Tag Archives: lectures

Long Haired and Wild: The Story of a Dictionary

“There, inside old books, we also find  “‘beloved and tender and funny and familiar things,'” which  “‘beckon across gulfs of death and change with a magic poignancy, the old things that our dead leaders and fore-fathers loved, viva adhuc et desiderio pulcriora.'”*
David Skinner The Story of Ain’t (William Neilson quoting Gilbert Murray 28)


My Inheritance: My father’s spelling disability and his Vest Pocket Webster Dictionary

I attended a fascinating lecture the other night: “The Dictionary as Data: An Alumni Talk with Peter Sokolowski.” The talk was not only impressive, it was also a bit of serendipity for me as I had just finished a wonderful book, The Story of Ain’t written by David Skinner.

“All that a dictionary like Webster’s can do is record usage and when opinion differs show its own preference.” William Allan Neilson quoted in The Story of Ain’t (89)

So said the editor in chief of Webster’s Second Edition. But, as it turns out, dictionaries are also a window into our psyches. Regardless of whether one looks at how dictionaries are used, or how they are made, the window is indisputably wide open.

“It is ironic,” Gove said, “that the very title of the book we are considering contains a series of words which almost defy definition. It starts with the word Webster, about which there seems to be considerable doubt. The exact meaning of the word New is anyone’s guess. The word International has never been clearly defined. We are not even sure of the precise definition of the word dictionary. And the word English is open to considerable discussion. The word language has had a multitude of interpretations, and, finally, it is almost impossible to define precisely the word Unabridged” (171-72).

Let the fun begin! Both  Sokolowski’s lecture and Skinner’s book concern Merriam-Webster dictionaries. The Story of Ain’t  is about the making of Webster’s Third edition in the early 1960’s.  The overblown and manufactured-by-journalistic-laziness controversy over the eponymous word wonderfully describes the cultural history of the era, and with fascinating symmetry, reinforces the crux of the theme of Sokolowski’s lecture: dictionaries chronicle the culture. The words that we define and codify reveal who we are at any given moment. Even the manner in which we go about defining and codifying, as Skinner shows, communicates a zeitgeist.

Webster’s Third […] “is not a dictionary as Samuel Johnson or Noah Webster conceived of one; it is a catalog. It is a kind of Kinsey Report in linguistics.”  (Right Reverend Richard S. Emrich quoted 261)

Skinner articulates the dark humor of the hysteria over Webster’s Third wonderfully. There were more than a few moments that I laughed out loud, alarming my son. I had to spend some time reassuring him of my sanity as my giggles over a book about a dictionary tended to cast doubt in his mind. Ah, well he already  sees me as something of lost cause…

“From its tendentious title- the work being neither Webster’s nor international, and only now and then a dictionary- to its silly systems and petty pedantries, the book is a faithful record of our emotional weaknesses and intellectual disarray” (Jacques Barzun quoted 293).

Skinner fully appreciates the high level of sophistication insults and condensations can reach in the ‘educated class’, and entertains the reader with one example after another. The comprehensive manner in which he uses the process and people involved with the making of the Third Edition to illustrate the culture of the time is skillfully executed and makes for a very fun read.

Peter Sokolowski, word maven and editor of Merriam-Webster turned the focus outward in his talk, examining the data that is currently being culled from online users of dictionaries. The trends are stark and fascinating: reflecting enduring conundrums (the etymology of “conundrum” is really fun, by the way) such as “effect” and “affect;” or a sudden interest in an obscure word mentioned by a newscaster or sports reporter. But there are also pairs of words that move up or down the ‘most looked up’ graph in concert with surprising constancy, or categories of words that occur in reliable order after cataclysmic events. The potential to glean sociological information from, of all things, dictionary data bases is astonishing, if slightly dismaying.

The interplay between our spoken language and the words that are then committed to writing is complex, illuminating, and meaningful. Dictionaries are used for all sorts of reasons: informational, instructional, etymological, philosophical (love, Sokolowski told us, for instance, is word that is looked up with curious relentlessness, considering its ubiquity). The potential insight provided by a digital platform’s newfound ability to uncover our relationship to words and what our language usage says about us is exciting, however, I must admit, I am somewhat nonplussed over my own inadvertent exposure.

