Category: language



William Shatner reveals crazyhead Sarah Palin’s true form: Ginsberg-esue beat poet. Interesting how rambling jibber-jabber turns into poetry just by adding some beat and intonation, eh?

Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Harry Ploughman”


Hard as hurdle arms, with a broth of goldfish flue
Breathed round; the rack of ribs; the scooped flank; lank
Rope-over thigh; knee-nave; and barrelled shank –
Head and foot, shoulder and shank –
By a grey eye’s heed steered well, one crew, fall to;
Stand at stress. Each limb’s barrowy brawn, his threw
That onewhere curdled, onewhere sucked or sank –
Soared or sank -,
Though as a beechbole firm, finds his, as at a rollcall, rank
And features, in flesh, what deed he each must do –
His sinew-service where do.
He leans to it, Harry bends, look. Back, elbow, and liquid waist
In him, all quail to the wallowing o’ the plough. ‘S cheek crimsons; curls
Wag or crossbridle, in a wind lifted, windlaced –
Churlsgrace too, child of Amansstrength, how it hangs or hurls
Them – broad in bluff hide his frowning feet lashed! raced
With, along them, cragiron under and cold furls –
With-a-fountain’s shining-shot furls.

– – –

Wow. What an incredible poem. I recently picked up a book of Hopkins’ complete poetry. There isn’t much of it, owing to an incident early in his life where he tossed a great volume of his work into a fireplace. What we’re left with is a strange collection of poetry, a haphazard mix of poetry fragments, translations, long poems in Latin (untranslated, thank-you-very-much Oxford Press! We can’t all read Latin, you guys.), prayers and hymns, ballads in the traditional English style, and verses like “Harry Ploughman,” featuring the meter and language Hopkins is most famous for. Hopkins is the original language poet, a great experimenter long before his time. It’s hard to say what this poem is about, not that poems need to be about anything. The poem is a representation of Ploughman (an everyman-type character) in verse, not so much a story about him, but rather a portrait of him in rough consonants and earthy vowels. This poem gives (or attempts to give) an understanding of the character entirely in the abstract, contained in strings of nearly nonsensical words (“onewhere”?) and half-images. At the risk of sounding too enigmatic, it’s precisely the tongue-twisting nature of this poem that contains its meaning. Like I said, though, the poem doesn’t have to mean anything. It’s simply damn fun to read and play with.

More on G.M. Hopkins here.



In a world of nifty online apps, this has to be one of the niftiest. Wordle is a word-cloud generator – those of you familiar with blogs,, etc. are familiar with tag clouds – this is the same idea. With Wordle, you copy and paste in a piece of text – an entire novel, a poem, a blog, a website – and Wordle generates a cloud with the most frequent words represented in larger type, less frequent words as smaller type, and a whole continuum in between. I decided to make a Wordle cloud with my poetry, taking all the poems from and entering them into the generator. Here’s what I came up with! Most of the big words make sense – “remember,” “us,” “night,” “summer,” “air,” “want,” “will,” “cold,” “city.” It seems right that “remember” and “us” are the biggest/most frequent words. But there are also words like…”hair”? Huh. Hair. Apparently hair shows up a lot in my poetry. Then you have mid-sized words like “love,” “skin,” “warm,” “wind,” “hands,” “light.” Full disclosure, I’ll admit that I removed the word “like” from the word cloud. It seems I rely on similes quite heavily, because “like” was far and away the biggest word in the cloud. Note to self: more metaphors, buddy!

Besides being a cool piece of visual art, this tells me quite a bit about my poetry. It shows what words I use the most (excluding “like,” as I said, and other words like articles and pronouns), and – more importantly – it shows me words I enjoy using but don’t use enough. Words like “smoke,” “ghost,” “neck,” “touch,” “become,” “open,” and colors. I’m inherently a visual person, so seeing my writing represented in this way turns the whole thing on its head. See? It is nifty!

Indo-European Root of the Day: Apple


I learned a quite interesting fact last night, and that is that apples originally come from Kazakhstan. I thought about that and ended up with a nice dream about picking apples on a mountain slope in Kazakhstan. And I thought more about the word “apple.” Apple. And I decided, “apple” is one of my all-time favorite words. (My favorite word, coincidentally, is another fruit: “plum.” But that’s another entry altogether.) I like the plural “apples” even better. It’s such a sweet little word, the way it almost coaxes your tongue into a lisp like that at the end. I think I must like the “-pl” sound quite a bit, because it’s also at the heart of my other favorite word “plum.”

