Monday, January 30, 2012

The Charmless Drudgery of Answering Dictionary Correspondence

I am horrifically busy this week and have little time to work on anything personal, this blog included. But I don't want to leave my readers out in the cold this week, so I'll let someone else do my infotaining for me.

Check out lexicographer Kory Stamper's post "Dear Merriam-Webster" about why, if you're writing to the editors of a dictionary, you should start and end the letter with "I love you" and should include a coupon for free chocolate . . . or at least a cute lolcat picture.

At least, that's how I read it.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A Three-Word Wednesday Limerick Twofer

Today, I offer you two limericks using the words bubble, lumber, and wreck for Three Word Wednesday.

This wreck of a girl at the club'll
Hop around like she's light as a bubble.
When dancin' she goes
(Oh her poor partner's toes!)
She lumbers like drunk Barney Rubble.

Dance club in Stuttgart
Image by curran.kelleher via Flickr

My ego could burst like a bubble.
I'm a wreck of a poet in trouble.
The way my words lumber
Might induce you to slumber,
Plus I'm not very good at rhyming.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Monday, January 23, 2012

Today's word: virga

Pronunciation: Virga is pronounced not with a soft g, as in "*I'm on the verge o' losin' my job!" but with a hard g, like "I'll never get over Gus tattooing my grandmother's name on his inner thigh!"

If you don't know what the word means, you might try to compare virga with words like criteria, phenomena, and curricula — plurals all. But no, virga is neither "two sets of twins" nor "two virgins"; as it turns out, virga and virgo aren't even etymologically related. Virgo is from Latin for "young woman"; virga — from New Latin meaning "rod or twig" — is a meteorological term that has to do with things falling from the sky.

And not young women, either, even if the idea of virgins falling from the sky might seem exciting. And it would be, for a while. That excitement would quickly turn to horror because of the sudden stop at the bottom.

Unless those gravity-plagued virgins, like virga, never hit the ground.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


My contribution to the SOPA/PIPA protest. Feel free to use this image as you please.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Today's Word: seel

Night Time
Image by Kieran Gillard via Flickr
When you seel someone's eyes shut, you also seal their eyes shut — though normally for only a short time.

And it isn't normally done to people. I hope.

Medieval falconers went to great trouble to train their falcons and hawks well, and it was even worse for the birds themselves. One of the first things a falconer would do to train a new bird was to seel its eyes — that is, sew its eyes shut. The trainer would then carry the calmed bird around on his arm, getting it used to being around humans while also preparing it for the hood that would later be the falconer's greatest tool for controlling his raptor.

The eyes would gradually be reopened during the process of training — blind falcons not being the best hunters — and would eventually be opened fully.

It sounds like a horrible ordeal for the bird to me. If only PETA had been around 1,500 years ago.

Seeling is believing
Cenobites aside, people get their eyes sewn shut only in extreme cases, and I see no evidence that physicians refer to this type of surgery as seeling.

Still, after learning about seel, if I find a Seel Ophthalmology or Seel Optometry, I think I'll look elsewhere for my vision correction needs.
Enhanced by Zemanta

Friday, January 13, 2012

A Slew of Slews

A certain dictionary includes four separate entries for the word slew. Two of the entries say that slew is an alternate spelling of slough (a bog or marsh) or of slue (to turn something on a fixed point). So feel free to use slew instead of slough or slue — but only if you want to piss off a copy editor.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Importance of Honesty in a Happy Marriage

It's Three-Word Wednesday! Today's words are brutal, sullen, and trust.

If marriage is to take the wanted course —
Avoiding sullen nights of great remorse —
Just tell the brutal truth
Even if it seems uncouth,
And I trust you'll find — forsooth!
That your dreadful wife will grant you a divorce.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A Slight Downward Adjustment to My Resolutions

You might recall that the first of my 2012 project-based resolutions was to read both Infinite Jest and REAMDE in January. I knew it was a lofty goal &mdash both of these books are monsters — but I underestimated just how lofty it was.

