Brigid Daull Brockway is technically a writer

Brigid Daull Brockway is technically a writer

A blog about words, wordplay, and etymology, with slightly more than occasional political rants.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Something clever goes here

Jeremy and I do crosswords together at lunch because we wanted to get a jump on being old, I guess. I can't tell you how often someone sees me doing a puzzle and informs me that crosswords prevent Alzheimer's. This is a little true - the way it was explained to me was that doing activities that increase the number of neural pathways can delay the onset of Alzheimer's symptoms because it takes Alzheimer's a longer time to chew through the extra pathways. Or something like that.
I would guess that doing crosswords prevents Alzheimer's much like eating blueberries prevents cancer. Maybe, possibly, eventually, a little bit.
So here's the question: if we know that we can at least have a better chance of avoiding dreadful diseases by doing little things like eating more blueberries and spending a few minutes a day on a crossword, why don't we? Is it a delayed gratification thing? Or are blueberries just that hard to eat?

Sunday, August 29, 2010

It would be more memorable if I *hadn't* spoke in class today

The other day, I find a book of my old CDs in my folks house, mostly consisting of show tunes. 'Cause I ruled. If you knew me back in high school, I'm really, really sorry for all the show tune-singing, and all the histrionics that with it. Earlier in the week, I bust out Les Mis. If you knew me in high school, you probably remember me tearfully singing On My Own and insisting I'm a modern-day Eponine. I had an unrequited crush on a boy, and this made me exactly the same as a starving French peasant from an appallingly abusive family. Right?
I had a similar bout of nostalgia some months ago when listening to Bon Jovi's Bed Roses. What on earth I thought I had in common with a rock star engaging in the time-honored tradition of cheating on, while simultaneously yearning for, their significant other, I have no idea.
But I kind of have an idea. Bear with me.
So back in the day, BF Skinner does this experiment with pigeons. He took some pigeons and started feeding them at seemingly random intervals. The pigeons, who were apparently hungry, started engaging in these complex rituals. If they were nodding their head the last time food came out of the dispenser, they'd nod their head when they got hungry. If the next time the food came out they happened to be doing a soft shoe shuffle, they'd nod their head and do a soft shoe shuffle next time they got hungry.
Okay, stick with me another paragraph or two. Couple years ago, Jennifer Whitson at the University of Texas at Austin does a study in which she sticks some people into a situation under which they had no control and sticks a control group in a situation in which they do. Then she shows them some random static, and the outta control folks were a bunch more likely to perceive pictures in the images that weren't there.
Okay, so you're a teenager. You can't drive, school's hard, parents are always foiling your plans with their totalitarian rules, your hormones are exploding out your ears, and you're in constant danger of someone's folks walking in while you're getting to third base. 
Is it any wonder, then, that you listen to Smells Like Teen Spirit, Under the Bridge, or, you know, Leader of the Pack, and are sure it was written just for you? It's kind of a wonder, I suppose, but it's not an unexpected wonder.
So there. And if you're not aware, Pearl Jam's Jeremy actually WAS written about me. "Gnashed his teeth and bit the recess lady's breast" is code for "Cried a lot and wrote bad poetry."

Friday, August 27, 2010

United States, Canada, Mexico, Panama...

Do kids still say "Indian Giver" nowadays when their friend has given them something and they now want it back? The term is pretty ironic considering it was the US who kept taking the Indians' land, then giving bits of it back only to take it away again. Newspeak, perhaps. War is peace and all of that.
Then there's the Chinese fire drill - where your car stops at a light and everybody gets out, switches seats, and then gets back in. Where on earth did that get its name? In England there are "Chinese whispers," a term which means the same thing as "telephone game" in American English.
Kids don't sit Indian style anymore, according to my teacher friends. They sit criss-cross applesauce. Criss-cross I get. Applesauce? That strikes me as messy.
People before my time used to say things like "That's mighty white of you," to mean "that was nice, thanks." This probably isn't race-related however. We think that the term referred to the fact that in old Westerns, the good guys wore white and the bad guys wore black.
There's "Mexican standoff" meaning stalemate, but I've got no idea what's Mexican about it.
To get one's Irish up is to lose one's temper, which apparently my countrymen are known to do (though I've never done such a thing). I've heard that the paddy wagon is so-called because they used to need it to round up all the Irish folk (Paddy being a derogatory term for Irishman) when the bars closed. It's more likely, however, that the paddy wagon is so named because so many Irishmen were cops.
I wonder how soon, if ever, this stuff will fade.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Book logic

