Emoticon generation specialist

December 4, 2015
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partially clips comic - emoticon generation specialist

‘Waiter in uniform’ comic by the excellent Partially Clips


An ampersand and a caret is: &^. I wonder what he did with them.

Book Review: The Speculative Grammarian Essential Guide to Linguistics

September 5, 2013

Every serious field of study deserves a satirical wing, and linguistics is blessed in this regard with Speculative Grammarian, a journal some say is now centuries old. SpecGram, as it’s known to fan and foe alike (and they often are alike), lately drew on its formidable archives to produce The Speculative Grammarian Essential Guide to Linguistics, a copy of which I received for review.

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The celestial aspirate of Mister Lem

March 8, 2013

Stanisław Lem, in The Star Diaries, has an amusing inversion of our custom on Earth of adding more and more letters and titles to our names as we gain academic and other distinctions.

From “The Thirteenth Voyage”:

My object, when I set out from Earth, was to reach an extremely remote planet of the Crab constellation, Fatamiasma, known throughout space as the birthplace of one of the most distinguished individuals in our Universe, Master Oh. This is not the real name of that illustrious sage, but they refer to him thus, for it is impossible otherwise to render his true appellation in any earthly language. Children born on Fatamiasma receive an enormous number of titles and distinctions as well as a name that is, by our standards, inordinately long.

The day Master Oh came into the world he was called Hridipidagnittusuoayomojorfnagrolliskipwikabeccopyxlbepurz. And duly dubbed Golden Buttress of Being, Doctor of Quintessential Benignity, Most Possibilistive Universatilitude, etc., etc. From year to year, as he studied and matured, the titles and syllables of his name were one by one removed, and since he gave evidence of uncommon abilities, by the thirty-third year of his life he was relieved of his last distinction, and two years later carried no title whatever, while his name was designated in the Fatamiasman alphabet by a single and – moreover – voiceless letter, signifying “celestial aspirate” – this is a kind of stifled gasp which one gives from a surfeit of awe and rapture.

Lem’s literature is as much philosophical excursion as it is storytelling (with plenty of playful asides, as above). He has a gift for both, and a wicked sense of humour – some chapters in The Star Diaries are like Borges having a Douglas Adams dream, as I remarked at the time.

He’s probably best known for Solaris, but it’s not one of the handful I’ve read so far, all of them brilliantly entertaining and consistently thought-provoking. It seems appropriate that Mister Lem’s own name is so short: not quite Master Oh’s stifled gasp of awe and rapture, but not a million light-years away either.


Edit: Speaking of aspiration and verbal invention, Passive-Aggressive Notes has a note this week from a 6-year-old girl to her mother with what appears to be a sigh of frustration: “hhhh”. I don’t think I’ve seen a sigh spelled so perfectly before.

Academy of English? Ain’t no sense in it.

July 21, 2011

This post comments critically on the Queen’s English Society (QES) and the Academy of Contemporary English formed under its auspices; it introduces two groups set up to oppose them; and it concludes with some general remarks. For context, you might want to read my cranky earlier post ‘The Queen’s English Society deplores your impurities‘.

Wikipedia has a few basic facts about the QES and its Academy. You probably know that Wikipedia is a portmanteau word blending wiki with encyclopedia. If you didn’t, I don’t recommend asking the Academy representatives, because they do not know what portmanteau words are:

And this, we are told, ‘is where the Academy is in its element’. Even if it hadn’t confused portmanteau words with auto-antonyms, its point would be just as senseless: neither construction is a ‘[reason] why English is being debased’. Though you could make the case that English is debased by hopelessly muddled definitions.

Behind the QES’s dubious claims to authority and to good judgement in English usage lies hopeless ignorance of how language works and an ignoble attitude to non-standard expression. My earlier post has many examples; this one has more.

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Saints, censors and satire

March 27, 2009

This post has little directly to do with the English language, except that it uses it, and that it’s about the freedom of expression. If you came for grammar and English usage, you will find some further down, or in your preferred category on the right-hand side.

Most Irish writers and artists — i.e. most of the country — are well aware of the state’s history of censorship, be it the banning of books, the cutting of films, or the more generalised self-censorship that accompanied our passage from paganism through earthy Christianity to a starker form of Catholicism. Lately the repressive spirit pounced on a couple of nude portraits of the Taoiseach (head of government) Brian Cowen, which were briefly and unofficially hung in the National Gallery and the Royal Hibernian Academy.  It is not my aim to recount the story, since it has been done well and exhaustively elsewhere; for background on the “Cowengate” (or “picturegate”) farce, you will find links at the end of this post, or go here if you use Twitter. However, I would like to draw the reader’s attention to some historical matters – because they interest me, and because I’m not on Twitter. [Edit: I am now.]

