Thursday, December 27, 2007

Put your vocabulary to work...

...and donate free rice to feed hungry people.

from the FAQ...

If FreeRice has the rice to give, why not give it all away right now?

FreeRice is not sitting on a pile of rice―you are earning it 20 grains at a time. Here is how it works. When you play the game, advertisements appear on the bottom of your screen. The money generated by these advertisements is then used to buy the rice. So by playing, you generate the money that pays for the rice donated to hungry people.

Does FreeRice make any money from this?

No, it does not. FreeRice runs the site at no profit.

Friday, December 7, 2007

The Conjugations of Bush

George W, everyone's favorite murderer of the English language (as I'm sure he would be of other languages if he bothered to learn any) recently proved that he knows the very simple forms of the verb "to be," for which I applaud him. In a boring, ponderous speech strangely reminiscent of the ones he gave before the invasion of Iraq, he informed the American public that "Iran was dangerous, Iran is dangerous, and Iran will be dangerous." For his next trick, I'd like him to diagram the last verse of the song, "In the hole in the bottom of the sea." (The grammar geeks on this site would likely love that activity, wouldn't we?)

On a side note, I've always been frustrated with the way grammar is taught in the US, as I'm sure most grammarians are. When I first learned a foreign language, the concepts of conjugating verbs and declining nouns were ... well, foreign. And difficult. It took me years to realize this was partly because I was never taught the concepts for English. And, although English isn't quite as predictable as some languages (like German) in its grammar rules, that doesn't mean they have to be taught, or understood, in such a sloppy fashion. Surely there's a simple, methodical way of teaching the public how to use English correctly? Even George Bush, it seems is capable of learning the basics.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Any Words Leave You Silly or Sore?

I can sum up my last six weeks by something my husband said at the beginning: "The word 'NICU' should never be in anyone's vocabulary." Our son, now home and healthy, was born seven weeks early and spent a month in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at the hospital.

The nurses and doctors were beyond amazing; they make me believe in humanity again. But my reaction now to the word NICU is an interesting one--half shrinking, horrified fear, and half grateful, hopeful desire.

There are other words or names that have these sorts of effects. There are two particular male names that make me almost physically ill, due to the manner in which I encountered them in childhood (no, not the way you think). The words "guppie" and "mug" always bring a smile to my face, evoking as they do my first year of college and my beloved, crazy roommate. "Perspicacity" brings to mind, simultaneously, tentative ambition with the memory of a strict and admired high school English teacher, and slight shame, as it came up in a bad Piers Anthony novel that shouldn't have interested me so much.

If I dredged my mind, I'm sure I could come up with plenty of other examples--words with such strong emotional impact that they almost count as a significant relationship. Anyone else find their reaction to various words less than objective?

Monday, September 3, 2007

Stealing Publicy

Everybody knows about privacy. Privacy is the ability to keep things private. It is the thing you respect when you do not talk publicly about things that were done privately. Public and private are, in this context, opposites. So what should publicy mean? Does a swap do it?

Nobody knows about publicy. Publicy is the ability to keep things public. It is the thing you respect when you do not talk privately about things that were done publicly. No, a swap makes things muddy.

Because we adopted the wrong statements about privacy?

Privacy is the ability to control what things about ourselves are private. It is respected by not usurping the control of the private space from the individual. Public and private are, in this context, very similar. Now what happens with a swap?

Publicy is the ability to control what things about ourselves are public. It is respected by not usurping the control of the public space from the individual. A swap now works.

A definition of publicy has already been offered, going back as far as 1998: "the response from public institutions a private person is able to elicit." M. Veldboer is credited. Doc Searls took a crack at it, starting by wondering what the opposite of privacy would be. He talks of private enterprise of private ownership, of public spaces, of commons. All very good. And private and public have these connotations in some contexts, so fine. But the context I have given is fundamental to the contexts that Searls gave. His public spaces are European coffee shops and pubs, where people have public life.

How fundamental?

I grew up in New England. Oh, yes, the dreaded place of puritans and witch trials, of blue laws and dunking stools. But also the place of commons, of commonwealth, of town meetings. Of the publicy that Searls dreams. Think about what people did in those days to enter the public space: They dressed according to the way they wished to be perceived (in early New England days, that would be brown, grey, white, or black, anything else was indulging in the pleasures of the senses). They would go to the public forum at which they wished to be perceived, the commons, Buckman's tavern, the church, the market. They would say what they wished to be heard, a speech, a sermon, a raucous discussion, a sales pitch.

They participated in the public space, they had a public aspect, they controlled that public aspect. Without that control, their participation in public activity would be difficult, and lead to detrimental results. This happened in Salem, where rumors became edits on the persona of people in the public space, where past actions were replayed with new meaning, and finally, where people were hung.

So before you can have a functioning commons, a public space where people have publicy, as Searls and Veldboer define it, you need publicy as an aspect of an individual that is controlled by that individual, and respected by others.

The first people whose publicy began to be infringed were the Hollywood stars. And you can see very important aspects of the concept in the long-term study of their public persona: They exist at many different public ages simultaneously: We can watch Road To Perdition, and then Cool Hand Luke, and Paul Newman has two simultaneously different ages and appearances. In real life this would bother us immensely (look at what we think of, say, Count Dracula), and it still has remnants of this uncomfortableness when you see a picture in the obits of a person in their prime that you knew more recently. They can't transform: Marilyn Monroe is believed by many to have commit suicide over being unable to shed a sexpot image and be appreciated as a serious actress -- regardless of, say, the difficult role played in "Some Like It Hot", or her association with the power elite. They have no privacy: They are public figures, so hanging around their backyards with cameras is tolerated at the supermarket checkout counter. They can cheat aging by dying: Monroe, but also JFK and Jimi Hendrix, are forever young because no new pictures can be taken, and they are picture people. This last dates back a long way, Abraham Lincoln has only two ages, with and without the beard.

But the same is true in these figures as of the puritans at Salem: infringement of their right to publicy resulting from restructuring public facts to support rumors or to support slurs, or to alter the impression they would make in a public space, can build to a maliciousness that destroys them, destroys their careers, in some cases destroys or ends their lives.

Now to datamining. As our own lives, those of ordinary citizens, those of We the People, become more and more like those of celebrities of the 20th century, infringement becomes more useful, becomes more general, and begins to look like the things Magna Cartas and Constitutions were fought for. A new concept appears, necessary to the world of Doc Searls, the world of the European café. Before everyone in the world becomes a public figure, and all information is fair game, it is time to talk about the equivalent of Fourth Amendment rights for the public space. The right to reasonable protections against infringements of our publicy. At the very least, it should, when placed back into the world of our ancestors, become the protection of one's ability to present the image they wished to present in public -- even if the public refused to accept that image or called them out on it in public.

In the 18th century, you had the right (unrecognized because it seemed inevitable) to put on the clothes you wished to be seen in, check yourself in the mirror, head out the door to the place you wished to be heard, pick the kind of soapbox you wished to stand on in the commons, and deliver the speech you wanted to deliver -- regardless of whether you got drunk twenty years before. Only after you had been granted that right to non-infringement of your publicy did public criticism, laughter, derision, tomatoes, eggs, and the rest follow.

In the 21st century, you have the right to put on the clothes you wish to be seen in, check yourself in the mirror, write the resume that highlights the accomplishments you wish to be examined, practice your responses to questions and your explanations of the ideas you've had, go to the interview -- and find you have been datamined: that the human resources department has called people it Googled on the Internet, not the references you gave them, that they know how much your medical expenses cost in the past ten years, and have a picture of you at a party when you were in high school. Your publicy has been infringed, because nobody knows you have such a thing, and nobody worries about infringing it.

So I am stealing publicy. It makes more sense as the basis for a right to publicy, paralleling a right to privacy, than as an opposite, defining an effect. And the enshrining of this right, preferably in the same document as the right to privacy, would make possible the world that Doc Searls envisions. Because people have a hard time participating in the public life of a café if they can't be certain who they are when they walk in.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Request for comments (RFC)

Some while back (as in down the page) I posted Passion in the Age of Reason, in order to recount and hopefully stimulate additional discussion about a conversation that occurred on Glenn's blog on Salon. Follow the link on that post to read the original. I am, in first life, writing a paper, and would like to cite the entire conversation. Which leads to an interesting format, an interesting etiquette problem, and an interesting ethics problem.

Scholarly articles are supposed to be, in some sense, immutable. In recent years, there has been much debate about citing electronic sites -- they could disappear, links could go dead, material can be changed, it's all bits, after all. So what should be a format, and how does it establish its permanence? Personal communication is a catchall, and can always be used, but somehow public communication is a new one. Some blogs, like Salon, maintain archives, and so could be assumed to be permanent, I'll probably assume this.

The second problem is an etiquette problem: Can one go on a public space, and ask people to stand up and be cited? Doesn't asking people, in some domain like Salon, invite questions of whether or not you've overstepped familiarity? So I am writing here, where the domain is smaller -- but still uneasy about whether or not it is polite. On the other hand, what could be less polite than failing to give credit?