Anyone want to explain to me why Borders has Stephen King's On Writing in the horror section? Probably the same reason they've got Robert Whitaker's Anatomy of an Epidemic (a hard-hitting and painstakingly researched non-fiction book on the mental health care industry) in self-help.


Yesterday at Borders I'm doing some research for a project I've been working on. Boring stuff; historical nonfiction stuff. And I notice that some of the writing is really bad. Really, really bad. And not just by my snobby English major standards. It's the sort of stuff that would barely get a C an undergrad English class. There were chapters that would have been about three words long after Sr. Cynthia had a go at them with her red pen. Cliches, run-on sentences, adverb abuse, and so on.
Now it used to be that reading this sort of stuff gave me hope. I could easily write as well as this, I'd think. I could write better. Getting published will be so easy if this is the competition! 
Sadly, I've since woken up. It's not that I've tried much to get published and failed. I'm a bit of an underachiever in the even trying department. I've got a stack of notebooks sitting next to me filled with essays and poems and seeds of novels and other ideas, but the work of cleaning them up, putting them in envelopes, and then opening up all those rejection letters... it's daunting. What I've woken up to, though, is that I'm certainly not the only girl in the pool who has had great teachers and great criticism. I'm not the only girl who knows how not to dangle a preposition if you know what I mean. There are folks who have MFAs from Harvard who can't get an agent to look at their work (or I assume there are).
In Stephen King's On Writing, he talks at great length about the rejection process. How you submit and rewrite and submit and submit some more. And then, then if you're really, really lucky, you'll get a rejection letter that contains specific criticism, something that tells you they've actually read your work. If Stephen King, who would get an A+ in Sr. Cynthia's class with no problem, had to submit his stuff dozens of times before even getting confirmation someone had read it, what can a poor schmo like me, who only got an A-, do?
So how come so much crap gets published? It's not because good and talented writers aren't out there, it's because these good and talented writers haven't found a way in yet. I think that the people who get published do so as much by writing as by schmoozing. I'm a very good writer, but a terrible schmoozer.
This doesn't mean that one day I won't maybe actually finish writing something and then set off on the quest for personalized rejection letters. It's just this ugly, daunting part of the process, and it makes me tired to think about it.
Of course, as I told a coworker today, I am luckier than about 99% of English majors, because I've found people who are willing to pay me to write. These people insist on my writing things about relay boards and receipt printers for some reason, but I write. They pay me. Lucky girl.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Place Where

So there I am today, listening to Bruce, as I do most days, and I got to thinking how much New Jersey permeates his music. I was thinking how interesting it is that an artist can be so deeply tied to a place, and yet be famous everywhere. Think of Stephen King and Maine. Harvey Pekar or Drew Carey and Cleveland.
I found it interesting to learn that Willa Cather, though she did grow up in Nebraska, wasn't born there, nor did she spend most of her life there. She moved from Nebraska to Pittsburgh after she finished college, then from Pittsburgh to New York, where she lived out the rest of her life. Her name is so closely linked to Nebraska that one can barely think of one without thinking of the other, but she only spent a small portion of her life there.
This has been on my mind, I guess, since I started trying to write fiction. Everything I write insists on being set in Cleveland. I spent so much of my life trying to escape Cleveland, and apparently my muse wasn't so eager to leave.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

So skin color...