So I glanced at my Origins of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (what? You don’t have a copy?) to see where “apple” came from. I found that the IE root of apple is “abel,” and it’s the first word in the dictionary! I love an entry like this, where you find a word that has hardly changed in thousands of years. “Abel” to “apple” is not much of a journey, which is usually the sign of a very important word; sure enough, “abel” doesn’t just mean apple, it means simply “the fruit of a tree.” So originally, our ancestors called all tree fruit “apples.” Isn’t that great? I also like this entry because usually you find a single root that has come to mean a number of different things. In this case, a word that used to mean many things now means just one thing. The only other word related to it is, naturally, “dapple,” which means mottled or blemished, like the skin of an apple (a word used wonderfully by Hopkins in his poem “Pied Beauty”).

I’m still working on what all of this means for Kazakhstan, I have to explore some more and find out what peoples used to live there. I do know it was home to many IE tribes, so I imagine (or like to imagine) that at some point on the Kazakh mountain slopes a transformation took place that has propagated all the way into modern English.

Joseph Shipley concludes the “abel” entry with a great poem excerpt by Leigh Hunt:

Stolen sweets are always sweeter;
Stolen kisses much completer;
Stolen looks are nice in chapels;
Stolen, stolen be your apples.

A bit more on “Indo-European Root of the Day.” I’ve discovered, fairly recently (since I left school) that I really love to find out where words come from and how they morphed over time to what they are today. A good chunk of the world’s languages – English, Germanic, Romance languages, Indian, Iranian, Turkish, Slavic – got their start from a single group of people, the Indo-Europeans or Proto-Indo-Europeans. Over the years philologists and historical linguists have put together a root language – a basic idea of the words/sounds the IE tribes used so many thousands of years ago. Along with that are theories about how the languages got from there to here. Where they split, why they split, where one word ends and another begins. This is why a word like “apple” is so special. It’s thousands of years old, and it’s virtually unchanged over that time. Remarkable.

Anyway, I find this stuff fascinating. I’m always looking up words in my Shipley book to see where they come from. So I thought it would be fun to post some of these findings here and maybe get some other people interested in this sort of research. I think it changes the way we look at the world; it makes me feel more connected. So I’ll be posting these little tidbits every once in awhile.

Lines Written: Virginia Woolf

languagelines writtenprose

In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jungle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.

I learned today from The Writer’s Almanac that today is Virginia Woolf’s birthday. The above is a line from Mrs. Dalloway which, beyond being beautiful in and of itself, says much about Woolf’s take on life. Her take is a capital-M Modernist one, informed by ideas of kinetic and potential energy, which is that just about everything has potential to be important, important in a soulful, poetic, spirited way. More specifically each thing has the potential to become a piece of art, and each piece of art has the potential for epiphany trapped within it. The book Mrs. Dalloway is nothing but epiphany – that is, a series of epiphanies, or “moments” as Woolf liked to call them. The book is all insight – hardly anything happens in it that is not inside Mrs. Dalloway’s mind. Some readers find this frustrating, some find it a wonderful freedom from the confines of plot. I fall into the latter category. So I encourage people to read Mrs. Dalloway and all things Woolf and celebrate her life and her work.

Lines Written: Leo Tolstoy

languagelines writtenwriting

‘Not bad,’ he said, peeling the sloshy oysters from their pearly shells with a little silver fork and swallowing them one after another. ‘Not bad,’ he repeated, raising his moist and shining eyes now to Levin, now to the Tartar.

From Anna Karenina, as translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

This little paragraph doesn’t have any philosophy contained in it, no, the reason I’ve singled it out is its poetry. Read it again a couple more times. Read it aloud. This passage, usually forgettable in a 800-page book, jutted out at me and asked me to reread it several times before continuing on with the book. What I love about it is the resonance of the words. They all seem to run on the same frequency, building harmonically on one another into a shiny, glimmering little thing – a little pearl, if we want to keep with the oceanic theme.

