Word Up

There are so many words in the English language that came from other languages and other times. Every once in a while I’ll be doing something completely UN-word-related (like walking a dog) and it will hit me what a word actually MEANS. The most recent experience like this was “manger.” I was walking at the Refuge with Teddy and suddenly an extremely negligible epiphany, “Manger — manger. “Fuck,” I thought, “that’s French. But ‘Away in the trough, no crib for a bed’ wouldn’t scan. And pronouncing it in French? ‘manjay’? OK you get an internal rhyme but it sounds silly.”

So here we have “cavalier,” a word I’ve heard mostly describing a careless attitude. “I don’t like your cavalier attitude,” my mom was wont to say when I dismissed her hysterical concerns over my behavior. Cavalier? French AGAIN. A guy who rides a horse. I know there is a lot of history behind all these words, but we live on the surface of history so what difference does that make to us? None, really. Just fodder for the pensamientos of idleness.

You are all probably on tenterhooks about the situation of my Scarlet Emperor beans. Tonight is predicted to be the year’s first hard freeze.

The beans are still sending out new tendrils and I’ve harvested a bowl full of dried beans. There are still several almost-ripe pods on the plants. Wang Wei was the first to stop sending out tendrils and blossoms, and also the first to yield a ripe pod. The rest are not slowing down much in spite of the colder nights and shorter days. I’m torn between cutting them down before the frost hits or leaving them to nature. You can see snow in the forecast, too.

“Hwæt! We Gar-Dena in gear-dagum, þeod-cyninga, þrym gefrunon, hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon!”*

The English language was created by poets, a five-hundred year enterprise of emotion and metaphor, the richest dialogue in world literature.

Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae

I read Sexual Personae by Camille Paglia when it came out. I found it oddly accurate and very disturbing, but the ONLY words I remember are those quoted above. Somehow they made my heart sing.

In spite of its reputation for being the most difficult language to learn (perpetrated largely by native speakers who had sadistic English teachers) English is as close to a universal language as we we’re likely to see. Compared to Romance languages, the use of verbs in English is very simple and straight-forward with far fewer conjugations than, say, French or Spanish or or or. The only language I’ve studied that has easier grammar is Mandarin, but that’s, you know, a little difficult to learn to write. 不容易学写

Some languages — Greek, Latin, German and other languages — also change the forms of nouns, pronouns and adjectives by which its grammatical case, number, and gender are specified. “Case” is something we English speakers don’t need to know much (or anything) about. I had to learn it when I studied Homeric Greek, and I had to dredge up this knowledge when I was studying German.

“There are five Cases, the right [nominative], the generic [genitive], the dative, the accusative, and the vocative. Latin grammars, such as Ars grammatica, followed the Greek tradition, but added the ablative case of Latin. Later other European languages also followed that Graeco-Roman tradition.”

What this means is that besides learning the changes in verbs from person (first, second, third and plurals) and past, present, future, past perfect, present perfect, future perfect, subjunctive (HELP ME!!!) people had to learn changes for all the other words in their sentences. THAT is a bitch. The ONLY advantage to this system is you can write words in a sentence any way you want to. Grow a language up you using biggy is no you for such it’s if.

English appropriates what it wants or needs from every language with which it comes in contact. This is one reason English spelling can be challenging. What we have today is the glorious result of thousands of years of welcoming new words.

English grammar also evolved and simplified through the centuries, because, dammit! People had something to say!

My paint box resembles English. For a while I was only using paints made by Gamblin. Then I got the sacred tube of Ultramarine made of Lapis Lazuli made by Daniel Smith. Then, last year, I got the Natural Pigments. To them I added some paints made from water pollution. All these together make a great palette, far more expressive than any I’ve used before.

“Head in the clouds” is a powerful, beautiful way to say “nefelibata.” It’s one thing to walk on the clouds. It’s quite another to walk along with your head in the clouds, missing the rocks, roots and snakes on the trail. Falling on your face — or worse.

P.S. I’m not one of those English only fascists. I speak more than one language. I think everyone should.

P.P.S. The featured photo is the opening of a Portugese (Brazilian Portugese) translation of Macbeth given me years ago by a student who loved Shakespeare and who had come to the US to learn English so she could read and listen to it in its original language. Because of her, we did, in our oral communication class, Hamlet as a two-week-long role play.