The third problem or pair of problems, is ethics. Anonymity is one of the defining factors of the comment environment, the right to a nom de plume. Asking people for their names is unethical, it is like outing them. I, for one, was once cited on the Internet, by name, in a derogatory fashion that I hope never to see again. But not asking is unethical, it is failure to give credit where credit is due.

Shall I cite by nom de plume then? Does a person's concept of anonymity change if credit is due? Please let me know your thoughts, I think it would be a shame if comments were only allowed to be cited by blogs and newspapers, and never in a proceedings. I give you fair warning that if the consensus is to cite by genuine name, I shall be contacting those authors by email to get permission, and I don't know what to do for those I don't know how to contact. If the decision is to use nom de plume, I will do that instead.

Note: Due to a privacy problem with blogspot, I had to delete and repost this entry. That's why the comments disappeared.
Note Update: Karen M was able to resurrect the comments for the original entry, they are amalgamated into one comment and attached. Thanks!

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Battling the meaning of Chocolate... I'm not kidding. Chocolate: a political synecdoche...

Words mean things... at least they once did, prior to the GWB administration's implementation of Orwellian double-speak, as when they decided to gut an EPA program that once fought air pollution and call it "Clear Skies," or allowed the timber industry to help rewrite forestry standards to favor their clear-cutting methods, and called the program "Healthy Forests." Today, I have once again come across an unbelievable news story about the ongoing battle over what it means to call something CHOCOLATE.

[I am not implying that Karl Rove is
actively trying to thwart millions of dark chocolate consumers... only that BushCo, of all modern White House administrations, is the one most likely to allow such a thing... given that most of their base is already focused on the upcoming Rapture, and not really thinking long term, if you know what I mean.]

Wouldn't a reasonable person expect that the manufacturers of a product with a market that is still growing, as the market for chocolate must be, have learned a thing or two-- perhaps in business school?!-- by observing what happened when other similarly situated industries made either or both of two serious errors:

a) ignoring what their customers want;

b) attempting to compromise quality-- while hoping that no one would notice-- just so they could make a few more dollars in the short term... and let the long term be damned.

But avoiding both of those errors appears to be too high a bar for some members of the American chocolate industry, i.e., those who wish to adulterate their product without suffering any consequences, while substituting alternative fats for the chocolate liquor, or by adding other, non-chocolate, ingredients... and I don't mean wonderful flavors like orange or roasted almonds or espresso.

Obviously, there are some chocolate producers who truly do not understand their base, given that chocolate politics are now in danger of following the mold cast in Washington, DC. But back to the topic...

The current state of the American automobile industry is a prime example of what happens when manufacturers continue to ignore what their customers say they want... decade after decade. Detroit's main business and its once-large profits found their way across the Pacific to manufacturers of high quality cars with better gas mileage and important safety features.

And if trying to save a bit of money-- those pesky stockholders!-- really is all that Mattel had in mind (temporarily forgetting that you get what you pay for) when they outsourced all of those (lead-)painted toys to China's underpaid workforce, they're probably about to find out the meaning of that old Reality saw, "penny-wise and pound-foolish." To be fair... Mattel's fiasco is a brand-new story, but there have been other recent examples available for learning purposes, the most dramatic being the contaminated wheat gluten responsible for the deaths of too many beloved pets. Shouldn't American manufacturers have learned by now that endangering the lives of consumers' children and/or pets is not just immoral, but also bad for business?! Apparently, that collective learning curve is pretty steep.

Remember what happened to Coke when someone thought they could simply change the formula? ...and that was without any life or death consequences!

If you also care about the quality of some product that is important in your life, and nostalgic for the days when most companies were run by people who cared deeply about the product or service they provided, then you understand why I am so devoted to Green and Black's, and why I am presuming that IntrovertGirl feels similarly.

There are plenty of other manufacturing industries that could employ those whom I would have BigChocolate sack; for example, let industrial chemists mess around with tobacco all they want. It's not as if they could make tobacco any more harmful to humans than they already have with all of the noxious, carcinogenic, and just plain poisonous, additives that have been used to make it more addictive. Perhaps they really could-- as has often been promised-- improve tobacco products and make them even a little bit less harmful.

But, Chocolate?! Why should industrial chemists have anything to do with so-called improvements (aka cost-cutting measures) to a product that is as near to perfect in this imperfect world as chocolate... which is also known to westerners as Theobroma, or "food of the gods?" Yet, there are those who wish to substitute a bit of hydrogenated vegetable oil (yes, a trans fat!) for a portion of the cocoa butter, and its health-giving properties.

If only BigChocolate could exercise a bit of restraint, some patience. Medical research is even now showing some proof of cardiovascular benefits from a moderate intake of dark chocolate... and the chocolate industry is not even having to spend the billions of dollars that BigPharma does whenever they come up with a new drug that will likely have serious side-effects. Those savings should be considered as cash in hand, but instead, some members of the chocolate industry think it a better idea to mess around with the (potentially) healthful benefits of a product for which the projected market growth is probably a steep incline.

Ai yai yaiii.... [sigh] Would someone please send the Chocolate Manufacturers Association a copy of the children's tale about killing the goose that lays the golden egg?

Consider, too, the wider view... perhaps the critical state of our national politics has not really sunk in for you yet. If not, then just contemplate what could happen to chocolate if companies like Nestle and Mars were allowed to have their way. Equivalent scenarios have already happened in so many other areas of our lives...

In fact, the politics of chocolate might once have been considered a synecdoche for American politics... except that so many of the worst-case scenarios have already come to pass in DC politics, and the government-sanctioned adulteration of chocolate is not yet a FISA accompli.

* * *

[Anyone who wants to sign a petition to save the integrity of chocolate, in general, can do that from here.]

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Chicago's Style Advice

As a paying member to the Chicago Manual of Style website, I get regular email updates of the latest question-and-answer page of editorial advice. These can be as funny as they are helpful -- just thought I'd share some with my fellow bloggers.

Q. When you use parentheses to indicate that a noun might be plural, is it necessary to use them to indicate that the verb might be plural as well? For example, "The participant(s) was (were) informed of the procedure in writing." Is there a rule about this, or is it a stylistic choice? Am I justified in adding the second verb to an author’s manuscript?

A. I don’t know about a rule, but the construction is clumsy, and it’s better to avoid it. Just write “Participants were informed of the procedure in writing,” which doesn’t rule out the possibility of there being only one participant.


Q. Contracts often employ defined terms in quotes and parentheses, e.g., ABC Corp. (the “Seller”) shall sell ten widgets to XYZ Corp. (the “Buyer”). When drafting such a contract, I always put a period after the close parenthesis if it is the end of the sentence, such as in the above example. But it’s like listening to nails on a chalkboard to me to have a period essentially (ignoring the parenthetical) follow the period employed in an abbreviation. What do you recommend?

A. Yoga?


Q. This headline appeared in the New York Times on Friday, May 11: “A Tough Fight Still Looms, Cheney Warns G.I.’s in Iraq.” I thought no apostrophe was necessary here, as the s represents a plural, not a possessive. What’s up at the Times?

A. What’s up is that the Times uses New York Times style, not Chicago style. (Tsk!)


Q. My fashion expert daughter insists that denim does not go with “almost anything,” as I say it does. What is your opinion? Does denim match almost anything, including other colors and other fabrics, e.g., silk?

A. Finally, a real style question! If only we Chicago manuscript editors were a little more fashion-forward . . .

A Lunch of New Words

I'm reading an excellent nonfiction book at the moment, and engaging in that healthiest of tasty little pastimes, noting down words that I have never heard (or read) before, along with ones I know I've read a hundred times but am unsure of the exact meaning of. Of course, this activity is enabled through moderate consumption of Green & Black's organic chocolate (dark, mint-filled squares in my case) and tea. Karen and I share a passion for Green & Black's. But back to my words, whose definitions I've arbitrarily plucked from either Oxford's English Dictionary or the American Heritage Dictionary.

My author, almost all of whose books I've read and whose wordsmithing is usually flawless, littered the word faience many times over several pages, when describing ancient, exquisite tombs, shrines, and mosques he encountered in a three-thousand-mile journey through China, the 'Stans, and the Middle East. I thought that he had to reuse it so often because it must describe something so absolutely specific that no other word could do, but now I'm not sure. Thoughts?

faience: (OED) Fr. probably an appellative use of the proper name Fayence, Faenza in Italy, one of the chief seats of ceramic industry in the 16th century.
"A general term comprising all the various kinds of glazed earthenware and porcelain."
e.g.: "The mosaic floors and faienced walls convey even today an image of perfection." --Koestler

Chiaroscuro is one I've run into so many times that I decided it's high time I looked it up: (OED) clear, bright.
1. style of pictorial art in which only the light and shade, and not the various colours, are represented; black-and-white, or dark brown and white
2. The treatment or disposition of the light and shade, or brighter and darker masses, in a picture.
3. Used of poetic or literary treatment, criticism, mental complexion, etc., in various obvious senses, as mingled 'clearness and obscurity,' 'cheerfulness and gloom,' 'praise and blame,' etc.
5. Partly revealed and party veiled.

Definition number 5 reminds us of where poetry springs from: looking at words, objects, and meanings in new lights. I am so pleased with that definition, partly because it's finally given me a title for an essay that until now was stuck with something hopelessly bland.

