Corrupting the English language for fun and profit

an icon

 

Here’s an icon representing Mary and Jesus. Speaking to it is speaking directly to Mary and Jesus.

 

an app

Here’s an icon representing text on a page inside a folder. Clicking on it, on your desktop, opens an app that you can type text on and read from.

 

a trainHere’s a picture representing the Orient Express. Speaking to it or clicking on it does not open any doors, allow one any access or (sigh) take one on an iconic journey. Yet the journey is “iconic” because it represents another opportunity for marketeers to misuse the ‘new word’ in Madison Avenue’s vocabulary. How very per-adolescent.

And awesome! Or wait…it doesn’t really inspire awe.
What is awe anyway. Awesome? Awful? Ah shucks? Ah well. Ah! Inspiring AH! Ahsome!

It’s not the Queen’s English anymore!

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The Iconation of Everything

The abuse of the word “iconic” has become absurd. Its overuse indicates either a depth of ignorance on the parts of speakers and writers or a callous corruption of language inflicted on the ignorance of listeners and readers.

An icon is a thing inhabited or imbued with the spirit or meaning of something it represents. As a religious object, it might be inhabited with the saint or god of which it is an image. Thus, to speak to it is to speak to that saint or god directly. In a more mundane life, it may be an image that not only represents an action, but is actually a connection to it. Thus to click on a computer icon actually initiates a process in the computer system, such as starting a program. So an icon is a sort of vehicle or portal showing its purpose in its appearance.

In more recent usage, an icon has come to be a representative of a broader set or greater domain of sense or meaning. Thus Mt. Everest, whether it is the tallest mountain in the world or not, is an icon representing all that is majestic about the Himalayas or about great mountains around the world. Leonardo de Vinci is an icon of the Renaissance man as the ultimate of that ideal. However, all the mountains of the Himalayas or all Renaissance men cannot be icons of what they are. They do not represent anything other than just what they are.

If a thing or person is renowned, it does not make it iconic. If the person or thing does not particularly represent some greater idea, whether a characteristic of a greater set, a spirit of some power, an action of some result, a tradition of some group, or some other greater meaning than the thing itself, it cannot be thought of as iconic.

It is enough that we use Latinate suffixing rules to create trendy lexical redundancies at the expense of enriching our discourse with a powerful vocabulary. It eviscerates a rich language to serve up ground scraps as Salsbury steak. We are turning our prime lexicon into the haute cuisine of a fast food drive thru.

Iconate that Madison Avenue!

The Ape Ariseth

We have become the most advanced apes, and we wallow grandly in our apishness. Tool use, once thought to be the haute domain of humans has been grudgingly relinquished to the ape world. We hardly even talk about other tool users, dolphins, elephants, crows, octopuses (octopi?)…

We have far outrun the pack in tool use though. With the entrance of the computer and the dawning of the Information Age, we took tool use to its farther extreme—emulating the gods with our use of tools. Elevating science, technology, engineering and math to the supreme arts, we have banked our education, business, wealth and future on our use of tools. Planted before the stony backdrop of an obdurate universe, the ape has risen to swing his awful club in the face of God. En garde Ahuramazda!

Now we have 3-D printers. We can recreate our world in bits and pieces. One day, it is predicted, we may be able to use such tools to recreate food. If food, why not sexual partners? STEM is pretty sexy—the reddest apple, dangling just within the touch of our finger tips, soon to be fully in our grasp. Imagine life on the holo-deck, lounging on the holo-beach, munching holo-lotus seeds.

The earliest Star Treks were, for the adolescent minded, fascinating in their gimmickry, scope and power. Yet Rodenberry used these to deliberate upon matters of sociology and philosophy, for those of us who troubled our minds grappling with such things. These vagaries were the places no one dared to go. How will we use our godlike power tools then? And for whose benefit? To whose detriment?

But it is much more fascinating monkeying around with our newest tool—a word not far removed from “toy”—than it is to grapple with abstractions. Ah! Making sense of abstractions, bringing order to the chaos of what is only imaginable. Attempting to understand our place in the incredible fabric of the universe. Now that sounds like something even an octopus might struggle in coming to grips with.

Putting Aside Woolf: Libertarian Suffering

In talking with my brother yesterday, I was trying to explain to him, a translator of German literature—some obscure 19th century romantic, in particular—why it is that I feel I can put a book aside without finishing it. I was perhaps preparing him for the possibility of not finishing his recent translation of Wilhem Rabbe’s “At the Sign of the Wild Man,” just in case. Putting aside a book seems one of those things that people either do, more or less frequently, or don’t do, shuddering with irreligiosity at the thought. And it is with some irony that I feel I may put a book aside or a short story or any other piece of writing, as I have put aside the very writer who gave me this permission on two occasions.

