Of the many hats I’ve been wearing lately, “freelance administrator” feels like it’s the weirdest.
It’s the latent romanticism of the word “freelance” that seems so out of place next to the grasping boredom inherent in the word “administrator.” I think that if you told dreamy eight year old me that I’d be making most of my paycheck in this way in – what – twenty years? – I’d not only be horrified, I’d be extremely skeptical.
“Administration” is an odd tangle of “in charge” and “subservient.” Obviously, the administrator is there to do things for other people. I kind of like it because of its position in the background; as an administrator, I get to help others, help in the operations of an event. Type A people make plans, and I make sure that there’s follow-through.
I enjoy follow-through. I hate to see a good plan go to waste because no one spent the time – or had the time – to implement it fully. Starting a project and then dropping it is way more disenchanting than never starting it at all.
The “freelancer” idea of course comes from the concept of the mercenary, the “free lance” – someone whose sword is free of commitments to any country or corporation. Don Quixote comes to mind. And goofy as he is, you just can’t see him sitting down and ensuring that the invoices are processed properly. You don’t imagine him with a typewriter nestled against his horse’s neck, as the two of them stand idiosyncratically on the open plain. No, he has a spear.
At Mural Arts, I’m now a four-days-per-week “administrator.” My title is actually “Project Coordinator,” which sounds way sexier. I work with two projects: journey2home (check out the blog, which I’m now running) and Restored Spaces.
I’m getting a chance to work within communities and try to engage people in Mural Arts’ efforts to improve the city. It’s not something I’ve ever focused on before, and it certainly isn’t the direction that my own art points in, but it’s interesting, the people are wonderful, the effects are glorious, and I’m learning a lot. Here’s a taste of the kind of community-based work we do, in my first article on the Mural Arts blog.
I may not have a horse or a spear, but I have a laptop, a bike, and no loyalties. And if you have room in your budget, I’ll administrate your arts business.
. . . He opened the door and rushed out onto the lawn, a frantic naked man utterly unable to comprehend–his unmonitored pulse galloping headlong toward the finish line without him–the rather unexceptional fact of his victimization by the forces of modern life. Someone had dared to steal his fucking car.
I’m reading Going Native by Stephen Wright. The book’s language is dense, in some places “over-written” as my friend pointed out, but at other points lucid or hilarious. And unlike Blood Meridian, the last big novel I took on, it’s pretty spare on the $20,000 words, so I can actually get a good pace going without stopping every two minutes to pull out the dictionary (laptop). Two chapters in, I’ve learned four new words, two of which are probably not going to be usable by anyone.
The most recent is brier. As in, “He nodded genially in her direction, the apple-cheeked country squire savoring his evening brier.” In this scene, “he” is smoking a crack pipe.
The simplest definition of “brier” is that it is an alternative spelling of “briar,” which of course means a thorny bush, or a twig covered in thorns, or a mass of prickly plants.
None of these make particular sense, but then, if you scroll to the bottom of The Free Dictionary’s list of definitions (I generally use The Free Dictionary–I find its explanations at least as accessible as any other, and its format more user friendly than Merriam-Webster) you find this pair of meanings:
brier, n. 1. the white heath, whose root is used to make tobacco pipes 2. a pipe made of brierroot
Then, that meaning well in hand, I was able to feel mastery of the paragraph and give a short chuckle.
The other unlikely-to-ever-be-used word I puzzled over so far is “rheostat.” At one point in chapter two, the days and nights are rushing by in a crack haze: “. . . the miracle of the cracked ceiling she had been acutely attending for hours and hours, it was glowing, the intensity of its illumination multiplying surely but imperceptibly under the care of her watch, she imagined a hidden rheostat somewhere manipulated by a withered old hand, and then, with a start, she comprehended the meaning of this fascinating phenomenon.”
Doesn’t make a whole lot of sense with the frighteningly technical-sounding “rheostat” left undefined. After some digging and picking my way through unparseable conundrums of definitions like “a continuously variable electrical resistor used to regulate current” and feeling like I’m doing my taxes, I learn what it all means. A rheostat is a fancy term for the electrical component which makes dimmer switches possible.
(A rheostat surely has other uses than dimming lights; it allows for variable current, unlike a regular switch which allows for only on or off. But I can’t think of any, and dimmer switch is exactly what Wright means in this moment, fortunately.)