In my Dr. Laura post, someone objected to my use of the terms "people with peach skin" and "people with brown skin," saying they were euphemisms, and that white people aren't the color of peaches. 
He has a point, that it's not like people wouldn't know what I was talking about if I used "black" and "white" instead of "brown" and "peach." He'd also have a point if he said that "brown" is far too general to be an effective substitute for "black"; not only do people of a great many other races have brown skin, but a lot of people we'd consider "white" have brown skin as well. Look at George Hamilton and this tiny "Snookie" creature that's all of a sudden famous for no reason.
Well, blame Guy P. Harrison. I'd always been taught, of course, that race is only skin deep, but Harrison's work, Race and Reality; What Everyone Should Know about our Biological Diversity brought home the fact that race isn't even that. He gives, for example, President Obama. We call Obama black or African American because one of his parents was African. This ignores the obvious fact that his mom was white - how, the author asks, does a woman give birth to a child who is a member of a completely different race? It also ignores a fact a little less obvious - Africa, the author tells us, is the most genetically diverse continent on earth. Since most people we consider African American are descendants of West Africans, and Obama's dad was East African, he's probably as closely related to most "black" people in America as his mother is. 
What's more, "African American" doesn't accurately describe all the people we consider "black." People we consider "black" might have Jamaican ancestry, Haitian ancestry, or may have ancestors from a million different places throughout the world. People we consider African American might have just as many European ancestors as I do. You might point out that black Jamaicans and Haitians are descended from Africans. The problem with that is that anthropologists tell us that humanity was born in Africa. That means we're all descended from Africans if you go back far enough.
The idealist would say, of course, that because there's really no such thing as "race," biologically speaking, we shouldn't call people black or white or African American or Caucasian - we should call everybody people. 
That'd be nice, and I hope we get there one day, but for now there are important reasons to recognize racial differences. Case in point, the Dr. Laura blog. We all know who Dr. Laura was talking about when she repeated the "N" word a dozen times. She wasn't talking about all people with brown skin, of course, and she wasn't talking just about people with recent African ancestors. As Dr. Laura said, she was talking about "black people." 
In conclusion, all I know is that I tend to use peach and brown instead of black and white, I prefer to use peach and brown, and I will probably continue using peach and brown. Maybe it's because peach and brown are a lot more closely related to each other than black and white. You know? Black and white are opposites. Peach and brown are just spots on the spectrum.

If you find Harrison's assertions about race implausible, I encourage you to read the book, in which Harrison does  a far better job defending his position than I would.

On a completely unrelated note, the cat is laying across the entirety of one arm and hand as I try to write this. It's hotter than hell in this apartment, and Puck thinks this is snuggle time.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Why is the rummage gone?

I've been very busy this week planning for the church rummage sale. That's right, I am planning a rummage sale. At a church. A friend suggested I blog on the word rummage, which was a good idea until I looked it up. So... boring. Look it up if you like, but don't say I didn't warn you.

So I asked my friends The Mavens for guidance, and they gave me an origin for white elephant, which is a bit more interesting. Seems there's such a thing as an albino elephant, so rare and so beautiful that it was venerated in parts of Asia.

Legend says that the king of Siam, when somebody tweaked him off, he'd send them one of these rare beautiful things as a punishment. The thing couldn't be used for work or killed, so the recipient would go broke caring for it.

And that, my friends, is the story of how the king of Siam invented passive aggression.

You will not find any rare beautiful curses at our sale, but should you find yourself in Canton, you should come by.