I put aside Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, both by V. Woolf. I’m not saying I would never try Woolf again, but there are so many other things I would read in the stream of consciousness school of about the period. I have of enjoyed rather very more such alternatives—J. Joyce in fact. I have enjoyed The Dubliners, piecemeal and as a collection, and I am enjoying again Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man—my first reading 33 years ago I recall as enjoyable but I couldn’t say why or have recalled much about the book except that it took that very strong personal voice of narration. I bought my first copy of The Dubliners in Dublin in 1990, though I had read a couple of the stories long before, as have most English majors. And I enjoyed the study of the stories of the collection as a set in the lectures of Mark Sutton at Cambridge in 2011. Oddly and also perhaps ironically, while attending downstream at the colleges, I have twice had tea at the Orchard, the tea shop with tables, chairs and even stinging insects among the trees of an old apple orchard near Grantchester, Cambridgeshire, once a haunt of Rupert Brooke, Virginia Woolf, and others—and have come away from there enjoying much of Brooke’s works, though that liking became muted by a certain redundancy, but I have not felt the least inclined pick up Woolf again.

So why is it that I can so much enjoy one and dislike to the point of turning away the other of two of the greatest stream of consciousness writers of the English language? I wonder if it is the gender of the narrator. Yet if it were only the narrator’s gender and presumable my ability or inability to identify with it, then why would it be that I loathe, and do not finish, reading Henry James—I nearly gagged on the first half of The Portrait of a Lady before quitting it—and quite enjoy Edith Wharton? No, it is more than just gender. I wondered if it has to do with class. Yet my two all-time favorite writers are Thomas Hardy—well the classes are certainly in his novels, but in all their colors—and Jane Austin for whom class is not a factor, as anything in a lower class would, like a toilet, be well used but never mentioned, and anything in a higher class would have been—well—quite Olympian. No, the issue for my choosing not to finish a Woolf book is not one of social justice of gender or class.

I would, I believe, have to read a great deal of something that I don’t like to determine why I don’t like it. I might also have to read other writers I consistently disliked to see a common thorn. Suffering for the sake of analyzing that which makes me suffer? I think not. So I have taken Woolf’s advice, gotten I know not where, of putting aside a book I am truly not liking and moving on to something else. Yet here I am writing about this choice as if to justify it. Yes, there is a monitor in my reader’s heart that tells me to read on, finish what I’ve started. And I have. Reading The Last Temptation of Christ, for a class I imagine, was a nightmare. It was, all the same, the first book about which I could say, “I hated reading it, but I love having read it.” So, I will read on. Who knows but that I may discover a greatness in the last page, the last word. The very best things in life are those unlooked for, but not overlooked, after all. I’m just not looking for them in Woolf.

The Wise Fools of the Mediterranean

Asked Julian of Maddalo[1]:

“How come the mad to be wise,

Or the wise to go mad?

Which was Tiresias[2]?

Is what they say madness,
All the dark backside of understanding?

Is what they say wisdom,
all illuminated by such understanding?

Does madness make what’s imagined seem brilliantly illuminated?

Does wisdom make what’s sensible seem darkly obscure?

When we peer into San Servolo[3],
Do we see the sun set over Venice?”

 

“Such debate is vanity,”
Answered Maddalo to Julian.

July 2011

 


Note: While attending a lecture on “Julian and Maddalo” given by John Gilroy at Cambridge University, I was struck by the number of times, in film and fiction, I had observed characters, frequently, descending into an asylum to consult, or at least visit and inmate, often having been hidden away there, and always suffering some form of madness. Yet what these mad men and women contribute to their narrative home is often crucial to the understanding of in important character, and sometimes to life itself. Furthermore, the asylum, and indeed the whole narrative, seems always to be set in Greece or Italy or Spain or some other Mediterranean land. Now why is that?

Just a jolly folly poem.

 


[1] “Julian and Maddalo” is a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley, sub-titled a conversation," it reflects discussions between Shelley (Julian) and Byron (Maddalo) at Venice in August and September 1818.

[2] In Greek mythology, Tiresias was a blind prophet of Thebes, famous for clairvoyance and for being transformed into a woman for seven years.

[3] By the beginning of the eighteenth century, or soon thereafter the Senate of the Republic of Venice designated San Servolo as the site of a new military hospital, needed due to the continuing war against the Turks. Later the hospital was used to care for the mentally ill.

Lullaby

Don’t be afraid, for it’s only the night,
Stealing around us, holding us tight,
Like water surrounds us, this warm moist night,
Soothing our bodies, but bringing on fright.

Don’t be afraid, for it’s only the night,
Brought with the kindness of those who adore,
Powerful masters who dreamt up the night,
Whose wealth of mild dreams gives us soothing delight,
Whose soft, patient hands hold back the cruel light.

