

Irish author Pádraic Ó Conaire, in his short story collection Field and Fair (Mercier Press, 1966; tr. Cormac Breathnach), refers several times to his ass-car, by which he means his donkey and cart. One story, about how the author came to befriend the donkey, is titled ‘My Little Black Ass’. It’s hard to read that now and not find alternative meanings rubbing up against the intended one.

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