It's this Saturday, August 21st, from 9 to 3ish. We'll have tons of awesome stuff, entertainment, games, food, a mini craft fair, and more! 2585 Easton St. NE Canton, OH 44721. Can't wait to see you there! Please repost!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Fake AP Stylebook

A few gems from a fantastic source I just found:

  • The phrase "hands are tied" is cliché; restrict usage to BDSM scene coverage.
  • Use “-ass” to intensify an adjective: a weak-ass excuse, a big-ass truck, a Pinteresque-ass play.
  • irony - Using words to mean the opposite of their literal meaning. ironey - Made of iron.
  • Hong Kong is technically a part of China. Hong Kong Phooey is technically a number one super guy.
  • As appropriate as it may seem, references to the game "Frogger" have no place in pedestrian death stories.
  • family-friendly - hopefully won't offend the easily offended, but probably will anyway.
By the way, poor Dr. Laura has this to say:
“I want to be able to say what’s on my mind and in my heart and what I think is helpful and useful without somebody getting angry or some special-interest group deciding this is a time to silence a voice of dissent.”

*Sob* I want to be allowed to call someone a hateful word a dozen times without any repercussion whatsoever. My life is hard.

Monday, August 16, 2010

You are literally worse than the black plague. Literally.

Today's post bought to you by
I've noticed I'm often prone to speaking in hyperbole. I mean, I literally speak in hyperbole 200% of the time. I've noticed that everyone on the entire planet speaks in hyperbole 200% of the time. Literally, everybody on earth speaks in hyperbole all the time.
I thought our habit of taking meaning away from words by using them recklessly was a modern day invention. Today I learned that may not be quite so. 
So back in the days of black death, people referred to the disease as a pestilence. Pestilence was one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Pestilence killed a third of the known world. Yet only a few years later, folks started applying pestilence to other folks, as an insult. Pestilence was shortened to pest, and now, pest is barely an insult. When we call somebody a pest, we're telling them they're like a hideous illness that killed off half of Europe.
Nowadays, we refer to fleas and rats as pests, which is ironic because fleas and rats carried the plague. But according to Podictionary, that's a complete coincidence - we didn't start referring to vermin as pests until quite a while later. Which I suppose makes sense, since people had no idea that vermin carried the plague.
Interesting note, the fleas, specifically the Asian flea now called Xenopsylla cheopis, traveled from Asia to Europe not on rats, but on marmots. I wonder if people refer to marmots as pests. Interesting note on interesting note: I knew Xenopsylla cheopis off the top of my head, yet I have no ideas where I left my car keys. 

Sunday, August 15, 2010

On Scott Pilgrim (vs. the World)

  1. I'm a demographic. I feel both valued and used.
  2. I'm watching the movie, look down, and notice I'm wearing a "Beware the Blob" t-shirt under a bright green hoodie with rainbow and heart patches on it. It was like I'd come to the movie in costume or something.
  3. I think it would be cool to start dying my hair to match my shirts, but it would probably be more economical just to buy a bunch of ginger-colored shirts. Note: I'm no South Park fan, but god bless them for bringing back ginger. I realize it's derogatory, but now it's really easy to describe what I look like. 
  4. Michael Cera is like the Steve Buscemi of hipster flicks. Note: Buscemi is pronounced boo se me, not boo she me.
  5. I want to be in a band. I'll have to learn some talent or something.
  6. Dude, I told you comic books were awesome.
  7. I want to be called Knives
  8. Any writer can come up with an idea like "A young hipster in a band falls in love with a chick with crazy hair and then has to fight all of her exes, video game style." I would not have believed any writer being capable of making such a preposterous plot rock.
  9. Everyone should have a pee meter.
  10. Yeah, this post has nothing to do with words. Or next to nothing, anyway. You'll get over it, I promise.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Speaking of vile monsters...

