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Does Collecting Make You Feel Dirty?
Reports of the demise of good English have been exaggerated since someone first thought that the language needed to be policed. Being someone who has hung out with an awful lot of English majors and their ilk, I have often been in conversations about how horrible this or that example of English prose is, how it proves our standards have crumbled to dust, how such decadence is a sure sign that the Rapture is nigh "et cetera, et cetera," as Yul Brynner famously intoned. My usual practice is to attempt, gently, to correct the impression that such despair is bound to the era in which we live by summoning examples of past outrage, from Jonathan Swift onward.

Sometimes, though, when my defense are down, I find myself consumed by the very fury I seek to dispel in others. Today the loss of control was provoked by a story posted on the website of a local Tucson broadcaster, from which I will quote the most troubling paragraphs:
At 7:50 this morning the boy and his sister were dropped off at the Kids Village Preschool by their mother's boyfriend. The child told the officer, "He said he walked out of the big door out front, the big tall door."

Police say the child walked about three blocks down an alley and got to a main road when a Good Samaritan spotted the child as he tried to cross Speedway during rush hour.

The Good Samaritan buys the child a soft drink and uses the payphone to call police. Officer Brown says the child was hot and sweaty.

"He was very talkative, very friendly didn't seem to have a care in the world," says Brown.

The child was taken home, just a few blocks from the Circle K.
Unless this is a transcription of speech that has not been properly denoted as such, the tense shifts here constitute a truly egregious failure to edit copy with care. Then again, given the state of contemporary journalism, I wouldn't be surprised if the story went straight to the website without being scrutinized by a second pair of eyes. If that's the case, though, the burden of responsibility falls on the writer. Then again, given the sequence of events that this story haphazardly suggests, perhaps an added layer of confusion was in order.

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I know we've long since gotten used to the way Google celebrates holidays and other special occasions. Still, there are times when the commemoration penetrates the leathery skin of habit to prod a pleasure center, as today's tribute to Dr. Seuss does for me:
It's worth pointing out, however, that honoring the creator of The Cat in the Hat in not a multilingual affair. A few years back, when cpratt was visiting, we were surprised to learn that even though Theodore Geisel's works are wildly popular here, only a few of them have been translated into German, perhaps the language into which the most English texts are translated. It made sense, once we thought about it, given the difficulty of rendering made-up words that still convey semantic content by virtue of the patterns of phonemes they demonstrate. But if you can translate poetry or Finnegan's Wake, why not Dr. Seuss?

I was struck, looking at the Google home page in various languages this morning, to note both that the name "Google" and its characters are not transliterated -- it's the same in Arabic and Cyrillic as it is in English -- and that the "Elmer Fudd" language option is available everywhere. Here are some of the languages you can choose from as rendered in Basque:
This makes me wonder whether it might not be worth the effort to translate Dr. Seuss books after all. Certainly, the worldview espoused in his work is far more advanced, from an ethical standpoint, than the multinational-friendly ideology we regularly try to force other countries to adopt.

P.S. I am shocked that Google has not made a form of Elvish available as one's language of preference. What were they thinking?

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For Walter Benjamin, the aura of a work of art is a function of two qualities: its presence and its cult value. The aura signifies all that is eliminated when “the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition.”Not surprisingly, given the definition of the work of art’s presence as “its unique existence at the place where it happens to be,” the aura is conceptualized in spatial terms as the “unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be.”


Interestingly, the etymology of the word "aura" aligns it, not with the senses of sight or hearing -- the senses that the mechanical reproduction of cultural artifacts is meant to satisfy, but with the senses of touch and smell. In Greek, the word meant "breath" or "breeze," precisely the sort of sensations that frustrate our impulse to copy the world. We can do a good job of capturing the sound of a concert and can even, with enough camera coverage, make it paradoxically more visible than it would be to any individual concert-goer. But we haven't come to close to distilling the feeling of being there: the aroma of smoke, liquor and sweat; the bracing contrast between the packed interior of a venue like Plush and the outdoor patio; or even that waft of cotton that drifts through the air every time a T-shirt is plucked from a box and handed over the merch table. That's what missing in the reproduction and must be imperfectly conjured in words that were not there at the show, but come now, as memory reminds us of what we're missing.