Two others, the first I didn't know the meaning of, and the second I felt in need of defining to myself more clearly, again after running into it for several years, both definitions from AHD, which is wonderfully practical if not quote so poetic as the OED:

caravanserai: (in AHD as caravansary)
1. An inn built around a large court for accommodating caravans along trade routes in central and western Asia.
2. A large inn or hostelry. In both senses also called serai.

callow: Lacking adult maturity or experience; immature: a callow young man.

Don't you find that one of the great satisfactions of reading really good writers is that you stumble across words either rarely used, or words used well for the first time?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

In Defense of Harry Potter

(While this isn't technically a post about grammar, books, we all agree, hold a starring place in how we employ language. In Harry Potter, I'm not interested in how JK Rowling uses syntax--although I find her creativity and exposition delightful--but what she has chosen to give us through her use of language.)

So the last Harry Potter has finally come out, and, as was predictable, scads of critics and reviewers have attempted to pretend that they enjoy these (holding them delicately with two fingers far away from Dostoevsky so they don't infect 'real literature') "children's books," and ended up proving, once again, that they have no idea what the story is about.

The Salon reviewer complained that the books are "boarding school" books, so why didn't the last one take place at Hogwarts? That argument doesn't even deserve a reply. And, as many critics have, she relates the books to The Lord of the Rings, thinking she's giving a compliment but once again showing ignorance by looking simply at plot mechanics rather than at the underlying themes of the fantasy genre. The NPR reviewer tried not to say the same thing regarding boarding schools, but whined that the first 400 pages was like a whirlwind trip around the English countryside and he wondered if Rowling knew what she was doing.

After listening to that last review on Monday morning, I switched off the radio and vowed not to read or listen to a single review about Harry Potter again. The ignorance of these people just served to annoy me, and their failure to appreciate the importance of the epic ruined my enjoyment of it. So I now stick to only discussing the books with my over-educated sister and mother.

The three of us delighted in the fact that Rowling made the last book live up to, and exceed, the expectations of the previous six. It would have been all too easy to fail, but at almost every turn she chose to make the story live a little more rather than plugging in easy, loose-end-tying plot developments.

What interested us, though, was not the explanation of Snape or Harry's final actions or even the exciting plot twist of the Deathly Hallows. No, what we talked about was the same thing that is keeping millions of readers hooked to these books, whether they know it or not. It's not just about the magic, as many critics and snooty "these are just children's books" readers would like to claim. Do you know how many books about magic and other worlds and good vs. evil have been published in the last fifty years? Do some research. There are thousands, and huge numbers of them, surprise, are actually very good, such as Susan Cooper's 'The Dark is Rising' series.

But none of them, not even The Lord of the Rings, which I have read and loved and lived in once a year since I was eight years old, addresses the question of personal choice in that good-vs.-evil struggle. That is the power that Rowling has brought to her excellent series. Amid all the humor and the whimsy, the incredible creativity and imagination brought to bear on creating the Potter world, and lovely character developments, what gives these book come-back-and-stay power is the fierce internal struggle each character, but especially Harry, has to make in the fight against evil in the form of Voldemort. What makes these books important is their emphasis on personal choices.

The fantasy genre has always had as its paramount theme these question of right vs. wrong embedded in the struggle of good over evil. But very few books address the personal choices the heroes have to make when they face a decision between, as Dumbledore put it, "what is right and what is easy."

My older sister pointed out that most of 20th-century literature has dropped any discussion of these questions, which is perhaps why we're both so much more attracted to 19th-century British and Russian novels. For some reason, the last century has been fascinated with the sordid, despairing details of modern life. It insists that, not only is "truth" found only in the minute, but that the truth so found is never something that uplifts us.

It is, somehow, left to children's literature to address questions of real importance: morality, goodness, evil, hope, right, wrong. What are adults so frightened of? Being thought sappy for caring? Being judged? Finding that they will choose wrong over right because it's expedient or beneficial for them? Or maybe they're scared of these questions because they don't want any messy moral truths screwing up their acceptance of a dominant paradigm that claims right and wrong don't exist.

This paradigm likes to complicate questions of morality, couching them in the languages of economics and balances and religions and "greater good." But these questions are never complicated: there is a right and there is a wrong, and your intuition, if you block out the surrounding social-political noise and listen to it, will always tell you which choice to make.

It is the focus on personal choice that makes the Harry Potter books so powerful. Harry, and his friends and cohorts, always have the choice to turn back or turn away. They have to face these decisions, large and small, all the time. What JK Rowling has given us is a way back to our internal guides, the realization that, every day at every moment, we too have choices to make, whether we will serve good or evil and how. It's not an easy choice, not a smooth path. Harry's story--a metaphor for finding and defining your character through childhood and adolescence--is littered with life-threatening obstacles. Our paths aren't easy, either, but, as there is no all-powerful Dark Lord waiting to murder us if our courage falters, we have less of an excuse for failing to face that question: when given the choice between what is right and what is easy, do we look it in the face, or do we run away?

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Passion at the End of the Age of Reason

It all started here
in a corner of Salon during a discussion of sycophancy and selling in the kaliyuge of the days of Bush the Younger. Frustration turned to dreams of the coming of the meteor by Svensker, and I replied by giving a brief overview of Medieval history as it is learned by high school students. At issue is whether the Age is going Dark. In the course of history, a spouse and four bloggers was related to a possibly previous spouse and four drunken philosophers. Wonderful what an inflamed mind can do if it studied too much of Li Po embracing the moon, and never really understood the Fall of Rome.

Svensker felt that the problem was reading -- how ironic in the days of the internet, when people do so much communication by reading, ironic in the days of the cell phone, when text messaging is the lingua franca of the technological beast, ironic in the days when there are more pages of journal publication and book print than ever before in the History of Man -- that Man's eyes should grow dim not from reading to much, but from reading too little: that words of ancient texts, the New Testament in Greek, grow lost, that science numbs itself and cowers before the passion of a new theory, unable to make business sense out of taking the chance of ridicule, unable to spread its wings lest they turn out to be made of wax.

William wonders if the language can change the feel once the culture in which the language grew has been lost -- does the language need its Age and its Place to hold the meanings, and do those meanings grow approximate with time? What is it that the language imparts, what the culture? Is it so very bad to have approximations define the past? Approximations are the staple of the healthy mind, embellished with details or not, but King James seems authoritative after so much time has passed.

For that matter, Karen muses, what of the Visigoths, those latter day nomads from the land of the big bad guys in the East? Lingua franca indeed, they settled in the lands of Languedoc, the cradle of the Great Heresy come west. Ambassadors of destruction bringing with them the end of the Golden Age when Caligula partied and Nero practiced his études. Vandals and Huns, Goths and Visgoths, Bulgars and Bogomils lampshades on the light of the Classical world.

Svensker sees the New Testament drifting as it is cut from its roots, and holds out hope that China and the Mystic Subcontinent will keep the light burning a little further, keep us seeing in the night of perusing without reading of slipping into the existence that isn't quite life. I don't know my scriptural religions, a Puritan turned to the bosom of the Heart Sutra, but culture is important, and text perhaps drifts as much as language does when cut off from its written roots?

Cycles, endless cycles, a thought gets dislodged from its moorings low down on the tree and pushed like a kite to where it can mingle with other branches -- it is in our blood this drift, it takes all memory and finds new patterns, new ways to express. It hates to be tied down, and flares with haunting images of a nightmarish past. Could our fixation with destruction and empire that pulls us closer into the maelstrom that neoconservatism brings be the social cyst of fixation, the post-traumatic stress of failure to allow a culture to evolve? I go off topic even for chocobang.

How does the Age grow dark just as authorship reaches the masses?
How does the loss of language become the loss of meaning?
How do social pressures lead us downward when so many can see so clearly?
How do you spend your time, as you see a world go gray but do not act?
Where has all the passion gone? (gone to young girls, every one...)

Note: Due to a privacy problem with blogspot, I had to delete and repost this entry. When I did that the comments disappeared.
Note Update: Karen M was able to resurrect the comments to the original post and append them as one comment. Thanks!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The State of English in Africa

Despite my utter delight in the absurdity of the weekly offers I get to be paid a stocky percentage for rescuing millions of dollars from the bank accounts of people who've died in plane crashes over the last five years (and my tiny, plaintive wish that I really could walk away with five million or so clear, because I could really use it), the most recent plea brought to my attention the fact that these scammers could really use some help.

"I have an obscured business suggestion for you," says Mr. Johnson Mutambara. Oh, how true. The copy editor in me itches to correct every little spelling and grammatical mistake, tighten up the logical flow of his argument, and tidy up his lines, paragraphs, and fonts as if tapping stacks of paper together.

Information from the National Immigration stated that he was also
single on entry into South Africa.

I have secretly discussed this
matter with some of the bank officials and we agreed to find a reliable
foreign partner to deal with."

Tidiness! my mind cries. I assume you mean this German citizen who died in the Concorde crash wasn't married. Clarity! Do you mean you would like me to marry him? Does that mean I have to join that obscure branch of Mormonism that practices posthumous marriage?

But maybe there's something further to be read in the avowed obscurity of these letters. Something deep and existential, something James Joyce-ian about the way they redefine our understanding of mundane words, something ...

