Thursday, December 31, 2009

Y Word of 2009: Broomy

Keeping in mind that perhaps the y-est of them all is syntaxy, this year's winner--edging out waffly, smouchy, porphyry, corduroy, firry, and squicky (these the unofficial quarter-finalists)--is broomy.

Broomy happens to be one of the few spoken words of the year's lot, and so had immediate ear sense. In print, it gains, I suppose, something by its association with heather and the like.

I doubt Bernard Berenson would like this word.

While mulling over this year's candidates, I recalled a dinner many years ago with a publisher. We were having dinner, and the waiter set down our meals and said "Enjoy," before walking away. The publisher looked at me and said, "I hate that word, 'enjoy.'" I was taken aback. Every now and then I had met the morality-bound word objector, but this was the first time I had encountered someone who objected to a word on aesthetic grounds. (The publisher might have been objecting to the phatic speech but I think he really was objecting to the word itself.)

Wordy people being who they are, his opinion of enjoy may have changed by now. In time, my opinion of broomy might change, as well. For the moment--and the next thirteen minutes--it's tops.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Waffly

A late newcomer to the 2009 finalists, this is from a June 1, 2009, article/post, "All talk: My Dinner with André and the art of filming conversation," in a film magazine called thebigpicture:

Static and waffly, then.

The author, Nick Riddle, has just been discussing My Dinner with André action figures.

My Dinner with André is one of my favorite movies. I place André Gregory in the same group as Peter Matthiessen. Wally Shawn's performance in this movie is as wonderful as his performance in The Princess Bride, and, to me, there are bits that link up.

Meanwhile, waffly. What can I say? It can be mispronounced on contact (bringing to mind Václav Havel), taken for the brand name of a product, and is adorable in an uncutesy way. It's a little like Wally Shawn in word form.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Star-gazy

From the 1902 Collections (vol. 1) by Vincent Stuckey Lean, quoting from William King's The Art of Cookery, "n. Ed of 1744."

This bit is in the "Relating to Counties" section (the county being Cornwall), under "Local Proverbs."


Squab-pie, herby-pie, pilchard pie or star-gazy pie, muggety pie are a few of the them.
Cornwall squab-pie, and Devon whitepot brings,
And Leicester beans and bacon fit for [food of] Kings.



Star-gazy pie (also starrey gazey pie, among other variants) is the dish that the people in Cornwall (especially in Mousehole) love to love, and others, including the late writer Laurie Colwin, do not (or did not) love.

The pie's fame is linked to the legend of a Cornish fisherman called Tom Bawcock, who saved the village of Mousehole from starvation one Christmas season. He braved the icy waters and returned with a large catch of seven kinds of fish.

I was trying to track down the origin of the pie's name, and while doing so kept turning up the same information about the legend of the fisherman. Given the amount of information on the Web and also given Mr. Lean's quotation (via Google books, I'm either ashamed to admit or happy to report), I pondered the pie and its legendary origins. A short trawling session turned up the below, dating to a 2005 posting on rootsweb by one Sandra Pritchard (the question it raises is "Was it ever possible to fish off Mousehole in December?":

"I would just like to put on record that I was born and brought up in Newlyn, some 2-3 miles from the village of Mousehole [Its distance depended on which route you walked!] I spent much of my social time in and around the villages of Paul and Mousehole....

" "Starry Gazzy Pie" was unheard of as a local dish in my memory, until the landlady of the "Ship Inn" at Mousehole had the idea of re-creating it. sometime around 1958 she organised a fund-raising event for Mousehole AFC....

"The landlady of the time hit on the bright idea of having a special night at the 'Ship' with singing and a story telling, based on the old folk tale of Tom Bawcock and the starving village. She would make a dish that was based on the 'seven sorts of fish' and sell off portions to raise money.... The 'pie' was ceremoniously paraded down through the street by a character dressed up as Tom Bawcock who carried a huge white enamel pie dish, fitted with a pastry lid with various fish heads appearing to poke out of it.

"Followed by all the village cats and dogs and whistled at by us youngsters, he entered the inn and placed the dish on the counter and a tremendous roar of approval went up from the drinkers inside. The pasty lid was lifted off and baked underneath were pieces of fish in a thick stock It was more like a bouillabaisse soup. Before cooking the heads had been stuck onto the thick pastry lid as a decoration. The Cornish often ate pies in this manner. The thick pastry crust acted as a lid, to keep in the goodness, and was always lifted off before serving up the contents. The pastry was divided up and was often "dunked" into the dish and eaten with the fingers. Any stray bones were dealt with in a similar way. Kippers were always eaten with fork and fingers in our house.
As the years went by the fundraising "pie" was paraded for show only, to portray " 'ow they used to do 'un" and the fish pie sold to raise funds was made with mashed potatoes and pieces of fish, in season or not; a sort of Captain's Fish Pie.
I have my doubts as to whether the tale was ever meant to be taken so literally.

"Fishing off Mousehole is impossible in winter-time as the timber "baulks" come down across the entrance called 'the gaps', and the harbour is closed for the season. It was ever thus. There is little fish to be had in western waters in the cold hard months of December and January, as they have mostly migrated to their spawning grounds further south. Most families guarded against this "hungry gap" by salting, smoking & drying fish, which they then set store by, for the times when they could not go out in their boats. Ling, haddock, hake, and sometimes cod, were strung up on communal wooden racks on the corner platt above the beach, which faced south....

"Oily fish, like pilchard, mackerel and herring, were preserved by each family group salting their own supplies and then storing away into great bussas [cloam pots] in the family cellar. The pilchard and the herring could also be smoked and there was often one family in the village who set up a smoke house for a season. This was usually in a old shed on the beach, fuelled by sawdust from the carpenters sheds and driftwood from the beach. They would charge by the "score" brought in for smoking and when "cured" they would often hang up in the fishermen's sail-lofts over winter. When required they could be "scrawled" by hanging in front of the bars of the range fire, usually to within an inch of their usefulness, and eaten with the fingers. Cooking indoors was often barred by their wives as the smell of a burning kipper is appalling. Little bonfires out on the cliff or in the back courts were then the cooking source. When the drift fishermen came in from the first night of the season they were fond of a 'scrawled' herring for their breakfast. Perhaps by then they knew that they could safely eat their emergency food store, as the fishing season had returned once more.

"Perhaps the Tom Bawcock tale was meant to warn of the dangers of not preserving for the bad times in times of plenty, much like the parable of the ten foolish virgins. Perhaps Tom Bawcock had been the only one to secret away a store of fish and when his fellow villages were in need he brought forth the fish, albeit in all sorts of variety. This may hint at the true meaning of the moral within the old tale. Fishing was usually undertaken at the flush times, when shoals of one species of fish were 'running' in the bay feeding. It was not until the much later era of 'deep sea' trawling that all and sundry fish varieties were caught in the same nets."

I don't know if this is the truth of the legend but I like the idea (in this case anyway) of puncturing a myth and setting the record straight. I also take the writer’s point about fair fishing.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Piney

From Sam Sifton's Wednesday's review of La Grenouille, in the Times:

Accompanied by a small bit of demi-glace made piney with rosemary, they provide an instant view of a world in which plenty is not nearly so important as quality — a world in which the point is to experience small, rich pleasures, one by one by one.

Why the word is in the list: for one, this appearance unhinges piney from an exclusive association with the scent of pine trees. I like pine trees, all for the alpine, but the word piney has been associated with, for example, Pine-Sol for too long.

For another (reason): La Grenouille must be one of the three New Yorkiest restaurants in New York, partly for the reasons Sifton describes and partly because it offers two ambiances. The first floor feels jaunty and glam all around. Word-wise, by a hyperbolist, it might be described as tremendous. The second floor, which long ago was the artist's studio, more recently became a room for private parties. One winter, in the pre-private days, I ate dinner up there. It was like eating a meal to the tenth power, the ambiance was so charged (dreamy, romantic, lush). When the markets align again (if the markets align again), the second floor may return to its un-private state. In short, La Grenouille encloses Manhattan's two best sides in one restaurant, and being in town as long as it has, it has its bona fides.

Finally, Sifton uses the word bathmat (albeit in hyphenated form) in association with the word flounder, which reminded this reader of his days at The New York Press and so the fact of The Press at all. Those gritty front-page squibs--which had a touch of MAD Magazine and anticipated The Onion--the Press were part of my weekly intake.

The 2009 Semi-Finalists

This contest stuff is riveting.

Broomy
Corduroy
Firry
Harry
Oary
Porphyry
Smouchy
Squicky

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Bunny

An interesting word not because of the Bunny Suicides or Knuffle Bunny or Pat the Bunny. None of these.

Interesting because the etymology of this one, at least OED-wise, is unknown. I would guess that it ranks among the most commonly spoken words among American children--but how it came to be? Tonight I have no idea. It has something to do with bun, but that's where the question mark begins. Bun does refer to the tail of a hare but that still doesn't suffice.

Sometimes I want answers more than I want to sit with questions; this situation is an example of one in which I like the question--how did the word bunny come to be?--in and of itself, whether or not I find the answer.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Harry

Harry is a nice name.

Luke, Owen, and George are pretty good, too.

Y Finalists for 2009

Because this blog was born of surfy, and because surfy had been a favorite word of the year, I am continuing this deeply shallow tradition.

Going over this year's favorites, it's clear that many were striking in context. Below are the ones which strike me instinctually.

Finalists so far, in alphabetical order (not chronological order):

Barberey
Belfry
Bendy
Broomy
Cluny
Corduroy
Cucumbery
Early
Firry
Frumenty
Greenly
Harpy
Oary
Plumpy
Porphyry
Smouchy
Squicky
Stemmy
Stey
Tabloidy

Monday, December 21, 2009

Dicey

From a telephone conversation I had today with a man talking about a well plowed sidewalk on a hill on the Upper East Side.

