Saturday, December 17, 2016

word of the day: titivating

context:

The Snork Maiden immediately took out her looking-glass to see if it was broken, but, thank goodness, the glass was whole and all the rubies were still on the back. But as she was titivating herself, [she spotted] something else. …Something that crept slowly nearer …

definition for titivate:

To make small alterations or additions to one's toilet, etc. so as to add to one's attractions; to make smart or spruce; to ‘touch up’ in the way of adornment, put the finishing touches to. [Oxford English Dictionary]

A friend of my mother gave us two or three of the Moomintroll books so I remember them sitting on the bookshelf at home. I don’t know if my brother ever read them, but I know I didn’t. I may have made an attempt or two but if I did, I didn’t get far.

The library has collected volumes of the Moomintroll comic strip and that proved an easy in. Recently I read Moominpapa’s Memoirs and found I enjoyed Jansson’s prose, too. Will I make it through the whole series? They’re awfully twee. Gentle, cozy, sweet, eccentric. A little precious. Likable. Meandering. I got Comet in Moominland off the Claremont Branch shelf a couple weeks ago and read it on lunches and breaks (alongside a book of essays by Salman Rushdie). 

“Titivate” is a surprising word for a children’s book. When was the last time you saw it? Have you ever? The translator made the choice, not Jansson, at least not that particular word, who knows maybe a similarly unusual choice was made in the original Swedish?

source: Comet in Moominland by Tove Jansson
1946. (1959 English translation by Elizabeth Portch)

Farrar Straus Giroux, New York

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

word of the day: bension

context:
The shadows lengthened across the deserted track, and the evening wind sighed down it to sweep a flurry of whispering leaves across the rut, their brown brittleness light as a bension as they drifted across the unheeding white form [of the exhausted old dog].

definition: The word “bension” does not appear in the Oxford English Dictionary. Curious! I have heard of a “benison,” however. A benison is a blessing; as the OED has it, “That blessing which God gives; a giving of blessedness.”

I had no luck with Google finding another instance of “bension” outside Sheila Burnford’s novel The Incredible Journey. A site called Quizlet offers “bension” among its “flashcards” for The Incredible Journey (see chapter three) and even provides an audio pronunciation beside the definition (“a blessing or benediction”). I didn’t see a source for Quizlet’s definition. 

It could be that “bension” is a typo, a transposing of the “s” and the “i” of “benison.” If so, is it a typo that’s persisted 55 years and multiple editions? A completely typo-free book is rare. Sometimes typos are found and when a new edition is issued they’ve been corrected. You can read critical editions of classics that discuss such mistakes and often try to figure out whose fault they are, the author’s? the publisher’s?

Perhaps Sheila Burnford was familiar with the word “bension,” as she spelled it, and used it consciously. Words certainly change spellings over time and in different places, so it could be her version of “benison” was not a typo but common to her community.

source: The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford
1961. Delacorte Press, New York 

Friday, December 02, 2016

shark attack!

Maybe you don’t want to sail out to sea because you’re afraid if the ship goes down and you find yourself bobbing about in the water a shark will sniff that bleeding cut on your finger and come scooting over for a toothier taste. Nobody likes the prospect of being eaten alive. We know it happens. We see it on the nature documentaries.

You’ve heard that shark attacks on humans are pretty rare, right? But, you know, maybe that’s because there aren’t many shipwreck victims to make a meal of.

In her book on science and war, Mary Roach investigates the military’s success in creating a sharp repellent. Soldiers at sea don’t like the idea of being eaten alive. Thinking about it causes stress. If you can supply a fella with a bottle of Shark Begone you’ll give him some peace of mind. This is war. Peace is relative. But any peace in a war!

Mary Roach says no. No such things as Shark Begone. Products that claim to be shark repellent  don’t have reliable research backing them up. There are even products that insist they repel sharks that actually attract sharks. So you want to be careful what you lather on your bobbing parts.

An article at the Smithsonian about the sharks attracted to the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in World War II builds in the fear:

Soon enough [the floating survivors] would be staving off … sharks. The animals were drawn by the sound of the explosions, the sinking of the ship and the thrashing and blood in the water. … Reports from the Indianapolis survivors indicate that the sharks tended to attack live victims close to the surface … The first night, the sharks focused on the floating dead. But the survivors’ struggles in the water only attracted more and more sharks … Of the Indianapolis’ original 1,196-man crew, only 317 remained. Estimates of the number who died from shark attacks range from a few dozen to almost 150.
Sharks!! They ate 800 sailors! 1,196 minus 317, that’s 800ish. Nobody actually knows how many living sailors managed to escape the sinking ship. How many subsequently died from exposure, dehydration, drowning? 

Mary Roach wasn’t having much luck finding stories about sharks eating sailors. 

A floating sailor [can] dispatch a curious shark by hitting it or churning the water with his legs. ([One researcher] observed that even a kick to a shark’s nose from the rear leg of a swimming rat was enough to cause ‘ … raid departure from the vicinity.’) ‘The sharks were going after dead mean,’ said a survivor quoted in a popular book about the 1945 sinking of the USS Indianapolis, an event that often comes up in discussions of military shark attacks. ‘Honestly, in the entire 110 hours I was in the water,’ recalls Navy Captain Lewis L. Haynes … ‘I did not see a man attacked by a shark.’ [emphasis in the original]

But aren’t rafts often followed by sharks? Pretty scary. Aren’t they just stalking the passengers, waiting to nab anybody who falls off? 

Mary Roach says fish like the shelter of the raft. There’s not much shade to be had out at sea so when some happens by there are those who take advantage. The sharks come to the raft to feed on the fish under the raft, not to hunt the people on it. 

Not even human blood has been shown to entice sharks. What does? What swims under rafts. Fish.  


So. Stop worrying. A shark is not going to get you. Mary Roach told me so.

source: Grunt: the curious science of humans at war by Mary Roach
2016. W.W. Norton & Co, NY

Thursday, December 01, 2016

the beaded curtain

When I first encountered a beaded curtain as a kid I found it mildly annoying. A fabric curtain would hide what was going on on the other side of the opening, but a row of beaded strings hanging in a doorway, what does that hide? Obscure slightly, maybe. That was a goal? I didn’t like going through the curtain, afraid a bead string would catch in my hair. Plus, it wouldn’t go away. Every time you went through that door you had to deal with it. 

A beaded curtain could be decorative, I conceded. I kind of liked the way it rattled as you went through. And I kind of didn’t. And I guess that’s where my engagement with beaded curtains ended. I’ve never considered hanging one. 

But then there’s this footnote in Mary Roach’s latest: 

[B]eaded strands that hang in doorways in Middle Eastern homes, allow[] breeezes, but not flies, to pass.

Oh. 

Who knew? Makes me thankful once again that flies were never much of an issue in my neighborhood.

Or, as Mary Roach puts it: 

Who among the thousands of youthful 1970s doofs who hung these in their bedrooms had any clue as to the beads’ provenance as fly control? Not this doof.

source: Grunt: the curious science of humans at war by Mary Roach

2016. W.W. Norton & Co, NY