Archive for the ‘Personal’ Category


March 8, 2018

Some decades ago I noticed an advertisement for a bar-restaurants that touted, among its offerings, “solid drinks.”

I was more literal-minded then than I am now, and I had a tendency to say, to anyone who might see the ad and listen to me, “aren’t drinks supposed to be liquid, not solid?”

I continue to see “solid drinks” in online reviews of bars; it doesn’t bother me anymore. Curiously, a century ago the term “solid drinks” was used in the trade literature of the American drugstore business, denoting non-alcoholic drinks that were not carbonated and had some other qualities (I’m not sure which) that distinguished them from other drinks.

“Solid drinks” is, to be sure, an oxymoron; but it’s also an example of the use of a word with an intended meaning (in this case, probably something like “strong”) that is, in context, incompatible with the literal meaning. I have not found a term of art for this use, so I decided to coin one: contraliteralism.

Another example is “legendary” or “legend” applied to real people or events.

The best-known example, which has by now been thoroughly discussed, is, of  course,  “literal” or “literally” used as a figurative intensifier, as in “she literally lost her head” or “it was a literal hell.”

While it’s something I don’t use, I have come to accept it.


More on Poland and “Polish”

February 12, 2018

Just as I did with regard to Greece and Macedonia, I feel the need to expand on the flippant remark I recently posted about the stupidity of “refer[ring] (as some Western media do) to Nazi death camps that happened to lie in occupied Poland as ‘Polish'” (as well as that of the resulting Polish reaction).*

Rather than stupid, I should have characterized the reference as ignorant. Ignorant of the fact that, to Poles (as to most peoples east of the Seipel line), “Polish” does not usually mean simply ‘located in the territory of Poland’. The new Polish law is about “protecting the reputation of the Republic of Poland and the Polish Nation”, and one must note that the republic and the nation are distinct entities. Unlike the west, where (with some exceptions) nation and citizenry are essentially identical — a concept first formalized by the French Revolution — in the east these are different.

I am a Polish Jew, born in Poland as a citizen thereof, but I am not and have never been a Pole, that is, a member of the Polish nation. Nor were the many other citizens of pre-war Poland whose “nationality” (i.e. ethnicity) was other than Polish, such as Ukrainian, German or Lithuanian. (There are not many of these left.)

Poles hear references to “Polish death camps” primarily as a reflection on the Polish nation. It’s only fair to quote the Polish ambassador to the UK to the effect that the controversial new law “does not protect individual Polish citizens who committed crimes against Jews, nor does it ban anyone – especially the survivors – from speaking about the cruelty and injustice which they experienced.”

It’s also fair to note that the expression “Polish death camp” in Western media was first used as the title of an article written by a Pole, the heroic Jan Karski. The actual wording, however, may well be due to an American editor armed with the ignorance I referred to above.

*The issue is discussed in a Wikipedia page.

Stupid stuff from all over

February 5, 2018

Living in a country whose political system has allowed the election of Donald Trump as its leader, I take a perverse pleasure in noting cases of political stupidity in other places. Some recent examples include:

  • Britain. The Tory government is blundering along, trying to implement Brexit, the result of an ill-advised referendum.
  • Catalonia. The regional parliament, in which the separatists parties hold a majority of seats despite having received a minority of the popular vote, is trying to install Carles Puigdemont in absentia as head of government, though he is subject to arrest on Spanish soil.
  • Greece/Macedonia. The squabble over the Republic of Macedonia’s name (which I commented on a dozen years ago) has flared up again.
  • Poland. As if it weren’t stupid enough to refer (as some Western media do) to Nazi death camps that happened to lie in occupied Poland as “Polish”, the Polish parliament has compounded the stupidity by passing a law making such references criminal.

I’m sure it won’t take long for other examples to come up.

On Catalonian independence – 3

November 6, 2017

As the Catalonia crisis evolves, the vindictive actions of the Spanish government toward the leaders of the independence movement become ever more reminiscent — mutatis mutandis — of those of Philip V, mentioned in my previous post. The main difference is that those imprisoned in 1714 were not separatists (independentistes) but Habsburgists (austriacistes) who favored Archduke Charles of Austria as the prospective king of Spain, since they feared that his French rival Philip would take away their historic self-government, as indeed he did, not only in Catalonia but in the other lands of the Crown of Aragon (Aragon proper, Majorca and Valencia) as well.

