Monthly Archives: January 2017

aposiopesis

There are times in the chess game of life when you seem outnumbered, or lack a good move; things just aren’t…

And you look up—a sigh—your pieces sit silent and you feel faint; you feel a feint would be—yes—

Perhaps, to hold your pieces, hold your peace: become silent, take a tacit turn, and just when the other is ready to strike there is nothing to strike at and your opponent’s fist hits—what?—

Or in telling a story: your move may be not to move—guide the reader forward and then at a climax let go, and over the cliff they step, and…

And sometimes in life you simply can’t even. There are not enough evens in the world to can. Words fail you; thoughts pass you. Not to act is also to act; not to say is to let the silence speak. For the moment’s seizure, a caesura; let the lacuna be laconically eloquent, a silence that says all the things that cannot be said and says they cannot be said. Not stubborn muteness but a breaking off in mid-phrase, like snapping a pencil: choke off the voice, suck the air out of the conversation, and then—

This is aposiopesis. It is said “apo sci-o pee sis.” It comes from Greek ἀποσιώπησις, noun, ‘becoming silent’ (those who watch the accents may notice that the Greek accent was on the o). It is that moment when, as the saying goes, the cat’s got your tongue… except it hasn’t; your tongue has flown unseen out of your mouth like a dark silent destroying angel, ready to…

Sometimes, of course, it is a bluff. You don’t want your mouth to write cheques your butt can’t pay, so instead of signing on the line you wave a piece of plastic and hope the other person will give you credit: “If you don’t give that back to me, I’ll—”

“You’ll what?” they say. And then you remember credit comes with interest, and if there’s no interest, well, then…

And sometimes it’s a way to let the conversation wander off to bed, to be replaced by another or by none at all. You’ve played that game out but there’s no great ending and no smooth segue. You need the equivalent of “repeat and fade.” You know? So yeah, you just…

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phonemics

On my bookshelf, lower down, near the corner, behind the chair in which I sit when I make my word review videos, is an old book I first saw on my father’s bookshelf when I was a child. It’s sandwiched between books on editing and linguistics – to the right, study guides for an editorial certification exam; to the left, a workbook in the history of the English language. Farther to the right and out of focus are my father’s PhD dissertation and mine, one by the other. You can see that the book I am talking about today barely has a spine left. You can’t read its title.

This isn’t another copy of the book I saw on my dad’s shelf. This is the book. It was in dodgy condition even by then.

Phonemics. I didn’t know quite what it was, but it sounded important.

A technique for reducing languages to writing.

Phonemics – more often called phonology now – is more than just that, I should say. It’s the study of not simply the sounds of a language but what the speakers think are the sounds of a language. Which is not the same thing.

Most English speakers, for instance, have no conscious idea that they are making a different sound with the p in speak than they are with the p in peak, but they still do it. The difference is aspiration – a puff of air after the p in peak (put your hand in front of your mouth to feel it) – and if you really emphasize the word, you will almost certainly really emphasize the aspiration too. And if you hear a non-native speaker say it without the aspiration, you will hear that they sound different, even if you can’t say just how they do.

So when you’re a linguist analyzing a language, in particular one that doesn’t yet have a written form (there were many more such a half century ago), you can’t just record the sounds – the phonetics. You have to figure out what people think are the sounds – the phoemics. You have to figure out what sound differences are considered important and what aren’t.

In phonology as in so many other things, it matters at least as much what you think you’re hearing and saying as what you’re actually hearing and saying.

This copy was printed in 1961, but it’s the seventh printing of an edition that first came out in 1947, which is a revised and expanded version of one that was first made in mimeographed form in 1943.

Yes, mimeographed. How many of you even know what that was? My dad actually had a mimeograph machine when I was a kid. I can remember the smell of the ink and the sound it made when you hand-cranked it.

You can see that this book, though not mimeographed, is offset-printed from an original that was done on a typewriter.

And now you’re reading this on an electronic screen, transmitted instantly from a long distance away, infinitely reproducible, and with pretty proportionately spaced fonts too.

And we still think exactly the same things about the sounds we make when speaking as we did back then. We being the ordinary English speakers. Linguists have continued to advance the study, but quite a bit in this book looks very familiar. This problem set, for instance:

Can you figure out which two sounds have probably been conflated in the transcription? My dad’s red-pencil annotation may help you.

