THE DANGERS OF LANGUAGE.

Joshua Cohen’s LRB review of Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet: A Novel has some interesting language-related bits:

Ben Marcus’s new novel, The Flame Alphabet, is a commentary on the Elisha text, but a commentary that fulfils both obligations of flame: the text’s illumination is also its destruction. A novel concerned with children and language and the terrors wrought when one comes into possession of the other, it holds speech to be dangerous not just to Samaritan delinquents and itinerant seers but also to religion and the life of the mind. Marcus does violence to prayer – it doesn’t help, it harms – and to philosophy, which becomes a playground of forgery and misattribution: he misquotes Thoreau as having called the alphabet ‘the saddest song’ (shades of Psalm 137); he has Schopenhauer impossibly plagiarise Wittgenstein (‘if it can be said, then I am not interested’); while the Nietzsche citation is not only false but a reversal of Nietzschean Sprache: ‘if I could take something from the world … it would be the language that sits rotting inside my mouth.’ […]
The title itself is Judaic. Samuel maintains it’s a kabbalistic tradition but he, or Marcus, is off by ten centuries. The Flame Alphabet first appears in the Oral Law, sparked not by divine contemplation but by a lexical problem involving the Written Law (the Torah). Exodus 32 holds that the twin tablets Moses brought down from Sinai were written on by the forefinger of God on both sides, and that the lettering went through the stones. The Talmud, which is the written compilation of the Oral Law, holds that the souls of all the Children of Israel, past and future, were gathered together to receive the Torah, the book that describes its own giving. After addressing the question of this metafiction, the rabbis wonder about that graphological feat. How is it possible, they ask, that the two tablets were readable by everyone, and by everyone in the correct way, which in Hebrew is from right to left?
The Jerusalem Talmud answers with mysticism: Rabbi Pinchas says in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish that the commandments were written with white fire on black fire, and leaves it at that. The later Babylonian Talmud attempts to clarify: Rabbi Hisda says that the words could be read from both sides in two word orders and that both forward and backward readings were correct (suggesting that the retrograde letters contained even more arcane meanings). Kabbalistic writings of the 14th and 15th centuries – according to the religious, the age of kabbala’s codification; according to historians, the age of its creation – proposed the Talmud’s alphabet of fire as an ur-alphabet. Before glyphs and the innovations of Cadmus (or Kadmus?), before Babel, this was the language we spoke, the language we will speak again after the coming of the Messiah and the disconfusion of tongues. All the languages around us, Indo-European and Altaic, Sino-Tibetan and Afro-Asiatic, are mere representations of this tongue; their sounds and letterforms portals into a semi-comprehensible, apocalypse-grade inferno.

I like that kind of mysticism (and enjoyed Orhan Pamuk’s The Black Book for that reason).
And on the general topic of the dangers of language, comedian David Mitchell has a video called “Authenticity” that starts off with an agonized discussion of how his fellow Brits pronounce valet and how they perceive others’ pronunciation of it, and winds up with “I don’t want to be inauthentic, but I can no longer remember what I authentically said. I’m searching for the most honest way to be fake.” Lots of fun.

Comments

  1. For me, Mitchell nails it. When I know two ways to say something, in effect that means not that there are two right ways but that there are two wrong ways.

  2. J.W. Brewer says:

    The LRB review is unfortunately not currently available online to non-subscribers. I see the Amazon reviews of the Marcus book are quite evenly distributed from five stars to one star and all points in between. My favorite detail of the Elisha-and-the-she-bears anecdote is the odd specificity that exactly 42 of the misbehaving children suffered. Is there some kabbalistic/numerological account of that, or is it just the sort of randomly specific detail that makes the narrative seem more historically reliable?

  3. empty: When I know two ways to say something, in effect that means not that there are two right ways but that there are two wrong ways.
    How binary of you ! Nowadays, it is possible to move from “I know two ways to say something” to a different conclusion: “Neither is right, neither is wrong. Each is useful in certain respects, in certain situations”. Example: a way to describe something in set theory to a beginner, another way to describe it in a conversation with a set theorist.

  4. he has Schopenhauer impossibly plagiarise Wittgenstein (‘if it can be said, then I am not interested’)
    How wonderful ! And how naive to call it “doing violence to philosophy” ! That is like a child saying that what he hears going on in his parents’ bedroom at night is “Daddy hurting Mommy”.
    In February of this year a new book came out in Germany: Lexikon der imaginären philosophischen Werke. Browsing it at the Cologne train station, I saw that I would need to tie myself to the mast before reading it, otherwise I would end up on the rocks. No, no – let me vist more of the original ports first.

  5. dearieme says:

    Doesn’t one nowadays simply refer to one’s Jeeves?
    Prob solved.

  6. Not binary, just too elliptical. What I meant by “two ways to say something” was “two ways to pronounce a word”, and what I meant by “wrong” was “such as to lead some people to hear my speech as ignorant”.

  7. David Mitchell is engaged to a rich professional poker player, a daughter of the editor of Punch and a fellow Guardian columnist (all Victoria Coren).
    My wife turned off the taped book reading of P. G. Wodehouse in our car recently because she said the young female characters are so one-dimensional (or words to that effect). I tried saying that that was the whole point, but she didn’t find it a convincing argument. She likes Jeeves stories, this was something about golf or Lord Emsworth.

  8. I see: elliptic dynamics on a 2-manifold.

  9. (She obviously didn’t mean Madeline Bassett, either.)