Turns out it is simply too high for me to reach.

I started with Infinite Jest. My Nook Color says that this novel is 1,427 pages long. Assuming we omit the table of contents, title page, half-pages at the end of chapters, etc., the number of actual pages of reading comes down to about 1,394. I started reading on December 29, so I ultimately have 34 days in which to complete my first resolution project.
Infinite Jest
Not actual size.
Image via Wikipedia

Simple math shows that I must read an average of 41 pages per day to finish Infinite Jest by month's end.

And that's just the first book. Add REAMDE's 1,042 pages, and I would have to ingest 71 pages a day to read them both before February gets here, while keeping up my day job, my freelance work, my participation in the Indiana Wind Symphony, my responsibilities as a father, and this blog (to which, you might have noticed, posts have become rarer since I started this resolution project).

Infinite Jest is not an easy book to read, either. Reading 41 pages a day from this tome takes more time and more brain power than reading 41 pages a day of, say, the Hunger Games trilogy, or Stephen King, or even Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles.

Today, I'm on page 230, plus another 20 pages of endnotes. Under the original resolution, I should have gotten this far some time on New Year's Day.

I've come to the conclusion that I set myself up to do the impossible, so I am downgrading this resolution project to make it possible. Or at least plausible. If I can finish Infinite Jest by month's end, I'll be content. I'll read REAMDE after that, at my leisure, while I work on a clarinet solo.

This way, I'm only 281 pages, or about week, behind.
Enhanced by Zemanta

Monday, January 9, 2012

Nascence, Renaissance, and the Birth of Nation

The Latin infinitive nasci, "to be born," gives us nascent, "coming or having recently come into existence." It also gives us nascency and nascence (and occasionally naissance), which all mean "birth." One step further removed and we get renascent, renascence, and renaissance, which mean "rebirth" (though renascent, according to Merriam-Webster's, seems to be less about a return to life than about a return to vigor).

Homer was also called Melesigenes (son of Mele...
Image via Wikipedia
The "rebirth" of the Renaissance period was a revival of interest in and study of ancient Greek and Roman scholarship, philosophy, and culture, known today as "classical studies."

And while we're birthing and rebirthing things, how about the word nation? It, too, comes from nasci, from Latin to Middle French to Middle English to us. So, in a way, that trite phrase and controversial old movie, "birth of a nation," is redundant.

In a way, of course. Etymology does not dictate meaning; it tells you where a word comes from, but not what a word is.
Enhanced by Zemanta

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Book Review: Dracula

SPOILER ALERT: A spoiler alert for a novel that's over 100 years old might seem silly, but if you haven't read Bram Stoker's original — if your knowledge of vampires comes secondhand from Hollywood, Anne Rice, or (shudder) Stephenie Meyer — then there really are some spoilers here.

I finally finished reading Dracula just a few days before 2012 began, and my overall response is this: My but Bram Stoker is long-winded!

Dracula is another great example of why I avoid Victorian fiction. I prefer the Kurt Vonnegut style of writing (e.g., "Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action."), so the logorrhea (some might call it grandiloquence) of Dracula and of other novels from the same era are, to me, difficult to bear. Bram Stoker and his contemporaries, it seems, take every opportunity to say in ten words what could be said in two.

To wit,
Dracula (first edition cover), Bram Stoker's v...
Image via Wikipedia
I was so absorbed in that wonderful diary of Jonathan Harker and that other of his wife that I let the time run on without thinking.

So I don't like Stoker's writing style. The story, though, is brilliant, made more brilliant when one remembers that all this vampire stuff didn't really exist before Dracula. Hollywood's vampire stories draw (vampirically) from Stoker's magnum opus, and this is the original. Dracula is to vampires what Alexander Graham Bell's first working telephone is to smartphones, or what Edison's first successful light bulb is to a 60-inch flat-panel 1080p HDTV, or what The Simpsons is to Family Guy.