A specific reminiscence of those times is the revival by the separatists of the pejorative botifler, originally used for the pro-Bourbon faction, to designate anti-independence Catalonians.

Another parallel: then as now, the initial impulse for Habsburgism/separatism came from the region around Vic. In our day, the first two towns to declare themselves “Free Catalan Territory” (on September 3, 2012) are in that region. And, historically, the Habsburgists were also known as vigatans; it was an assembly of landowners and lawyers from that region that sent two representatives to Genoa in 1705 to negotiate an agreement with a representative of Queen Anne that would provide England’s support for the Catalonian cause. Perfidious Albion, to be sure, broke the agreement in the Treaties of Utrecht in 1713. But some sympathy for the cause persisted (see here and here), and today most of the journalism sympathetic to the independence movement is to be found in the British press.

It remains to be seen what happens if the independence movement once again wins a majority in the parliamentary elections called for December 21. Will Rajoy emulate Philip by trying to revoke Catalonia’s autonomy?





October 24, 2017

I recently read a book that I should have read some forty years ago, when it first came out. And reading that book led to another, by the same author, which turned out to be among the most delightful novels I’ve ever read. And all because of serendipity.

A couple of months ago Mark Liberman published a post on Language Log about a book that had just appeared in English, The seventh function of language, by Laurent Binet. The book’s relevance to Language Log lay in its linguistics-laden contents and in its inclusion as characters of many real-life personalities in linguistics, semiology, literary criticism and related fields. Here’s the list cited by Mark Liberman:

Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Umberto Eco, Noam Chomsky, Louis Althusser, Paul de Man, Jean-François Lyotard, Judith Butler, Jacques Derrida, John Searle, Morris Zapp, Gayatri Spivak, Bernard-Henri Lévy, Julia Kristeva, Philippe Sollers, Jacques Lacan, Camille Paglia, and more.

I was familiar (if only from having seen them in print) with many of these names, but not Morris Zapp.

I was able to get the French original (published in 2015), La septième fonction du langage, from my university library. It turned out to be a fun read, and the first part, taking place in Paris and Bologna, seemed like historical fiction. While this term is not usually applied to books taking place in the recent past (here it’s around 1980), there is no reason why it shouldn’t: actual events (the death of Roland Barthes, the Bologna massacre) form the background, and fictionally treated actual persons mingle with fictitious ones — that’s what historical fiction is. But when the scene shifts to Ithaca, NY, things go haywire: Derrida and Searle die (the former lived till 2004, the latter is still with us), and the flamboyant Morris Zapp makes his appearance.

When I tried to find out about Morris Zapp, I discovered that he is a fictitious character created by David Lodge in his novel Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses. I looked this up on Wikipedia, and found out that one of the two campuses involved is modeled on UC Berkeley, the university where I taught for most of my adult like. My public library has nothing of David Lodge, and the one at UCB had it  only as part of a trilogy, which I duly checked out.

To say that the State University of Euphoria (also called Euphoric State) is “modeled” on Berkeley is an understatement. While the state of Euphoria is supposedly “a small but populous state… situated between Northern and Southern California” — that is, the greater Bay Area is imagined as a separate state — the site of the university, “Plotinus” is an obvious stand-in for Berkeley (both are named for philosophers), and is across the Bay from the “glittering, glamorous city of Esseph” (SF, get it?). The “right-wing Governor of the State” is (this is 1969) “Ronald Duck, a former movie-actor.” Berkeley’s Euclid and Shattuck Avenues become Plotinus’s Pythagoras Drive and Shamrock Avenue, while UC Berkeley’s Wheeler Hall is Euphoric State’s Dealer Hall. San Francisco’s North Beach is Esseph’s South Strand, and the Golden Gate Bridge is the Silver Span.

(To be continued)


Three notes on “anti”

October 18, 2017

1. Just as I had expected, when antifa suddenly hit the world of the media, it was (and still is) almost invariably heard as anTEEfa, in accordance with what I have already written about  (here, here, here and here) as the default rule (which I called a “misrule”) for stress in unfamiliar words, namely, that in words that in the syllable the stress goes on the penultimate. In fact, this phenomenon was discussed on Language Log, in a post by Mark Liberman, who noted that “there’s strong pressure to apply penultimate stress to vowel-final borrowed or constructed words in English, as in ‘Tiramisu‘ or ‘Samarra‘ or ‘NATO’.” Only commenters who knew the origin of the term — an abbreviation of Antifaschisten in 70s-80s Germany — argued for an antepenultimate stress, as in German.

