March 23, 2010

Earlier today, The Daily Kraken, a blog I’ve read for the last few years written by a grad student at the University of Ottawa, linked to Inklings, a blog written by a friend of mine from school (though, bizarrely, I first met her online through that blog, then later met her in person). Since I list both in my Blogroll (over there to the right), I suspect that I was the source of the connection, though I could be wrong. Anyway, I’m taking this opportunity to link to both of them and say, “read! They’re interesting!” And often talk about things similar to those discussed on this very blog.

Incidentally, I used the word “blog” or a derivative thereof five times in the above paragraph, and was struck once again (I’ve noticed this before) by how hideous it is, even considering it’s a neologism. Why can we not use “journal” or something? Sigh… (Which is a funny looking word, though a fun one.)

2009 Reviewed in Words

December 29, 2009

(As opposed to not in words? they ask.)

It’s been an eventful year. And I’ve discovered a lot of new interesting concepts; or, perhaps, a better way to say it would be that I’ve learned a lot of new words that can be used to describe concepts that I already understood implicitly. Thus, I think, the best way to recap what I’ve learned over the last twelve months is to attempt to define, briefly, all of the words I’ve gained a new grasp of. (I’m going to proceed somewhat chronologically; basically, to write this post, I’m reading through all of the posts I’ve made so far this year.)

  • sublime – n. What is extreme, out of proportion to mankind, overwhelming. The sublime, though not itself divine, reminds us of God. An example of the sublime might be a vast mountain, or a storm at sea.
  • hue – n. The aspect of color captured by the rainbow, whose essence is variety without inherent moral meaning. Red, blue, green, etc, have different emotional flavors, but are in themselves neither good nor evil.
  • value – n. The aspect of color contained within the dichotomy of light and dark, and which carries a moral connotation, but has no aesthetic value.
  • empathize – v. To attempt to understand another person’s state of mind despite the impossibility of actually becoming them. That impossibility makes empathy impossible, and yet it remains necessary for human life. To empathize with another is to treat them as another subject, not merely an object.
  • sincerity – n. The virtue of presenting oneself as one is, rather than as one wishes to be perceived. Necessary if one is to be empathized with, or (since empathy must be reciprocal) to empathize with another.
  • induct – v. To move from a finite data set to a general conclusion. Life itself is inductive, for the universe is finite, and yet we attempt to find meaning in it that is not arbitrary, not finite, divine. Language is also inductive; we will only experience the hearing or reading of a given word a finite number of times, yet we can extrapolate a meaning from it beyond the mere amalgamation of those experiences.
  • deduct – v. To apply general laws to specific cases and thus arrive at a conclusion. To act in the world, we must use deduction, and yet we cannot deduct without general laws, which we get from induction; the two are thus inextricably linked.
  • faerie – n. The sense of mystery we feel when we encounter nature as separate from the self and from society, impossible to understand, and yet intended by God. Tied to a feeling of strangeness, of the foreign, the “other.”
  • numinous – adj. Suggestive of the power or presence of a divinity, and of final causality; the “why” rather than the “how.” Different from “fey” in that the numinous is generally spiritual, whereas the fey is necessarily physical, and related specifically to nature.
  • spell – v. To entrance, draw in, convey a meaning. What a poem does to us when we read it: through its language, rhyme, wordplay, it impresses on us an emotional state we perhaps would never have experienced otherwise.

These ten words, as you may have noticed, are interrelated; there are perhaps three or four themes running through all of them. But I don’t want to try to define what those themes are; I’ll let the words speak for themselves.

(Incidentally, this post may end up as a precursor to a new page to go along the top: “Turin’s Dictionary,” consisting of the above plus any other words crucial to my understanding of the world.)


October 10, 2009

“Spell” is one of my favorite words. It relates language and magic; to spell a word is to describe what phonemes it is composed of, to cast a spell is to say a word of power and thus control reality. It also just means “word” or “news,” as in “Gospel” = “Good News,” and its German cognate “Spiele” means, in  addition to everything the word means in English, “play” and “game” –  “Ich spiele Cello,” “Die Baseball-Spiel hat Spaß gemacht.”

This is just one of the reasons that the poem I’m almost certainly going to choose for my “exemplary poem” in Junior Poet (we choose one poem by our poet, memorize it, recite it at the beginning of our panel, then give a reading of it; at that point the professors start asking questions and other poems come into the picture) is “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves,” supposedly the longest sonnet ever written in the English language (there are eight stresses per line).

Earnest, earthless, equal, attuneable, ‘ vaulty, voluminous, … stupendous
Evening strains to be tíme’s vást, ‘ womb-of-all, home-of-all, hearse-of-all night.
Her fond yellow hornlight wound to the west, ‘ her wild hollow hoarlight hung to the height
Waste; her earliest stars, earl-stars, ‘ stárs principal, overbend us,
Fíre-féaturing heaven. For earth ‘ her being has unbound, her dapple is at an end, as-
tray or aswarm, all throughther, in throngs; ‘ self ín self steepèd and páshed—qúite
Disremembering, dísmémbering ‘ áll now. Heart, you round me right
With: Óur évening is over us; óur night ‘ whélms, whélms, ánd will end us.

