The OED’s Surf Consultant.

A nice squib by Nick Paumgarten from the New Yorker about Matt Warshaw, “the world’s leading surfing scholar”:

Warshaw is the world’s leading surfing scholar, the Linnaeus of the lineup. Over the years, he has assembled a research library, in his home, of hundreds of books, thousands of periodicals, and some three hundred and fifty movies, and created a database: logged, indexed, searchable. From all this, and from his own experience as a California beach rat, middling pro surfer, and surfing writer, he composed the idiosyncratic yet authoritative “Encyclopedia of Surfing,” which was published, to wide acclaim, in 2003. “I decided to rule this domain that no one gives a shit about,” he said the other day. In the past half-dozen years, he’s been transferring the encyclopedia’s fifteen hundred-odd entries to the Web, and adding many new ones, along with a wealth of photographs and videos. He has likened this migration to Dorothy’s arrival in Oz.

Within a day of the request from Oxford, Warshaw came across, in his stacks, a mention of “tandem surfing” from 1935. You can now find, in the O.E.D.’s Web edition, the following citation: “T. Blake Hawaiian Surfboard (front material, verso of fifth leaf) (caption): ‘A tourist, without surfboard experience, can enjoy . . . tandem surfing. The boy in most cases does most of the work, his partner enjoys the rides.’ ”

The O.E.D. sent Warshaw a few more terms, and before long hired him to be its first-ever Surf Consultant (total pay: four hundred pounds). The O.E.D. has some three hundred consultants, who provide an extra layer of expert scrutiny in such areas of arcana as falconry and wine. It has always tried to keep up with American slang; noted recent additions are “Masshole” and “vape.” “Clearly, they felt they needed to up their surf game,” Warshaw said. He speculated that there was a closet surfer on staff.

It turns out there was indeed a closet surfer, senior editor David Martin, who says: “A surf word that we are currently tracking is the verb ‘chandelier.’ It seems to be used with reference to the lip at the opening of a barrelling wave closing in on or falling on top of a surfer.” Vivid stuff, surfing vocabulary.

Katexic Clippings.

From the About page:

Founded during the high heat of the 2014 Alaskan summer, Katexic Clippings is a (now) weekly email newsletter for bookworms, word nerds and the incurably curious. In each issue:

WORK: a concise, compelling work or excerpt
WORD(S): a wonderful word or fascinating phrase
WEB: a bijou suite of links
WATCH/WITNESS: a video, map, painting, picture, animation or other visual
WHAT!?: an unclassifiable curiosity

After two years and more than 300 email issues, yr humble editor gave in to readers’ demands for this companion website. He still thinks subscribing to the newsletter is a lot more fun.

Here‘s the main page; I discovered it via a trackback. I figure anything aimed at bookworms, word nerds and the incurably curious is likely to intrigue LH readers. Oh, and if you’re wondering, I’m afraid “katexic” is a David Foster Wallace-ism, apparently a deliberate misspelling of cachectic. But I won’t hold that against the clippings.

Rewarded with Oppugnancy.

I finally reached the back page of the TLS from August 7 of last year (I just resubscribed to the NYRB so I’ll have something to read in 2018), and there was a brief mention of what sounds like a dreadful book about the Bard, prefaced with the following paragraph cobbled together from “words said to have been coined by Shakespeare”:

Attaskt with bringing obscure words back into use, we begnawed the matter, scratching our bubukles as we did so. Fellow researchers congreed that the conspectuity was immoment. Incorpsing our plantage in a mistempered account book, we were rewarded with oppugnancy, against which we offered no propugnation. Reprobance has seldom made us so rubious.

Now, that’s what I call fun with words. (Bubukle, if you’re curious, is Fluellen’s conflation of bubo and carbuncle; I leave the rest to research and/or imagination.)

Bottom’s Dream.

Edwin Turner writes:

Arno Schmidt’s 1970 novel Bottom’s Dream is finally available in English translation by John E. Woods. The book has been published by the Dalkey Archive.

It is enormous. […]

Look, I know that dwelling on a book’s size probably has nothing to do with literary criticism, but Bottom’s Dream poses something of a special case. As an article on Bottom’s Dream at The Wall Street Journal points out, Schmidt’s opus is 1,496 pages long, contains over 1.3 million words, and weighs 13 pounds. […]

The obvious easy reference point here is Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, which indeed Schmidt was actively following, both in form and style: competing columns, a fragmentary and elusive/allusive style, collage-like metacommentary, an etymological explosion—words as paint, text as meaning. Etc.