Again, the paragraph makes sense–and her drug-addled misinterpretation of perfectly natural illumination is now funny.
Maybe some day I will hear the word “rheostat” again and know what it means.
But Stephen Wright’s novel has thus far provided at least two fun, useful words to take home, as well:
minatory, adj: threatening or menacing alt. minatorial, minacious
. . . he halted, frozen in place, his arrested shadow lofting gigantically up the wall, across the low ceiling, a slick black membrane quivering in minatory shapelessness close overhead.
And, toward the close of that scene comes this:
“There now,” she declared, “look at you,” casting a triumphant finger wallward at his anatomically correct umbral self. “Enormous. You’re one big guy.”
I know “umbral” has to do with shadows, and that makes sense here, but I try not to guess at words that I’m not sure about. My consistency payed off, because when I looked up “umbra” I found something fun:
umbra, n. 1. A dark area, especially the darkest part of a shadow from which all light is cut off. 2. Astronomy a. The completely dark portion of a the shadow cast by the earth, moon or other body during an eclipse b. The darkest region of a sunspot adj:umbral.
The concept that the “umbra” is the darkest part of a shadow, or a sunspot, or an eclipse–the part completely devoid of light–is really exciting and useful.
Then you get on to definitions three and four:
3. The usual accompaniment of a person or thing 4. A phantom or ghost.
“He became his girlfriend’s umbra and soon lost all of his friends.” “Controversy was umbral to him, chasing him from place to place.”
This was around 250 BC or thereabouts, the before-time, the long-ago. Pyrrhus was more than just a soldier – he was a king of a tribe, head of a house, and sat on the thrones of two Greek states and of Sicily. He’d set himself up as an enemy of a swelling Roman empire, and waged war.
The world he grew up in was one of constantly feuding Greek states. His father was dethroned from Epirus when Pyrrhus was only two; Pyrrhus was restored to the throne when he was 13, but repeated his father’s fate at the ripe age of 17.
He learned to soldier, married a woman named Antigone, and with the help of his father-in-law won his throne back. All of these upsets and revulsions and back-stabbings must have had a formulating effect on his ethics because he then executed a series of betrayals and coat-turnings against his wife’s family, which resulted in him taking Macedon and then losing Macedon, all within a few years.
This was not the end of Pyrrhus’ career, but this might be the first of his acts which resulted in the unique kind of fame he culled for himself, and his name.
Over the next fifteen years he was encouraged or requested to carry out a variety of wars, some of which he accepted: against the burgeoning Roman Empire as well as other Greek states. He became known for suffering heavy losses in his victories. Even as his army and capital dwindled he continued his ambitious and unrelenting warring, until, while attempting to quell a “civic dispute” in Argos (which drew at least two opposing armies into conflict in the streets), he was bonked on the head by a flying tile – thrown by some cronish Argead termagant, according to legend – and while he was counting the stars and birdies, an enemy soldier decapitated him.
Dethroned, defeated, decapitated, but never in his life deterred.
Defamed, though, in his legacy. A Pyrrhic victory is a victory won at so great a cost that another such victory will surely result in defeat. The word pyrrhic, for which we can thank Pyrrhus’ unrelenting efforts to install himself in the annals of history, means “achieved at an excessive cost” or “costly to the point of negating or outweighing expected benefits.”
(A pyrrhic is also a metric foot, the opposite of a spondee. It’s two short, unaccented syllables, where a spondee is two long, accented syllables.)
I scored a pyrrhic A on my first exam, and in an exhausted state, churned out four or five C’s and B’s. I ate a delicious and pyrrhic cheesesteak last night, and tossed and turned all night.
Peripatetic, adj. traveling from place to place, esp. working / based in various places for short periods.
I long to live a flight attendant’s peripatetic lifestyle, and get free standby flights!
So the other day I got my first paid article of 2013 posted on Philly.com’s Art Attack . . . about Quintessence’s production of GBS’ Arms and the Man. So many things came together here, resulting in me picking up Michael Holroyd’s massive, four-volume biography of Shaw.
This article is the first critical one I’ve published in a while—I haven’t been this against a piece I wrote about, probably ever—and the reaction has been exciting. I’ve gotten more comments on this than any other piece not on my own blog, and was even called a “LIAR”—in all caps, just like that.