  10. Also, “I don’t want to be inauthentic, but I can no longer remember what I authentically said” – I don’t believe it. If I can remember when, for instance, I changed from saying sitting room and loo to living room and toilet (architecture school), I don’t see why he can’t remember such things. And of course this is not a phenomenon that only happens England.

  11. I can no longer remember how I used to pronounce “basil” (the herb). We tend to say bazzle at home, but most people around here say baizle.
    My son once got arguing about the pronunciation with a friend of his, and somehow the other guy got mixed up and accidentally switched sides in the heat of battle–like Daffy duck in the famous “pronoun trouble” scene with Bugs Bunny.

  12. I don’t know why some people say baizle, it was a shock when I first heard it (Basil is my grandfather’s name). I’d be interested to know why these things are so irritating (= unsettling).

  13. dearieme says:

    Can someone explain to me the distinction sofa/settee/couch? I clearly haven’t lived in England long enough to crack the code on this one.
    P.S. I find that if asking for directions it’s best not to say “lavatory” or “loo”: “toilet” seems to be better understood by the people who know where the bogs are.

  14. the other guy got mixed up and accidentally switched sides in the heat of battle
    It can also be done deliberately, so as to discombobulate the opponent. Or in a bid to save face by getting everyone to laugh while you make your getaway.
    These maneuvers fall into the category of “accidentally on purpose”. Their success depends to a large extent on having an opponent who is slow on the uptake, and on the discussion being verbal, not written.
    You may wonder how I know this. Or you may not.

  15. My son has just reminded me that I got the story wrong: in fact his friend switched in order to discombobulate him (just as Bugs Bunny switched in order to discombobulate Daffy Duck).
    As for sofas and couches and so on, I think that this varies widely. For my mother’s mother the catchall term for these multi-person seats with a back and arms was davenport, while my mother says couch and my wife says sofa (and I never know whether I’m going to say couch or sofa until I somehow choose one and the word pops out).
    I’m not sure my mother ever had occasion to speak the word basil. My wife feels as AJP does about the proper pronunciation, but if I go food shopping and say “excuse me, where would I find fresh bazzle” I can be fairly sure that the grocery-store employee’s answer will refer to bayzle, or maybe basal.

  16. Grumbly, would you like to tell us how you know this?

  17. In England all I know is that settee is the lower-middle or working class name for what the upper-middle class calls a sofa. I don’t know how they ended up with a French word, being so uneducated and all. Couch is a word used by psychoanalysts and architects, but there must be others too, because they didn’t come up with ‘couch potato’. I don’t know what the aristocracy says, maybe it’s couch. I’m meeting one of them in a few weeks and I can ask. The analysts’ couch is actually a chaise longue, the most comfortable of all ways of reclining if you’ve got enough space for such a thing.

  18. So Ø, it comes from a mix up with basal? Good thinking. It sometimes helps to be a good speller (I imagine).

  19. dearieme says:

    We’ve got a surplus chaise longue. Any offers?

  20. No, I don’t think it always helps to be a good speller.
    In fact the reason I mentioned that other word is that my wife once suggested that the “long a” pronunciation of basil can’t be right because that would sound like “basal”; but there are at least two things wrong with that theory: (1) the word “basil” is older than the word “basal”, so if they did sound the same it would be “basal” that chose unwisely, and (2) English has plenty of homophones.

  21. But really it’s just what you’re used to. I think that maybe the default term in the USA is “sofa”, at at least in the furniture biz. I grew up with “couch”, but that’s just an accident. Sometimes I think of “couch” and “sofa” as synonyms, but I am also capable of thinking of couch as meaning a sort of day-bed with just one arm, suitable for reclining, perhaps with one arm flung across one’s face in an expression of despair or world-weariness.
    settle and settee: one word or two.

  22. All through my first half-century I heard only bazzle, since then increasing I heard bayzle until now that’s all I hear. It still makes me cringe.

  23. I always thought that a settle was another name for a bench. A settee is a sort of upscale sofa that I have neither the money nor the desire to own since we are not formal people and our children don’t properly respect our own furniture as it is. My father-in-law owns something that I would classify as a settee. It is in his living/dining room which is not extensively used as it contains only formal furniture. Every other room in the appartment contains only comfortable furniture.

  24. Sino-Tibetan DOES NOT exist! It is not a language family but rather something made up by so-called “linguists”. It is not a real language family because Chinese and Tibetan are not related! They only have a few loanwords between them and the fact that they are monosyllabic does not mean they are in fact related in any way.

  25. Garrigus Carraig says:

    [citation needed]

  26. Germans have no difficulty distinguishing between couch and sofa. One is die Couch, the other is das Sofa.

  27. The OED2 goes with bazzle; the OED3 has not yet reached the word. But m-w.com (which is continuously updated, though American) lists all four of bazzle, bayzle, bassle, and basal as available pronunciations not only for basil but for Basil too. Similarly confusing is quaff, which can be pronounced with the vowel of LOT, PALM, THOUGHT, or TRAP, depending on your dictionary; these are distinct in RP but are merged in different ways in other accents.
    A sofa is basically for reclining, a settee for sitting on (it is typically long enough only for two rear ends, not three, and may even have an arm in the middle), and a couch may serve for either. The OED2 says s.v. couch “now [i.e. 1893] commonly distinguished from a sofa by having a half-back and head-end only.”
    Settee may well be a variant of settle, a word of much more varied meaning: it may be almost anything that people sit on, or even merely a place to sit. In any case the -ee ending is not the absolutive ending of vendee, absentee, but the vague sort-of diminutive form used in bootee, goatee.
    At the beginning of the 20th century in the U.S., the chaise longue became the chaise lounge, with the second word pronounced as you’d expect in English, and this is now the standard American form.
    In North America one must ask for the bathroom in a private house, or the rest room, the men’s room, or the women’s/ladies’ room in a public place. (Per contra, the North American abroad who asks for the bathroom actually wants the toilet.) Toilet is too coarse, though not actually vulgar; lavatory too technical (and it collides with the technical use of plumbers, for whom it is a sink); loo and bog unknown.

