The Compulsive Copyeditor

September 24, 2009

Catnip!! [UPDATED]

Filed under: Uncategorized — amba12 @ 4:51 pm

It’s National Punctuation Day.

OK, so what’s your favorite punctuation mark?

I’ve been criticized at work for putting in too many semicolons — the essence of ambivalence!  It is the semicolon that classically belongs in “On the one hand; on the other hand.”

But semicolons can also add a firm extra layer of structure, stiffening the spine of sentences full of lists that are too long and floundering.

I guess I feel that semicolons are too irresolute and pusillanimous to be my favorite, though.

I learned a new appreciation of punctuation from reading Beat poets like [I refuse to use “such as” informally] Gary Snyder, Charles Olson, and Philip Whalen, who used punctuation as a kind of musical notation, to tell you how to read a line (even in your head), where to hurry or hesitate, when to breathe.

Don’t you think the Web has led to people using punctuation much more creatively, sort of as an alpinist’s stick for scrambling over the rocks of brevity at speed and without a spill?

Whatever else you do today, make sure to go here and have some fun.

UPDATE: Miriam at Lee & Low Books writes:

The semicolon is a good dancer, leading its partner through the steps of an at times complicated dance.

I love that!  A tango dancer, I think — a master of the sensitive, freighted pause.


September 19, 2009

Witness Spot Run. [UPDATED AGAIN]

Filed under: grammar,other languages — amba12 @ 9:45 am

When I came across this sentence in a piece I’m working on —

There he [1]witnessed a reindeer, of the Ocean Harbor herd, steer a little too close to the rookery of a feisty juvenile king penguin .

— I tripped over it and fell, hard.

Since it is after 4 AM (yes, I’ve had some sleep already.  Yes, it was over the computer, sitting up), rather than compose a long post I’ll just let you see my footnote.

[1] EDITOR’S NOTE (CE):  You can say “saw him steer,” but can you say “witnessed him steer,” or must it be “witnessed him steering”? My ear rebels at the former. Usage is divided on the question, and authority is silent (probably because I don’t know how to formulate the question).  I did stumble on a fascinating linguistics paper [PDF; HTML] that suggests that the word “see” has been “grammaticalized,” not only in English but in other languages as well, and that this reflects the “evidential” systems of preliterate times. Does this mean that multisyllabic synonyms for “see” can also be “grammaticalized” by analogy? My ear is protesting “No.” Anyone else?

The linguistics paper, by a University of Arizona professor, is technical; it revolves around a word the meaning of which I do not know:  “deictic.”  (Pause, and what would once have been the riffle-rustle of dictionary pages, but now is the swift snick of keys.)

  • Main Entry: deic·tic
  • Pronunciation: \ˈdīk-tik also ˈdāk-\
  • Function: adjective
  • Etymology: Greek deiktikos able to show, from deiktos, verbal of deiknynai to show — more at diction
  • Date: 1876

: showing or pointing out directly <the words this, that, and those have a deictic function>

OK, it’s what I would call “indicative” if I didn’t know that has acquired another, technical meaning that I don’t know.

But the whole business of “evidential” systems built into the grammar of language is utterly fascinating, because it dates back to a very important preliterate distinction we have utterly  lost:  that between direct eyewitness testimony and hearsay.  Imagine trying to be a fact checker as a hunter-gatherer.  Your knowledge of what actually happened, as opposed to self-interested propaganda and rumor with an agenda (can we make like academics and call it “agendized”?), depended on your having been there to see it with your own eyes, or, wanting that, on your trust in the character of an informant.  The reliability of the information would diminish exponentially with your degrees of separation from the eyewitness.  I was enthralled to learn, more than thirty years ago, that in quite a few languages (I believe Hopi was one and linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf was my informant) that distinction is “grammaticalized.”  That is, the statement “I know” would be modified grammatically depending on whether you really knew because you’d witnessed an event, or had only heard.  Imagine so-I-heard (which a preliterate friend of ours, described below, always inserted with a cautionary emphasis, deictic finger raised) being built into the undercarriage of your utterances!  Language itself once insisted on a distinction that we preserve only in law.