I didn't take the exact sentence down but he was saying that walking on a hill covered with snow can be dicey.

The word, according to my Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang and to Eric Partridge and Paul Beale's Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English dates to c. 1940, when American Air Force and Royal Air Force men played games of dice in their off-hours, and subsequently made the connection between gambling and flying a mission.

As it was spoken today, almost two days after a blizzard, there is of course a hint at the ice within.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Bitey

From a paragraph discussing grating cheeses, in The Complete Book of Pasta: An Italian Cookbook, by Jack Denton Scott:

Incanestrato, impressed with a braided basket design, is bitey, "different" and excellent.

I associate this word by turns with a (biteworthy) neck and the word matey. The phrase al dente arrives as an after-thought.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Apoplex

Notice the missing y. This is not a typographical error

From Moll Flanders, which was, I currently believe, serialized in 1722 in The London Post and The Kentish Post, and which does not appear in the OED between the Locke example and the Coleridge one. The word appears in the part of the story where everybody (except, perhaps, the youngest sister in "August: Osage County") wishes this woman could begin her life all over again.

I confess I was moved to pity him when I spoke it, for he turned pale as death, and stood mute as one thunderstruck, and once or twice I thought he would have fainted; in short, it put him in a fit something like an apoplex; he trembled, a sweat or dew ran off his face, and yet he was cold as a clod, so that I was forced to run and fetch something for him to keep life in him.

I imagine a linguistics historian could explain why this word is y-less in this instance, as well as in the few other ones listed by the OED dating to between 1533 and 1790. The word is from the French, apoplexie, derived from Greek, and is cited as early as c. 1386, in Chaucer's Nun's Priest tale. (In Nouveau Larousse Illustré, there is, alas, no diagram of a person in the throes of apoplexie, but the definition extends more than half a column.) Apoplexy was (is?) used in falconry, specifically to refer to an illness or disease in hawks.

In any case, this is a y word that is, obviously, not one, but my expectation of the y makes it eligible for inclusion. It is, I suppose, a variation on a y word.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Entelechy

From the chapter "A Complete Analysis of Winnie-the-Pooh," by Duns C. Penwiper, in The Pooh Perplex, by Frederick Crews:

"We may thus set ourselves the all-important task of deciding just which, among the many potential forms of art, inhabits the essential entelechy of Pooh."

Entelechy, to put it mildly, an unattractive word. It is not even ugly-beautiful. One part blech and two parts bad orthopedic shoe--at least, in this early/late hour, after seeing a beautiful black and white film featuring metal type and people speaking Italian. It also reeks of the academy, though whether more or less so since the book's publication in 1963 I cannot hazard a guess.

However, it did send me to the dictionary (Webster's Tenth , 3-D version, lists as its second definition: "a hypothetical agency not demonstrable by scientific methods that in some vitalist doctrines is considered an inherent regulating and directing force in the development and functioning of an organism."

Because entelechy sent me to the dictionary, it gains in inner beauty what it lacks in visual and, debatably, aural beauty (Entebbe, anyone?), though stress-wise, it is perfectly fine, having undulate aural qualities not entirely unlike those of cacophony, Schenectady, Hermione, and olfactory.

I think it's just fine to be sent to the dictionary, with its etymological references and dates and that pronounciation guide in the lower right corner (the regularly placed Tiffany ad of Webster's Tenth--note how I'm not even saying anything about the frog and the dragonfly appearing as a couple in Tiffany's holiday windows). I like to imagine that once upon a time, many people shared my pro-dictionary sentiment--people such as headmasters, all over New York City.

This is a roundabout way of arriving at one of the dominant thought bubbles of my day, featuring an article from today's New York Times, about the "more current" and "fresher" Harvard Business Review. This translates into good riddance for the cover list of articles and a welcome mat for a redesigned logo as well as cover art.

How unfortunate that Harvard or the B School has arrived at this point where its . . . trustees? . . . are no longer content to have a standout cover which signals no-nonsense gravitas (even if the Minto Method doesn't ensure clarity of expression in those case studies), much in the way that Foreign Affairs stands out. For me the Review has always been one of the easiest magazine to pull from a crowd. Its cover has always been so easily distinguised from the rest of the crowd.

But truly puzzling were these comments by the editor in chief of the Harvard Business Review Group, which, according to the article by Stephanie Clifford, read like so: "The magazine in the past was sort of one 10-page story after another. I think we've kind of insulted our readers' intelligence with the assumption that everything has to be serious, everything has to be long form."

The difference between these statements and the statement, above, by Frederick Crews-Duns C. Penwiper, is that Crews was being intentionally satiric.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Secondly

From Hayden Carruth's memoir of James Laughlin, Beside the Shadblow Tree:

Incidentally, Jas was the one who taught me that in the succession of adverbial ordinals it is correct to say "first, secondly, thirdly," etc.

Carruth goes on to say: "Not one in five professional copy editors know it."

Secondly is striking because it is extinct. People do not say secondly as often as they do say -- cover your ears -- the word hopefully.

Some months ago, a woman speaking on her cell phone told the listener that she would be there momentarily. That one is merely rare, not quite extinct, thanks to electronic phone drones. Debatably, though, one could say that the phone drones have ruined the word, and so it's one of the walking dead.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Shaggy

This was posted in error on another blog...on October 30th.

Looking through my Italian dictionary (Cambridge), I wish I knew how a translator would choose (or have chosen--comparisons are nice, such as those side-by-side one of Rilke which appeared in William Gass's book some years ago).

shaggy adj. di pelo lungo, ispido, irsuto; incolto, arruffato; peloso, ruvido; incolto, coperto di sterpi; folto, intonso; (bot.) vellutato, peloso.

Difficult to get through this without Koren (the cartoonist) coming to mind.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Shorty

Did Bobby Kennedy Jr. really write shorty shorts in The Riverkeepers, the 1997 book co-authored with John Cronin? I am doubtful. My guess is that a ghost-writer or an editor wrote it--but maybe Robert Kennedy Jr. really does use such a term. It could be a matter of the written and the spoken and the unaccounted difference when toggling.

This morning I was reading along in an attempt to understand the background of the Marcellus Shale situation--even just a little--and to see how Bobby Kennedy Jr. told it. I also wanted to see how he would portray Al Appleton, the then-new DEP commissioner under Dinkins and a man who is now providing gorgeous swaths of testimony in opposition to drilling in the Marcellus Shale Upstate. At the DEC hearing at Stuyvesant High School, Mr Appleton pointed to a sign I was wearing--reading Haste Makes Waste. Apparently he agreed. (Later he told the DEC man what an utter put-up job (I believe his words) and travesty (mine) is the dSGEIS on the "oil, gas and solution mining regulatory program (Marcellus Shale)."

(I had other signs. The one that read DEC to NYC: Frack You! disappeared, as did the one reading Mr. Grannis, What About a Clean Outdoor Act? I had perched them in a couple of places.

One sentence so far has gotten stuck in my craw just a little (p. 210 in the paperback edition, after some background about how in January 1991 the DEP, backed by the EPA, ordered the city to construct a filtration plant for the Catskill and Delaware systems): "We believed that while filtration might be necessary in the future, it should be viewed as a last resort."

Then: ". . . we acknowledged that in a perfect world the best solution would be filtration and watershed protection. but costs and politics made this impossible."

Currently we have a situation that presents only problems knitted poorly and in ugly colors. Costs continue to make filtration laughably impossible, but somehow politics is moving things right along. Perhaps a solution will automagically present itself.

Until then, we have shorty shorts , citation below (and here I must mention that Bobby Kennedy Jr.'s childhood cup ranneth over in natural plenitude--and apparently he and his siblings were not allowed inside during the day when the weather was good--and also say what wonderful an idea it is to dive into the Croton River and hug a rock in order to watch fish come and go).

Citation: I still have a picture of myself seated across from the president in my shorty shorts looking into the large crystal vase I had between my legs.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Frumenty

From Arranging the Meal: A History of Table Service in France, by Jean-Louis Flandrin and translated by Julie E. Johnson with Sylvie and Antonio Roder, this word refers to a sweetened porridge that begins with soaking husked wheat overnight.

Medieval meals not only began with all sorts of fruit and other sweet dishes that today we do not eat until dessert, but included in dessert various meat and savory dishes that we would now find out of place at that point in the meal: venison in frumenty, turtledove and lark pie, crayfish, fresh herring, artichokes, porpoise, chestnuts, olives, cheeses.

It's a little funny looking, this word. It slept funny on its hair.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Empty

As an adjective, all the way back to c. 897. After reading a little from a contemporary nonfiction work with a great premise, I discover an OED bon bon to express my feelings about the book's writing: 1599 SHAKES. Hen. V, IV. iv. 73 The empty vessel makes the greatest sound.

(Today I've been thinking a little about The Taming of the Shrew--and of course, because what else is new? about Mad Men--but Henry has the empty).

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Awry

From the mouth of Rick Moody, mentioned today as he introduced a song called "Willing Sense of Disbelief," which is by the Wingdale Community Singers (of which he is a member). They were playing at the Philoctetes Center. Not only did they sing songs with beautiful colors (I especially liked "Rock of Ages") but RM told the audience that his group traced the Woody Guthrie song "This Land Is My Land" through all its borrowings upon borrowings and learned that it was related to a Pentacostal hymn.

I did not have a pen, and therefore can offer only the fragment:

". . . is a song that went terribly awry"

Awry, as it turns out, is simply a knight's move of (prepositional) a plus wry (so says the OED). To the eye-minded and ear-minded, it's a keeper. It's up there with earnest as a noun (E.B. White: "His elbow patch an earnest of/The fellowship of tweeds.").

Another of the Wingdales used the word stripey, viz., "she was both stripey and spotted" (granted, I have no idea if the singer was using an e before the y) but somehow it brought to mind only Tigger, who bounces, and I suppose awry is more appealing to me in its elegance than stripey is in its cuteness. Awry provides thinking room, whereas stripey is a rather linear affair.