*title from pg 193: Twaddle knew the letter writer,[…] and confirmed that he was a sane person whose views should be respectively heard. “There is nothing long-haired or wild about [him],” he said.

**Best Latin phrase ever – viva adhuc et desiderio pulcriora –  living still and more beautiful because of our desire.


Shouting the Silence

The evidence of that wall, which says no when we want to interpret it as if it were not there, will perhaps be a fairly modest criterion of truth for guardians of the Absolute, but, to quote Keats, “that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
– Umberto Eco,  Inventing the Enemy,
from Absolute and Relative (43)

DSCI0012The other night at work I was watching a television program with one of the women I work for. She can’t hear very well, so it falls to me to succinctly interpret the plot or discussion. She loves public television. Almost every week we watch Bill Moyers together. Given that Moyers allows his guests time to articulate, and discuss their work, it sometimes poses more of a challenge for me as I strive not to destroy their ideas in an effort to shout them as clearly as possible. Moyers was discussing with Susan Jacoby her new book on Robert Ingersoll, The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Free Thought. Never mind not knowing who Robert Ingersoll was, who knew there was such a thing as American free thought? In our modern desert of mindless chatter and noise it is hard to disentangle our thoughts from the volume and find the space to think.  I haven’t read Jocoby’s book but if it is true that Ingersoll was single-handedly responsible for restoring the formerly discredited name of Thomas Paine, then I am a fan.

I have been reading essays (some based on lectures) by Umberto Eco recently. In Europe it is still quite natural to have “intellectuals” in the mix. I’m sure many Italians don’t care about Eco, but at least he exists as an intellectual. In America the term is derisive, and unless your field is economics, you are practically ridiculous.

But here I will limit myself to confounding your ideas rather than clarifying them, suggesting how each of these terms – depending on the circumstances – means many different things, and that they shouldn’t be used as baseball bats.
-Umberto Eco, Absolute and Relative (22) from Inventing the Enemy

Back in Ingersoll’s day his lectures were, apparently, enormously popular. It has always been a fantasy of mine to live out some bygone era of Jane Austen’s wherein large societies of people go to lectures and concerts and take “turns” in a wooded park. I do that now of course, but it is hard to fit it in, I am very often alone, or I am being graded- which is an unfortunate strain on my poor nerves when all I really want to do is blissfully listen to people smarter than me draw ideas together.

He [Piero Camporesi] looked back almost nostalgically upon less fastidious and more honest times when you could smell the blood that was spilled, when masochistic mystics kissed leprous ulcers, and excrement was sniffed as part of the sensual panorama of everyday life. –from Fermented Delights (87)

The above essay was a celebration (in essence) of stinky cheese, who can argue?  Eco leans heavily on his Italian-Catholic culture to discuss everything from the soul of an embryo using Aquinas’s thinking to show the hypocrisy rampant in the modern discussion when life begins (No Embryos in Paradise), what life lived as a proverb would laughingly entail (Living by Proverbs) to Victor Hugo’s excess in writing:

Just think of the Beethovenian description of the battle of Waterloo in Les Misérables. Unlike Stendhal, who described the battle through the eyes of Fabrizio, who is in the midst of it and doesn’t understand what is going on, Hugo describes the battle through the eyes of God- he watches from above. – Hugo, Hélas!: The Poetics of Excess (112)

And it’s true, the two do read very differently. I wouldn’t give up Hugo’s version, or Stenhals:  Fabrizio’s confusion in the chaos was dazzling, Hugo’s orchestration majestic. It seems to me that, as a writer, it must be easier to be God, which, I suppose goes to the point of Eco’s discourse on Hugo’s god-like excess.

I love a good essay. I love a good lecture. Combining the best features of entertainment and education together. There is such a cacophony of bullshit inundating the airwaves in today’s world, people can hardly see above the noise. It seems to me, the purpose of an intellectual is to clear some of the air, create some space to consider their ideas, to connect the ideas to your own. Those are the wonderful moments when, even if I am shouting, there is quietude in the enormity of our collective intelligence.