Nah. What you really need, Mr. Mutambara (or is it Rahim Attah, the name on the return email address?), is to sack your editor and get a new one. I'll do it for one percent of the loot, a bargain compared to the forty percent you were going to pay just for my bank account details. If you can diagram the first sentence of this post, I'll do it for half that.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Apparently, a love of language can be a barrier finding true love in one's daily life.

Jaimie Epstein, writing for the Sentence Sensibility blog at the New York Times, reveals her dilemma: whether to ignore the egregious errors that make a person who loves working with words inwardly cringe... or to stiffen her upper lip, and, stoicly, go forward.

An especially sticky dilemma... if one considers that either of those choices could mean losing a significant portion of what a language lover might consider to be foreplay.


No easy answers for this one... but if anyone has any survival tactics (or better) to suggest, please consider adding them to the comments.

Perhaps Jaimie will visit, but if not, I'll send her this link.

The bottom line: can't she at least expect potential partners to spell her name correctly? Or is that being unreasonable?

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Open Thread - Happy Fourth!!!!

Things proceed in the world and in my brain, and they seem slow enough over here at the choco' bang. Day off on Wednesday? I will help wash the baby - she cracked her little ankle last week, pointing at something outside with the hand that should have been helping hold up that leg. Whole-leg cast for little ones who can't stay still, and she can't go in the tub . . . . I will also play computer games - the barbarians had better be looking out - I have trebuchets now. My mental boat drifts farther from planned projects as I read Guy Davenport, Italo Calvino, and Montaigne, and think to myself what a good job these folks have done who thought about these things way before I did.

I will also check back here. How are you all? What is going on? And, if you ask why I selected a picture of dinosaur skeletons for a Fourth of July post, I will answer that my enthusiasm is something that the USA and dinosaurs have in common.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Poetry as a national security risk

Yes, you read that correctly...

It really says something about the quality of our detainees in Guantanamo, that they have written poems in Arabic on fragments of styrofoam cups.

But, apparently, too much poetry has been written at Guantanamo-- compromising our national security-- and much of it has been censored or destroyed. However, a collection of the remnants of these cup poems is to be published by the University of Iowa...

An excerpt from Leonard Doyle's piece in Common Dreams, originally published in The Independent/UK, and which also includes several of the poems:

The words of the celebrated Pakistani poet were scratched on the sides of a Styrofoam cup with a pebble. Then, under the eyes of Guantanamo Bay’s prison guards, they were secretly passed from cell to cell. When the guards discovered what was going on, they smashed the containers and threw them away, fearing that it was a way of passing coded messages.


There are other tragic tales behind the verses. The “cup poems” of Guantanamo speak of the strange absence of flowers in spring, the bangles worn by young women and handcuffs on the militants.

Fragments survived in the memory of the poet Shaikh Abdurraheem Muslim Dost after his eventual release, but thousands of lines of poetry he wrote in prison have disappeared.

Dost, a respected religious scholar, poet, and journalist - and author of nearly 20 books - until his arrest in 2001, spent nearly three years in Guantanamo with his brother. Sent home two years ago, the brothers were picked up by Pakistani intelligence and they too disappeared. Nothing has been heard of them since.

Perhaps the real security issue is the safety of those who have been or are currently in Guantanamo.

* * *

William Carlos Williams wrote... words that are apropos of almost any moment in these times:

“It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably
every day
for lack of what is found there.”

A h/t to Dave Pollard at How to Save the World, for his post with the link to this story...

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The role of culture, however, must go beyond economics. It is not focused on the price of things, but on their value.

"Fifty years ago, I suspect that along with Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Sandy Koufax, most Americans could have named, at the very least, Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, Arthur Miller, Thornton Wilder, Georgia O'Keeffe, Leonard Bernstein, Leontyne Price, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Not to mention scientists and thinkers like Linus Pauling, Jonas Salk, Rachel Carson, Margaret Mead, and especially Dr. Alfred Kinsey.

"I don't think that Americans were smarter then, but American culture was. Even the mass media placed a greater emphasis on presenting a broad range of human achievement. "

from National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Dana Gioia's
commencement speech to the Class of 2007
at Stanford University, his alma mater

Monday, June 25, 2007

Were it not for Glenn Greenwald's Unclaimed Territory...

...there would probably be no Chocolate Interrobang. [Our very first few posts explain the beginnings of this blog, and how we met in the comment threads at UT, and decided to take a tangential discussion of grammar and usage elsewhere, so as not to hijack the thread any further, and really annoy everyone else.]

Perhaps our existence might seem frivolous to you, but just consider how many other serendipitous meetings and occurrences have probably happened because of Glenn's blog. Not to mention the epiphanies...

You will be doing more than merely rewarding Glenn for creating such an interesting and intellectually stimulating community, if you buy his book. You will also be rewarding everyone else who has invested their own time & intellectual capital (a considerable amount, all told), and built his comment threads into a sight to behold.

More importantly-- for the sake of all of us, no matter our political stripe-- you will help to elevate the debate about the very life of our Constitution by making it impossible for the BigMediaGuys in the M$M to avoid paying proper attention to this book.

Ordinarily, I would suggest that you head off to your favorite independent book store to make your purchase, but in this case, I encourage you to buy from Amazon. It will save you money, and you can use the savings toward the purchase of a second copy... from your favorite independent book store. A loaner, a gift, or a donation... use it however you wish. Ordering from Amazon, though, does make the book more competitive in the quantitative environment where books like Glenn's must compete. And, if you are one of those who never buys anything online, then just buy it. Where ever you buy your books.

BUY THIS BOOK! Please...

Sunday, June 24, 2007

a short note on process...

I once had a boss who later fired/laid me off immediately after the beginning of the "First" Gulf War. He said to me one day-- long before the war-- "You really take an idea and run with it, don't you?" Unfortunately... he didn't really mean it as a compliment. Nor did he consider the "running-with" trait as desirable. And yet, he wanted me to do more. Oh, well...

Then, not so long ago, maybe a year or two, I happened to be on a city bus (because that was the easiest way to get to and from a doctor's appointment, since it did not involve parking) and I found myself in a conversation with the middle-aged, African-American man holding onto the strap next door. Seats were dear. I had a book with me, but could not read, given that I was holding a strap above my head and whatever else I was carrying at the time with my other hand.

So, I was eyeing enviously all of the seated passengers who could. And I remarked to my fellow traveler that there was an untapped, in fact, unrecognized, need for "book-holders." That is, for seated passengers who might care slightly less about reading than the passengers who were standing. For a token sum, they could offer to hold the standing passenger's book and turn the pages as needed, so that said passenger could still ride and read. He looked at me quizzically, but not unkindly, and said something very similar to "you really take an idea and run with it" don't you.

I had to laugh out loud. It's true. I have maybe one friend who really appreciates this about me; everyone else just tolerates it. It's not as if I actually "do" anything, since most of the time these are "ideas" that I'm running with, not things. But it is still amazing to consider some of the things you can accomplish, just by running with ideas, which of course everyone here understands at a pretty deep level. Or we wouldn't have connected at GG's blog.

This was just a roundabout way to say to the other contributors here that if an idea grabs you, it's probably okay to run with it. If you are hesitant to do that in a group blog, then go ahead and ask first. But know that you don't have to. This is "true" because of the self-selection process that brings us all here.

I believe there is a Muse watching over us.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

I posted this distillation of a BBC lexicon of zeitgeist speech on the Patteran Pages a year or so ago. By now it's probably as cutting edge as Virgil's famous account of hip speak along the Via Appia.

What’s book, what’s buzzing, what’s boom-boom..?

When I was at school around about the time they drew up Magna Carta, we wore shirts in blue & black stripes with upturned collars under black v-neck sweaters over black trousers with 15” bottoms & chisel- or pointed-toe shoes. Under the dripping trees, fags on & transistor radio playing, we called each other ‘dad’ or ‘man’. Good stuff was ‘cool’ or ‘guvnor’; bad stuff was ‘square’.

And that was about it. Illicit cider in thermos flasks or cooking sherry in shampoo bottles, Players No. 6 tucked into a t-shirt sleeve, nodding moodily along with Gene Vincent or Eddie Cochran & cheeking the teacher constituted the apogee of anti-social behaviour. Youth subculture was as deep as a coat of paint. Scratch it & the butcher, baker or barrister beneath would shine through.

Here, within the largely uncharted waters of the 21st century, there flourishes an archipelago of subcultural groupings, each animated by their own modi vivendi, each as fiercely exclusive as Balkan nation states.

