Ad Nauseam

This week is about vicious word-choices. Up today: repetition.

hans-eiskonen https://unsplash.com/photos/clkYWlgOHIQ

Beautiful parrot pics are used to counterbalance any negative attitude towards parroting

 

Learning by rote has been banished to the domain of crafts, sports, and foreign-languages studies. Although, even there we first ask why? Certainly with unfamiliar words, we’re encouraged to memorise by association and etymological inference, to think about them before repeating, repeating, repeating.

Passive acceptance of knowledge is equated with boredom, unintelligence, accidie. Which won’t do: smart multitasking is the emblem of the successful twenty-first century man. (Heap scorn on the art of reverie and creative procrastination, which are best done while completing some innocuous action by rote.)

Also mechanised memorisation smacks of “robot”, and “robot” smacks of “subhuman”, or worse, of “brain washing”.

Perhaps I should I update my vocabulary: not paying attention to data intake is like opening up our brains to information from unverified sources and then making sure we remember every dubitable factoid by parroting it to others. (Once incorporated into a belief system, fake news ossifies to prejudice, and prejudice is a long-term affliction—just a hunch.)

tomas-sobek https://unsplash.com/photos/5EtinxYsE8w

Poor rote. 

It’s a verb, it’s a noun, it’s an adjective, and it’s gone down in the world. Even its origin seems unclear—most likely to do with roundness (rota) or repetitiveness (rotative), in both senses related to musical composition. Of all the early entries in the OED, I prefer the 1623 example taken from Shakespeare’s Coriolanus (iii. ii. 56):

Now it lyes you on to speake to th’ people … with such words That are but roated in your Tongue.

It’s quite fitting that one should think of words as being roted (I almost wrote rooted) in one’s tongue, like second-nature reflexes—which is what speaking becomes in healthy adults. But it’s also a fitting quote because it pinpoints where tongue meets memory meets ear in the musical nexus of the language.

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Dissenting Voices: Quirks and Perks

 

A number of years ago I read a book called How to Read a Book (1940), by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren. It’s not some postmodernist meta-referential literature; it’s non-fiction that teaches the art of absorbing letters.

I was mocked for taking it seriously. (After all, what is there to reading?)

I persisted.

The book pointed out some useful techniques, of which one at least has become almost a reflex. I call it book pigeonholing. 

Quote: 

Rule 1. You must know what kind of book you are reading, and you should know this as early in the process as possible, preferably before you begin to read.

Knowing what type of text you’re approaching determines your point of view. For example, reading a short fictional story versus a piece of investigative journalism changes your willingness to suspend disbelief and apply critical thinking.

Pigeonholing a piece of writing is usually done first by source: where did you find it, who wrote it, is it a trustworthy source, is it fiction, etc. Then by title and subtitle: as I’ve discussed these past two weeks in terms of non-fiction, the most successful titles are designed to resonate with the content (as well as “hook” the reader). Next come any prefaces or pictures or graphs or other information.

Ultimately, it’s all to do with expectation. The closer a reader’s initial expectation is to the actual experience, the higher the likelihood they’ll be satisfied. This is why blurbs or advertisements ought to be representative; and why we have the divisions into fiction and non-fiction, into literary and genre, into YA and adult; and why websites tell you the expected reading time of an article or the particular skill set or information you will glean.

So things have changed since 1940.

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The Flavour of Personhood

Sequence of a Fata Morgana of the Farallon Islands as seen from San Francisco. (Brocken Inaglory CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons)

 

To improve the taste of an insipid factual statement, baste in metaphor, bake with active verbs, and serve soused in piquant words. But be wary of overdoing it.

For example: There was a mirage on the horizon.

Could be changed to: Sun-drunk air shimmered in the offing.

Regardless of whether the edit is an improvement, it is a more complex piece of writing which triggers a more complex response. In particular, the reader recognises the sentence as not being literal because air cannot be drunk.

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Come again?

alexander-mils https://unsplash.com/photos/aiIANaSK9DQ

Neither humble pun, nor humble pie.

 

The humble pun.