  28. Sofa, settee, couch, etc: What about chesterfield?
    AHD4 says it’s used to mean sofa chiefly in northern California and Canada, and adds a “Regional Note”:
    Chesterfield, a term for a sofa, especially a large one with upholstered arms, was probably brought down from Canada, where it is common. In the United States, it was largely limited to the trade region of San Francisco in northern California. According to Craig M. Carver in American Regional Dialects, the word probably comes from the name of a 19th-century earl of Chesterfield and originally referred “specifically to a couch with upright armrests at either end.” It appears to have come into use in Canada around 1903 and in northern California at about the same time.
    _____________
    Chesterfield and sofa are pretty much interchangeable in Canada, with the nod to chesterfield where formality is required (chesterfield in the living room, sofa in the den). Settee, in my experience, refers to a smaller or lighter seating unit, and is also used in referring to a banquette.

  29. dearieme says:

    “specifically to a couch with upright armrests at either end.”
    Ha, there’s that use, which I think of as English and lunatic, of “either” to mean “each”. Or is it? Does he really mean “either”? Heaven knows.

  30. We’ve had that argument once before. Nijma took your part (it was about bushes on either side of the front door), and everyone got really cross.
    I say ‘on either side’ to mean ‘on both sides’, bazzle to mean Basil, lavatory to mean bog (I wouldn’t want to wash my hands in someone’s lavatory, but I have seen plumbers do some pretty disgusting things), and I’d rather kill myself than say ‘chaise lounge’.

  31. Would you be more comfortable with “chaste lounge lizard” ?

  32. I wonder whether the expression “couch potato” is, in part at least, due to a misunderstanding of “lounge lizard” as a creature that likes to lounge in the sun (in contrast to an upwardly mobile lizard). A couch potato, equally immobile, thrives in the light from a tv. The main difference is that lizards are thin whereas potatoes are fattening.

  33. Where I grew up, we called a sofa a ‘lounge chair’ or just ‘lounge’, but this could refer to either an armchair (single person) or a sofa (accommodating three or four people). The ‘lounge’ (or ‘lounge room’) was what we called the living room. So ‘on the lounge’ and ‘in the lounge’ had rather different meanings.
    I thought of ‘divan’ (but not ‘chesterfield’) while checking for alternative terms, but found that a divan hasn’t got a back or armrests at all, so it doesn’t technically belong here. Interesting that both ‘sofa’ and ‘divan’ both come from (or via) Turkish. Obviously the Turks knew something about good living.

  34. dearieme says:

    Do people still have ottomans at the bottom of the bed? We all had them whenIwasaboy.

  35. J.W. Brewer says:

    Some evidence of the shared pronunciation of “Basil” and “basal” at least in AmEng can be found in “Basil Metabolism,” which is sometimes a pun (as in a recent Zippy the Pinhead comic strip and in a running character named Dr. Basil Metabolism in a now-defunct comic) and sometimes probably just an eggcorn.
    It seems like there ought to be some map Out There on the Internet showing a couch v. sofa isogloss for regions of the U.S.? But I couldn’t find one quickly. My paternal grandmother inclined to “davenport” which no one else I knew used, but I’m not sure how much of that was generational (she was born 1903) versus regional (she was born and raised in Minnesota). whenIwasaboy we used “chaise lounge” only to refer to a sort of outdoor furniture item one might recline on while sunbathing. In BrEng, “lounge” is used in lots of compounds (lounge suit, lounge bar) that seem puzzling/opaque from an AmEng point of view.

  36. The analysts’ couch is actually a chaise longue, the most comfortable of all ways of reclining if you’ve got enough space for such a thing.
    I beg to differ. The most comfortable of all ways of reclining is a sky chair. We had to get a second one so my wife wouldn’t have to worry about me stealing hers.
    In fact the reason I mentioned that other word is that my wife once suggested that the “long a” pronunciation of basil can’t be right because that would sound like “basal”; but there are at least two things wrong with that theory: (1) the word “basil” is older than the word “basal”, so if they did sound the same it would be “basal” that chose unwisely, and (2) English has plenty of homophones.
    This is an excellent illustration of how people deal with linguistic differences. Without the benefit of a linguistics course, the default reaction is: 1) my way is right and that other way is wrong, and 2) the reason is perfectly logical and rational (despite the fact that the alleged reason fails if you try to apply it to anything beyond the example at hand). Depending on my mood and the circumstances, I am either amused or driven around the bend by it. The only solution is Linguistics Classes for All!
    In England all I know is that settee is the lower-middle or working class name for what the upper-middle class calls a sofa.
    I don’t use the word settee and have no mental image for it; I just checked with my wife and she doesn’t either. (And to me, settle is purely a verb.)
    What about chesterfield?
    To me it’s something you smoke.
    Ha, there’s that use, which I think of as English and lunatic, of “either” to mean “each”.
    I’m American, and to me it’s perfectly normal.