One thing I actually deserved to get in trouble for on this article was for saying that few companies in Philly are daring, or willing to portray people as the ugly, problematic, aggressive, cruel things they can sometimes be. While I wasn’t “lying” as was suggested, I was maybe a bit incautious here.
A desideratum is something lacked, wanted or needed.
He had money, friends, a constant stream of productive activities, and had even constructed for himself a kind of legacy; the only desideratum of his life was love. We as a culture have money, good intentions, opportunity, and aptitude; the only desideratum of our efforts is understanding.
There are many artists in Philadelphia who produce intriguing experimental work. This is where our strength lies, and I’m glad to see it. I wonder if most people haven’t seen enough down-and-dirty thoughtful classic productions to even understand that something like Arms and the Man misses the point.
I wonder, too, if our theatergoers expect to leave the theater with thoughts, arguments, and even outcries.
Recondite, adj: 1. not easily understood, abtruse
2. hidden, concealed, little known
One recondite statement in his article made the whole thing ambiguous. She enjoyed reading the blog about recondite words, so much so that she told all of her friends to read it.
I certainly don’t want to suggest that any classic production should tether itself to the author or even the author’s intentions; Shaw says in his prefaces to BTM (I don’t have the exact quote at the moment) that the author’s interpretation of the work is not always the truest or most useful one. Any production company must put their own spin on a piece, sometimes even making it unrecognizable from its original appearance. An uncareful reading of my article might conclude that I disagree.
What I take issue with is the improper use of a text. If you use a scissors to hammer a nail in you risk stabbing yourself in the head; similarly, producing The LaramieProject as a rollicking comedy would be disastrous. If you’re going make Arms and the Man a farce you had better have a really good reason to do so, beside selling more tickets.
Odd twistings of purpose can be of use. The recent Broadway show The Scottsboro Boys, about a group of black men in 1931 who are accused of a gang rape they did not commit, uses blackface, minstrel shows, and reductive, stereotypical portraits of blacks in order to explore the racism which is an inescapable part of our history.
But I am decidedly against any twisting which reduces a work and discourages thoughtfulness. It is particularly dangerous to do this with a revolutionary artist.
Ad hominem is another latinate phrase; it refers to an argument which is made not against an idea but against the person who presents or represents it. In other words, every political debate you’ve ever seen by actual politicians is a brilliant and numbingly ignorant example of ad hominem argumentation.
“What is there to live for but work?” asks a character in one of Shaw’s novels.
I respond, there are cocktails on the beach to live for; and if you can’t make it to the beach, they taste good enough in your living room.
Nobody reads Shaw’s novels, and even he decided to hate them, eventually. I’ve only come across the quote in Michael Holroyd’s Bernard Shaw.
Some words surprise you.
catholic, adj: 1. of broad or liberal scope – comprehensive. My English degree, being catholic in nature, prepared me for no particular job.
2. including or concerning all humankind, universal. Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, though a Russian Orthodox text, is also a catholic text.
Good work, fathers of the church. You’ve opened your religion up to some delightful punning.
This religion belongs to all, says its title, to all mankind. It’s a beautiful idea. This provided a framework for a campaign of proselytizing, saviorizing and missionizing, and also for the invention of Hell for those who refuse to believe, and, of course, of wars and executions and crusades, in order to expedite the heretics to this fiery destination.
Which makes the “Catholic” belief no different from any other; believers, whether in vegetarianism or Islam or Buddhism or pacifism or the Red Sox, consider themselves catholic, and attempt to convert. Is the wisest thing is simply not to attempt to convert anyone in any way?
Now, to teach you more words.
A vade mecum is a useful item that you carry with you wherever you go. If the phrase looks super latinate, that’s because it is. And when you translate it directly, “go with me!” is what it means, exclamation mark and all: the verb is in the imperative (direct address). “Go with me!” it orders anyone who will listen.
Every great adventure hero has a vade mecum; for The Doctor it’s the sonic screwdriver, for Harry Potter it’s his wand, for Mario it’s the mustache; you and I have our smartphones.
But consider, too, the uses of the binky or teddy – think about Linus and his blanket. The comfort object is actually one of the most constantly used devices – it is always being used for comfort. Linus’ blanket in Peanuts dramatizes this concept by acting as a kind of inanimate factotum, with all kinds of uses from self-defense to warmth to object retrieval.
The other definition of “vade mecum” is: a guidebook, or any book containing useful, ready reference.