Don’t be afraid, for it’s only the night.
The dreams that it brings are beautifully pure.
You dream the strangeness. You make the fright.
Yours are the monsters that prowl through the night,
Stealing your pleasures, stealing delight,
Stealing and stealing as always tonight.

But don’t be afraid, for it’s only the night,
Brought by the wise ones who mean you no harm,
Who know you would perish without any light,
(Who know you would perish, a warming delight,)
If they don’t protect you in the dark of the night.

No, don’t be afraid, for it’s only the night.
It isn’t they who give you this fright.
You dream the terrors that prowl through the night,
Turn masters to monsters, where there’s no light.
You dream the evil they do to your soul,
Imagine the menace that lurks down the hole,
Make up the terror that seethes from the gloom.
You are the one who’s alone in the room.
You dream the peril that skulks ‘neath the bed,
Phantasms of your mind make up your dread.
Yes,
You dream the terrors that prowl through the night.

These are not dangers.
There’s nothing to fear.
Those are not strangers,
Those voices you hear.

Don’t be afraid, for it’s only the night,
The masters of darkness will make it all right,
Quelling your fears, and calming your fright,
Controlling what’s there in the absence of light.

Don’t be afraid, for it’s only the night,
Stealing around us, holding us tight,
Like water surrounds us, this warm moist night,
Soothing our bodies, but bringing on fright.

October 2009

 

 

Prepare for the end of the world. More on the ten o’clock news.

I was just having some thoughts while driving home this afternoon. I had stayed a little later than I had intended, it was snowing and still a little icy, and it was Friday, so I could have and did anticipate a slow, trafficky commute. I had the pleasure of a fine young man, whom I knew lived on my way home and who would have had to take two city busses in a lengthy trip home. He offered the opportunity for some good talk about school and books we had read and liked and didn’t like. Having his company, made the trip tolerable in the face of some pretty irritating demonstrations of driving that would have lit all my fires on a lonely trip.

This is Minnesota, and now is climate change. Global warming doesn’t mean everywhere keeps on being as it has always been, but one or two degrees centigrade warmer. No. no. Here in the provinces, it means hurricane levels of low pressure rolling through setting new records, spring and summer arriving a few weeks ahead of schedule, and temperatures in the seventies one week and the teens two weeks later. In other words, it means wacky adjustments to the new normal, One thing has not change here in Minnesota though; it snows and we have to drive in it.

Another change that comes with climate change, though I don’t think there is any causal link, is a progressive increase in the tone of weather prediction and reporting. Weather is drama.  Katrina set the mark for a new high in politicized media hype around weather. Not that Katrina didn’t deserve the coverage, but such a media blitz doesn’t come often, thank goodness, or easily. I does change the game though. Now, the weather people assure us that weather is a sign of Armageddon. Demonic catastrophe falls from the clouds in paralyzing sheets. It swells from the seas in all consuming waves. It screams out of the very air around us in shrieking blasts. I mean, this really sells more soap than they do on WDUM. With this in our minds, mine and the driver of the car ahead of me, I could understand why that car was travelling 15 miles per hour while everyone was trying to maneuver around it on somewhat slippery roads in the Friday afternoon rush. That driver had heard the weather report warning of the almost certain difficulty on the drive home once the snow began to fall. That driver, like me, had heard this warning  Wednesday and yesterday and this morning, three? Six? A dozen times? "It must be bad out here. These other drivers have no idea how bad these conditions are!"

We did indeed know how bad conditions were. The streets were riddled with cars driven by hundreds, perhaps thousands of people who believed death was stalking them in an ice encrusted Kenworth truck, or maybe a beslushed Prius. They slowed for intersections, although they were already going slowly. They straddled lanes to avoid a sudden, perilous sideways slide into a city bus. Tentative. Cautious. And making driving conditions damnedably difficult, just as the weather person had warned me.

I realized, though I did not share my realization with my young passenger, that the media were competing in this dramatizing of rather typical predictions and events because they need to get and keep our attention as part of the free market environment in which we are currently wallowing. We live in market driven times. The old fifties assessment that the advertisers created the need they were then ready to fill has become more systemic, more internalized in our twenty-first century psyche. In almost Pavlovian obedience, we are always searching around for things we need, and we will know we need them when we find them. Since we are always searching, the world must be ever ready to produce needs. Today’s drivers needed to know that the drive home tonight would be difficult. I would not have been able to assess the surface conditions walking across the street and parking lot from school, brushing the snow off my cold car, driving out of the parking lot and down the block to the stop sign, and there turning left. I had however already learned from six or seven animated, terror fueled  media warnings what I needed to know; the driving conditions were going to be difficult.