Hoody culture – that which glossy new Tory leader David Cameron is so anxious to enfold in his pragmatic embrace – has managed, thus far, to resist corporate takeover. However, The Guardian – whose radar is ever sensitive to the slightest bleep of zeitgeist – has compiled a glossary of contemporary youth-speak. Now that the camera has flashed & the souls of the natives have been captured forever, street culture will duck the scrutiny of the media, the hoods will disappear & the language will remake & remodel. So get it here & now while it’s still fresh…


ah nam - tell on, rat on.


bait - obvious, as in "that's so bait".
(Nimesh Bhudia, Wembley, London)

bare - a lot of, very. In the case of a man or woman described as bare butters, see below.

beast - an adjective to describe something that's really cool.
(Suggested by reader Richard Beadnall, North Yorkshire) Beasting = bullying] [

book - cool. The first option given in predictive text when trying to type ‘c-o-o-l’.

boom boom - a slogan of approval in inner-city London. There was much debate during the election campaign about whether Tony Blair was booed or boomed at the Lilian Bayliss Technology School in London. [Surely a term of African American origin from jazz]

buff - sexy, fit. [It has been suggested to me that this term is used more frequently by the female to express approval of the male, where ‘fit’ might be used more frequently by the male commenting on the female]

bum - to enjoy something: "he bums that game so much". And there are levels of bummage - to really like something is to "bum it blue", but "he bummed it black" means he used to like it but has since gone off it.

butters - ugly (pronounced without sounding the t's).

buzzing - cool.


chirps - chat up: "We chirps some buff gals last night."

chung - extremely sexy. If someone is described as "chung", that's a serious step up from ‘buff’.

clappin' - out of date or worn out, usually to describe attire or accessories, as in "Man, my tracksuit is clappin'. Gotta get down JJB Sport and buy a new one." Also means tired out.
(Suggested by reader Denney, Reading) [‘Clapped out’ is a respectable term describing something functional that has broken down. The term originates from the 18th century in description of prostitutes consumed by venereal disease]

cotch down - to hang out, relax, chill out or sleep. Possibly derived, via patois, from the French "se coucher", meaning to lie down. See also kotch. [I have come across what I believe is an American verb to ‘skootch’, which means to wriggle or shuffle into a comfortable position]

crump - a multi-purpose term which can be an insult, an exclamation and a rather explicit sex act. It generally means bad, but can also mean good, depending on the context: "That ain't good, man, it's crump", or "That's one crump message you left there".


dash - to dash is to pass something to somebody - but it can be "pass" in the broadest possible sense, including to throw violently with the intention of causing hurt or damage.

dred - dreadful, terrible, bad, cruel. [Surely a well-known Jamaican adjective from Rastafarian culture]

dry - dull, boring, stupid, unfunny. A bad joke might be described as "dry".


feds - police. Taken from the US word for the FBI.

flat roofin' - to be overworked and stressed, as in, "I was flat roofin for my GCSEs". Probably comes from flat out.
(Suggested by reader Michael, London)

fo sho - "urban" version of yes, for sure, certainly. Clearly a steal from Afro-American vocabulary, with a strong suggestion of Southern inflection]

from ends - one who is "from the streets" and so knows what's going on.

fudge - a very, very stupid person indeed, presumably from the common slang verb ‘to fudge’, or mess up.


grimy - good, or may describe a practical joke or amusing - and probably unsavoury - act. [The term is used as a noun to define a version of urban dance music]


hangin - ugly, most likely with an unattractive body and bad dress sense to boot.

heavy - cool, interesting.
(Suggested by reader Yahya Raje) [Surely merely a version of the original meaning of the old hippy adjective]

howling - ugly.


jack - to steal or take, as in "car-jacking".

jokes - funny or enjoyable, as in, "That party was jokes".
(Suggested by reader Anishka Wil, Edgware)

jook - to stab or to steal.
(Suggested by reader Caroline Jones, Godalming) [In early jazz terminology to ‘jook’ meant to fuck. Is this in some way an extension, retaining the penetrative sense?]


kotch - sit and chill out. See also cotch.


laoy dat - forget that.
(Suggested by reader Masum Ullah, Birmingham)

long - someone who won't put out, also meaning a lot of effort: "He wanted to have sex with me, but I told him I'm long."

lush - good-looking, sexy. [This sense – an abbreviation of ‘luscious’ - has been around for many years]


mint - cool. Self-explanatory, surely.

munter - ugly. An alternate to minger, which has passed into the mainstream since its first recorded use in 1995.


nang - London term for cool, excellent, brilliant. When something is very good, it's "proper nang".

nim nim nim - blah blah blah; yadda yadda yadda. What's said when someone is talking rubbish.
(Suggested by reader Ian, Bristol) [An interesting example of contemporary onomatopoeia]


off the hook - cool, appealing, fresh, exceeding one's expectations. A phrase much over-used by Maxwell in Big Brother to express appreciation for his surroundings, for an attractive member of the opposite sex...

owned - to be made a fool of, to be beaten by. Can also be spelled "pwned", to denote a common spelling error in online gaming slang.
(Suggested by reader Jason Truman, Leamington Spa)


rago - whatever, OK.

random - odd, irregular, crazy, out there. Not used when something is genuinely random, but as an adjective by those who like to think they live a life less ordinary and have a wacky sense of humour. An example from Urban Dictionary reads thus:
Teen 1: "Cheese! hahahaha"
Teen 2: "Wow! That's sooooo random!"
Also used by players of the online game Counter-Strike to describe someone whose performance is inconsistent.

rents - parents.
(Suggested by reader Eric, London)

rinsed - overused, used up, all gone. "That song was rinsed, I don't like it anymore."
(Suggested by reader Angharad, Brixton)

roll with - hang out with.


safa - coolest of the cool, superlative version of safe (see below).

safe - cool, good, sweet. [Now outside the ‘underground’ & into common usage]

shabby - cool, smart, "da bomb". As in, "That's a well shabby suit."

sick - interesting, cool, never seen before. The more sick something is, the better. This usage originated with skaters and snowboarders.

sik - see sick.

skeen - I see. Also seen.
(Suggested by reader Alex Harris, Nottingham)

slap up - to beat up. Hence the happy slapping craze in which feral youths attack passers-by and film it on their mobiles.

standard - goes without saying.

swag - extreme, scary. A word which once denoted ill-gotten gains and then freebies - particularly branded merchandise - it can also be used as an adjective for something frightening.

switch - to turn on someone.


tell over/told over - to rat on someone.


unass - to relinquish or surrender control of an object or person; to leave.
(Suggested by reader Spoon, Leamington Spa)


vexed - irritated, angry. An old word, it has gained new currency, as demonstrated by Science in Big Brother to express his annoyance with some triviality or other.


wagwaan - what's up? what's going on? Originates from Jamaican patois.
(Suggested by reader Abtin, Berkhamsted)

wicked - cool. Yes, 30-somethings who remember it from their own school days, it has made a comeback. Can also mean very, thus something can be described as "wicked cool". [Long outside the ‘underground’ & in common usage]


yard - house, garden, where one lives and hangs out. Once again, a steal from early jazz slang]

your mum - a comeback to a question or insult. An implied affront to one's mother, which may be taken as an ineffectual insult or may result in grievous bodily harm.

Friday, June 22, 2007

open thread - welcome friends!

There has been some talk back and forth over the in the GG comment section - "I shall check out the Chocolate Interrobang!" There hasn't been a new post in a little bit. My home is more full of relatives than usual (a layered thought, there) and one of them is very small. My oft contemplated recap of the thinking-in-metaphors discussion and my conclusions thereto (ants, mandelbrot, and free-climbing) remains un-compiled.

Unproductive this week, new books, too many people, and the attraction/repulsion of provoking posters at the comment section. But I keep checking here, and want to say "hey!" and see what comments and remarks people who drop by may have. Usually, the idea is you write a post to post, and therefore people comment. This time, I write a post in hopes, waiting for it to be time just to comment.

The picture comes from

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

An Open Thread...










Thanks to the commenter (?) at GG's blog who posted the link to this image.

Valerie's turn... The following has been pasted in from the comments for suggestions on how best to respond to a news story; feel free to add comments, suggestions, etc., directly to this post, if you are able, or else in the comments...

and now a rewrite from Valerie (see both her note and mine in the comment box) which I have also moved up the page a bit:

Valerie said...

Good morning, good folks!

I have decided to focus my ire directly on CNN for several reasons. One, they did it! Two, it's already old news :( I'm just not quick enough to be on-spot with commentary like Glenn or others. So, I narrowed my "audience" which helped me structure my rant. Here is my rewrite, which obviously still needs work. I'll do more fact checking later this morning to substantiate my argument. Here goes:

Dear CNN American Morning,

On Wednesday, June 20, 2007, I viewed your show during the period that Christianne Amanpour reported on Iraqi refugees which was followed by the interview with Mrs. Laura Bush. I believe the stated facts in these two segments conflicted, which disturbs me for two reasons, which are of great import to your viewers whether they realize it or not. The importance to me has prompted this correspondence.

The first reason is the apparent conflict in the facts. Amanpour's discussion regarding Iraqi refugees in various countries was informative and presented factually. She stated that the USA had the fewest refugees from Iraq and only in the 10s this year -- not tens of hundreds or tens of thousands, but 10s.

Then Mrs. Bush's interview followed Amanpour immediately, with Mrs. Bush quoting entirely different Iraqi refugee statistics, saying that (paraphrase): "the USA was helping out with the refugee crisis in a big way, and was leading the world in refugee assistance."

To alleviate my disturbance, I did some research and found that an article in the Boston Sun (,0,946531.story) supports Amanpour. QUOTE SOME FACTS.

