andrewjshields

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Make it ancient

Listening to "The Band," by The Band, for the first time in a long time today, I was struck yet again by the brilliance of all the songs, but especially by "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." It's a song I grew up with, one I don't remember hearing for the first time. But I do know how surprised I was when I discovered that the song is even younger than I am. How could it not be ancient? How could it not have been written in the era it is set in? It shows that one way to fulfill Ezra Pound's call to "make it new" is to "make it ancient", as Pound himself, that lover of the troubadours, was well aware.

Friday, July 11, 2014

"His judgment could not be faltered"

In his INYT article on the Argentine footballer Javier Mascherano, Rob Hughes spends a lot of time talking about a key moment in the Holland-Argentina match the other day: Mascherano's tackle of Arjen Robben in the 90th minute, just before Robben was about to get a good shot on goal (his only one of the day?). He sums it up with a nice bit of understatement, but note also what he says at the beginning of this passage:
His judgment could not be faltered. His defenders had lost sight of Robben, his goalkeeper was frozen to his line, and everything depended on Mascherano’s timing that interception to perfection. A fraction either way, and he risked making contact with the Dutchman, who is known for his, shall we say, unsure footing in the penalty box.
Describing Robben's tendency to fall as dramatically as possible as "nnsure footing" made me laugh, but before I got to that, I had stopped at the first sentence here: "could not be faltered" sounds quite odd. 

First, I thought of this use of "falter" in terms of transitivity. "Falter" is usually an intransitive verb: "he faltered," but not "his opponent faltered him." As an intransitive verb, it cannot be used in the passive voice, as it is in Hughes's phrase: "be faltered." So I wondered if "falter" might be developing a transitive use: "they were unable to falter his judgment."

But then I did a search for the phrase "could not be faltered," and I found examples like this, mostly from travel websites where travel services of various kinds get evaluated: "The service, seats and leg room could not be faltered." This made me realize that I was dealing with an eggcorn, but it turns out to be one that is not listed in the Eggcorn Database. The standard expression that the eggcorn is based on is, of course, "could not be faulted."

I do wonder about the motivation for this one, though. One feature of many eggcorns is that the standard expression involves some oddity of usage, or an archaic word or image—something that a contemporary speaker may not be aware of. For example, "in cohorts with" instead of "in cahoots with": "A natural substitution for a word that only survives in frozen idiomatic usage, since one is typically in cahoots with one’s cohorts." But "faltered" for "faulted" does not seem like "a natural substitution" to me.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

"The use of X to mean Y is not an error but it is poor usage"

Jonathan Owen quotes a passage from The Chicago Manual of Style on the word "nauseous":

The use of nauseous to mean nauseated may be too common to be called error anymore, but strictly speaking it is poor usage.

The first time I came across the idea that "nauseous" means "nauseating" and not "nauseated", I was extremely puzzled, as I was sure that I had never heard "nauseous" used to mean anything but "nauseated." I was born in 1964, so I bet that the "nauseated" meaning had become dominant by the 1970s. (Anyone want to do the corpus work to test that?)

But that's not what interests me here, nor is what interested Owen. As he puts it, "the truly strange assumption is that words have meaning that is somehow independent of their usage." To see this, consider the implications of the sentence if you generalize it:

The use of X to mean Y may be too common to be called error anymore, but strictly speaking it is poor usage.

This is clearly utterly absurd: if this pattern were generally true, then every new meaning Y that develops for any given word X would be "poor usage" even when it had become completely common—and even, perhaps, when an older meaning for X had long since disappeared.

Such an understanding of language completely ignores how language actually works as it develops over time: some old words disappear; some old words develop new meanings; new words are coined; some of those coinages survive; other coinages disappear. And how do we tell what a word means? By looking at how people use the word: when they use X to mean Y, then X means Y, even if it once meant Z. And it is even possible for X to mean Y and Z at the same time.

But not with "nauseous," at least not for me. The people who insist that "nauseous" should only mean "nauseating" totally contradict my linguistic experience—and I doubt that it is just a matter of my idiolect.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

The ordinary

I'm translating some material for the catalogue for a Beijing exhibition of photographs by the German poet Dieter M. Gräf. Here's the end of the foreword:

That is the essence of the arts: they speak their own language, a language that always escapes us. The ordinary: here it is; it doesn't really exist.

The arts—and poetry as one of the arts—always resist "the ordinary." The language of the arts cannot be translated into an "ordinary" language. That is the scandal of art: even when it looks ordinary, it says something extraordinary.

Or perhaps this is the way to put it: art can look ordinary, but art that only looks ordinary without saying anything extraordinary is not very good art.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

3 for 21

I just got the June 19/July 9 issue of the New York Review of Books. 3 of the 21 contributors are women. 15 authored books are reviewed; none of the authors are women. Seven exhibition catalogues are reviewed; three of them are edited or co-edited by women.

It's an art issue. The cover mentions five artists by name. No women.

I don't know whether these are typical NYRB numbers, but if this issue were a baseball player, and the numbers were his batting average, he'd be sent down to the minor leagues.

Figures for memory

This Wondermark cartoon ponders the figures people use to describe how memory works.


Photography as a figure for memory; cave painting as a figure for memory. One way that photography has long been a figure for how the mind works is the development process: the gradual emergence of the image in the darkroom. An ongoing question of mine (here, for example): what figures will we make out of digital photography?

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Hidden messages

If the universe contains hidden messages for us, what are those messages?

Perhaps they are messages about aesthetics:

But since we see the world as it currently is as a figure for how everything works, it's more likely that the messages are about branding.


Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Shaming and the Pop Culture Canon

A Facebook status update from a colleague here at the English Department of the University of Basel:
genuine shock and dismay that only 50% of my class has seen Star Wars!!!!
My comment (among the others that had already commented):

For years now (decades even), I have joked with students that it's okay to have never read "Hamlet" but it's not okay to have never seen "The Wizard of Oz." And until just now, I've always meant it as a joke.

But your status here made me realize that there's something more serious going on: in contemporary culture, there's no particular reason to have not "done" any particular traditionally canonical work, be it "Hamlet" or "The Odyssey" or "Pride and Prejudice." If you haven't, oh well, you haven't.

But if no excuse is necessary for not being up on the "high culture" canon ("high culture": for lack of a better term), there is still no excuse for not being up on the "pop culture" canon. Failure to have kept up with that canon is now the acceptable location of cultural shaming.

In short, the proper response to those 50% is not to joke with them about not seeing "Hamlet" or the like—the proper response is to shame them as an earlier generation of professors would have shamed those who exposed their ignorance about the classic canon of literature and art.

(I'll leave it to you to decide whether this is yet another joke. Who can tell, after all, when Shields starts talking like this, just how serious he is actually being?)