Unfortunate English

Author: Bill Brohaugh

Type: Non-fiction, single subject

Full title: Unfortunate English: The Gloomy Truth Behind the Words You Use

Published: 2009

I read it: September 2016 (re-read)


My wife’s hometown friends claim that backyard bonfires are a common evening event in the summertime. I can never resist asking for more details, as I doubt most city regulations would allow for common fires to reach a humongous size. But apparently what they consider “bonfire” is what I consider “campfire,” and there the conversation devolves into standard MN vs. IA barbs. (Cue the ducks and gooses.)

Because of Unfortunate English, I can add a little more detail to make my case. “Bonfire” is not “bon” as in “good,” but “bon” as in “bone.” It’s a fire big enough for—and originally, with the explicit purpose of—burning bones. Not exactly the type of thing I image lighting the horizons of suburban Minneapolis.

The book is a fun (see below), if often corny, compendium of etymological nuggets. The angle is the unseemly origin of the words, some worse than others. Here are some notable discoveries:

  • bicker, cope – bicker originally meant “to fight physically, to exchange blows” while cope was “to battle” with an enemy
  • trophy – a Greek monument (a “tropaion”) to victory, made up of an enemy’s armor, weapons, and treasures
  • battery – artillery that discharges, so a connection can be drawn to modern batteries discharging electricity; another meaning of battery is specifically “beating drums”
  • first-string – not musical, but rather the first bowstring used by an archer (kind of a no-duh after you realize it… and “high-strung” follows from the same basic source)
  • thrill – from a word meaning hole, from which we get “nostril” for “nose-hole” (it was good ol’ Shakespeare who used thrill as in “piercing or penetrating someone with emotion or excitement”)
  • travel – at one point, the same word as “travail,” with a word describing an old torture device buried deep in the etymological layers
  • drat! – a nice tightening of “God rot it” to “’od rot” to “rat”; others in the same blasphemous vein include “gadzooks” from “God’s hooks,” “zounds” from “God’s wounds,” and “blimey” from “God blind me” (even further in the same entry, we learn that in “What the dickens?” and “What the deuce?,” both the d-words mean “devil”)
  • fun – “an instance of cheating, a swindle, a deception, a hoax,” as surviving in “make fun of” and “poke fun at,” with the connotation of “make a fool of” (and if you are “fond” of something, you are fooled by it)
  • nostalgia – “a severe reaction to being in unfamiliar surroundings—homesickness in the literal sense”
  • verge – “a staff, rod, or scepter that symbolizes rank or office” which at various times was also the word for a candle, an architectural column, and a penis (which itself spawned its own slang in “pencil,” but which also meant “little tail” and eventually led to “penicillin” and “peninsula”)
  • feisty – from “fisting,” used to describe dogs, as in “fisting cur,” meaning “farting dog”
  • bridal – from “bride-ale,” when “ale” had an alternate meaning of feast or celebration, and meant more generally a wedding celebration, of which one 1587 author decried “the heathenish rioting at bride-ales”
  • snack, snap – both meant small quick bites
  • muscle – from a poetic description of ripples underneath the skin that resembled a “little mouse,” or “musculus”
  • God forbid – at one time, this was used specifically because it rhymes with “kid” and used as a noun phrase: kids were “God forbids,” as in “God forbid I have any more”
  • suggestion – in the 1300s, an “enticement or prodding to evil” or in the 1500s “to propose something evil”… which we still see in “suggestive”

The book would work just as well, if not better, had it included even more deep history about each word, and less awkward attempts at humor. But if that can be overlooked, then this collection may thrill you to the feisty verge.

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Posted by on September 23, 2016 in Non-fiction single subject


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The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip

Author: George Saunders

Artist: Lane Smith

Type: Fiction, short story

Published: 2000

I read it: September 2016


I received a free copy of this book as part of a Goodreads giveaway.

