Archives for July 2011

VEXED TO NIGHTMARE BY A RAGING THREAD.

Abi Sutherland at Making Light posts The soft and unmistakable sound of a gauntlet landing on the dusty ground, reproducing a series of comments by her and Chris Clarke at a Google+ thread started by the latter. She jokily accuses him of being an oldster and says “May I serve you a peach, sir? I do like the way you’re wearing those white flannel trousers; rolling them definitely suits you”; he responds:

this is just to say
I have fenced
the lawn
that was in my yard
and which you were probably hoping to be on.

And they’re off. Abi’s “Father Williams” and Chris’ “13 Ways” are particular highlights, but it’s all loads of fun (if poetry parodies are your idea of fun); my post title comes from Abi’s “Raging and raging in the lengthening thread/ The mood will not heed the moderator,” and I laughed loudest at Chris’s

My friend, you would not Greek without regret
For clients entre whom you would preneur,
The old Lie; Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet
Consectetur.

Enjoy. Or don’t; it’s a free internet.

NINE YEARS OF LANGUAGEHAT.

Nine years ago I hit a button and the very first LH post emerged from the ether, wagging its tail and looking for company. These last nine years would have been far less enjoyable and educational for me without it, which is to say without you, the readers and commenters (for I would have abandoned it long ago without you—listening to one’s own voice quickly palls), and I wish I could wax eloquent and perhaps dig up some more gems from the archive, as I did last year… but alas, I’m in the final throes of copyediting (a very interesting book, looking at the last few centuries BCE from the point of view of the relations between Persia and Egypt rather than, as is customary, those between Persia and Greece), and all I can do is tip my hat to y’all and hope I have more leisure for my decennial post next year. Meanwhile, have fun and stick around.

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SWAP.

Scots Words and Place-names “aims to engage the Scottish public in talking about the Scots words that they use and hear around them”:

Any examples of words, their meanings, how they are used and where they are used will help. We also want to know about the names of places which use Scots words: how they are pronounced; if people know what they mean; whether they appear on maps or are known through word-of-mouth; even how they look (through uploading pictures). The results of the SWAP project will add to the word collections of Scottish Language Dictionaries and help to form new dictionaries of the Scots language. They will also contribute to our knowledge of Scots place-names. The information we gather on place-names will be used to populate a comprehensive glossary of Scots place-name elements and to supplement the dictionary-based research which was used to create it.

They’re using a Facebook page to crowdsource it, which strikes me as a good use of the internet; to get the same quantity of information using traditional methods would take a lot longer and presumably cost a lot more. (I found out about it via this article by Alastair Dunning, originally published in Research Information.)

TYPEIT.

I mentioned this over six years ago, but at that time I seem to have thought it was nothing but an “IPA Phonetic Symbol Typer.” Now, looking more closely (having had it brought back to my attention by Stan at Sentence First, where you will find links to other, fancier IPA resources), I see that besides the English and full IPA keyboards, it has character sets for languages from Czech to Welsh, not to mention currency symbols. Guess I’ll add it to the Language resources section of the sidebar.

AN UNKNOWN MASTERPIECE.

Philip Marchand has a piece at the National Post about a new book, This is Not the End of the Book: A Conversation Curated by Jean-Philippe de Tonnac, that would probably irritate me (“the spectacle of two European intellectuals exchanging aperçus”), but I found this thought-provoking:

A more interesting question, posed by de Tonnac, is whether “an unknown masterpiece might still be discovered.” Eco’s response is similar to the comments of the late critic Hugh Kenner. Kenner pointed out that if a copy of the Iliad turned up for the first time today it would arouse an archeological curiosity but little more. Eco agrees. “A masterpiece isn’t a masterpiece until it is well known and has absorbed all the interpretations to which it has given rise, which in turn make it what it is,” he says. “An unknown masterpiece hasn’t had enough readers, or readings, or interpretations.”

I realize this is Postmodernism 101, and many of my readers are rolling their eyes and sighing loudly, but I hadn’t seen it put quite that way before, and, well, it provokes me to think. (Thanks, Paul!)

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THE FIRST QUESTION MARK?

From the University of Cambridge, a news item:

Cambridge University manuscript specialist, Dr. Chip Coakley has identified what may be the world’s earliest example of a question mark. The symbol in question is two dots, one above the other, similar in appearance to a colon, rather than the familiar squiggle of the modern question mark. The double dot symbol appears in Syriac manuscripts of the Bible dating back to the fifth century.

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A MERE WORD.