When I heard that Dr. Laura Schlessinger had said the "N" word on air, I wanted to write about it. I figured I should listen to the clip first. I expected to get all morally outraged and stuff, but instead, I cried. 
I kind of understand people with peach skin who don't understand why that's not an OK word for peach people to say. I understand the motives of people with peach skin who will say the word in some contexts because they want to divest the word of its power (although I don't generally agree with their decision to do so). But her rant (for which she's really, really sorry, by the way) is almost heartbreaking. Heartbreaking that someone can be so callous and cruel, and heartbreaking that the cable news is abuzz with people defending her verbal sadism.
I'm going to site a billion reasons why Dr. Laura and anyone who defends her are idiots in a minute. But before I get there, I just want to point out that regardless of whether these black comedians all over HBO that Schlessinger refers to (I don't get HBO, so I'll have to assume it's an all-"N" word all the time station or something) should or shouldn't say the word, people who turn on the radio - brown people and people who aren't brown - don't deserve to hear themselves or their ideals attacked so viciously when they haven't done anything to deserve it. It's one thing to make the argument "white people should be allowed to say the 'N' word." It's another thing to just start lashing out, regardless of who might be listening and might be hurt, to prove this point.
Here's why individuals with peach-colored skin need to keep their freaking mouths shut when it comes to that one word:
  1. Are you four freaking years old? "The kid down the street gets to stay out past ten. Why can't I?? Black comedians on HBO get to say horrible, cruel, vile words, why can't I??" Boo freaking hoo. Grow up.
  2. What is it about this word that makes you so eager to say it? I mean, do you sit at home thinking "Oh, god why, oh why? My life would be so much better if I could just say N..."? There's no reason you need to use the word, dude. Not being able to say it isn't hurting you, it's not oppressing you, it's not even inconveniencing you (unless, maybe, you're narrating a Huck Finn audio book, in which case, you could probably get dispensation). So don't say it.
  3. The fact that some people on TV do it doesn't mean everyone else should do it. You know that scene in Reservoir Dogs where Michael Madsen cuts off the cop's ear? You shouldn't do that either.
  4. Dr. Laura demanded of the caller "Oh, you mean you don't watch BET?" Uh... ignoring the idiotically racist assumption that all people with brown skin watch BET for a minute... how often, exactly does BET use the "N" word? I've been watching BET the whole time I've been writing this post. Haven't heard the "N" word once. I did see an awesome Kung Fu action scene though. Maybe, since BET shows people doing Kung Fu, it should be okay to spend all day roundhouse-kicking black people too.
  5. Just because some people with brown skin are okay with saying it don't mean that all people with brown skin are okay with hearing it. Saying "Black people say it, so white people should be allowed to say it," is like saying "Some black people have sex consensually, so that means it's okay to rape black people."
  6. Context. Seriously. Schlessinger said it, and meant it, in a cruel, attacking way. She didn't say it in a "let's take away the word's power" way. She meant to hurt people with brown skin. She meant to deeply wound the caller. 
  7. Don't say words that hurt. Kindergarteners know that.
  8. When you kick your sister, it's roughhousing. If I kicked your sister, it would be assault. If you can't see the line between playful and hurtful, don't go near it.
But, you know, Dr. Laura's really sorry. So upset with herself that she took the afternoon off, even!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Lost in translation

Jews an Samaritans were mortal enemies. To Jews, Samaritans were filthy untouchables - traitors and interlopers. "Good" and "Samaritan" would have been considered mutually exclusive among Jews at the time of Christ. One of the things that Christ was trying to say is that what we do matters so much more than the tribe to which we belong.

I always find it funny when people say "Good Samaritan," because it's like saying "Good vile monster."

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

And they lived.... ew

The brothers Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm, did not write fairy tales. The brothers were folklorists, who invited folks into their home and devoured them. OK, well, they devoured folks' stories anyway.
After many years spent recording folk tales, they produced a manuscript called Kinder und Hausmärchen or Children's and Household Tales. This manuscript included Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel, and Cinderella. As you probably already knew, the original stories were a lot grosser than the Disney films. Cinderella's step-sisters cut off bits of their feet to try and fit the slipper, which was made out of gold, not glass (can you imagine dancing in glass slippers? Holy blisters, Batman! I mean, gold's at least malleable). Snow White's mom (not her step-mother) tries to eat her lungs and liver (nom nom nom).
So here's what I didn't know. You know how we always accuse Disney of having Disneyfied all the fairy tales? The brothers Grimm themselves wrote revised, family friendly versions of their tales. Apparently, they weren't big on maternal cannibalism either.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Clean to you... but dirty to the Latins*

