How to accept language change, with David Cronenberg

June 24, 2022

Language change is something I watch closely, both as a copy-editor and as someone broadly interested in how we communicate. I read usage dictionaries for fun; I also read a lot of fiction, and sometimes, as a treat, it throws up explicit commentary on shifts or variation in usage.*

This happened most recently in Consumed (Scribner, 2014) by David Cronenberg (whose thoughts on language invention I covered earlier this year). Nathan, a young photojournalist, is visiting Roiphe, an elderly doctor, who calls Nathan ‘son’ just before the passage below, emphasizing the generational gap. They’re sitting in Roiphe’s kitchen:

“Want some ice water? Maybe coffee? Anything?”

“No, thanks. I’m good.”

“ ‘I’m good’ is funny. Sounds funny to me. We never used to say that. We’d say ‘I’m fine. I’m all right.’ But they do say ‘I’m good’ these days. So what are we looking at here?”

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One did not talk nonsense to horses: Notes on Molly Keane by her daughter Sally Phipps

May 27, 2022

When the Irish author Molly Keane (1904–1996) suggested to her daughter Sally Phipps that she write Keane’s biography, she told her: ‘I trust you completely; the only thing I’m afraid of is that you won’t be nasty enough.’

Book cover shows a black and white portrait photo of Molly Keane as a young woman, with title ('Molly Keane: A Life') and author's name, Sally Phipps, below it, along with a blurb from Diana Athill: 'Marvellous'.The result of that proposal, Molly Keane: A Life (Virago, 2017), is an excellent account I can recommend to anyone who enjoys Keane’s work. It contains several passages and items of linguistic note, which – this being a blog about language – may be of passing interest also to those who have not read her.

Keane wrote her first dozen or so novels as ‘M. J. Farrell’. The name came to her fortuitously:

When returning from hunting one evening she saw the name M. J. Farrell over a pub doorway and she took it as a pseudonym. Secrecy was important to her as she thought no one would dance with her in the horsey society in which she moved if it was known she was a writer.

The seriousness of ‘horsey society’ extended to the horses themselves:

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Wordable awareness

April 7, 2022

I came across an interesting word in Don DeLillo’s novel Falling Man (Picador, 2007). It appears in the middle of a conversation between an estranged couple, here discussing their son:

‘We talked about it,’ Keith said. ‘But only once.’
‘What did he say?’
‘Not much. And neither did I.’
‘They’re searching the skies.’
‘That’s right,’ he said.
She knew there was something she’d wanted to say all along and it finally seeped into wordable awareness.
‘Has he said anything about this man Bill Lawton?
‘Just once. He wasn’t supposed to tell anyone.’
‘Their mother mentioned this name. I keep forgetting to tell you. First I forget the name. I forget the easy names. Then, when I remember, you’re never around to tell.’

Seeped into wordable awareness is a lovely phrase, and wordable is a curiously rare word, given its straightforward morphology and transparent meaning. It has virtually no presence in large language corpora:

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Joyce County by Ray Burke

February 20, 2022

It was a hundred years ago, in 1922, that James Joyce’s Ulysses was first published in Paris. Joyce famously set the novel over the course of a day in Dublin; his connections with Galway, a smaller city on the opposite side of Ireland, are less well known but intriguing in their own right.

Those connections are mainly a result of Joyce’s lifelong relationship with Nora Barnacle. Though he visited Galway just twice, Joyce’s exploration of it continued vicariously through Nora as they settled and resettled in cities around Europe. Anyone who has read ‘The Dead’ will appreciate the richness and resonance of that exploration. But Joyce also wrote about Galway in poetry and in articles for a Trieste newspaper, for example.

Cover and spine of 'Joyce County: Galway and James Joyce' by Ray Burke. Cover is mainly white, with line drawings of Nora Barnacle, James Joyce, and Connemara mountains in the background. The spine is light green, and the border of the cover is green fading into purple. The O in 'Joyce' and 'County' are linked and so appear like Joyce's glasses. At the bottom are the publisher's name, Artisan House, and the text 'Foreword by Michael D. Higgins, President of Ireland'.Delving into this relationship between writer and place is Ray Burke in his book Joyce County: Galway and James Joyce, recently published in a beautiful revised edition by Connemara-based Artisan House. Long-time readers of this blog will be aware of my interest in Joyce’s writing, and I’m delighted to have worked as copy-editor on this project.