It would be great if I could say that I pulled this book off the shelf and learned all about phonemics from it as a kid. I did not. I was a kid. My eyes glazed over pretty quickly. It was too advanced for me and I didn’t want to admit it, which I would have had to do in order to ask questions about it. No, my first real introduction to the fascinating world of phonology and orthography came courtesy of J.R.R. Tolkien and the appendices in the complete Lord of the Rings: a little more basic and digestible – and fun. I later learned more from books that attempted to teach me other languages: Teach Yourself Norwegian, for instance (men jeg kan ikke tale Norsk). They explained the sound system of the language in question, but often they did so with British speakers in mind, which doesn’t really help a Canadian who is being told that one word has the vowel sound in cot while another has the vowel sound in caught (to Canadians, they are the same sound). Eventually it did help me learn something about British phonology, though.

But I souvenired this book off my father’s shelf and have transported it with me for decades now. Between the time I first saw at it and now, I finished school and have had two whole post-secondary academic careers, one culminating in a PhD in drama and the other in an MA in linguistics (win me the lottery and we can discuss a second PhD). Now I can open this book and say, Ah, yes, this looks familiar. And Yup, you betcha, that’s right.

I had it the whole time but I had to go elsewhere and learn before I could come back and understand it – and see that I’d had that knowledge with me all along.

Which is the way it goes when you’re studying language, especially phonemics. You have what was handed down to you by your forebears, perhaps altered by time and medium, and you may just take it with you without really inspecting or understanding it. Or you may, through expanding your horizons and looking elsewhere, learn to understand it. It’s still there, rather worn and old, but not gone, not irrelevant.

And such, too, is the goal of our education: To make us understand and appreciate what we already have… and to help us to understand the difference between what we think we’re hearing and saying and what we really are hearing and saying.

The size of the equipment

This article isn’t about words. Sorry! I couldn’t come up with a word-based excuse for it. It’s about cameras, but it’s about something you don’t need to be an insider to appreciate. Because it’s about the size of the equipment, and how much it means to some people.

Recently, the photo news site PetaPixel published an article about Donald Trump’s presidential portrait. They weren’t focusing on how the picture looked – though there are things that could be said about that. They were talking about the equipment used to take the picture. You can get this information from the digital file. The camera records it and anyone with the right software can see for themselves.

The thing that seemed amusing at first look was that the camera used is one that was released in 2007 and is no longer being made. It’s out of date in its technical specs. Why not use the latest, greatest equipment? If you’re the Donald?

A thing that caught my attention was that it was shot at a comparatively high ISO (allows for faster shutter speeds but sacrifices some image quality, especially in older cameras), even though it was shot with a wide aperture (which itself allows for higher speeds). Why do that?

But I know the answer to both questions: If you’re the Donald, it’s gotta be huge. It’s gotta look impressive. And the camera he was shot with was huge. Huge. And, even more important, the lens he was shot with was HUGE. Big and impressive and professional-looking. (I recently had some things to say about “professional“…)

The camera was a Canon EOS 1DS Mark III. See it on DPReview: It’s 15 cm by 16 cm (about 6 inches by 6.5 inches, the size of a dinner plate but thicker) and weighs 3 pounds even before you put a lens on it. It’s not up to current professional standards: 21 megapixels and top ISO of 1600. I have a camera sitting on my desk that’s the size of my (admittedly large) hand that blows it out of the water (and costs a lot less). But my camera is not impressive looking. The Canon EOS 1DS Mark III is exactly what the average non-photographer thinks of when thinking of a pro photographer’s equipment.

And then there’s that lens. If you think the camera is huge… I mean, no, it’s not the hugest lens you can get. But anything huger is not really appropriate for a portrait photo. See it on DPReview: It’s 20 cm long (that’s 8 inches), and it weighs more than three and a quarter pounds. Altogether, the equipment used to shoot Donald Trump’s presidential portrait weighed more than 6 pounds and was (once you add the body thickness to the lens length) almost a foot long.

And when you’re shooting with a rig like that, you need to shoot at a high shutter speed to make sure you don’t have motion blur – if you’re not using a tripod (as you should!) or the subject won’t stand still. In this case, the shutter speed was 1/320 of a second, which isn’t all that high – apparently the photographer didn’t have a full studio lighting setup, but I doubt that he/she was a currently working professional photographer, given the old equipment – but it’s enough to compensate for shaky hands or a moving subject.

So there it is. The reason for the rig (and the shutter speed and ISO) is that Donald got someone – maybe a friend or family member? – with a big, impressive-looking camera to shoot his picture, but whoever did it was not a studio pro and did not use studio lights or, probably, a tripod. Possibly it was a retired paparazzo. Maybe the camera was Donald’s own. Given that he’s using an old unsecure smartphone to tweet with, and given that his idea of quality is my idea of fugxury, that seems plausible.