Compact is what Saunders does best (so far), and a fable for readers of all ages seems up his alley to such a degree it may as well be in his city center. But cities are too large for this story—here we’re concerned with the three-house town of Frip. The only citizen capable of weathering change is a young girl with the allegorial name of Capable. When the gappers (spiky orange ball-beasts) glom on to only her goats and not her neighbors’, she is overwhelmed and underhelped.

The story seems to be both very direct but sneakily subtle. The main points are the values of community, the importance of creativity, and the twin burdens of both asking for and lending a hand. Saunders’ dry humor pervades everything, and he includes plenty of concise jabs at people in general: “Just because a lot of people are saying the same thing loudly over and over, doesn’t mean it’s true.” The stubborn neighbors of Frip are these kinds of people, who would rather hire men to physically move their house away from a problem rather than address the issue head-on.

While the neighbors  are able hang on to their good luck they appeal to their good standing in the cosmos. Sid Ronsen says, “I believe that, when my yard suddenly is free of gappers, why, that is because of something good I have done.” He and his wife also thank God “for making them the sort of people they were, the sort of people who had no gappers,” while asking forgiveness for those who are not the right sort of person.

But the concern goes further than a point against the explicitly religious types. Even more modern tribes stubbornly cling to the medieval notion that every end is self-justified: that punishment arrives for those who deserve it, while easy living is a gift that simply lands on the ones who have the correct internal compass adjustments. Just keep your ear open to every muttering of the word “karma” and you know that the idea is alive. That vague wish for divine order-making is going to be a hard gapper to shake.

Ah yes, the illustrations! The story could work okay just as text, but it wouldn’t have nearly as much life to it. Lane Smith of The True Story of the Three Little Pigs and The Stinky Cheese Man fame offers up a textured and exaggerated take on Frip and its residents. He nails the mood and adds a touch of melancholic strangeness, be it the decaying exterior of the houses or a voodoo doll stuck with pins floating at the edge of the frame. These drawings are meant to leave an impact in minds of every age, while the moral quandaries do their own work on a wide array of readers.

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Posted by on September 16, 2016 in Short stories


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We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

Author: Karen Joy Fowler

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 2013

I read it: July 2016


The plot hook for this novel isn’t revealed until page 77, but it might be hard to avoid given the necessary marketing for the book. If you want a solid literary novel with a unique family at its core, I recommend just picking this up and jumping in.

But for those who have already noticed the silhouetted mammal hanging from the “C” on the cover, you’ll probably know what’s going on before the author chooses to reveal it. The story is told by a woman named Rosemary, who reflects back on her childhood and how it shaped her life. Her parents are scientists and she has two siblings: older brother Lowell and a sister, Fern. Fern is a chimpanzee.

The book spends a lot of time with Rosemary during her college years, while dipping back into her early childhood memories. The traumatic event around which everything hangs is when Fern was removed from the family when Rosemary was five. Thus the novel is a personal story with broader philosophical musings on (wo)man vs. nature. The major parts in the book are introduced by quotes from Franz Kafka’s “A Report for an Academy,” the story in which a captured ape learns how to speak and act like a human. Rosemary pieces together her thoughts on what kind of human she came to be after living alongside Fern. Some of this is realized through the lens of what her parents did, or tried to do:

Dad didn’t know then what we think we know now, that the neural system of a young brain develops partly by mirroring the brains around it. As much time as Fern and I spent together, that mirror went both ways.

These ideas emphasize the cleverness of the title. While I had to look up the basic meaning of the phrase to remind myself what it meant (a description of madness), it neatly sums up the “mirroring” that the sisters experience—a phenomenon that affected Rosemary as much as it might have affected Fern. Rosemary developed dramatic social limitations because of her sister being ripped away from her, and who was one of the only creatures Rosemary was intensely attached to. Among other things, it affected her relationship to language:

At dinner, I adopted my usual strategy of saying nothing. The spoken word converts individual knowledge into mutual knowledge, and there is no way back once you’ve gone over that cliff. Saying nothing was more amendable, and over time I’d come to see that it was usually your best course of action.

