Linguistic contagion and detox

February 14, 2018

Sludge: the word’s connotations range from unsavoury to downright toxic, radioactive. But we produce a huge amount of it (multiple shit-tons, you might say), and we have to deal with that. And so we resort to code, euphemism, and other linguistic tricks.

Portobello UK cover of Rose George's book "The Big Necessity: Adventures in the World of Human Waste". The design is minimalist, dominated by male and female icons like those used to indicate public toilets‘When sewage is cleaned and treated,’ writes Rose George in The Big Necessity: Adventures in the World of Human Waste, ‘the dirt that is collected and removed is called sludge, except in the US, where it’s called biosolids by some people and poison by others.’ George devotes a chapter of her superb book to the nature of this ‘blandly named product’ and the bitter controversy over its use on land.

The Big Necessity, dubbed a ‘tour de feces’ by Nancy Friedman, lists five options for disposing of sludge: landfill, incineration, gasification (these three are expensive), ocean dumping (illegal), and land application. ‘It was not a difficult choice,’ George writes, and for the fifth option there was precedent:

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Occupying metaphor: the reappropriation of slurs

March 9, 2015

Marina Warner, in her book Managing Monsters: Six Myths of Our Time (essentially her 1994 Reith Lectures in book form), has a note on the practice of reclaiming slurs and insults, often called reappropriation:

Moving in to occupy the metaphorical objects of derision and fear has become a popular strategy. Sometimes this takes the form of ironical co-opting of a jibe, or even an insult – as in the open defiance of the black rock group called Niggers With Attitude, or the ironic names of women’s enterprises, like the famous publishers, Virago. In Zagreb, five writers were recently denounced as dangerous women in the Croatian nationalist press: the targets immediately accepted the label, and their supporters now wear badges proclaiming them ‘Opasna Žena’ – a dangerous woman. This is a form of well proven magic, uttering a curse in order to undo or claim its power, pronouncing a name in order to command its field of meaning.

I like Warner’s description of this act as occupying metaphorical objects, like sleight of semantics: it captures the tangle of abstraction we employ in constructing identity, while also prefiguring the global use of occupy in political uprisings and protests in recent years.

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Word magic from Shalom Auslander

October 21, 2014

Browsing books at random in Galway, I picked up Shalom Auslander’s novel Hope: A Tragedy because the title caught my eye, and I bought it based on a cursory scan of its contents and reviews. The author’s name was also interesting to me, and the book turned out to be the most entertaining thing I had read in months.

More recently I read Auslander’s Foreskin’s Lament: A Memoir, which was the funniest thing I’d read since his novel. Not that it’s all jokes – the books are very well written, and work on many levels – but if you like dark and irreverent humour suffused with theological anxiety, there’s a good chance you’ll like his work.

Here’s an excerpt from Foreskin’s Lament on the religious implications of his name. I’ve selected it not for its humour (though it has some of that), but because of its linguistic content. I think word magic is subtler and more pervasive than we often suppose, though what follows is an extreme and obvious case of it:

In the third grade, Rabbi Kahn told me my name was one of God’s seventy-two names, and he forbade me from ever writing it in full. We wrote primarily in Hebrew and Yiddish, so anything on which I wrote my name — God’s name — became instantly holy: tests, book reports, Highlights for Kids — consequently, they could never be mistreated. It was forbidden to let them touch the floor, it was forbidden to throw them away, it was forbidden to place other papers on top of them.

—Name of the Creator! Rabbi Kahn would shout in horror, pointing at the McGraw-Hill American History lying anti-Semitically on top of my Talmud test. —Name of the Creator!

Then I would have to leave the classroom, go upstairs, and walk all the way to the bais midrash (study hall), where they kept a brown cardboard box reserved for holy pages without a home: torn prayer books, old Haggadahs, crumbling Talmuds, and the suddenly holy “What I Did This Summer” by God Auslander.

“Words are holy,” as the narrator subsequently notes. Another passage revisits the complications of being called Shalom, through an awkward conversation with his mother, but I’ll leave that for anyone interested in reading the book. For some background see Auslander’s interview at Bookslut, or visit his website for essays and more.