What interests you more: its aesthetics or its taxonomy?

The internet seems to think that the issue of aesthetics cannot be settled: if you like puns, you like them; if you don’t, you don’t. But nothing is ever so clear-cut, and especially when it comes to newspaper headings where wordplay is almost an obligatory linguistic foreplay.

Out of context and as a congeries, the titular wordplay assumes melodramatic proportions. I have in mind a mordant self-critique taken from The Economist’s blog (Oct 28th 2010by G.L. | New York). Try not to cringe as you go down the list.

I note with chagrin that The Economist‘s series of awful puns in stories about the Chinese currency has reached epic proportions:
A yuan-sided argument
Yuan small step
Yuan up, yuan down
Tell me what you yuan, what you really, really yuan
It’s yuan or the other
Yuan step from the edge
Yuan-way bet
Yuan for the money

Yuan. A word made in punner’s heaven?

 

Perhaps you didn’t cringe, perhaps you enjoyed that. Either way, I won’t discuss taste—I’ll focus on the taxonomy. However, I will not do so with any degree of precision that a true linguist might appreciate. My method is a mental shortcut through the jungle of word-jokes.

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Mythology in Science

Laocoön and His Sons. Image by LivioAndronico (2014) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

LAOCOÖN, n. A famous piece of antique sculpture representing a priest of that name and his two sons in the folds of two enormous serpents. The skill and diligence with which the old man and lads support the serpents and keep them up to their work have been justly regarded as one of the noblest artistic illustrations of the mastery of human intelligence over brute inertia.
—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary


This week we’ve seen literature, film, and music referenced, but how often do myths crop up in Nature Magazine?

For example, there’s a reference in An Achilles heel for kidney cancer, but Achilles heel is a recognised OED term and is no longer properly thought of as the Trojan hero who was dunked into the Styx while held by a heel.

I found no obvious mythological references in the general section. However, the specialised, cutting-edge research articles yielded some interesting terminology:

  • Argonaute proteins,
  • Asgard archaea,
  • and the volcanic Loki Patera on the moon Io.

As you know from posts like Playing Detective: Hamlet and the n-dimensional Hyperplane, I enjoy tracking down wellsprings. So here goes …


Argonaute proteins

The science: Argonaute proteins were observed in a plant that reminded researchers of an octopus called Argonauta argo, which itself had gotten the name from a (never-observed) method of propulsion along the surface of the sea that resembled a boat with sails.

The myth: Jason and the Argonauts were the Greek heroes of legend who went to steal the Golden Fleece. The Argonauts were named after the ship they sailed on, Argo (which makes Argonauta argo a pleonasm).

Argonauta argo by Comingio Merculiano (1896)

 

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Know Your Culture

rafael-miranda https://unsplash.com/photos/HRxkGGBn3eA

 

Culture, noun:
1. The arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.
3. The cultivation of bacteria, tissue cells, etc. in an artificial medium containing nutrients.

Like in Titles: Literary Allusions, today’s post discusses the bridge between culture (meaning number 1) and culture (meaning number 3). Today, I focus on the titles from Nature magazine that are related to film and music.

But first: here’s what happened when a pun-detector was applied to a 2004 copy of The Economist (source).

SIR – Your newspaper this week contains headlines derived from the following film titles: “As Good As It Gets”, “Face-Off”, “From Russia With Love”, “The Man Who Planted Trees”, “Up Close and Personal” and “The Way of the Warrior”. Also employed are “The Iceman Cometh”, “Measure for Measure”, “The Tyger” and “War and Peace” – to say nothing of the old stalwart, “Howard’s Way”.
Is this a competition, or do your sub-editors need to get out more?
Tom Braithwaite, London

Actually, even further back, in 1986, a certain Richard J. Alexander published a paper entitled Article Headlines in “The Economist”. An analysis of puns, allusions and metaphors. I was pleasantly surprised to find that my efforts to analyse headlines were not that dissimilar from (if less rigorous than) those applied as recently as thirty years ago.


https://unsplash.com/photos/Hys5qHaDbZQ

Film

Title: Science, lies and video-taped experiments.