  37. What was the function of the ottoman at the bottom (foot) of the bed? I think of an ottoman as primarily something for putting one’s feet up on.
    A loveseat is like a sofa but smaller, with room for two.
    Stu, thin is not the opposite of fattening.
    I remember my disappointment when I learned the word “lavatory”. It was my first day at a new school, so there were new people and places and routines to get used to. At a certain moment the teacher told us it was time to go to the lavatory. I thought she meant laboratory, and was disappointed when instead of some interesting science lesson all we got was a chance to relieve ourselves and wash our hands.

  38. Thanks, I’d forgotten the sky chair. I wanted one after you showed it last time. There’s no room for it, but there’s always the goat house.

  39. marie-lucie says:

    JC: In North America one must ask for the bathroom in a private house, or the rest room, the men’s room, or the women’s/ladies’ room in a public place.
    In English Canada, in a public place you will see either “RESTROOMS” or “WASHROOMS” on signs directing you to the twin facilities. My impression is that “restroom(s)” is more likely in large places like airports but “washroom(s)” in smaller ones like restaurants, but that is just my impression. Usage may also depend on the region. Here in Nova Scotia people will ask “Where is the washroom?” or the “men’s room” or “ladies’ room”.

  40. LH: That sky chair (link didn’t work for me, had to google it) is the most extraordinary contraption of a chair I’ve ever seen, and certainly never seen before. It looks like the sort of thing you attach helium balloons to and invade commercial air lanes…
    Are they US traditional, or new inventions ?

  41. marie-lucie says:

    AJP: In England all I know is that settee is the lower-middle or working class name for what the upper-middle class calls a sofa. I don’t know how they ended up with a French word, being so uneducated and all
    What do you mean, a French word used by the uneducated?
    settee, settle : to me these are very old-fashioned words which I associate with a small two-seater with arms but with a minimum of upholstery. I have seen such items in antique stores and in the houses of people who inherited them from their grandparents or so. Usually they seem to be made for smaller people than we are now.
    chesterfield : When I first moved to Canada (years ago) I was asked if I intended to buy a chesterfield suite (sofa + armchair), a term I did not know. I never used the word chesterfield much, instead I use both couch and sofa.
    divan, sofa: It seems that many Asian countries do (or did) not use chairs much but that people sit cross-legged or recline on low platforms covered with carpets and cushions of various sizes.
    In France many people have a divan (basically a bed without a headboard or footboard), but in English I know the word srom seeing it written. I have heard other people call this item a davenport.
    ottoman: (another Turkish word) To me this is roundish, so it would not work well at the foot of a bed, where a better use of space is something with straight lines, such as a blanket chest.
    couch (psychiatrist’s): At one point some friends of mine rented an apartment in a house that belonged to an old lady, the widow of a psychiatrist. I think that she must have been afraid of being alone, so she was renting out the part of the house where her husband had had his office, where there was still some furniture, including the obligatory couch! The widow told them that they could keep it, but they did not like it. I only discovered this after they had thrown it out: I would have loved to have it myself, but it never occurred to them that any of their friends would want this old thing.

  42. What do you mean, a French word used by the uneducated?
    Don’t worry, it’s just a joke.

  43. In France many people have a divan (basically a bed without a headboard or footboard), but in English I know the word from seeing it written.
    It has the same meaning in England.

  44. Interesting that both ‘sofa’ and ‘divan’ both come from (or via) Turkish.
    There’s a short essay in Hebrew on the origins of divan at the Israeli magazine Teva HaDvarim, “The Nature of Things.”
    I have an electronic copy of the essay as translated into English, but am uncomfortable posting it here as I don’t know Mottie Rosen, the linguist who wrote it, and it doesn’t appear to be online.
    That said, I’ll quote a few paragraphs:
    ______________
    . . . Although the word divan entered world cultures from the Persian, it is in fact a compound word that borrowed its foundations from two cultures, one the ancient Sumerian, which contributed the word Dub – to write, while the other word had its origins in ancient Persian, Vahanam – house. Joining these two ancient words produced the final form – divan.
    This produced one of the first interpretations of divan – bureau or office, but upon its creation, divan also came to denote “written pages” and eventually even a collection of poetry or prose pages that were joined together . . .
    [In Moorish Spain] divan was used to denote economic account pages. To this day, literary Arabic calls treasury account books divan. And thus, bit by bit, divan was converted from pages dealing with accounts to the people managing such accounts, and economic matters that appeared on those pages. Finally the place where the economists gathered was called divan.
    In the Ottoman Empire . . . the Supreme Council was called divan, and the conference hall where it met was granted that name as well. . . At last, the comfortable couch on which the various participants reclined, leaning on their cushions in the finest Oriental fashion, was called divan as well.
    In this sense, couch, the divan entered . . . Russian and Romanian (as) divan and Spanish with its French parallel (as) douane. In French, English and Spanish it is found in conjunction with the word sofa. In Italian as well, we find (divano) alongside . . . sofa.
    . . . (I)n Spanish, particularly in the form prevalent in South America, the word aduana, a derivative of divan, has the meaning of “customs”, while its French equivalent, both in form and meaning, is douane.

  45. marie-lucie says:

    The analysts’ couch is actually a chaise longue
    No. At least not in the French sense: you can actually sit back and read in a chaise longue (= ‘long chair’), with your legs stretched out in front of you as if sitting at the head of a bed. The analyst’s couch is flat except that the head is slightly raised (so there is theoretically no need for a pillow).
    There is another kind of chaise longue, also called un transat (short for un transatlantique ‘ocean-crossing liner’), which is a folding deck chair Some of them have a foot part which can be folded under the main chair.

