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The weaponization of grammar

I’ve published another article on BBC.com. This one is about something that we all have to deal with and many of us participate in: the treatment of “bad grammar” as evidence of intellectual and moral deficiency. I read quite a few “grammar guide” books for this, and there’s a lot more I could have written… but I had to fit it in 1200 words. So it’s not too long to read!

Why all English speakers worry about slipping up

 

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.

MORALS

This is the seventeenth chapter of my month-long work of fiction, NOV.

This sidewalk café, this black mass of circular latticework metal tables and matching chairs set out on fresh brickwork, is not deserted. People may for the most part be background noise, filler, and props in his life, but they are there, and he is happy for that. He is usually happiest when he has people to ignore.

Except when they can’t be ignored. Like that kid over there.

He and one are seated near a wall, coffee freshly served, but just a couple of tables away is a family with a small child and this kid is a demon screamer. Our man is sensitive to loud noises, but triply sensitive to screaming: it sets up an alarm in his body, an emergency state that is pulled three ways between wanting to fix the emergency, wanting to escape, and wanting to start screaming along. As he cannot do the first or third, he is stricken by a desire to do the second. But he can’t. He is nearly transfixed by the screaming, but his shaking hand holds the pitcher of — for his coffee.

Wait.

He holds up the — towards the source of the s—ing and cancels out the blanks: sing.

“Lalala lalalalala lala lalalala” babbles the suddenly happy child. Continue reading

BOUND

This is the sixteenth chapter of my month-long work of fiction, NOV.

Same as yesterday morning. He awakes in this guest bed; he is alone. The evening was take-out food and wine, enjoyable conversation and word games. One slow shirtless hug and kiss. And then she retreated again. Click. One layer at a time. Strip-tease? Or -torment?

Does she even sleep there? She could as soon be heading down her Escher stairs to sleep elsewhere, or nowhere. He heard her sink, the brushing of teeth. After that? But he will not open the door and peek. He has a strong sense of propriety; he doesn’t go wantonly snooping. This is life, not someone’s novel. Right?

At least she has left toothpaste, a fresh toothbrush, and shaving supplies in the guest bathroom. Shampoo, towels. She may not have men’s shirts – except one artful one – but she is equipped for male visitors.

Who have brought their own change of clothes.

He needs to get clean underwear, at least.

Oh, and his shirt. Continue reading

boardwalk

My wife and I live in a building on The Esplanade. An esplanade, as you may know, is a walkway along the water. Our street was once just such a thing, but the water has been pushed several blocks south by landfill. Now if we want a view of the lake, we look out our 27th-floor bedroom window, and if we want to bask in the sun we can go up to the patios at the top of the building. But in summer, we really like to escape to the boardwalk.

There’s no boardwalk right near us. There would be no point. Boardwalks – walkways made of boards – are for places like beaches, where a paved sidewalk is less suitable. Coney Island has a big, wide, long boardwalk, and below it one heckuva beach. Atlantic City has a very famous boardwalk, quite possibly the original. The first Oxford English Dictionary citation for board-walk, as they spell it, dates from 1872 – two years after the construction of Atlantic City’s boardwalk. Generations of Monopoly players have learned that Boardwalk is the most valuable property, and some of them have even discovered that every single property in the game is in Atlantic City. Atlantic City’s boardwalk is the Boardwalk.

I’ve never been to Atlantic City.

I’m not sure which boardwalk Kenny Young and Arthur Resnick had in mind when they wrote “Under the Boardwalk,” the song that The Drifters made a hit in 1964. They both grew up in New York City, so Coney Island’s would seem the most likely (it’s the one I always assumed, too), but New Yorkers did like to vacation on the Jersey shore in the 1960s, and several New Jersey seaside towns have boardwalks – Asbury Park, Keansburg, Ocean City, Point Pleasant, Seaside Heights, Wildwood, and of course Atlantic City. And there are other New York boardwalks: Staten Island, Rockaway, Long Beach. They’re all down by the sea, as the song has it.

I’m not sure how many of them have enough room under them for two lovers to hide, though.

The Drifters, by the way, had another huge hit two years earlier with “Up on the Roof” (a song I first knew in a version by The Nylons, a Toronto-based a cappella group). The Wikipedia article on “Under the Boardwalk” notes rather drily, “The opening line of the song references the Drifters’ prior hit ‘Up on the Roof’, showing the occasional thermal weakness of the rooftop getaway and setting the stage for an alternate meeting location, under the boardwalk.”