* “How we have heard of the might of the kings.” Beowulf


Pedant? I hope not…

When I was in high school, some of my classmates called me a “walking dictionary.” When I started going out with the guy who became my first husband (we were in high school) his best friend said, “You kiss HER? Isn’t that like kissing a BOOK?”

It wasn’t my first choice (I wanted to be an artist), but I became an English major. I went almost all the way. I even took the exam to see if I COULD go all the way (I could have), but as I labored over the Graduate Record Exam, I realized a PhD program was not for me. I didn’t give a rat’s ass about literary criticism or graduate seminars in discussing the nocturnal emissions of random, ultimately forgotten commentators on the work of those who actually DID write things. I saw I could never subscribe to the idea of skin color or gender as genre. (“How do you really feel about that, Martha?”) The weird thing about how that turned out was that my chances of earning a living were better with a Masters than with a PhD. I had friends with PhDs who were earning what I was and had less job security. Who knew???

English teachers have the reputation of being pedants, and it’s a well-earned reputation. First, no one majors in English without liking to read. Most people who like to read also like words. Kids who’ve had enough English classes enter each new one proving that theory. “If I want a good grade, I have to use big words.” “Plethora” was an oft’ used word in those freshman composition papers. I can say with authority that the word appeared on a plethora of them.

Pedantry was a huge problem for me as an ESL teacher. I am sometimes pedantic, but it’s not my “go to” strategy. I think it negates effort. I think there’s a time and a place for it, but… I had students who were so afraid to speak English, who had been corrected so much during their schooling, that they wouldn’t even try because the pedantic hammer of some teacher somewhere had come down too hard. The purpose of language isn’t to get each word, each verb tense right, not even perfect pronunciation. The purpose of language is to express thoughts, feelings, ideas.

A funny thing about being an English teacher — for a period in the early 2000’s I tried online dating (I regret this with every fiber of my being). When I would tell men I was an English teacher, they often backed off from meeting. Some of them even said they didn’t want to be corrected all the time, giving me a deep insight to their previous relationships — or into them. Maybe they wanted to be the corrector, not the corrected.

Not that I never correct someone’s understanding of vocabulary. I corrected someone the other day. I felt weird about it, but ultimately, I had to.

As a writer I pretty much subscribe to this, written by John Steinbeck and placed in the mouth of a character in a book I haven’t read.

“I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks. . . . figure out what the guy’s thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that. . . . Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. . . . Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That’s nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.”


In other news, my neighbor just dropped this off on my front porch. The neighbor to the north makes bread as her business. This is advertising, but how cool is this? It’s made from locally grown and milled wheat flower and honey from the little town of La Jara, beautiful fruit of Heaven from Tumbleweed Bakery.



The calendar alleges that summer is waning and fall is making its ascendancy (see what I did there? ha ha) but the temps of recent days do not support the theory. Those who love summer are probably tristful at the passage of this glorious annual epoch and the end of their gardens (some two months away, c’mon little Aussie pumpkin, you can make it).

The RDP word today is “tristful” — OK, it’s a poor workman who blames his tools, but really? Why? No one uses that word. We have a real ENGLISH word for that. We have “sad.” Even in “tristful’s” prime (which I do not doubt was very short) it probably made people tristful to read it.

Which makes me want to make a plug for English. English is a GREAT language. English made Esperanto unnecessary. English is the great whore of world languages (“tristful” being an example of this whoring). English has complicated spelling because of its relentless whoring, but a simple grammar and is politically enlightened enough to have no gendered words!!

Tristful is a Latinate word — I think of French origin (its most probable national mother, some relatives in Medieval Latin) — and I have images of anachronistic pre-Rafaelite ladies in bright paintings, languid in their “tristesse,” while their inaccurately appointed knightly lover rides his gorgeous charger into battle for her honor — which he probably took, who knows?

Other languages borrowed that word, too (thank you Roman de la Rose for polluting all honest Nordic and Germanic tongues with your effete dialect). Swedish uses “tristess” but it has another word, a legit Swedish word for this, and that — this is GREAT — “sorg.”

You might think none of this matters, but here’s the deal. When England was conquered by, uh, William (Guillaume) the Conqueror, English was made illegal. Can you imagine (I actually can) English rebels in back allies whispering in good honest Anglo/Saxon, looking over their shoulders hoping not to be heard by the gendarmes linguistique?

I am gently advocating a little loyalty to those brave Brits skulking in the shadows, trying to save their language from the fastidious claws of their French oppressors.