Screw the Pooch.

Who can resist such a lovely and slightly naughty-sounding expression? It’s well known from The Right Stuff, but where did it originate? Ben Zimmer tells the story (or as much of it as can be found) at Slate:

Searching for clues, I noticed that the entry for the expression on Wiktionary had been anonymously edited a few years ago to give credit to “a Yale graduate named John Rawlings who helped design the astronauts’ space suits.” In turn, the Wiktionary editor claimed, Rawlings got it from a Yale friend, “the radio DJ Jack May (a.k.a. ‘Candied Yam Jackson’),” who had softened “fuck the dog” to be “simultaneously less vulgar and more pleasing to the ear.”

The story sounded somewhat implausible, but a dive into the archives of the Yale Daily News (where I was once a news editor) confirmed that there were indeed undergraduates named John Rawlings and Jack May around 1950. Rawlings was noted for his various artistic pursuits, including a choreographed staging of a book of e.e. cummings poetry, One Times One. And Joseph L. “Jack” May really did go by the name “Candied Yam Jackson” as a DJ on the college radio station WYBC.

In fact, May is still alive, and, as I would soon discover, has many stories to tell. Now 84, he is the retired president of the May Hosiery Mills, a family concern in Nashville established by his grandfather, Jacob May. When I talked to Jack May on the phone, he brought to my attention an epistolary memoir that he published in 2010, titled An Alphabet of Letters, in which he tells the “screw the pooch” story. Here it is in May’s own words:

John Rawlings was one of two roommates who were architecture students. In the spring of 1950 it was time for his project to complete the semester. He procrastinated. Apparently all architecture students do. He was going to be late even starting his charrette. So to be helpful I said the following:

JACK: You’re late, John, you’re fouling up. You are fucking the dog.
JOHN: Really, you are so vulgar and coarse, I just don’t want to hear it.
JACK: You’re still late. Is this better? You are screwing the pooch.
JOHN: (shrill laughter)

Isn’t that delightful? Zimmer provides the necessary caveat that “It’s not impossible […] for various military personnel to have independently transformed ‘fuck the dog’ into ‘screw the pooch’ on separate occasions” and quotes a correspondent who had heard it elsewhere; his conclusion:

Searching for the provenance of a word or phrase, as I’ve noted before, rarely turns up a single “just-so” story. But even when a definitive origin remains elusive, the voyage through rich cultural and personal worlds can make it all worth it. So thank you, “screw the pooch,” for introducing me to Candied Yam Jackson and the Playing Mantis.

Read the whole thing, and thanks, Paul!

Unrelated, but I have to link to Christian Lorentzen’s When Will Helen DeWitt Be Recognized As One of the Great American Novelists? The answer, I hope, is “soon.” Thanks, Greg/slawkenbergius!

English Vocabulary Size.

This is just another of those dumb internet quizzes, and I think I’ve posted a similar one before, but it’s kind of fun for those who like wielding words, so with the caveat that it’s not actually going to tell you how large your vocabulary is, this is the kind of thing you might enjoy if you enjoy this kind of thing: Vocabulary Size Test. (For what it’s worth, it told me “Your English Vocabulary Size is: 30325.”) I should warn you that it switches between asking for synonyms and antonyms (very loosely defined — don’t get hung up on whether something is actually a synonym), and it’s easy if you’re not paying attention to click on one when it’s asking for the other, which I think happened to me once (I could have had a Vocabulary Size of 30326!).

Don’t Say That.

Edwin Battistella has a sensible post for OUPblog on how, as Edward Sapir once wrote, “All grammars leak.” He describes one example:

Many of our most common words have come to serve more than a single grammatical role, so a word serving one part of speech will often have a homonym—a grammatical doppelganger—that serves as a different part of speech. Often this arises from what is called functional shift, when we take a noun and make it into a verb as in to adult or to gym. This shiftiness makes it hard, and perhaps impossible, to think of a word as having just one categorization.

All well and good, and he gives a bunch of examples, but what stopped me in my tracks and made me want to post it was what came next:

Here’s an example. Recently, a friend told me that her daughter’s teacher had told her to never use the word that. She wondered if the advice was legit.

I’ve heard and seen a lot of peevery in my day, but “never use the word that” is a new one, and not only self-evidently idiotic but opaque, to me at least. Anybody know what might be going on here?

How Abbas Kiarostami Had Me Thinking in Persian.

