English Usage


senselessness I recently read a strange and disturbing little book. I tend to be attracted to strange and disturbing books, little or othersized. This one, however, I’m not entirely sure about. It’s called Senselessness, and it’s written by Horacio Castellanos Moya. How could I resist a 142-page novella with glowing blurbs from Roberto Bolaño (author of the widely acclaimed 2666) and Russell Banks, the former evoking Buster Keaton and the latter referencing Franz Kafka? Here’s the synopsis from the flyleaf (yes, this paperback edition has an actual flyleaf! It’s akin to finding a triangular vent window on a new car!):

An alcoholic, atheist, sex-obsessed writer finds himself employed by the Catholic Church (an institution he loathes) to edit the testimonies of the survivors of slaughtered Indian villages. The writer’s job is to tidy up the 1,100 page report: “that was what my work was all about, cleaning up and giving a manicure to the Catholic hands that were piously getting ready to squeeze the balls of the military tiger.” Mesmerized by the eerie poetry of the Indians’ phrases, the increasingly agitated and frightened writer is endangered twice over: by the spell exerted over his somewhat tenuous sanity by the strangely beautiful heart-rending voices, and by real danger. The Church is hunting the military, but the military is still in charge of the country, and our booze-soaked writer is soon among the hunted – or is he paranoid? Or is he paranoid and one of the hunted?

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I first want to point out that there’s a reason the title of this post isn’t “Punny Business.” That reason is that it would be a dreadful title. Some people, however, have neither the restraint nor the better judgement to leave puns in their accustomed milieu: the passing comment or the punchline of a soon-forgotten joke.

As I, and no doubt countless others, have mentioned previously, puns are roundly and routinely criticized as the lowest form of humor; some even speculate that uncontrollable pun-making is a legitimate psychological condition, a disease. I hold no such vendetta with them, but caution that there is a time and a place for puns, as well as a time and a place not for puns. (more…)

While doing a smattering of free freelance editing for a friend the other day, I discovered something hitherto unrecognized to me, hypervigilant and hyperobservant reader though I am. My discovery? Why, that in English there isn’t a collective word for nieces and nephews.

Brothers and sisters are siblings, sons and daughters are children, mothers and fathers are parents, husbands and wives are spouses, cousins are– well– cousins, but there’s no neat term for nieces and nephews. Not for uncles and aunts either, I soon also realized. Heck, even dogs and cats are pets.

Yggdrasil, from www.vinlandsvolva.com (more…)

jordan almondsTwo candy-themed posts in a row. I just know CurlyWurlyGurly is going to sic her bloodthirsty lawyers on me: take them off their retainers or something.

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"A Great Sewer Built by an Improved Method of Tunneling, in Brooklyn, N.Y."

"A Great Sewer Built by an Improved Method of Tunneling, in Brooklyn, N.Y."

I recently learned the difference between sewage and sewerage. Up until then I had always assumed that sewerage was a corruption of sewage, but no, they are distinct words. Sewage refers to the stuff itself, the gunk, the offal, the detritus, the waste material. Sewerage refers to the system that carries the sewage, the architecture of it all. This would be all nice and tidy except for the fact that one of the meanings of sewerage is synonymous with sewage. That is, you can refer to sewage as sewerage but you can’t call sewerage sewage. That’s the bad news. The good news is that I wasn’t made aware of the distinction between the two terms because of some unfortunate household crisis.

Anyway, I then started thinking about other linked words are often used interchangeably but in fact have separate meanings. I know there are more, but so far I’ve only come up with two pairs:

  • flotsam/jetsam: Flotsam is floating wreckage of a ship or its cargo; broadly: floating debris. Jetsam is the part of a ship, its equipment, or its cargo that is cast overboard to lighten the load in time of distress and that sinks or is washed ashore. (Both definitions from Merriam-Webster online.)
  • schlemiel/schlimazl: A schlemiel is a clumsy oaf, a bungler. A schlimazl is a born loser, one with rotten luck.

    The American distinction between the schlemiel and the schlimazl, summarized in the rule of thumb that says the former spills the soup, the latter is the one into whose lap it falls, provides a helpful basis for definition. The schlemiel is the active disseminator of bad luck, and the schlimazl its passive victim. Or, more sharply defined, the schlimazl happens upon mischance, he has a penchant for lucklessness, but the unhappy circumstances remain outside him, and always suggest the slapstick quality of surprise. The schlemiel’s misfortune is his character. It is not accidental, but essential. Whereas comedy involving the schlimazl tends to be situational, the schlemiel’s comedy is essential, deriving from his very nature in its confrontation with reality.  – Wisse,  Ruth R. The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, University of Chicago Press (1971).


Bonus observation: OB/GYN. I find myself utterly alone in preferring to pronounce this term as “ahb-gīn.” It obviously takes too long, most of the time, to say “obstetrician – gynecologist” or “obstetrics – gynecology” so it’s understandable that a shortened form’s arisen. But, to my mind, saying “oh-be-jee-wye-en” is unsatisfying for two reasons:

  1. At five syllables, it’s still too long and clumsy to say. It isn’t nearly as fluid as everyone’s favorite letter run, LMNOPQ (six syllables, by the way).
  2. It obliterates the distinction between the two specialties by running the letters together. My pronunciation of “ob-gyn,”  with its neat two-syllable formation, preserves the dual nature of the profession.

The story of Little Red Riding Hood is an especially rich source for retelling and reinterpretation, both in popular culture and academia. Freudian assessments, feminist criticisms, all sorts of things (the vast majority of them sexual; go figure). I was recently reminded of this by seeing an informatics type version by Swedish student Tomas Nilsson (see below). Thus inspired, I collected a few old favorites and new finds for your entertainment, Dear Reader(s).
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puerile-britainNo Snickering: That Road Sign Means Something Else is currently the most e-mailed article at The New York Times website. But just in case your internet browser is under a rock, I’m highlighting and linking to it here at pannaceaeae because grownups (who may have outgrown the cartoons on television ) still like to see something silly on Saturday mornings.

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