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Muse: Merry Go Round - Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks - Live - 2007-01-09 Plush, Tucson

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I just looked over at my copy of 501 French Verbs and, though I never made it very far in the language, mused on how cool French conjugations can look. There's something about the ratio of characters to actually spoken phonemes that turns me on. As I was thinking about that, though, I started to hear Bruce Springsteen singing "Thunder Road." Only the lyrics were different: "Their were ghosts in the eyes of all the letters you sent away." The mind works in mysterious ways. Or, to be more precise, mine does.

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While reading a news feature on Pitchfork this morning, I came across a word that I've rarely seen in print over the last twenty-five years:
An A-Z of Franz Ferdinand is Helen Chase's searing exposé of the seamy underbelly of the Scottish angle-rockers, a Kitty Kelly-style autobiography that digs up every last speck of dirt on the perpetually scandal-ridden, drug-addled renegades.

Sike! Remember, folks, this is a band whose frontman wrote a book about food. Still, there's plenty to learn about Alex and the lads from the tome. According to NME.com, Chase's A-Z features a series of thematic vignettes and never-before-seen photos, which should school even the biggest Franz Ferdi-fan (yep, went there). Chase conducted a series of lengthy interviews and did extensive research for A-Z, which seeks to serve as a definitive guide to the band's first five years. And beyond, apparently: the author dishes with the dudes about their elusive forthcoming third LP.
Or, rather, I came across what I take to be a word I've rarely seen in print over the last twenty-five years. Given the context, I'm assuming that the writer Paul Thompson means the idiomatic expression that my African-American friends taught me in my fish-out-of-pond purgatory in the sixth grade at Kettering Elementary. But whenever any of us wrote it, we always spelled it -- or at least tried to spell it -- with the letter P: "Psych!" That derivation made sense to me at the time and still makes sense to me today, because it indicates a relationship with all the words with a "psych-" prefix and therefore suggests that the speaker has been messing with the mind of his addressee. For the life of me, I can't think of an equivalent justification for "Sike!", but perhaps I'm just short on ingenuity at the present moment.

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For approximately ninety minutes late this morning, I was without care. Technically, "careless" means "without care." But the difference in implication is significant. I wasn't oblivious. On the contrary, I'm rarely as focused on the demands of the moment as I was today. What I felt was a sense of being at peace with myself and others that I've experienced very little over the past decade. It was as if something had broken inside me, revealing in the process that it was no longer needed. I'd reached what seemed like an end, yet transformed it seamlessly into a means. The light contributed to my frame of mind. I was in Tucson, but the whitish haze softening edges in the distance inspired body memories of the Washington D.C. area. The car's air conditioning powerfully reinforced that conflation of past and present. The coolness smelled the way office buildings along K, L and M streets in Northwest do in summer, when you walk in from the heat and feel your sweat dry.

Yet the biggest reason for my sense of well-being, oddly enough, was the fact that I was severely underslept. During my teenage summer vacations, I'd often ride into D.C. with my father and then tour the city while he worked. Because I consistently stayed up to the wee hours of the morning -- something I also did during school, to my scholarly detriment -- I would only have gotten an hour or two of shut-eye before he was getting ready for work. Somehow, though, my exhaustion made me more attentive, both to my environment and my detachment from it. It was like a mild, but 100% natural mind-altering substance was coursing through me. When I walked inside buildings to cool off and regroup, I would have a momentary sense of accomplishment, like I was an adventurer who had arrived at his next port of call. That's sort of how it seemed today, as I went about my errands: applying sunscreen, pumping gas, selecting a protein drink, checking out the ticket prices for upcoming concerts. I suppose that running on one's last reserves of energy provides a shortcut to clarity. For me, anyway. So I could be simultaneously careful in the execution of tasks and without the sort of care that implies a looking back or forward. "Carefree" instead of "careless."

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Discussing her interactions with the medical establishment just now, Kim commented that, "They'll listen to me because I know how to speak with authority." I'd never noticed the double meaning in that expression before. In order to speak with authority, you have to speak with authority. I like the symmetry that implies. It functions much like the one invoked by the word "subject," as famously remarked by the French thinkers Jacques Lacan and Louis Althusser: the subject of a sentence is subject to the sentence.