This is a testament to the power of translation. It’s nearly impossible for me to know what the passage looks and sounds like in the original Russian. Does Tolstoy give the passage the same resonant harmonies? I’m sure he does elsewhere, but here? Or is the beauty of this passage found purely in translation, specifically, the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation? Translating is a daunting task, and the couple that translated this and other Russian novels have done more for Russian literature than anyone in the past hundred years, I think. It’s not enough simply to translate the words into another language. The poetry of the words must be kept alive, and it’s this that Pevear/Volokhonsky excel in. So often the trouble with translated works is that they’re just not readable. They are competently, even perfectly, translated, but they lack attention paid to what’s not written down. So they read stiffly, and make one find the original author dull. The energy, poetry, and vigor of the original works are lost to whole generations of English readers. Maybe it’s simply that this book is written with a more modern eye, and the Garnett translation (and her translations of other Russian masterpieces), the original master translation, is just too, well, old, trapped in the musty language of turn-of-the-century England.

Either way, this is an opportunity and an invitation: go and visit/revisit those Russians that have so daunted you for years, and find they’re not so hard to understand and love.

(I’ve added Anna Karenina and The Brothers Karamazov to my Powell’s bookshelf)

Editable offense


I came up with a new phrase yesterday. Drew asked me the correct punctuation when making a list: comma before the and – the much-debated “Oxford Comma” – to make lions, tigers, and bears; or no comma (lions, tigers and bears). I said that while I preferred a comma there, and many people do, an equal number of people prefer no comma, and neither punctuation option is an “editable offense,” meaning that if I were editing his paper, I wouldn’t mark it. (The preceding run-on sentences, however, are certainly editable offenses, although fairly mild. Perhaps an editable misdemeanor.) Drew said he liked the phrase “editable offense,” and at that moment I felt terribly clever.

Of course, this is the 21st century, and nothing is new under the sun anymore. These days a milisecond’s worth of Googling will confirm whether your feeling of cleverness is well founded or not.

My moment of cleverness is, I feel, still intact, but with a few dents to the armor. The search “editable offense” returned some hits, but only a couple pages worth, hardly signaling the robust preexistence of this phrase. And just about every hit was in regard to messageboard moderation; meaning, is saying such-and-such an offense worthy of the poster being “moderated” (the deceptively polite 21st century version of “censored”). I didn’t find anything relating to proper editing however, so I declare myself the inventor of the phrase “editable offense.”

Found Poetry: Caesura


Caesura: cae-su-ra
(in Greek and Latin verse) a break between words within a metrical foot.
• (in modern verse) a pause near the middle of a line.
• any interruption or break.

From MinnPost: “Are you thinking of “caesura-ing” soon?

In case you don’t get the lingo, here’s the scoop: “Caesura” (yes, it’s in the dictionary) is the latest in a string of words proposed to replace “retirement.” The r-word, according to people who ponder such things, needs to be retired soon.”

Being but a sprout myself, I’m not to concerned with my own retirement yet, but this article is interesting in the way it highlights the need for a change in language. “Retired” folks aren’t terribly retired in their “retirement” anymore; they’re working and traveling and generally being quite tire-less. So the definition of “retirement” has slipped out from underneath the noun itself, and the proposition is that a new noun “caesura,” become the symbol for the changed definition.

“Caesura” is a fun word. It comes from “caes-” meaning to cut, the same root as Caesarian, that slightly disturbing birth process. “Caesura” is a prosodic word; in ancient Greek poetry is was a very specific kind of break in speech, but today it’s simply a
line break – or an interruption – within a thought or phrase. It’s an esoteric and very specific word, which to me makes it seem a strange choice to redefine retirement, when easier words – like “break” itself – are readily available. But perhaps it’s the word’s unknown quality that makes it appealing for reapplication – since most people have never heard of “caesura” before, it’s almost as if the word were invented on the spot simply to define retirement.

To me it seems cutesy and overbearing to use a five-dollar word to describe something so common – at least in the US – as leaving a career job for other pursuits (how about “repursuit”?). Here we have this word that’s meant one specific thing for centuries, and now it’s supposed to mean something else, grabbed by the baby boomers for redeployment as retirement redefinition from the Hallowed Halls of Poetry. How selfish! Well, as a gatekeeper at the Hallowed Halls (you get a gun that shoots metaphors and a really cool decoder ring), I say it’s our word. Find your own. The beauty of English is its uncharted vastness, I’m sure there’s a word something out there that’s perfect and unused. And, since you’re not working anymore, I’m sure you have plenty of time to peruse the dictionary!