Another article, from CNN (, could support Mrs. Bush in a flawed sort of way. Your article states "The U.S. State Department says it expects at least 70 Iraqi refugees to come to the United States in the next 10 days, part of the 7,000 who will be allowed to resettle in America under an emergency measure approved in February." Thus it appears that your article supports Amanpour, but Mrs. Bush used the 7,000 number as if it had already happened. FIND SWEDEN NUMBERS (12,000, I believe)


My second reason for disturbance concerns CNN's decision to air these two segments back-to-back as coverage of World Refugee Day. Did not anyone at CNN notice the conflict in facts? Did not anyone at CNN expect their viewers to notice the conflict in facts? Or was this segment placement intentional in an effort to be "balanced"? And if it was meant to show viewers "both sides of the story," then where is your analysis of the factual conflict?


June 22, 2007 4:30 AM

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Lost in Translation or I'll Take an "M," Pat

Now, right now, as you're reading this, thousands of people halfway around the planet are trying to translate the word "rat-arsed" into perfectly idiomatic Chinese.

The Fourth Casio Cup Translation Contest is in full swing. Organized by the Shanghai Translation Publishing House, the goal of the contest is to translate a given English source text into Chinese.The text this time is "Reservoir Frogs (Or Places Called Mama’s)," a 1996 New Yorker piece by Salman Rushdie, on what Rushdie calls "the fine art of meaningless naming." Here's a sample (you can see the full text here [scroll down]):
As Luis Bunuel knew, obscurity is a characteristic of objects of desire. Accordingly, there is no trainspotting in Trainspotting; just a predictable, even sentimental movie that thinks it's hip. (Compared to the work of, say, William S. Burroughs, it’s positively cutesy.) It has many admirers, perhaps because they are unable even to understand its title, let alone the fashionably indecipherable argot of the dialogue. The fact remains: Trainspotting contains no mention of persons keeping obsessive notes on the arrival and departure of trains…Irvine Welsh’s original novel does offer some help. The section titled ‘Trainspotting at Leith Central Station’ takes the characters to a derelict, train-less station, where one of them attacks a derelict human being who is, in fact, his father, doling out a goodly quantity of what Anthony Burgess’s hoodlum Alex, in A Clockwork Orange, would call ‘the old ultraviolence’. Clearly, something metaphorical is being reached for here, though it's not clear exactly what. In addition, Welsh thoughtfully provides a glossary for American readers: ‘Rat-arsed--drunk; wanker - masturbator; thrush - minor sexually transmitted disease’. At least an effort at translation is being made. Out-and-out incomprehensibilists disdain such cosiness.

In 1928, Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali co-directed the Surrealist classic
Un Chien Andalou, a film about many things, but not Andalusian dogs. So it is with Quentin Tarantino’s first film, Reservoir Dogs. No reservoir, no dogs, no use of the words ‘reservoir’, ‘dogs’ or ‘reservoir dogs’ at any point in the movie. No imagery derived from dogs or reservoirs or dogs in reservoirs or reservoirs of dogs. Nada, or, as Mr Pink and Co. would say, ‘Fuckin’ nada.’ The story goes that when the young Tarantino was working in a Los Angeles video store his distate [sic] for fancy-pants European auteurs like, for example, Louis Malle manifested itself in an inability to pronounce the titles of their films. Malle’s Au Revoir les Enfants defeated him completely (oh reservoir les oh fuck) until he began to refer to it contemptuously as - you guessed it – ‘those, oh, reservoir dogs’. Subsequently he made this the title of his own movie, no doubt as a further gesture of anti-European defiance. Alas, the obliqueness of the gibe meant that the Europeans simply did not comprenday.

To forestall any attempts at exegesis (‘Author, Citing Dadaism’s Erstwhile Esotericism, Opposes Present-Day “Mamaist” Obfuscations’), I confess that as a title it means nothing at all; but then the very concept of meaning is now outdated, nerdy, pre-ironic. Welcome to the New Incomprehensibility: gibberish with attitude.
A friend in China asked me some questions about the text—not about the translation (which would be against the rules and, besides, I don't know Chinese)—and, in the process of helping her, I began to think about how hard the art of translation really is. Like everyone, I've read bad translations but I hadn't really thought about translation from the translating end.

My friend was thinking "hip" means "fashionable" but, used here, it's more like a self-conscious knowingness of being fashionable—and the word itself is self-cancelling, its very use a comment on unhipness. "With attitude" is a confrontational, "tell-it-like-it-is" stance—it's a positive inversion of "having an attitude" which I always thought of as a sort of sullen hostility—it's hard to imagine that a similar word exists in Chinese.

And then there's the transmutation from "Au Revoir Les Enfants" to "Reservoir Dogs." How do you manage that in Chinese while retaining the essential meaninglessness of it all? The Chinese releases of those films must have titles—do you go with those or with some specially transliterated versions to show just how Tarantino's mangled French and strange disdain led to a meaningless yet slightly similar title?

A site devoted entirely to the Harry Potter books in Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese translation provides some fascinating clues as to how translators deal with thorny translation problems. (Disclaimer: I have never touched a Harry Potter book.)

In Book One, Chapter 5, Harry asks Hagrid the eternal question: "What's the difference between a stalagmite and a stalactite?" Hagrid, not feeling up to geological exegesis (as Sir Salman might say), replies: "Stalagmite's got an "m" in it. An' don' ask me questions just now, I think I'm gonna be sick."

In Chinese, stalactite is zhōng-rǔ-shí ("hanging-bell milk rock") and stalagmite is shí-sǔn (''rock bamboo-shoot''). No "M" in sight. What do you do?

If you're the Mainland Chinese translator, well, there's no problem: Hagrid says: "There's an "M" in the middle of zhōng-rǔ-shí." Well, true enough as a translation but that answer must leave Chinese readers scratching their heads.

If you're the Taiwanese Chinese translator, Hagrid says "zhōng-rǔ-shí is made up of three characters" (the word shí-sǔn , after all, has two), effectively getting at the irritated non-answer of Hagrid's reply.

Another example: one character, Fleur Delacour, is referred to by the contemptuous nickname, "Phlegm." So how do you come up with a nickname that sounds like "Fleur" but with the disgusting properties of "phlegm"?

This time the Taiwanese Chinese translator comes up with a true masterpiece: Fleur in the Taiwanese version is named Huār meaning 'flower'; the contemptuous nickname for her is Wār meaning "frog" which might be considered a suitably slimy substitute for "phlegm" and, as a bonus, mocks the French accent of the character (who drops her "h's").

So, a particularly gifted translator can convey the essence of the original in another language. (And, in a few rare cases, the translation surpasses the source. Gabriel Garcia Márquez said that Gregory Rabassa's English translation of Márquez's Cien anos de soledad "improved the original.")

Still, contemplating the flawless translation of Rushdie's piece—or any translation of a difficult literary piece—now fills me with new-found awe and trepidation—awe at the idea that a translator could overcome the seemingly insurmountable obstacles and craft a fully Chinese version, and trepidation at the actual odds stacked against doing so, both illustrated by the judges' choices in the previous Casio translation competition.

Awe? One of the judges described the translation of the second prize winner as "the one that you could barely recognize as a translation. In other words, [John] Updike's story ["The Delicate Wives"] read as though it were written in Chinese originally."

And trepidation? Well, what about the first prize winner? There wasn't any—the judging panel said that none of the entries submitted was worthy of the honor of winning the top prize.

Even so, I'm hoping one of those people now puzzling over the Mandarin version of the word "rat-arsed" nails it this time.

Today's Good Grammar and Good Taste Award goes to ...

... smartalec on Glenn's blog for the following:
It's very disappointing to me -- who have had to watch both my favorite local bookstore and one of the best NY landmarks both ...

Good taste, of course, for supporting the small, independent merchant over the megacorporate giant.

But good grammar for both knowing that a relative pronoun agrees with its antecedent in person and number and for acting on that knowledge in the face of the knowledge that 99.9% of English speakers would have said and would have expected *"who has" instead of the grammatically correct "who have".

It's time to remember that castigating those who use poor grammar is not enough. It's not even enough to point out that many pedagogical grammatical "rules" are nonsense from a language-historical point of view. It is also necessary to reward those with the courage to practice good grammar in public.

So kudos to smartalec for winning the first (and possibly last) ever "Good Grammar and Good Taste Award". The prize includes (consists entirely of, in fact) a year's free subscription to The Chocolate Interrobang.

Monday, June 18, 2007

"That Long Grey Corridor" and "Clear Blue Sky" ...both by Dick Jones

Serendipitously, Dick Jones, whom I mentioned in the previous post and then dropped a note in the comments, now has a an essay in the latest issue of qarrtsiluni, an online literary magazine. Accompanying it, is a poem, written to honor his father who died six years ago.

Both the essay and the poem deal with the ineffability of death.

You really want to click over and read them, especially the poem.

It is a marvel, and-- just to be clear, completely on-topic for this blog.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Bloggers' Love of Language + Generosity = Something Ineffable

2004 really wasn't all that long ago, but it seems like ages. I first started blogging that summer, partly to deal with my anxiety about the upcoming election, and partly because I had been sick and couldn't do much else. It seems appropriate at this particular moment-- a transitional one for me-- to mention a few bloggers that I met when I first started at Salon. Not only because of the theme of community-- first there, and now here, although that is true-- but even more because each of them has an immense love of language and storytelling.