Just by the way, PetaPixel also gave the info on the cameras used to shoot Barack Obama’s official portraits. Both were shot using Canon 5D bodies, which are slightly smaller cameras that still produce similar image quality to the 1D. (They’re still bigger than my Sony a7ii or a Leica, but they’re very versatile and are preferred by many professionals.) The photographer, Pete Souza, used the model that was most current at the time: the Mark II and then the Mark III. He shot the portraits at 1/125 of a second at much smaller apertures (for greater depth of field) but at low ISO for good quality, which means he was using proper professional lighting. Oh, and the lenses? Both comparatively “long” focal lengths – 105mm first, then 85mm, which is a standard portrait length – but much smaller than the lens used for the Donald. The one used in 2012 was only 3.3 inches long. But I really don’t think Obama felt he had anything to prove with the choice of photo equipment. He just let his official photographer use what was best according to his expertise.

lackadaisical

By my desk, I have a page-a-day calendar. In my email I get a few word-a-day emails (in several different languages, since of course I know all the words in English 😛 ). And on Twitter, I get my lack-a-day: what’s gone missing now? Ah well, so it goes.

Not to be lackadaisical about it, but yeah. When you see a lack, and you lament it, you can say “Ah, lack!” as you might say “Ah, loss!” to a loss. Or, to go with alas for a loss, you say alack for a lack. That’s where it comes from.

But it has grown past that. Once it became a one-word exclamation, it was also available to swap in for woe or pity, or, of course, alas. You could say “woe to the day” or “pity the day” or “alas for the day,” but you could also say – like Juliet’s nurse in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet – “Alack the day!” Or, if you’re not lamenting a specific day, you can say, like many people in literature and life since, “Alack a day!”

Or even just lack-a-day. Or, perhaps to match phrases such as ups-a-daisy, you can say lack-a-daisy, like a character named Betty in Tobias Smollett’s 1748 novel Roderick Random:

With these words she advanced to the bed, in which he lay, and, finding the sheets cold, exclaimed, “Good lackadaisy! The rogue is fled.”

And from all of that came the somewhat whimsical adjective lackadaisical, first seen spelled lack-a-day-sical by Laurence Sterne in his 1768 Sentimental Journey:

Would to heaven! my dear Eugenius, thou hadst passed by, and beheld me sitting in my black coat, and in my lack-a-day-sical manner, counting the throbs of it, one by one, with as much true devotion as if I had been watching the critical ebb or flow of her fever.

Now, lackadaisical doesn’t express a whimsical mood, or at least it’s not supposed to refer to one. And yet there’s something more whimsical, quizzical, even nonsensical, and perhaps musical, than physical or dropsical about it. Or just… slack, lax, and lazy, but with more syllables. Maybe even happy-go-lucky. It sounds like a string burbled by a chickadee looking on a daisy.

And so we see it used often to mean more ‘careless’ than ‘despondent’, more Pooh than Eeyore. Here are some quotes from the Corpus of Contemporary American English, with publication sources cited (they don’t give the article and author):

So, the theory goes, pollinators that drink spiked nectar get lackadaisical about grooming and careen around in a disheveled state delivering unusually large amounts of pollen.
Science News

The spelling is slightly different, but people were lackadaisical about such things in those days.
Analog

“It’s easy to get lackadaisical about these things, especially flying domestically. And we shouldn’t, ever.”
USA Today

To begin with, he was surprisingly lackadaisical about politics for someone who wants to reshape it.
National Review

The Oxford English Dictionary defines lackadaisical as “Resembling one who is given to crying ‘Lackaday!’; full of vapid feeling or sentiment; affectedly languishing.” That seems a bit strong for the above, doesn’t it? Merriam-Webster (m-w.com) gives “lacking life, spirit, or zest : languid.” But even that is a bit strong for most current instances. ‘Unmotivated’ or ‘unconcerned’ would be more to the point.

It’s as though English speakers just haven’t had the… whatsits… to maintain the original strength of meaning for this word. Not so much that they’re filled with woe and utterly demotivated, or even that they’re making a point of fecklessness, as that it just… doesn’t seem important to them to do so. The word has a more common and suitable use based on what it, you know, sounds like. Not much good old Lackaday! but lots of modern lackadaisical.

Xanadu

O Xanadu, our home and native land…

No, that’s not how it goes, is it? Something more like this:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

Yes: a magnificent edifice, riparian on a flow with a name of beginning and an end in dark obscurity, the unconscious hollows of the planet’s inner mind. A dome like a giant igloo;

It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

Yes, a smiling sunny outside, and a frozen inner chamber. Welcome to the Pleasuredome, the ultimate pipe dream.