There's no denying that it's an important story, but I did have some problems with it. With the ending, mostly. The chase through eastern Europe was, I thought, building up to a final, exciting, nail-biting confrontation between Dracula and Van Helsing et al. Sure, there was an Old West–style stagecoach chase, but when the vampire hunters finally stopped the gypsy's leiterwaggon and knocked Dracula's coffin to the ground, were we treated to a final face-off with the soulless Un-Dead?

Nope. Dracula stayed in his box (the sun was still up), got his neck slashed and his heart pierced, and turned to dust.
English: Bram Stoker (1847-1912), novelist bor...
Bram Stoker
Image via Wikipedia

No battle. No test of will. No facing down death. Just killing a vampire in a box, like shooting vampire fish in a barrel.

Modern writers, I think, tend to agree with me on this, altering their adaptations to make the climax more, well, climactic. Exciting. For example, in Steven Dietz's stage adaptation of Dracula, which I recently got to see at the Indiana Repertory Theatre, Dracula had the opportunity to attack his pursuers, but was ultimately done in by Mina Harker's "betrayal" — a kiss while the Eucharist was still on her lips — giving the men the opportunity to strike. In Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula, the title character actually dies by Mina's hand — she is the one who plunges a sword through Dracula's heart (and, through an odd feat of strength, into the marble floor).

In both of these versions, the relationship between Mina and Dracula is more overtly sexual, and Mina is more complicit (whether mesmerized or not) in that relationship. In the book, on the other hand, Dracula forces himself on a struggling Mina:
With his left hand he held both Mrs Harker's hands, keeping them away with her arms at full tension; his right hand gripped her by the back of the neck, forcing her face down on his bosom. Her white nightdress was smeared with blood, and a thing stream trickled down the man's bare breast. . . . The attitude of the two had a terrible resemblance to a child forcing a kitten's nose into a saucer of milk to compel it to drink.
She never shows any sexual interest in him — only the pull of "her master." Throughout the race to Transylvania, Mina simply serves as a hypnotic GPS, and not a good one at that. She is otherwise just a deadweight.

So I didn't like the writing style, and I didn't like the ending. But still, there is something in this story that kept me coming back, moving forward to see what happened next. Maybe it was just to see how the original compares with Hollywood, I don't know. But whatever it was, Bram Stoker's Dracula was worth reading.

Once. It's worth reading once.

It's also a great source for learning some new words. For example, it was interesting to see that what we normally hear called a strait jacket is called by Dr. Seward a strait waistcoat. And then Dr. Seward writes what I see as a nice bit of wordplay:
There is a method in [Renfield's] madness, and the rudimentary idea in my mind is growing. It will be a whole idea soon, and then, oh, unconscious cerebration! [emphasis added]
We might expect Seward to write, in his building excitement, "oh celebration!" But, instead, he goes with "unconscious cerebration!" a term introduced in psychology in 1842 that would evolve into what we know today as the subconscious. (Cerebration is simply "using the mind.")

We also find a use of the word diligence that we don't see often:
At three tomorrow the diligence will start for Bukovina; a place on it is kept for you.
Here, a diligence is a stagecoach.

And a few more uncommon words from Dracula:
  • cal├Ęche: a light carriage
  • case-boffle: a bottle specially made to fit in a suitcase
  • daffled: crazy or stupid
  • drouth: thirst
  • hobnails: nails used in the soles of shoes or boots
  • London cat's-meat: horse meat
  • trituration: crushing or grinding
You get all these great words, plus a fair bit of French and Latin. And some nice bits of linguistic comic relief from Abraham Van Helsing, a doctor from Amsterdam for whom English is a second language:
Whereupon the captain tell him that he had better be quick — with blood — for that ship will leave the place — of blood — before the turn of the tide — with blood.
Perhaps Van Helsing has blood-sucking vampires on his mind a bit too much. Here, he's misinterpreting a discussion with a longshoreman, misunderstanding the British use of the word bloody: "bloody quick," "bloody place," and "bloody tide." Hilarious.

Or at least as hilarious as Dracula gets.

Enhanced by Zemanta