Lost Beauties of the English Language

Back when we could wander libraries, I wandered past this beauty on the reference shelf of the Mechanics’ Institute. Ages ago, when I was in gradschool, I read the advice that a good way for a writer to expand their vocabulary is to find a pocket dictionary and underline those words you know but never use, because habit or other motivations never bring it to mind when you need it. I did this years ago but never took the time to make a list of such words, which is the only thing that makes this practice useful.

For the MacKay book, the job was more “underline those words that aren’t at least worse than the common words we now use instead of what like Chaucer or Spenser were writing”.

These are the lost beauties I love:

  • afeared – struck with fear (contra the French afrayer)
  • aftermath – the pasture after the grass has been mowed, a second mowing
  • alder – genitive plural of all; superlative prefix (Alder-Father = father of all)
  • bangled – beaten down by the wind
  • barm – yeast (from Ger. bier-rahm); hence “barmy”: yeasty
  • bedswerver – adulterer (from A Winter’s Tale)
  • birler – a pourer out of liquor; “birling” being to pour down
  • blashy – thin or weak, as tea or beer
  • brangle – dispute or quarrel (from be-wrangle); “brangled” means confused or intricate
  • branglesome – quarrelsome (Mackay also has “janglesome” and “tanglesome”)
  • brightsome – shiny
  • chancely – accidentally
  • chirming – low confused twittering of birds that huddle in a tree before a storm
  • dam(m)erel – effeminate man overfond of society of women and disinclined to society of men
  • dave – to thaw
  • daver – to droop
  • doly – mournful, melancholy, doleful
  • dorty – conceited, proud
  • eldritch – haunted by evil spirits, ghastly, unearthly, eerie
  • embrangle – to perplex (hence “embranglement”, perplexity)
  • feather-heeled – nimble, agile, sprightly (after Hermes)
  • feckful – powerful
  • flaunts – finery, gew-gaws (cf. “trantles”)
  • franch – to crunch with the teeth
  • hurkle – to shrug the shoulders
  • inwit – conscience (opposed to “outwit”: knowledge, info)
  • kexy – juiceless, dry
  • lowlyhood / -ness – humility
  • lugsome – heavy, difficult to drag along
  • mammer – to hesitate or doubt
  • plackless – moneyless
  • rindle – to sparkle like running water; a mountain stream
  • ro(a)ky – hazy, misty, nebulous, not clear (from French for hoarse, thick)
  • samely – monotonous, unvaried
  • snipsy – sarcastic, cutting
  • squintard – a person who squints
  • thoughty – meditative, pensive
  • tifty – quarrelsome
  • trantles – articles of little value, toys, petty articles of furniture (cf. “flaunts”) twisty contentious, ill-humored, capricious
  • wofare – sorrow, misfortune (the opposite of welfare)
  • wordridden – to be a slave to words without understanding their meaning; to be overawed by words rather than an argument
  • yonderly – shy, timid, retiring
  • youthy – having the false appearance of being youthful (cf. childish v. childlike)

There are a lot of words in this language for “quarrelsome”, which reminds me of fruit bats, who it turns out spend most of their squeaking hours complaining. But what I mostly took away from the book is that Charles MacKay[*] has a fundamentalist insistence on the Anglo-Saxon that would make even James Joyce roll his eyes.

That said, it takes a certain type to love at first sight “samely” over “monotonous”. “Monotonous” has suddenly become such a stupid word, all those dumb O’s, that stupid silent U. Call me wordridden, but “samely” is … I dunno it just feels honester.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Mackay? There’s not a single spot in the book where this name isn’t printed in all-caps so who knows?

Pronouncing Funny

I’m thinking these days about a kind of comedy that relies less on what words do, as in jokework, and more on how they sound. Here are three major players in pronunciation humor:

Moira’s “dazzling peach cry-uhb-apple” and Chloe’s “toe-uhst” both play off class pretense—the understanding we have (and the British have even more) that upper-class people distinguish themselves through dialect. “Posh accents” and so on. The rich’s need to insert extra syllables most of us can’t afford, etc. etc. (Madonna’s a culprit.)

