Category Archives: Language

Double triple

The judgment that that that is is is a true judgment.

— Aristotle (freely translated)

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“Regular Joe” surnames

American:

joeblow-us

Mr. Blow has been the frontrunner all along, ever since generic Joes first rose to prominence and began to compete with generic Johns (Doe, Q. Public). Joe Bloggs enjoyed his quarter-hour of fame in the nineties but ended up falling as quickly as he had risen. Shmoe has always been my Joe of choice, so I’m gratified to see him gaining steadily, playing tortoise to Bloggs’s hare. If current trends continue, he’s set to surpass Blow within the next 10 years or so.

British:

joeblow-uk

In Britain, on the other hand, Bloggs is unstoppable

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Filed under Language, Silliness, Statistics

Whence “towering infernos”?

The most common sense of inferno in English, when used as a common noun rather than with reference to Dante’s poem, is “large conflagration.” But why? Because of the traditional (and biblical) image of hell-fire, of course — but why is the Italian word inferno, which entered English through Dante, used this way when hell so rarely is? Those who have read Dante’s Inferno know that fire hardly figures in it at all; and of course etymologically inferno simply means “underworld” (related to inferior and infra-). No one would dream of calling a conflagration a “towering underworld.”

Nevertheless, the word inferno is inextricably linked with the idea of a conflagration — so much so that some publishers simply must have a fire on the cover of Dante and aren’t too picky about what kind of fire it is. Here’s the Collins Classics edition:

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Notice anything strange about that picture? Why is a horse burning in hell? Because this wasn’t originally meant to be a picture of hell at all. It’s Johann Georg Trautmann’s painting View of the Burning Troy. You will search Dante in vain for anything resembling this scene. But it shows “an inferno” — a conflagration — and was thus deemed appropriate.

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My theory is that English-speakers are subconsciously influenced by the phonetic resemblance of inferno to furnace, with perhaps echoes of fire, burn, and incinerate as well.

 

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Filed under Language, Oddities

Excerpts from The Grand and Gray Pig-Latin Dictionary

beau v. omplycay

foe n. Eynmanfay

powers n. ixtysay inutesmay agesway

Rex n. adiographray

ripe interj. easeplay

sigh interj. onpay imay ordway!

so interj. ancay ouyay eesay?

Suez n. ethay Atesstay

sun v. ecantray

wonder adj. inway ogresspay

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Bilingual limerick

There once was a rhyme, not a long one,
Comprising both English and 中文。
I wrote it, but how?
我也不知道。
I haven’t a clue, so 不用問。

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Filed under Language, Poetry, Silliness

Stereotypes according to Google

A few years ago I thought it would be interesting to type “why are ____ so” into Google (filling in the blank with various races, religions, nationalities, etc.) and see what suggestions the autocomplete function provided. I filed the results away and forgot about them, just finding them now as I was cleaning out some old folders.

You can’t replicate these results now. Google has apparently changed the autocomplete algorithm so it blocks such things, presumably because it makes Google look bad if they helpfully suggest that you might want to search for “why are Africans so ugly” or “why are Jews so cheap.” Since this information is no longer available to anyone who searches for it, I thought I’d share the results I got:

  • black people: loud, athletic, funny, angry, cool, mean, good at sports, muscular, good at basketball, religious
  • white people: fake, mean, rude, smart, attractive, rich, good looking, lame, skinny, annoying
  • Asians: smart, rude, thin, short, good at math, cheap, annoying, quiet, rich, perfect
  • Hispanics: rude, short, loud, religious, lazy, family oriented, fertile, proud, smart, annoying
  • men: lazy, mean, shallow, insecure, controlling, visual, immature, moody, annoying, complicated
  • women: emotional, crazy, difficult, mean, beautiful, confusing, needy, shallow, selfish, irrational
  • gays: gay, obnoxious, sensitive, in your face, powerful, feminine, hated, rich, angry
  • Christians: weird, arrogant, happy, nice, fake, annoying, narrow minded, angry, rude
  • atheists: hateful, mean, rude, arrogant, intolerant, smug, annoying, mean to christians, hated in america, aggressive
  • Muslims: angry, strict, sexist, sensitive, intolerant, radical, barbaric, cruel, nice, touchy
  • Mormons: pretty, successful, wealthy, awesome, fake, conservative, pushy, boring, annoying, arrogant
  • Buddhists: happy, selfish, peaceful, annoying, nice
  • Protestants: arrogant, stupid, anti catholic, annoying, ignorant, mean, conservative, bitter, dumb, judgemental
  • Catholics: mean, arrogant, strict, liberal, judgemental, annoying, rich, nice, interested in mary, conservative
  • Jews: cheap, smart, rich, powerful, intelligent, rude, funny, arrogant, persecuted, liberal
  • Republicans: stupid, evil, angry, mean, hateful, greedy, crazy, selfish, religious, paranoid
  • Democrats: stupid, angry, racist, dumb, ignorant, lazy, evil, awesome, ugly, blind
  • liberals: stupid, smug, arrogant, angry, mean, annoying, hateful, racist, naive, ugly
  • conservatives: stupid, hateful, angry, racist, crazy, afraid of obama, paranoid, ignorant, close minded, afraid
  • old people: mean, grumpy, racist, stubborn, cute, slow, angry, boring, dumb, cold
  • young people: stupid, lazy, rude, tall, selfish, depressed, mean, liberal, violent, shallow
  • Americans: stupid, rude, loud, ignorant, religious, tall, patriotic, lazy, paranoid, weird
  • Indians: smart, arrogant, annoying, skinny, short, creepy, good at math, corrupt, successful, loud
  • English people: arrogant, cold, mean, stuck up, funny, boring, skinny, tall, smart, reserved
  • French people: rude, mean, thin, attractive, gay, dark, short, annoying, hot, healthy
  • Africans: ugly, tall, strong, violent, fast, loud, stupid, dark, rude, good at running
  • British people: pale, smart, cool, cold, tan, skinny, polite, rude, lazy, sarcastic
  • Chinese people: rude, loud, smart, weird, short, heartless, cheap, rich, small, annoying
  • Russians: rude, strong, badass, good at chess, angry, rich, tall, weird, crazy, cold