  46. marie-lucie says:

    Paul O: Very interesting about divan. I remember reading about “le Divan” as part of Turkish administration in older times, but I was not sure what it was. The TLFI gives the original of the Turkish word as Persan di:wa:n, borrowed into Turkish. It does not say anything about more ancient origins.
    The evolution of the meaning of divan is very similar to that of French bureau: a type of cloth used for covering a table (not for eating); the table itself (later a desk); the room where the desk is; the people working in the room; the administrative unit including such people; etc.
    I did not know the etymology of douane ‘customs’. I thought it might be a borrowing from Spanish aduana (perhaps going from *l’adouane to la douane), but the TLFI gives it as borrowed from Old Italian dovana (Modern It has dogana, perhaps because of a dialectal correspondance -v-/-g-).

  47. My paternal grandmother inclined to “davenport” which no one else I knew used, but I’m not sure how much of that was generational (she was born 1903) versus regional (she was born and raised in Minnesota).
    My grandmother for whom “davenport” seemed to be the default word was born in 1896, grew up in rural Vermont, lived most of her adult life in far upstate NY.

  48. bureau: a type of cloth used for […]
    I can think of two other cases in which a word denoting a cloth covering took a metonymic journey: toilet and exchequer.

  49. There’s a well-known Eileen Gray chair from the 1920s known as the Transat chair, in English.

  50. dearieme says:

    “ottoman: (another Turkish word) To me this is round”: they were cuboid whenIwasaboy and whereIwasaboy.
    “a better use of space is something with straight lines, such as a blanket chest”: they were used as blanket chests, but had a padded top so that you could sit in comfort while you pulled your socks on.
    Children would use them not for blankets but for toys, stamp collections, comics and whatnot.

  51. befuggled says:

    Various elderly relatives of mine in Michigan used the term “davenport” as well.

  52. empty: thin is not the opposite of fattening.
    Very true. Nor are lizards the opposite of potatoes. Binary logic is not the only show in town.

  53. In line with J. W. Brewer’s experience, whenIwasaboy chaise longue (or lounge) meant the longer sort of folding beach chair.
    storage ottoman

  54. Paul: divan also came to denote “written pages” and eventually even a collection of poetry or prose pages that were joined together
    So that’s what is behind the title of a well-known collection of “oriental” poetry by Goethe: West-östlicher Diwan. Not being a poetry buff, I have never read it. I had imagined that it was advertising copy for an export-import furniture business. Well, there was hardly anything that Goethe didn’t try his hand at.

  55. By golly, empty, I had forgotten about the storage ottoman as an item of furniture (in El Paso it was called something different, I think). That is exactly the thing I need in my apartment.

  56. The TLFI gives the original of the Turkish word as Persan di:wa:n, borrowed into Turkish. It does not say anything about more ancient origins.
    My electronic AHD4 offers for the origin of divan:
    [French, from Turkish, from Persian dīvān, place of assembly, roster, probably from Old Iranian *dipivahanam, document house : Old Persian dipī-, writing, document (from Akkadian ṭuppu, tablet, letter, from Sumerian dub) + Old Persian vahanam, house; see wes-1 in Indo-European roots.]
    The evolution of the meaning of divan is very similar to that of French bureau: a type of cloth used for covering a table (not for eating)
    Looks like great bureaucrats think alike!
    English bank, per AHD4: [Middle English banke, from French banque, from Old Italian banca, bench, moneychanger’s table, from Old High German banc.]
    Greek trapeza τράπεζα bank also comes from a word for table: τραπέζι

  57. Stu, you entered this thread accusing me of binary thinking and now here you go again. Very well.
    I retract the phrase “is not the opposite of”. I had a hunch that it was going to get me in trouble, if only because of the definite article. How about “is not an opposite of”? Even I know that a thing doesn’t have a unique “opposite”. Or can we try “is not in contrast to”? And, oh, dear, now I’ll probably get in trouble for using the word “thing” when I meant, what, entity? Although that word has been tainted for me by sentences like Bain, a private equity firm, held a stake in the Lifelike Co. until the end of 2001, including during the period in which Romney claimed to have no business involvement with Bain entities.
    Sorry, what was it you were saying about lizards and potatoes? I’ll try to pay attention properly this time. By the way, these divan potatoes look more fattening than any couch potatoes.

  58. I don’t think we ever called it a storage ottoman, either. But we had one, a very tacky one, vinyl-covered, mustard-yellow, usually filled with knitting supplies or playing cards.

  59. marie-lucie says:

    AJP: There’s a well-known Eileen Gray chair from the 1920s known as the Transat chair, in English.
    Nice chair, obviously influenced by the transat in the way the back and the seat are a single unit. Since it has arms, I would call it a fauteuil, not a chaise, and it is not long either. Perhaps it was known as un fauteuil transat in French.

  60. marie-lucie says:

    I think that an ottoman is too low to sit on comfortably (unless you are a small child) and low enough that you can sit in a chair and put your feet (not your legs) on it. A chest is higher. The blanket chest I was referring to could also be called a storage chest, a very useful piece as it can hide a multitude of odds and ends. I used to have one in which I stored my vacuum cleaner, and it did triple duty as a coffee table or an extra seat.