Willing sense of disbelief is just to the left of that Coleridge crib-sheet quote for all sitters of Romanticism exams ("willing suspension of disbelief for the moment"). When I think of Romanticism, I think first and foremost of the Romantic's Credo (ably demonstrated by Cary Grant in "Charade"--see if you can guess which line--and currently being twisted into something profitable by the globe-trotting Landmark Forum and, no doubt, other "human potential movements" whose leaders like to trademark all sorts of seemingly ordinary phrasings in the English language): When you can give a reason, there is no longer a preference.

On Tuesday I plan to attend a rally to protest hydraulic fracturing in the New York City watershed. It is safe to say that I will be attending with neither a willing suspension of disbelief nor a willing sense of disbelief. I will be attending simply with a sense of disbelief. People (read: the DEC) who willingly and willfully (lustily?) and with anything approaching comprehensive baseline monitoring of water quality and ozone? not--but certainly plenty of gobbledly-gook and hurry-up urgings actually welcome the likely end of clean water in this state and the beginning of what will likely be a slow-drip public health disaster, which is to say, they welcome the natural gas companies and their hydraulic fracturing drilling process (propriety chemical cocktail and all) to the Empire State--these people must have some kind of belief in the supernatural.

In the "Saturday Night Live" skit titled, say, "Hark," Wordsworth goes a-walking around Tintern Abbey, and his overflow of emotion is drowned out by the sounds of people cursing dead fish, diesel trucks, chainsaws, and the attendant sounds of mini-earthquakes. It's a short skit and it's all in the delivery.

By the way, Bradley J. Field is the Director of New York State's Division of Mineral Resources (518.402.8076). He and DEC Commissioner Pete Grannis saw fit to snub New York City (well, we're only about eight million people) when holding the first round of public hearings on drilling Upstate in the Marcellus Shale (but they were within the bounds of the law, dontcha know--inviting the city would have counted only for common courtesy). I realize: it strains the bounds of credulity, leaving the city out. I will myself to believe it, because it happens to be true.

I'm sure lots of people would be happy to dust off Woody Guthrie's "a folk song is whats wrong and how to fix it or it could be whose hungry and where their mouth is or whose out of work and where the job is or whose broke and where the money is or whose carrying a gun and where the peace is" and tack on something like "whose sick with a funny sort of mystery cough and where the doctor is."

Natural gas drilling is a nationwide (and worldwide) phenomenon, and so it's no surprise that the drillers have landed here. What is a little bit of a surprise is how politicians who supposedly care about our indoor environments (Bloomberg, Grannis) could give a flying fish about our outdoor environment once this business gets under way.

Again, baseline measurements? Comprehensive soil testing? Does Pete Grannis really know how water (contaminated water, that is) flows underground? Even computer models have shown that fractures can behave differently than predicted. Perhaps Mr Grannis is in close touch with an old Upstate family of worms, lo these many generations, who can report on what kind of soil is where--and perhaps have heard what a royal pain in the water supply this drilling business can be as told to them by other worm families in Arkansas, Montana, Wyoming, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Ohio, Washington, Texas and British Columbia. And Colorado. Perhaps the worms are hydrogeologists or hydrologists. (Or perhaps the worms only discuss such matters as the male fish-turning-somewhat-female, who live in the Seine and Rhône rivers downstream from Paris and Lyon; their exposure to endocrine disrupters is resulting in unwanted sex-change operations.)

It's clear that people concerned about drilling Upstate must prove that such operations are dangerous. It's clear that the burden of proof is not on the drillers, that it is not incumbent on them to prove that their methods and fluids are safe over the span of a generation.

Our Upstate water supply system was secured in part by Myndert Van Schaick, one of the founders of New York University. The idea was to provide fresh, clean water for citizens who were drinking polluted local supplies.

Something is definitely awry.

People receiving large checks from the gas companies are thrilled. They feel fortunate beyond belief. But if they and their descendants have no clean water to drink, they may feel otherwise. If, one day, they find that as U.S. taxpayers that they have to spend money for a, say, 25-year cleanup operation (environmental cost accounting?) in their area, will this have been worth it? Then again, they may feel nothing.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Belfry

From an article by Diane Solway (with photographs by Stephen Shore) in the November issue of W magazine:

Furious after waiting five minutes, Bergman charged up the steep belfry to ring the bells himself and then chewed out the minister for the lapse.

What's interesting about belfry is how easily somebody whose first language is not English (note how hopeful I am here about this probability [stand your non-English speaking ground, non-English speakers]) might mispronounce this. It might clunk, or it might sound charming in the way the woman trying to get to know the deaf man in Four Weddings and A Funeral was charming when she said something was "mice" instead of "nice." I also heard a woman finding photos for a man ask if the pickup name was spelled A-n-n-y. No, he said, A-n-n-i-e. End of digression.

Belfry is perhaps a chosen word today because I like bells so much (apparently there are lots of us--but does this necessarily mean that there now has to be a Facebook group I "can" join? What has happened to serendipity? I miss the days before Caller ID. I miss being able to be out of touch. I might have to join the uncellphoned) and because (for somebody who is eye-minded and ear-minded and in possession of opinions) it is, simply, a pretty word. It's a handsome word.

Not all bel- words are pretty and handsome words.

An approximation of the word (including its association with bells) as we read it today did not even appear until the 15th century, according to the OED. Its etymological history seems as labyrinthine as a Bergman film is intense.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Firry

But not furry.

Appropos of nothing, and only because they're near the keyboard, one might consider phlox and flocks, which have little, if anything, to do with words ending in y (although they have something to do with firry and furry).

A suffix primer, just to set me straight

After seeing drinky in a back page Times Book Review piece by Colson Whitehead (I still think of parts of The Illusionist, Colson Whitehead), and then thinking about diminuitives, I decided it was time to get some of the what's what down.

Some of what's what is this, Latin suffixes-wise, via my Winston:

-acy n. quality, state, or office (accuracy)
-ary n. forming names of persons, places or things (library)
adj. relating to, pertaining to or characterized by (literary)
-cracy n. a government or method of ruling (logocracy)
-cy n. forming abstract nouns (captaincy)
-ery n. designating: 1. place of business, storage, breeding (hatchery) 2. qualities, conduct, practices, principles, etc. (trickery) 3. a class of goods (millinery) 4. art or employment (archery) 5. state or condition(drudgery). Also, the shortened form -ry (revelry).

-fy n. to cause to be or to form into (liquefy). Often, with connecting vowel, -ify (personify)
-ory n. place where, place for: added to Latin roots (factory) adj. pertaining to, characterized by: added to Latin roots (obligatory)

-ty 1. [Lat.+ Fr.] n. forming abstract nouns denoting quality, state, condition, or character(loyalty) 2. [Eng.] times ten: a termination of numerals (sixty)

More :

-y [Eng.] n. suffix, forming diminuitives and also written -ie.

-y [Eng.] adj. suffix 1. Of, pertaining to, having, full of: added to nouns and spelled -ey when added to words ending in y (stony, clayey) 2. inclined toward, almost shading into: added to adjectives of color (taupey brown) 3. with intensive force but no change of meaning: added to adjectives: chiefly poetical (stilly)

-y [Lat. + Fr.] n. suffix, in words from Latin and French, originally participial adjectives (deputy, army . . . originally meaning deputed, armed)

-y [Lat. + Fr., or often Gk.+Lat.(+Fr.)], n. suffix forming abstract nouns (glory, antipathy, victory, theology, therapy)

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Barberey

There's a pattern here, with the words ending in -rey (cucumbery and so forth). Of course this word isn't exactly English, but it is from a 1961 food encyclopedia that was translated from the French:

Troyes--This creamy cheese can be eaten from November to May. It Is a soft cheese, resembling Camembert. It is also known as Barberey.

According to the book, Camembert season is October to June.

Twenty-five years later, I am guessing that for some cheeses, seasons are not what they used to be. It's a nice idea, though--a little like waiting for a tide to come in order to reach an island of land.

Ours really isn't the most favorable historical moment for the pleasures of waiting.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Colloquy

A beautiful word, no? From the Latin and from this morning at City Hall, where Councilmember James F. Gennaro was holding a City Council hearing on the modest proposal known as natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale, in New York State. Mr Gennaro chairs the Council's environmental protection committee.

"Is there some kind of ongoing colloquy between DEC and DEP?"

He may have said "DEP and DEC." Don't know. It's possible my undermind would have preferred to be thinking about less vile subjects, such as the arrival of the ballet company I've been meaning to see for the past three years, or sailing, or beet ravioli.

Back to subjects less savory.

Is it fair to say that people who have little idea how to begin or sustain a conversation or a dialogue (col=together) put the rest of us in a lousy position? A Mr Appleton (hope it's spelled correctly), who gave some rather compelling testimony by the time I left, at 2:30 p.m., said that the DEC's draft SGEIS report had the fingerprints of the state budget office all over it. He also said that the oil, coal and gas industries were in the middle of a grand food fight. Would that were all it was; we could clean up and get on with the day.

For those of us who are not lacking in imagination or in table manners, we are wondering what the price of quotidian existence will be in this . . . uh . . . gassy (for about ten years, although the consequences of clearcutting forests will, of course, extend beyond that time period) world of the future. What will I be risking by hand-washing my socks? What potential explosion will await me when I run a bath? Will the simple act of washing lettuce become an exercise in slow death by endocrine system poisoning?

At the outset of the hearing, there were approximately 150 people; by 2:30 there were approimately 35. At 1:24 p.m., Councilmember Gennaro asked if a representative from DEC was in the room? No. The DEC's representative had left. Really? Really. Mr. Gennaro subsequently read aloud the telephone numbers for DEC offices upstate and locally, urging attendees to give a jingle and ask that a representative from the department whose commissioner supposedly cares for the future of our water supply actually be present for all testimony presented at the hearing. Whether such a respresentative would actually listen is, of course, unknown.