I had planned to do similar searches for several other nationalities, but I didn’t get around to it — and now, as I’ve said, it is everlastingly too late.

Most of the results are no surprise, but I thought some of them were pretty funny. I love how the first result for “why are gays so…” is “…gay.” Also, notice how the British are apparently pale, tan, polite, and rude. (But perhaps some of those suggestions are sarcastic?) Above all, it is most heartening to see how much the Right and the Left have in common.

left-right

It really makes you wonder why politicians choose to focus so much on divisive issues instead of on the many important things that unite us.

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Filed under Language, Politics, Statistics

Two Clouds of Unknowing

Several months ago I picked up a Modern English translation of The Cloud of Unknowing (an anonymous Middle English work of Christian mysticism) at a used bookstore in Taichung. It sat on my shelf for some time unread, and then suddenly I felt moved to read it. I finished in on April 19.

On May 4 — just fifteen days later — I went to the same used bookstore, and near the checkout counter there was a stack of fliers advertising an upcoming exhibition at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum called — Cloud of Unknowing. (This latter Cloud is being promoted on the museum website as “a themed exhibition on the subject of urban spatiality and issues pertaining to space” in commemoration of the 130th anniversary of the founding of Taipei, so the choice of the that particular name would be a bit of a mystery if we didn’t know the synchronicity fairies were behind it.)

DSCN0187

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Incidentally, much is lost in Clifton Wolters’s translation of The Cloud of Unknowing. I’ve never read the original, but I was tipped off to its poetic superiority by a page header in the translation.

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Where the original had “a beam of ghostly light” (or, rather, “a beme of goostly liʒt”), Wolters replaces the gentle moonlight of “beam” with the more martial connotations of “shaft” — and then nixes the eerie, numinous “ghostly” in favor of the namby-pamby New-Agey “spiritual.”

The perfection of that one phrase, “a beam of ghostly light,” led me to look up the original text online. It opens with:

Ghostly friend in God, thou shalt well understand that I find, in my boisterous beholding,…

versus Wolters’s

My friend in God, it seems to me, in my rough and ready way,…

Really? “In my rough and ready way”? (“Boisterous beholding,” on the other hand, is so perfect that I decided to appropriate it as a new name for this blog.) And what happened to “ghostly” and “thou shalt well understand”? This is a pretty Zeppo-Marx approach to translation! (“Now, eh, you said a lot of things here that I didn’t think were important, so I just omitted them.”)

While the first word of the book is “just omitted,” elsewhere Wolters generally replaces every instance of ghostly with spiritual. While this is probably a perfectly defensible choice, given the way the meaning of ghostly has changed over time, I find that it annoys me to no end and seriously detracts from the quality of the book.

The truth is that neither ghostly nor spiritual is really an adequate rendition of the Middle English goostly. The Modern English ghostly has acquired unwanted connotations, having become too exclusively associated with apparitions of the dead, as opposed to spirits more generally. But spiritual, too, has suffered; it most often means simply “figurative” these days, or else “half-assedly non-religious.” Spiritual light sounds pedestrian, not at all supernatural, and leaves the reader blasé. Ghostly light has more the ring of authentic revelation, the sort of thing that “often times maketh my bones to quake while it maketh manifest.” It carries the connotation that every angel is terrible (and yet, alas, I invoke you, almost-deadly birds of the soul).* Neither is perfect; each adds or detracts something from the original; but I think ghostly is much to be preferred and comes closer to the spirit in which the Cloud was written. The 21st century is awash in spirituality (I, alas, am no exception), and a strong injection of medieval ghostliness is much wanted.

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*Joseph Smith and Rilke, respectively

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Filed under Anecdotes, Coincidence / Synchronicity, Language, Translation