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Self-absorption = a Moebius strip of Bounty, the quicker picker-upper.

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We want to be first. The first to rise. The first inside. The first to state who was first before us. But time buckles under the pressure of desire. And "first" empties into a now that is never the same. The mirror on the wall looks into its own past, past itself looking. All we can hope for is to come between, breaking the circuit with our own blindspots. Every second is first in line. Every second is our last. The burden springs out from the brush, tugging us leg first into its close. This is revelation. This is the time after time.

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From Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics--
The linguistic sign, being auditory in nature, has a temporal aspect, and hence certain temporal characteristics: (a) it occupies a certain temporal space, and (b) this space is measured in just one dimension: it is a line

This principle is obvious, but it seems never to be stated, doubtless because it is considered too elementary. However, it is a fundamental principle and its consequences are incalculable.

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I'm beside myself with embarrassment. In my entry about circumcision this morning, I provided a false etymology. Even worse, I deceived my own daughter with the same lie. I didn't mean to perpetuate the deceit, but that doesn't make things right. So, without further ado, let me state, for the record, as bobo_amargo so graciously pointed out, that the word "incident" has a different parentage than "incisive." While the latter does, in fact, come from the Latin "cædere," meaning "to strike" or " to cut," the former actually derives from the Latin "cadere," meaning "to fall" or "to die."

My confusion came from an undergraduate lecture that I either remembered too dimly or didn't comprehend to begin with. You see, I had thought that those two Latin verbs were from the same Indo-European root because my instructor had made a play on words that centered on the phrase, "when the strike falls." But I've looked up the words in the Oxford English Dictionary and a few etymological dictionaries and can find no evidence to support my ill-founded conviction that "incident" and "incisive" are related.

The worst part of this discovery is that it is accompanied by the realization that I have done precisely what I rag on Martin Heidegger for doing: playing fast and loose with the history of words. I hope this isn't the start of something more serious. If I start looking at photos of Hannah Arendt with inexplicable longing -- already a possibility, given that she was definitely my type -- and am overcome with the desire to remove my shoes and dangle my feet in a Black Forest stream, I will know that I am infected. Maybe I should have a glance at Theodor Adorno's The Jargon of Authenticity in the hopes that it will serve as the zinc needed to forestall the worsening of this false etymology-inducing virus.

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Mode: thrown down
Muse: Weakling Ring - The Slow Break - Louisville Is For Lovers 6

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It's instructive to compare the story of a World Cup match written with an American audience in mind with the report written for English-speaking football fans who have a firm grasp on the game. Take the two accounts of today's excellent Germany-Poland match. The AP wire story follows the conventions of American sportswriting, as its opening two paragraphs indicate:
Shot after shot was turned away by Poland's goalkeeper and the crossbar. Germany kept firing and got the payoff just in time Wednesday night.

Substitute Oliver Neuville scored on a sliding kick off a brilliant cross from another sub, David Odonkor, in injury time and Germany edged Poland 1-0. The hosts, with a man advantage for the final 15 minutes, controlled the action, only to be frustrated by Artur Borac, who made a handful of spectacular saves.
I generally like this approach, having absorbed it on a near-daily basis since I first learned to read. But it doesn't captivate me when applied to soccer. I keep getting the feeling that the author is translating the narrative of a baseball game into soccer terms instead of writing in a way that captures the latter's special qualities.

The match report, on the other hand, baffles me sometimes at the level of the sentence. It's not as bad as reading the write-up of a cricket test match or a rugby contest, but I still feel like a foreigner within that idiom. It's a welcome sensation, however, since it helps me to get caught up in the excitement of the action in a way that the American version does not:
Poland were reduced to 10 men in the 75th when Sobolewski picked up his second yellow card after halting a Klose breakaway.

Germany, now in complete control, then warmed up for a spectacular finish.

Lahm forced Boruc into a brilliant save following a mazy dribble from the left before the Celtic goalkeeper got a hand to Neuville's shot, after substitute Tim Borowski had set him up.

