Sunday, January 23, 2011

“nothing at all to do with human beings”

Here’s a gentle riposte to recent languages DIR blog posts. To set the scene I have to tell you that “borrowers” are small persons who live secretly in human houses. They meet their needs by borrowing from the excesses of the house – a sock here, a thumbtack there, a broken cookie or corner of cheese.

Young Arrietty is new to her Aunt Lupy’s (which is hidden behind the lath & plaster of the wall) and she has learned that Lupy makes clothes for another borrower who is seen by everyone else as something of a wild thing – unlike the others he lives most the time out of doors. Homily is Arrietty’s mother.

”It’s very kind of you to make his suits,” said Arrietty …

“It’s only human,” said Lupy.

“Human!” exclaimed Homily, startled by the choice of word.

“Human – just short like that – means kind,” explained Lupy, remembering that Homily, poor dear, had had no education … “It’s got nothing at all to do with human beings. How could it have?”

source: The Complete Adventures of the Borrowers by Mary Norton

Thursday, January 20, 2011

what do you know about your word?

Following up on yesterday’s idea, that before becoming literate people experience words as ahistorical, that is, a word means what it means now, as though it had just been invented and had never meant anything else. I’ve seen highly literate people so enamored of a word’s history that they seem convinced that history remains indelibly a part of the word’s body, that archaic meanings never quite go away, that they remain, at least, a subliminal meaning.

In her book on adopting the ways of the urban naturalist, Crow Planet, Lyanda Lynn Haupt recalls her early infatuation with the writings of Henry David Thoreau. Among the naturalist practices that Thoreau praised (& that Haupt recommends) is walking. Get out of your car. Get off your bike, even. Walk.

Haupt quotes a passage in which Thoreau waxes philosophic about “’sauntering, which word is beautifully derived “from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under the pretense of going “a la Sainte Terre,” to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a Sainte-Terrer, a Saunterer, a Holy Lander.’”

After a little research Haupt declares Thoreau’s a “false etymology. … The modern lexicographic scholarship states that the origin of saunter is unknown,” though there are guesses, the Sainte Terre idea not being one currently given credit, it seems.

I’ve read about other false etymologies, particularly with regard to names, whether animal or place, that originated outside English. If one learns a bird’s name and it sounds like, say, Shouthead, it seems reasonable enough to assume that the bird was given that name because the darn thing shouts a lot. But suppose you were to learn that the first English-speakers asked the locals the name of the bird and the locals said something that sounded vaguely like “Shouthead”, the word meaning in the original language something entirely different, “Beautiful feathers,” maybe.

How significant is a word’s history to the word’s meaning if we have no knowledge of that history?

source: Crow Planet: essential wisdom from the urban wilderness by Lyanda Lynn Haupt

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

do you read?

In an article in The New Yorker (December 24 & 31, 2007) Caleb Crain looks into the possible passing of reading as a widely used skill. What would happen if people stopped reading? People didn’t always read, of course. Most people in the world still don’t, I’d wager. He looks at research into the way non-literate people use language. For them, he says, “Words have their present meanings but no older ones[.]”

Earlier this month I talked about the claim some make that when they use offensive words like “faggot” and “gay”* they don’t mean to denigrate gay people. One clever teen in a discussion thread I read put it this way (I’m paraphrasing): “The ‘gay’ I’m using to denigrate things and the ‘gay’ used to refer to homosexuals are not the same words. They’re homonyms. I don’t mean to refer to gay people when I say something stupid is ‘gay.’” I give the kid credit for a cleverness. It’s a lawyerly answer. Suppose gay people were completely accepted, even celebrated as a matter of course in this society; if ‘gay’ persisted as a put-down then a case might be made for their being two completely separate words that just happen to be spelled and sound alike. “Anti-gay people! Gawd, they are just so gay!

I don’t see it. But I will add that when I was a kid I had no idea I was taking advantage of anti-gypsy stereotypes when I would say, “What a gyp!”, referring to a bad deal. I no longer use that word. When I learned the word I didn’t even know it was spelled like the first syllable of “gypsy” or that gypsies had a bad reputation. I probably thought of them as fairy tale characters, like pirates or witches.


