Coronavirus entertainment: Tattooing yourself

American English oral comprehension practice, with coronavirus and some tattoos

A bit of English listening practice: here’s an NPR story about a tattoo artist who is keeping himself entertained by tattooing…himself.  I’ve put together a list of some vocabulary items that you might not have come across before.  If you would like other aspects of the language of the story explained, please say so in the Comments section!

ink: The basic meaning of this word as a noun is encre. When the announcer says (at 12 seconds into the story) that the tattoo artist has given himself one new piece of ink every day in quarantine, he means that the man is giving himself one tattoo every day. Nowadays you can also use this word as a verb, to ink, which means to give a tattoo, or to tattoo. Examples below.

to sport [something]: to wear proudly. Merriam-Webster defines it this way: “to display or wear usually ostentatiously.” At 15 seconds into the story, the reporter says Woodhead, who already sported hundreds of tattoos…

CNN: A popular cable news channel. It is roughly the BFM-TV of the United States–relatively short stories versus a lot of in-depth programming; the same stories played over and over; and, it should be said, some very good commentators, particularly Fareed Zakaria, a pretty unattractive man who I would nonetheless love to have a cup of coffee with due to his great insights into the world and the news of the day.

 

 

Fiche le camp, Jack: English idiomatic expressions with “to hit”

One of the most delightful books I have ever read in French is named Les Mots et la chose–“Words and The Thing.”  “The thing” is a euphemism for “sex.”  The conceit of the book is that an actress who earns her keep by dubbing pornographic movies has grown weary of the limited vocabulary that her job calls for, so she writes to a retired linguist who specialized in words for la chose to ask for suggestions.  He comes through in spades, with separate chapters for all of the relevant body parts, and of course for l’acte itself.  My favorite: Le détroit des Dardanelles,  the Strait of the Dardanelles, for that part of your body where poo comes out and where, between friends, other things might occasionally go in.


I keep seeing all of these articles in the paper about how to fight coronavirus-quarantine-related boredom.  I don’t get it–I haven’t been this busy in ages.  Telecommuting; reminding my father to eat, to take his medicine, and to let me do his laundry; making masked food runs to the grocery store; eating half of a chocolate babka in a single day (damn it, Zipf); sitting on the front porch smoking cigarettes and petting the dog–I barely have time to learn my 10 words per day of French vocabulary.

Of course, none of that has stopped me from spending inordinate amounts of time looking up French-language covers of classic American songs.  For example, Fiche le camp, Jack is a cover of Hit the Road, Jack, a favorite from before my childhood (and hence, a long fucking time ago).  A cover differs from a dubbed version in that where dubbing involves an original video version whose audio track is replaced, a cover is a de novo production.  So, if there is a video involved, too, then it will be shot anew for the new version.

So, the above-mentioned French actress is dubbing movies so that they have a French-language soundtrack, while the video below shows a version of Hit the Road, Jack, nicely covered by Richard Anthony and some great back-up singers. I hope that it brings a smile to your quarantine day.  Scroll down for the English notes if you are so inclined–today we will talk about some idioms involving the verb to hit, as well as discuss American Evangelical beliefs about what’s going to happen to us sinners.


English notes: idioms involving the verb to hit

In the following examples, note that hit is an irregular verb: its present tense, past tense, and past participle are all hit.

to hit the books: to study.

I can’t go to the party tonight–I gotta hit the books.

Gotta is colloquial language for to have to.

to hit the road: to leave.

This has been a great party, but it’s time for me to hit the road–I gotta go study for my stupid linguistics exam.

to hit bottom: to reach a/the really terrible part of your life. It is often used in conjunction with alcoholics and drug addicts–the belief is that before you can get dry (alcoholics)/clean (drug addicts), you have to “hit bottom.”

God had left her alone with the sinners, so she would sin.  But, she hit bottom after going on a drunken binge with two men she met at a Catholic-sponsored conference on Poverty in the World of Change.  She woke up naked in a hotel bathtub.

The Forsaken, Book Two of The Apocalypse Trilogy.  This is an amusing series of American Protestant fundamentalist fiction about The Rapture, an event in which non-sinners will be whisked up to Heaven, while the rest of us are left on Earth.  (I think that we get damned to eternal Hell at some point.)  The extract is fascinating to me, in that in three short sentences it evokes so many of the tropes of American Protestant fundamentalism: anti-Catholicism, resistance to social services for the poor, and of course loathing of sex.

to hit the sack: to go to bed.

I’m gonna hit the sack–I’ll study for that stupid linguistics test tomorrow.

to hit the hay: to go to bed.