It’s a dictionary, it’s Planet Earth, it’s the Hitchhiker’s Guide; and once again, it’s also the smartphone: both a constant, useful companion, able to sort out most problems that might arise on the daily, and a catholic reference book.
A factotum, a word I used just now and you should have looked up, is a person employed to do all manner of duties. These people are the personal assistants and secretaries; they’re probably more and more common as more and more jobs are eliminated and more able and beleaguered underpaid staff-members with titles like “Visitor Services” or “CSA” or “Program Manager” who, when you ask them what their job is, just laugh at you and change the subject.
The opposite of these poor creatures is the sinecure, another kind of human which has mostly died out except in politics and perhaps organized crime. A sinecure is a job or a post with little to no responsibilities or duties, but which provides a steady paycheck. Their titles are often vague just like a factotum’s, but rather than being all-encompassing umbrellas designed as a dumping ground of responsibilities, they rather seem to exclude any possible duties you could ever conceive of; think Lead Solutions Engineer or Future Accounts Representative.
In 1871 the New York Times published a snarky article disrobing a list of “those political parasites . . . whose sole duty it is to draw money from the City Treasury.”
Factota are a fact of life; I want nothing more than to secure a sinecure.
The Final Steps to Learning New Words – involve interaction.
If I wanted you to learn how to use a wrench, I wouldn’t just give you a document that lays out its uses, or a definition of a wrench, or even just show you how it works. I would want you to take it in your hands and use it to wrench something.
We have this conception of our brains as infinitely absorptive; we think that if we know something NOW we will know it tomorrow and the days after that. Unfortunately, that’s not true. Our brains are made to sift through all of the seemingly useless information we’re observing and receiving every day.
Taking the wrench in hand provides a physical context for its definition. We can watch someone use it, but until we actually heft its weight against a lug-nut or a screw we don’t truly understand the physics of it, the three-dimensional reality of its work.
Words are the same way, and there is a physics to language. Once you’ve looked up a word, you need to define it for yourself, in your own words. This way you get past thinking you understand it to actually understanding it. I suggest keeping a pocket dictionary where you list all of the new words you learn, with their definitions.
Then, use the word itself. Discuss it, use it in sentences, share it with people, see how it interacts with your world and the concepts and ideas you find important. Find sentences to put it in and come to grips with its weight.
That’s, basically, the reason why I started this blog – to discuss new words and train myself in using them, so that they find their way into my daily vocabulary. It’s been working wonderfully.
Oneiric, adj.: Of or relating to dreams.
Thanks for this one go to Liana at the Hour of Soft Light. In her short poem – or story – she is on a treadmill and writing furiously. Her friend asks her why she risks falling off of the treadmill – and she answers, “Well, I’ve just found the word for dreamlike.”
The word for. Why do we need more than one word for one meaning? What is the difference between “oneiric” and “dreamlike”? Between “German” and “Teutonic” or even “healthy,” “hale” and “salubrious”?
In some cases, like the latter, the different words have slightly different meanings. “Healthy” has many distinct meanings, but “hale” specifically refers to a person or thing which is in good health, while “salubrious” usually means something health-giving.
But “oneiric” and “dreamlike” are synonymous. So to what special world does “oneiric” take Liana, in which she risks falling off of her treadmill she’s so bound up in the excitement?
Words are like spells which, with all the fullness of images, present experiences for our minds and our senses. Generation to generation new images are needed, new styles of art, which express the new age’s sensibilities – or just as importantly, provide a new way of experiencing the same sensibilities. New words, even when they say the same thing, create fresh impressions of old ideas.
Except for slang, which is fairly limited in its scope, and technological developments, we don’t invent so many new words in each generation in the same way that we invent new styles of art and new images. There are not schools of word-smiths, inventing neologisms for the new ways of looking at the world. We enjoy, instead, the rush of combining old words into new phrases, or the excitement of discovering a word we never knew existed, which expresses something we’ve always wanted to express.
We think we know our language, especially those of us who make daily, in-depth use of it: writers, poets, orators, etc. But its scope is always broader than the user’s understanding of it. “I’ve just found the word for dreamlike,” says Liana, smilingly. What she’s pointing out here is the pleasure of being proven, to some degree, ignorant; the naturalist does not want to think that she knows every insect and leaf, she wants there to be something left to discover.