Germany then twice hit the bar twice in as many seconds - Klose heading a Lahm cross against the woodwork before Ballack again found the frame with his close-range follow-up.

But the substitutions eventually paid for Klinsmann in added time.

Odonkor burst down the right flank, with Neuville - who replaced Podolski in the 71st minute - sweeping his low cross home from close range to spark celebrations among the home crowd.
I never would have used the word "mazy" in a sports context before reading this, but I love the way it pins down the play in question. I'm sure a lot of my delight comes from reading a British writer, but I'll take the happy estrangement regardless.

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Muse: a memory of The Arcade Fire

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While going through the archives of William Gibson's blog this morning, presently devoted to the presentation of work in progress, I found this very amusing entry I'd previously overlooked:
Friday, September 09, 2005 posted 11:15 PM

I was looking through a list of women's names today, Dutch, all prior to the year 1100:

Clodauuiua
Clotrada
Crapahildis
Cunegundis

Once you see the name Crapahildis it sort of sticks with you, doesn't it? And think of all the men who cried out "Clodauuiua!" with utmost longing.
I can't help but think of the song "Glitter and Be Gay" from Leonard Bernstein's Candide.

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Muse: the theme song from The Dick Cavett Show

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I'm reading Gottlob Frege for the first time. I had imagined that it would be difficult going. But I'm pleasantly surprised at the clarity and concision of his prose. It's considerably easier on the mental ear than that of John Searle, who named a dog after him, and exceeds that of Ludwig Wittgenstein in what I will call, perhaps unfairly, its "Anglo-American" directness:
Wenn man in her gewöhnlichen Weise Worte gebraucht, so ist das, wovon man sprechen will, deren Bedeutung. Es kann aber auch vorkommen, daß man von den Worten selbst oder von ihrem Sinne reden will. Jenes geschieht z.B., wenn man die Worte eines anderen in gerader Rede anführt. Die eigenen Worte bedeuten dann zunächst die Worte des anderen, und erst diese haben die gewöhnliche Bedeutung. Wir haben dann Zeichen von Zeichen. In der Schrift schließt man in diesem Falle die Wortbilder in Anführungszeichen ein. Es darf also ein in Anführungszeichen stehendes Wortbild nicht in der gewöhnlichen Bedeutung genommen werden.

Wenn man von dem Sinne eines Ausdrucks ,A' reden will, so kann man dies einfach durch die Wendung ,der Sinn des Ausdrucks ,A". In der ungeraden Rede spricht man von dem Sinne z.B. der Redes eines andern. Es ist daraus klar, daß auch in dieser Redeweise die Worte nicht ihre gewöhnliche Bedeutung haben, sondern das bedeuten, was gewöhnlich ihr Sinn ist. Um einen kurzen Ausdruck zu haben, wollen wir sagen: die Wörter werden in der ungeraden Rede ungerade gebraucht oder haben ihre ungerade Bedeutung. Wir unterscheiden demnach die gewöhnliche Bedeutung eines Wortes von seiner ungeraden und seinen gewöhnlichen Sinn von seinem ungeraden Sinne. Die ungerade Bedeutung eines Wortes is also sein gewöhnlicher Sinn. Solche Ausnahmen muß man immer im Auge behalten, wenn man die Verknüpfungsweise von Zeichen, Sinn und Bedeutung im einzelnen Falle richtig auffassen will.
I wish I'd had this passage at my disposal when I taught my graduate course on "Ordinary and Extraordinary Language" back in the spring of 2002, because Frege does a better job of explaining the distinction between conventional and exceptional usage than anyone I've read. Oh, and I'll buy a beer for anyone who is willing to join me in making the daring leap between the sort of "Ausnahmen" that Frege invokes here and the sort that appear in Carl Schmitt's Political Theology and the Giorgio Agamben texts that play off of Schmitt's argument. I'm making my way to a place that's good, even if the topography looks to be rather imposing.