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Titles: Literary Allusions

← → The Librarian Giuseppe Arcimboldo

The Librarian by Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1566)

 

Puns proliferate in titles. Allusions, alliteration, attention-grabbing sensationalism. Anything goes, so long as it attracts the reader to click on a link or peruse an article. Sometimes it’s cute, sometimes—and especially out of context and surrounded by ten other similar examples—it’s downright silly.

It sounds like a cunning ploy by the author or editor to market a text.

And it is.

Because it works.

The next few posts will focus on the fun behind the titles of Nature Magazine. It’s taken me a while, but I’ve finally compiled a list of my favourites from the past nine months of their weekly editions.

If you are not a scientist, do not be alarmed—a PhD in neurobiology or astrophysics is not required. In fact, today’s post highlights the opposite: if you are a scientist reading Nature, you have to be conversant in literature or else you might miss the resonance hook when scanning the contents page.

The listed titles come from the print editions, so sometimes do not correspond exactly to the linked articles.


I discuss the image on the cover in Symbols as Quotes

 

Title: Magnetism in flatland.

Reference: Edwin Abbot’s 1884 satirical novella Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. It develops the idea of a two-dimensional society, Flatland, where women are lines and men are polygons. Regularity and multi-sidedness is praised (triangles are the lowest caste, near-circles the priests). The narrator is a square who dreams of both Lineland (a one-dimensional world) and Spaceland (a three-dimensional world). An intriguing read if you haven’t seen the idea before.

The Nature article is about condensed-matter physics and being able to study the phenomenon of ferromagnetism in a truly two-dimensional setting, that is, in “flatland”.

Verdict: Informative title; guessable without literary background, but helped with it.

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The Dinosaur: Quirks and Perks

andrea-reiman https://unsplash.com/photos/AEVAMhago-s

To hold a dinosaur descendant in the palm of your hand

 

In the 1950s, Hondouran writer Augusto Monterroso (1921–2003) produced an itsy-bitsy story called The Dinosaur. He could hardly have been the first to attempt radical brevity for the sake of memorable storytelling, but his seven words seem to have captured the world’s imagination. In the era of twitterature, his story might be fun to recall and—perhaps, possibly, at a stretch, in the fullness of time—to memorise.

The Dinosaur

When he awoke, the dinosaur was still there.

The Dinosaur is relatively well-known. However, there are two other (marginally longer) stories in Monterroso’s Complete Works and Other Stories, that aren’t cited as much, but that struck me as having deeper content per word printed.

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The Writer Who Never Writes

max-conrad https://unsplash.com/photos/H1rvxkzq8A0

If you want to write, you should write. Otherwise you might become one of those people who are brimming with ideas, while perennially on the verge of penning a story.

Oh, but the writer’s block!

Oh, but I’m not ready!

Oh, but …

I fear the verge more than I fear the blank page. However, I do acknowledge there is an inherent resistance present at the beginning of any project. The mind, like the body, prefers stasis. That is why getting started with an activity is often a challenge, but also why once on a roll it becomes easier to stay on a roll. 

When you’re writing a piece in a single sitting, getting yourself into that chair is harder than staying there. When you’re writing a larger body of work that requires many sittings, getting into that chair is hardest the first time, but still an achievement every other time.

The question is: what if you’ve been planning to write, planning and plotting and note-taking for days and weeks and even years, but it’s come to nothing because you haven’t thrown down that first word?

Augusto Monterroso wrote a short story exploring that situation. His thirty-four-year-old protagonist, Leopoldo, has been devoted to literature for half of his life, but seems unable to surmount that crucial first hurdle. In the Quote, Leopoldo is considering writing a story about the pecking order in corporate society.

Quote: He made a note that he needed to take notes, and he wrote in his notebook: “THE PECKING STORY. Visit two or three large department stores. Make observations, take notes. If possible, talk with a manager. Get into his psychology and compare it to a chicken’s.”

—from Leopoldo (His Labors), translation from the Spanish by Edith Grossman.

What makes the Quote quiver?

The psychology of a chicken. (Specificity.)

