Sontag state of mind: Serious, never cynical.

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Today’s inspiration comes to us from the inimitable Susan Sontag:

I’m often asked if there is something I think writers ought to do, and recently in an interview I heard myself say: “Several things. Love words, agonize over sentences. And pay attention to the world.”

Needless to say, no sooner had these perky phrases fallen out of my mouth than I thought of some more recipes for writer’s virtue.

For instance: “Be serious.” By which I meant: Never be cynical. And which doesn’t preclude being funny.

Found via Brain Pickings, a website that’s basically one big hors d’oeuvres platter of brilliant thoughts and words.

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Pretty dark: Star kicking.

mihoko-ogakiI learned a new term today, thanks to my favorite nighttime distraction, The Myths and Legends podcast, and I’m excited to share it with everyone (even though I suspect few people will want to hear it). Our history lesson of the week is the phrase “star kicking.” Though it sounds beautiful, it’s actually what famed Hungarian torturer, sadist, and murder Countess Elizabeth Bathory did to people she disliked. Well, it’s one of the many things that twisted bitch did—she also drained people of their blood, ate peasant girls, and murdered hundreds of people. (She preferred adolescent girls, because, let’s be real guys, even women hate women! That’s the real poison of the patriarchy.) But anyway, she also liked to stick pieces of parchment between her victims toes and light them on fire. They would then kick and flail in attempts to dislodge the flaming pieces of paper and animal skin. Thus: Star kicking.

Horrible, right? It sounds so pretty. Star kicking. It has a real rhythm to the syllables, a real swing to its iambic feet, those insolent i’s and careless k’s. But damn, Bathory was messed up.

The more you know, right?

Image: Sculpture by Mihoko Ogaki, part of an ongoing series of installations called “Milky Ways.”

A perfect word for that good kind of melancholy.

andy_denzler_sad_pleasuresFrom an NPR piece on Brazilian music, a beautiful word that has no direct translation in English:

Perhaps my favorite of these elusive words is saudade, a Portuguese and Galician term that is a common fixture in the literature and music of Brazil, Portugal, Cape Verde and beyond. The concept has many definitions, including a melancholy nostalgia for something that perhaps has not even happened. It often carries an assurance that this thing you feel nostalgic for will never happen again. My favorite definition of saudade is by Portuguese writer Manuel de Melo: “a pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy.”

This is the perfect word for when a sad song gives you goosebumps and makes your throat ache but you still play it on repeat. It’s also the perfect word for so many artistic experiences, so many encounters with art and literature.

But is it bad to suffer a pleasure? The word saudade reminds me of the problem of sentimentally, particularly Leslie Jamison’s defense of the term  She grapples with the pleasure of sentimentality, with the dangers of feeling something too acutely or performing that feeling with too much flair. The New Yorker thinks the pangs of pathos that come from reading a sad story are fundamentally lazy. In an article about Humans of New York, the venerated magazine argues that storytelling has lost its teeth and become something less savage, more concerned with egos and sentimentality and branding than ripping away the veil:

In this way, [Humans of New York] joins organizations like ted and the Moth at the vanguard of a slow but certain lexical refashioning. Once an arrangement of events, real or invented, organized with the intent of placing a dagger—artistic, intellectual, moral—between the ribs of a listener or reader, a story has lately become a glossier, less thrilling thing: a burst of pathos, a revelation without a veil to pull away. “Storytelling,” in this parlance, is best employed in the service of illuminating business principles, or selling tickets to non-profit galas, or winning contests.

I agree that stories can be daggers, or as Kafka puts it, axes to hack away at the frozen sea inside. But I also agree with Jamison and de Melo—some ailments are too sweet not to enjoy. Some pains are pleasurable.

And I’ll take my pleasure where I can get it. I am lazy and I am very, very susceptible to saudade.

Image by Andy Denzler. See more of his glitchy paintings here. 

Magic lessons from ancient Rome & life lessons from Shakespeare.

Tiffany_Bozic

HORATIO: If your mind dislike any thing, obey it: I will Forestall their repair hither, and say you are not fit.

HAMLET: Not a whit. We defy augury. There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is ‘t to leave betimes? Let be.

Did you know the word auspicious comes from the word “augury?” In ancient Rome, Augurs were people who watched birds, but not to count their plumage or hunt their eggs. They spied on feathered things in order to tell the future, and this particular type of divination was called augury. They believed that the flight of birds, their patterns and formations, their esoteric habits and behaviors, could provide vital information about battles to come and wars to be won.

Hamlet, my favorite tortured prince, had no use for augury. What will be, will be. All we can be is ready, he says.

I do not fall into either camp. I don’t watch for the future—I don’t read cards to tell me what will happen or throw sticks or gaze into a crystal ball. I don’t believe the future provides us with signs. But I also can’t help but worry, regardless of the futility of that particular exercise. I worry all day and then come moonrise, I worry some more. It keeps me up at night, all that worrying.

