Some scans from The Public Notice (1973, out of print) by Maurice Rickard. It’s a gold mine. First of all, the following poster from late 1861. Despite the ambiguous grammar, they were requesting keepers for a ward of imbeciles, not ward keepers who were imbeciles. Although such terms are now used interchangeably as insults for somebody who’s acting in a way deemed stupid, until well into the 20th century “imbecile” was a respectable diagnosis meaning that a person was more functional than an idiot, but less functional than a moron. In this notice the “imbeciles” are alternatively referred to as “HARMLESS LUNATICS”, which is hardly better. Note also that these poor people (in every sense of the term) were incarcerated in a workhouse, specifically the workhouse of Bancroft Road, Stepney, in north-east London.
I particularly love the German and Japanese languages, although obviously they’re not much alike. The Germans string together long fusillades of smaller words to target concepts that most people recognise but don’t necessarily have a name for in their own language. One of my favourites– both as a word and actually experiencing it because evidently I’m kind of a prick sometimes– is schadenfreude, the pleasure one feels at somebody else’s misfortune. Another great one is Backpfeifengesicht, a face in need of a punch or slap. It literally means something like “cheek-pipe-face” but I have no idea what that derives from or alludes to.
What I’d really like to draw your attention to, though, is the Japanese word bakataa (バカッター). It’s a pun on the word baka (バカ / 馬鹿, stupid or idiot) and Twitter. A bakataa is a person who writes something grossly stupid / illegal / offensive / provocative on Twitter, or does something stupid / illegal / offensive / provocative in real life then documents it on Twitter… and is somehow surprised to find that it backfires on them and causes real world repercussions. I suppose you could translate it literally (and clumsily) as “stupid-ter”, or more idiomatically as something like “twatter” to preserve the pun. But as in the case of schadenfreude, translation is mostly beside the point. Hardly a week seems to go by without at least one bakataa poking their baka head above the parapet to be shot off somewhere in the online world, so let’s just say arigato gozaimasu to whichever Japanese genius came up with a word for these people.
PS: Although it’s not German or Japanese I can’t pass up this opportunity to share the wonderful (and also social network-relevant) imagery of the Dutch mierenneuker, a petty “ant-fucker” who creates a huge fuss about trivial matters or rules.
“Awesome” is one of those words that’s become so stretched out, abused and misapplied that it’s become almost useless. The features of a new smart phone are not awesome. It’s not awesome that somebody remembered how you like your coffee. Even the Queen’s house is not awesome, and yours certainly isn’t. “Artist”, “curated” and “essential” are akin to it in terms of being useful, necessary words that are rapidly being emptied of all meaning. They’re turning into reflexive lexical burps, semiotic zombies that shamble on through the language mainly because they’re only dimly aware that they’re already dead. “The artist’s minimalist re-interpretations of Star Wars characters are now available as prints on her website”, “their boutique in Chelsea features an immaculately curated selection of high-end fashion brands”, “this season’s essential new heels”; they’re all profoundly wrong– and lazy– usages that turn our language into a barrage of empty marketing messages instead of a means of discourse for balanced human beings who connect with our world and with each other in ways that might enable us to truly feel that combination of fear, admiration, beauty, incomprehension, and amazement that used to be known as awe. Or that might enable more of us to recognise that a real artist is the conduit for a much more profound and ineffable transformation of her or his source materials (including other peoples’ previous work) than most smirking pasticheurs or hipster superfans can even imagine, and that to be a curator means at root to take care, to respond and maintain and nurture, not to intervene or impose one’s own values or whims.
Let me show you something that is truly awesome, something that makes me afraid of my smallness in the universe and staggered at the infinite beauty and incomprehensible majesty of all the things that are going on in that universe right now while we carry on our silly little lives, mostly blind and oblivious, on one tiny planet that’s a mere speck even within our own solar system. It fills me with joy and terror.
On the 31st of August 2012, a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) erupted from the surface of our sun, and this real image of it was captured by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre (more / larger images at the link, both images reproduced here CC licensed by NASA). What you’re seeing here is a vast chunk of helium plasma from the sun’s atmosphere, heated by nuclear fusion and sculpted by immense magnetic fields. How vast?
There are at least 200 billion stars in our galaxy alone, of which our sun is a relatively unremarkable example as stars go. It is 1.39 million km in diameter, with an estimated energy output of 385 million billion gigawatts. Its surface temperature is 5,505°C. It is about 4.6 billion years old. Please don’t ever use the word “awesome” about anything less mind-blowing than this picture and its implications.
