Since neither labor nor Providence has brought me – yet, anyway – wealth, on Saturdays I buy a scratch ticket. Along with it I get copy of the Financial Times, just so I’m prepared.
Granted, the real estate pages give me the devil’s own time deciding where I’d move, but otherwise I like the weekend edition because it always has stuff like this: a profile of the only scissors maker left in the UK. (See what they did there with the title? -ed.)
I try not to talk too much shop here, but among the many things teaching has taught me is to appreciate good scissors. Inferior scissors, man.
In fact, I looked it up and the very word scissors was, in the mid-19th century, “an expression of disgust or impatience.”
The other day I realized I didn’t know what civilization was, which ordinarily would not give much pause, for I am resigned to incomprehension regarding humanity, but the thing was I had to teach “civilization” as a vocabulary word. So I looked it up.
As ever with the Shorter Oxford, I get easily distracted, and this time among my diversions was the word chuckler.
Golly, it doesn’t mean what I expected:
Naturally, my first thought was that The Chucklers would make an excellent band name, but Merciless Google says: too late.
The Greeks of the sixth century and earlier were intellectual pioneers. It was the first time that they or anybody else began, as one historian has put it, “to think of space, time, man, and the state in any clear and coherent manner.”
–David Fromkin, The Way of the World
I was at a party last night talking to a couple who mentioned some concerts they’d seen at a local arena. The man added that they’d also seen the Lipizzaner Stallions.
“Now that’s a name for a band,” I said, but they explained it was actually the horse show.
Anyway, when I got home, I picked up the New Yorker and started reading “The Risk of Nuclear War with North Korea.” Based on last night’s sleep, I probably should have read about dancing horses instead:
Brinkmanship, according to Thomas Schelling, the Nobel Prize-winning economist who pioneered the theory of nuclear deterrence, is the art of “manipulating the shared risk of war.” In 1966, he envisaged a nuclear standoff as a pair of mountain climbers, tied together, fighting at the edge of a cliff. Each will move ever closer to the edge, so that the other begins to fear that he might slip and take both of them down. It is a matter of creating the right amount of fear without losing control. Schelling wrote, “However rational the adversaries, they may compete to appear the more irrational, impetuous, and stubborn.” But what if the adversaries are irrational, impetuous, and stubborn?
Modest though my contribution may be, I owe it to the ancients to think about space, time, man, and the state in a clear and coherent manner. And so I ask:
How come you always hear about brinksmanship, but never a brinksman? Seems like The Brinksman should be a cool spy novel or a series about a Victorian rake or something. I could read it before bed.
(Google informs me that, alas, The Brinksmen has been taken for a band name.)
Or a dwelling, a place of worship, an inn, a stable, a restaurant, a deliberative assembly, a theater, a business, a lineage, an audience, a celestial division, a college, a brothel, or music that goes oonce-a oonce-a.
Joan Acocella has written one of the more entertaining paragraphs I’ve read lately:
Japan, curiously, does not have swear words in the usual sense. You can insult a Japanese person by telling him that he has made a mistake or done something foolish, but the Japanese language does not have any of those blunt-instrument epithets – no [doofus], no [sillyhead] – that can take care of the job in a word or two. The Japanese baseball star Ichiro Suzuki told The Wall Street Journal that one of the things he liked best about playing ball in the United States was swearing, which he learned to do in English and Spanish. “Western languages,” he reported happily, “allow me to say things that I otherwise can’t.”
There’s no F in team, Ichiro-san!
You may – or, in fairness, may not – be pleased to learn that I recently avoided incineration. I was in a rotary when an entering heating oil truck failed to yield. The driver yelled something I couldn’t make out, but can only assume was pithy endorsement of the Law of Gross Tonnage.
Naturally, this shook me. I want to live in a world where motorists shout “You have made a mistake!”
Last week it was fractions, and I spent some time trying to explain how “equivalent” differs in meaning from “equal.”
We used currencies and first names as examples. Then we got into national anthems.
I’ll spare you the transcript, but there were several iterations of:
Mr. Sipe: Yes, but what’s the title?
Brazilian students: [with increasing impatience] Hino Nacional Brasileiro!
Finally I understood the Brazilian national anthem was actually called “Brazilian National Anthem.”
I’d hitherto assumed all national anthems had their own titles. God Save the Queen. La Marseillaise. O Canada. But the kids from Colombia and El Salvador and Guatemala affirmed that their anthems were titled like Brazil’s.
If you look at this list, you’ll see it’s a common phenomenon, sometimes to a fairly specific degree, e.g. The State Anthem of the Independent and Neutral Turkmenistan.
2. Of Thee I Sing
Now, if I’m going to make fun of other countries’ anthems, I must acknowledge that ours, about a war in which we botched the invasion of Canada and the British captured our capital, is set to the tune of a drinking song.
Yumi, Yumi, Yumi (Vanuatu’s got love in its tummy)
One Single Night (Disco Stu’s anthem? Nope, Burkina Faso’s)
There Is a Lovely Country (and Denmark wants you to guess)
The Thunder Dragon Kingdom (don’t mess with Bhutan)
William (Het Was Echt Niets)
3. Love and Crockets
It was honestly very cool when I said, semi-jokingly, “OK, who wants to sing theirs?” and bang, all of a sudden half my first period class were on their feet, belting out Hino Nacional Brasileiro. We were treated to La Dessalinienne, too. (That was it, though. My theory is there had to be a critical mass of at least four students from a country to agree to sing. I mean, if I was the only American and some fool math teacher invited me to sing The Star-Spangled Banner, I would not proudly so hail.)