And every word, through its differing sound and combination of letters, its various background and history of meaning and subtlety (even if its dictionary definition is the same as another’s), claims its own texture, its own special feel as it’s used.
She says “I found the word.” “Dreamlike” becomes a clumsy conflation compared to “oneiric”; there is no word for this concept, it seems to suggest, and so we had to lump two words together. We had no trains, so we hitched the cars to one-another; no wagons, so we’ve tied baskets to our saddles. There is an elegance to a word which has seemingly sprung up out of the earth to form a meaning, which a compound conglomeration cannot touch.
The snow turns the familiar streets oneiric, deserted, soft. The film’s oneiric scenes illuminated a landscape of fear behind the protagonist’s actions.
I feel pretty badly that I haven’t done a light-hearted obscure words post in a while, so here’s one today. It’s got some naughty words in it, so hurrah!
Sommelier, n.: a wine waiter. As in, I wouldn’t eat there, the sommeliers have a savage look to them. Pronounced “SOHM-mel-YAY.”
QI, or Quite Interesting, is a quiz show with a great theme: the questions are so archaic that nobody is really expected to be able to answer them. Panelists, almost always clever, charismatic British celebs, get points for giving interesting answers rather than correct ones, and the show has a tendency to descend into chaotic hilarity. Another highlight is Stephen Fry’s outrageous wardrobe. Watching it, I never fail to gain some ridiculous soupçon of knowledge to fillip at friends.
Trivia’s trivial, it’s true. It’s not likely that anything you learn from a quiz show will save your life or make you better at your job. But tidbits like “Did you know, the giant tortoise didn’t have a Latin name until three centuries after its discovery because they’re too goddamn delicious to make it the whole boat ride to London, where such taxonomical honorifics are bestowed?” and “Did I tell you that I’m actually a direct descendant of Charlemagne?” make great party stories and give the illusion that you’re smart and interesting.
Additionally, I cling to the concept that there’s something to gain from teasing an extra wrinkle or two (knowledge does not actually wrinkle the brain) into my brain on a daily basis; tossing another puzzle piece of awareness into the infinite void of ignorance that is my exiguous understanding of the universe and the infernal brutes (humans) currently running the tiny corner of it which I inhabit.
Speaking of infernal brutes, I also learn great new words on QI from time to time, and here’s one: a plethysmographis an instrument used to measure changes in an organ. There are a number of different types of p-graphs for different types of organs; a blood-pressure cuff is an obvious one. But the funnest plethys are inarguably the penile and vaginal plethysmographs, also known as “fruit machines.”
The penile is basically a cock ring, and it measures blood-flow to the wing-wang; the vaginal is like a tiny little dildo, measuring the same thing in its coordinate organ. They’re gained the “fruit machine” when they were first used to ferret out a person’s sexual preference. The Canadian Mounties ran all of their members (get it) through the fruit machine in the 50’s. What they’d do is hook a guy up, show him a bunch of gay porn, and then if the sparks flew and the numbers went up, the Mounty would ship out.
If I was under the test, the very fact that I knew I wasn’t supposed to get aroused would trigger that precise reaction in me. Similarly, I know that I would fail a lie detector test. If someone suspects me of doing something wrong, I immediately act guilty. It’s a disastrous evolutionary adaptation, but I’ve hated getting into trouble since I was a child, and it has never stopped making me feel nervous. Imagine this: the person who just clamped a ring around your cock and showed you a bunch of ratty porn mags turns to you and saying, “No, I’m sorry, you’re just not police material.”
Fruit machines have also been used to test those who claimed to be gay to avoid military service.
A plethysmograph can be a useful medical tool, but keep it off my tool.
Another fun social test is called a shibboleth. The first definition of shibboleth is: a word, a pronunciation of a word, or a custom that marks someone as being part of a specific group. Actually, that was the second definition; the first definition was “stalk of a grain” from the Hebrew. See, back in Biblical times (approximately Judges BC) a group of socially progressive Jews in Jordan used this word to tell if someone was an Ephraimite (people they didn’t like) because Ephraim’s tribe couldn’t make the “sh” sound at the start. If someone lisped the word incorrectly, they would be killed. The method was efficient: the good book has a braggartly account of 42,000 Ephraimites killed in this way. Cuz that’s what the Old Testament is like.