I flashed on Benjamin Lee Whorf when I met Brooklyn George, a semi-illiterate Italian friend my husband made once when he was working the door in an after-hours club as a favor to another friend.  Georgie might have been a gangster of some note had he not been a gambling addict.  Or he might’ve been something else:  he had a straight brother who was a high school teacher.  While Georgie could barely write out a sandwich order — somewhere I still have a slip of paper with the words B O L G A N A and P R O Z L O N E painstakingly printed on it, that J and I marveled over — it soon became obvious to me that he was fearsomely bright, even wise.  (So why was his life so screwed up, you may ask?  Um, have you ever known a brilliant person who applied that firepower to the living of his or her own life?)  He was given to gnomic utterances that had the profundity of Zen koans.  This was the guy who once said to J, “When I first met you, I thought you were stupid.  Then after a while I realized that I was stupid.” (Trust me, I was there.  I heard it myself.)

Georgie talked different from a literate person, and one of the biggest differences that got my attention was that he was always meticulous about distinguishing what he actually knew personally from what he’d only heard.  We literates and postliterates assume we “know” stuff we’ve read in the newspaper or seen on a screen!  When and why did we lose that visceral skepticism about hearsay?  When I saw the connection to Whorf and the grammar of Hopi, I realized what an amazing window Brooklyn Georgie opened into the way everyone lived and thought a few thousand years ago.

. . . OK, I just took off in a powerful rocket aircraft headed for orbit, rising over an incredible panorama of New York harbor predawn.  I forgot to fasten my seat belt, and as I reached uo to pull it down the G forces . . . woke me up to discover that my head was drooping sideways and my neck hurt.  It’s time to get horizontal.

UPDATE: Rereading this, I flashed on a line of poetry:  “I was the man, I saw it, I was there!”  Where does that come from?  Anybody?   Beat poetry, I think.  Google knoweth it not, which may mean I have one word wrong.  But in the process of searching for it, Googling the words “I saw it, I was there,” I discovered the power that direct witness still has for us.  Look.

UPDATE II:  Got it.  It’s Whitman, from one of the greatest portraits ever drawn of what true leadership is.  And it’s even more intimate than eyewitness:

I understand the large hearts of heroes,
The courage of present times and all times;
How the skipper saw the crowded and rudderless
wreck of the steam-ship, and Death chasing it up and down the storm;
How he knuckled tight, and gave not back one inch,
and was faithful of days and faithful of nights,
And chalk’d in large letters, on a board,
Be of good cheer, we will not desert you:
How he follow’d with them, and tack’d with them –
and would not give it up;
How he saved the drifting company at last:
How the lank loose-gown’d women look’d when
boated from the side of their prepared graves;
How the silent old-faced infants, and the lifted
sick, and the sharp-lipp’d unshaved men:
All this I swallow – it tastes good – I like it
well – it becomes mine;
I am the man – I suffer’d – I was there.

September 15, 2009

Interlanguage Land Mines

Filed under: other languages,translation — amba12 @ 5:40 am

Gestures don’t travel well between cultures.  If you flash a Brazilian the thumb-and-forefinger circle that to us means “A-OK,” he’ll punch you out for calling him an asshole.  Japanese people appear to waving bye-bye when they’re actually saying, “Come here.”  More examples invited.

The same is often true of words, to mortifyingly comical effect.  In English, “mist” is a wistfully romantic word.  It enshrouds the lighthouses and lonely sea widows on the covers of romance novels, bosoms heaving with longing.  Like falling in love, or like Vaseline on the lens of the movie camera, it softens harsh reality to a flattering blur.

But in German, as Chicken Little pointed out in the comments to my recent post on German, Mist means “manure.”

