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<<December 2017>>
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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: Language &, Most Recent at Top [Help]
Results 1 - 4 of 4
1. David Berman blogs, y’all

Exciting: Poet and Silver Jews singer/songwriter/mastermind David Berman has a blog, Menthol Mountains, where he’s pondering “the phony gulp,” hooked-up verse, and other things. (Thanks, 5redpandas.)

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2. Comprehensive slang immersion

Thanks to Jonathon Green’s magnificent three-volume Dictionary of Slang, which arrived yesterday compliments of Oxford University Press, I’ve already learned that the first recorded use of “bad shag” dates to 1788, that to “beat skin”* (1944) doesn’t mean what you think, you pervert, and that the term “dude” was once (1883) considered so offensive that “a vigorous Bloomington woman cowhided a clerical editor for calling her a dudess.” (Eternal disclosure.)

“Courage pills” (1933) are heroin in tablet form. “Coño,” a hometown favorite, gets an entry, as it should; you might want to look it up before you run out into the streets and start shouting it at people. As for “douchebag”: raise your hand if you’d like to see a usage shout-out to Alex Balk, circa TMFTML; has any single man in history worked as tirelessly, and as effectively, to restore an epithet to the lexicon, with so little recognition?

More to come — I’m still making my way through Volume 1 — but for now do read Colin MacCabe’s review for the New Statesman. An excerpt:

In these three volumes, Green has dared to put slang on the level of The Oxford English Dictionary, offering illustrative citations, arranged in historical order, for all of his headings and subheadings.

Such a venture runs into the problem that slang has a particular affinity with the spoken rather than the written language. And, indeed, with the exception of certain 17th-century dramas, the early sources are mainly specialised “canting” dictionaries that promised to furnish the innocent countryman with a guide to the evils of the city. It seems to be impossible to imagine slang without cities, without worlds in which anonymous figures can speak to you in words you cannot understand.

The rise of the novel led to an ever-increasing representation of forms of speech both low and high – and slang is always refreshingly low. The significant burst of written sources comes with universal literacy and pulp fiction at the turn of the 20th century. But then there is also cinema, as well as popular music, television and now the internet. Green, with an industry to match Dr Johnson’s, has ploughed through his sources, and offers, in his Dictionary of Slang, both an extraordinary contribution to our understanding of the history of the language and one hell of a good read. If we take our three underground phrases and consult Green, we find that the use of “pig” as a word for the forces of authority dates back to the end of the 18th century and the struggles that pitted the corresponding societies against Pitt’s repressive state. One further discovers that “get one’s act together” comes from United States black English, probably the single most fertile source of slang in the 20th-century anglophone world and the source of such other staples of the countercultural vocabulary as “heavy” and “groovy”. “Front”, in the sense of to advance money, is first quoted as late as 1961, but “bread” in the sense of money dates back to 1938 – though all the quotations place it in that creative linguistic circle that surrounded black music.

It is here that one migh

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3. The education of Lynn Barber

Lynn Barber’s An Education, which inspired the film of the same name, appears in the States this week and is an utter delight so far.

Somehow I’d never fully become aware of Barber until she withdrew last fall from a literary festival whose organizers objected to her author photo. “If a pic of me smoking is such a threat to the good burghers of Richmond,” she said, “imagine what my presence would do.”

In her writing as in life, Barber excels at this sort of piercing, slightly absurd wisecrack. From An Education:

[M]y father could never shake off his desperate childhood fear of poverty, and was eternally saving for ‘a rainy day’. (In the exceptionally wet winter of 2000, when their house was flooded to a depth of six inches, I cheerily remarked to my father, ‘Well it looks like your rainy day has finally come.’ Despite his being blind by this stage, in his mid-eighties, and handicapped by water lapping round his ankles, he still tried to wade across the room to hit me.) His great fear was ‘fecklessness,’ which seemed to mean fun in any form.

For more examples of her wit, turn to The Guardian, where you can read the excellent section that focuses on her teenage affair with a much older man.

Simon was adept at not answering questions, but actually he rarely needed to, because I never asked them. The extent to which I never asked him questions is astonishing in retrospect — I blame Albert Camus. My normal instinct was to bombard people with questions, to ask about every detail of their lives, even to intrude into the silences with ‘What are you thinking?’ But just around the time I met Simon I became an Existentialist, and one of the rules of Existentialism as practised by me and my disciples at Lady Eleanor Holles School was that you never asked questions. Asking questions showed that you were naïve and bourgeois; not asking questions showed that you were sophisticated and French.


I particularly like Barber’s notion, introduced in the first chapter of An Education, that her writing is one of the enduring effects of childhood elocution lessons. Her teacher was her mother, who also instructed shopgirls and other people’s children how to speak in a manner she believed was posh. The poems Barber had to recite (with gestures) are the ones “that flash into my mind unbidden — unwanted! — at odd moments of the day. ‘Dirty British steamer with a salt-caked smokestack,’ I mutter, crashing my trolley along the Waitrose aisles. ‘Is there anybody there, said the Traveller’ as I wait for the call centre to answer.”

Beyond that, though:

I am left with this terrible legacy — my accent. It is the classic elocution accent, homeless and inauthentic, suggestive neither of grouse moor nor shop floor, an accent that screams ‘phoney!’ the moment it opens its mouth. It is by far the most repulsive thing about me, and I notice that people meeting me for the first time are often taken aback. I have no idea what my natural accent should be — my father still speaks in broad Lancaster [earlier she mentions that he says "side the pots" for "clear the table"], my mother elocution. But perhaps it was because I so hated my voice that I chose to become a writer…

Barber is best known as a journalist; her sharp,

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4. New York a Babel in reverse?

CUNY’s Endangered Language Alliance seeks to record speakers of dying languages, many of whom live in New York City.

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