That’s the title of A. O. Scott’s fine NY Times tribute to one of the greatest directors of my lifetime, and you can see why it caught my eye when my brother sent it to me (thanks, Eric!). I was particularly glad because I hadn’t intended to post on Kiarostami’s passing, although it hit me even harder than Yves Bonnefoy’s (I had been hoping for late masterpieces) — after all, this isn’t a movie blog — but the Scott piece gives me a language hook; he was in Cartagena, Colombia, teaching a workshop in cultural journalism, and Kiarostami was there for a local film festival:

The plan was that Mr. Kiarostami and I would converse with the aid of his translator, since the filmmaker’s English was apparently only a little better than my Farsi. The unforeseen wrinkle was that the translator spoke only Farsi and Spanish, the first language of most of my students and, of course, the idiom of the country where we all happened to be.

But we could hardly just stand around smiling and nodding. A game of multilingual telephone ensued. I would hand off an English question to one of the translators, who passed along a Spanish version that would reach Mr. Kiarostami in his native language, at which point the process reversed. The remarkable thing is not that we managed to keep this clumsy human version of Google Translate going for much longer than the allotted hour, as we ate pistachios and sipped limeade in a humid courtyard, but that after a while it seemed like an utterly natural form of communication.

Viewers of foreign-language films sometimes forget that they are reading subtitles instead of understanding what the actors are saying. Something similar happened that evening, a hallucinatory melting of linguistic barriers. I remembered a few phrases of long-ago college Spanish, and so could now and then skip a step in the translators’ bucket brigade. Mr. Kiarostami’s translator was as quick and nimble as an Olympic athlete, and Mr. Kiarostami himself was as patient as a teacher in a roomful of earnest slow learners. But afterward many of us agreed that we had experienced something much stranger and more profound than a successful search for verbal equivalents. We swore that for a short but intense period, under the spell of the filmmaker’s quiet charisma, we had all been thinking in Persian.

How I would like to have been there! And this paragraph resonated with me for literary reasons:

More recently, Iranian films have moved toward psychological drama and social criticism, neither of which figured among Mr. Kiarostami’s major concerns. This is not to say that he was indifferent to the emotions of his characters or their circumstances, but rather that he viewed the world and its human inhabitants from a particular philosophical angle, a curiosity both about the texture of reality and about the camera’s effect on it. His movies are at once highly self-conscious — the viewer is often intensely aware of the presence of the camera, and occasionally of the man behind it — and bluntly naturalistic.

This is exactly (mutatis mutandis) what I keep complaining about in the development of Russian literature in the 1840s: it moved toward psychological drama and social criticism, leaving behind the wonderful writers (like my man Veltman) who had other concerns.

Anyone interested in giving Kiarostami a try should start with the Koker trilogy (Where Is the Friend’s Home, Life and Nothing More, and Through the Olive Trees), which become more and more self-reflexive without in the least losing their eye for human and social reality; then you might move on to Close-Up, one of the most brilliant modernist movies I’ve ever seen (and no, I’m not going to try to define modernism, but I know it when I see it).

Spreadthesign.

Spreadthesign is a site for learning sign languages:

Here you will find an international dictionary of the following national sign languages: Swedish, English (BSL), American English (ASL), German, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Estonian, Lithuanian, Icelandic, Latvian, Polish, Czech, Japanese, Turkish. American Sign Language and baby signs are also included in this dictionary.

This webpage is administered by the Non-Governmental and Non-Profit Organization European Sign Language Centre. Though the primary objective of the Centre is to make national sign languages available to people with hearing disabilities, the overall ambition is to make sign languages accessible to everyone.

You type a word into the search box and you’re presented with a group of flags; pick one, and you’ll see a user of the relevant sign language demonstrating it. I input “cat” and learned that most sign languages seem to identify it by its whiskers — but Ukrainian has one hand scratching the other, and Turkish has a similar gesture but with more of a soft petting motion. I wrote irritably to Yoram, who sent me the link (thanks, Yoram!), that “they expect you to know all the flags,” but I was too hasty; if you hover over the flag, you see the identification in a popup. A nice site.

Tsessebe/Sassaby.