Shakespeare is still teaching me things. Lesson of the day: Let be. 

[Image by the miraculously self-taught painter Tiffany Bozic. See more of her wonderful work at Colossal.]

Growing pains.

hugh turvey xrayIt has been a long winter. A hard winter. It was warm, so warm that even Confederate-flag waving rednecks began to grumble about climate change. It was muddy and gray and dark, but balmy in a way that felt disgusting. In German, there is a word, warmduscher, which translates to “warm-showers.” It refers to someone who prefers their water neither ice-cold nor scalding hot, but lukewarm. It means someone who is weak, milquetoast, unremarkable, smarmy, mild. (Or as one online translation puts it, a “candy-ass.”)

This winter left me feeling like that—impotent. Lacking in potency. Lacking in strength, character, intensity.

I have never been so glad to see the signs of spring. And it’s finally a true spring, where greenery begins poking out of the earth, making its way back up through the muck. I feel myself coming back, too. It’s a physical thing, this new awareness of my body, this reawakening of my energies. I stretch and every joint in my limbs cracks and pops, a little aching chorus of movement.

I’m the kind of person who needs my showers hot or cold. I would rather cry until my eyes are raw than stare silently at a wall, quiet resentment settling like yeast in a glass of beer.

Goodbye, warm-winter. Good riddance.

[Image above by” x-ray artist” Hugh Turvey of hyacinths in bloom, taken from The Telegraph]

Lost, dead, underused, untranslatable, and under-appreciated words: Part 1, M.

Greenland Drawing by Zaria FormanI don’t often start at the beginning, primarily because I rarely know where to find the beginning. As a writer, this is probably a bad habit, but I don’t care too much. Usually, it works out for the best—I find that starting at the beginning is the swiftest route to reader-boredom. I admit sometimes have trouble finding the end or figuring out how to wrap up an article, though I never have much trouble finding the punchline. I should probably just not write serious things and focus on telling jokes, but I am getting ahead of (behind? I’m not sure?) myself.

Anyway, the point is this: I am starting a new series of my blog of words that are lost, dead, underused, untranslatable, or under-appreciated. Basically, it’s going to be a bunch of cool words that I like and think others might enjoy.

I’m starting near the middle, because that’s what feels right (and because alphabetical order is great for glossaries, but not all that crucial for rambling bloggers). So today, I found three words that begin with M. Here ya go:

Montivagant (Noun, English)
This English word was used most often during the 17th Century and although it is considered a “dead” word, it’s not entirely forgotten. It describes a person who wanders over mountains and hills, a particularly ambitious vagabond. It’s someone who gains and loses altitude as they put one foot in front of the other, up and down, up and down. It’s a rambling man, a roadie without a band. In short, it’s how I want to live my life.

Mångata (Noun, Swedish)
This is a Swedish word that has no exact equivalent in English. It describes the “road-like reflection of the moon on water.” It’s that stairway to heaven that happens when you’re lakeside on a summer night and the moon rises big and slow and lazy.

Merrythought (Noun, English)
This word for the wishbone of a bird is extremely dated and sounds it (“Would you like to pull my merrythought?” asked no one ever). The first known appearance of “Merrythought” was in 1607. I’m squirreling this information away for use at Thanksgiving. When the dinner table talk inevitably and uncomfortably turns to politics, I plan to bust this one out to distract the quibblers.

Image: “Greenland” by Brooklyn-based artist Zaria Forman from her series “Chasing the Light,” which focuses on the interplay between light and water. I’ve blogged about her before, and I’m a huge fan of her work. See more here. 

Language is awesome: On thieves cant, glymmering, and “limber, lasting, fierce words.”

Crow_peopleYou’ve probably heard of cockney slang, where rhyme and word association comes together to create some seriously weird linguistic substitutions. The classic example is using “apples” for “stairs.” See, stairs rhymes with pears, and apples and pears are associated words, thus stairs becomes apples. Similarly, eyes are sometimes referred to as “mincers” (eyes -> mince pieces -> mincers) and wives become “trouble” (wife -> strife -> trouble and strife -> trouble). It’s confusing, but it’s meant to be. It creates a system of insiders who understand the slang, and outsiders who do not. Some people believe that cockney slang sprung up as a way for criminals to confuse police and better achieve their nefarious goals (though that’s not an entirely accepted theory).

Anyway, I was researching cockney slang when I came across “thieves cant,” a language of thieves that has this truly incredible Wikipedia entry: “It was claimed by Samuel Rid that thieves’ cant was devised around 1530 ‘to the end that their cozeningsknaveries and villainies might not so easily be perceived and known’, by Cock Lorel and the King of the Gypsies at The Devils Arse, a cave in Derbyshire.” Sadly, Wikipedia goes on to inform me that, while thieves cant most likely “originated in this period, the story is almost certainly a myth.” Bummer, right? But at least we got to read about the fantastically named Cock Lorel and his cozenings and knaveries and villainies (lions and tigers and bears, oh my!).

