Tuesday, January 24, 2012

robert burns day

Scotch spirit not only warms, it burns


Howard Richler

January 25th marks Robert Burns Day and will be commemorated by Scots world-wide (and Scot wannabes) whether they are enjoying a hearty McEwan’s ale or a McCallum single-malt scotch and,alas, even if they are stone-sober. Robert was born in Ayrshire, Scotland, on January 25, 1759 to William Burness, a poor tenant farmer, and Agnes Broun. He was the eldest of seven and spent his youth working his father's farm but in spite of the family’s meager means, William Burness engaged a tutor for his precocious son Robert At 15, Robert was the principal worker on the farm and this prompted him to start writing in an attempt to find “some kind of counterpoise for his circumstances.” It was at this tender age that Burns penned his first verse, “My Handsome Nell” which was an ode to the muses of his life, namely whisky and women.

When his father died in 1784, Robert and a brother became partners in the farm. Robert, however, was more fascinated by the poem than the plow and after having fathered several illegitimate children, he planned to forsake Scotland and abscond to a Caribbean island. Serendipitously for Scotland, his first collection of verse “Poems-Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect” was published at this juncture and received much critical acclaim. He thus remained in his homeland, touring the country before eventually arriving in Edinburgh, where he mingled with the illustrious artists and writers who were agog at the “Ploughman Poet.”

By Burns’ lifetime the ancient Celtic language of the Scots had been reduced to a mere dialect and Burns took it upon himself to resurrect Scots to its halcyon level of yesteryear. Many of Burns’ finest poems are composed, at least partially, in Scots and he thus helped re-validate the ancient tongue of his forefathers.

The last years of Burns' life were devoted to penning some poems such as A Red, Red Rose, Sweet Afton and Tam O'Shanter. He died when only thirty seven, of a heart disease perhaps exacerbated by the arduous manual work he undertook when he was young. Here are some of the opening stanzas from Burns’ masterpiece Tam O’Shanter (with translation notes for Scots and archaic English ):
When chapman billies (peddler fellows) leave the street,
drouthy (thirsty) neebors meet;
As market-days are wearing late,
An folk begin to tak the gate;

While we sit bousing (boozing) at the nappy (strong ale),
An getting
fou (full-drunk) and unco (very) happy,
We think na on the
lang (long) Scots miles,
The mosses, waters,
slaps (gates), and styles,
That lie between us and our
hame (home),
Whare sits our sulky, sullen dame,

Gathering her brows like gathering storm,
Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.
This truth
fand (found) honest Tam o Shanter,
As he
frae (from) Ayr ae (one) night did canter:
Auld Ayr,
wham (whom) ne'er a town surpasses,
For honest men and bonie lasses).

O Tam had'st thou but been sae (so) wise,
As taen (taken) thy ain (own) wife Kate's advice!
She tauld thee
weel (well) thou was a skellum (scamp),
A blethering, blustering, drunken
blellum (babbler);
frae November till October, Ae market-day thou was nae sober;
ilka (every) melder (amount of grain to be ground) wi the miller,
Thou sat as lang as thou had
siller (silver/money);
That ev'ry
naig (nag/horse) was ca'd (driven) a shoe on,
The smith and thee gat roarin
fou on;
That at the Lord's house, even on Sundav,
Thou drank wi Kirkton Jean till Monday.
She prophesied that, late or soon,
Thou would be found, deep drown'd in Doon,
Or catch'd wi warlocks in the mirk,
By Alloway's auld,haunted
Ah, gentle dames, it
gars (compels) me greet (weep),
To think how monie (many) counsels sweet,
How monie lengthen'd, sage advices
The husband frae
the wife despises!

Burns’ simple yet eloquently evocative verse, with its celebration of life, speaks to people everywhere. So let’s all raise a glass in honour of Robert Burns.

Personally, though, I’ll forgo the haggis.


Thursday, January 12, 2012

words of the year-2011

A slightly shorter version of this article appeared today in the Toronto Star.

And the world of the year for 2011 is...