Although there were a lot of bloggers who were generous with their time and encouragement to other newbies, these four stand out for me: Birdie, who began her first blog, Beauty Dish, in order to track her experiences as a single mother selling Avon; Sam, whose blog, feral, underwent many transformations before it's ultimate end; and Dick Jones, whose Patteran Pages includes poems, reminiscences, stories about his days in rock and roll (which didn't really end all that long ago), and photos of both his older and youngest children, all glorious examples of offspring; and perhaps the most unusual of all, Mark Hoback, of Fried Green al-Qaedas, and once of The Virtual Occoquan (now on hiatus), and more recently of The Aristocrats.

Birdie tells the very best stories of anyone I know. She would consistently have her readers refreshing their screens all day long-- sometimes for days at a time-- waiting for the next unbelievable episode in her life. What made her stories so wonderful was partly her sense of adventure and her ability to turn anything into a story worth telling, but also her openness to life itself and her ability to say yes. It also didn't hurt that stories worth telling kept happening to her... like the night when an unknown person rang her doorbell in the middle of the night to alert her that they were leaving a potbellied pig (named Frank E. Bacon) with her because they knew she loved animals. (All of this information was conveyed in the note attached to Frankie.) Or the curious customers she met while hawking Avon: the naked lady, the lady with the monkey who needed conditioning lotion, the very content married lady who had discovered an unusually satisfying use for the firming cream, and on and on. Some rainy day, or any day when you could use a laugh, try and read through her archives. You'll probably find something that will make you laugh and cry. Especially, if you come across the story about her younger Trekkie son and the Pledge of Allegiance. We also had virtual parties in Birdie's comment pages, complete with graphics of food, beverages, and sometimes costumes. That's one advantage of Salon's strange comment editing boxes... if you know how, you can post a picture of something yummy. In the comment box. Something we can't do here. Or in most other comment boxes, for that matter. And the after-party clean-up only looked bad; it really took no time at all when everyone pitched in.

Sam's blog was one of the most linguistically stylish I've ever had the pleasure to read, her use of language the most impeccable and free of cliches. She had a successful career as an editor, but at heart may be more of an artist. Sam has lots of stories and adventures, too, though not usually as light-hearted as Birdie's, due to her different circumstances. In Sam's daily posts, you might find a poem, fresh that morning from a dream or her psyche, or oftentimes a description of the natural sounds, along with the sights and scents, on her walkabouts in rural Northern California. I haven't found any other blogs with such soundtracks, or more properly... sensetracks. Of course, there would be the requisite posting of animal pictures, but on a grander scale, with sequential photos of both Sam and her brother, Brian, accompanying those of their amazing menagerie of animals: numerous dogs and cats, itinerant boarding visitors (e.g., a large turtle with a dour personality), and two llamas. Sam has since been busy trying to make a go of a bookstore, and has created a much-needed and beloved center for booklovers in her small town, but its success has been complicated beause she has had to move the business-- while caring for her autistic brother and an extended family of friends, both two-legged and four-legged-- sometimes just within blocks, 3 or 4 or 5 times. Maybe 6. I've lost count. Ai yai yaiii... only a true-blooded Capricorn like Sam could have accomplished as much heartbreaking work as she has in the few years I've known her, while fulfilling all of those other obligations.

Dick Jones was one of the first two people to leave a comment on my Salon blog, Bread Crumbs-- on my second post-- the one with an illustration for R.L. Stevenson's "When I was sick and lay abed," and the accompanying poem, posted because I felt that was how GWB thought of our military, like some toy soldiers he could play with whenever he felt like it. Getting to know Dick was a refreshing respite (redundancy needed for emphasis) because he lives in the UK, and was perfectly willing to read or listen to political diatribes against the current occupant and his administration, even when he didn't know all of the parties involved. And you could always count on him for a pithy one- or two-word epithet to fit the occasion. Dick's blog posts are varied. He is an accomplished poet who writes from the intersecting axes of his memory and dreams and history, both his family's and his country's, especially WWII. A few years older than I am, he has far more courage, given that he is the doting father of not one, nor two, but of three toddlers, the youngest of whom has just had her first birthday. You'll have to look at his blog yourself, or you won't believe me when I say how gorgeous they are. And their older siblings look pretty great, too. Dick's blog is also a good place to look for a good joke (especially for comparisons of US and UK humor) or a fitting quote.

Mark Hoback's blog scared me a little at first, and I wasn't sure I wanted to add a name like Fried Green al-Qaedas to my blogroll, since we still didn't know at that time what the Patriot Act really meant, or what the DHS would be looking for. Nevertheless, I girded my loins and added the link. Mark posts some of the most pointed and biting satire anywhere, good enough that his work, especially his graphics, have sometimes been used by other bloggers without citation. [A big no-no in my book.] And yet, he was unfailingly generous in collaborating with me, photoshopping images when needed, most notably for an online "dialogue" between Ayn Rand and Jesus Christ, with a very familiar-looking alien calling them to account. Occasionally he would use something I had written for the Virtual Occoquan, his online literary review of some of the original writing on Salon blogs. If I had to name only one piece of Mark's that was my favorite, it would actually have to be a series of posts he did with tiny photo images of some very famous people speaking the words he dared to put in their mouths. The cast included Peewee Herman and his genie, Jambi, as well as Reese Witherspoon, George Bush and Laura, most of GWB's administration, and the current North Korean dictator, who had a nefarious plot that involved kidnapping you-know-whom. The photos he used were so perfectly dead-on that I would have to laugh out loud while reading each new episode. I asked Mark to extend the story line to get us through the worst of the administration. I don't recall the last date, but it may actually have been last fall.

Certainly there are many other bloggers whose work I like and admire. You have only to glance at the Bread Crumbs' blogroll... but these four people fed my spirit in a special way during a time when I was recovering from a chronic condition, and couldn't do much else but surf, blog, and post political rants and diatribes. Except for Mark, they mostly posted other things, which may be why they were so important to me then, as I look back on it. Every diet needs a bit of variety, especially a political one.

Most importantly, each one of them consistently exercised the highest respect for language and for saying what they wanted to say with integrity. Because of them and the others I met there, Salon was, and still is, in a way, a kind of "wetlands" for blogging. But, except for a handful, most of those original bloggers have left Salon for other environs.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Sure, he did - but it hardly made up for such a crappy Summer

One of the famous quotes from Alice in Wonderland is "'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.'" The whole passage is interesting, but I want to focus on just this bit.

Second things first, the second most notable thing in this quote is the placement of the word "rather" - so precise, suggesting (1) a tone that was more "scornful" than any other adjective, and (2) that the scornfulness was not excessive.

The first most notable thing in this quote, as applied to how people use words, is how it is both (1) generally untrue and (2) generally true.

(1) It is generally untrue:

This line can be taken to mean that, with Humpty Dumpty as our example, we each privately decide words mean whatever we want, regardless of what other people think those words mean. I find that hackle-raising. It could mean
  • (a) we make sounds that sound like words while expecting people to read from our minds thoughts bearing little external relation to the sounds we make; or
  • (b) we are cunningly sloppy, accomplishing naughty ends through (technically) virtuous means, stretching facets of meanings into loopholes in truth, and lazily tending toward presidential signing statements and viral marketing campaigns and worse.

(a) and (b) are common enough in this bad old world, and put a fair reading on that quote, but that reading is generally untrue because we humans usually do purposefully use words that mean to others what they mean to us.

In other words, as a practical matter, words work. People buy and sell, travel to new places, do their work, meet and fall in love, all using words to communicate - much gets accomplished, and so it is clear that this hackle raising reading of Humpty Dumpty's statement is untrue for most of us most of the time.

And yet! Even beyond items (1)(a) and (1)(b) above,

(2) It is generally true:

Surprisingly often, we use words without thinking about what other people think they mean. The problem with that is, if a word is to have meaning at all, multiple people must ascribe a given meaning to that word. We say or write things without considering them, assuming our natural usage will carry our thoughts smoothly to others. Note the key verb in the quote - "choose" - and reflect for a moment. We use the words that mean what we say, but often
  • (a) we fail to think through all the possible things a given word can mean, or
  • (b) fail to narrow down a word's general region of meaning to the relevant specific meaning.
Do you think about what a word means before you use it? 50% of the time? 85% of the time? 99% of the time?

If I take into account both speaking and writing, I have about a B average. An average average, even. I do try, though, and I urge others to try. And, through this blog, I hope to lend my strength to more general resistance against sloppy usage. If I felt more comfortable flinging alarmist statements without preambles, I would simply say "We are letting each other get away with critical meaning failure!"

One of my pet peeves is contemporary usage of the word "unique" - what does it mean? If widget A is unique, there is not one other widget like it anywhere in the world. If there is a remarkably similar widget somewhere, one could then say that widget A is "practically unique" or "almost unique" - that is fine. However, even if there were never another such widget as widget A anywhere ever, and it is totally blowing everyone's minds, one could NOT then say that widget A is "very unique" - it is as unique as ever, neither more nor less. There is no such thing as more or less unique. That is, potentially, the whole power of the word, a power we waste through improper usage. [There is a bible verse about saltiness that could go here.]