So it is that we hear a lot about Fern’s endless chattering at a young age: how she entered a period of not talking after Fern was out of the picture, and then the book itself is an outpouring of confession after she is ready to talk again. The narrator doubts language as fully capable of telling her story, although of course it’s the only option she has. She tries to self-analyze and analyze her family members to give a factual yet also emotionally accurate account of her upbringing.

Language does this to our memories—simplifies, solidifies, codifies, mummifies. An oft-told story is like a photograph in a family album; it replaces the moment it was meant to capture.

Fowler’s command of language, flow, story, and ethical musing is an attractive mix. The novel tries to be, and I think succeeds at being, many things at once. The first-person gossip makes for swift page-turning, yet the “who are we?” subtexts mean that we get to chew on a lot of the thornier issues. The author creates a realistic story because she relays actual cultures: the experimental science of the 1970s, college life in the 90s, and even the complexities of animal rights activism. The real-life case studies that Fowler weaves into her fiction intrigues, such as one researcher who said this about the chimp he studied and cared for, who was the first nonhuman ever to learn American Sign Language: “she taught him that in the phrase human being, the word being is much more important than the word human.”

Or the following, which further illustrates that Fowler is exploring real ethical and scientific implications throughout her novel:

Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind? They answered with a definite yes. Chimps do see that mental states, such as purpose and knowledge, combine to produce deliberate action. They even understand deceit.

What chimps don’t seem capable of understanding is the state of false belief. They don’t have a theory of mind that accounts for actions driven by beliefs in conflict with reality.

And really, who lacking that will ever be able to navigate the human world?

Who, indeed? Rosemary states, “Language is such an imprecise vehicle I sometimes wonder why we bother with it.” The paradox is Fowler’s willingness to try to tell the story through language anyway. Language is just another imperfect way of seeing ourselves, a strange mirror as a substitute for staring directly into a sibling’s face.

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Posted by on September 9, 2016 in Novels


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The Arrival

Author and artist: Shaun Tan

Type: Fiction, comic

Published: 2006

I read it: August 2016


Here’s another graphic novel I saw sitting around at camp, this time as part of a Stories Without Words activity, in which the kids basically drew wordless comics. I’d actually had The Arrival on my TBR shelf for a long time, but I’ll take whatever serendipitous reason I can to actually get around to reading a book.

And this is a short one, to be sure. In fact, it may be the first completely wordless book I’ve read. Because of that it’s hard to pace myself and take in the imagery. I did go through it twice just to give it the attention it deserved, although I think it would make a greater impact after being read many more times.

The wordlessness itself is not just an interesting exercise or experiment, but fits in exactly with the immigration story the author is trying to tell. The nameless protagonist leaves his homeland and family behind and arrives at a mysterious yet welcoming new city. There is language on the walls and billboards, but it is hieroglyphic in its strangeness. He interacts with others through gestures, drawings, and confusion.

Delivered in varying hues of gray, black, and tan (I see what you did there, Shaun), several scenes evoke real-world experiences, such as a lonely ship crossing a great ocean under an oppressive storm cloud. Other scenes seem to be something out of Escher, with slightly twisted geometry making the familiar seem off-kilter, and a host of fantastical pets that seem way more abundant than in our world. Or perhaps the story is a snapshot of a lost past, in which traveling would be truly an unknown experience, and maybe you really would see a completely alien animal scurry out of a wicker basket. But today, it seems we’d be at least partially primed by screen representations of our destinations long before arriving.

It may be a cliche descriptor, but “timeless” comes to mind when reading The Arrival. When “reading” it? When experiencing it, I suppose.

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Posted by on September 2, 2016 in Comics


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El Deafo

Author and artist: Cece Bell

Type: Fiction, comic, memoir

Published: 2014

I read it: August 2016


Our theme this year at Camp Quest Minnesota was Language and Communication, so our program directors collected books to suit the camp sessions. Our group of counselors was informed that El Deafo was a hit with the campers, so I read a few chapters during some downtime in the staff room, then resumed the book after returning to civilization and getting back into the library routine.