* That is, I mean people will use "gay", which I don't consider offensive, in a way that is clearly intended to be offensive, as a synonym for "unacceptable". [update as of 1/23/11]

Friday, January 14, 2011


As you’ve noticed if you’ve seen my pile posts I’ve always got several books going. I read a little bit of one, then put it aside and read a little bit of another. Frequently, more than one book at the same reading session will mention the same something – Proust, say, or Plato. Maybe even referring to Proust’s madeleine or Plato’s shadows on the cave wall. One book will be a novel, the other will be a book on crows. Or whatever. It’s not like I’m reading two books about Proust – or Plato.

A couple days ago I found two different authors describing a scar on a woman’s belly as she was undressing.

My books are talking to each other.

Monday, January 10, 2011

spotting the egg

”Many kinds of birds have spotted eggs … Eggs do not grow spotted, but have spots ‘applied’ as they pass through the oviduct, sliding against special pigment-laden pores (which is why the markings so often look streaky).”

So birds color their eggs (beyond the single color brown, white, blue) much like humans do. We paint an egg, applying pigments with brushes. Birds paint their eggs, too, daubing paint on them as the eggs leave their butts. Who knew?

source: Crow Planet: essential wisdom from the urban wilderness by Lyanda Lynn Haupt

Sunday, January 09, 2011

redefining homosexuality

There was nothing offensive in this love. That is to say, it wasn’t homosexual.

That’s from Kurt Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan. The narrator is referring to Salo the Tralfamadorian’s love for Winston Rumfoord. Salo is an alien robot. A sexless alien robot, the text is at pains to emphasize. Rumfoord is human. The novel was published in 1959.

Homosexuality was, by definition, offensive. It’s true that Kurt Vonnegut frequently has a tongue lodged in a cheek, so one might suspect that Vonnegut was being over the top intentionally in equating homosexuality with offensiveness. That he was being ironic, even. On the other hand in 1959 few would have gotten the joke, if joke it was. Most readers of the time would have just nodded, or, perhaps, felt relief that the love being spoken of was not that nasty kind, but the kind purer even than het sex, the kind in which no sex is involved.

These days we gay folk refuse to be considered offensive merely for existing. We’ve made some progress. Though the abundant use of words like faggot and cocksucker and the ubiquitous That’s so gay! to denote the offensive, the unacceptable, the pathetic, the disgusting, means that Progress requires an asterix. Yes, we can legally marry in a few states, but our essential beings are still definitionally wrong. It’s a cultural embed so deep some who use the words just mentioned will claim they mean no insult to gay people, the words, they say, have nothing to do with homosexuality! They’re just taking advantage of a word everybody knows is bad, disapproving, ugly, that, in fact, that’s all they mean to express – disapproval, condemnation, disgust.

Well. You can be stupid. And stupider. And stupider yet. But how much brain damage do you have to sustain to be that stupid?

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Dustin Heron

It’s January 2011? OK. Time to offer up this link I threw in my DIR doc three years ago. Write about it sometime, I told myself. I’ve been cleaning out a few of those today. One was on whether it’s becoming normal journalistic practice to mention the same-sex partner of a prominent figure being featured in a magazine profile. So far as that one went, I couldn’t figure out anything to say, really. It’s long been the practice of journalists to treat a gay relationship like a secret, a shameful one, perhaps, or one that they fear will lead to reader complaints (or editorial suspicion) or something. Best just not to mention it, even if the interview subject is fully forthright and proud. I had written some paragraphs trying to say something. I did not succeed. I’ve deleted that at last. I’ve now said at least as much as I previously said at length. Another potential post was on how Anne Sexton depicted God – Jesus in this case – in a poem. Uh. Just not up for that, you know.

So what have I decided to share?

Because I'm bored at work, I'm being drunk. I'm being drunk by the Ogre from H.R. His hands are enormous … He squeezes me in his hand and snaps the top of my head back like a soda can. I make an effervescent sound. My skull is filled with carbonation. Carbonation and porn. Porn begins to jump from my skull and run all over the office.

That’s by Dustin Heron. I discovered Heron in an issue of Watchword and asked him if he would read for Poetry & Pizza, the series I was coordinating (with Clive Matson & Katharine Harer) in San Francisco.

His blog, Because I’m Bored at Work, from which I snagged the above quote, seems to be on hiatus. There’s been no update since January 2008. Before that there had been no update since Jan ’07. I think my praising the blog and his Watchword story goosed Heron to write a couple entries.