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Writing as Legacy: Quirks and Perks

Little boy writing a letter by Norman Rockwell (1920)

Why write? Answering with soul-scraping honesty may be too difficult, so instead here’s an alternative question from the end of Lukeman’s First Five Pages. It requires a simple yes or no.

Quote: Ask yourself what you would do if you knew you would never be published. Would you still write? If you are truly writing for the art of it, the answer will be yes. And then, every word is a victory.

In the extreme: if you knew your work would never be read by anyone else—would you still write?

That strikes at the heart of writing as a communication medium between people, but it still leaves one reader that you have to sleep with every night: you. Perhaps writing in that case is an extension of the conscience (and consciousness).

Language is an inherently societal legacy that allows every literate person to feel a part of humanity, even if he or she leaves behind no traces for others. That said, I believe that every life has something to contribute to our common heritage. So next time you think your writing isn’t worth keeping, think again. History, too, is a qualified judge of relevance.

 

To Really Know a Word

Modern-day aspiring authors are advised against long words in convoluted punctuation-sausages filled with phrase upon clause upon fragment. Such constructions are said to be either obsolete or abstruse. And why bother when masters of the craft themselves rarely reach for such exotic linguistic contortions?

(Brevity is the soul of wit.

Occam’s razor.

Tweets.)

Taken at face value, that kind of advice is equivalent to suggesting you should make a good façade, without worrying whether your building is part of a Potemkin village, that is, whether there exists a building behind the front-facing wall.

Potemkin gave façades a bad name. (Painting by Dmitry Levitzky, c. 1797)

It’s the fake it till you make it method, which argues that eventually you’ll pick up the complicated stuff by osmosis.

But any serious piece of writing is cumulative: you can only fake it for so long. Sooner or later an audience member will move in a little closer and touch the brickwork with their pinkie. Which is when the glitzy scenery comes toppling down—paint, plywood, and authorial pride included.

So before making it the hard labour has to be done: the foundations dug, filled in, reinforced, all that goodly construction work that ensures the building can withstand the hurricanes of time and the hellfires of critics. In the case of the writer, that means grappling with (amongst other things) the basic blocks of language: words.

Hands up if you’d love to brush up on your vocabulary.

Hands up if you do brush up on your vocabulary regularly. Or ever.

(I’m not even going ask about learning foreign languages.)

Children imbibe new words; they’re unafraid to experiment with them, to practise their variations, to ask endless chainlinked why questions. The rest of us swallow new words like they’re thistles—it’s painful and digestion takes a while.

But that shouldn’t deter us.

jonathan-simcoe https://unsplash.com/photos/GxnyOLTxCr8

In Negative Writing Advice, I discuss Noah Lukeman’s First Five Pages. His approach to telling writers what not to do works well, in part because he also includes some brilliant exercises and positive advice. He won me over with a tight, spot-on section on vocabulary.

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Negative Writing Advice

Advice comes in two flavours:

  • what to do (positive advice),
  • what not to do (negative advice).

Positive advice is like being shown Edgar Rubin’s vase

… and being told you should look for two faces.

Aha, a revelation! Your eyes have been opened; your problems have been fixed.

Negative advice is like being shown the same vase …

… and being told it’s not a vase. Then the interpretation is up to you.

Yes, I did flip the image; yes, I added some black, some white. I not only changed my perspective, I embellished it—according to my imagination.

Negative advice is far more open-ended and sometimes it’s the only kind you can give with a degree of certainty. In particular, here’s Noah Lukeman, in the opening of his book The First Five Pages.

Quote: There’re no rules to assure great writing, but there are ways to avoid bad writing.  

Note, however, that avoiding poor writing is a necessary, but by no means sufficient, condition for producing great writing. Indeed, like with my vase example above, even after you’ve been told what not to do, your literary venture—in all its newfound gloss and glory—may fall short of a masterpiece. Just because you’ve been shown which way lies artistic hell, doesn’t mean you’ve found a ladder to the heavenly abode of your muse.

(It occurs to me: eight of the Ten Commandments are of the negative form thou shalt not.)

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