Stranger than Nonfiction


“Chapter by chapter, we are reconstructing the history of the world,” Diotallevi said. “We are rewriting the Book. I like it, I really like it.” -Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum

The game of reconstructing a tattered history begins with a tatter itself: a sheet of papyrus from 1344 upon which is written a set of instructions by and for the medieval Knights Templar. (I know you’ve all read the Da Vinci Code.) A copy of this sheet finds its way to Garamond Press in Milan, where editor/scholars Casaubon, Belbo, and Diotallevi have it forced upon them by a precocious manuscript writer who takes the papyrus at face value. The Templars, after being supposedly annihilated by the King of France, move their organization underground where they put together a centuries-long scheme to collect a treasure for the Templars and establish them as rulers of the world. The Plan, as the men of Garamond call this sheet, was supposed to come to fruition in 1944. It’s clear that this Plan has not come to pass, which means either the Plan was a fake, or something happened along the way to disrupt the Templar’s actions. In an exercise of intellectual might, they decide to play a game: what if the Plan is real? How was it to have been completed? And, in the end, why wasn’t it completed?

The game in Foucault’s Pendulum requires the three men to do nothing short of rewiring all of modern history. Indeed, all of ancient and Biblical history as well (Jesus is a Celtic allegory, the measurements of the Temple of Solomon contain God’s true name). Following their reciept of the Plan is an influx of conspiracy-theory manuscripts: Belbo, Casaubon, and Diotallevi assume, for the game’s purposes, that they’re all true. The procession of history carries on as usual; lightswitches flipped on as you walk down a hallway. What has changed are the reasons for the history; the circuitry behind the switches that links each one to the ones preceedng and following. History becomes ruled by symbols and magic, secret orders and secret alphabets, immortal men, the technologies of Atlantis, magnetic currents, secret masters who live thousands of miles beneath the Tibetan Himalayas; an entire esoteric culture that overlaps with everything we already know. Like a scribbled drawing, upon which is laid a sheet of tracing paper containing the most immaculate, elaborate, precision inks ever concieved.

Instead of editing the manuscripts of nutjobs, they become creators. All of this is great fun, of course, until some people start believing what they created.

Don’t they love you in mysterious ways? You say “Yeah but this is now and that was then.” Put a dollar into the machine and you’ll remember when. -M Ward, “Post-War”

Eco’s novel resonates so strongly with the reader because it’s not a book about history at all: it’s a book about psychology. It’s about how we constantly seek to recreate our pasts to justify our presents and futures. In one telling passage Casaubon, the book’s narrator, says “I don’t know if what I remember…is what happened or is only what I wished had happened, but it was definitely on that evening that the Plan first stirred in out mind, stirred as a desire…to transform into fantasized reality that fantasy that others wanted to be real.” Can a version of history become true if it’s believed enough? Memory is all too tenuous sometimes. I’m certain that in all of our minds there are memories that are completely synthetic; things we always wished had happened. We wished enough and they became true. And there is a far greater number of memories that have been modified in the years since the actual event. Just put some quarters in the jukebox, take a sip of beer, and think back…

History, although documented unlike many of our memories, is still subject to revision. Compare your middle-school Social Studies book to Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. There’s a lot we were never told and never would have been told (and would have gone through life content in never having heard it) if it weren’t for a few persistent individuals. Of course Zinn’s book has the potential for error as well; the reality lies somewhere in the continuum between Zinn and Social Studies.

We know he’s been absolutely devoted to trying to acquire nuclear weapons, and we believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons. -Vice President Dick Cheney, March 16, 2003

I don’t know anybody in any government or any intelligence agency who suggested that the Iraqis had nuclear weapons. That’s fact number one. -Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, June 24, 2003

Perhaps what’s most astounding about the Plan is that when you read it–when I read it, at least–there exists the remote possibility that it could be true. I look at it and say “Sure, why not?” We think we understand the world, but we keep finding things that show us that we never really did, and maybe we never will. Humans crave faith, and they’ll give it not just to God but to anyone who presents them with a halfway believeable story. It’s frightening what we’ll accept as truth if it helps us sleep better at night.

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