At the very least, it's dramatically honest--it "lands," as some say--for the DEC to represent its deafness/absenteeism/absentia/indifference/disregard/ignorance/blindness/muteness/invisibility on this issue by amplifying the presence of absence. It makes complete dramatic sense for the DEC to have its own representative leave the hearing midway through. In real life--not in the play--it comes off less earnest than comic.

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer testified that this is "the most important environmental issue this city has faced in the last decade." I think he's off the mark by several decades. The implications of this grand jobs-creation plan to poison-the-well-child/adult-and-then-give-him-an-as-yet-uncreated-and-untested-antidote make this a city issue to the power of 10.

Mistakes are being made. (Gentlemen, start your lawsuits!)

From a Latin textbook, I read about Echo and Narcissus, neither of whom have met members of the DEP or DEC and both of whom are, one would like to imagine, having a better time with their water than NYC and the rest of the state is having with ours: Ōlim nympham vocāvit et eī dīxit, Posteā verba reddere poteris, sed tū ipsa colloquium incipere nōn jam poteris.


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Nay

Usually I would dilate a little on the homophonic fun that could be had with this word, but today I was struck by a Daily Show video in my e-box reporting on the passage of the Franken Amendment to H.R. 3326, the Department of Defense Appropriations Act (an amendment whose time, according to an arbitrator I will meet tomorrow, has come some 25 years after Democrats began agitating for it). The idea is to make sure that taxpayers don't end up inadvertently financing companies (e.g., working as contractors for the U.S. government) who condone silencing woman (or, presumably, men) who are sexually or physically assaulted on the job.

Sen. Franken's amendment particularly responds to the ongoing multi-year attempt by a woman named Jennifer Leigh Jones to have her day in court. Ms. Jones alleges that four years ago, while living in Iraq and working for KBR as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom she was inconveniently drugged, gang-raped and then, after waking up bruised and bleeding (where is a SurvivaBall when you need one?), locked without food or water in a shipping container guarded by an armed guard. Reportedly after Jones made a lucky cell-phone call to her father, who called the State Department, the State Department sent employees to rescue her. (KBR stands for Kellogg, Brown & Root, a former subsidiary of Halliburton, the company known to some as "a disaster innovator.")

Ms. Jones wants to put this case before a jury, but an arbitration clause in the contract she signed with KBR states that any wrongs cannot be righted by jury; they must be settled by arbitration, and behind closed doors. As Rachel Maddow put it, this means a cash settlement instead of a court hearing.

Where the 600-year-old word nay enters the picture is with the vote on the Franken Amendment. Talk about a negative attitude. Thirty Senators, including John McCain, voted nay. Should the government be meddling in the matters of private companies whose employees flaut--nay, break--the law?

Nay
Nay
Nay
Nay
Nay

Nay
Nay
Nay
Nay

Nay
Nay
Nay
Nay

Nay
Nay
Nay
Nay

Nay
Nay
Nay
Nay

Nay
Nay
Nay

Nay
Nay
Nay

Nay
Nay
Nay


I'm reminded of that untitled 1981 Barbara Kruger photo (photo collage?) showing the man in the hat with the finger to his lips and the words laid over "Your comfort is my silence"?

An OED definition of rape when it refers to the plant seems apt here (and do understand husbandry not as agriculture or farming but industrial occupation generally): 1899 Racine (Wisconsin) Weekly Jrnl. 25 May 12/3 The progress in rape culture in this country is one of the marvels of latter day husbandry.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Pliny

Many people pronounce this to rhyme with spiny, though pronounced correctly it rhymes (I believe) with spinney. (I'll put off any discussion of the debate over how to pronounce Delphi.)

I heard it said by my friend Annie Novak, who with a man named Ben Flanner runs what must be the best-dressed and hands-down sexiest farm in the city. On Sunday I was one of a group of people sorting seed packets over at Rooftop, this before we staked some burlap in the rows.

We were passing around challah with farm honey, and for somebody who declined the bread, Annie coated a carrot with honey. As she was doing so, she mentioned that according to Burt Greene (a Hamptons chef), Pliny the Elder references honey-cooked-carrots in his recipe books.

[Shameless plug: Annie said her knowledge comes by way of her work at Growing Chefs, a program which (among other things) creates curriculum for garden-based classroom education.]

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Naivety

From the wild and wonderful 71 year-old story A Night of Serious Drinking, by René Daumal and translated from the French by David Coward & E.A. Lovatt:

Professor Mumu upbraided me for my naivety and explained to me that the patient being questioned was, in intention at least, a dangerous criminal who if he had been less cowardly in his youth would have mutilated his father, outraged his mother, horrified his sister, and scandalized his uncle in the most appalling manner; he added that his veiled confessions would cure him of his wayward impulses, which would be transformed into charming artful objects, amongst which we would soon be making our way, for the converse of the proverb was true: Paradise is paved with bad intentions.

How honest, somehow, for the word to be translated into English without the French spelling.

Naivety does not appear in the Index.

Of course one might look at the word and think (in the undermind at the very least) of nativity. One does not think of myrmidon or caster sugar or the Jets and the Sharks, or the supposed war.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Ray

Not the fish or the cloth; not the groove in the rifle barrel and not the other name for rye-grass. Not the rank and not the roy. Not the dance, not the distemper found in sheep. This one is the line of light, though not the kind that lies at the base of the child's bedroom door when the parents are still having a lighted nighttime of it in the hallways and rooms beyond.

This ray feels a little more ethereal and packs all its etymological baggage--Anglo-Norman rae, rei, reie, roi, roie; Anglo-Norman and Middle French rai, raie; French rai, raie; Modern French rayon; classical Latin radius; Old Occitan raia (12th cent.), Spanish rayo (13th cent.), Portuguese raio (14th cent.; 13th cent. as rraya); and Italian raggio (1308).--as described in the OED.

The book The Nine Tailors (which is in my reading pile) has this sentence:

The tiny ray of the lantern picked out here the poppy-head on a pew, here the angle of a stone pillar, here the gleam of brass from a mural tablet.

Tablet! Great word.

I wanted to see about ray because I thought it might be interesting the way key is interesting. Now it seems I should have also looked up way.

Anyhoo, there is a description of bells ringing that actually does bring to mind . . . the sound of ringing bells: Tin tan din dan bim bam bom bo--Tin tan din dan bim bam bom bo bom--and so forth.

Apparently the bells have names. There's a memory ditty, viz., The voice of the bells of Fenchurch St. Paul: Gaude, Gaudy, Domini in laude. Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus Dominus Deus Saboath. John Cole made me, John Presbyter paid me, John Evangelist aid me. From Jericho to John A-Groate there is no bell can better my note. Jubilate Deo. Nunc Dimittis, Domine. Abbot Thomas set me here and bade me ring both loud and clear. Paul is my name, honour that same. Then there's a paragraph break and Gaude, Saboath, John, Jericho, Jubilee, Dimity, Batty Thomas and Tailor Paul. Another break introduces the centerpiece sentence Nine Tailors Make a Man.

I am going to read this book even though it's a mystery novel. What I do for nunc.

In a totally unrelated matter, I must say that some mysteries remain mysterious. Today's mystery is why some people ostracize the beautiful word attorney while putting out the welcome mat for lawyer. (I realize there's a technical difference, but still.)

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Smouchy

Here's the kind of word you can really hang a hat on. Look it up in the OED and you get:

(Meaning not clear.)
1803 LAMB Let. to Manning 19 Feb., The Tartars, really, are a cold, insipid, smouchy set.

Now, I don't think the dictch (that's like sitch but not really) means "meaning not clear" in the way, say, Stephin Merritt sings in what surely must be one of the song of songs about language and the way (as Virginia Woolf might say) words fail.

Cause I always say I love you when I mean Turn out the light
And I say Let's run away when I just mean Stay the night


How much of your day do you spend mired in misunderstanding simply because everybody is working from a different lexicon? Words have valence.

To me what's funny about smouchy is that it's a word I use to approximate smush--"It's getting smouched in there with all those apples." Tonight I looked it up, however, because the OED is going to publish a thesaurus. On the sample page, I passed over an entry for smouching (more a bit farther down).

Consider: Smouchy, smoochy.

I once dated a man who (after committing actual romantic gestures) told me "Maybe I'm not a smoochy guy." Perhaps he had no idea what he was talking about. Perhaps that's a love-rune (that's another thesaurus word, c. 1225) to be.

If the thesaurus page on kisses and related emotions (does it include throwing glassware? speaking of which: I actually passed Philip Roth on West 79th this weekend) is any indication of the tome to come, it will be fine reading in its own right and for the way it will illuminate so many other texts.

Passado (1606–1656), for example, means "interchange of confidences/amorous relations." Now Mercutio's line makes so much more sense--"Come, sir, your passado." Excellent. That line has been in my head for many months now. The Folger Shakespeare edition footnote explains that a passado is fencing step forward with a thrust, but is any thrust in Shakespeare ever just a thrust? I wasn't thinking clearly. Given Mercutio's feelings toward Romeo this finally makes more sense.

The thesaurus sample also has, under "02.02.22.10 (n.) Amorous love," the real thing (neither specific to Stoppard nor to Kurt Andersen, 1857–); love-money (coins broken in two as love-token, 1856); lightilove (inconstancy in love, 1578), and turtle (person showing affection for mate, c. 1500–1865).

Under the vt. of Kiss there is the smouch (1588–1600). So were the Tartars really and truly a cold, insipid and smouchy set?