Well, Jack finally hit bottom. He went to the party, but he hit the road early to go home and hit the books.  But, instead, he hit the hay and didn’t study at all.  So, he flunked the test, which dropped his final grade in the course, which dropped his overall GPA, so he lost his badminton scholarship.  He went to his professor and asked him to raise his grade, but his professor said “Surely my course isn’t the only one in which you earned a lower grade than you needed?  Why not go to one of your other professors, and ask them to raise your grade?”  I guess you gotta hit bottom before you get sufficiently motivated as to get your shit together.

I have changed some details to protect the guilty.  But, yeah–I was the professor.

 

 

 

 

Prévert and Les mystères de Paris: Best. Vocabulary. Word. Ever.

Normalcy through vocabulary. And poetry.

The fact that covid-19 has 50% of the world’s population under lockdown orders does not change the fact that in the US, it is National Poetry Month.  The French are getting cats to play tic-tac-toe (le morpion in French, which also means [genital] crab, and I cannot stop giggling like a schoolboy about that), Americans are watching Netflix, and the President of the United States is showing himself more and more to be le roi des cons–and Art goes on.


Jacques Prévert’s poem Pater noster has opening lines as good as any in the world of free verse (translations by me, sorry):

Notre Père qui êtes aux cieux
Restez-y

Our Father who art in heaven
Stay there

Et nous nous resterons sur la terre
Qui est quelquefois si jolie

And we’ll stay here on Earth
Which is sometimes so pretty

Avec ses mystères de New York
Et puis ses mystères de Paris

With its mysteries of New York
And then its mysteries of Paris


So, yeah: the cool neighborhood near me is now empty except for the homeless people living under tarps in the sheltered doorways of now-abandoned shops, Macron is urging the French to support health-care workers, and Trump is urging Americans to support airlines; and I am trying to restore some sense of normalcy to my life by learning my usual 10 words of French vocabulary per day.

So, I’m on a French-language furniture web site the other day trying to find a picture of some obscure item of furniture or another that I ran across while reading Colette’s Chéri, when I came across this: the mystères de Paris.  Literally, that means “the mysteries of Paris”–but it means so, so much more…and thus we have the Best. Vocabulary. Word. Ever.


It turns out that there is such a thing as a mystères de Paris–and it is a commode.  Not a commode in the French sense of the word–what’s called in English a dresser–but a commode in the English sense of the word–a bedside chair with a receptacle for pooping.  A bedside toilet, if you will.  It’s not just any kind of commode, though:

  1. It’s a disguised commode.
  2. It is usually made to look like a stack of books.

From the Meubliz.com web site (translations by me, sorry):

Ce siège d’aisance prend la forme d’une pile de livres simulés. La partie supérieure s’ouvre comme un abattant pour laisser apparaître la cuvette. Ce petit meuble repose sur des pieds bas tournés en balustre ou découpés.

Généralement, ce siège de commodité assez original était décoré de belles et luxueuses couleurs.

This commode takes the form of a pile of fake books. The upper part opens as a lid to access the bowl.  This small piece of furniture sits on feet that have been [not sure what those carpentry terms mean].

Typically, this rather unusual commode was decorated with pretty, luxurious colors.

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Mystères de Paris bedside toilet. Source: Meubliz.com

If you’ve followed this site, you know that Prévert’s poetry is great for understanding what people mean when they talk about “the impossibility of translation.” This is a great example–I just can’t even imagine a way to render mystères de Paris into English, and forget about maintaining that rhyme:

….sur la terre
Qui est quelquefois si jolie

…on Earth
Which is sometimes so pretty

Avec ses mystères de New York
Et puis ses mystères de Paris

With its mysteries of New York
And then its mysteries of Paris

(Yes, jolie and Paris rhyme in French.)

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A Dutch-made mystères de Paris bedside toilet from 1850. Source: Meubliz.com

(Wait, I forgot–more tic-tac-toe-playing cats…)

 

So…let’s all stay in, stay healthy, thank the people working in the grocery stores, thank the people working in the gas stations, thank the doctors, thank the nurses, thank the respiratory therapists–and ignore les maîtres de ce monde, les maîtres avec leurs prêtres, leurs traîtres et leurs reîtres–a line from later in the poem that is more than evocative of the coronavirus-era Trump.  And let’s take care of each other.

See this post for the full poem, as well as for a discussion of the line that I just mentioned.  You can exercise your oral comprehension skills with an English-language video, complete with subtitles, on how to make your own face mask here.

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Mystères de Paris bedside toilet. Source: Meubliz.com

Seeing the complexity of the simple: Comparative anatomy of the scapula

We can do a lot of things with our arms that a quadruped can’t do with theirs. Throw spears at edible quadrupeds. Throw tomatoes at sopranos. Throw bums out of office.