Howard Richler

Since 1990, the American Dialect Society has paid homage to the most sublime, lexiest creations of each year - the new words that grace our lexicon annually. These words have been drawn from a number of varied categories. For example, “ethnic cleansing” was the winner in 1992’s “most outrageous category” and “gate rape” (defined as “pejorative term for invasive new airport pat-down procedures”) reigned supreme in the same category in 2010. “Ebonics” was 1996’s “most controversial” word and “waterboarding” won in the “most euphemistic” category in 2006.

Each year a “word of the year” is chosen and, as one would expect, the worlds of politics and technology have provided us with the dominant neologisms. Some of the sociopolitical selections have been somewhat Americentric, and perhaps as a result, have not exhibited staying power. A case in point is the expression “bushlips,” referencing insincere political rhetoric, which was awarded word of the year in 1990. Similarly, “newt” meaning “aggressive political changes by a neophyte” was this category's co-winner in1995. On the other hand, technological words have not been ephemeral as shown by the following still-used list of words of the year: app (2010), tweet, (2009), Y2K (1999), e-, as in e-mail, (1998). Conclusive evidence of this trend arrived in 2010 when “google” was voted the word of the decade.

On Jan 6th 2012 at the American Dialect Society convention in Portland, Oregon, it was decided that the word of the year for 2011 was “occupy.” The choice fell to this particular word because it was felt that it became an emblem for the whole protest movement. Ben Zimmer, the language columnist of the Boston Globe stated that although “occupy” is “a very old word, over the course of just a few months it took on another life and moved in new and unexpected directions, thanks to a national and global movement ... The movement itself was powered by the word.” However, I do not agree that “occupy” is being used in a new distinct sense. Starting in the 14th century it had a sense of taking possession of something by force. By 1920, the verb was used to mean to gain access to a piece of land or building without authority as a form of protest. For example, the London Times on Sept 9, 1920 stated “The men have occupied the works in those cases where the masters have declined the works at a loss. And if I see another dumb joke on Facebook such as “I'm gonna occupy a beer from the fridge now,” I'm going to seriously unfriend some people.

Before dismissing the Society's 2012 choice for word of the year, I would be remiss if I didn't mention one particularly shocking sense of “occupy” that has fallen from our vernacular. From the 15th century to the beginning of the 19th century, the word “occupy” was used as an euphemism for engaging in sex For example, in John Florio's Worlde of Wordes written in 1598, there is reference to “raskalie whores in Italy, who cause them to be occupide one and thirtie times by one and thirtie several base raskalie companions.”

The other nominees for the 2011 word of the year were FOMO (an acronym for Fear of Missing Out), a description of the angst we feel over the deluge of data we receive on social media; “the 99%,” those regarded to be at a political or economic disadvantage with regards to the top wage-earners, the one percenters; “job creator,” a member of the top 1% of moneymakers and “humblebrag,” an expression of false humility, particularly by celebs on Twitter. This last entry was deemed to be the winner in the “most useful” category.

My favourite category this year was the “most creative” section. Here we sampled “bunga bunga” referring to the sex parties associated with former Italain Prime Minister Sylvio Berlusconi. Its etymology is somewhat murky, however, a German actress claims that “bunga bunga” originated as Berlusconi's nickname for her, and eventually morphed into his term for wild parties with young girls. Another amusing candidate in this category was “Kardash” referring to a unit of measurement of 72 days, a time frame that coincides with the short-term marriage of Kim Kardashian to Kris Humphries. But, the winner in the “most creative” category was “Mellencamp” describing a woman who has aged out of being a cougar. Pop music enthusiasts will discern that the term is named after pop singer John Cougar Mellencamp.

Indeed, eponymous neologisms were popular this year. To “Mubarak” is “to farcically hold on to power,” and if you're “Mubaraked” to your chair it might mean you're stuck in it. Another eponymous term that emerged this year was “Tebowing” lampooning the praying pose of Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow.