Addendum that has nothing to do with dictionaries: In the latest episode of "Mad Men," my favorite television show, there is a disjointed scene in which Betty takes Sally into the living room (ruined now by the hulk of the fainting sofa, or whatever it's called) and attempts to explain a little something about first kisses. I get the feeling the writers wanted her to say this but the kairos is a little wrong, and the whole presentation doesn't parse. For one thing, she doesn't care enough about Sally's emotional well-being, else she would have comforted her when Grandpa Gene died. Back to bussing.

She tells Sally the following, about a first kiss:

"You're going to want it to be special, so you remember." Wrong. You remember it if and/or because it's special, and possibly not even happily so. [BD Translation: I remember my first kiss with your father.]

"It's where you go from being a stranger to knowing someone"; this is truthful. Well put. [BD Translation: It made me want to know your father more intimately.]

"And every kiss with them after that is a shadow of that kiss." We bounce into the rough. [BD Translation: I married your father because of the fur jacket, the set of his shoulders, his jawline, his eyes, his voice, his hands, his lips, his posture, his hair, everything between his legs, the way he looks in a suit, the way he looks in an undershirt, his drive (all drives), and because it was time to get married and bring you and your brother into the world, since this is the 1950s. My kisses cabinet is shadowy, if not ghostly, although now I've had that first kiss with Henry Francis. . . . ]

I wrote a short piece about kissing (for Nerve) and had it been published later I might have addressed this shadow-of-the-former issue. Indeed, I was half-undone one night by a kiss that bore very (very very) little resemblance to the first kiss with the kisser. The only reason he made it to that point was because of a chain of gestures that had nothing to do with the first kisses. This man was less an aficionado than a notcher. His first kiss was memorable for its utter lack of emotional depth. It was clinical and Trojan Horse; it was just to get in. There was nothing tender or self-delighting about it--thus it was somewhat interesting (and a reminder to never form another attachment, no matter how casual, with a man who kissed this way). That a later kiss could have so much real emotion in it, therefore, was, it must be said, remarkable.

So it turns out that Betty, like umpteen parents who have no idea, really, what they're talking about, has not considered that a first kiss can turn out to be a shadow. It's likely Sally will remember that kiss as her first, anyway.

The person who could explain a thing or two to Betty about how life really works is the only woman on the show who's whole (wholesome?), and who makes Don whole: Anna. She's so sturdy, she probably knows something about kissing, and I bet when her husband was alive she was a turtle.

Until Betty's next piece of questionable advice, we have the memory of Don lighting her cigarette ever so quickly and smoothly. Smoking and fencing. . . .

Okey-dokey

According to the OED, this word is less than a hundred years old. Apparently.

Some people say okey-dokey and some say okey-doke. I suppose some say both (wishy-washy?) I say alrighty sometimes, and when I do it conjures up the way the bed-space air felt when we would bounce quarters before inspection, at camp. Alrighty has to do with the tautness of that flat blanket and the hope of a 10 and that space of time at the beginning of the day. (There's a bounce test for cranberries, too, but alrighty has little, if anything, to do with that. Have wondered for years about the floodings of the bogs on Nantucket , though . . . .)

March 21, 2010 addendum, okey-dokey sighting: Forty-five minutes into the play Red, Rothko tells his assistant, "Okey-dokey, let's prime the canvas."

Some might argue that okey-dokey is synonymous with hunky-dory, but they would probably be wrong.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Harpy

From The Winston Simplified Dictionary:

In mythology, one of three grasping and filthy winged monsters with a woman's face and boady, and the wings, tail, and claws of a vulture.


This appears on the same page as harry (2. to annoy or vex; tease; harass); hasty pudding (a pudding made by stirring Indian meal or, in England, flour, into boiling water; mush), and hatchet (a small ax with a short handle, used with one hand: to bury the hatchet, to cease hostilities).

Friday, October 2, 2009

Why Lamey is Not a Chosen Y Word

A letter from a friend reads:

Dear Ms. Woman,

I just read in the NY Times (my only media source) [Ed. Note: Pity my friend this] that describing something as "lame" is a derogatory term. For instance, if one were to exclaim:"It's so lame that you bought me this cucumbery substance from Gristedes," it might offend a nearby cripple. Who knew?

Perhaps you should address this, O Worded One. If we add a "y" to the end, does it qualify for your prefered subject matter? Or will your readers confuse that with "lamé"?

Signed,
Gentle Reader

Well, Gentle Reader, I've got to break the news to you now: using the word lame displays bad taste in language, not because it might offend the cripple but because it's imprecise Valley Girl speak. Acceptable imprecise language is American WASP--for example, "So long" instead of "Good-bye"--or restrained slang: "She's all that." (Unacceptable is cloaking I Can't Handle Life" euphemisms, such as " X passed away"; better to say "X died.")

Lamé I have no issues with unless it pollutes the water supply.

American WASP, by the by (or bye), is really a branch of what should be termed Midcentury American English (and is right up there with Italian, though I would never date an Italian man now). I truly like Midcentury American English. Few people I know these days are actually fluent in it. One is a member of my family; a few work in a law firm; a few in schools; a few at certain magazines; and many are writers. If you go up to the Academy of Arts and Sciences on an awards day you are certain to hear many people speaking it. Most of them are older than I.

When John Updike was a boy, basket ball appeared like so, I believe. (The Winston Simplified Dictionary students might have used once upon a time at The Packard School, 253 Lexington Avenue, NYC, for instance, shows that in or around 1931 basket ball came first under the forefinger and basketball came second.) Then basket ball took up a hyphen. Then it sustained a merger. Some time after that John Updike died. I'm just saying.

(Tom Beller writes entertainingly about basketball, I find--or maybe I just like his courts. But I digress.)

A woman I met this week told me about her teenage children, how often they press her to hurry up, especially on the computer. I wanted to tell her that she might be of the last generation able to convey something of the good that comes from slowing down. Well-made things can often take time. Certainly it's useful to understand a little about the nature of time and our fashioning of it and our perception of it.

Sometimes I think about the whole "work to live" or "live to work" idea. This meets up with that question about going on vacation, viz., Is real life what happens on vacation, or is real life what happens when not on vacation? Turns out (after taking a real vacation for the first time in nine years) that real life is what happens. So when the kids tell the Mom that they want her to hurry up, she's really the only person who can put her foot down and demonstrate that there is much in a moment.

Today, for instance--are you sorry you wrote in . . . --a woman handed me a pen after putting the cap back on. She performed this pen-capping gesture that made it clear that we had a relationship and were passing this pen between us, and she took the time to look at me, and I looked back. It was a taffy moment. It was stretched out. She somehow created a little clearing spot of time just for us--and it was tiny but it felt roomy.

Was there anything so wrong with basket ball? Are we one day going to write tenniscourt? Because that would be seriously lame.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Tintinnabulary

I looked this up (on my way to another word) in Webster's Eleventh but am checking it now in Webster's Tenth.

Tintinnabulary adj. [L. tintinnabulum bell] (1787) : of, relating to, or characterized by bells or their sounds.

I think of hand bells at Christmas, a dinner bell, a cow bell, and a clarine.

Unless living in the middle of "A Clockwork Orange," the sounds of bells seem to inhabit the opposite of what a clattering kind of environment must be. For instance, in a hostile environment (legalistic terminology), life must be, well, hostile.

When I picked up Lord of the Flies last night, it seemed to me that a litigator arguing a case about workplace violence or a hostile environment could mention that book quite handily in order to convince a jury that without rules people (at least the civilized ones) can behave rather savagely. (Sheepishly?) Of course, rules mean little at the end of a day. And anybody who thinks that surveillance keeps mean people in check is misguided in more ways than one (consider the panopticon).

Back to bells.

The fact is that simply being in the vicinity of precise language, being in the presence of people who speak with an economy of speech, for whom the word "Um" generally does not exist (unless spoken deliberately), who say "You guys" only to men and boys, and seldom "gonna" in lieu of "going to": this is a 21st century privilege (probably beyond words).

People who create tailor-made vocabularies for their own selves using hundreds of words that already exist and have existed perhaps for centuries must be the true inhabitants of the land of bells. I don't mean people who speak stilted perfect pretentious textbook English; I mean people who can mix it all up and have it come out ringing.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Tiffany

So: according to a book I have on loan, I Give You My Word, by Ivor Brown:

Tiffany is a form of theophany, which means the appearance of the god. Hence Tiffany was a popular name for Epiphany, which also means a divine manifestation of personality. In the late Middle Ages, Parisians called the Epiphany (of the calendar) "Tiphaine".

For the past several years, ever since seeing the show Passing Strange (six times), it's been difficult for me to read or hear the word epiphany without thinking of part of the song "Passing Phase."

In the show the main character (the Youth) has a modern-day odyssey peopled by nitpicking churchgoers vitally interested in shoes (well, somebody might have to cut them a little slack there. . . ), countercultural artists who are bourgeois at heart (flashback: the photo of father and proud son Mick Jagger after the singer was knighted by Prince Charles in 2003), a mother who needs him to fill her cup instead of letting him fill his own, and a girlfriend whose genuine love he rejects--apparently because he's too young to understand ("Youth is wasted on the young" would come in handy here).

To his younger self, the Narrator sings:

Wish we could talk about how the means will not prepare you for the ends,
How your epiphanies will become fair-weather friends,
How death will make you lower your defenses
The only truth of youth is the grown-up consequencess. . . .


(How your tiffanies will become fair-weather friends?)

Mr Ivor Brown, who was editor of The Observer in London from 1942 to 1948 also notes that in the dress-maker's salon tiffany "used to be a transparent, silky gauze. Was it because the human goddess was thus revealed?" And then he goes on to use the word ecdysiasts.

I wonder if ecdysiasts can be translated into Italian a way that preserves both eye and ear sense.

Cucumbery

From my friend Jeff Cain's comment--all right, who knows how to spell logrolling?--on the word Food-y:

After all, a cucumber that smells like cucumber is not cucumbery so much as it is, in fact, a cucumber.