Turner has screenshots which will give you an idea of what the book is like, both externally (it’s enormous!) and on the inside. As I wrote on MetaFilter (where I learned about it):

Sounds really interesting, in the way that the Wake is interesting, but I still haven’t gotten very far into the Wake after decades of off-and-on trying, so I’m not about to tackle a book based on it that’s 1,496 pages long, contains over 1.3 million words, and weighs 13 pounds. But much respect to the translator, and to readers younger and gutsier than I who plunge into it!

Gilliver on Lexicography.

OUPBlog has an interview with OED editor Peter Gilliver that is short but enjoyable; here’s his answer to “How did you become interested in lexicography?”:

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in language. Both my parents were language teachers, and the family was always discussing English words and usages. And I remember being fascinated by the first dictionary I ever looked at: it was a dictionary for schoolchildren, but it must have been an unusual one in that it was full of strange and intriguing words that a schoolboy was hardly likely to come across in his reading (chalazion is one that sticks in my mind). Later my interest in words found other outlets, like Scrabble and The Times crossword.

But these things are a long way from lexicography as such; and in fact it was only in 1987, when a friend — knowing that I ‘liked words’— drew my attention to an ad for a job on the OED, that I seriously thought about it as an occupation. And that was when I realized that I couldn’t think of a more interesting job. I still can’t, 29 years later.

(Why couldn’t I have seen such an ad?) The first word he worked on at Oxford was fish, and his favorite word (or the one he names “rather than give the rather uninteresting answer ‘I don’t have one’”) is twiffler, which we discussed back in 2010.

Another Large Pearl.

The other day I posted about Tsvetaeva’s poem «Отмыкала ларец железный…» [I unlocked the iron casket]; I’ve just come to one she wrote a couple of months later, «На крыльцо выхожу — слушаю…», that uses so much of the same imagery I can’t resist posting a rough translation so anyone interested can compare and contrast:

I go out onto the porch — I listen,
I tell fortunes on lead — I weep.
The nights: stifling,
Lights in the distance, a Cossack village.

And it’s bad at noon too — the suburb:
The droshky rattles along the road,
A pauper begs a penny,
And children chase a cat,
And grasshoppers in the grass — hop.

In a black shawl, with a large rose
On my breast, — as the evening falls,
With a red-curled, rosy,
Very merry trickster
I’ll have very — sweet — speech.

Don’t load me with gifts of silver,
With large maternal pearls,
A little ring from a little finger.
I want a costlier present:
Over the village — a glow!

The porch, the cat, the big pearl, the little ring… there’s something going on here, but damned if I know what it is. (As for “And grasshoppers in the grass — hop,” the Russian word for ‘grasshopper’ has nothing to do with grass or hopping, but that’s what the original says — ‘the grasshoppers in the grass — leap/spring/bound’ — so how could I resist? I think Tsvetaeva would have liked it.) And of course if I’ve misunderstood any of the Russian, please let me know.

A Corfiot Complaint.

My wife and I recently watched the first episode of the new PBS Masterpiece series The Durrells in Corfu and thoroughly enjoyed it; it is, as this review says, delightful, and it makes a very pleasant and undemanding way to finish an evening. But I do have one complaint I have to get off my chest. They distort historical fact in a number of ways (e.g., the writing son Lawrence was actually married when the family relocated to Corfu), but I can accept such distortions in the name of enjoyable television. What I can’t accept is that when daughter Margo is chided for wearing a two-piece bathing suit, it is called a “bikini.” Look, I’m not a fanatic for period usage in historical drama; I recognize there are more important things than making sure every word and phrase in the script is attested for the period (though I do enjoy it when they make the effort). But come on, I thought every schoolchild knew that, to quote Wikipedia, the bikini was so named in 1946, “from the Bikini Atoll, where post-war testing on the atomic bomb was happening.” It was so jarring to have the word used by people supposedly living in 1935 it threw me right out of the story for a while. (If anyone’s interested in the geographical name Bikini itself, we discussed it back in 2005; the thread is worth a visit.)

Primordial Myths?

Julien d’Huy has a Scientific American piece about “how stories change in the retelling down through the generations sheds light on the history of human migration going as far back as the Paleolithic period”:

The Greek version of a familiar myth starts with Artemis, goddess of the hunt and fierce protectress of innocent young women. Artemis demands that Callisto, “the most beautiful,” and her other handmaidens take a vow of chastity. Zeus tricks Callisto into giving up her virginity, and she gives birth to a son, Arcas. Zeus’ jealous wife, Hera, turns Callisto into a bear and banishes her to the mountains. Meanwhile Arcas grows up to become a hunter and one day happens on a bear that greets him with outstretched arms. Not recognizing his mother, he takes aim with his spear, but Zeus comes to the rescue. He transforms Callisto into the constellation Ursa Major, or “great bear,” and places Arcas nearby as Ursa Minor, the “little bear.”