Being a scientist means finding delight in things that look complicated but are actually governed by pretty simple principles, as well as in things that look pretty simple but are actually pretty complex.  Case in point: the scapula.

Common English: shoulder blade.

Technical term: scapula, plural scapulae or scapulas.

French: l’omoplate (nf), la scapula (WordReference)

A scapula looks simple: they’re mostly flat, with a protruberance here and there.  Unlike closely associated bones, they don’t get broken very often–a Swedish study found a rate of scapular fractures of 10 per 100,000 people, while another Swedish study found 50 clavicular fractures per 100,000 people.

And yet: comparing the scapula across species, you see all kinds of interesting shit.  The point of comparative anatomy is that you can understand something better if you compare it to other ways that it could be, but isn’t.  So: let’s compare some scapulae.

The most obvious thing about the scapula is that it is positioned differently in different species.  The basic situation for most living things with limbs is this: you’re a quadruped (i.e. have four legs), and the scapula is located on the side of the trunk.  In contrast: look at a human, and the scapula is on its back. Compare the position of the scapula in this lovely picture of a horse:

horse skeleton
The axis of the scapula is on the line between points A and B. Picture source: http://www.horsecoursesonline.com/college/conformation/lesson_two_893.htm

…with the position of the scapula in this lovely picture of a human:

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Picture source: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/547891110909216204/?lp=true

…and you see the difference.  It’s even more striking when you look at our closer relatives.  We are primates, and specifically, members of a group of primates known as apes, and even more specifically, of the great apes.  One of the biggest differences between us and our various and sundry primate relatives is that we are full-time bipeds.  Autrement dit: we walk upright, all the time.  In contrast, monkeys–which are primates, but not apes–are full-time quadrupeds.  Going along with this difference in locomotion is a difference in the position of the scapula: it’s on our back, but on a monkey’s side.  

Here’s a really nice view of a primate (left) and human (right) trunk.  Looking at the left side, labelled “monkey,” you see the typical quadruped architecture: the scapula is on the side of the chest cage.  On the right side, labelled “human,” it’s a different story: the scapula is on the back.

The arrows in this illustration make an important point: primates also have the typical quadruped chest cage, which is relatively narrow in comparison to its depth. In contrast, the human chest cage is sorta flat–relatively wide in comparison to its depth.  (Remember that the human skeleton in the picture is viewed from above, as if you had ripped someone’s head off in order to shit down their neck. (Sorry–a little sailor-talk there.  Unlike Trump, I served my country.)  In contrast, the monkey is being viewed from the front–I have no great analogy for you here.)

chest_compar (1)
Picture source: https://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/article/0_0_0/lines_05

Amongst primates in general, there is quite a bit of variability.  Why? Well, there’s quite a bit of variability in the extent to which they are quadrupedal versus bipedal. There’s quite a bit of variability in the capacity of the creature to do stuff with its hands over its head.  Here’s a nice layout that shows aspects of the shoulder anatomy across a range from true monkeys, to great apes, ending up with the ape-iest of us all: the anatomically modern human.  Start with the sacred monkey in the upper-left corner, and the scapula is clearly on the side of the thoracic cage.  End with the human in the bottom-right corner, and it’s clearly on the back.  In between…well, gibbons are (lesser) apes, while chimps and gorillas are great apes, like us.

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Relative positions of the scapula in monkeys versus apes: the scapula is on the side in monkeys, on the back in apes.  Note the angle of the clavicle, too: the more dorsal the scapula is, the more perpendicular the clavicle is to the midline. Picture source: https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-662-45719-1_1

What functional difference goes along with this structural difference? Well: the quadrupeds are really good at locomotion–it’s difficult to think of a quadruped that can’t outrun a human.  Try to catch your dog or your cat for a trip to the vet–good fucking luck, buddy.  But, quadrupeds also tend to have a big limitation: although their front limbs are very good at moving back and forth–see above about moving fast–they suck at anything else.  For example, we can make big circles with our arms; we can spread them.  We don’t have the speed of a quadruped, but we can do a lot of things with our arms that a quadruped can’t do with theirs. Throw spears at edible quadrupeds. Throw tomatoes at sopranos. Throw bums out of office.

There are two broad families of quadrupeds that have their scapula on their back, and they’re pretty fucking interesting. Come back next time for the details.