I'm a literary snob, I admit it. I try really hard not to be. Like I've got this thing with adverbs. I've been so bombarded about the evils of adverbs for so long that when I see one, I take personal offense. It's silly, of course, for me to worry about the adverb count in things I didn't write, but there it is.
So anyway, I know that I'm a big fat snob when it comes to genre fiction: mysteries, fantasy, romance novels, etc. And that's kind of a problem when you just want some light reading for the airplane, or when you'd like to relax with a pleasant read - something without footnotes, perhaps. 
Lately, I've been taking a notion that perhaps I'd like to read romance books. Trashy ones, particularly. I've never had a lot of patience for roses and long walks; I do, however, like a good love scene.
I've read about half of half a dozen romance novels now. Give or take. And I found some stuff I dislike a lot more than gratuitous adverbs.
During my five minutes at OU, I took a writing class, and the professor mentioned that there was some kind of romance novel governing board who decide what can and can't be in romance novels. That in itself is kind of messed up, but I don't know enough of the details to go on a full rant. 
Anyway, one of the things that this board decided some years ago was "no more rapes." I'm not going off about that specifically either, I just think it's an interesting introduction to what I am about to rant about.
When they said "no more rapes," they decidedly did not say "no more near-rapes." It seems, in all of the trashier fare that I've perused, that every woman in every trashy romance novels is just moments from being raped. Luckily, she's always just moments from being rescued by a handsome hero, so no harm, no foul, right?
I just find it really weird that these books, which are supposed to be light and fun, have such a creepy thing always just under the surface. I find it so odd that these supposedly empowered heroines who read books and solve mysteries are always so hapless and helpless when it comes to rape. And never do the near-rape victims appear to have been scarred or in any way harmed from the experience. I'm halfway into the first of the Stephanie Plum books, which people keep recommending. So far, she has been rescued from being gang raped, had a rapist pounding on her door, threatening to rape her, and has been sexually assaulted in her shower (depending on your definition of sexual assault, I suppose). None of this has phased her; in a few cases, it's been more punchline than anything.
I'm trying not to get on a high horse here, it's just that I'm not sure who sees all this rape business as light and amusing fare. I mean, what turns your crank turns your crank, but the levity just kind of worries me.
There's also the fact, of course, that these things don't come with a warning label. You think you're getting an amusing bungling bounty hunter, and instead you're getting misadventures in rape avoidance.
And that is why I must return, like a female Irish Lenny Bruce, to porn. You see, porn comes with labels. I read the back of a romance novel at the bookstore, and all I know is who wrote it and the fact that there will most probably be naughty bits. Don't know what kind of naughty bits, and I don't know if they'll make me feel awkward or uncomfortable or grossed out. Porn, it's got labels. If there's going to be rape involved, that fact will be displayed right on the page or the box. No mysteries here. You want rape, here's rape. You don't want rape, there's a never-ending supply of fantastic filthy consensual sex right over there, clearly labeled. I doubt folks get halfway through a porno and all of a sudden the intrepid hero is being assaulted in the shower - if shower assaults are going to happen, the handy blurb will make sure you know it's coming.

I don't have a big conclusion or moral or a finger to wag. Certainly, Janet Evanovitch can write whatever she wants to and whatever sells, and there's nothing wrong with people who want to read it. I should also point out that I know there are a great many tasteful romance novels without romanticized rape. It's just, you know, a weird thing I noticed.