As the Iroquois of the northeastern U.S. tell it, three hunters pursue a bear; the blood of the wounded animal colors the leaves of the autumnal forest. The bear then climbs a mountain and leaps into the sky. The hunters and the animal become the constellation Ursa Major. Among the Chukchi, a Siberian people, the constellation Orion is a hunter who pursues a reindeer, Cassiopeia. Among the Finno-Ugric tribes of Siberia, the pursued animal is an elk and takes the form of Ursa Major.

Although the animals and the constellations may differ, the basic structure of the story does not. These sagas all belong to a family of myths known as the Cosmic Hunt that spread far and wide in Africa, Europe, Asia and the Americas among people who lived more than 15,000 years ago. Every version of the Cosmic Hunt shares a core story line—a man or an animal pursues or kills one or more animals, and the creatures are changed into constellations.

Folklorists, anthropologists, ethnologists and linguists have long puzzled over why complex mythical stories that surface in cultures widely separated in space and time are strikingly similar. In recent years a promising scientific approach to comparative mythology has emerged in which researchers apply conceptual tools that biologists use to decipher the evolution of living species. In the hands of those who analyze myths, the method, known as phylogenetic analysis, consists of connecting successive versions of a mythical story and constructing a family tree that traces the evolution of the myth over time.

While I enjoy seeing the similar myths set side by side and speculating about why there might be such similarities, I’m deeply suspicious of this “phylogenetic analysis”; I simply don’t believe you can historically trace the evolution of myths as you can that of languages. On the other hand, I know myself to be a fuddy-duddy and am aware I may limit my own horizons by my recalcitrance. So I’m curious to know any of you have thoughts about the plausibility of this approach.

Writers and Anonymity.

A good LRB essay by John Lanchester:

Most writers of fiction are interested in anonymity. If they aren’t tickled by the thought when they sit down to write their first books, they get to that point after the first couple have come out. Writing is solitary, private, inward, and involves something close to complete control; even when there are losses of control or agency, they’re of the sort that a writer has, most of the time, chosen for herself. A story escapes the creator’s intention, or conks out, and although it might not be what the writer wanted, it’s still up to her to make the final call about what to do, or not to do.

The publication process, everything that happens around the business of getting a book into print and out into the world, is close to the opposite of that. It’s full of accidents and misprisions and external demands; it was like that twenty years ago, and has got much worse. […] I often wonder what it would be like not to have to do any of the publishing part, to hand over the text and walk away. It’s a fantasy not so much of anonymity as of refusing the publishing process.

There are writers who do that. The first great refuser in contemporary literary culture was J.D. Salinger. […] Salinger’s self-banishment wasn’t a preference or a whim, it was an existentially critical act of self-protection. I came to think that, like and admire Hamilton though I did, he shouldn’t have written that book: that if someone needs privacy that badly, and hasn’t done anything wrong, we, collectively and individually, should let them have their space.

He ends up with Elena Ferrante, about whom he makes useful points.

Tsvetaeva’s Aspro Stil Nuovo.

Reading my collected Tsvetaeva along with her biography hasn’t provided the immediate rewards Pasternak’s did; with him I was blown away from the beginning, but with her the early verse was well made, sometimes vigorous, but not thrilling. But that all changed with the end of the year 1915 and the collapse of her mad romance with the poet Sophia Parnok; the first poem in her next book, «Вёрсты» [Mileposts, 1922], written in January 1916, plunges the reader at once into a drastically new style, condensed, full of savagery and mystery, ripped out of the light-filled drawing rooms of the earlier books and thrown in rags onto the dark, storm-tossed heath, like mad Lear. There’s no equivalent in English for the folk-lament style of this poem, «Отмыкала ларец железный…», and there’s no way I can convey the black magic of it, but I’ll do my best to provide some sort of Englishing so you can get an idea of what she’s up to:

I unlocked the iron casket
and took out the tearful gift —
a little ring with a large pearl,
a large pearl.

I stole out onto the porch like a cat,
and exposed my face to the wind.
The winds blew, the birds flew,
swans to the left, to the right ravens…
Our roads go in different directions.

You’ll depart with the first storm-clouds;
your path will lie through dense woods,
through burning sands.

You’ll shout out your soul,
you’ll cry out your eyes.

But over me shall the owl call,
but over me shall the grass hiss.

I’m suddenly excited about the hundreds of pages of poems that lie before me.