Joyce County, first published in 2016 by Currach Press, now reappears with original illustrations by Raymond Murphy and Joe Boske and around 10,000 words of additional text, the result of ongoing research in the intervening years. From the new foreword by Michael D. Higgins, president of Ireland (and himself a poet and scholar):

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How well read should editors be?

October 13, 2021

Asked about their work, experienced copy-editors point to the importance of reading – and reading broadly. It’s well-founded advice. Editors tend to be avid readers, but with biases for and against certain types of books, such as we all have. And any budding editor who isn’t a voracious reader might consider that lack of appetite a red flag.

But just how does diverse and eclectic reading help us edit? Are there books, or types of books, that are essential reading for editors? And what of editors who forgo fiction and would not dream of reading anything ‘unrealistic’ or formally experimental: Are they missing out, even if they edit only non-fiction?

I was invited to explore these questions for the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP, formerly the SfEP), which has now made my essay freely available: How well read should editors be? In it I write:

Broad reading opens us up to diverse world views, the same way that talking with different kinds of people does, and this informs our work. More directly, it familiarises us with lesser-known words and their habitats and collocations. It trains the ear on different forms of authorial rhythm, narrative, and humour. It accustoms us to different writing styles and devices, metaphors and clichés, norms and lexicons. Reading from different eras and dialects educates us on the inexorable drift of idiom.

The head for my essay, with the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading logo (blue circle, white initialism) in the top right. Under the heading 'Focus', for focus paper, is the essay title ('How well read should editors be?') followed by my name.

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Book review: Memory Speaks: On Losing and Reclaiming Language and Self, by Julie Sedivy

September 7, 2021

It’s a truism that language is integral to identity. So when our relationship with it changes, complications quickly accrue: Do we become someone different in another tongue? Is that all down to culture and context, or is there something inherent in a language that affects who we feel ourselves to be? And what happens when we start our lives speaking one language but then switch to another?

These are among the questions explored, with heart and rigour, in Julie Sedivy’s new book, Memory Speaks: On Losing and Reclaiming Language and Self (available October 2021 from Harvard University Press, who sent me a copy). Sedivy was born in the former Czechoslovakia and spoke only Czech until the age of two. At that point her family left the country, then the continent, and her linguistic environment was transformed.

Book cover has a colourful design on a black background, with the author's name and book subtitle in white script around the perimeter. Near the top, the word 'memory' appears in all caps, each letter a different colour: green, orange, blue, red, light green, yellow. A thick, squiggly, coloured line drops from each letter into a broad tangle in the centre, before disaggregating into the word 'speaks' (again, all caps, different colours) at the bottom.As a child in Canada, Sedivy was suddenly surrounded by English, heard it animate her new friends and role models, and felt compelled to adopt it. English ‘elbowed its predecessors aside’ and became the family language: ‘What could my parents do? They were outnumbered. Czech began its slow retreat from our daily life’. The consequences were not yet apparent to her; ‘the price of assimilation was invisible’.

Years later, after losing her father, Sedivy came to realize ‘how much I also mourned the silencing of Czech in my life’. Her Czech heritage had come to feel like a ‘vestigial organ’. She had lost access to the ‘stories and songs that articulate the values and norms you’ve absorbed without knowing they live in your cells’. She wrote Memory Speaks as part of an effort to ameliorate and understand that loss, exploring

why a language can wither in a person’s mind once it has taken root, what this decline looks like, and how the waning of language can take on a magnitude that spreads beyond personal pain to collective crisis.

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Book spine poem: Touching the Precipice

August 9, 2021

For the day that’s in it, a new book spine poem. Bit gloomy, this one.

*

Touching the Precipice

Zero, zero, zero wild flowers,
The insect societies
Collapse on your doorstep –
Mind and nature
Touching the precipice.

*

A stack of books before a white background, with the spines of the books facing out and forming a colourful visual poem.

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