Update: I found a video of the CME. You’ll probably want to mute the music, which sounds like the bed for a banal corporate video montage of warehouse workers stacking boxes. The video is more compiled than edited. Seriously, NASA, employ a professional editor; there’s no shortage of them. But that aside, worth a watch… especially if you constantly bear in mind the size of the Earth as shown above.
(A linguistic examination of silly Youtube videos)
Paraphasia is a subset of general aphasia. The latter term can describe a number of impairments to language ability resulting from neurological trauma or illness, such as blows to the head, strokes or tumours. The former word, paraphasia, refers more specifically to speech being superficially coherent but still fundamentally wrong in some way to everyone but the speaker, because of partial or total mispronunciation (e.g. “mispornuntiacion”, or “window” for “widow”, or vice versa), or due to varying degrees of word substitution (e.g. quasi-homophonic errors like “beg” instead of “bed”, or massive and incomprehensible errors like “wrestler” instead of “library”). Obviously all of these paraphasias can blur into what would generally be considered “normal” linguistic mistakes, i.e. mistakes not resulting from a medical condition, of which there are quite a few widely recognised types:
An eggcorn, which was named by linguist Geoffrey Pullum in 2003, is when a person creates a plausible (but wrong) interpretation of a word they know but don’t know how to pronounce, that they’ve misheard, or have heard more or less correctly but never seen written down. Pullum’s example is “egg corn” for “acorn”. These actually seem to be increasingly common on the internet. Wikipedia’s article on Eggcorns points out two that I’ve often seen myself online: “baited breath” and “ex-patriot”, which should be “bated breath” and “expatriate” respectively. Confusions of “bear” and “bare” are also very common, although these are probably for the most part spelling errors rather than full blown eggcorns, since I should imagine the majority of English speakers know that being bare and being a bear are different things even if they’re unsure of the correct spelling for each one.
Good examples of malapropisms come appropriately from the original Mrs Malaprop in Richard Sheridan’s 18th century play The Rivals. Malaprop suggests that somebody be “illiterated” (obliterated) from memory, talks about “allegories” in the Nile (meaning alligators, although surely these would be crocodiles anyway…) and speaks of a “nice derangement” (arrangement).
Mondegreen is a less recent neologism, this time by Sylvia Wright in 1954, coined to describe a mishearing that completely changes the original phrase’s meaning. The internet has launched hundreds of these as comical videos and anecdotes, but the 1950s naming of it points to it being a longstanding phenomenon, as do near-universal mondegreens like Jimi Hendrix’s “excuse me while I kiss this guy”, when the real lyric is “excuse me while I kiss the sky”. This particular mondegreen also famously makes more sense than the original line, as do many of the popular mondegreens from Bohemian Rhapsody.
Mondegreens also work across different languages, but this is a thing that seems not to have a name in English. The Japanese name for it is soramimi (空耳). 空 is false or hollow; 耳 is an ear or hearing, one of the easier kanji to remember because it actually looks like an ear. In soramimi, a phrase in one language is coincidentally close enough to a coherent phrase in another language to at least form proper words, if not a coherent sentence. One example is the English language Beatles song I Want to Hold Your Hand, which transcribes phonetically to some Japanese ears as アホな放尿犯/Aho na hounyouhan, which means something like “idiotic public urination.” The Latin of Carl Orff’s O Fortuna can be almost entirely rendered as absurd but complete English words.
The tables flipped now we got all the coconuts bitch
OK, it’s taken a while but now I’m getting to the point. Recently I’ve been really enjyoing– if that’s the word– the new album by Death Grips, called The Money Store. I’ve been nigh on obsessed with one track in particular, Hacker. This is partly because it totally blows my head off sonically and I wish I was young enough and still had the kind of friends who’d go with me to a place where I could get on the floor and go completely mental dancing to it. Seriously, everyone, stop breeding and choosing furniture and working all the time and shit. I want to go out.
It’s also because MC Ride/Stefan Burnett’s lyrics and rhymes make absolutely no sense whatsoever in a way that I find completely brilliant, evoking some kind of severely aphasic but still fully functional individual who’s cornered you at a bus stop and either doesn’t realise or simply doesn’t care that his conversation is like a jumbled up but somehow self-organising magnetic fridge poetry kit.
Keep your boring straight Sellotape, we want to be wrapped in properly homosexual adhesive tapes and emblems.