But then you have the Oh Hello guys. I get that it presents as a parody of Upper West Side Jewish guy, but the performance seems less systematic of an accent and more a commitment to strangify as many words as they can.

I’m not talking here about funny accents, or finding the funny in our U.S. accents, which Fred Armisen has lately made a parlor trick out of. And there is something funny about the quick-shifting uncanniness of hearing, say, a hyperaccurate dialect portrait of all the NYC boroughs, or of hearing Seattle and Portland captured via accents the rest of us don’t even hear:

But the folks I’m looking at deliberately move away from accuracy. They’re not capturing anything in their mispronunciations other than absurdist mispronunciation, which is what makes them so funny. Or at least what makes me love it.

I’m drawn to fictive comedy, comedy that makes new and often absurd things possible on stage, more than I am Carlinian/Seinfeldian nonfictive comedy that says what the rest of us are thinking, or observes what we’ve noticed but haven’t yet put into words. Which is why these are my favorite Catherine O’Hara, Drew Droege, and Kroll/Mulaney roles: they make the known and familiar less real.

But it’s baser than that. Using language itself as their material, they all seek this riskless and yet massively disruptive transgression on language, something I as a writer understand as so fixed and ruly. It’s unlike puns and wordplay. Puns and wordplay are mere clevernesses with language, whereas these feel more like rudenesses.

Such selfish disregard! The pleasures of watching someone daring to make words their own. The useless, dangerless gall of that. I’m always ready for it.

What (and Who) Pride is For

Everyone, turns out. But this year’s Pride is particularly for queer people of color. This Pride recognizes that police brutality in this country is continuing to hurt and kill black queers and black trans people, and that their struggle for existence is our struggle. I’m glad for the ways we queers have put those faces, names, voices, and histories at the forefront of our parades.

How Pride is for everyone involves sex. I’m writing this from a housesitting gig in the Oakland hills, which feels like the suburbs, and when I walk the dog I pass the same sign posted on different houses’ lawns:

“Love is love” is the Okay With Queers part. It’s the assimilationist message that says it’s wrong to deny us equal rights, because we’re at heart just like straight people.

What Pride is for? Reminding the world that, also, sex is sex.

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How Do You Get Better?

I.
Searching for something else in my files this morning, I came across this old note:

How do you get better?
How do you get better at being a person? Does it always just happen over time? What if you get worse? What if you work so hard every day to become somebody and in the end you become worse? No one’s ever going to tell you, and so you’ll never know, and there’s nothing worse than a terrible man who doesn’t know how terrible he’s become.

I seem to have written this seven years ago, back when I still lived in Alabama. They were very dark years, for a number of reasons. These are the years I’m writing about now, on these very last days of my sabbatical.

I’m not sure which aspect of myself I was thinking about when I wrote this, but all these years later I’m struck by how often these questions still feel valid, and the answers just as elusive.

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Wayne Koestenbaum’s Figure It Out

Picture the brainy friend you like to accuse of overthinking things and to whom you often say, “That’s maybe a bit of a stretch” visiting you for the weekend, and it’s Sunday, their last day in town, and while you both woke up hung-over, drugs or some other remedy have eased the hangover pains enough that your friend is now talking in comfortable monologue about things you’re only partially familiar with, commenting on your art on the walls while you find another record to put on, discoursing on the aspects of his discourse that surprise him as you pay only partial attention.

If that sounds like a perfect afternoon, go buy this book.

“My new idée fixe is asemic writing,” he writes in “Corpse Pose”—”writing that doesn’t use words or signs.” Koestenbaum’s a painter, and throughout the book fall essays that read like lists of writing prompts, or art prompts, or both, which essays urge us to let ourselves get reckless and productively aim-less with our artmaking. Though as an essayist, he’s stuck with language and its trap of signification, much of the pleasures of the book come when he leaps about his subject in attempt to slip that trap. These are essays so horny for signifying’s decay, if not writing’s total dissolution, and Koestenbaum knows language itself can do the job, the way silicone lube tends over time to eat away at silicone sex toys.