This is another of those posts sparked by my noticing an unfamiliar word and spending too much time trying to figure it out. There’s an African antelope (Damaliscus lunatus lunatus) called either tsessebe or sassaby; Wikipedia and AHD have it under the former, the OED under the latter. The duality goes way back; Richard Lydekker’s The Game Animals of Africa (R. Ward, 1908) has a section headed THE TSESSEBE OR SASSABY. Why hasn’t a single form been settled on? Furthermore, the OED (entry from 1909) gives the pronunciation as /səˈseɪbi/ (sə-SAY-be), with early alternate spellings that fit it (sas(s)ayby, sassaybe, sassaybi), but the current pronunciation stresses the initial syllable (AHD tsĕsə-bē′). The OED says it’s from Setswana tsessébe, tsessábi, the AHD from Tswana tshêsêbê (Tswana is of course the same language as Setswana). Webster’s Third New International has “sassaby or tsessebe or tsesseby” (initial stress), with the same etymology as AHD. And just to add to the fun, the Russian word (at least according to Wikipedia) is топи [tópi], which is not in any of my dictionaries and for which I cannot find an etymology. As always, all thoughts are welcome.

The Year American Speech Became Art.

Ted Gioia has an Atlantic essay about an interesting topic, the transition from an Anglocentric world to one which imitated American usage and art. Gioia writes:

As late as 1919, when H.L. Mencken published his ambitious study The American Language, the very concept of a legitimate homegrown way of speaking was a radical notion, and brought with it, in the words of Jacques Barzun, an “air of defiance and heresy which some found provincial and even chauvinistic.”

Yet less than a decade after Mencken’s bold gesture, Yankee English was well on its way to conquering the world. In a peculiar role reversal, writers and artists in other countries would now feel compelled to learn from American role models.

What happened?

Changes of this sort usually take place gradually, over a period of decades. But in this case, an extraordinary confluence of circumstances—cultural, technological, and attitudinal—raised Yankee diction into an art during a brief and tumultuous 15-month period in the late 1920s. We are still living with the fallout of those events.

His claim is that the period from October 1926 through December 1927 was crucial, and he adduces everybody from Louis Armstrong to Ernest Hemingway to Dashiell Hammett to Ira Gershwin to make his case. Here’s a quote from Hammett’s Red Harvest:

“What’s the rumpus?” I asked him.

He looked at me carefully before he replied, as if he wanted to be sure the information was going into safe hands. His eyes were gray as his clothes, but not so soft.

“Don Willsson’s gone to sit on the right hand of God, if God don’t mind looking at bullet holes.”

“Who shot him?” I asked.

The gray man scratched the back of his neck and said: “Somebody with a gun.”

I wanted information, not wit. I would have tried my luck with some other member of the crowd if the red tie hadn’t interested me. I said: “I’m a stranger in town. Hang the Punch and Judy on me. That’s what strangers are for.”

Gioia says “No one told stories in that crisp, uncluttered way before 1926. But soon, other ways of pushing a narrative forward would seem slow-paced and old-fashioned.” Obviously he’s overstating the importance of that brief period, even if the general point is inarguable; I’m curious to see what people have to say about it.

Tolstoy’s Sevastopol Stories.

I haven’t posted about my Russian reading in a while. It’s not that I’ve slacked off on the reading, or that the material hasn’t been good — far from it: I’ve read Ostrovsky’s comedy Bednost ne porok [Poverty Is No Crime] (a rich merchant wants to marry his daughter to an old roué even though she and his clerk Mitya love each other); Tolstoy’s Otrochestvo [Boyhood] (Nikolenka, the author’s stand-in, moves to Moscow and puts away childish things); Turgenev’s “Mumu” (a very famous sentimental story about the deaf-mute serf Gerasim, whose aged mistress gets angry at his dog Mumu), Mesyats v derevne [A Month in the Country] (considered the best of his plays: a young, handsome teacher throws a household into chaos), and Postoyaly dvor [The Inn] (Akim loses his inn because he is a serf and the legal owner is his mistress, who is persuaded to turn it over to a charming villain); Pisemsky’s Vinovata li ona? [Is she guilty?] (Lidiya Nikolaevna, forced to marry the drunken oaf Ivan Kuzmich, is attracted to the handsome and attentive Kurdyumov); and Herzen’s S togo berega [From the Other Shore] (essays showing Herzen’s frustration and anger at the violent repression of the 1848 rebellions and the satisfaction of the bourgeoisie, and containing some of Herzen’s best writing), and all of them made for good and pleasurable reading.