I invite you to consider, therefore, not words, but silence.
from Censorship and Silence (133)

Cogito ergo…I have lovely curls


I attended a debate at the New School last night with Steve Pinker and Robert Jay Lifton. The subject was on violence and whether or not we live in more or less violent times. Both speakers gave compelling arguments, although they were similarly based: that is they were both inductive arguments. I suppose this is a necessary position as none of us are clairvoyants, but it was interesting to hear two opposing arguments that stem from the same source.

Pinker is a data and statistics man arguing that violence has markedly decreased (look the line goes DOWN!) Lifton is a qualitative sort whom impressed upon the audience that violence rears its ugly head with  predictable regularity – damn the curve! As an audience member I wish that they had not run such relentless parallel line arguments and actually engaged and answered each other more coherently. In Pinker’s defense I can report that he tried at several points – asking Lifton if it would matter to him what the actual data reported. If the line goes up (more violence) Lifton wins, if the line goes down, he still “wins.” Does it make a difference to Lifton’s argument what the data suggests? We never got a clear answer.

Intuitively we believe that the world is going to hell in a hand basket, but if that is not supported by the data (all crimes, cruelties, laws and punishments showing a clear and steady preference and trend towards….humanity) can we alter our presuppositions? Can we move toward an acceptance of a statistically clear deference  to our better angels and possibly begin to consider how we can continue this obvious trend?  Or should we worry about the inevitable spike, and worse than that (as Lifton convincingly articulated), a spike that has at its disposal new dehumanized and inarguably devastating potential for complete destruction? A few (and I am sorry to report it was only  one or two) audience members asked interesting and on point questions which unfortunately did not get answered, namely: did the speakers see or consider that perhaps the parameters of violence should encompass environmental and subsequent human suffering in the violence matrix?  And what of economic terrorism? Will that be the new and most devastating form of violence? How will future archeological evidence represent these forms of “violence?”

It was, for me, an evening well spent with my lovely daughter in tow. We enjoyed the content and spent time marveling at the (clearly more pressing) issue of the tendency for humans to gravitate toward similar cliques as displayed in the preponderance of “philosopher hairdos.” I wonder,  do all men with marvelously full heads of gray specked wavy hair gravitate toward philosophy or vice versa? These are the questions that really weigh upon our minds…

Nowhere Now Here

My step-father and I went to a lecture the other night given by Jack McConnell a successful annual report/advertising photographer. He was talking about his photographs in his A Walk Down Park Street project. Many of the photographs were just stunning. He spoke of his life as a photographer, capturing the now: not the moment before, or the moment after, but the very moment he took the shot. I might go further. I don’t think a successful photograph “captures” a moment in time. There is no such thing. Time does not stop. There are no individualized moments to be captured. What is captured, if it is any good, is something that strikes deep in the mind, heart, or gut. The nouns and verbs that describe the image are almost incidental and may not have anything to do with what matters in the piece the most. I read a book of essays by Julien Gracq this past summer, one of which compared paintings to literature. He spoke of the “slowness pills” that writing demands: a painting can be viewed in its entirety within seconds, but writing by virtue of it having to be read one word at a time, requires time, the writer has to lead you by the hand here, here and now here. We can move the decimal to the left again and say paintings require their own slowness pills compared to photography.
The art of photography, that immediacy or moment  that is “captured,” is in knowing when (and what) to shoot, (and then the printing of course, but this gets into the alchemy and science of the art, an added element; that and the mechanical aspects of the equipment must denote some particular bend in the person whom chooses this method of artistic expression). The material objects alone do not define that choice, the final piece transcends those primary qualities. That is what is wonderful about it.
McConnell explained to us that he never crops his photographs, which before the advent  of digital photography may have been an obvious thing, but the skill that that requires is worth noting, I think. Given that, my only quibble was that when he showed more of his prints in a power point-like slide show presentation, I wished that the images did not zoom in and out. He stated himself that he wants the entire photograph to be seen as he took it, and that is how I wanted to see it as well. It reminded me of watching a dance performance on the television. Invariably someone, a director or cinematographer -I don’t know who,  feels the need to insert themselves into the spectacle  by zooming in on the faces or feet of the dancers. It drives me crazy. I want to see the dance as envisioned by the choreographer. Let it be what it is.