It’s not, the collection, my favorite of his books (that would be Humilation), and while I glossed over a few of the pet obsessions and more abstruse topics, I was glad for this book, for giving me over the course of a week that long-happy-afternoon feeling I mentioned above.

In short: I love listening to Koestenbaum think, even if only to himself. Let me see if I can capture for you something of his singular, inimitable gifts. Here’s a segment (or “crot” as John Barth taught him to say) from “‘My’ Masculinity Remix” wherein he thinks out some anxieties about his role/function as an essayist:

“can I do this spiritual drag, collective agony wishful thinking,” wrote kari edwards. I, too, wonder if I can do this drag of speaking or thinking collectively, drag of not being singular, drag of shedding the rags of self. Adrienne Rich once excoriated these rags as “personal weather.” She opposed personal weather to “the great dark birds of history.” Syllables shamed by birds of history can intoxicate the ear. Remix, please, a consciousness, nominally mine, governed by its enthrallments, and hell-bent on squeezing cadence out of thrall.

No one I read has a vocabulary as rich at the high-end and the low as Koestenbaum, and no one does this sudden header into metaphor and lyric off the diving board of intertextuality like he does.[*] It’s a steady hand behind his lines, one that somehow in its mastery allows room for, and then accepts, anxiety.

But my real love lies in the way I’m led to feel things about/toward/for his narrator while rarely getting any access to a direct emotional space. Koestenbaum’s essays hold me by and within his intellect, a place that’s never cold, despite everything I continue to hear about the warmth of the heart and how vital it is to pour it out if you want to connect with a reader.

Buy Figure it Out from Soft Skull Press.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. His friend Maggie Nelson might be a peer in this regard, too.

Three Translated Paragraphs of Huysmans’s À Rebours

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I picked this book up again last night, a favorite from grad school, a germinal novel of French decadence. You may know it as the book that corrupts Dorian Gray halfway through Wilde’s novel. Quick precis: the final scion of a long decaying, inbreeding aristocratic family leaves society and shuts himself up in a large house where he lives, eats, and breathes decadently. Nothing really happens. It’s a beautiful book.

I read it in the Robert Baldick translation, from 1959 and put out by Penguin, and as I’d earlier this summer loved Lydia Davis’s new translation of Madame Bovary, I thought maybe I’d see about rereading a newer translation. Searching The Booksmith, I found two: one from the 90s by Margaret Mauldon, and one from the Oughts by Brendan King.

King reviewed Mauldon’s translation for the TLS, favorably, calling it an improvement on the Baldick, so I originally assumed I should go get his translation, which is even newer. Also, I had this feeling that I wanted a queer’s translation. Des Esseintes, the “hero” of Huysmans’s “novel”, screws around with women (as you’re about to see) in his fall into decadence, but once holed up becomes, in ways, a queer hero.

At least, the paper I wrote in grad school about the novel argued so.

I have no idea on King’s sexuality or gender expression, or Mauldon’s for that matter. Or hell, even Baldick’s (queers existed in the 1950s, I sometimes forget). But mostly I was favoring King because his was newer. I have this idea that people are translating old texts better now than they used to; for one, translation studies is growing in academia, and for two, translators are less interested in “smoothing over” some roughnesses or X-ratednesses to attract “sensitive” readers.

In other words, I couldn’t imagine that a 1950s translation could be as decadent as the original, given the goings-on at the time in the US/UK.[1] The newer the queerer the better.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. wp:image {“align”:”right”,”id”:4344,”width”:216,”height”:349,”sizeSlug”:”large”} –>

    I picked this book up again last night, a favorite from grad school, a germinal novel of French decadence. You may know it as the book that corrupts Dorian Gray halfway through Wilde’s novel. Quick precis: the final scion of a long decaying, inbreeding aristocratic family leaves society and shuts himself up in a large house where he lives, eats, and breathes decadently. Nothing really happens. It’s a beautiful book.