As it turns out, English isn’t the only language with a thieves cant. The Germans had Rotwelsch, which pulls in words from Yiddish and Romany languages to create a verbal hodgepodge. But it’s also a highly literal language without abstractions, so instead of calling winter by an arbitrary name, it’s called “Blibberling,” which is the word for “shivering.” (Also, how great is it that both shivering and blibberling feel incredibly onomatopoeic? Just imagine trying to stammer out blibberling between chattering teeth.) Similar, criminals in Yugoslavia once spoke in Šatrovački to hide their knaveries. Šatrovački seems a little like a Slavic pig-latin, in which words are distorted by changing around the order of the syllables. (For example: trava—grass, often used for marijuana—becomes vutra instead of vatra, meaning fire and pivo—beer—becomes vopi.)

It’s amazing how, while these languages were created for mendacious purposes, they’re still so damn beautiful. Another great word from thieves cant is “glymmer,” which means fire. Glymmer! How utterly lovely. I’m also struck by how poetic slang words can be, how vibrant and bold. This happens with American slang, too. Just think of all the words that are being coined on Snapchat right now by the youths! It’s pretty mind-boggling.

Plus, it’s extra cool because American English is basically just a big ol’ melting pot filled with pilfered phrase and made-up words. I’m going to quote this article at length, so click through…  Continue reading

Great words in graphics and what I learned from kid writers.

Minimalist word poster by Mick WatsonI say this all the time, but teaching writing is one of the shiniest, happiest parts of my life. I work with the wonderful people at The Telling Room, a nonprofit writing center located in downtown Portland, Maine. I haven’t been teaching for too long, but I’m learning quickly how difficult it can be—but also how rewarding.

One of my favorite things about teaching writing is seeing how kids use language. They go crazy with it! They can be free and funny and break all the rules. It’s like how Picasso said it took him four years to paint like an old master, but a lifetime to learn to paint like a child—there’s something to be said about un-learning things, throwing education out the window, and thinking like a child.

But while my students may have a leg-up when it comes to sheer inventiveness, here’s one thing I have on them: Vocabulary. Kids simply haven’t learned all the beautiful, specific, melodious words that English can provide. Which is where these super cool minimalist posters come in. To address the vocabulary question, a graphic designer from Edinburgh named Mick Watson created a series of posters that depict complex words in simple graphics. “I was thinking about my 9-year-old daughter’s expanding vocabulary and wondered that if I made some posters with a visual hook and put them up around the house whether she’d pick them up,” Watson told Slate writer Kristin Hohenadel. “She was being a contrarian at the time so I started there!”

Watson’s list includes some of my favorite words, like petrichor and deasil. And I admit, I learned a few new words looking at his designs! See more of Watson’s Word of the Day project online here.

Language is awesome: Regional slang from around America.

illustrated map of the USADo you know what a skimmelton is? What’s a “cascade” in North Carolina? Or larruping? Or what about a woopensocker? NPR published a hilarious list of regional slang from around the USA and I’ve never heard of like 80% of them. But whoa! Colorful language.

When a lobster whistles on top of a mountain.

Three Peaks by Cathy McMurray

Idiom:ชาติหน้าตอนบ่าย ๆ
Literal translation: “One afternoon in your next reincarnation.”
What it means: “It’s never gonna happen.”
Other languages this idiom exists in: A phrase that means a similar thing in English: “When pigs fly.” In French, the same idea is conveyed by the phrase, “when hens have teeth (quand les poules auront des dents).” In Russian, it’s the intriguing phrase, “When a lobster whistles on top of a mountain (Когда рак на горе свистнет).” And in Dutch, it’s “When the cows are dancing on the ice (Als de koeien op het ijs dansen).”

The folks at the TED Talks blog went around asking translators what their favorite idioms were from other cultures. The results are awesome. It’s also interesting to see how many of them use animal imagery. The idioms from Japan are almost all about cats. (For instance, “cat’s forehead” is a very small space, often used to describe one’s property in self-deprecating terms. I might start using this one.) Many of them are about wolves, because, I suppose, wolves were a real issue in medieval Europe (or so picture books would have me believe). I love the Russian ones the best, I think, and the Slavic ones. I could see “when a lobster whistles on top of a mountain” catching on pretty easily in Maine, seeing as we have a lot of lobsters and some pretty gorgeous mountains.

Speaking of mountains, the picture above is actually of the other coast by Portland-based (again, other Portland) artist Cathy McMurray. I am completely in love with her style—the big blocks of color mixed with intricate, repetitive detail—and I actually own a few of her prints. Go check her out here.