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Position of the scapula in the dog. Picture source: https://janedogs.com/dog-anatomy-terminology/

English notes

There are a lot of expressions that involve the shoulder.  For example, to stand shoulder to shoulder with someone has a literal meaning of standing close to someone (Merriam-Webster), and a figurative one of being united with someone, sharing a goal with them (Merriam-Webster). Example:

  • This resolution was offered in response to President Trump standing shoulder to shoulder with Putin while the Russian President offered the Special Counsel a chance to interview twelve Russian Military Intelligence Officers who’ve been indicted for conducting “large scale cyber operations to interfere with the 2016 presidential election” in exchange for politically-motivated Russian interrogations of U.S. citizens.  President Trump initially endorsed Putin’s cynical ploy as “an incredible offer” and during yesterday’s White House press briefing President Trump’s spokesperson said he was still considering it.  https://www.reed.senate.gov/news/releases/us-senate-votes-98-0-to-tell-trump-not-to-hand-over-american-citizens-to-putin

To give someone the cold shoulder is to intentionally treat them in a way that is cold or unsympathetic (Merriam-Webster); I would add the meaning of intentionally avoiding or ignoring them.  Example:

  • Most Twitter reactions seem to compare the president’s behavior to that of a child—which is pretty much on the money with what we’ve been saying since the start of this tale. Sure, it’s an improvement over the cold shoulder he gave German Chancellor Angela Merkel when she extended her hand for a handshake during her March White House visit. If the president doesn’t pout does he still earn, like, a half-star on the behavior chart? Even still, pushing is not encouraged, young man. https://www.vanityfair.com/style/2017/05/trump-nato-shove

If you are the kind of person who would watch and carefully re-watch Dubstep Cat videos to see just how far back his arms do and don’t go: we should probably be planning our wedding.

https://youtu.be/aQeIDhz-_eg

 

 

How to smile your way through the Parisian transit strike: Citymapper

The Internet has given us Trump, revenge porn, and catfishing; in recompense, it has also given us free on-line versions of a number of historical French dictionaries, and a way to weather public transportation strikes with a smile.

Executive summary: there’s an app called Citymapper available on the iPhone and Android that does an excellent job of staying on top of metro, train, and bus line operating hours.  Want to know about (1) linguistic trivia associated with strikes in French, and (2) public attitudes about the current action sociale?  Read on.

One of the things that I find very striking about Paris is that although the building located at any particular spot might change, the function carried out there can remain constant over centuries.  Millennia, even.  For example: the spot where Notre Dame de Paris is located has been a place of worship since the Druids were there.  The Palais de justice was the residence of the Roman administrator, and then the palace of the early French kings, before becoming the center of the French court system.  And, most relevant to today’s ravings: the location of the Parisian City Hall has been where the city was run out of for as long as Paris has been run by its bourgeois.

City Hall–in French, L’Hôtel de ville–is located on the Right Bank of Paris.  Although the Right Bank is very much the seat of Parisian power today, it started as mostly swampland.  (That fact figures into how the city was taken by the Romans–a story for another time.)  The expansion of Paris from the Left Bank to the Right in the early Middle Ages started with the area where the Hôtel de Ville is located today.  It was an early area of business, and the riverbank–la grève–in front of its current location was a gathering spot for laborers looking for work.  As the story goes (and I’m sorry that I can’t give you a citation for this, but I think that I ran across it in Metronome), over time the word for the place where laborers gathered became associated with strikes by laborers.

There’s some documentary evidence for this association.  Let’s work our way backward.  The Internet has given us Trump, revenge porn, and catfishing; in recompense, it has also given us free on-line versions of a number of historical French dictionaries.  Les-voilà.  Starting with the 8th edition of the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française, published 1932-1935, we have the following.  The first sentence is A level, flat surface covered with gravel or sand, going along the edge of a sea or a large river:

Screen Shot 2020-01-15 at 08.38.45
Screen shot from TheFreeDictionary.com. In the second paragraph (which I did not translate), they’re not shitting about the executions.  Notable ones that took place there that of include Jacques de Molay, the last grandmaster of the Knights Templar, who was burnt at the stake there on March 18th, 1314; and that of Robert-François Damiens, who was drawn and quartered there on March 28th, 1757.  (The event was extensively documented.  If you have a copy of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison on your bookshelf, you’ll find an accurate description of the event in the first chapter.  The savagery was difficult to imagine–one of the professional executioners went into retirement after participating.)