You could say that getting excited while looking at gay porn is a shibboleth which marks gay people as a group. You could also say that using porn to test if someone’s employee material is a douche-bag shibboleth. Similarly, saying “crick” instead of creek, midnight Wawa runs, and liking Dunkin Donuts more than Krispy Kreme are shibboleths which mark me indelibly as a Philadelphiite.
Apparently, deliberate misspellings and alliterations are shibboleths of the donut industry; I’d never noticed that before.
The various meanings of the word broaden out from here, all with their root in that bloody Biblical usage and having nothing to do with the original agricultural Hebrew meaning of “where the grains we make food from come from.”
A shibboleth can also be (third definition) anything that distinguishes somebody as an outsider (rather than as coming from a particular group). Like walking around a major city with a map, or looking strangers in the eyes anywhere on the American East Coast.
A shibboleth can be (fourth def) a catchphrase – like “Pop, pop!” “Did I do that?” and “Pizza time!” – for an individual, or for a group. So, “small government” is a Republican shibboleth; “equal rights” is a Democratic one. “Change” was Obama’s shibboleth when he was running in 2008. It was incredibly effective, in part because it was broad, powerful, and vague.
That brings us, elegantly, to the fifth meaning. Because these catchphrases are oftentimes used by politicians and political groups to garner support while distracting voters from their actual intentions, shibboleth has taken on another, kind of inevitable definition: a commonplace saying with little actual meaning. “Freedom,” for example has been bandied about by so many parties for so many purposes that now no one even asks what kind of freedom you’re talking about anymore. But it’s such a powerful American value that it immediately garners support for a cause and makes a person think twice about opposing it.
Other popular shibboleths: “I’ll call you,” “award-winning,” “we’ll talk about that raise later;” arguably, filler words like “awesome” and “cool,” so wide-ranging in meaning as to mean almost nothing, are shibboleths as well.
So there you are. That’s the five meanings of shibboleth for you. Those Biblical stalks gave off their little seeds, which were then tossed all the fuck over the place by the crazy-ass winds of time. Ah, the beauty of language.
Fustian, n.: 1. High-flown and affected speech. He described his point with so much fustian that none of us had any idea what he was saying. The speech was nothing but fustian; all we learned is that she’s great at saying nothing at all. It can be an adjective too: I want to learn all the words on Notes on Words so that I can be brutally fustian in my speech. 2. Anything high-flown or affected in style. Girl, why you be walkin around with so much fustian, strap on some heels and let’s go to the bar. 3. Strong cotton or linen fabric. “What’s that shirt made out of?” “Fustian.” “I don’t know what that is.” “Strong cotton or linen fabric.”
I’ve been frustrated, since high school, by a vertiginous decline in my working vocabulary. Part of this is the drugs and alcohol, of course, which come along with any college education. Why else was I losing my words? Up until that point, I had only learned more and more of them; never had I lost them, or seen this kind of decline in my ability to learn new ones.
If the first step of learning a new word is to admit that you don’t know it, the second step is to actually look it up yourself.
But again and again, looking up a word only meant that I would forget it before I had a chance to use it. My mind lost them, I was a sieve, I could not actually add new words to my lexicon: a frankly depressing concept for a writer.
This is why steps 3 and 4 are so important, and I’ll get to them next week.
Yesterday was the Vernal Equinox, or official first day of Spring.
The Equinox of course being Spring and Autumn’s version of the Solstice, which is what the Summer and Winter, the only real seasons anymore, get to have. Equinox means equal night—March 20th and September 20th being the only two days which have an equal amount of night.
Vernal means “having to do with spring.” When I learned this I was naturally disappointed, having thought to myself, “What does ‘vernal’ mean? Is it literally, ‘having to do with spring?’ I hope it has some tangential meaning like ‘rabbit-like,’ or ‘elongated’ or ‘perpetually disappointing.'” Unfortunately, that’s exactly what it means—as in, The vernal buds of optimism spring upward, only to be snuffed out by a tardy frost.
Which thought process led me to literally, and how its definition is suddenly worth discussing.
Because literally has a new meaning going into dictionaries all over. A lot of people are in an uproar about this.
Understandably so. The alternate definition of “literally” is “emphatically,” which in turn means “so big that I needed to use a comparison or a metaphor,” which in turn means “figuratively,” which in turn means “not literally.” By which I mean, it’s a non-literal use of the word “literal.” As in, I literally love this band! Or, If I don’t get a drink in three seconds I am literally going to die. Or, People who use “literally” to mean “not literally” are literally retarded.