But now that I’ve finished Tolstoy’s Sevastopolskie rasskazy [Sevastopol stories] (originally collected in 1856 as Voennye rasskazy [War stories]), about the Crimean War, I feel the need to post. The first, “Sevastopol in December,” is short and efficient: written in the second person, it takes you on a tour of the city from the harbor via the dressing station (where the wounded soldiers make you briefly depressed) and up through the park-like Boulevard to the heavily attacked 4th Bastion. The second, “Sevastopol in May,” is twice as long and somewhat rambling; it follows several officers and their fears and ambitions during an attack, but you don’t care about any of them — they’re not so much characters as personifications of various attitudes Tolstoy wants to represent. The third, “Sevastopol in August,” is as long as the first two combined; it represents a giant leap forward and for the first time shows us the mature writer who created War and Peace (for which it serves, in retrospect, as a trial balloon). In it, Mikhail Kozeltsov returns to Sevastopol after recovering from a wound and finds his younger brother Volodya, frightened but patriotic, eager to join the fight — as it turns out, on the eve of the city’s fall. They spend time together and then go their separate ways, Mikhail back to the company he commands and Volodya to the artillery unit where he will try to put his theoretical knowledge to use; I won’t describe any more of the plot, I’ll just quote a passage that’s a precursor of the section of War and Peace I analyzed in one of my favorite LH posts. Mikhail and Volodya are crossing the pontoon bridge from the northern suburb into the besieged city itself:

Братья прошли первый понтон, дожидаясь повозки, и остановились на втором, который местами уже заливало водой. Ветер, казавшийся слабым в поле, здесь был весьма силен и порывист; мост качало, и волны, с шумом ударяясь о бревна и разрезаясь на якорях и канатах, заливали доски. Направо туманно-враждебно шумело и чернело море, отделяясь бесконечно ровной черной линией, от звездного, светло-сероватого в слиянии горизонта; и далеко где-то светились огни на неприятельском флоте; налево чернела темная масса нашего корабля и слышались удары волн о борта его; виднелся пароход, шумно и быстро двигавшийся от Северной.

The brothers crossed the first pontoon while waiting for the wagon, and halted on the second, which was already flooded with water in places. The breeze, which had seemed weak inland, was very strong and gusty here; the bridge swayed, and the waves, beating noisily against the beams and cutting at the cables and anchors, flooded the planks. To the right the sea, foggy and hostile, roared and showed black, separated by an endless level black line from the starry horizon, a blend of light and gray, and far off somewhere lights gleamed on the enemy fleet; to the left the dark mass of one of our ships showed black, and the beating of the waves against its side could be heard; a steamer could be seen, noisily and swiftly moving from Severnaya [the northern suburb].

The similarities with the later passage are clear: the description of the weather and landscape (or in this case seascape) counterpoised to evidence of the enemy our protagonists are going to meet. But the differences are telling; here it’s all jumbled together without apparent order other than turning your head from right to left, the verbs of perception I described in the previous post are of all sorts (чернело ‘showed black,’ слышались ‘were heard,’ виднелся ‘was seen’) as opposed to the drumbeat repetition of the latter, and the enemy makes his appearance in the middle rather than being saved for a dramatic finish. It’s this sort of thing that makes following an author from the start so enjoyable.

My Little Free Library War.

Subtitle: “How our suburban front-yard lending box made me hate books and fear my neighbors.” Dan Greenstone’s Salon piece is both depressing and hilarious. A sample:

At last year’s public library book sale, our family had, as a joke, played a game of “Find the Boringest Book.” And, not to brag, but we’d kicked some ass.

So imagine my surprise when, within 24 hours, a paper-bound copy of “Study Guide and Reference Material for Commercial Radio Operator’s’ Examination” (1955! edition) had vanished. 1965’s evergreen “Technical Analysis of Stock Trends” was next. “Aircraft Power Plants from Northrop Aeronautical” lasted just a few more days. And the winner of our boringest book contest? “Standard Mathematical Tables,” 22nd Edition, a nearly wordless and entirely incomprehensible collection of graphs, made it a week.

My only complaint is the use of quotes for book titles, but I guess that’s Salon style, for reasons best known to Salon.

Begging the Question III.

Two more language-related Wondermark cartoons by David Malki ! (previous Wondermark here, previous begging the question here and here):
BBB…eing wrong.
Containing multitudes.
As always, be sure to read the mouseover text. (Thanks, Sven!)