Only the beak-leaved boughs dragonish ‘ damask the tool-smooth bleak light; black,
Ever so black on it. Óur tale, O óur oracle! ‘ Lét life, wáned, ah lét life wind
Off hér once skéined stained véined variety ‘ upon, áll on twó spools; párt, pen, páck
Now her áll in twó flocks, twó folds—black, white; ‘ right, wrong; reckon but, reck but, mind
But thése two; wáre of a wórld where bút these ‘ twó tell, each off the óther; of a rack
Where, selfwrung, selfstrung, sheathe- and shelterless, ‘ thóughts agaínst thoughts ín groans grínd.

I don’t want to give a detailed reading of this poem right now – perhaps in a month or so. But keep it in mind. It’s one of my favorite poems in the English language, and one of the main reasons for that is its incantatory quality – Hopkins said it was meant to be “almost sung” – and howo the word “spelt” is there in the title. What does it mean? That the prophecy of the Apocalypse (this poem is about the end of the world) is there to be read in the Sibyl’s leaves? Or that the prophecy is spelt out, caused, by the fact of it being prophesied? I think both connotations are meant to be present. And that’s what’s great about the word spell – it takes many distinct but related concepts and gives one word to the entire set, so you can use this one word “spell” and evoke an entire backdrop of meaning – “language,” “magic,” “news,” “game,” etc.

Orange vs. Orange

August 2, 2008

This is not a review of the book A Clockwork Orange.

I read that book recently, and the first thing I realized, upon reading the introduction, was that my entire life I have misunderstood the title. It is not “a clockwork orange”, as in the color; it is “a clockwork orange”, as in the fruit. It is not a clockwork that is orange, it is an orange that is clockwork. These two things are radically different, but someone aware of only the title of the book and not of the title’s meaning could easily confuse them.

Though obviously it has no meaning for the actual book A Clockwork Orange, I somewhat prefer my version of the title. There is something striking about it – for one, since its denotation is identical to that of “an orange clockwork”, but it is not “an orange clockwork”, it places an intriguing emphasis on “orange” rather than “clockwork” – the focus is not on the fact that it is a clockwork , but on the fact that this clockwork is orange.

What would it mean to have something be orange whose definition was the following?

  1. A mechanism powered by a coiled spring and regulated by some form of escapement; the power is transmitted through toothed gearwheels and used to drive a mechanical clock, toy, or other device.

I have no idea. I do know that it seems to me to be an interesting image, and an interesting turn of phrase. But, since there is a book titled “A Clockwork Orange” as in the fruit, we will most likely never see “a clockwork orange” as in the color used anywhere, for anything. Only one of those phrases can be prominent, for once one of them is, the other will always be seen as a play-on-words, a parody of the other, not an actual phrase to be used in anything serious. So “a clockwork orange” as in the color will never be seen, anywhere. Perhaps (though probably not) “a clockwork red” or “a clockwork purple” – but never “a clockwork orange”.

Oh well.

Language is funny sometimes.


May 1, 2008

Language is a strange thing.

The title of the post is actually a Yiddish word meaning crazy, nonsensical. Until a few months ago, however, I didn’t realize it wasn’t a normal English word. I had grown up listening to my mother (who was raised Jewish) use it, and I’d been using it mentally, but I almost never said it out loud. Then, I happened to use it once when not at home, someone said, “um, what did you just say?”, and I realized that not only was I not really sure what the exact definition of meshuga was, I wasn’t even sure how to spell it. Later I tried to look it up online, and found out it could be spelled at least four different ways – meshuga, meshugge, meshugah, and meshuggah. I think m-e-s-h-u-g-a is probably the most common one, so I’m using it.

Anyway, now I know that that word isn’t exactly standard English. I think it’s amazing, though, that I was able to live for seventeen years before figuring that out. It makes me kind of wonder what exactly we mean by “standard English”. If I recall correctly, linguists say that each person speaks his own language, and we only understand each other because our languages mostly overlap. But meshuga means something for me, while it might not for you; other words might have the same basic meaning for both of us, but have slightly different connotations.

So the idea that there is some sort of standard English vocabulary any deviation from which is a misuse of the language is starting to seem kind of foolish to me. What I don’t know is whether this is true of grammar as well. I tend to think that having a consistent grammar is a good thing – we might not be saying the exact same thing when we say the same combination of words, but having a standard grammar means that, given we know what our words mean, we can decipher the meaning of a sentence.

But what, then – does “English” just denote the grammar of the language, not the actual words used?

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