During this COVID’atine I’ve had a chance to browse a weird variety of old and new reading and listening material, ranging from medieval days to the current year. Let’s start with Holly Golightly. I had just watched the movie and found a vintage copy of the book in a used bookstore:
“Never love a wild thing,” Holly advised him. “That was Doc’s mistake. He was always lugging home wild things. A hawk with a hurt wing…But you can’t give your heart to a wild thing: the more you do the stronger they get. Until they’re strong enough to run into the woods. Or fly into a tree. Then a taller tree. Then the sky. If you let yourself love a wild thing, you’ll end up looking at the sky…
Believe me, it’s better to look at the sky than live there. Such an empty space; so vague. Just a country where the thunder goes and things disappear.” (70)
— from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Truman Capote (1958)
Villains and Easter eggs
Did you know that villains and easter eggs are intimately connected?
“villein” — “Throughout the period 1066-1307 by far the greater number of people living in rural England were personally unfree, generally described as ‘villeins.’ However there was a very real distinction between the unfree peasant farmer and the slave. In the Domesday Book, the word villanus, villein, means little more than ‘villager.’ It is a useful omnibus word, implying that the men so described are neither free men nor slaves.” (138-139).
But here’s where it gets interesting: In the 12th century (c. 1125) , it is recorded that the duties and payments of the men who lived in the village included rendering 32 hens at Christmas to the lord of the manor. “The full villeins render 20 eggs and the half-villeins 10 eggs” (140). The various payments at various seasons gets complicated but the payment of eggs to the lord at Easter is the origin of the modern Eastern egg. (142)
— from English Society in the Early Middle Ages, Doris Mary Stenton (1965)
[‘Villein’: from Old French: feudal serf; from Latin villa “country house.” (American Heritage). peasant, country laborer, low-born rustic (OED).]
Doesn’t this sound like an ominous foreshadowing of The Matrix?
“The Boy’s Uncle made me real,” he said. “That was many years ago; but once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always” (8).
— from The Velveteen Rabbit, Margery Williams (1922)
The “Knowledge bomb”
“Can you guys smell fumes or am I going nuts?”
My husband, Funk, tried in his typical bumbling way to console me, explaining that there was a weather inversion happening outside because of the rain but I needn’t worry because once the sun came out, the fumes would dissipate and all would be well again.
“Oh, okay Funk, that makes me feel better. I just won’t breathe again until it’s sunny. Thanks for the knowledge bomb.”
I couldn’t tell you how he finished his most current science lesson. I tuned him out so that my children didn’t have to witness their father being murdered on their first day in Europe (37-38).
— from May Cause Drowsiness and Blurred Vision, Gloria Squitiro (2019)
Women lead linguistic change
Research in other centuries, languages and regions continues to find that women are reliably ahead of the game when it comes to word-of-mouth linguistic changes. Young women are also consistently on the bleeding edge of those linguistic changes that periodically sweep through media trend sections, from “uptalk” to the use of ‘like’ to introduce a quotation (“And then I was like, ‘You’re kidding, right?’”). In 1990, sociolinguist William Labov estimated that women lead 90 percent of linguistic change.
“Men tend to follow a generation later; in other words, women tend to learn language from their peers; men learn it from their mothers” (34) citing Labov, “The Intersection of Sex and Social Class in the Course of Linguistic Change,” 205-254.
— from Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, Gretchen McCulloch (2019)
The “Iron Imperative” of writing
Re: Transcending bullshit:
Treat the reader’s time as more valuable than your own.
That couldn’t be simpler, Bernoff continues. And yet everything that’s wrong with the way businesspeople [and, I might add “educators”] write today stems from ignoring this principle. (5)¹
“Thank you and goodbye. Once you’ve finished, get off the stage. And remember, your signature is part of your message.” (199)
— from Writing Without Bullshit, Josh Bernoff, 2016
“Indeed, dodos were so spectacularly short on insight, it is reported that that if you wished to find all the dodos in a vicinity, you had only to catch one and set it to squawking, and all the others would waddle along to see what was up.” (470)
–from A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson (2003)
Invention of Spring
During the early 1200s the word ‘sumer’ (summer) was used very broadly to refer to the warm half of the year, including what we know today as spring and summer. In fact “spring” wasn’t used to refer to a season of the year until the late 1300s.
“Sumer is Icumen In” (also known as “The Cuckoo Song”) is one of the earliest folk songs composed in English. You can listen to it here. (Segment begins at 00:33) It is also said to be the first song written down in the C-major scale, not in an older mode. This makes it the oldest piece of modern music. The episode also includes analysis of a cappella (derived from ‘chapel’… thus, music performed in a church), the morbid Celtic end-of-harvest celebration called Samhain — marking the point when separation between the world of the living and the world of the dead was at its thinnest — that became “Halloween”…plus…Robin Hood!
from — History of English Podcast: Episode 101. Kevin Stroud. (2017)
“elephant juice” and “I love you” appear the same to someone lip reading.
This is called a ‘homophene’: A word or phrase that, when spoken, appears to be the same as a different word or phrase on a person’s lips, for example my and pie. Or mark, park, and bark
from — A.Word.A.Day with Anu Garg, May 25, 2020
click to enlarge for captions
and now, an amazingly realistic-looking video showing exactly how this might work in a royal wedding:
¹ For example — in an email: making the reader follow a link to get critical information…like your new campaign HQ address and phone (real example, pre-COVID) or what your acronyms stand for; having vague subject lines (“Important message”). In a scholarly book: having extensive end notes but no references in the text itself to hint that there’s an end note lurking.
² Articles of Interest was written and performed by Avery Trufelman, who spoke with Derek Guy, G. Bruce Boyer, Ian Kelly, and Rae Tuturo for this episode.