Animal crap.  And since the manure pile in a German farm courtyard was also the compost heap and all-purpose trash midden (I’ll never forget being told brusquely by a child in a German-Romanian farmyard, when I asked him where all his new puppy’s siblings were:  “Im Mist“), to throw something “an den Misthaufen” is to dismiss it, discard it, shitcan it on the trash heap of history . . . one word encompassing both our meanings of “dump”!




What does that do to the song “I Get Misty, The Moment You’re Near”? Does it mean romance is a load of crap?

Are we having fun yet?

When J’s German cousin Ada came to visit us in New York many years ago, we were puzzled that she shrank from putting sugar in her coffee. We kept the sugar in a pretty coffee can with a Christmas design. On the can was the word “Gift.”  In German, that means “poison.”

Then there’s pula:
In Finnish:   the national bread.

In Setswana, the language of Botswana:  rain; also the name of the currency. (I adore that; calling your money “rain.”  I can relate.)

In Romanian:  penis.

(Man-na from heaven?)

More examples?

September 4, 2009

What An Awesome Idea!

Filed under: vocabulary — amba12 @ 3:39 pm

Each year hundreds of words are dropped from the English language.

Old words, wise words, hard-working words. . . .

Today, everything we write is communicated by only 7,000 words.  [Yikes!!]

You can change all that.  Help save the words!

Specifically, save them by adopting them.  You can adopt as many as you want; you will then have brought them back to life, because they’ll be living in the household of your vocabulary and you won’t be able to resist using them, even showing them off.  Maybe you can even leave them to someone in your will, so they don’t die with you.

BRILLIANT idea — and from guess who(m):  Oxford Dictionaries, the Burke’s Peerage of all words, even those in the potter’s fields.  Beautifully designed website, too — though the flash (which works like a charm) demands Gutenberg-era patience while it loads.  It’s worth the wait.

You could adopt “prandicle,” a small meal (well, no you couldn’t — it’s mine now), or “sparsile,” a lonely star not included in any constellation.  (Got that one too.  Go find your own — and tell me what it is.)  Hundreds, thousands of words are right there on the homepage (that’s what takes so long to load), each graced with its own personality of script or typeface, scanned by a moving frame that allows you to click at random or pick one, meet it face to face, and learn its meaning.  Adopting = addictive!  You get a certificate of adoption, on which you vow to use your word, and you can order a T-shirt emblazoned with it.  You will soon be the Mia Farrow, the Madonna, the Angelina Jolie of orphaned words!  And the Imelda Marcos of T-shirts!

When I have more time I’ll research and link to the history of this project, which must be a joy to behold.

In the words of Save the Words:  “Word up!  Use them before we lose them!”

Hat tip:  writer niece, @rachmonroe

(A small p.s.:  Save the Words has a Word-a-Day feature.  This should be taken in addition to, not instead of, the classic A Word A Day.  Anu Garg’s site is simple and low-tech, but be not seduced by sizzle alone.  It’s finally the words that count, and what they do inside your head that’s the first and best magic technology.)

September 1, 2009

Visiting German [UPDATED AGAIN]

(New UPDATE:  Read my brother’s wonderful discovery-tribute to the German language, even though it does make him break out in flop sweat and armbands.)

My brother, back in grad school as he approaches 50 (and feeling alternately exhilarated and ridiculous), is taking a crash course in reading scholarly German, than which nothing could be more insane.  You could accurately translate every word in a passage of such German, painstakingly consulting an on- or offline dictionary (here’s an amazing one, by the way, which serves up all the alternative and idiomatic translations of any word you feed into it, complete with examples in vivo), and still not understand the logical links and interactions among those words engineered by German grammar.  If you misread number, case, or gender, or overlook a little track-switching word like nur (only) or nicht (not) or sondern (which always works in harness with nicht to mean “not this, but rather that”), you could go in exactly the wrong direction.