Enjoying my oppositional disorder to the max, I drove as I normally would on slightly slippery streets, made slippery by the way by the ice  remained from two days before. We had not needed to be warned about that storm so much. A lost marketing opportunity.

Well, if the media are not trying to cause traffic jams with their weather forecasting, why does it happen? And it does happen. It feels hotter when we are told repeatedly how hot it will be, colder when we’re told how cold, and snowier when we’re told how snowy it will be.  When Democrats were told by almost every media outlet for weeks that they would not be going to the polls during a midterm election in a great recession because they were seriously unexcited about the election, they dutifully did not vote. Why do we comply in these self-fulfilling prophesies promulgated by the media markets in the guise of news and weather? Because they tell us what we need to know, and therefore, we know that if they hadn’t told us, it was because we didn’t need to know. We are after all helpless, and the media simply plays to our sense of helplessness. It assumes, perhaps correctly, that we cannot do anything to improve our lives, and we certainly can do nothing to make this a better world. That’s out of our hands, and luckily someone else’s fault. We will be told what we need to know.

I got my young man home in plenty of time. The snow wasn’t so bad. I guess I didn’t need to know.

Now, I must admit, it is some days later, and we are in the middle of the worst snow storm in almost 20 years, which the media has been hyping for two days as the worst blizzard in nearly 20 years. I hate when they’re right on top of 60 hours of alarmist, apocalyptic doom weather news!

Hi?

Usually I try to be serious, well, sometimes anyway, but on my way to school this morning, I saw one of those little things in life that sort of drives me crazy—a right turn hand signal by a bicyclist.

Okay. It’s petty, yes, but it’s so silly. Here’s what I mean. If you’re trying to tell someone you want them to go or move something to one side or the other, you simply point in that direction. The farther away they are, the larger the arm gesture is likely to be. Right?

All right, so I’m in my car and the left turn signal doesn’t work. What do I do? Well, of course if I’m under 60, I don’t do anything because signally my intention does not exist in my cognitive vocabulary. Even if the signal did work, I would only engage it because my hand bumped the lever while turning the wheel. No, no. If I wanted to signal a left turn with the window open, even in the dead of a Minnesota winter, I would thrust my arm straight out to the left to say, boldly, “I’m turning left!” In computer parlance, it’s very intuitive.

Now my bicycle that I often ride on the roads and trails does not have turn signals and I am over 60, so I use hand signals. When I plan on turning left, I stick my arm out to the left and even point with my index finger for those less perceptive, less intuitive individuals approaching from behind or ahead. I even move over to the left, assuming the way is clear. People seem to be able to figure this out pretty well, and I don’t think it’s because they’re all using hand signals in their automobile.

HowNow there are times when I’m approaching other cyclists, and one of them gives me a 1950’s stereotype Indian “How” greeting. “Hi?”  I try to say hello in return, but they pull off to their right and ignore me. I was offended by this for several seconds, but I have now figured out what’s going on.

Back in my car with defective turn signals, I know I must indicate my intention to turn right by sticking my arm out the left window, raising my forearm up. I would stick my arm straight out the right window if I were in the UK, but here in the land of big cars driving on the BikeRightright hand side of the road, such a gesture would do to damage my passenger more than indicate anything to anyone outside the car. Clearly the only window I can gesture out of is the left—down for slowing and stopping, up for turning right and straight out for turning left.

I have no windows on my bike. I can reach visibly to the left and to the right. I can signal a turn in either direction without depending on the unknowledgeable knowing what “How” means. I can, though I seldom do, signal a stop by putting either arm down, palm to the rear. So when I see someone in their local club kit pedaling through BikeRightNewrush hour traffic, glibly offering native American greetings to morning commuters, I have to snicker.  Is pointing too analogical in the digital age? Is semaphore better?

Back on the Road Again II

An abbreviated Motel 6 Loop. I wasn’t confident enough to start on the Harriet road, so pathed to the creek and did the trail, but by the time I got to Portland, I was stoked. I can still ride a road bike, easily and well, and while I didn’t take any risks, I was almost back on form and could have ridden farther, but I’m glad I didn’t.18 miles was enough. I am greatly restored in faith and cheer. I just can’t do very good right turn signals yet.

Back on the Road

Here’s a brief, completely nonpolitical excerpt from my cycling log:

Took the Specialized Globe Elite (commuter) bike out around Lakes Harriet and Calhoun – back on 36th Street. Legs felt labored, but not much worse than in the spring commute.  Hip gave me no trouble at all. Clavicle barely noticeable. Rotator cuff felt some strain, vibration and bumps, but not to pain. Most discomfort in the upper pectoral, right below the break – the elbow effect. First time out since The Fall. Awareness, but not trepidation; alert, but not tense.

I told the doctor in August that I wanted to be back on my bike in October.

And I am.