  61. empty: I would suggest, as an easy introduction to a more florid kind of binary logic (if you insist on restricting yourself to it), the square of opposition. You should find there the word you want for “doesn’t have a unique opposite”.
    And, oh, dear, now I’ll probably get in trouble for using the word “thing” when I meant, what, entity?
    Sigh. What dusty templates into which you try to press my philoscoffic sallies ! May I be struck dead on the spot if I have ever recommended that “entity” is a better word/concept than “thing” for whatever.
    I have said things like “reality is a construct”, and even elaborated on it. But nobody here has even remotely understood what I am getting at, so I have given up. It has been like trying to explain the notion of heliocentricity to sun worshippers. They too thought the sun is central, but not that way.

  62. marie-lucie: “storage chest” or “storage bench” are, I think, indeed what those benches were called in my West Texas youf, not “ottoman”.

  63. Are they US traditional, or new inventions ?
    I never heard of them until I encountered my wife’s. You have to attach them to a hook screwed into a beam; fortunately our porch makes that convenient.
    I discussed divan and its etymology here.

  64. To me ottoman is primarily a rectangular object with short legs you put your feet on while sitting in an easy chair. As a child I often used to sit on one until I outgrew it. I have seen round ones since, but they seem badly designed for the purpose.
    But the Shepard illustrations make clear that in the Milne household, where Winnie-the-Pooh would “get what exercise he can / By falling off the ottoman”, there was one to be found at the foot of Christopher Robin’s bed.

  65. By the way, how do you get into or out of the sky chair? The web site doesn’t show that at all.

  66. You just sit in it, usually holding it steady with one hand. It’s got a footrest part as well.

  67. dusty templates
    Yes, Stu, sorry, that was half-hearted and ham-handed of me. If I was at all serious, my point was not specifically about what to call things or entities, but more broadly about the familiar and potentially paralyzing experience of wondering which of one’s unthinking assumptions will fall next to your axe when you get “philoscoffical”. Not that I have anything against the challenging of assumptions …

  68. Not that I have anything against the challenging of assumptions …
    Are you sure of that ? On what grounds do you assume that there is nothing wrong with challenging assumptions ? 😉
    You’ve hit the mark, though. The main thing about my views on “epistemological” topics – the thing that people find the hardest to understand – is that these views are additive. They are intended not to correct or replace other views, but to be additional, alternative ways of thinking. I may give the impression of trying to get people to change their internet provider, but that’s just standard marketing practice. New products must be forcefully presented.
    Many people believe that there is only one right way to look at things. Anything that is incompatible with that way is suspect and (by “binary logic”) must be cast out. This is the kind of attitude that Germans have towards adding jelly to a peanut butter sandwich.

  69. Consider my claim that there may be more than one way of considering the question of whether there is only one right way to consider questions. That, too, is just a new, perhaps unfamiliar kind of sliced baloney on the buffet table. Are you going to spurn it merely because it wasn’t available in the supermarket when you were growing up ?

  70. In any case, it is the concrete applications where things get really interesting. It’s the same in mathematics. The theorems are what make it worthwhile, but a certain amount of preparatory work, and sometimes a willingness to jump into the cold water, is necessary in order to understand them. Think of transfinite arithmetic, or non-well-founded sets.

  71. Last night’s O’Brian reading included this sentence, very relevant to the discussion above of seating arrangements:

    The bare little rooms had been sanded and scrubbed; various neat lockers economized space; a complication of white cordage in the corner showed that a hanging chair, that most comfortable of seats, was being made; and hammocks lashed up with seven perfectly even turns and covered with a rug formed a not inelegant sofa.

    (Emphasis added.) I had no idea the sky chair went that far back!

  72. Treesong says:

    GStu, I don’t understand your last comment at all. What are ‘concrete applications’ and ‘transfinite arithmetic’ doing in the same paragraph? Please expand.

  73. Stu, when I first glanced at your third to last comment, I thought it said “The main thing about my views on “epistemological” topics – the thing that people find the hardest to understand – is that these views are addictive.”
    I’d say sometimes it’s good to challenge assumptions and sometimes it’s not so good. Unexamined assumptions can interfere with communication, with understanding, with happiness. Then it’s good to examine them. Trying to examine all of one’s assumptions feels like having a conversation with you when you’re in one of your moods. Or like trying to invent Buddhism.
    I know that many Europeans are revolted by peanut butter, but I had no idea there was a group who prefer it without jelly. Who taught the Germans to make peanut-butter sandwiches, anyway?
    My father used to eat peanut-butter-and-liverwurst sandwiches? As a child I knew of no other use for liverwurst. Do Germans do that? (Not that I think that would explain why my father did.)
    My willingness to jump into literal cold water is legendary, but I’m not that interested in set theory.

  74. The first liverwurst sentence was not meant to end with a question mark.

  75. marie-lucie says:

    peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches
    I discovered peanut butter when I came to the States as a student. Later I went on a weekend trip with a group of students. Anong other foods, someone produced peanut-butter-and-raspberry-jam sandwiches. I thought that looked disgusting! I was pleasantly surprised that the combination was actually very good. Since then I have tried other popular combinations of peanut-butter-and’s. Even then, I like liverwurst (= pâté de foie) but I would draw the line at mixing it with peanut butter.