You can’t meet under the boardwalk in Toronto. Or at least I’m not aware of any point where there’s enough room. But never mind thermal weakness; our rooftop patios lack the charm of a beachside boardwalk.

Toronto does have a boardwalk. More than one, in fact. In the east, there’s one lining and connecting the beaches in the neighbourhood known by many as The Beaches but by the pedantic among its residents as The Beach (even though, thanks to discontinuity, there is clearly more than one beach there). Aina and I don’t generally go there.

There are a few small boardwalks near us, at Harbourfront. But they don’t count. There’s no beach anywhere near them, just quays.

We go west. Life is peaceful there. Comparatively, anyway. There is a boardwalk that stretches from Palais Royale and the bridge at Roncesvalles past Sunnyside almost all the way to the Humber River.

It’s Sunnyside that we go for. Sunnyside beach is lovely; it inspired the song “Echo Beach” by Martha and the Muffins. And it has a huge 1920s-era pavilion for swimming – with a café on the boardwalk (café? well, I guess some people go for coffee; most go for beer). From mid-June to Labour Day the beautiful huge swimming pool is open, and we go there to swim and then to have food and drink at the café, where there are umbrellas to shelter you from the sun. The café remains open into September, as the weather cooperates. We went there yesterday. The sun sets at 7:30 now, so we’re treated to an after-dark view by the time we leave. (You can click the picture to see it larger.)

We don’t sit on a blanket under the boardwalk – really, there’s no room there (and it’s down by the lake, anyway, not the sea). We sit at a table and watch the water, the waves, the boats, the squadrons of dragon boaters training, the beach volleyball players (up to 8 courts, and sometimes stray volleyballs bounce off tables at the café).

And then we walk back eastward along the boardwalk, and up over the bridge to Roncesvalles to catch the streetcar.

This boardwalk was once made of wood planks. Most of it is now made of recycled plastic. The planks are durable but deform gradually over the years and occasionally need replacement. I do not care if you (like some Wikipedia editors, apparently) think this makes it not a boardwalk; I am pre-emptively board, I mean bored, with you already. It is exactly the same thing as any other boardwalk, just without the nasty splinters and the weathering. And, for us, it is our tropical retreat, complete with potted palm trees, right here in the city, less than an hour from home by streetcar or running legs.

The most valuable property indeed. While the season lasts.

quokka

What do you do if you’re in the rottenest place there is? A veritable rat’s nest? An isolated place, a real penal colony?

Smile. Because you can’t do anything else.

And eat a leaf.

You’re a quokka, after all.

A quoi? Que? Do I mean a duck, a quacker? No, and I don’t mean a quagga either. Quaggas are extinct and being phenotypically resurrected. But they’re also zebras. A quokka is not extinct, nor is it a zebra. It is a small marsupial, a fuzzy microkangaroo, a wanna-be wallaby. And it is, to all appearances, quite content. Laid-back, even. Have a look:

It is, at least to look at, the Arthur Weasley of the animal world (though it doesn’t look very weaselly). Nature, evolution, and human perceptual schemata have endowed it with a face of perpetual friendly amusement, and the beneficence of its environs and general lack of local predators have given it a gentle contentment (well, mostly gentle) and a fearless quest for food. It is the sort of animal that gets more or less the same cheery guitar-strumming soundtrack on quite a few of the videos about it you can find on YouTube.

Where does this word come from, this quokka, /kwɑ kə/, that is laid back in the mouth, the tongue touching only at the back, the vowels back and middle, with the lips only blowing a Marilyn kiss at the beginning? It’s from a local language, Nyungar: kwaka. It just happens to have been introduced to the English language at a time when /kw/ was spelled qu as a matter of course.

And where is this animal from? You know it’s a marsupial, so yes, it’s from Australia. But not all over. Just the western tip, near Perth. But especially on a little island that’s just 19 km off the West Australian coast, a ferry trip from Perth: Rottnest Island.