Fortunately, my brother has a sort of tutor — me — at his fingertips, and I in turn have the indelible memory of three years of drilling in grammar by an actual German German teacher in my high school, W. Gregor Heggen (wow, never Googled him before, amazing how many people thank him for things like helping them learn Irish), overlaid by some experience speaking and reading the language, to draw on.  (Hey, that was a lot like a sentence in German!)  I’m subfluent, and I probably have to look up almost as many scholarly-vocabulary words as my brother; but I have a basic grasp of the underlying track-switching system, the rails of relationship beneath the freight cars of vocabulary, that weaves the structures of meaning in German.   Getting just that basic grasp took all three years.  When our teacher took eight of us teenagers to Germany for the summer of 1962, starting with a one-month family stay in his hometown of Paderborn, we all soon started speaking German, but I was the only one who spoke it grammatically, because I was the only one with three years under my belt.  The idea of a crash course in German grammar boggles the mind.

I’ve seen three passages my brother had to translate, and they represented three very different kinds of German.  One was modern and brusque, written in short sentences almost imitative of Hemingway English.  One was pretentious and convoluted, exploiting to the full the German mind’s ability to put the forward progress of a sentence indefinitely on hold right before the consummating verb for an enormous, indigestible digression.  (It gives an English speaker a case of linguistic blue balls that makes you go “hmmm” about German sexuality.  It’s almost sadomasochistic, that withholding of the verb that alone will let you off the hook about what’s actually happening in the sentence.  The English speaker has to plod around the digression in search of the verb, and perhaps the German mind does this too, but much, much faster, scooping up the whole digression as it goes in one deft pelican gulp.)

The third was a rather famous passage by the composer Arnold Schönberg.  Here it is in German, and here’s an official English translation — which is a lot like and no smoother than the one my brother accomplished with a little remedial nudging from me.  You’d think the Arnold Schönberg Center could have found a better translator, but that’s not the problem.  The problem is that it is untranslatable.  Rarely have I read anything in German so purely German, in that nearly every word of it falls either into a space between two English words or a space that encompasses two or three English words.

Take, for example, Geist, a cognate of “ghost” in English.  (That remains a minor and archaic meaning in German; there’s a separate word for the spooky meaning of “ghost,” Gespenst.)  In some contexts, it will be translated into English as “spirit;” in others, as “mind” or “intellect.”  But in German, it encompasses both.  They are not two different things.  We need at least two words to approximate the German word — poorly.  What does that mean?  It means, I think, that in English we think of mind as a tool, mechanism, or process that assembles or manipulates parts of ideas, while spirit is sort of featureless and above all that.  Mind is a factory, if an advanced one; spirit is a mist.  But in German, you think with your spirit.  Ideas are not something you assemble, they’re something you apprehend.

And here’s another one:  Wesen.  Literally Wesen means “being” — it even shows up doing scutwork in the grammar, where gewesen means “been.”  On a loftier plane it means the suchness of a thing — what in English it takes four lines of Gerard Manley Hopkins to say:

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

UPDATE: Or, as Dr. Seuss put it

Today you are You/that is truer than true./ There is no one alive/ who is Youer than You.

For a one-word equivalent in English, we have to say “essence.”  While this is in fact the exact Latin equivalent — esse means “to be”! — it’s come to have a different connotation in English; it’s sideslid into the less essential realm of perfumes, oils, and flavorings, which were originally called “essences” because they were a thought to be a concentrate or emanation of the very being of a substance — the way it “selves — goes itself.”  In German, however, that kind of essence isn’t called Wesen — it’s called Geist.  As in Birnengeist, a very concentrated clear pear brandy.  Which brings us around to “spirits.” … and on and on.

Not to study at least one second language is a pity.  Other languages shine a different light on the world, showing up things that are really there that might remain dark in our language.  (There’s sometimes a leap of recognition when you learn a word in another language — it has lit up and pinned down one of the many, many phenomena we all feel but don’t have names for.)  They also shine a new light back on our language, helping us to find fossils and wellsprings that have been buried under the sediments of usage.

Other examples?

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