I should say that it isn’t only in borrowed or constructed words that this misrule (in its more general form, as I have discussed) is followed, but more generally in words that one encounters in writing before hearing them spoken; ‘awry’ is a famous example (which I first learned about in Richard Llewellyn’s 1939 novel How Green Was My Valley). In my posts I have also discussed some exceptions to the rule, to which I would like to add another: it doesn’t necessarily apply to vowel-final words of more than two syllables if the vowel is represented by y (if only one consonant stands between it and the preceding vowel); here the preference is for antepenultimate stress, by analogy with hundreds of such words in English (bravery, variety, melody etc.).

2. The antifa phenomenon, and the generally hateful counterprotests by various self-styled leftist entities to demonstrations by what they perceive as hate  groups (though Patriot Prayer, for one, hardly seems to fit the description), made me think of calling them “anti-hate hate” by analogy with what was once called “anti-missile missile” (now it’s “anti-ballistic missile”). And it reminded me of Tom Lehrer’s introduction, over 50 years ago,  to his song National Brotherhood Week, in which he said, “there are people in this world who do not love their fellow human beings, and I hate people like that.”

3. The correct grouping of components (if there are more than two) in compound words and phrases often presents difficulties in English. These are partially alleviated by hyphenation, but people are often negligent in using it, and it doesn’t always work. For instance: what do you call some who opposes Muslim extremists? An anti-Muslim extremist? (That is, if you use bracketing, an anti-[Muslim extremist].) But that would read the same as someone who is an extreme anti-Muslim (that is, an [anti-Muslim] extremist). And so the British writer Maajid Nawaz, who was once himself a radical Islamist but has turned into an opponent of Islamic extremism, has found himself branded an “anti-Muslim extremist” by none other than the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), alongside the likes of Pamela Geller and Frank Gaffney, as recently reported in Salon.

Thoughts about Italian

October 7, 2017

When I’m asked about the languages that I know, I usually include Italian among them, since I can speak it, understand it (even the stilted language of opera) and read it without much difficulty (I’m not so sure about writing it). But unlike the other languages in which I consider myself fluent — English (my primary language), Polish (my first language), German (my primary language in the past), Hebrew (ditto), Yiddish, French, Spanish and Catalan — I have never lived in an Italian-speaking environment. I have been in Italy many times over the past six decades, but never longer than a few weeks at a time, and my communications with Italian colleagues and students has been in English. So I’m not quite so sure of expressing myself correctly in Italian as in the other languages. I’m not always sure where the stress in a word is, or whether a given e or o is closed or open, or if an intervocalic s is [z] or [s]. But I’ve discovered that in Italy these things vary with region, and my when-in-doubt default seems to coincide, for some reason, with the Milanese variant (that includes using the perfect tense instead of the simple past, as in French).

I have recently been think about some qualities of Italian. Not its esthetic qualities (“Italian is a musical language”) or even linguistic ones, but its relationship to other languages,

Italian is, on the one hand, quite welcoming to foreign loanwords, usually with not change of spelling or any other attempt to italianize them: computer, würstel, Bohème… Acronyms are borrowed as well: for AIDS and NATO Italian has Aids and Nato (usually only the first letter is capitalized in Italian) where French, Spanish and Portuguese have SIDA and OTAN. And when originally Italian words are modified by alloglots to express another meaning, Italian accepts the modifications by respelling: the Italian casino (‘brothel’), modified by the French (with the accent on the last syllable) to mean ‘gambling establishment’, became casinò; and getto (‘casting’), which in its Venetian form geto came to mean ‘foundry’ and to designate a neighborhood in Venice around a foundry, became ghetto when this neighborhood was settled by German Jews who pronounced the g hard rather than soft.