This comic is a slightly fictionalized memoir of the author’s childhood, based around her dealing with deafness starting at about age four. The characters are rendered as approachable rabbits, presumably to draw in the kid readership, but whatever the reason it’s cutely unique. There isn’t as much sign language in the story as you might expect—the plot revolves around Cece’s “Phonic Ear,” which provides her the opportunity to hear clearly while at school. The device also allows her to take on a self-ascribed superhero alias, El Deafo.

Huge chunks of the story are accurate scenes of the emotional rollercoasters of childhood: dealing with new scenarios, making and losing friends, fitting in. As Bell clarifies in her author’s note, she tried to nail the feelings of her own experiences, not to write the ultimate book on deaf culture. It’s a quick, entertaining read about a young person defining herself in the daily world.

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Posted by on August 26, 2016 in Comics, Memoir


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The Caves of Steel

Author: Isaac Asimov

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 1954

I read it: August 2016


What is Greg Graffin doing on the cover of this book? Apparently starring as the main robot in this science fiction detective story.

The caves of the title are simply Earth’s cities, fully enclosed and delicately sustained by an infinity of intricacies that make modern life possible in this future scenario. The population of the planet is massive, and some humans have already colonized other worlds. (They are dubbed “Spacers” and are generally looked down upon by regular Earth folk.) Of those who remain on the home planet, some are splintering into “Medievalists” who are generally afraid of the forward trajectory, much like the “Simple-Lifers” from Asimov’s story “Evidence.” Specifically, the Medievalists have a growing hatred for robots.

While all robots are vaguely humanoid, only the Spacers have refined a model to the point of being passable as human. They send in their prime specimen with a mouthful of a name, R. Daneel Olivaw, to partner up with an NYC detective, Elijah Baley. These two are tasked with solving the murder of a top Spacer researcher and inventor, which has stoked the distrust between the two communities and their respective philosophies. Baley has a working man’s skepticism of robots himself, and is uneasy with his new partner, who he can’t even believe is a robot at first:

He had expected a creature with a skin of a hard and glossy plastic, nearly dead white in color. He had expected an expression fixed at an unreal level of inane good humor. He had expected jerky, faintly uncertain motions.

R. Daneel was none of it.

I instantly pictured Jude Law’s robot from the movie A.I., though I haven’t seen it for ages. That straightforward, slightly detached humanness seemed to sum up everything about R. Daneel Olivaw. And since this is a detective story, Baley pokes and prods into every possible angle until he finally learns how to work alongside his new robot mate. He gets several things wrong, and in that way comes across as believably human. The fun is between the daily banter of the partners. For every standard “Damn this job, anyway.” there’s a “Not on your life. Not on whatever it is you call your life.” The emotional side of their line of work is contrasted against the limits of the robot’s understanding of human motivations and abstract concepts of justice.

The detective story is decent and the futuristic world nicely drawn, and feels coherent to a modern reader. But as is always the case with Asimov, the book is mainly an exchange of ideas. It’s about culture clash, the possibilities of technology, and the massive influence of economies. For example, in this book we get a direct explanation for the humanoid form of robots. It’s probably something Asimov was already working out during I, Robot, but he gives it a home here. First, he explains the basic expense of creating one positronic brain which is fitted into each robot, and how you wouldn’t be able to afford to put one of these into each and every machine you need around a farm. Then Baley asks, “Why should a robot have a head and four limbs? Why should he look more or less like a man?”

“Because the human form is the most successful generalized form in all nature. We are not a specialized animal, except for our nervous systems and a few odd items. If you want a design capable of doing a great many widely various things, all fairly well, you could do no better than to imitate the human form. Besides that, our entire technology is based on the human form. An automobile, for instance, has its controls so made as to be grasped and manipulated most easily by human hands and feet of a certain size and shape, attached to the body by limbs of a certain length and joints of a certain type. Even such simple objects as chairs and tables and knives and forks are designed to meet the requirements of human measurements and manner of working. It is easier to have robots imitate the human shape than to redesign radically the very philosophy of our tools.”

