Archives for August 2003


Margaret Marks of Transblawg has an entry explaining a few of the basic rules of IKEA’s often bizarre-sounding product names; if you read German, you can go to her source, an article in Stern, and find out much more. Or you can just play the IKEA game.


An e-mail from the always thoughtful and thought-provoking gentleman who goes (for reasons best known to himself) by the sobriquet “dungbeetle” around these parts has reminded me of the story of “Lord” Timothy Dexter, who among his many eccentricities (you can read about them here and, in a more censorious 19th-century version, here), published a booklet called A Pickle for the Knowing Ones full of the wisdom he wished to impart from his haphazard but financially successful life:

Not only did the content of his booklet cause readers to shake their heads, so did the format. As the quotes above show, Lord Timothy’s spelling was atrocious, and he had no use for punctuation. After the first printing sold out, he amended the second edition. He inserted a page of punctuation marks at the end with the note: “Nowing ones complane of my book the fust edition had no stops I put in a Nuf here and thay may peper and solt it as they plese”

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A new paper, “Last Writing: Script Obsolescence in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Mesoamerica” by Stephen Houston, John Baines, and Jerrold Cooper (published in the journal Comparative Studies in Society and History), sounds fascinating; a Washington Post story by Guy Gugliotta says:

When a system of writing begins to die, people probably don’t even notice at first. Maybe the culture that spawned it loses its vitality, and the script decays along with it. Maybe the scribes or priests decide that most ordinary people aren’t able to learn it, so they don’t teach it.

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An amusing article by Michele A. Berdy in the Moscow Times about funny-sounding place names (a river Gryazukha ‘Mudhole,’ a town Starye Chervi ‘Old Worms,’ and the like); some of the “meanings” should be taken with a certain amount of salt, but it’s a fun read. I might not link it here, though, except that the last village she mentions is Да-Да (Da-Da). (Via Taccuino di traduzione.)


An article by Nora Boustany in today’s Washington Post tells the story of the remarkable man, Michael Chyet, who’s compiled the first serious Kurdish-English dictionary:

Michael L. Chyet, 46, has studied more than 30 languages, delving into the marvels of cultural and oral histories with the zeal of an explorer marching into uncharted territory. For the past 18 years, he has labored quietly but passionately to produce the most comprehensive Kurdish-English dictionary ever written.

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I like to read the corrections in the NY Times; the vast majority deal with ridiculously minor errors in people’s names or job titles, but occasionally there’s something more substantial. Today we have:

An article on Aug. 20 about the mystery writer Martha Grimes and her new novel about the publishing industry, “Foul Matter,” misstated the meaning of the publishing term used as the book’s title. “Foul Matter” refers to the edited manuscript and proofs of a book that have been superseded by revised or corrected versions or by the final printed work. It is not a term for an unedited manuscript.

In other words, once the corrections have been made on a proof (or galley) it becomes the foul proof (or galley, not that anybody uses galleys anymore). You’d think the NY Times would have known that in the first place, wouldn’t you?


Another reader might find it absurd that James Fenton spends the bulk of his NYRB review of Robert Lowell: Collected Poems nitpicking the annotations; I, on the other hand, am delighted. Anyone can rhapsodize about Lowell’s verse, but it takes dedication, an eye for detail, and a well-stocked mind to go through the footnotes as Fenton has—and, as it happens, I love footnotes. I’ve spent much of my life trying to understand things foreign to my experience, and I long ago learned the value of a well-annotated text. This, alas, does not appear to be one.

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Anthony‘s comment on the Whale Cloth Press thread led me back to the Dada Manifesto, written by Hugo Ball in 1916. I hadn’t read it in years, and it struck me how fresh it still is, so I thought I’d present it here for your dadadelectation—in my own translation, since the ones available online are awful, giving no sense of the brio of the original. There seem to be two versions circulating on the internet; I’ll give a translation of the short version because, well, it’s shorter; for comparison (if you read German), here‘s the longer one.

Dada is a new direction in art. You can tell this because up to now nobody knew anything about it, and tomorrow everyone in Zurich will be talking about it. Dada comes from the dictionary. It’s awfully simple. In French it means “hobbyhorse.” In German: “addio,” “get off my back,” “see you later!” In Romanian: “Absolutely, you’re right, that’s it. Yeah, really, let’s do it.” And so forth.

An international word. Only a word, and the word as movement. It’s simply awful. If you make it into a direction in art, that must mean you want to get rid of complications. Dada psychology, dada literature, dada bourgeoisie, and you, most honored poets, who have always composed with words but never composed the word itself. Dada world war without end, dada revolution without beginning, dada you friends and alsopoets, posterior evangelists. Dada Tzara, dada Huelsenbeck, dada m’dada, dada mhm’ dada, dada Hue, dada Tza.