Saint Columbanus (540–615), an Irish missionary, wrote letters to popes in which he expressed devotion, offered constructive criticism, and made light-hearted jokes about the popes’ names. In How the Irish Saved Civilization, historian Thomas Cahill writes that “to Columbanus, the pope was one of the brothers, a father abbot worthy of respect, by all means — but also in need, like any man, of an occasional jab in the ribs.” According to Cahill, the popes did not deign to respond to Columbanus’s jabs. In the same era, the scribe who added Ireland’s early vernacular masterpiece Táin Bó Cúailnge to the Book of Leinster took the trouble to register his distaste – but he still wrote the epic down, and his personal feelings about it were but a footnote.

Skip to late March 2009, when the Irish Taoiseach received a jab in the ribs in the form of the aforementioned nude portraits. Rather than maintain an inscrutable silence, or express disapproval and carry on with more important matters, the government reacted so vigorously that the curious little incident quickly reached Father Ted levels of absurdity, and was reported as far afield as the New York Times and the China Daily. There was intimidation, a criminal investigation, confiscation of art, and a grovelling apology by the state broadcaster for daring to report the news. It is instructive to compare this attitude with that of the dutiful Christian scribes, who overcame their aesthetic qualms for the general good, and with Columbanus, whose saintliness accommodated a healthy irreverence for authority.

casablanca1In 2007 the Irish Times reported the popularity of Casablanca among most of the major political parties in Ireland — with the exceptions of Fianna Fail and the Green Party (both currently in government). I would not read too much into this, but it is worth considering that Casablanca was initially banned in Ireland, for political reasons, then cut for puritanical reasons; neither news of war nor implications of adultery were tolerated in neutral, prudish Ireland. A comedy called I Want a Divorce was renamed The Tragedy of Divorce. There’s a tragedy there all right, but it has nothing to do with divorce.

My beloved Ireland and its misguided moral guardians! Ireland, whose censors banned works by James Joyce, Frank O’Connor, George Bernard Shaw, Sean O’Casey, Austin Clarke, Brendan Behan, Sean O’Faolain, Kate O’Brien, Edna O’Brien, Oliver St John Gogarty, Walter Macken, John McGahern, and J P Donleavy, among others. Ireland, whose cultural nannies banned or cut films by Eisenstein, Fellini, Ford, Hitchcock, Bergman, Ophuls, Polanski, Welles, Antonioni, and Kubrick, among others. C. S. Lewis said that “those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.” More recently, John McGahern wrote that the Censorship Board was regarded as a joke and that the banned books worth reading “could easily be found”.

Just as easily found, nowadays, is evidence of public displeasure and disgust with the way Ireland is being run. Dissent and satire are democratic imperatives and will keep the government on the back foot for a while. But the best form of defence is attack, and who better to attack than a teacher who paints pictures? The repressive urge, which the government made sharply manifest, reveals deep insecurity about what other people are or are not capable of processing with good sense, judgement and intelligence — including the government’s behaviour.

cowen-roll1But whatever the government’s reasons for its actions, the nature of censorship has changed drastically. Nothing on the internet ever quite disappears, and sometimes a shush begets a shout. Efforts to clamp down on discomfiting material result not in frustrated acquiescence but in renewed assaults on the self-importance that lies behind knee-jerk censorial action. Already there are t-shirts, a photoshop extravaganza, and a forthcoming exhibition, to name just a few spin-offs in the immediate wake of the fiasco.

In short, the Irish online community had a field day. Political criticism and satire are in evident good health in Ireland. While the original paintings struck me as fond, if unflattering, some of the subsequent material, both visual and textual, has been merciless, even cruel — but with good reason. If Irish citizens stood back and indulged the government’s precious fragility, what would we swallow next? And if a pope can withstand the satire of a saint, what hope is there for a government that cannot endure a gentle caricature?

* * *

A small sample of related blog and media coverage: Eoin O’Dell, Suzy Byrne, Tuppenceworth, Bock, Damien Mulley, Alexia Golez, Twenty Major, Caricatures Ireland, Irish Times, The Tribune, The Guardian, The Times, the Ray D’Arcy Show (mp3), and the aggregated reports on IrishBlogs.ie.

Image sources: Columbanus; Casablanca; Cowen (with thanks to the artist).

A satirical interlude

December 17, 2008

From The Onion:

“My God, just listen to him spin that empty administrative rhetoric into flaxen strands of gold…”

Gobbledygook exerts a paradoxical pull on me: I become transfixed by its awfulness, torn between twitching discomfort and perverse appreciation for its awe-inspiring obfuscation. It is the Vogon poetry of the modern office environment (and beyond), except that in purporting to convey important information, it lacks the rousing charm of nonsense for the sake of nonsense.

When I encounter gobbledygook I itch to transmute it into meaningful, readable English. In the worst cases no such meaning exists, and parsing the text reveals only hints of sense in masses of gibberish; other times the alchemy succeeds, and a plain emphatic version of the writer’s intentions suddenly emerges from the jumble of jargon like the hidden image in an autostereogram.

Previously: Going forward into the future