I’m not up in arms. Actually, I’m positively delighted about having the opportunity to talk about this.
The argument is one of prescriptivism vs. descriptivism. In brief, prescriptivism is a linguistics principal that dictates that it is the job of dictionaries and other rulesy resources to tell people how language ought to be used. Therefore, dictionaries should only state the “correct” definitions. Descriptivism holds that, rather, dictionaries are there to describe how language is used. This way, if I see or hear a word and I don’t know it, I can ferret through all 3, 7, or 27 definitions of that word until I find the one that actually makes sense. (I.e., I can use a dictionary in the way it’s meant to be used.)
A prescriptivist would likely be irked by the incorrect use of literally, and not want it in a dictionary; descriptivists will generally demand that all uses of all words be listed.
Most people these days tend, ideologically, towards descriptivism, as much out of a desire not to seem like a colonizing jerk as out of a genuine understanding of the benefits of having a complete lexicon of human verbiage/usage.
The plot twist
Meanwhile, no matter what we say with our mouths, most of us are actually much more prescriptivist in our tendencies. We subconsciously, or consciously, think that our personal rules of pronunciation and meaning-making are right, and want to impose them on other people, whether or not we’re backed up by resources like dictionaries..
Thus why, when I left Philly to go to school, people made fun of me for calling creeks cricks; thus why I make humiliate my friends for saying bagel wrong; thus why I immediately judge people who say “amble-ance” instead of “am-byoo-lance.”
Children do this too, and they’re brutal about it. I’d go so far as to say that we’re instinctual prescriptivists all of us, trained to recognize subtlest differences in other people/things’ manners, in everything from linguistics, to accents, to styles of government, to what news agency you pay attention to, to what kinds of hats people in that country wear and how their food makes them smell weird. We’re so instinctually prescriptivist that we have a long history of starting wars and bar fights based on the pettiest distinctions: like which objectively unprovable deity you’re into, or whose wife you’re sleeping with.
I’m generally a descriptivist. Education and tolerance tend to make you one. Prescriptivism is generally irrational, fearful, cynical, and archaic.
When I read a definition, I find the original root, and trace the myriad complications and bastardizations of that root which had to occur before I could hold that word on my tongue. Every turn represents a point where some linguaphile or other was outraged, and then forgotten. A dictionary is the tingling flesh of the living thing which is language, and its million appendages are all proof of the miracle of the evolution of meaning.
As we stagger stumblingly toward my conclusion
Returning to literally, and its new usage (of which I am tolerant), I’m glad that they’re adding the new usage to the dictionaries.
Where did this meaning come from? Well, take for example usage sited in Webster’s: will literally turn the world upside down to combat cruelty or injustice. This does not suggest to me that the person who used it meant to say “emphatically”—rather, I think they meant to say “actually,” and actually did not know what that means in relation to figurative statements. That is to say, they don’t really know the meaning of “actually” or “figuratively” and have been bluffing their way the entire time.
So! Since the second meaning comes from people’s inability to tell the difference between the two, it is valuable to parse them on paper. It could be a valuable lesson for the people who do not understand this distinction. If we fail to do this, I fear that the one meaning might actually absorb the other, like a baby eating its twin in utero. Separating them is like dissecting a hemorrhaging appendix from an otherwise healthy body.
Additionally, like that appendix, that second definition should be put into a jar, and shown for the ugly growth that it is. It is the result of ignorance; in the definition a caveat should state this. The Oxford English Dictionary, somewhat gratifyingly, calls it “informal,” I propose that they indicate when a usage is actually a “misnomer.”Be aware of this meaning, the lexicon cries, but avoid it! It’ll make you sound ignorant! Because it does.
The first step to learning anything is admitting that you don’t know it.
Sounds simple, but many people—maybe most people—can’t do it. At my part-time job, with an in-school literacy program, I see this tendency, to lie low in the face of ignorance, present as early as 1st grade.
My boss at that job, a source of wisdom and strong opinions on many subjects, condemns this tendency as a downward spiral of suffering and self-fulfilling ignorance. The majority of people, she insists, spend their lives not understanding what’s said to them and never knowing why; the reason behind this, the reason that you lose track of what a person’s saying, or get bored while reading a book or learning a lesson, is because you heard a word or concept you didn’t know, or which you thought you knew, but couldn’t understand in the context because you didn’t actually fully know it. You didn’t stop the lesson and learn the word, and your brain, distressed by this, derailed.