    I read it in the Robert Baldick translation, from 1959 and put out by Penguin, and as I’d earlier this summer loved Lydia Davis’s new translation of Madame Bovary, I thought maybe I’d see about rereading a newer translation. Searching The Booksmith, I found two: one from the 90s by Margaret Mauldon, and one from the Oughts by Brendan King.

    King reviewed Mauldon’s translation for the TLS, favorably, calling it an improvement on the Baldick, so I originally assumed I should go get his translation, which is even newer. Also, I had this feeling that I wanted a queer’s translation. Des Esseintes, the “hero” of Huysmans’s “novel”, screws around with women (as you’re about to see) in his fall into decadence, but once holed up becomes, in ways, a queer hero.

    At least, the paper I wrote in grad school about the novel argued so.

    I have no idea on King’s sexuality or gender expression, or Mauldon’s for that matter. Or hell, even Baldick’s (queers existed in the 1950s, I sometimes forget). But mostly I was favoring King because his was newer. I have this idea that people are translating old texts better now than they used to; for one, translation studies is growing in academia, and for two, translators are less interested in “smoothing over” some roughnesses or X-ratednesses to attract “sensitive” readers.

    In other words, I couldn’t imagine that a 1950s translation could be as decadent as the original, given the goings-on at the time in the US/UK.{{1}} The newer the queerer the better.

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We’ll Never Live Without Chaos, So Better Stop Trying To

The saddest tweet I read today (always a tough contest) was this one:

If you don’t know Andrew Sullivan, he’s a gay conservative terrified at the potential for racial justice conversations to put him out of a job. He likes also to holler online about how leftists are trying to shut down “civilized debate” while also throwing tantrums when people push back about his falsenesses:

In short: he’s one of a number of mediocre thinkers paid—still, in 2020, confusingly—to profess opinions. But Sullivan is not my focus here, it’s the unfortunate person in the first tweet who lauded Sullivan for “making sense of all the chaos.”

My point in this post is that that’s how despots come to power.

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Where White Men Have to Lead

Where white men have to lead, so I’ve been told, is in conversations about racial injustice and gender inequality, when the audience for or members of that conversation includes other white men.

(Immediate clarification: white men do not have to lead women, trans people, or people of color in conversations about racial injustice and gender inequality.)

Used to be I’d’ve thought the opposite, that white men needed to sit back and shut up and, ideally, listen in such conversations. But as a colleague once explained to me, calls for justice and equality sound different to white people’s ears when spoken by other white people.

Her unspoken implication was that white people, by virtue of our history of being underchallenged on these topics, have developed a knack, consciously or otherwise, of being deaf to POC voices. Or of granting those voices low priority. Or, worse, of hearing marginalized people’s own arguments for equality as “black people once again making everything about race.”

In other words, when white guys make something about race, other white guys tend to finally listen to the conversation about race.

Oh, I remember thinking. My discomfort is an effect unbefitting my intention. (I was probably less articulate in the moment.) I wasn’t racist, and I may not in my lack of action have been a vehicle for racism, but nor was I in my lack of action putting an end to racism. When another colleague of color later spelled out the burdens I put on my already-burdened students of color by waiting for them to tell me of their discomfort with any racist goings-on in the classroom (goings-on I may have been ignorant of), whereas what they were looking for was for me to call it out, if anything as the person nominally “in charge” of the classroom, that sealed it.

I did not want to have to lead in topics and conversations where I felt ignorant or unskilled, and so because not leading in those conversations is a form of violence, I had to stop being ignorant and learn some skills.

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Bjørn Rasmussen’s The Skin is the Elastic Covering that Encases the Entire Body

After a teenager enters into a passionate, devoted BDSM sex relationship with an adult, what remains? What is the aftermath once the teenager is an adult himself? That’s what Rasmussen’s … I’m going to call it an essay (though the publisher calls it a novel) seems committed to evoking. The assumption of course is scars—emotional and in the protagonist Bjørn’s case literal, as one of the things he does is cut lines, shapes, and words into his skin. What I liked about the book was how it always complicated the narrative of abuse, and kept the lines between love, lust, devotion, and subjugation evocatively blurry.