Rottnest? That doesn’t sound encouraging. You may be relieved to know that earlier forms were Rottenest… and Rotte Nest. Which makes it clear that it hadn’t to do with rottenness. No, it had to do with rats. At the very end of 1696, Willem de Vlamingh landed on the island. He found it lovely, fecund, temperate: “a paradise on earth.” So, naturally, he named it, in Dutch, Rat’s Nest. Why? Because of the quokkas. They’re all over the place (though especially so after dusk; when the earth casts its shadow to hide the overbearing sun, these happy lesser lights emerge).

De Vlamingh thought the quokkas were rats. Big hairy ones. But, I guess, very friendly ones that were prone to springing around. At any rate, they didn’t make him think poorly of the island.

And what do you do with a lovely little island like that? Hmm, how about put a penal colony on it? Or a reform school? Yes, in 1838, a penal colony for Aborigines was established there. And in 1881 a reform school for boys was built. Both were closed in the early years of the 1900s. But it was used for internment camps for enemy aliens during both World Wars, and there was a military base there too.

And all through that time the quokkas were there. And after the prisoners left and the prisons closed, the quokkas were still there. Now people come by boat to bike around, enjoy the scenery, and take selfies with the smiling little marsupials.

People who live in heavily touristed areas sometimes get sick of the tourists. The quokkas seem fine with tourists. How happy to be a quokka!

Laurie Anderson once sang, “Paradise is exactly like where you are right now, only much much better.” For quokkas, this seems not to be true. The second part isn’t, anyway; the first is right on. Their name could as well be taken from the French quoique, pronounced the same as quokka with a French accent, and meaning ‘although’. Quoique les prisonniers sont venus et partis, et les touristes venues, les quokkas sont heureux. Although the prisoners have come and gone, and the tourists have come, the quokkas are happy. Ils ne sont ni des rats ni des souris, mais ils sourient. They are neither rats nor mice, but they smile. Or at least they seem to our eyes to smile. They are none the less for all that; for all that, they are nonetheless. Quoique. Quokka.

Here’s a little more quokka video exploration for you, complete with cheery guitar music.

glimpse

Some lexemes excite scintillas of recollection, bright sparkling hints from the memory – a sight, a smell, a song, here and then gone, just a corner of an envelope of reality peeking into the picture. A glimpse. So for me with glimpse: it fades into this bit from Bowie and then fades out as quickly…

I still don’t know what I was waiting for
And my time was running wild
A million dead-end streets and
Every time I thought I’d got it made
It seemed the taste was not so sweet
So I turned myself to face me
But I never caught a glimpse
Of how the others must see the faker
I’m much too fast to take that test

Listen to the song if you want:

Caught a glimpse. There are things you have and things you take (like a break or a pee or a photograph, for example), but glimpses are caught, like fish and colds and figurative wind. Your eye is a net, an open hand, and it closes on that momentary lick of light. And then it changes.

This onset, /gl/, is like a night searchlight, or a diamond turning in the sun. Consider some of the words that start with it: glance, glare, glass, gleam, glisten, glitter, gloss, glow… although there are others that are less light-like (gladiator, glucose, gluteus), there is nearly a glut of the shining kind; it could almost merit a glyph of its own, just as /ks/ gets x. Could we write *ance, *are, *eam?

But, now, look at some of these other /gl/ words: they emit light rather than perceiving it. And yet glimpsing is something you do; you glimpse, you don’t see a glimpse.

Do you?

What else is catching with your eye than seeing?

Originally, glimpse is of a set with glimmer and glitter: first ‘shine quickly, faintly, intermittently’; then, from that, ‘come into view quickly, faintly, intermittently’. From that came the noun: first ‘quick shining, flash’; then ‘brief appearance, fast transit through the visual field’. Finally it turned around to the percipient: if you catch a glimpse, you glimpse, and your act of glimpsing is a glimpse. The seer and the seen are one. The shine of a dime as it flips through the air merges head and tail. If you catch a glimpse, but your catching of the glimpse is a glimpse, you are caught in the act by the act; your eye is the mirror of the mirror. You turn yourself to face you.

No, you turn and face the stranger, who is the you of an instant in the past – or the future. The essence of the glimpse is changes, fleeting imps of vision, much too fast to take that test. The eye that sees itself sees only its former self of the last instant, awaiting the reflection. Glimpses are caught like pictures are taken: frozen moments, permanent pasts, the marks left by evaporated reality. You still don’t know what you were waiting for, but it has already happened. Or is just about to