This simple revelation is part of the reason I started this blog, I told a new friend today. We got on this subject because we met at the coffee shop and became friends over the mutual task of avoiding the work we were at the coffee shop to do by telling one another about the work we were at the coffee shop to do. Procrastacquaintances, I call us.
There’s more to it, of course, which I’ll get to in later posts. But he’d asked me what the most useful word I’d learned thus far was—which word that I’d covered did I use most in regular conversation? I realized that the most useful word I’d learned in this project is one I hadn’t covered in the blog yet.
Truculent, adj.: 1. Eager or quick to fight or argue, pugnacious. I’ve been using the word truculent a lot lately, as it’s a good way to describe several real-life people who’ve been pissing me off. The best cats I know are unpredictable, touchy, destructive, truculent. 2. Expressing bitter opposition; scathing, vitriolic. His truculent speech against the president gained him ardent support. Truculent opposition is bringing widespread attention to the proposed school closings.
Fantast, n.: A visionary, a dreamer. Comes from the Greek for “boaster,” which is a nice correlation, because it implies that “fantasy” and “fantastic” come from the concept of boasting. There’s a thin line in our own culture between idiocy and optimism; there’s pressure both to accept the cold facts of reality and to “follow your dreams” and outshine your neighbors. Scott Meslow’s proposed resurrection of Twin Peaks makes him look like a fantast, but here’s hoping he’s more of a prophet.
Who likes laughing? I do. I don’t think I’m particularly prone to it, but I think it’s healthy, I love to do it. Some people laugh all of the time. And we’ve all known one of those particularly grim folks who never laugh.
Why don’t they laugh? Maybe they think that by focusing intently on the practicalia of their lives, and by keeping anyone from seeing under their efficacious surface, they will somehow be more productive, more effective, or maybe more impressive.
I don’t actually know the answer to that question, but I do know that there’s a word for these people. An agelast is a person who does not laugh. They are agelastic. The Greek root is agelastos, “not laughing.”
While this word does not have to mean literally never laughing—it can mean “joyless” or “grim”—there are a few people who have been recorded as total agelasts. Isaac Newtown is said to have laughed only once in his life. Stalin, big surprise, was described as a literal agelast by several people.
Non-human animals, incidentally, cannot laugh—they are all agelastic, though not by choice.
We are the laughing animals.
A gelast is a person who laughs a lot. Gelastic can mean prone to laughter, but it can also refer to anything that is used in or meant to be the subject of laughter—a gelastic statement, a gelastic insult, a gelastic death threat, a gelastic dildo.
It also refers to certain epileptic fits, very severe ones, apparently.
A hypergelast is a cachinator, someone excessively prone to laughter. Anthony Trollope, who wrote lots of books I’ve never read, was supposed to laugh all the time, and is said even to have died giggling.
Laughter can eradicate meaning by making a thing ridiculous, or relieve tension, or cause joy, but the act is gravid with unexplored meaning. There are many different theories on where laughter comes from and why we do it. Freud believed that it was related to inhibited desires (of course); some believe that it has to do with a feeling of superiority and security over the suffering of others. My college theater’s lead designer held that laughter is a response to perceived danger being escaped; we laugh instead of running away, to show that the threat is an absurd one.
There’s obviously no consensus. What we can say is that Trollope knew how to go out: laughing in the face of the unknown, asserting his gelastic humanity to the universe’s humorless darkness.
Words contain within them the keys to all human knowledge. Read; and learn every word you come across. Eventually, you’ll know everything there is to know.
There’s a concept out there that the nearlyhuman is terrifying to us.
We all get that the Other is a thing to be scared of—tigers, llamas, space frogs, cancer, etc—but there is something about that which is nearly human, but not quite, which is just plain terrifying.
Back in the long long ago, 2.5 million years ago (when we had just barely begun being human, also around the time the light depicted in the above photograph caromed out of the stars of the Andromeda galaxy) monkeys gave way for the next big evolutionary thing, what we now call the “protohumans.” Over the following 800,000 years (during which the light pictured above soared across the Andromeda galaxy in our precise direction) apes evolved a few more times, developing species which were similar, but not the same, going through a few stages of “protohumans” before we became what we are today, homo erectus, wo/man who walks erect. Continue reading →