But to make it a regular thing you need more motivation than a few nice words and one pizza parlor gig, I guess. Anyway. Still fun writing there to be encountered.

I bought his book, Paradise Stories, but haven’t read it yet. It’s got lots of stars at Good Reads.

Poetry & Pizza is also, by the way, on hiatus, permanent maybe. Had a good run.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

pile of reading

My last pile of reading post was August 1st. At the time I was reading Worse Than War: genocide, eliminationism, and the ongoing assault on humanity, by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen. I finished the damn thing yesterday. Yes, the author says many valuable things. He offers ideas for preventing genocide, for instance, (or, as he has decided to rename it, “war against humanity”), ideas which include giving every new leader a handbook describing the likely punishments for engaging in eliminationism (the term Goldhagen prefers to genocide). The topic is so important that any book that tries out new thinking on it is important. I just wish I could recommend this one. I’m not telling anybody not to read it. I don’t have a better one to recommend.

I keep trying to offer up a critcism of Worse Than War and erasing what I write because, like I said, it’s such an important topic that I don’t want to do anything but recommend people spend time thinking and working on it, but the book …

Stuff I’m reading now:

Faster Than the Speed of Hope poems by Donna M. Lane
My favorites are the portraits of people Lane knows, friends, lovers, exes.

Crow Planet: essential wisdom from the urban wilderness by Lyanda Lynn Haupt
Having observed urban wildlife awhile (particularly crows), Haupt offers up a primer on how to be a naturalist in the city. More crow anecdotes please.

I Am Secretly an Important Man by Steven Jesse Bernstein
A collection of short prose published posthumously. I discovered Bernstein in The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, which I finished reading last week. I wasn’t able to find a collection of Bernstein’s poems in the library, but did come across this. In “Murdered in the Middle of the Dance,” the poem in The Outlaw Bible, Bernstein engages in a magical realism that is both humorous and grotesque – the speaker of the poem cuts off his head then wanders about a party bleeding. I haven’t read anything so striking in Secretly yet, but I’m only a few pages in.

Sorry We’re Close poems by J. Tarin Towers
Enjoying the way Towers makes connections, leaps, a friend calls them. “I stop / caring about myself to try to fix the world for you. / No one can fix the world, but I show up with my tool kit: / … what can I do for you? / Nothing? Oh, well, I’m sorry I came. / I’ll go home and fix my broken bathtub if you don’t need me then. / Oh! Of course I’ll stay on so you can drown your boyfriend.”

The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry edited by Ilya Kaminsky and Susan Harris
Just started. Haven’t yet got past the Introduction. I am reading a lot of poetry lately. Big fat anthologies and slim volumes by individual poets.

Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life by Bryan Lee O’Malley
I loved the movie made from this series of graphic novels, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, and a library colleague likes the graphic novels better so I’m giving them a shot. So far this first graphic novel and the movie so closely parallel that it feels a bit like I’m reading the movie’s story boards.

Two Lines: a journal of translation, volume 13, 2006
I like the opportunity to read work from languages other than English. Haven’t read anything I love in this yet.

Kundalini: the evolutionary energy in man by Gopi Krishna
In my yoga practice lately I’ve been going through periods I’ve felt lightheaded, if not enlightened. The book is a memoir by a yogi who inadvertently accessed kundalini energy – and it came close to wrecking his life. Not quite a pageturner, tho.

The Complete Adventures of the Borrowers by Mary Norton
Four books under one cover. A fifth Borrowers book was published a few years later making the title no longer accurate. A copy of the first, titled simply The Borrowers, occupied a place on our bookshelf most of my childhood. I know my brother read it. But I could never get past more than a few pages. I admire Norton’s prose style in a way now that I would not have as a child and I find the gossiping of the mother mildly amusing, something that I’m sure bored me as a child, especially considering the emphasis Mrs Clock (one of the mouse-sized human “Borrowers” that live under the floor boards in English houses) places on class and propriety, things that would have puzzled me as a child.

Voices Within the Ark: the modern Jewish poets edited by Howard Schwartz and Anthony Rudolf
Another fat fat anthology. The writing is consistently good. Much allusion is made to the Torah (the Old Testament, more or less), and to the same old stories …