* From Lenny Bruce. Full text: You can't put tits and ass on the marquee! Why not? Because it's dirty and vulgar, that's why not! Titties are dirty and vulgar? Okay, we'll compromise. How about Latin? Gluteus maximus, pectoralis majors nightly...That's all right, that's clean, class with ass, I'll buy it...Clean to you, schmuck, but dirty to the Latins!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

I love you, man

I'm starting to have no idea what I have and haven't written about. But since it's Sunday and all, I'll take the risk of repeating myself and talk about the language of God. A lot of this is stuff I remember from religion class in high school, and stuff dad learned in seminary.
In the Bible, Jesus calls God Abba. Folks translate this as father, but it actually means something more like daddy. I love that bit.
Also, when Christ says Amen, it doesn't just mean yes. It means God says this and this is so. Which was part of what worked the religious leaders into a froth.
When Christ thrice asks Peter "Do you love me," he uses a word that refers to a deep, abiding, and unconditional love, which John translates to the Greek agape. Peter replies that he loves Christ, but he uses a word that John translates as phileo, which refers to brotherly live. So it was more like Jesus was saying "Do you love me," and Peter was replying "Yeah, sure I luv ya, bro." I imagine it was as weird then as it is now for a dude to tell another dude he loves him.
That's all I got for today, kids.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

I'm so adjective I verb my nouns

Dude, I love verbing. I don't know what people have against it. It's actually quite efficient, actually. Rather than say "Look it up on Google," you can just say "Google it." Obviously, as a technical writer, I'm overly partial to using as few words as possible, but come on. "I'll Google it." It just sounds cooler.
So here are some of my favorite verbed nouns:

  • Ninja: From online gaming, to "ninja" someone's loot is to hang out while someone another player battles, then run over and take the spoils of the battle. "Dude, I just ninja'ed your loot. Pwned"
  • Gaming: Oh, we forget "game" used to only be a noun. Now, "My husband and I got divorced because he loved playing Dungeons and Dragons more than sex" is "My husband and I got divorced because he loved gaming more than sex. Pwned." 
  • Krogering: If you've ever shared a city with a Kroger, you know that Krogering means "shopping at Kroger." I always used specifically to refer to the act of going to Kroger in the middle of the night because you go to Ohio U and there's nothing the hell else to do. Do people in other cities go "Giant Eagling" or "Acmeing"? Not as far as I know.
  • TiVo: I use TiVo as a verb, and I have a DVR. I DVR'd it doesn't have the same ring.
  • New Guy'ed: This may be specific to my workplace, but if you get New Guy'ed, you've gotten a new computer with all the standard equipment and none of your old settings. Love this one.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

While I found the movie Dinner for Schmucks thoroughly enjoyable, I found the title a bit jarring*. Schmuck isn't a very polite word. It literally means penis, and is considered, among people familiar with Yiddish, a swear word. Or at least among the people familiar with Yiddish that I know. It's not a word you'd say around your Bubbe, at any rate.
But that got me thinking about Yiddish, a bit. Aside from Pennsylvania Dutch (first time I've ever spelled Pennsylvania right on the first try, BTW), it's the only language I know that's primarily based in religion, and not in region. 
I'd been under the impression that Yiddish was sort of a pidgin, or at least a sort of informal language. And I think that's understandable given the way I've often heard it used... I've always used it as a sort of slang - if I'm speaking or writing formally, so to speak, I'll tell you that I'm sweating. But if, for instance, I came in from a workout all hot and gross, I'd use schvitzing. Which I guess is a little unusual for a goy. 
It's also surprising, to me anyway, how may words from Yiddish have found their way into English relatively unchanged. It's not just your basic food words, like bagel and lox, and it's not just words that don't have a good English equivalent, like spiel (which, by the way, also means play, which I think is neat) and yenta. It's words that have a perfectly good English synonym, like tchotchkee (pronounced chach-key, meaning knick knack). When I worked in promotions, everybody, including a great many non-Jews called promo items tchotchkees. Some words, like nosh, I didn't even know were Yiddish in origin. 
So how come I only know about three Gaelic words, despite the fact that my grandfather spoke the language fluently, but so many Yiddish words? I suspect, at least in part, that the schma sound is so much fun to make.
Now, Wikipedia has this map, and it's got me wondering if people in, say, Arizona, use words like tchotchkee and stuff.
Also, I always used to think that when punk rockers were shouting Oy, a Yiddish word meaning something akin to FML (which did seem a little odd). They're shouting oi, an English slang term for hey you. That makes a little more sense.