I know it’s a really cheap laugh, but come on: “gay panda stripes”? I suppose I could put some kind of sociological fig leaf on this post by claiming it as evidence that right through the 1960s some people in Britain were still unselfconsciously using the word “gay” to mean jolly, carefree or bright and attractive rather than homosexual, despite the brazenly gay Joe Orton, camp comedians like Kenneth Williams spunking Parlare into the mainstream, and the first slow, tentative creeps out of the closet that became something like a viable option in England after the decriminalisation of homosexual acts between consenting adults in 1967. This advert is from 1963, but the publishers of the Eagle comic it comes from were still gaily using the word gay as late as 1968. And this was in a comic meant for boys aged eleven to fifteen, the prime demographic for sniggering innuendo and insecurity about sexual terminology, so Eagle and the advertiser must have been fairly confident that most of the boys wouldn’t detect any double entendre.
Anyway, how about “crackerjack” for obsolete slang? Was this ever a thing that a kid would actually say, or an embarrassing dad-ism? I suspect there weren’t many twelve year old boys describing things as gay, either, even in 1963. Also observe the bottom right panel of this ad and marvel at the fact that not only could they confidently and solemnly suggest that boys make their bikes look gay, but they could also market a product called Sellotape X without having to consider that anyone would think it had something to do with porn.
Eagle was very like this blog– and indeed it prefigured the internet– in the sense that it was full of random and sometimes weird shit; weird at the time, even, not just with hindsight. I’ve done some scans, so there’s more crap like this to come.
At last, recognition that I am indeed famous. From FamilyTree.com, which I’m sure any reasonable person would agree is the first place they’d check for confirmation of who is and is not famous.
“A French and English surname, Gentry comes from the Old French terms ‘gentil’ and ‘genterie’ which means someone who is of noble birth or high born. The spelling variations for Gentry include Jendry, Gentiry, Gentric, Gentil, Jentry and Guntrey. In England those with the Gentry surname are scattered mostly in the central and eastern portions of the country. The highest percentage are in Essex and the city of London. In Scotland the greatest concentration of gentry families is in Perthshire county. [etc, stuff about USA Gentrys omitted] Famous: Dennis Gentry (professional baseball player), Robert Gentry (actor), Teddy Gentry (musician), Minnie Gentry (actress), Bobbie Gentry (singer and songwriter), Curt Gentry (writer), Gary Gentry (professional baseball player) and Alistair Gentry (science fiction writer).”
I’m the only British one, too. Hurrah! And… er… the only one with a trisyllabic first name. In combination with my surname, this is a dactyl (a stressed syllable, then two unstressed) followed by a trochee (a stressed syllable, then an unstressed syllable). Edward Alexander Crowley changed his name to become the occultist and “most evil man in the world” Aleister Crowley in the belief that this formula had some kind of magical power and would lead to its bearer becoming famous. I’ve seen it noted that (to give two examples) the names Jeremy Paxman and Eleanor Rigby follow this meter, but I’ve never seen any documentation regarding from where precisely Crowley picked up the notion to begin with. From doing far too many drugs, probably, like most of his mad ideas. Silly sod.
Bobbie Gentry is an imposter Gentry, though, a pseudo-Gentry. It was a stage name inspired by her mother in combination with the 1952 Film Noir Ruby Gentry, a movie in which it’s not even that character’s original name, but one she acquires from her husband shortly before she accidentally kills him, but before she shoots her brother and becomes the captain of a fishing boat. You know, as you do.
I know it’s perverse, but occasionally I enjoy perusing all the spam comments that get caught in the filter. I also like the fact that the previous sentence sounds quite repulsive, akin to a sentence such as: “occasionally I like to eat all the dead insects stuck in the radiator of my car.”
Nowadays, many of these spam comments seem to be playing upon the inherent vanity and egotism of bloggers by sending generically positive words of encouragement that just happen to have spammy links attached to them. Here are some of my favourites.
“Normally I do not read article on blogs, but I would like to say that this write-up very forced me to try and do so! Your writing style has been surprised me. Thanks, very nice article.”
“Hi, after reading this awesome paragraph i am as well happy to share my experience here with friends.”
“Hi there, just turned into alert.”
“It’s fantastic. grow lethargic this a bitter pill (for someone) to swallow Can better? ;)”
NOTES: I wish I could think of a scenario in which I could announce bombastically “you, sir/madam, have very forced me to try and do so!” although I fear this is dangerously close to one of Catherine Tate’s catchphrases. Since I wouldn’t be caught dead watching one of Tate’s TV shows- I mean, life’s too short, isn’t it?- perhaps somebody can tell me if I’m wrong.
Because of the random capitalisation I’m choosing to imagine that the fourth comment refers to swallowing the Krautrock band of the 1970s. At least our spammer got it’s (abbreviation of “it is”) versus its (possessive) correct, something that many legit bloggers and commenters aren’t capable of.