  76. Treesong: What are ‘concrete applications’ and ‘transfinite arithmetic’ doing in the same paragraph?
    Perhaps you feel that everything in mathematics is “abstract”. I’m not sure that many professional mathematicians would agree with you. I am not one, but I find that an axiomatic presentation of some field feels abstract, while an application of it (to itself as in mathematical logic, or to another field) is concrete.
    The choice of words is not important. My point was that one must create or learn certain techniques (physical, cognitive) by practice in order to be able to apply them. The practice is “abstract”, the application is “concrete” – although there is not always a clear distinction between the two, especially in mathematics.
    After many years of correspondence with various people on vague, philosophical notions such as potential and actual infinity. Cantor created a concrete, mathematical application or reworking of these, in the form of a subject he himself created, namely transfinite arithmetic.
    You may not know that he got quite a bit of stick for that, in particular from Kronecker. Some of the correspondence was published in one of those Dover science books way back when.

  77. To return to my original point: without some background reading in sociology and philosophy of the last 100 years, say in Durkheim and Luhmann at each end of this period of time, you may very likely think that a blurb-sentence such as “reality is a construct” is completely crazy and cannot possibly be made to have sense.

  78. The first liverwurst sentence was not meant to end with a question mark.
    Maybe not, but it’s good that way.

  79. As an example, take Luhmann’s theory of self-reproducing systems with no direct access to reality (as “seen” by an observer). It has been useful to me in trying to understand why billions of aid dollars to African countries over decades have not engineered the “democratic” improvements so many people expected.
    It also helps me to understand how it is that Hat and I can disagree about what “reality” is. If reality were such a clear-cut matter, how is disagreement about it possible ? A familiar form this disagreement takes is calling each other names like “crazy”, “stubborn”, “academic” etc. That alone goes some way to explain the “social” in “reality is a social construct”. It seems clear to me that such name-calling tells us little about reality, but a lot about how appeals to “reality” serve to regulate arguments.
    Reality is a custard pie that people can throw in each other’s faces.

  80. “Logic is a little tweeting bird chirping in a meadow. Logic is a wreath of pretty flowers which smell baaaaaaad.” —Spock, pretending to be whacked out, in the ST Classic episode “I, Mudd”
    Liverwurst is etymologically interesting: half calque, half borrowing. (Why did calque displace loanword or loan word or Lehnwort in anglophone linguistic writing? The first OED reference is 1937 in American Speech, but I saw plenty of instances of loanword when I started reading (older) linguistics books in the early 70s.)

  81. I had a little idea as to why “liverwurst” seems to be a combination of a translated and a borrowed word. But the more I thought about it, the less it seemed to fit the context.
    My OED 4.0 gives the first known use of “liverwurst” as 1869:

    1869 Atlantic Monthly Oct. 483/1 Our Dutch neighbors make liver-wurst (‘woorsht’) or meat pudding, omitting the meal, and this compound stuffed into the large intestines, is very popular in Lancaster market.

    At that date, the political situation in Europe was such that a contributor to the Atlantic Monthly who wrote “Dutch” would probably be referring to the Netherlands, not using it as a cover-all term for anything that sounds Deutsch (as 200 years previously).
    The Dutch word for liverwurst is leverworst. My idea was this. The pronunciation of Dutch lever resembles that of English “liver” more than the pronunciation of the German Leber does, using “v” instead of “b”. Perhaps that explains why the first part of the word was translated, the second part held over as a previous borrowing from German.
    However, the current pronunciation of Dutsch worst that I know is \wxrst\ (where “x” stands for various vowels I won’t attempt to reproduce, being IPA disabled). There is no \-sht\ at the end, only \st\. Yet the pronunciation indicated in the Atlantic article is ‘woorsht’. A dialectal (and jocular) pronunciation of German Wurst ends with \-sht\.
    I know nothing about 19C versions of Dutch and German, neither in Lancaster (Pennsylvania ?) nor in Europe. The only conclusion I might draw from all this is that the Atlantic contributor was not trying to be scientific, no more than I am at this instant.

  82. My mother’s (not father’s) father, who did not eat peanut butter-and-liverwurst sandwiches, grew up in a German part of Pennsylvania. He occasionally ate liverwurst, and he called it simply liver.
    One concrete benefit of yesterday’s conversation is that it prompted me to eat a peanut-butter-and-banana sandwich.

  83. Why did calque displace loanword
    But you said liverwurst is half calque half borrowing, reminding us that a calque is not the same as a borrowing. A loanword is the same as a borrowing, yes?

  84. grew up in a German part of Pennsylvania
    in a very German community, in a family where the grandparents came from Germany (Prussia?) and the father worked for the local German-language newspaper

  85. One concrete benefit of yesterday’s conversation is that it prompted me to eat a peanut-butter-and-banana sandwich.
    That’s the spirit ! A perfect example of a reality that must be socially constructed (the ingredients, the knives etc. come from your social environment, you merely use them). It would be hard to deny that sandwiches are social constructs – they don’t grow on trees, you know.
    However, I don’t know whether I can safely claim that all of reality is a peanut-butter-and-banana sandwich. It could be that as well as a custard pie – we’re not going to allow ourselves to be put off the track by any mean ole binary logic. I’ll check in Luhmann’s indexes under “bananas”.

  86. Bathrobe says:

    But ‘calque’ is not the same as ‘loanword’. A calque is a ‘loan translation’. That is, where the word itself is not borrowed into English, but the elements of the word are translated. Wiktionary gives “watershed” as a calque on German “Wasserscheide” (since I couldn’t think of any myself!).