Given its geopolitical importance, I was disappointed that the term “Arab Spring,” referring to popular uprisings against dictatorial regimes in the Arab world was not one of the nominees for word of the year. Mind you, it was runner-up in the “most likely to succeed” genre. The winner here was the word “cloud” referencing online space for the large-scale processing and storage of data. Another term in this category that I believe will have legs is “tiger mom” referring to an extremely strict parent. This term derives from Amy Chua's memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

Lest you feel that Canada was given short shrift because neither the verb “to Harper” (to cut off debate) or “to McKay” (to use a military helicopter instead of a taxi while on vacation) did not register with American Dialect voters, I am proud to say that the whole impetus for the occupy movement had a Canadian genesis. It was on July 13th , 2011, that the Vancouver-based anti-consumer magazine Adbusters suggested online that people “Occupy Wall Street” in lower Manhattan on Sept 17th , and in a heartbeat the movement went viral and, thanks to the Canucks, the American Dialect Society had its word of the year.

Howard's latest book is Strange Bedfellows: The Private Lives of Words.

Monday, January 9, 2012

linguistic meshugass

(A version of this article appeared recently in the legal magazine, Lexpert.)

Linguistic mishugass redux


Howard Richler

Recently the Journal of Animal Ethics advised us to refer to our pets as companion animals and to remember that as we are also members of the animal kingdom, we should call our animals “non-human” animals; ergo your pet should really be called a companion non-human animal. We are also advised that the term vermin and pest are politically-incorrect as is the expression “stubborn as a mule,” regardless of the recalcitrance level of the ass. This is reminiscent of some of the preposterous terms proposed by the quasi-oppressed in the late 80s, early 90s. For example, in Language, Gender and Politics, authors Francine Wattman Frank and Paula A. Treichler suggested the addition of the word “ovarimony” to our lexicon to reference statements that women give under oath, because of the supposed etymological link between testimony and testes. This neologism was topped by poet's Betsy Warland suggestion thar "dictionary" should be respelled as “dicktionary,” because DWEMs (Dead White European Males) such as lexicographers James Murray and Samuel Johnson exemplified patriarchal thinking that was controlled by the first four letters of the revised spelling.

I will admit, however, that there is a place for sensitivity in one's choice of words. For those people who find terms such as cerebrally-challenged too euphemistic, I remind them that it wasn’t that long ago that words like “cretin” and even “moron” were used in polite society without compunction. Given a choice, I’d rather be oversensitive than not sensitive enough. Increasingly, “ethnic” verbs such as “to welsh” (to avoid payment); “to gyp”(to cheat) and “to jew” (to bargain) are also avoided. Also, because for some people the suffix -ess denotes inferiority (it's difficult to think of a manageress running a Fortune 500 company), I understand why a female thespian would rather be called an actor than an actress.

But where does it end? Some years ago when I wrote A Bawdy Language: How a Second-Rate Language Slept Its Way to the Top, I included a section on word play where one of the chapters was titled “'Definitions depend on how you split 'em” Here, I featured a puzzle I called “Animal Split Definitives” where words were defined by their constituent parts. Hence, “aspire” was defined as “venom” by breaking up the word into “asp” and “ire”; similarly “heathen” was defined as “barbecued chicken” by dividing the word into “heat” and “hen.” One of the “animal” words I included was “hippocampus” that I defined as “'university for fat people” and my editors wanted me to exclude this definition as they felt is was insensitive to the horizontally-challenged. While normally I'm fairly open to editorial suggestions, in this instance I dug in my heels and after great hesitation the editorial board at my publisher caved into my intransigence and left my definition unedited. ( I'm not sure if my calling their objections “fatuous” helped sway them.)

Must we avoid the word niggardly that means stingy or miserly because someone might associate it with the dreaded N word notwithstanding it having no etymological connection to it? If I say that I find a “penal institution (and pronounce the first word “penile”’) to be barbaric,” I’m sure there’s somebody out there who thinks I have cast aspersions on the practice of circumcision. If I use the word “pithy” will someone feel I’m mocking lispers? Must I avoid the word “judicious” when among Jews, “dyspepsia” when among French-Canadians and “nervous titter” when in the company of women? Must everyone, except white Protestants, avoid “waspish comments?”

The mind boggles.


Howard Richler's latest book is Strange Bedfellows: The Private Lives of Words.