Why David Sedaris Hates America’s Favorite Word, “Awesome”

David Sedaris has made his name as a humorist, noting the absurdities of everything from life with his parents and siblings to the perpetual cycle of world travel and book-signing into which fame has launched him. But as his longtime readers know, he's really a student of language: not only has his own voice on the page been shaped by close observation of English, he's studied and continues to study a host of foreign languages as well. Longtime readers will remember how much material he got out of the French classes that gave his book Me Talk Pretty One Day its title, and he has more recently written of his struggles to get a handle on such diverse tongues as German, Japanese, and Slovene. (I myself wrote an essay about Sedaris' language-learning in the Los Angeles Review of Books.)

Though he's never explicitly cited it as part of his writing process, these studies have clearly honed Sedaris' ear for language in general, especially when it comes to its local tics and eccentricities. "In France the most often used word is 'connerie,' which means 'bullshit,'" he says in the audiobook clip at the top of the post from his latest collection Calypso, "and in America it’s hands-down 'awesome,' which has replaced 'incredible,' 'good,' and even 'just OK.' Pretty much everything that isn’t terrible is awesome in America now." What once denoted a sight or experience filled with the emotion of "dread, veneration, and wonder that is inspired by authority or by the sacred or sublime" has become, in Sedaris' view, a synonym for "fine."

"It just got out of hand to me," Sedaris explains to USA Today. "Everything’s awesome all the time. I was in Boulder, Colorado" — a city he has elsewhere described as "the 'awesome' capital" — "and someone said, 'I’ll have a double espresso, awesome,' and the other person said, 'Awesome.'"




(In another interview, he mentions that he often fines people "a dollar a time at events for using the A-word. I warn them first, because it’s only fair, but I can make pretty good money that way.") This may sound like a futile objection to inevitable linguistic change, but only to those who haven't noticed the underlying debasement of meaning. If "awesome" can now describe a coffee, what word, if any, indicates genuine awe?

A similar fate has befallen other English words and expressions. "Great" preceded "awesome" into the semantic haze, and "to beg the question" has become a standard example of a phrase to whose original meaning only a pedant would cling. People now often use it synonymously with "raising the question," but if we accept that as its meaning, we're left with no way to refer to question-begging itself, a rhetorical practice still as rampant as ever.  To criticize the modern loosening of these usages is to keep sharp and complete one's array of tools for expression and communication; we condemn the overuse of a word not out of pure hatred but out of understanding the necessity of its true meaning. Even David Sedaris grants "awesome" its proper time and place: "I went to the Great Wall of China once, and I have to say, that was awesome. But that's the only thing I can think of. Not a latte."

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

A Witty Dictionary of Victorian Slang (1909)

In the introduction to his Dictionary of Contemporary Slang, Tony Thorne writes of the difficulty of defining informal speech: “A symposium on slang held in France in 1989 broke up after several days without having arrived at a definition acceptable to even the majority of participants.” If you’re thinking maybe this seems like taking the subject a little too seriously, I’d agree. But if we travel back eighty years in time and across the English Channel, we’ll meet an eccentric lexicographer who approached the task in the right spirit.

“Here is a numerically weak collection of ‘Passing English.'" writes James Redding Ware in the Preface to his posthumously-published 1909 Passing English of the Victorian Era, A Dictionary of Heterodox English, Slang and Phrase.

 

“It may be hoped that there are errors on every page, and also that no entry is ‘quite too dull.’” He goes on in a more serious tone to summarize the rapid language change occurring in England in the last few decades of the 19th century:




Thousands of words and phrases in existence in 1870 have drifted away, or changed their forms, or been absorbed, while as many have been added or are being added. ‘Passing English’ ripples from countless sources, forming a river of new language which has its tide and its ebb, while its current brings down new ideas and carries away those that have dribbled out of fashion. Not only is ‘Passing English’ general ; it is local ; often very seasonably local. 

Ware—a pen name of British writer Andrew Forrester—goes on to get very local indeed in his descriptions, from “Petty Italia behind Hatton Garden” to “Anglo-Yiddish.” The Public Domain Review highlights the following quirky entries.

Got the Morbs – temporary melancholy
Mutton Shunter – the police
Batty-Fang – to thrash thoroughly
Doing the Bear – courting that involves hugging
Mafficking – getting rowdy in the streets
Orf Chump – no appetite
Poked Up – embarrassed
Nanty Narking – great fun

Ware’s attitude may be appropriately informal, but his methodology is suitably rigorous, and this comprehensive lexicon was clearly a labor of love. His book is a serious resource for scholars of the period, and, hell, it's also just great fun. Read and download the full dictionary at the Internet Archive.

via The Public Domain Review

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

What Did Old English Sound Like? Hear Reconstructions of Beowulf, The Bible, and Casual Conversations

What is the English language? Is it Anglo-Saxon? It is tempting to think so, in part because the definition simplifies a linguistic history that defies linear summary. Over the course of 1000 years, the language came together from extensive contact with Anglo-Norman, a dialect of French; then became heavily Latinized and full of Greek roots and endings; then absorbed words from Arabic, Spanish, and dozens of other languages, and with them, arguably, absorbed concepts and pictures of the world that cannot be separated from the language itself.