Plus the language is sublime in places:

When the weed kicked in, you waded into the pond. I watched you standing there, the red remains of evening winking in the water that surrounded you from the hips down. The pronounced V of your Apollo’s belt reflected in the surface, ripples caressed your public hair, the insects flitted around you.

You were crying. I’d never seen you cry before. You’ve cried many times since, and with good reasons; my two hands aren’t enough to count the times you’ve been pained to the bone, but at the time: your chest heaved, snot ran from your nose, the sound you made was like a stag maimed by a botched rifle shot. You roared.

This, of course, is a translation from the Danish, so I’m talking less about the words/sounds themselves, and I’m talking much less about the sentiments or emotions behind these words (this, too, isn’t beautiful because it depicts a man crying, or because it depicts devotion and beauty), I’m talking about Rasmussen’s choices of how to build this moment, and where to take the sentences. I’m talking about that roaring stag. Maybe this bit does a better job of capturing his imaginative talents:

Believe nothing of what I say about feelings. I only have the rudiments of anything genuine. And if anything genuine does come along, it always falls to pieces: talk to me about implosion, about atoms. You chase a frog for hours and when finally you get your hands around it, it dies of shock. And if I really get you someday, I won’t want you anymore. I’ll want something else instead. What. Tell me the difference between want and need—I don’t think there is one. What is there then. Capitalism, talk to me about capitalism. No, human nature. Oh, listen: it’s black as night inside my ass; inside my ass, about 6cm up, there’s an erogenous zone equivalent to the clitoris or the head of your dick. Fact. When this point is touched, vibrations go through the spine, the hammer, the stirrup, and listen: the asshole is dialectical, the asshole is a dead man’s flower, a dead woman’s flower, the asshole is a fugue, a theme with variations; feelings, on the other hand…frogs, mothers, riding instructors, and feelings, they’re the same old story. Suck my plot.

The book is elliptical in this way, usually not my thing, but a friend recommended it after I told of my complaints about the writing in Garth Greenwell’s Cleanness, where sex becomes in its slow detailed scrutiny utterly lifeless, and Rasmussen’s talents lie in all the ways he’s able to make sex come alive, all the things he can make of sex. A longer post than I have time for would get at Rasmussen’s and Greenwell’s different handlings of sexual submission, but all I’ll say here is that The Skin is the Elastic Covering… left me with the clearer sense of how submission can fill the self with warmth and strength that doesn’t necessarily lead (only) to a hardened core, a scarred shell.

Buy The Skin is the Elastic Covering that Encases the Entire Body at Two Lines Press.

On Mass Action & Not Doing Enough

What makes me most angry as a member of the public is injustice. Maybe growing up the youngest of three got me attuned to it. I have been angry since watching that asshole cop kneel on George Floyd’s neck last week—sometimes low-level angry, sometimes Unable To Do Anything-level angry—as I imagine you have been.

(If you haven’t been angry, let’s talk, because I can’t understand why and I’d sincerely like to.)

I’ve also been frustrated, and numb, and sad, and confused. My anger at the continuous injustice of cops murdering black people has kept clenching, figuratively, my fists, readying for some fight, but I haven’t been sure what kind of fight. Frankly, I don’t know what to do each day. I wake up mad and unsure.

I haven’t joined in street demonstrations, owing to the virus and a longstanding fear of becoming part of a mass of people. With money to spend right now, I’ve donated to the George Floyd Fund, the Black Visions Collective, and the Bukit Bail Fund of Pittsburgh. I’ve set up a monthly donation to the Anti-Police Terror Project.

And I file my email receipts in the folder I use for tax-deductions and I scroll through Twitter and watch people taking to the streets and I feel once again it’s not enough.

Because it isn’t enough.

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