Edit: I just noticed that I failed to point out that Yiddish is NOT a pigin, or informal, and it's been around for a really long time.
*The fact that I'm jarred by swears is, in turn, a bit jarring. I love swearing. I do it a lot. I've elevated it to an art form. I've always thought that the idea of words that are intrinsically bad is ridiculous, and had little patience for people who thought otherwise. Since then, however, I've become immersed in civilized society, where we watch our language around strangers and don't even shout profanities when we fall down the stairs at our workplace. We don't even swear in our blogs! Much. Recently, the phrase "holy frick" escaped my mouth unbidden. I feel like such a swearing sell-out. 

Monday, August 2, 2010

So stressed

And while we're on the subject of meter, there's Gwendolyn Brooks's poem "The Pool Players. Seven at the Golden Shovel":

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

Asked to diagram the meter of the poem, I suggested that all of the syllables were meant to be stressed. The professor laughed at me... she wasn't a very nice lady. Actually, she was a perfectly nice lady, just not a very nice professor. But anyway, I later heard from other English majors with less mean professors that all the syllables were meant to be stressed, that was what was so original about the poem, and the main reason that poetry classes study it.
Then recently I came upon a recording of Gwendolyn Brooks reading the poem. She didn't stress the "we"s. She nearly drops the "we"s.
I liked my interpretation better.

Edit: I did not, by the way, write and publish this post while I was at work... I had the blog on auto-pilot - which is to say that I wrote the blog entry on Sunday and set it to post on Monday at 3 (rather than Monday at 8). Honest.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Arma virumque cano

All right, today we're going to jump into the wayback machine and hit the city of Troy as it's burning, destroyed by the Greeks after a great many years of war. This event spawned a slew of epic poems about people in boats having misadventures with gods and monsters on the way home; today I want to talk about The Aeneid
So Virgil writes The Aeneid in the first century AD. It comes along long after Homer's Odyssey and Apollonius' Argonautica, and it seems like kind-of a knock-off, I would imagine. Virgil clearly has an agenda in writing this - the work is commissioned by Augustus Caesar, and Virgil's pretty intent on using the work to flatter him.
But here's where things get wacky. It's not just about the story. Virgil used a meter called dactylic hexameter, in which each line has six "feet," either dactyls or spondees. A dactyl has a long vowel sound, followed by another long vowel or two short vowel sounds. A spondee is two long vowel sounds, and before you ask, no, I don't remember the difference between a spondee's two long vowels and the two long vowels of a dactyl. Latin class was a long time ago, and I wasn't paying attention.
But digest that for a minute. This is just how people wrote... hundreds or thousands of lines of this careful, measured lines, never deviating from the rigid rules. I remember how, in class, we were supposed to diagram the meter - figure out which feet were dactyls and which were spondees, and I couldn't even do that. Plus, if you'll remember, there was little or no punctuation and sometimes there weren't even spaces between the words. It seems a miracle anyone could read it (I certainly couldn't), much less write in that meter.
Then there are all these crazy figures of speech. My favorite example is one in which the wayward Trojans make land. Aeneas' friend, faithful Achates, makes a fire using flint, and the text reads: 

First, good Achates, with repeated strokes 
Of clashing flints, their hidden fire provokes
Which in Latin reads: 
Ac primum silic scintillam excudit
succeptiqe ignem foliis, atque arida circum

Notice the repetition of the s and c sounds, the sound of flints clashing. How cool is that? And we're not just talking about a poem or a story; he did this over twelve books. It took us an entire year in Latin class just to read one of them. 
All of which leads me to wonder, are we getting dumber? If it used to be that writers just up and wrote entire epics following an impossibly complicated meter, and educated folk could just up and read them, what does that say about us?