Continuing back in time to the 18th century, we have this from Jean-François Féraud’s Dictionnaire critique de la langue française, published 1787-1788.  It contains the definition level and sandy beach:

Screen Shot 2020-01-15 at 09.21.13
Linguists will notice the prescriptiveness of the entry, which includes the observation that the verbal form of the word, which means “to harm,” is “not often used outside of the Palace, and in ordinary language is not good style,” as well as the facts that (1) Richelet found it a bit old (Phil dAnge, who was Richelet?), (2) Trév says that it was becoming a bit outdated (Phil dAnge: Trév.??), and (3) the Academy includes it without comment. Do note that he is talking about a verb, not about the “(river) bank” sense of grève.) Source: screen shot from https://fr.thefreedictionary.com/gr%c3%a8ve

Finally, going back to Jean Nicot’s Thresor de la langue française, published in 1606, we have the following, which includes words that I believe to mean “gravel, sand” (gravier and arena):

Screen Shot 2020-01-15 at 08.36.52
Nicot’s entry includes another meaning of the noun, which I think is a part of a suit of armor that goes on the legs. Source: https://fr.thefreedictionary.com/gr%c3%a8ve

If you haven’t been reading the news from France lately: public transport workers in and around Paris have been on strike for the past six weeks.  A public transport strike in these parts does not mean a complete cessation, but rather a diminution, of service.  A given metro line might be operating at half capacity, or maybe only 1 out of 3 trains on the line are running; those services might be only available during the morning and evening rush hours (en heures de pointe), or just in the evening.  Trains are packed to bursting, electric scooter rentals are maxed out; Uber is running, but the automotive traffic is so heavy that a 30-minute ride can easily take an hour.  As I write this in mid-January of 2020, the exceptionally convenient low-cost mobility that is such a delight of normal life in the City of Light is only a fond memory.

Are Parisians frustrated by the disruptions caused by the strike?  Of course.  Are they complaining about it a lot?  Not really.  Here are typical comments from my friends about the motivation for the strikes–a proposed reorganization of the admittedly convoluted French retirement system:

  1. The reforms won’t hurt me, personally–but, I’m worried for my child.
  2. The transportation workers are striking for all of us.
  3. The strike has to screw up Paris, or it won’t have any effect.

The comments reflect some underlying widespread French attitudes about their famous work stoppages: (1) Everybody has to earn a living, and (2) Your strike may be screwing up my life today, but my strike will be screwing up yours tomorrow.  So: in general, people are pretty tolerant of this kind of thing.

…and with that, I’m off to check Citymapper to find the best way to get to the Musée de la paléontology et de l’anatomie comparéeone of the three best museums in the world, in my humble but reasonably informed opinion.

The picture of an écartèlement (“drawing and quartering” in English) at the top of this page is of a bas relief from northeastern Spain. I found it at https://fr.vikidia.org/wiki/%C3%89cart%C3%A8lement.

Conflict of interest statement: I don’t have any.  Citymapper does not pay me, nor do they offer me free services.

What’s making me happy today: élucubrations

You have to grab happiness where you can find it. What’s making me happy today: élucubrations.

You have to grab happiness wherever you can find it, right? I mean, I would love to be feeling happy today because I knew that the Constitution of the United States of America slept as safely last night as I did, or because I was confident that tomorrow’s foreign policy will not further weaken America and strengthen Russia. But, such is not my lot this morning–Trump is still in the White House, and not even his own cabinet knows what he talked with Putin about for two hours in Finland. That doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to feel good about, though.

Today my heart is gladdened by the existence of the word élucubration. I ran across it while reading the French-language translation of the magisterial World War Z, Max Brooks’s allegorical reflection on American culture in the early 20th century. Brooks on conspiracy theorists:

Le secret, ça fonctionne comme un trou sans fond ; et il y a toujours des paranoïaques pour essayer de le combler avec leurs élucubrations.

Word Reference defines élucubrations as “flights of fancy, hare-brained ideas.” (A hare is a kind of rabbit–lièvre, maybe?) French definitions emphasize the amount of work that goes into them:

Discours, pensée issus de recherches laborieuses mais dépourvus de bon sens (Maxipoche 2014, Larousse 2013)

Coming across the word in a translation as I did, it seemed too adorable to be true: surely such a lovely and useful word could not really exist in normal language? Wroooong again, Zipf.

In 1966, the singer Antoine released the song Les Élucubrations d’Antoine. According to Wikipedia, it differentiated itself from the typical yéyé (hippie) music of the time by its militancy, proposing that The Pill be sold in supermarkets and insulting music legend Johnny Halliday. The song sold like crazy and made his career. So…apparently I am the last person in the world to learn the world élucubration, and once again we see the awesome power of Zipf’s Law: most words are very rare–but, they do occur. Enjoy!