Shakespeare and other writers filled in the gaps (and still do), inventing words where they were lacking. Why do we then refer to the long-dead Anglo-Saxon language as “Old English,” if it is only a distant ancestor, and one, you’ll note, no English speaker today understands? There are many technical reasons for this, but to put it in plain terms: if English were a body, Anglo-Saxon might be the bones and ligaments: not only for the hardness of its consonants and its blunt, unadorned poetry, but because it contains the most common words in the language, the structural bits that hold together all those pan-linguistic borrowings.

Observe the piece of verse known as Cædmon’s Hymn, below. Amidst the tangle of unfamiliar phonemes and extinct letters like the “þ,” you cannot miss such bedrock words as “and,” “his,” “or,” “He,” and “to.” In other texts, you’ll find recognizable equivalents of “father,” "mother," “husband,” “wife,” “good,” “god," and many other common household words.

Nu sculon herian     heofonrices Weard,
Metodes mihte     and his modgeþanc,
weorc Wuldorfæder,     swa he wundra
gehwæs
ece Dryhten,     or onstealde.
He ærest scop     eorþan bearnum
heofon to hrofe     halig Scieppend.
þa middangeard     mancynnes Weard
ece Dryhten,     æfter teode
firum foldan     Frea ælmihtig.

Despite sharing many words with modern English, however, Anglo Saxon is another language, from an entirely different world long disappeared. No one living, of course, knows exactly what it sounded like, so scholars make their best educated guesses using internal evidence in the scant literature, secondary sources in other languages from the time, and similarities to other, living languages. Now that you’ve seen what Old English looks like, hear how it sounds to modern ears.

In the video at the top, student of the language Stephen Roper reenacts a casual conversation with an Anglo-Saxon speaker, one who can understand but cannot speak contemporary English. The other examples here come from literary contexts. Further up, Justin A. Jackson, Professor of English at Hillsdale College, reads the opening lines of Beowulf, and just above, hear an unnamed narrator read the epic poem’s full Prologue.

Just below—backed by a dramatic, droning score and recited over footage of misty English moors—a reading of “The Lord’s Prayer” in 11th century Old English. In this text, you’ll pick out quite a few more familiar words, though the fact that most readers know the modern English equivalent probably doesn’t hurt. But if you feel confident after listening to these speculative reconstructions of the language, enough to take a crack at reading it aloud yourself, head over this University of Glasgow collection of Old English readings.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

A Dictionary of Words Invented to Name Emotions We All Feel, But Don’t Yet Have a Name For: Vemödalen, Sonder, Chrysalism & Much More

Philosophers have always distrusted language for its slipperiness, its overuse, its propensity to deceive. Yet many of those same critics have devised the most inventive terms to describe things no one had ever seen. The Philosopher’s Stone, the aether, miasmas—images that made the ineffable concrete, if still invisibly gaseous.

It's important for us to see the myriad ways our common language fails to capture the complexity of reality, ordinary and otherwise. Ask any poet, writer, or language teacher to tell you about it—most of the words we use are too abstract, too worn out, decayed, or rusty. Maybe it takes either a poet or a philosopher to not only notice the many problems with language, but to set about remedying them.




Such are the qualities of the mind behind The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, a project by graphic designer and filmmaker John Koenig. The blog, YouTube channel, and soon-to-be book from Simon & Schuster has a simple premise: it identifies emotional states without names, and offers both a poetic term and a philosopher’s skill at precise definition. Whether these words actually enter the language almost seems beside the point, but so many of them seem badly needed, and perfectly crafted for their purpose.

Take one of the most popular of these, the invented word “Sonder,” which describes the sudden realization that everyone has a story, that “each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.” This shock can seem to enlarge or diminish us, or both at the same time. Psychologists may have a term for it, but ordinary speech seemed lacking.

Sonder likely became as popular as it did on social media because the theme “we’re all living connected stories” already resonates with so much popular culture. Many of the Dictionary’s other terms trend far more unambiguously melancholy, if not neurotic—hence “obscure sorrows.” But they also range considerably in tone, from the relative lightness of Greek-ish neologism “Anecdoche”—"a conversation in which everyone is talking, but nobody is listening”—to the majorly depressive “pâro”:

the feeling that no matter what you do is always somehow wrong—as if there’s some obvious way forward that everybody else can see but you, each of them leaning back in their chair and calling out helpfully, “colder, colder, colder…”

Both the coinages and the definitions illuminate each other. Take "Énouement," defined as “the bittersweetness of having arrived in the future, seeing how things turn out, but not being able to tell your past self.” A psychology of aging in the form of an eloquent dictionary entry. Sometimes the relationship is less subtle, but still magical, as in the far from sorrowful “Chrysalism: The amniotic tranquility of being indoors during a thunderstorm.”