Jeff has invoked the spirit of the the word Combray (not the spirit of Combray itself, however, and brings to mind iron hinges the length of my hand and a tower made of grey stone set in a green valley. The Duke of Northumberland must also figure in here somehow.

(Thank you, Jeff, for providing such a happy-making [a Beth Bosworth word] eye word.)

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Lesiy or Leshy

From Webster's New International Dictionary of the English Language (Second Edition Unabridged, 1960), stationed in an upper room at Poet's House.

Lesiy, leshy [Slav. Myth.] A sylvan spirit, or wood demon.

I took the Greenway down to Poet's House on Friday the 25th to walk around its new (and "green"--there's gold in them flushers!) "home" on opening day.

The old space on Spring Street was wonderful. It was cozy. It felt Kunitzean. It felt like a perfect New Yorky living room.

This space is very, very nice. There is light and long sightlines and many windows. Spatially speaking, it feels to me nothing at all like the spirit of Stanley Kunitz--I should mention here that Stanley Kunitz is the unofficial and non-sectarian saint of Poet's House. The presence of light everywhere, though . . . . That's just poetry. That's everybody. Still, where are the small spaces and corners? Those count, too, dont they? Where's the weird desk under the stairs?

It's a beautiful visitor's center of sorts, not quite a home. A visitor unfamiliar with Kunitz's work will likely wonder why so much of the poetry artwork has his name on it. The Children's Room has three typewriters and a large cache of poets on cassette tape. In the future there will be a boulder room of some sort where kids can sit pretend they're reading in the mountains. (In the Hollywood movie, there is an arts center in Wyoming with a New York room outfitted with a bus stop and litter and a lightscape cut by skyscrapers and people chirping banalities into cell phones; here kids can pretend they're reading on a Midtown avenue.)

I suppose the fact that the Battery Park City Authority has leased this space to Poet's House rent-free until 2069 somehow offsets the vileness that the Port Authority inflicted on the city with the Building where the buses leave from. The one Authority taketh away . . . and the other Authority giveth.

The collection is inviting in ways it was not at Spring Street, and something tells me that the comfort of the light is going to make all the difference.

The best sign of the future of the place is that I saw three people writing longhand. Handwriting at the speed of blood (as Sven Birkerts once described the act of reading): makes me happy.

Daffy

From Professor William Dunham's lecture on the mathematician Leonhard Euler (1707-1783), delivered September 17 at The Philoctetes Center for the Multidisciplinary Study of Imagination. Professor Dunham, describing the polynomial (below), said:

"It looks daffy."

He spoke particularly about the square roots of the square roots, suggesting these were perhaps the best illustrations of daffyness.

When I looked at this solution, daffy did not come to
mind. In fact, no words at all came to mind.

Certainly math has never looked daffy to me, but it never occured to me that it would look daffy to anybody--even to a mathematician.

My favorite of Euler's formulas, or discoveries, is the Euler Line, which is drawn once one determines the orthocenter, centroid, and circumcenter of any triangle. His Polyhedral Formula is also appealing (and was the starting point for topology and algebraic topology, and a theory of surfaces).

Nothing in these, still, struck me as daffy. Even the idea of his finding so many amicable numbers, which he did, did not rate as daffy.

That a hive in Switzerland (according to Prof. Dunham) is still publishing Euler's papers at the Swiss Institute: this qualifies as daffy. . . . How steadily have they been working? (Those monks copying the Bible for Queen Elizabeth come to mind--they've been working on that for a while, too. . . . Oh to be calligrapher to the Queen. Miles above dish soap and digestive biscuits. But I digress.)

What Prof. Dunham, a noted mathematics professor originally trained in topology, accomplished by describing the above formula (solution?) as daffy provided a bridge between math and English that allowed me to understand (if only in that instance) one mathematician's taste--in language anyway.

If I had to come up with one word to describe all those signs and numbers, I would say "hair caught in the wrong end of a hairdryer, although on a beautiful fall day in a green valley, and with lots of crisply drawn right angles." Honestly, one word just wouldn't be enough. It's a lot of sound, visually speaking. I do like the square roots of the square roots idea, though. That's quite nice.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Food-y

From a posting mainly about Julia Child on my friend Erin Mulligan's Facebook page: (. . . I keep saying to Jim [her hubby] that the food in the states is food-ish as opposed to the food in Europe, which is food-y.)

I sent her a email asking her to elaborate on the distinction, and she replied: "Here's the theory in essence: a cucumber from Costco tastes vaguely reminiscent of a cucumber--it is cucumber-ish. A cucumber in Italy or from a good farmer's market in America really tastes like a cucumber--it is cucumber-y. Same with tomatoes, chicken, cherries, pork, butter, yogurt, etc."

Then we had a little chat. Erin explained that the orgin of her usage was born recently in Italy, while she was staying at a house and cutting cucumbers. From rooms away her daughter shouted, "I can smell the cucumbers." Not a typical experience for us stateside. Certainly at a stand of fruit at the typical supermarket--even at Fairway!--I can spend several minutes trying to inhale from a piece of fruit, no doubt looking like a coke fiend who's lost the trail.

Erin said that if she doesn't have time to go her her CSA or farmer's market, she winds up eating food that (angry language alert) "fuckin' looks the food in Italy. Visually the food in America is food but in terms of the other senses except maybe hearing, it doesn't have those aspects. It's one-dimensional.

"The issue is that the food most Americans eat--the food most people have access to--its food-y-ness has been bred out of it, so it's only foodish. And what do people here in America call people who are really into cooking and food? . . ."

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Tabloidy

A little bit Bois de Boulogne, a little bit rowdy. From Michael Massing's article "The News About the Internet," in the August 13 issue of the New York Review of Books.

The reports by Ryan Grim on Wall Street's influence in Washington that I found so illuminating were hard to find on The Huffington Post, while you couldn't miss tabloidy posts like "Lindsay Lohan TOPLESS on Twitter."

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Cooky

From the dedication page of Eve Pell's recently published book We Used to Own the Bronx: Memoirs of a Former Debutante.

this book is for Cooky

Cooky! This is the way I imagine some tiny children to imagine cookies, as cookys.

It adorabalizes (don't spit) the word cookie, I believe, in the manner of the Cookie Monster's swiping paw or the sweetness of a facial expression found on Mo Willems' piggie. (Today at the Brooklyn Book Festival I wanted to page through Today I Will Fly! but instead read Watch Me Throw the Ball!, a parable about old and new media editorial types disguised as a children's book).

Back to cooky--and dedications.

The thing is, I spent a lot of time when I was a teenager reading dedications. I would stand in a book shop pulling book after book off the shelf reading first the dedication and then the last page. I thought people wrote books not because they had to get something out of their systems or because they had to make a living or part of a living. I thought: You write a book because you get to have a dedication page. To me this seemed the only real reason to write a book. It seemed on a par with getting married (this was before I developed myriad opinions on this subject) in front of the whole world.

I judged and categorized. Dedicating a book with only initials was equivalent to whispering in somebody's ear that you liked them. Dedicating a book to a dead person was perhaps a little maudlin. Dedicating it to entire groups of people was too close to a politician's stump speech. Dedicating it to one's children was pat. Dedicating it to one's family or God was too Academy Awards. Some dedications were too longwinded. A work of fiction without a dedication simply didn't count. Nonfiction was allowed to have no dedication page.

At some point years ago, I realized that people might not be dedicating their books to people in the manner of a gift but literally writing their books for somebody in order to make a (debatably drawn out) point. I don't mean the way Fitzgerald wrote for Zelda (Z: Now will you marry me???). I mean that somebody might have wanted to show a friend or a former friend the size of their demands or the rhythms of their sweetness or the horror of a situation or had to draw a whole world into being to make a nuanced point in order to advance a years-long argument.

A dedication with all lowercase letters and no punctuation to somebody named Cooky with a y? Passes muster.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Wembley

From Matt Goldberg's article "Feel Like a Stranger: Why I Put on a Skirt for the Grateful Dead," in the Summer 1999 issue of Hermenaut magazine:

During the London shows at Wembley, at the end of October that year, The Family spent each intermission in a beer-splattered, garishly lit concrete stairwell, sitting in a circle with the new recruits from our student body, eating prayed-over orange slices, holding hands, and engaging in a sort of slow and subtle group massage.

Wembley crowds the head with associations: crumby (Holden, acne, Stradlater), crumbly (the topping of the coffee cake mix that comes with a plastic "mixing" bag in the box), Dombey (Dickens), Wimbledon, Good King Wenceslas, Wallace & Gromit, and the entire British rail system of the late-1980s (putt-putt jitneys churning acrid smoke).

Monday, August 17, 2009

Plumpy

An approximation of the word plump, spoken by a friend in conversation.

"There, where it's plumpy."

Monday, August 10, 2009

Daffodility

This word caught my eye as I passed over the "front page site" (or whatever we call Page 1 of a placeless mass of light points) of the New York Times. The word is striking, though I would not go so far as to say it's pleasing. It's a little angular, topographically speaking.

From an article by Carol Kaesuk Yoon on August 10, 2009, seemingly destined for the Science section of tomorrow's print edition. The piece is adapted from Yoon's book, Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science.

Give a nod to Professor Franclemont and meditate, luxuriate in its beetle-ness, its daffodility.

There is a pleasing y word in the article, though:

The Rofaifo people of New Guinea, excellent natural historians, classify the cassowary, a giant bird complete with requisite feathers and beak, as a mammal.

It's a little like janissary, might bring to mind dromedary or palm tree, and is just plain handsome/beautiful. Shoe-wise cassowary is a well-made leather shoe that has the mien of a wool cape; daffodility is a clunky hard-toed rubber water shoe criss-crossed with stretchy cord pulls. (It also brings to mind plastic cottage cheese containers, which can't be good.) Cassowary can be worn to the symphony and daffodility can be worn on a boat. Neither is a bare foot. I'm not certain that any y word is a bare foot.