Combinatorics and pod hostels

Go to the shitty part of any decent-sized American city–usually on the edges of the old downtown area–in the early evening, and you will find a line of battered-looking men standing in line outside of a building–usually run-down.  The building is a homeless shelter.  A typical one will give you two nights a month for free, and more if you can pay a small amount.  Dinner is a baloney sandwich or something similar, almost always preceded by a non-optional and decidedly denominational church service. A couple of guys will walk up to the front and accept Jesus Christ as their personal lord and savior.  The Christ will accept them with enthusiasm; the shelter staff, not so much, having seen it aaaaaaaall before.  Crusty old bums who may want to blow you, fuck you, get blown by you, or get fucked by you. (That’s 24 possible combinations of 1 or more sexual acts involving a crusty old bum and you, which equals 16; most of the time, nobody asks, and if they do, you politely say “no”–I am not judgmental, and I am not easily shocked–and that’s generally the end of it. So, a total of 17 possible outcomes, exactly one of which does not involve sexual contact between a crusty old bum and you.)  Breakfast is most likely to be a cup of coffee and a piece of toast (butter, unlike the church service, is optional), and then it’s out the door and on the street, regardless of the weather–no loitering during the day.  That’s fine, since you need to get to the day labor office really early if you want to find work, and if that part of your morning is unsuccessful, you need to haul ass to the plasma donation center as quickly as possible–otherwise your protein drops too low and they won’t let you donate, which means that you’re out round-trip bus fare and still have to figure out where you’re going to sleep that night.  The worst one that I’ve ever stayed in was a dank and dark one in Columbus, Ohio, next to a White Castle.  The best one that I’ve ever stayed in was a Veterans of America one outside of Sacramento, California–clean, sunny, and they offered some social-service-type stuff.  God bless the Veterans of America.  Hell, God bless anyone who will feed and house the homeless.


Then you join the Navy.  Boot camp is 80 guys in a large room; big, clean showers in the morning; 15 minutes three times a day to consume all of the food you can inhale (I actually gained weight in boot camp), and then it’s off to do interesting and/or fun things like make emergency flotation devices out of your clothing, learn what to do in case of nerve gas attack (gas mask on, syrette of atropine jammed hard into your thigh if you think you got exposed), and fight fires (pretty involved on a ship, since all of that water has to go somewhere outside of the vessel, or your ass is going to sink).  When you get to your ship, it’s three bunks deep in a compartment that smells of sweat, farts, and depression.  Plus, you learn to sleep with a 5-inch artillery piece firing directly over your head.  (I did, anyway.)  But, it’s warm, they feed you well, the food is quite good, and cigarettes are $1 a pack once you get out of American territorial waters.


Out of the Navy, you head to a super-nice college where everybody but you and the 12 kids in the theater department is polite; smart; attractive, even (possibly especially–who knows how the Upper East Side mates) in LL Bean boots; from New York, New Jersey, or Northern Virginia; and 18-22 years old.  But, you’re married and have a kid, and you’re paying your way via the GI Bill and weekends spent drawing arterial blood samples and adjusting the occasional ventilator at the local hospital, so you live in one of those apartment complexes.  That means (1) at night, entering the kitchen with your eyes closed, stomping like a motherfucker to kill as many cockroaches as possible, and then turning on the lights; and (2) during the day, hunting for their egg cases, ’cause every one that you crush and dump gleefully down the garbage disposal is 15 little cockroaches preemptively and preventatively obliterated.


…all of this to make it clear to my friends who have expressed concern about the fact that I’m living in a pod hostel at the moment that it is totally fine.  Warm, clean, and so far no bums have suggested blowing me, fucking me, me blowing them, or me fucking them.  Not that anyone makes a man of my age that kind of offer very often–I still politely say “no,” but being an old fat bald guy…at this point, I take it as a compliment.


English notes

Decent-sizednot small, but not necessarily big, either.  How much cake do you want?  Gimme a decent-size piece, but not too big, ’cause I’m old, fat, and bald.  How I used it in the post: Go to the shitty part of any decent-sized American city–usually on the edges of the old downtown area–in the early evening, and you will find a line of battered-looking men standing in line outside of a building–usually run-down.

To be out (something of value): To have spent a quantity of money or rendered something of value without getting anything in return.  I bought a bus ticket, but then I got stopped and frisked and I missed the bus, so now I’m out $25.50 and I’m still stuck in this shithole.  How I used it in the post:  You’re out round-trip bus fare and still have to figure out where you’re going to sleep that night.   

Boot camp is the American military’s basic training.  Recent graduates are known as boot camps, or just boots–confusing, I know.  No less than in France, where said recent graduates are either pieds-bleus (did I pluralize that correctly??), or just bleus.

Combinatorics is a branch of mathematics that (in my very limited understanding) has to do with efficiently calculating the number of  possible combinations of things.  No hate mail on this, please—just correct me in the Comments section.  The formula that appears in this post appeared on Quora–if you can prove it (in the mathematical sense), that would be much appreciated.  Note that I did not do the subtraction of 1, because the formula is for proper subsets only, and experience has given me no reason to exclude the non-proper subset option.