We think of Xanadu as like Shangri-La. But Shangri-La was invented in a 1933 novel (The Lost Horizon) as a mythical reflex of Shambhala. Xanadu was a real place.

Well, not with the river and ice caverns. Those were dreamed up by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. One comes up with what one wants to come up with, and one’s visions are conditioned by one’s experience and expectation – and one’s condition. It is all conditional, and culture-bound.

Xanadu, for instance, said with an initial “z,” is a repronunciation and modification of Xandu, which used x to spell a sound an Englishman would normally spell as sh. Coleridge found it in a 1614 work called Purchas his Pilgrimes by Samuel Purchas. It had this:

In Xandu did Cublai Can build a stately Pallace, encompassing sixteen miles of plaine ground with a wall, wherein are fertile Meddowes, pleasant Springs, delightfull streames, and all sorts of beasts of chase and game, and in the middest thereof a sumpuous house of pleasure, which may be moved from place to place.

He expanded his description in the 1625 edition. He was drawing on Marco Polo, who wrote in 1298 of his 1275 visit to the city, which Polo rendered as Ciandu and had been translated to English as Chandu (modern Italian versions make it Giandu). The X is of course more exotic-looking. We would, in modern transliteration, call it Shangdu; it means ‘upper capital’. It was the capital of Kublai Khan’s empire until he moved to the city that today is called Beijing. He was, after all, the first emperor of the Yuan Dynasty of China – the first non-Chinese ruler of China. Shangdu remained his summer capital, as the weather was cooler there.

Kublai Khan died in 1294. Shangdu was destroyed in 1369 by the Ming Army, but there’s still a historical site you can visit, mostly mounds of earth. It’s about a 7-hour drive north of Beijing, in the autonomous region of Inner Mongolia (which is the part of China next to the country of Mongolia).

Kublai Khan did have two lovely palaces there. One was a beautiful marble palace with gilding and paintings. The other was a cane palace, made of lacquered cane lashed and nailed, well designed, well built, and able to be taken down, moved, and set up again fairly quickly. It was set up there each summer. Marco Polo was so impressed with it, he dedicated much of his description of Ciandu to structural specifics of the cane palace.

Naturally, nothing of the cane palace has survived the ages. But in the late 1800s a British visitor reported that there were still remains of the marble palace. They have since been taken up, apparently for use by people living in nearby Dolon Nor to use in building their houses. Fragments of artwork can be seen in some structures. Well, why leave a beautiful old thing just lying around if you can make it part of your life? Otherwise it was just a broken, forgotten dream.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge had a dream. His dream led to a reality… of sorts. After smoking a pipe of opium while staying in the southwest English village of Nether Stowey in 1797, he awoke with the plan for a great poem in his head. But he was interrupted, he tells us. An importunate visitor from the nearby town of Porlock, who detained him for more than an hour on a small matter of business. Afterwards, the remaining lines of the poem were shattered, blown to the wind or drained to the unconscious again; he had kept a poor lock on the door of his mind. Drat that man from Porlock! Assuming there actually was one – Coleridge may have been making excuses for just not being able to finish the work.

So. An Italian visited a Mongol emperor of China and found a lovely town with a marble palace and a cane palace. The emperor was dead by the time the Italian wrote of it. More than three centuries later, an Englishman wrote of the Italian’s travels and slightly changed the name of the place. Nearly two centuries after that, another Englishman digested that report into his own pipe dream, and awoke with visions of a glorious dome and a gorge and icy caverns and subterranean seas, and started to paint it in words. It evaporated with the first interruption, leaving barely more to the ages than an Ozymandias, just some lovely lines and images traced and broken. Meanwhile, the marble of the original Mongol palace is used in quotidian functions, fragments of beauty in walls here and there. The cane is long gone but not forgotten.

Our past crumbles but we keep it and reshape it. Memories go and come, deform and reform. We make our present and break our present. We blame others for our problems, rightly or wrongly. Nothing stays the same, but while our dreams evanesce, beautiful fragments still peek from our walls. All is conditional and conditioned. It was a dream and yet it’s still there, where we live; it dwells deep inside us and in fragments around us and, when we find it, we dwell in it. Our home and native land.

Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

And so it ends without ending, at Paradise, our world without end: a mostly-faded pipe dream, glittering fragments of memory, interrupted by daily business.

alas (word review video)

My latest word review video is about a word that may be more in use just around now than it usually is.

Not nice, not silly, actually rather awful

My latest article for The Week is about words with meanings that have travelled quite a bit over the centuries. It’s not that they’ve clouded or warped the senses, but their histories are likely to throw you, or at least leave you in doubt.

11 words whose meanings have completely changed over time