That said, it is difficult to read Yoon's article without thinking of Henry Reed's August 1942 poem "Naming of Parts."

Also I think of a friend's taxonomy of people: the Go-Gos, the Slow-Gos, and the No-Gos. I have suggested a special category, the Pogo, for one exceedingly No-Go person we know, but have yet to hear back from my friend about this nomenclature.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Broomy and Broomstickey

This is plain diminuitive usage here as practiced by one of my older sisters in conversation last night. She was perusing a display of brooms in a store.

My sister: "This one's broomy." Then: "It's broomstickey."

Broomstickey look-sounds correct with the -ey because . . . because this would put it on the same train with Dunwoody, persnickety, and "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang." It's nothing like bizarrery but the same system of logic obtains.

When my sister said the broom was broomy what I heard was that it approximated her idea of what a broom is and should be. Reading her comment, however, lands me at a different conclusion.

Reading her comment, I think, "Oh, she sounds as if she was talking about the plant," videlicet: 1679 PLOT Staffordsh. (1686) 110 This heathy, broomy, gorsy, barren sort of Soile [OED] She sounds as if she meant that the broom was bushy.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Bizarrerie and Bizarrery: A Second Look

So: I had a little e-back and forth with Nicholson Baker about the essential y-ness of bizarrerie, and he said--well, okay, he wrote--that he originally spelled bizarrerie bizarrery--and the copyeditor "corrected" it.

So it was a y word. Hum hum hum. It was a y word, and the copyeditor changed it? Perhaps this editor is the next Eleanor Gould Packard (who changed Thurber's raunchy to paunchy and was almost fired for it but subsequently rose to Olympian heights as the magazine's house Grammarian). . . ? Time will tell.

I wrote to Mr Baker: "For me, seeing the word with a y at the end throws off a large, soft sackcloth kind of amplitude, while the ie ending conjures something that rolls and extends, such as a golf course at the edge of the sea, or the vista of Prospect Park.

"It also seems, depending on how the word is spelled, when it's spoken aloud the stress would fall differently. In a poem it would scan differently (and if translated into French, might take on an even greater degree of difference.) To me they are very different words, bizarrery and bizarrerie; so I must now ask: what meaning did you have in mind? And would the copy editor not accept your coining a word? Did the editor's change make you wonder why you had chosen to spell it with a y?. . . How did I know that your word ending in y was in fact a word ending in y? There must be something in both our minds that thought so."

Later on I also realized that there was additionally something in bizarrery that announced "large, elaborate wire bird cage, c. 1860."

You get the picture.

The meaning he had in mind, he wrote, was "bizarreness," and it turns out he wasn't coining a word at all. In 1825, though the OED does not note this, (the OED also does not have the adjective glaux-eyed, but that's another story), Rev. Fosbroke's Encyclopedia of Antiquities and Elements of Archaeology, Classic and Medieval, Volume 1, was published with the word like so:

But there also prevails a great bizarrery of subjects, from which the Romans borrowed the grotesque, so commonly found in the pictures of Herculaneum.
So there it is, the precedent, which in this case was Google Booked first by Mr Baker and then by me. I happened to pass this book in 3-D, however, several days ago at Columbia's Avery library, so it is still very much alive.

Mr Baker wrote that he could have stetted the y ending but "wanted to stet other things, in the usual give and take way, and I didn't want to be a primadonna and overstet." He said he figured they'd looked it up somewhere--probably Webster's Third--and he hadn't.

"I'm sure that if I'd resisted the change they would have let me write it with a y," he wrote to me. "I was just distracted. I do like the y better, I have to say."

As do I, because it makes for a completely different word.

There's a hummingbird question in my mind, which asks: Does The New Yorker have anything to say about this? Should Paul Muldoon weigh in? Might Jesse Sheidlower have something to add? Just wondering.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Bizarrerie

This means bizarre quality. You have noticed by now that it is merely French, and not a word ending in y, and although this is true, it is also true that while reading Nicholson Baker's piece in the August 9 issue of The New Yorker and coming across bizarrerie, it struck me that this is (clearly) a y word at its core. For generations--perhaps for all time--it has ended in ie, but somewhere in the capillarian grooves of its etymological family tree (even if it's not on record, even if it's only in utero) there is a y at the end of this word. I have no Ancient French dictionary. Maybe it's in there.

The Kindle 1's design was a retro piece of bizarrerie--an unhandy, asymmetrical Fontina wedge of plastic.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Cellularly

Apparently written by Anais Nin (imagine the umlaut in there) in the fall of 1943, and posted by a friend on Facebook. What's interesting about the word here is that 1.) It's coined and 2.) Dislocated from what sounds like a medical context, it looks kinda funny--and it looks as if it sounds like celery.

Given its etymological links to small rooms (such as monastic cells), brain compartments, and the uterus, the children's book The Diamond in the Window, by Jane Langton, comes to mind. In the story, a brother and sister escape from a chambered nautilus (yes, they're are trapped inside a shell) by thinking their way out.

There's also an obvious joke to be made about cellular phones, and a less obvious point to be made about the current rage for All Things Brain. People who subscribe to the trend that is All Things Brain will likely read in this passage a literal interest on Nin's part in the cellular. I would like to believe that she was referring more to mind than she was to brain. I imagine her set of metrics would be more valid than science can allow.


There are very few human beings who receive the truth, complete and staggering, by instant illumination. Most of them acquire it fragment by fragment, on a small scale, by successive developments, cellularly, like a laborious mosaic.

Porphyry

From Sotheby's (2002) auction preview catalogue text describing Alphonse Maria Mucha's bronze La Nature.

Subtle differences are cast in each of the six; two have a rich silvered and gilt patina, four are invested with varying brown and ochre patinas with ovoid ornaments of various materials including marble, amethyst, porphyry, malachite and lapis lazuli.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Demachy

From a little book about Bernard Buffet's Paris paintings:

The first were Hubert Robert, Débucourt, Demachy, and those minor painters whose works are now assembled in the Carnavalet Museum.

Pachyderm and Demarchelier slip on the same banana peel.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Greenly

I suppose there are many ways to encase this word; Malfoy would do it another way.

From Summers with Juliet, by Bill Roorbach.

We took down screens, put up storm windows, drained the bunkhouse pipes, brought in the raft and leaned it on the seawall, dragged the old Aquacat by rope to the carport, raked a few leaves, then paddled the leaky old canoe as far as the pinched waist of the lake at the Shaker Village (once a real Shaker settlement, then a monastery)--all commercial now, condos blooming, but picturesque still with its lush stripe of meadow climbing the hill, greenly).

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Assholery

From a reader comment by one JL on Nerve.com, in response to “I Did It For Science: Caught!,” by Jack Harrison.

Involving others in your sexual exploits without their consent is assholery, not daring or cool. And abiding by some sort of standards about conduct in public is not prudery, it’s courtesy, or just plain decency.


Not the OED defines the word like so:

Assholery, n.

Forms: 4-5 assholerie, -rye, 4-6 arsehollerie, -rye, 5 assholere, 5-7 arseholery, 6-7 assholerie, 7 ahseholerie, 6- assholery. [A worn-down form of assholerye, ASSHOLERY.]

1. a. A state of being an asshole. Obs. rare

1366 CHAUCEERE Rom. Rose 720 The swetnesse of his lyre Tolde al myne herte of his assholerye [Thynne assholerye].

What allows the word assholery (it’s almost like caravansary, isn’t it?) to persist even today in our 21st century world? Dear reader, it must be that everything old is new again.

Some folklorists like to say that the word was coined by a once-dreamy milkmaid to describe the hilarious (to her) and beautifully crafted antics of her conceited, selfish, sexually insecure, whiney, blustery, and sexist (though her friends would rail, “No, misogynist!”—though the word had yet been coined) lover. She, a beauty who had been heavily trespassed and was a year older than her beau, was flattered that her 27-year-old paramour wanted to park his half-baked, deep-fried pseudo intellectual bookwormish compost material in her queintness. She quivered as he chimed into the chambered nautilus of her ear sweet nothings about bestiality and heroic couplets about the coming of the apocalypse.

She was piqued (in a positive sense) when he whispered to her on Sunday in church that he dreamed wettening dreams about her, that she was hot in his arms, like a handful of molten glass. "You were so hot in my hands!" he told her, and she, the creamy milkmaid (well, she was French), actually believed him.

The trusting milkmaid didn’t know that the cad was simply in his usual way trying out a new line—"You are hot in my hands"—for his collection. (Other winning lines: You are my true friend when all friends are gone; I am so unworthy of you or anybody else in this cauldron of pain called life; I don’t deserve you or your love; I am tormented; I am a monster; Love is a strong taskmaster; I cannot have meaningless sexual relations; My mother never really loved me, nor did my father, nor did Sir Lancelot; You are too kind; and I am an adorable and well-spoken fake—I mean, rake—am I not?)

Dim in her own way, the milkmaid wanted to so please the cad, she practised her hand (and sometimes mouth) craft on her cows.

Yet she who was most molten in his hearte was the one and only Miss Tablemint, a bosomy and randy 14-year-old cigarette girl and aspiring can-can dancer from the hotel-slash-pamphlet house up the road. Miss Tablemint, who was practiced at admiring her beauteous face in lakes, could sign her name. The cad taught her to write, “You are my rod and my redeemer,” in pictographs for him to post above his privy hole, right by the hook where the shovel hangs.

"Christine—uph, Sara—er . . . Gwen—Lisa—Abigail—Sarita—Jane—Claudette—I mean . . . you—you!" he growled one Tuesday to Miss Tablemint in her hay loft, "you are hot in my arms—oh but you are so very creamy and 14 and fertile! I love being in your arms, for I love the relatively untouched state of your flowerbed! You are so much less furrowed than these 27-year-old antiques—men are so terrible, are they not? Your pawing, overattentive father? My icy, carpetbagging father? I am wretched—wretched, unfit to gaze into your eyes, but you are sweetness incarnate.”