How do you achieve eternal bliss? By saying dada. How do you become famous? By saying dada. With noble attitude and fine deportment. Until you go crazy, until you pass out. How can you get rid of everything infernalish and journalish, everything nice and neat, everything priggish and brutish and foppish? By saying dada. Dada is the world soul, dada is the point, dada is the world’s best lily-milk soap. Dada Herr Rubiner, dada Herr Korrodi, dada Herr Anastasius Lilienstein.

Which is to say: the hospitality of the Swiss is to be valued above all things, and in aesthetics what matters is the norm.

I’m reading poems that intend nothing less than to do without language. Dada Johann Fuchsgang Goethe, Dada Stendhal. Dada Buddha, Dalai Lama, Dada m’dada, Dada m’dada, Dada mhm’ dada. What matters is connection, and first interrupting it a little. I don’t want words that other people have invented. All the words have been invented by other people. I want my own nonsense, and the corresponding vowels and consonants along with it. If the vibration is seven cubits long, I want words that fit it, seven cubits long. Herr Schulze’s words are only two and a half centimeters long.

So now you can clearly see how articulated language develops. I just let the sounds fall where they may. Words emerge, shoulders of words, legs, arms, hands of words. Ow, oy, oo. You shouldn’t let too many words show up. A verse is an opportunity to get by without words and without language as far as possible. This accursed language, it sticks to dirt like stockbrokers’ hands that have worn down coins. I want the word where it stops and where it starts.

When each thing has its word, the word itself has become a thing. Why can’t a tree be called pluplusch, and pluplubasch when it’s been raining? And why does it have to be called anything at all? The word, the word, the woe’s the worst you ever heard, the word, gentlemen, is a first-class public concern.

A few notes on the translation. I’ve taken more liberties than I would have with a less dadaish text; notably, I’ve rendered “Aalige und Journalige” as “infernalish and journalish,” because the rhyme seemed more important to me than the literal meaning of the rare word “aalig” (‘eely’). Same thing with “Das Wort, das Wort, das Weh gerade an diesem Ort,” where the last half means ‘the woe right here’ (or ‘exactly in this place’) but I chose to preserve the rhyme instead. The word “allerwerteste” looks like it means ‘most worthy’ but in actual usage means only ‘rump, posterior’; it’s a pity to lose the ghost-meaning ‘most worthy evangelists,’ but given a choice between a real rump and a ghost honorific, I have to go with the former. I linked Rubiner because I’m sure of the identification; I’m not quite as sure that Korrodi is Eduard Korrodi (1885-1955), long-time editor of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, and besides I couldn’t find a good page to link to. I have no idea who Anastasius Lilienstein might be. Oh, and note the pun of Johann Fox-gang Goethe, instead of Wolf-gang. Silly, silly dada!

As an example of the kind of thing with which he would have scandalized the public on such an occasion, read his sound-poem (Lautgedicht) “Karawane.”
If anyone whose German is better than mine has a quarrel with the translation, I beseech you to let me know; I’m willing and eager to improve it. (And if anyone wants to reproduce the translation elsewhere, feel free, but I’d appreciate it if you’d accompany it with “translated by Steve Dodson at Languagehat.”)


Language poetry isn’t my favorite style, but Whale Cloth Press has done a terrific job of putting it online, with two books by Kit Robinson (check out the varied presentations of the poems from Windows, with mouseover texts for certain stanzas of “All Fours” and the gorgeous gray background for “Speaking Peoples“) and Robert Grenier‘s Sentences, which Ron Silliman (from whom this link comes) considers one of American poetry’s “essential texts.” He singles out for notice a poem that reads, in its entirety:


You may find that a bit too simple, but here’s Ron’s take on it:

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Theresa Nielsen Hayden has a post about a blog called Copy editing, damnit that purports to be the source of all wisdom concerning style: “Listen to me, I know style and how to use it.” The annoyingly smug tone of that sentence is the second thing that strikes one; the first, thanks to the mile-high type face, is the solecism in the blog’s name (as Theresa points out, “he’s misspelled it… ‘damn it’ if two words, ‘dammit’ if one”). One might get used to those things if the entries were well written and accurate; alas, they are neither: it’s a series of sub-Safire snippets on ancient red herrings like “most unique,” “mail is a noun, male is an adjective,” and “runner-ups.” None of this has anything to do with real style; these are the shibboleths of a certain breed of green-eyeshaded, mossbacked Perry Whites of concern only to the unfortunates who still submit copy to them. Here’s a sample of the misbegotten conflation of grammar and presumed logic:

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