Do check out the lyrics to Brazil’s: “Brazil, an intense dream, a vivid ray… Thou flarest, O Brazil, crocket of America…”
I think “valence” is a lovely word, and I think English would be beautified if we all said “equivalence” stressing the third syllable. (Also, I wish everyone would emphasize both the prefix and root in “extraordinary” like Paul Holdengraber does.)
One day a couple of decades ago the science teacher told our class that if a hydrogen bomb were dropped on Boston, it would melt the school. I found this disturbing.
At night I’d lie awake and listen to planes on the flight path into Logan and wonder if they were Soviet missiles. Evidently none was.
As with so much in life, turns out I was worrying about the wrong thing. And if you have five minutes to spare, you’ll hope this former defense secretary is too:
2. Damascene Moment
“The problem with luck is that it eventually runs out.”
If you believe wrenches can be dropped without consequence on Titan II missiles, the PBS documentary Command and Controlwill convert you. It certainly rapped my head in with a ratchet.
3. Cold Brew
“I think we can anticipate we’re going to have some very complicated and very difficult problems.”
Fret not, Gentle Reader, it’s not all Boom! Shake the Room.
Errol Morris’ short documentary – not, alas, about Rocky Road – reminds us we should be frightened of quiet stuff too.
I discussed the film with my mother, a biochemistry professor who retired from the National Institutes of Health. She had not seen it.
Now, granted, me explaining the film was probably like an ape dancing to describe city hall. But it’s worth recording that when I asked if the US should destroy its remaining smallpox virus, she said yes.
And it was the way she said it: her objection didn’t seem to be based so much on morality – though I wish to state for the record that my mother dislikes smallpox – but rather on technical obviousness. Her response had a hesitant, perplexed assurance, like she’d been asked if shouting could make rain stop.
On a happier note, Demon in the Freezer added to my vocabulary “synamologous” and to my list of band names The Fully Informed Persons.
One of the problems with my French is that I cannot for the life of me keep straight plafond and plancher. Since one means floor and the other ceiling, this can introduce startled disbelief to otherwise mundane exchanges.
Le Lionel Richie de la conversation, c’est moi!
Speaking of which – and no disrespect to Lionel – it was only recently I learned his is not the best “Dancing on the Ceiling.”
The madly complicated modern world was something I took little interest in.
– Bob Dylan, Chronicles
Believe me, Bob, when my check for SEK 8,000,000 arrives, I’m out of here too.
For me, the defining problem of the modern world – apart from Doom – is this: you sit down to do something, and while trying to get it done you uncover subsidiary tasks, and by the end of whatever time you’ve allocated to have gotten something done, nothing is done and there is now more to do.
There is, of course, no hope. But I just learned this word, which helps:
Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.
The above quote is probably a metaphor or something, which should have occurred to me before I started lighting matches in the classroom.
I had, you see, intended to vividly demonstrate that “igneous” is related to the word “ignite.”
With characteristic attention to safety, I’d had on hand a cup of water in which to douse the burned-out matches. But the thing is, it’s kind of a small classroom, and the matches produced a surprising amount of smoke. I very quickly began to wonder how sensitive the fire alarms and sprinklers were. I flung open the windows and ordered a student to swing the door back and forth.
Mercifully, nothing happened. The last thing I need is people going around wondering if I’m an ignicolist.
You know, a fire worshiper.
Preparing for the lesson, you see, brought me to this most rad page of the the New Shorter Oxford Dictionary:
Igniferous! Ignipotent! Ignis fatuus! How had I been unaware of these words?
My head must be full of igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic rocks.
PS Speaking of ignipotentates, it was 43 years ago today that the guy on the right met with The All-Powerful Warrior Who, Because of His Endurance and Inflexible Will to Win, Goes from Conquest to Conquest, Leaving Fire in His Wake.
This makes me either want to ask which simulacrum of life I’ve hitherto inhabited, or gratefully embrace its utterer for having dispensed the red pill.
Mostly, alas, I find it creeping into my speech.
I was confronted with reality the other day when I read a word I’d forgotten.
Upon first encountering realia, years ago in a teacher textbook, I thought: C’mon. That’s not a real word. Because, if you know anything about Education, you’ll concede it’s not always kind to the English language. The most I’d have been willing to concede is that it’s a word, but in the way “Schweppervescence” is a word.
Per usual, I was wrong again. Realia is even Latin and all.
Now I’m kind of taken with the word. It has a nice Brasilia-esque ring to it, evoking a domain of the authentic.
*I still think it is what it is, but he’s Johnny Rootin’-Tootin’ Marr and I’ll shine his shoes whether they are or aren’t.
A colleague whom I like and otherwise respect recently told me she’d attended a concert by [surpassingly detestable band*].
I declared this band “macabre.”
Puzzled, she asked if I meant “maudlin.”
Nope. I meant “macabre” as said by Anthony Blanche. That’s the epithet he uses to damn, and it indisputably deserves broader currency.
If you don’t know who Anthony Blanche is, do take sixty-seven seconds to watch him drink Brandies Alexander: one, two, three, four!
And if you don’t know who Brandy Alexander is, this article will happily acquaint you, even in July. I could use more friends like the author:
I shook up the first brandy Alexander I had made, or even drank, in years, and declared it my official house cocktail of that whole interminable winter. For the next few months, I took great pleasure in greeting visitors with a drink at the ready and my nutmeg grater in hand.
Funnily enough, the surpassingly unmacabre Feist has songs titled “1234” and “Brandy Alexander.”
*Honor forbids me to name the band, but I will say that its name has five letters, begins with “T,” and is a method of rail transportation.