At the end of Chapter Four of Master and Commander, Stephen Maturin cavils at the reference to him as “surgeon” in the order appointing him to the ship’s company, saying “It is a false description; and a false description is anathema to the philosophic mind.” The merry celebrants at the gun-room table respond with a colloquy on naval semantics:

‘I am sure it is anathema to the philosophic mind,’ said James Dillon. ‘But the naval mind fairly revels in it, so it does. Take that word sloop, for example.’
‘Yes,’ said Stephen, narrowing his eyes through the haze of port and trying to remember the definitions he had heard.
‘Why, now, a sloop, as you know, is properly a one-masted vessel, with a fore-and-aft rig. But in the Navy a sloop may be ship-rigged – she may have three masts.’
‘Or take the Sophie,’ cried the master, anxious to bring his crumb of comfort. ‘She’s rightly a brig, you know, Doctor, with her two masts.’ He held up two fingers, in case a landman might not fully comprehend so great a number. ‘But the minute Captain Aubrey sets foot in her, why, she too becomes a sloop; for a brig is a lieutenant’s command.’
‘Or take me,’ said Jack. ‘I am called captain, but really I am only a master and commander.’
‘Or the place where the men sleep, just for’ard,’ said the purser, pointing. ‘Rightly speaking, and official, ’tis the gun-deck, though there’s never a gun on it. We call it the spar-deck – though there’s no spars, neither – but some say the gun-deck still, and call the right gun-deck the upper-deck. Or take this brig, which is no true brig at all, not with her square mainsail, but rather a sorts of snow, or a hermaphrodite.’
‘No, no, my dear sir,’ said James Dillon, ‘never let a mere word grieve your heart. We have nominal captain’s servants who are, in fact, midshipmen; we have nominal able seamen on our books who are scarcely breeched – they are a thousand miles away and still at school; we swear we have not shifted any backstays, when we shift them continually; and we take many other oaths that nobody believes – no, no, you may call yourself what you please, so long as you do your duty. The Navy speaks in symbols, and you may suit what meaning you choose to the words.’

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IMPREGNABLE.

If I ever knew, I had forgotten that impregnable “is actually a Middle English malapropism for imprenable,” as Mark Liberman explains in this Log post, quoting the OED:

Etymology: Corrupted < impreignable, imprenable, < French imprenable, < im– (im- prefix2) + prenable able to be taken, < pren-, stem of prendre to take. The g was evidently in imitation of the g mute in reign, deign, and the like, though it appears to have sometimes led in 16th cent. to the pronunciation /nj/

There is much discussion of etymological and semantic confusion, and some of baseball (the post takes off from a quote that mentions “the impregnable glove of Adrian Beltre at third base”). Check it out.
I should mention that I am experiencing severe computer problems at the moment (yesterday I foolishly tried to download a Windows Vista service pack that apparently didn’t download completely and left the computer hung up betwixt and between, unable to load Windows); while the situation continues, I will try to do necessary weeding and upkeep but will not be commenting and posting as often—I don’t like tying up my wife’s computer any more than I can help.

GROCKLE.

I’m about two-thirds of the way through Daniel Martin (see this post), and once again I’ve learned an excellent word. In the long and absorbing chapter “Phyllida” (which could stand on its own as a story about first love), he talks about “the countless Midland and North-country grockles that invade the West every summer”; a trip to the dictionary revealed that “‘Grockle’ is an informal and often slightly derogatory term for a tourist.” I quote the opening of What is the origin of the word ‘grockle’?, from Oxforddictionaries.com, which goes on to tell the following interesting story:

It was first popularized because of its use by the characters in the film The System (1962), which is set in the Devon resort of Torquay during the summer season. Some older dictionaries suggested that it might be a West Country dialect word. Other scholars have put forward the theory that it originated in a comparison of red-faced tourists (wearing baggy clothing with handkerchiefs on their heads) to ‘Grock’, a clown and music-hall performer who was famous in the first half of the 20th century.
The word ‘grockle’ was indeed picked up by The System‘s scriptwriter from local people during filming in Torquay. However, it was apparently not an ‘old local dialect word’. According to research by a local journalist in the mid-1990s, the word in fact originated from a strip cartoon in the children’s comic Dandy entitled ‘Danny and his Grockle’. (The grockle was a magical dragon-like creature.) A local man, who had had a summer job at a swimming pool during as a youngster, said that he had used the term as a nickname for a small elderly lady who was a regular customer one season. During banter in the pub among the summer workers, ‘grockle’ then became generalized as a term for summer visitors.
This development seems to have occurred in, or only shortly before, the summer in which The System was filmed: the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary has no examples of the word dating from before the release of The System (though one or two people from the south-west remain convinced that they knew it before then).

Now, that’s what I call lexicographical sleuthing! And I love the sly final parenthesis; the older I get, the more I realize that people’s self-reporting about language is utterly worthless. We’re all too ready to convince ourselves that we’ve been saying something all our lives, or heard it back in our hometown in the ’50s, when in fact we picked it up from a magazine or movie much later.

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MORE ON COLORS.

I’ve posted recently on color idioms and color name sites; here are a couple more color-related tidbits.
1) Stan Carey has a post about a Scientific American article by Melody Dye on “why it’s so difficult for kids to learn words for colours, and how it can be made easier for them.”
2) A MetaFilter post by nangar collects a number of color-related links, beginning with David Wharton’s Latin Color Bibliography, which “collects quotations from ancient literature and modern research on how languages classify colors, and tries to work out the meanings of color words in classical Latin.”