There you have it: the single explanation needed for all stories that have ever used a humanoid robot. They don’t call him the master for nothing (yes, I’ve stressed the point before, but it’s just a requirement of an Asimov review it seems). In The Caves of Steel, explanations like these intersect with other fully plausible aspects of the author’s world(s)-building, such as English becoming “the final potpourri that was current over all the continents, and, with some modification, on the Outer Worlds as well” and tensions mounting because “when the population reaches eight billion, semistarvation becomes too much like the real thing.” For the modern reader, the mystery lies not in the whodunit, but in the question of whether or not we are reading about our own future fates.

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Posted by on August 19, 2016 in Novels


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Wise Blood

Author: Flannery O’Connor

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 1952

I read it: July 2016

wise blood

Here’s a strange little tale about a drifting young man who just can’t shake that good old-time religion. Hazel Motes has a war wound, and that’s about all he does have to show. His family is gone when he returns from the war, and his only tie to them seems to be a chiffarobe in the abandoned house. To stave off future looters, he leaves a note about how no one is to touch it, then he makes for a new town. His parents are dead, for reasons unspecified.

Hazel’s move to a biggish population makes him insignificant in the grand scheme, and this is apparently the exact thing he cannot stand. You can piece together that he must have been raised strictly religious, but his new passion is asserting his atheism. He quickly finds himself in a bind: he wants to sin to be able to show his rebellion, but his new stance does not allow sin to even exist. Hazel, you see, is religious to the core and just can’t face the fact.

The story gathers a rather small cast that includes several con artist preachers, such as the blind (but not really) Asa, and the annoyingly fascinating Enoch Emery. Enoch is several steps down on the intellectual rung from Hazel, and wears his emotions (such as his conflicted feelings about his father) on his sleeve. He also has the vague spiritual gift, which is one of his only retorts to Hazel, who is unrelentingly mean to him.

“You act like you think you got wiser blood than anybody else, but you ain’t! I’m the one has it. Not you. Me.”

So Enoch sort of has a higher purpose but he can’t grasp what it is, while Hazel becomes a preacher just as wily as the rest:

“I preach the Church Without Christ. I’m member and preacher to that church where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way. Ask me about that church and I’ll tell you it’s the church that the blood of Jesus don’t foul with redemption.”

As the novel goes on, you can see how it might benefit from the English class treatment. There is a lot of margin space just waiting for notes, as well as the presumably intentional references, such as the names. Hazel goes by “Haze” and his last name has the connotation of “mote,” both of which reiterate the theme of searching and blindness, as well as the direct line from Matthew 7:3. Hazel is figuratively blind to the fact that he holds a faith that he can’t shed. For example, when he buys a car he feels absolutely certain he can take it anywhere. He pulls one over on himself by having more faith in his rustbucket than the actual car salesman has. The vehicle lets him down, though he does pull off a final tragic act with it.

The finale of the book pivots strangely to illustrate Hazel’s most desperate act: trying to become the most extreme—and therefore righteous—type of anti-believer that he can be. The last chapter is not narrated from his perspective, but rather from that of his landlady, Mrs. Flood (another Biblical nod?). She’s fascinated by his monklike ways, and can’t make heads or tails of it in her down-to-earth world. It’s a mystery whether or not Hazel himself has a grasp on things.

This has been mostly a summary review, because I can’t quite figure out how to feel about the book. I think it may have come across as a bit more insightful had I read it shortly after I got into my own atheism phase. Or perhaps a historical framework would help in knowing whether or not any of the characters would have seemed radical when this book was published. As is, I still think it would fit best in a classroom setting. As a book on the bus, it’s more a quick curiosity than anything else. There’s a film of haze over it all.

Music corner: My knowledge of the existence of this book was 100% based on the reference from Kurt Vile’s “I’m an Outlaw.” One of his twangier tunes, it features the phrase “wise blood” and being “on the brink of self-implosion,” which I suppose is as good a way of any as describing ol’ Haze Motes.



Posted by on August 12, 2016 in Novels


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