Borges on poetic inspiration

February 10, 2012

In the preface to his poetry collection The Unending Rose, Jorge Luis Borges writes about the romantic notion of the Muse (“what the Hebrews and Milton called Spirit, and what our own woeful mythology refers to as the Subconscious”) and says the process for him is more or less unvarying:

I begin with the glimpse of a form, a kind of remote island, which will eventually be a story or a poem. I see the end and I see the beginning, but not what is in between. That is gradually revealed to me, when the stars or chance are propitious. More than once, I have to retrace my steps by way of the shadows. I try to interfere as little as possible in the evolution of the work. I do not want it to be distorted by my opinions, which are the most trivial things about us. The notion of art as compromise is a simplification, for no one knows entirely what he is doing. A writer can conceive a fable, Kipling acknowledged, without grasping its moral. He must be true to his imagination, and not to the mere ephemeral circumstances of a supposed ‘reality’.

Much of this is, I think, equally true and valid of other kinds of creative activity: the vague beginning; the patient waiting; the getting out of one’s own way; the elusive, unpredictable development of the work. The importance of faith in a good idea. But Borges is talking specifically of writing and poetry, and a little later he goes on:

The word must have been in the beginning a magic symbol, which the usury of time wore out. The mission of the poet should be to restore to the word, at least in a partial way, its primitive and now secret force. All verse should have two obligations: to communicate a precise instance and to touch us physically, as the presence of the sea does.


Exaggeration has me killed

May 22, 2010

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary has 14 separate entries for the verb kill, and one of these (‘Deprive . . . of vitality, activity, effect, etc.’) seems close to a common colloquial usage in Hiberno-English. It’s often heard and seen in the form killed out (with…):

This week has me killed out
After 7 exercises with chest I’m killed out
Its about two in the morning and I’m killed out.
I am killed out with the tiredness

Here killed out means tired, worn out, weary, exhausted; equivalent slang terms are wrecked and destroyed. Altogether is occasionally appended for emphasis (“I’m killed out altogether”), as distinct from the sense “in total” (“20 soldiers were killed altogether”). Hiberno-English killed can also carry a related meaning: of suffering from some affliction, whose effects often include tiredness or weakness:

I’m killed with the sunburn
The heat has me killed
I’m killed with the drought (Francis MacManus, The Man in the Trap)
They’re killed with the thirst.
he is killed with the cough (The Coughing Old Man)
I’m killed with the hunger

There’s usually an implication that the burden is temporary, or at least non-fatal. I suppose it’s a kind of black comic relief that death is not as imminent as the language might suggest — a way of imagining control over it by allusion to it — though that doesn’t mean that death doesn’t arrive subsequently:

A young man died after injuries received in a row, and his friend says:- ‘It is dreadful about the poor boy: they made at him in the house and killed him there; then they dragged him out on the road and killed him entirely, so that he lived for only three days after.’ (from P. W. Joyce, English As We Speak It In Ireland)

But the context can also be festive and debauched:

And the two shawls killed with the laughing, picking his pockets, the bloody fool and he spilling the porter all over the bed and the two shawls screeching laughing at one another (James Joyce, Ulysses)

Sometimes the sound and spelling of the word are softened to kilt or kill’t:

That was what kilt me! That was what drove the pain into my heart… (Gerald Griffin, The Collegians)
Says Jack Mitchil, “I am kilt! Boys, where’s the back door?…” (William Makepeace Thackeray, The Battle of Limerick)
‘I’m kilt all over’ means that he is in a worse state than being simply ‘kilt.’ (Maria Edgeworth, Castle Rackrent)
“I’m kill’t out with the heat, Mam” (Brian Leyden, The Home Place, cited in Bernard Share, Slanguage)

Whew. I’m kilt out after that. Do you use these expressions, or an equivalent?


[This article also features on the Visual Thesaurus.]

Do Profanity Filters Dream of Philip K. Dick?

November 10, 2009

Searching for a book review recently, I came across a web page with a pirated copy of the book, alongside a reviewer’s name that seemed to have been automatically censored:

Stan Carey - Philip K. censored

Compare the censored name with its original form on the back of my paperback copy of the same book:

Stan Carey - Philip K. Dick quote cr

Googling “Philip K. censored” brings up a rash of hits: mostly forums and file-sharing pages. In this age of robots on Mars, nanobees on tumours, and Samuel Johnson on Twitter, the name of one of the twentieth century’s most gifted science fiction writers is not reproduced on certain web pages because it’s also a slang term for male genitalia.

Dick himself might well have been amused and even inspired by these prudish artificial-unintelligence bots, and he was not averse to playing around with his own name, but that’s beside the point.
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