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Mode: spindly yet torpid
Muse: "Strolling On The Street" - Various Artists - Metropolis Shanghai: Showboat To China

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You know how people will make a pun and then state, "No pun intended"? Well, I've been thinking about the structure of that confession for a long time and have concluded that its usage is really, really interesting. The only way someone can claim that a pun wasn't intended is to recognize that it's there to begin with. In conversation, that recognition usually happens right away, before the speaker moves on to her or his next statement. In that context, the confession serves as a break in the flow of speech, a reminder that the speaker is reflecting on her or his words in the wake of their utterance. But it also seems to confirm that the self-reflexive moment lags behind the moment it comments upon. Because if the speaker were policing her or his statements in advance, the pun would presumably have failed to made the cut.

What are we to make, though, of the same confession in writing? Almost any piece of writing that is made public undergoes some editorial revision. If both the pun and the confession that it wasn't intended remain in the finished product, then, their presence testifies to a decision not to edit them out. Consider this passage from a Pitchfork feature on onetime teen idol Arch Hall Jr.:
Arch Sr. produced The Choppers in 1961 as a starring vehicle (no pun intended) for his 15-year-old son, who rides around in a beaut hot rod as the leader of a local gang that strips abandoned cars and befuddles the police.
I'm fairly certain that this piece received some editorial attention. Yet the confession stands, confusing our perception of intention in the process. For the decision not to edit the confession out has to be regarded as intentional. Indeed, the sort of intention that manifests itself in the editorial process tends to conform much better to the stereotype of the rational actor who deliberates prior to doing than does the sort of intention that manifests itself in the writing process. In short, the person who confesses in writing that there was "no pun intended" is also confessing a desire to make that confession, as well as the decision that follows from it.

I just returned from a music conference where the theme was "Guilty Pleasures." I hope to compose an entry on the experience later this week. For now, though, I want to suggest that puns seem to function as guilty pleasures. Why else would someone bother to make the confession that there was, "No pun intended"? Personally, I believe strongly that the puns we make are intended, even if they tend to slip out a side door of our minds instead of through the foyer of self-reflexive consciousness. Something is doing the intending and it's inside us whether we deny it or not. Whether we want to conflate that agency with the deliberative "I" who enters into legal contracts or not, it seems foolish to pretend that it's not there. Unless, that is, there's some ancillary benefit to making the confession of a lack of intention. As far as I know, though, instances where someone was punished for making an intentional pun have been rare. So why is there such a hurry to disavow our pun-making powers?

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Mode: toffee fey
Muse: I Don't Want To See You - Camera Obscura - Underachievers Please Try Harder

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In the first watercolor Skylar painted during our family art night, she included a small, but detailed bit of text in her version of Chinese:

I think she was trying to write "Happy New Year!" or some related salutation. She didn't, as you might expect, but her brushwork is pretty darned impressive nonetheless.

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In kindergarten Skylar and her classmates at Manzanita were told to use "kids' spelling" all the time. When I was volunteering in her class I'd say, "Use your sounders!," because that made-up word did the best job of reminding them what do do. Now that they're in first grade, though, they have spelling tests each week. The transition from an approach where the emphasis is on expression alone to one where being correct takes precedence has been confusing at times. As my friend whose daughter is two years ahead of Skylar once noted, even six and seven-year-olds can sense ideological conflict in the classroom. Luckily for Skylar, though, the injunction to start doing things the grown-up way has been tempered by plenty of encouragement to use "kids' spelling" in other assignments. When she writes us her weekly note or does her homework, she is permitted to translate sound to paper phonetically in order to bridge the many gaps in her orthographic expertise.

Although I find her hybrid spelling status vexing at times -- I had to learn the correct spelling for words from the get-go -- I have to admit that it makes her writing a lot richer in content than it otherwise would be. Not to mention that her attempts to sound out words regularly results in transcriptions that reveal something about pronunciation that would otherwise go unnoticed. This week's homework is a great example:

I struggled to figure some of the words out, but once I did, I was delighted. "Veginya" for "Virginia"; "cheravled" for "travelled"; "Callaforsyu" for "California" -- these transcriptions capture the nasal quality of American English pronunciation beautifully. Linguists can learn a lot from children. Toddlers especially. But the lingering use of "kids' spelling" at Skylar's age gives that utility a longer shelf life. I just hope that the transition from this hybrid spelling situation to all-grown-up all the time works out as well as the last one.

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