When you said something was "very unique", did you mean to say "very rare" or "very cool" or "I feel like talking all fancy, so I say 'simplistic' instead of simple, and I might as well say 'very unique' because I am not really thinking this through, nor am I referring to a dictionary, ever"?

Language is one of those aspects of human society about which it may be said that the individual's best interest is also the group's best interest - more words, more meaning, more knowledge, and more understanding. What this adds up to is more power. Power in the "sword and shield" sense. A shield - to avoid misunderstanding in yourself and others. A sword to make your arguments clear and persuasive, and to eviscerate the false arguments of others.

There is a lot of work to be done, cleaning up all this mess of propaganda, politicking, and marketing, and we will never win any war against them, only certain battles. So let's be a little cheesy about it and say "People of good will and great vocabularies! Gird your loins and grab your dictionaries! The fight is all!"

Q & (non-)A: a notable quote

At today's press briefing, Bush White House spokesman, Tony Snow, eschewed using a standard part of speech, as he danced around the finer points of a question he would prefer to completely avoid:

Reporter: Can you attach an adjective here?

Snow: No, I try to stay out of the adjectival business.

For the rest of the exchange, you'll have to check out this link from Salon's War Room. The above Q & (non-)A are the 5th between AP reporter Holland and Snow.

* * *

Later on in the same interview, Snow attempted to distinguish between backpedaling and minimizing a vast, metaphysical question.

Reporter: That sounds like backpedaling.

Snow: No, it's not backpedaling. It's just it seems to me to be such a vast, metaphysical question.

* * *

I don't know about the rest of you, but I find small comfort in knowing that the Bush White House's spokesman can even use the word metaphysical in a relevant context... whether hyperbole or not.

Escaping Flatland...

I almost posted something about Edward Tufte a day or two ago, when Arts & Letters Daily posted a link to the first of two pieces about him. Instead, I hesitated... and I'm glad I did, since the second link is even more Tufte-like. I also figured that the select group that gathers here would already be familiar with Tufte and his revolutionary notions about combining qualitative and quantitative data in ways that allow telling a story.

But then I thought, why not discuss him anyway?

Two short excerpts from the second link:
“We had numbers and words in the same house,’’ Tufte says, as if that explains how he got to where he is. [His father was an engineer, and his mother began a career as a journalist, but later became an English professor.]
In an interview in the mid-’90s with the Computer Literacy Bookshops in San Jose, Tufte explained that to do statistical design, one has to be able to see and to count. He claimed he didn’t see as well as many graphic artists and didn’t count as well as the best statisticians, but he did the combo better than just about anyone. His great insight was to think about graphics not as art or statistical constructs but as stories. He challenged chart-makers to ask the question: what is the story we’re trying to tell?
Both pieces are worth reading... just as Tufte's own site is well worth exploring.

Monday, June 11, 2007

To blithely split infinitives: a group collaboration in Draft form...

from Karen M.

Does anyone else want to compile a list of examples of famously split infinitives?

Of course, there is "to boldly go."

* * *

and from Frankly, my dear...

Since I don't seem to be able to make additions to your post, I've started a parallel one from which you can copy and paste.

Points to make: First, in principle an infinitive can't be split in English since it is the simplest form of the verb (walk, stand, run, etc.). Technically speaking, the form 'to' + infinitive in English is known as the supine. On the other hand, about 1 person in 100,000 knows this and if you talk about split supines no one will have a clue what you are talking about. In common usage, 'infinitive' usually encompasses both the simple verb (nomen actionis) and the form with 'to' (the supine).

Then, like 'she turned him on' there should probably be a nod to "Obligatorily Split Infinitives."

George Bernard Shaw, the brilliant Irish playwright, once sent this letter to the Times of London: “There is a busybody on your staff who devotes a lot of time to chasing split infinitives: I call for the immediate dismissal of this pedant. It is of no consequence whether he decides to go quickly or to quickly go or quickly to go. The important thing is that he should go at once.”

The twentieth-century writer and cartoonist James Thurber had this to say to the editor who rearranged his infinitive: “When I split an infinitive, it is going to damn well stay split!”

Both of the above quotations can be found at this site.

* * *

from Karen M.

I loved those examples, Frankly... !

Any of the current contributors are free to blithely make edits directly on this post. [Permissions were updated to make this possible.]

Anyone else is free to make suggestions in the comments and we will, if we like them, add them to the post for you.

"...phrase-parsed text displays that more naturally match the way our eyes perceive and capture...?"

I found this link to Live Ink via Dave Pollard's blog, How to Save the World. At first glance, the technique seems to turn prose into a form of prose-poetry via subtle bullet points (tho' without the actual bullet points).

Read the Moby Dick example, and see if you agree. I tried to paste a small sample here for you, but the very clever programming would not allow me to. You'll have to take a look at it yourself in order to see what I mean.

I have often wondered whether books could ever be satisfactorily read-- with ease and in comfort-- on some kind of hand-held computer. Having learned to read across the pages, from left to right, a small screen just seemed so inadequate for accommodating even a modest page of text.

However, the Live Ink format leads the eyes to read... using narrow columns of curving text... down the page. This is the first time I've felt tempted to wonder about having an iPod or other MP3 device for reading.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Divided by a Common Language? Are We Sure about That?

Having read all sorts of English fiction, poetry and essays over the years, without ever having actually set foot in the British Isles, I've never thought much about the differences in usage between the U.S. and the U.K. In fact, except for noting obvious variations in spelling and vocabulary -- honor vs. honour, sedan vs. saloon, etc. -- I'm not sure I've ever been all that conscious of specific stylistic differences. The differences between Kingsley Amis and John Updike weren't any more notable in context than those between Updike and Norman Mailer. One language, different voices was as much distinction as I ever admitted to.

Only recently have I encountered new reasons to pay closer attention. The first arrived -- courtesy of the Fox soccer channel -- with the advent on American television of games from the English Premier Football League. (Make that the obligatory Barclays Premier Football League. The British may laugh at Pizza Hut Park, but they have their own problems with commercialism in sport.)

In listening over time to the match commentators, I gradually became aware of all sorts of hitherto unsuspected divergences in usage. Here are some examples:

British: On the floor.
American: On the ground. (Only indoors is it the floor.)

British: He's got pace.
American: He's fast.

British: Into touch.
American: Out of bounds.

British: Fixture, match
American: Game

British: tie (a competition for one of the many football cups)
American: tie (a game in which both teams have or end up with with the same score.)

British: Kit, strip
American: Uniform

British: A foul on so-and-so (So-and-so has been fouled.)
American: A foul on so-and-so (So-and-so has committed a foul.)

Add all of this up, and it's hard to avoid noticing that you're not in Kansas any more -- or in New York or Alabama either, for that matter. I might have dismissed this as simply a difference in sports dialects, but for the fact that at the same time I found myself reading more in the way of news and political commentary from British sources on the Internet: The Guardian and Independent, as well as the Economist, Prospect, the BBC, the Times, etc. Differences I hadn't noticed before began to jump out at me. For example:

British: It wasn't the best thing anyone has ever said about him, but nor was it the worst.
American: It wasn't the best thing anyone has ever said about him, nor was it the worst.

British: Did I do it? Well no, but I might've done, if....
American: Did I do it? Well no, but I might have, if....

British: The engineering team have decided to pursue the recommended design changes.
American: The engineering team has decided to pursue the recommended design changes.

(American translations are my own.)

Not all of this was new, of course, but I was seeing it in a new light, possibly because there was suddenly so much of it around me. I also realized that the loo, or the telly, knickers, or napkins weren't the interesting parts. What was far more interesting were the grammatical, or if you like, syntactical differences -- the way different choices of word or phrase were both derived from, and in turn led again to different rhythms of speech and writing. It was those rhythms which had been steadily diverging over the last two hundred plus years, a divergence which had only been partly attenuated by the fact that, increasingly, we share a single literature.

At that point, I realized that being a voracious reader as a kid hadn't been entirely without its disadvantages. Whenever I'd encountered something new and tasty then, I'd simply incorporated it, as kids do, into my own linguistic toolkit. Unfortunately, once I had it firmly in my possession, all hope of provenance was lost. It took me years to grasp that I couldn't just insert what some Oxford wag had said a century before -- or rather his manner of saying it -- into my own speech or writing, not without seeming either a pedant or a mutant. far so good. Then I realized something that led all the way around the circle to my starting point again. Look at the following two examples of regional American usage:


I gave them bupkis. BUPKIS, I'm telling you. (Yiddish)

We spent hours on line, just waiting for the place to open. (on, not in)

Rural Alabama:

It was laying over yonder, behind the barn. (lay/lie, archaic
yonder instead of there)

Y'all going over to the store later? Carry me with you, I need a few things myself. (entirely regional use of
carry, and then, of course, y'all itself.)

Would the idioms of residents of Manhattan necessarily be more familiar to a rural Alabaman, or vice versa, than any of the Britishisms listed above? I suspect not, which leads me to conclude that the British/American versions of our common language aren't as different as we might be tempted to think, and thanks to things like the Internet, probably won't diverge significantly more in the future than they have already.