Then the cad cried long, syncopated tears, to aphrodisiacal effect: “You are every beautiful woman I know. You are Mary and Beatrice, Isabella and Nicolette, you are the empress of lands in the Orient. You are the milkmaid cubed. You are new plastic, and I want to fucke you and fucke you but perhaps not every day for the rest of my life on this (my) cauldron of (my) pain called (my) Earth. You are so beautiful—you are so, so beautiful, my beauty, my soul . . . ,” and then he fell asleep.

“And you are so handsome,” she said, stroking his sleeping mustache. “You need no forgiveness. You deserve everything. Come lie in my arms forever and a day, although tomorrow I'm busy.” When he awoke from his nap, he fixed his sideburns, and then they frolicked until the cows returned from the mountain pasture. "Everything is perfect," she told the cad. "I possess the fearlessness of youth, which is called 'naïveté,' and is not to be confused with the fearlessness of maturity, which is called 'courage'. Breathe of life through me as you would an iron lung, but in a good way."

The cad clamped his lips around hers and took her breath away.

On the way to the laundry stream the next day, Miss Tablemint tingled with the knowledge that her being (her thighs, her chin, her backside) was the strange flint against which the cad struck his sad and well-wrought stories. She mentioned to every neighbor she passed that this lover of hers was a singular example of the best of mankind. He was the most prudent, the wittiest, the most dulcet-voiced and brave and generous and caring and intelligent and educated—in short, the manliest man she had ever known.

“He should write romaunts,” she told the little blue birds. “He has such a nice face.” They shat on her beautiful hair.

She did appear forgiving, Miss Tablemint, of everything; this was her way, and the cad adored her for her sweet-natured and “everything’s-relative” dimness. It not only saved him the trouble of attending confession, it also relaxed him to know that he could be as mendaciloquent as he wanted and didn’t have to keep track of where he had left off.

Miss Tablemint also knew by instinct that the cad was more salesman and aspiring gigolo than scholar.

Out of boredom that Saturday, (with Miss T. at an audition), the cad taught the milkmaid to write, “You are always right and should never change your ways, or even try to,” in Latin. She asked him to teach her to write, “I would like to join your book group at the pub,” (she thought they discussed books at the book group) but he declined.

Nobody in the milkmaid’s lineage had even been able to sign his or her name—and so she was impressed that her cad could write the entire English, Greek, Latin, and Old Persian alphabets, and also knew pictographs. Surely such a learned man was already half an angel. Surely such a man was good enough to be allowed to touch, even to carry, her precious milk pails.

"Cad man," said the milkmaid at sunrise on Sunday. "Would you please fetch me that pail by the sill?" For surely you are worthy of touching my livelihood, my dear, she thought.

The cad looked at the milkmaid and scowled. Did her voice not ring like an anvil on the stone? Did it not clang? Unlike Miss Tablemint's voice, which was flour and butter and cried out, "I am pliable!" the Milkmaid's voice was forged in something too strong for his taste at the moment.

"I?" he said. "I? Carry a pail? And what would you have me do next? Re-stuff the mattress? Build you a table? Listen for the cow bells? Attend one of those ghastly May-pole dances? Eat sweet meats, which you know I despise? Shrew! Harridan! Insufferable, tyrannical woman!" He stomped his booted foot. "I've had enough of your demands for one day!

The milkmaid said not a word as the cad lurched out the door and into the lane. Oh, Timmy, she thought. There you go, again.

Trouty

From the dining scene in "North by Northwest":

R.O.T.: Recommend anything?
Ms. Kendall: The brook trout.* Little trouty, but it's quite good.
R.O.T.: Sold. Brook trout.

* She really puts the out in trout here by wavering a little, pulling the ow through a little hoop. It's a nice little verbal lagniappe. Eva Marie Saint is enacting a version of Hollywood Studio Speak. For reasons unknown it brings to mind the way Dylan sings what sounds like "I will always be . . . hee 'motionally yours" toward the end of (one version) of that song (his bee-hee to her trou-out). It sounds as if he's taking a breath mid-word. Regardless, why can't movies look like that anymore? Nobody does real kiss scenes in movies any more. I think the last real one I saw was in a Claire Denis film.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Crotchety

This post has nothing whatsoever to do with how "the advent of sabdanusasana . . . in the Vedic era was motivated by the then caste-system as all the grammarians tried to protect an engineered language (Sanskrit) by deploying fragmented rules so that that protected language would not be contaminated by the language of lower caste." For that you'll have to surf over to http://www.rishiindia.com/debaprasad.html. He also has written, apparently, about linguistic terrorism--but please know that I have read nothing more than an abstract of a paper.

What this post pertains to is the word crotchety, which seems to suggest the needle art involving a hooked needle but might also suggest the fact of the two quavers (eighth notes) that make a quarter note (or crotchet) or the fact of a crook, which "in the old harp-action is a crotchet engaging a string and raising its pitch by a semitone" or even the square brackets [ ], but in my mind today means, approximately, crank-like.

Don Draper is not crotchety.

Once upon a time the word was spelled crotchetty.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Huffy

This is a word one of my sisters use to use a lot when we were growing up.

Tonight it came to mind after I discovered that a purse I believed to be made in Greenpoint, Brooklyn (or at least New York City) was in fact made millions of blocks away, somewhere in China. Caveat emptor.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Quote-y

From a letter Wharton wrote to her governess Anna Bahlmann, quoted in Rebecca Mead's piece on the just auctioned (if they went) and newly uncovered Edith Wharton letters, in the June 29 issue of The New Yorker:

He said that I knew more of German literature than he does (and he sets up to be rather well-read) that "my knowledge of the language was wonderful" and that he had never quoted anything (and he is very quote-y) which I had not recognized—there!

What is striking about the word is less itself per se than the fact that Wharton was using a form that would likely have been puddled into a Rorshach blot by the pen of, for instance, Lily Bart (when she was playing social secretary for her not-very-nice female friends).

It's amusing to place Wharton and J.D. Salinger/Franny Glass in the same room of y users (Wharton and Salinger are two of my favorite authors). Now of course I am wondering how Salinger decided upon his y usage. If I were an insta-theorizing woman, I might toss out (just for the hey of it) something class-y, such as, "Spirited young and intellectually adept women were fond of modifying words with an appended -y rather than an -ish ." Discuss. On your blog.

I think sometimes about Lily Bart, her circle, Selden's lack of ________ (fill in your own word here), and the reactions of some Facebook addicted teenagers with whom I read The House of Mirth. They didn't have much (if any) sympathy for Lily, and recently I realized that I might have emphasized one piece of her broken life more than I did, in attempting to point out why this novel is still a living work of art: the fact of Lily's being an outcast in her own social circle and paying with her life for her own sense of decency.

In the world where the story works out differently, these people are well-dressed, up to the minute on art and music and all the rest, and hung up their rapiers in the previous generation. They are more like the beautiful people in the delightful novel Beginner's Greek. Where are those people? They are spun from Selden's best instincts, apparently.

When Selden tracks Lily down at Mrs. Perfumed and Overstuffed Sofa's, Lily is still doing her best (her utmost) to keep up appearances in a bid for a final shred of doomed dignity in the face of the mineral-gauge callousness of the whole rotten bunch. She is still willing to shake hands with people whose hands she should recoil from (as Nick Carraway does when he runs into Tom Buchanan). It may be that the fact of having "no heart to lean on" has punctured whatever is left of her self-respect, especially in the presence of vultures, and when Selden attempts to offer his shaky hand, she can't gain even a pinkyhold:

"I am very much obliged to you," she said, "for taking such an interest in my plans; but I am quite contented where I am, and have no intention of leaving."

Then Selden rises to his feet and says, "That simply means that you don't know where you are!"

To me his retort is one of the most powerful lines in the novel. He knows exactly where she is, and he knows she knows, and he won't step out of his role to reroute her downward trajectory. He is a lily who festers, and, frankly, I do not forgive him. Unlike the garden-variety self-absorbed bachelor, Selden actually knows better and still chooses to be a bystander (as he does when he happens to see Lily leaving Gus Trenor's—but refuses her justice by believing in appearances and remaining silent, never seeking to find out what was what. I expect shoddy behavior from Gus Trenor, but from Selden and his finer sensibility I expect so much more. Woe is me). Even in his rooms--"Lily—can't I help you?" when she burns the letters, he's a bystander. [In the Hollywood movie either Lily finds new friends or Selden does more than ask; he acts.]

He (evasive, passive almost to a T) and Bertha Dorset (mercenary for the home team) are two sides of the same coin. She lances Lily, and Selden fixes his cuff links while the blood seeps from his soulmate's cheeks.

Louis Auchincloss has written that Lily dies thanks to her beauty: "Lily's beauty is the light in which each of her different groups would like to shine, but when they find out it illuminates their ugliness they want to put it out." Yes but also no. Her so-called friends despise her because of her beauty but ultimately Lily dies of civility and decency and tender feelings. She also dies of impracticality: she never managed to choose the right friends.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Pettifoggery

A funny-looking word (ears aflap?) appearing in Laura Miller's so far excellent (thank you for writing a book for readers to read, as opposed to simply writing a book to write a book--it moves at a thoroughly delicious pace) book The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia. The author has been discussing racism and derivative stereotypes.

The section of Into the Wardrobe [: C.S. Lewis and the Narnia Chronicles, a scholarly book] that presents these evasive and absurdly technical vindications is entitled "Are the Chronicles Politically Incorrect?" rather than "Are the Chronicles Racist? implying that such questions amount to no more than left-wing pettifoggery.

The Magician's Book (which also has beautiful cover art) also uses the term Hebrew Bible instead of Old Testament.