Proper subsets: subsets that do not contain all of the members of a set.

Non-proper subsets: subsets that include the subset containing all of the members of a set.  So, for the set = {1, 2}, the set of proper subsets is {1} and {2} (and maybe {}, the “empty set”–I don’t remember from Linguist School).  The set of non-proper subsets is {1}, {2}, and {1,2}.

 

Why the fuck would you…

So, I’m wandering around backstage in a theater trying to keep my cousins from making me help build props when I come across the following sign on a storage locker:

…and I wonder: why the fuck would you tell someone to spray a paint can?

I slowly digest the bright-red color of the cabinet. I slowly digest the “FLAMMABLE” signs. I slowly digest the fact that I am apparently becoming senile.


A paint can:

Picture source: https://www.google.com/imgres?imgurl=https://shop.thepurplepaintedlady.com

A can of spray paint:

The verb “to spray:”

An apparently senile computational linguist [PHOTO OMITTED TO PROTECT PUBLIC SENSIBILITIES]

Nelson Algren’s “The man with the golden arm” and a problem in semantic theory

She’s the kind got the sort of heart you can walk in ‘n out of with boots on.

He brushed his shot glass off the table and stood up.

When I took the GREs–the Graduate Record Examinationsthe test that you take in the US when you want to go to graduate school–I scored in the top 1 percentile on vocabulary.  I say that not to brag, but to give you some quantitative measure for when I say that in English, I know a lot of words.  That doesn’t mean that I never have to look anything up, though.

Molly could not see him weaving against the table out there in the dark while he was trying to understand to himself whether it was time for him to leave, before she saw him, or time to go to her before he lost her again.


51Xx-4xBPYL._SX351_BO1,204,203,200_
Eeyore is frustrated. The subtitle, “Le mot n’est pas la chose,” says “The word is not the thing.”

From a linguist’s point of view, the challenge of definition is not to say what a thing is.  (Please, no hate mail–yes, I know that we define words, not things.)  Rather, the challenge of definition is to say what it is not.  I don’t mean this in a Saussurean sense, necessarily, but just from a practical point of view: tell me what a chair is.  OK, I get that you are not talking about a bed.  But, is what you are describing distinguishable from a couch?  How about from a bench?  A loveseat?  A stool?  A loveseat?  A recliner?  A doll-sized chair?  A toilet? The table below gives you an example of the kinds of definitional gymnastics that you find yourself going through in such exercises.  I have adapted this from Sandrine Zufferey and Jacques Moeschler’s Initiation à l’étude du sens : sémantique et pragmatique , the best introductory text on semantics that I’ve seen thus far.  Unfortunately my copy is sitting at the base of the Rocky Mountains right now, so I made up the details.  Oh, yeah–and unlike their table, mine’s in English.

chair stool armchair couch loveseat bench
must have back x x x x
armrests x x x
room for two people but no more x
room for more than two people x x
can have as few as three legs x

He felt a sickening sort of shame, this was just the way he wished not to be in finding her again: broke, sick and hunted.  What was it someone had said of her long ago?  “She’s the kind got the sort of heart you can walk in ‘n out of with boots on.”

So, today I wake up at 4 AM, as I often do.  Normally I start my day with the American news, but the country that I love so much is falling apart so quickly these days that I felt like I needed a few minutes to prepare myself before facing the latest revelations regarding Trump helping Putin with his little Ukrainian problem.  I pulled out the novel that I’ve almost finished–Nelson Algren’s The man with the golden arm.  I laid it down last night at a point where our hero, on the lam from the coppers, has gone looking for his lost love in a bar in an even seedier part of town than his own.  There’s a sort of burlesque show in the bar, and he spots his flower in the chorus line.  He is in big trouble, he’s starting to jones for his next fix (that’s junkie slang: he is going into withdrawal and needs a hit of morphine: broke, sick and hunted), and he is truly at the end of his rope.  A lifesaver: he’s found his girl.  But: as she leaves the stage, he knows full well that he does not want her to see him like this.

Then the act was done and she was gone, they were all gone as if they hadn’t been there at all.  As though the whole act had been a kickback from an overcharge, something he’d formed in his brain out of beer fumes and smoke.


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Herbert Terrace’s book on the topic. Spoiler alert: “not as far as I can tell.”