On the other hand, some words common to a great many languages have no Italian counterparts: ‘hotel’ is albergo (though hotel names usually include the word Hotel); ‘football’ (soccer) is calcio (though American football is football americano). And the old habit of converting foreign forenames to one’s own language (as in ‘Ferdinand’ for Fernando) is alive in Italian; thus the British queen is Elisabetta and her husband is Filippo, as is the king of Spain. And French characters in Italian operas have names like Alfredo, Violetta, Rodolfo, or Marcello.

All languages, of course, have quirks, one can even say personalities, beyond vocabulary, phonetics and grammar, and getting to know them is part of learning a language.

My two cents’ worth

August 9, 2017

Before the Great Recession hit, in 2008, I dabbled in the stock market. Not very successfully: I though I had scored a coup when I sold Netflix in 2007 after a 15% gain (my stock would have appreciated forty-fold if I still had it). But I thought I would try — nearly everyone did.

Once I realized that the financial advisers to whom I had been paying a fee, win or lose, did not provide any more wisdom than tossing a coin, I decided to do my investing online, and I opened an account at Charles Schwab. When I got rid of the stock I had held (mostly at a loss) I opened what was billed as a “high-yield” savings account. The label stuck to the account as the yield dropped. Meanwhile I noticed that there were online banks paying considerably higher interest. So I closed my Schwab accounts, or thought that I had.

It turned out that, at the time I closed the accounts, there was some accrued interest that had not yet been paid into the account. The amount? $0.02. Yes, two cents. And I received a check for that amount.

I didn’t bother depositing the check but kept it around as a novelty. I didn’t think it would matter.

But matter it did. Since the check had not been cashed in 180 days, I received a letter telling me that it had expired, and, in a separate envelope, another check.


In the interest of not wasting paper and ink, I will deposit this one.

GOT and me

August 9, 2017

Not a day seems to go by without some news item about the phenomenon known as Game of Thrones, whether it’s about its plot, its fans, its cast members, or a comparison of some person with one of its characters.

I don’t watch GOT. I did, briefly, during the first season, because I had access to HBO as part of a temporary subscription package (my real interest was in a show airing on Showtime at the time, The Borgias). But I lost interest when I realized that I had been watching it under a misapprehension.

This had happened before, as I have written: In 2001 I watched 24, falsely believing to be a Canadian satire on American paranoia in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

As to Game of Thrones, it seemed to be that it was historical fiction set in Britain around the 6th century, when Anglo-Saxons and Britons coexisted. I based this belief on settings clearly reminiscent of the early Middle Ages, with no apparent signs of Christianity, and on the mix of Germanic-sounding and Celtic-sounding names. There were also references to seven kingdoms (the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy?), the northern wall (Hadrian’s?) and the wild people of the north (Scots and Picts?).

But I was lost once the Dothraki showed up. It gradually struck me that what I was watching was unmitigated fantasy. I like fantasy, if it’s rigorous (I’ll explain that some other time), but this was not. And so I let the subscription lapse once The Borgias was finished. And even when I renewed it, twice, for the second and third, HBO did not tempt me.

Jerry Nelson

July 16, 2017

Last week I had the sad pleasure of participating in Nelsonfest, a symposium celebrating the many achievements of Jerry Nelson in observational astronomy, especially the Ten-Meter Telescopes at the Keck Observatory, to which I made a small contribution (well, actually two).

It was a pleasure because it was gratifying to meet many people for whom, as for me, working with Jerry was a stimulating, edifying and enjoyable experience. It was sad because Jerry had died about a month earlier, and so what had been meant as a series of technical presentations became mingled with reminiscences.

Jerry was one of those fortunate few who conceived a radical idea and then were able to carry it to full fruition, overcoming intellectual opposition, financial uncertainty and technical challenges. He did so by convincing people with the sheer force of his ideas. There was no ego at play.

Unlike many famous technological innovators who advance their plans by force of personality, depending on their subordinates for most of the details but taking credit for their work (the likes of Gustave Eiffel, David Sarnoff or Steve Jobs), the ideas for the Ten-Meter Telescope were Jerry’s, but he was, if anything, overly generous in giving credit to his collaborators, starting with the key notion of the segmented mirror produced by means of stressed-mirror polishing, for which I derived the formal theory. (It may not be generally known that the Eiffel Tower was not designed by Eiffel but by two engineers and an architect working for his company, whose patent rights he bought out.)

Jerry was sui generis, and his like may not be found again, especially in this age of pygmies masquerading as tech giants.