  87. At that date, the political situation in Europe was such that a contributor to the Atlantic Monthly who wrote “Dutch” would probably be referring to the Netherlands, not using it as a cover-all term for anything that sounds Deutsch (as 200 years previously).
    The political situation in Europe at the time is irrelevant; the only relevant fact is how the word “Dutch” was used in America at the time. I refer you to these citations from the OED:
    1871 E. Eggleston Hoosier School-master vii. 74 The robbery at ‘the Dutchman’s’ (as the only German in the whole region was called).
    1931 ‘D. Stiff’ Milk & Honey Route iii. 38 Germans of all kinds are ‘Dutchmen’, ‘square-heads’ or ‘Heines’.

  88. The political situation in Europe at the time is irrelevant; the only relevant fact is how the word “Dutch” was used in America at the time.
    Not knowing the current usage, I assumed it would tend to follow the political times with a certain time lag. In any case, the word I used was “probably”.
    But you’re right. Language is a good instance of a social system concerned primarily with itself, and having no direct contact with reality (as “seen” by commentators on it). Once again we see the notion of reality being used to make a point – this time the point that it is irrelevant.

  89. marie-lucie says:

    calque : Bathrobe is right. A calque originates in a literal translation of a complex foreign word or phrase, while a loanword or borrowing has been adopted without change.
    Another example is how the word skyscraper has been calqued in various other languages, as with French gratte-ciel and Spanish rascacielos, among others.
    The French verb calquer means ‘to copy (a drawing) by covering it with transparent material and tracing the lines of the drawing on it’. The usual transparent material is called papier-calque and the resulting copy is un calque. According to the TLFI, calquer is a borrowing from Italian calcare (with morphological adjustment for the verb forms), which gave rise to the noun calco. In both cases the verb preceded the noun.

  90. Hat: there’s really no point in getting chuffed about such comments as my last one – should you be inclined to do so. I really am trying to draw attention to certain things that are quite difficult to draw attention to, things being what they are.
    When I dick around from time to time – as above with the custard, peanut butter and bananas – that is only to lull the punters into thinking my heart is in the right place. It is, in fact, but it is also as hard as nails.
    Which reminds me, I simply must have them relacquered sometime soon.

  91. Of course I was brain-farting last night: I should have compared calque to loan translation and Lehnübersetzung. I grant that it is shorter than either.

  92. Hat: there’s really no point in getting chuffed about such comments as my last one
    To me, “chuffed” means “very pleased, delighted,” which is obviously not how you’re using it. What is your working definition, and how did you come by it? (I’m pretty sure it’s not in native US use, so I presume the answer isn’t “at my mother’s knee”; I learned it from Brit novels/TV.)

  93. Also from Brit novels. But the OED says, to my astonishement:

    a. Pleased, satisfied. b. Displeased, disgruntled.

    Clearly I word I should avoid in future.

  94. Clearly a word

  95. Wouldn’t the Dutch neighbors in Lancaster be the Pennsylvania Dutch, i.e. German Mennonites? As far as I know, they still speak a german dialect, although I don’t know where in Germany they came from. They’re certainly still in Lancaster.

  96. marie-lucie says:

    getting chuffed
    I too am surprised at your definition, LH. I don’t use the word but the few times I have heard it it seemed more negative than positive.

  97. We need Crown to advise us on this one.

  98. In one sense a sandwich is a social construct, but in another sense it is quite material: you can recognize it by its accidents, unlike (say) a marriage, which is only a social construct. I think it’s confusing to conflate the two. Are we to say that an apple on the tree is not a social construct, but when picked and in the store, it is? Perhaps so, but it seems muddled to me.

  99. any more than you ought to put -n on a German noun in an English sentence if it’s being used as an indirect object
    Only noun plurals. The general rule is: to get the dative plural, you add -n to the nominative plural.
    Yeah, that’s right. I’m not used to thinking about or formulating “rules”, whether in German or English. My grammar vocabulary is minimal in both languages.
    There’s something called the Futur II, for example. I couldn’t tell you what that is (although I have a suspicion). Just now you used the word “inflect”, which I had completely forgotten.

  100. Are we to say that an apple on the tree is not a social construct, but when picked and in the store, it is? Perhaps so, but it seems muddled to me.
    Indeed. You’ve homed in on an important point. Where are we going to draw the line ? Do we really need to draw one line for all time between “social constructs” and “reality” ? Isn’t what we do more like continually drawing different, temporary lines for different purposes, and crossing them back and forth ?
    Is it necessary (for what purposes ?) always to say that society is grounded in “reality”, that it revolves around reality ? Might it not be useful sometimes to say that reality revolves around society ? (Geocentrism, heliocentrism)

  101. This is the point where the notions of “mean” and “say” need to be clarified. The expository Mont Blanc of this topic is the “Sinn” chapter (3) of Luhmann’s Soziale Systeme.
    The higher regions are littered with skeletons. I am trying to organize little hikes around the base, but most people prefer to stay home watching Reality TV.

  102. dearieme says:

    I can clear up “chuffed” for you.
    To my post WWII generation, it meant a. Pleased, satisfied.
    But when my father – fought WWII generation – heard me use it that way, he pointed out that to his generation it meant b. Displeased, disgruntled.

  103. I first knew chuffed as displeased or even angry. Only later did I hear the word used with the opposite meaning. My Canadian sensibility says the word is an import from the U.K.

  104. In those O’Brian books that Hat is reading, chuff is an adverb. Speaking chuff is something you are not supposed to do, at least not supposed to do when talking to your betters.

  105. Also an adjective.

  106. I’ve only heard ‘chuffed’ in the ‘pleased, happy’ sense. (I think it may have been from British people.)

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