Being a linguist and knowing the primacy of not specification, but rather differentiation, in matters of definition, it bugs the shit out of me that I know lots of words such that I know what category of thing they are, but I could not begin to tell them apart from other things of the same class–by very venerable linguistic theory, this should not happen.  For example: I know that amaryllis, dahlia, and freesia are all flowers, but I could not point any of those three out to you on a bet.  I know that opal, tourmaline, and amethyst are gemstones, but again–hand me three gemstones and ask me if one of them is a tourmaline or not, and I’m just gonna scratch my beard and excuse myself to go to the bathroom.  (Minus the beard-scratching, that last tactic for dealing with social discomfort turns out to be a pretty plausible example of how people end up claiming that they have taught chimpanzees American Sign Language.  A story for another time, perhaps.)


Yet went weaving heavily through smoke and fumes toward the tiny dressing room offstage.

Wearing army brogans on his feet.

OK, so… I already know that brogans are a kind of footwear–it’s not like I’ve never run into the word before.  But, I couldn’t tell you what kind.  The character is a recently-discharged World War II veteran, and his brogans have been mentioned many times in this novel, rom other references over the course of the novel to his heavy-footed walking, I infer that they are…well, heavy.  But, Algren didn’t say a few sentences earlier that his love was “the kind got the sort of heart you can walk in ‘n out of with boots on,” and then specify what kind of footwear he’s wearing as he walks into her dressing room after not having seen her for months, by accident.  (Algren was a treasure of the post-war American novel–he doesn’t do shit like that by accident.  A French connection: he was Simone de Beauvoir’s other lover.  Of course she left him for Sartre, who had translated Algren’s novel Never come morning into la langue de Molière.)

So, off I go to the dictionary.  And to Wikipedia.  And to Google Images, too, ’cause it is sometimes a damn fine resource for jury-rigged visual definitions.  (A little topical reference there: jury-rigged, which means something like “improvised with whatever happens to be at hand,” is said to be derived from the wartime slang term to jerry-rig.)  What I find: a brogan is a low-topped boot.  The picture at the top of the page shows a pair of WWII-era US Army brogans.  The gaiters worn above them were made redundant when combat boots became standard issue–they’re higher, so you don’t need the gaiters to “blouse” your trouser legs.  A contemporary reader would have known what he meant; reading the book today, which was written before I was born–a very long time ago–I knew that brogans were footwear, but hadn’t a clue what kind.  So: top 1 percent on the vocabulary portion of the GRE (don’t be too impressed–I was around the 50th percentile on math, maybe even lower), but I had to look a word up.


That’s being a linguist for you… The beauty of it is that you’re constantly immersed in your data, and the horror of it is that you’re constantly immersed in your data.  As far as definitions go: as my colleague Orin Hargraves, a fine lexicographer, pointed out to me while we were working on our paper Three dimensions of reproducibility in natural language processing, in which we and a cast of thousands of other colleagues proposed a set of definitions for talking about the results of experiments–trying to propose definitions might be somewhat pointless anyways, as in the end word meanings are determined by how they are used within the structure of the language, not by any prescriptive authority.  Did my linguisticness interfere with my enjoyment of Nelson’s finely-wrought prose?  Did it actually make me more aware of its beautiful craftsmanship?  I don’t know.  What I do know: now I’m going to go see what happens when he gets to her dressing room.

 


Want to know more about the myriad complications of thinking about definitions?  See Elisabetta Ježek’s excellent book The lexicon: An introductionSource of the picture of a pair of brogans at the top of the page: Eastman Leather Clothing Blog, blog.eastmanleather.com/view-post/the-us-combat-boot.


English notes

He was trying to understand to himself whether it was time for him to leave, before she saw him, or time to go to her before he lost her again. 

…is weird.  I have never heard the construction understand to [someone].  A quick search on Sketch Engine, purveyor of fine linguistic corpora and the tools for searching them, reveals nothing similar (yes, I did a Word Sketch, too):

Screen Shot 2019-10-04 at 05.03.33

Punch-drunk

I think I’m gettin’ a little punch-drunk here (see the Engish notes below for an explanation of this adjective)…  Finishing up a book (due today), I’m trying to explain the ambiguities of the word conclusion in English.  I’m in the midst of writing the part where I suggest to authors that they use the Discussion and Conclusion(s) section of a scientific paper to wrap things up and to state a conclusion, when I think: wouldn’t it be funny to make up an example like “In conclusion, we conclude that…”  

…and then I think: C’mon, Zipf.  You’re a linguist–you KNOW some motherfucker has published that.  So, I head off to Google Scholar, which lets you search academic publications—crucially, with exact phrases, if you feel so inclined.  And I find:

Screen Shot 2019-09-30 at 08.58.14

Yep–233 results.  Ooooooookay.  Back to the book now…


English notes

To be punch-drunk is to be not thinking super-well due to having been punched in the head too many times.  It’s used figuratively to refer to not thinking super-well because of fatigue.  Right at this moment, I am punch-drunk from trying to get this book finished.  I have not recently been punched in the head.