Sometimes, it is not a word but a phrase that speaks most poignantly of emotions that we know exist but cannot capture without deadening clichés. “Moment of Tangency” speaks poignantly of a metaphysical philosophy in verse. Like Sonder, this phrase draws on an image of interconnectedness. But rather than taking a perspective from within—from solipsism to empathy—it takes the point of view of all possible realities.

Watch the video for "Vemödalen: The Fear That Everything Has Already Been Done" up top. See several more short films from the project here, including “Silience: The Brilliant Artistry Hidden All Around You”—if, that is, we could only pay attention to it. Below, find 23 other entries describing emotions people feel, but can’t explain.

1. Sonder: The realization that each passerby has a life as vivid and complex as your own.
2. Opia: The ambiguous intensity of Looking someone in the eye, which can feel simultaneously invasive and vulnerable.
3. Monachopsis: The subtle but persistent feeling of being out of place.
4 Énouement: The bittersweetness of having arrived in the future, seeing how things turn out, but not being able to tell your past self.
5. Vellichor: The strange wistfulness of used bookshops.
6. Rubatosis: The unsettling awareness of your own heartbeat.
7. Kenopsia: The eerie, forlorn atmosphere of a place that is usually bustling with people but is now abandoned and quiet.
8. Mauerbauertraurigkeit: The inexplicable urge to push people away, even close friends who you really like.
9. Jouska: A hypothetical conversation that you compulsively play out in your head.
10. Chrysalism: The amniotic tranquility of being indoors during a thunderstorm.
11. Vemödalen: The frustration of photographic something amazing when thousands of identical photos already exist.
12. Anecdoche: A conversation in which everyone is talking, but nobody is listening
13. Ellipsism: A sadness that you’ll never be able to know how history will turn out.
14. Kuebiko: A state of exhaustion inspired by acts of senseless violence.
15. Lachesism: The desire to be struck by disaster – to survive a plane crash, or to lose everything in a fire.
16. Exulansis: The tendency to give up trying to talk about an experience because people are unable to relate to it.
17. Adronitis: Frustration with how long it takes to get to know someone.
18. Rückkehrunruhe: The feeling of returning home after an immersive trip only to find it fading rapidly from your awareness.
19. Nodus Tollens: The realization that the plot of your life doesn’t make sense to you anymore.
20. Onism: The frustration of being stuck in just one body, that inhabits only one place at a time.
21. Liberosis: The desire to care less about things.
22. Altschmerz: Weariness with the same old issues that you’ve always had – the same boring flaws and anxieties that you’ve been gnawing on for years.
23. Occhiolism: The awareness of the smallness of your perspective.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How a Word Enters the Dictionary: A Quick Primer

Given that you’re reading this on the Internet, we presume you'll be able to define many of the over 800 words that were added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary in 2018:

biohacking

bougie

bingeable

guac

hangry

Latinx

mocktail

zoodles

But what about some of the humdingers lexicographer Kory Stamper, former associate editor for Merriam-Webster and author of Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, unleashes in the above video?

prescriptivism

descriptivism

sprachgefühl

etymological fallicist

(Bonus: bird strike)

And here we thought we were fluent in our native tongue. Face palm, to use another newish entry and an example of descriptivism. (It’s when the dictionary follows the culture’s lead, according novelty its due by officially recognizing words that have entered the parlance, rather than prescribing the way citizens should be speaking.)




To hear Stamper tell it, dictionary writing is a dream gig for readers as well as word lovers.

Part of every day is spent reading, flagging any unfamiliar words that may pop up for further research.

Did teenage slang give rise to it?

Was it born of business trends or tech industry advances?

Stamper is adamant that language is not fixed, but rather a living organism. Words go in and out of fashion, and take on meanings beyond the ones they sported when first included in the dictionary. (Have a look at “extra” to see some evolutionary effects of the English language and back it up with a peek inside the Urban Dictionary.)

Before a word passes dictionary muster, it must meet three criteria: it must have crossed into widespread use, it seems likely to stick around for a while, and it must have some sort of substantive meaning, as opposed to being known solely for its length (“antidisestablishmentarianism”), or some other structural wonder.

“Iouea” contains all five regular vowels and no other letters. The fact that it exists to describe a genus of sea sponges may seem somewhat beside the point to all but marine biologists.

What new words will enter the lexicon in 2019?

Perhaps we should look to the past. We set Merriam-Webster’s Time Traveler dial back 100 years to discover the words that debuted in 1919. There’s an abundance of goodies here, some of whose WWI-era context has already expanded to accommodate modern meaning (anti-stress, fanboy, superpimp, unbuffered). Readers, care to take a stab at freshening up some other candidates:

apple-knocker

buckshee

capeskin

cultigen

gametophore

interrogee

micromethod

neuroprotective

outgas

prereturn

putsch

scenarist

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  See her onstage in New York City January 14 as host of Theater of the Apes book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Why Is English So Hard to Learn?: The Ingenious Poem, “The Chaos,” Documents 800 Irregularities in English Spelling and Pronunciation

In 1920, Dutch writer and traveler Gerard Nolst Trenité, also known as Charivarius, published a textbook called Drop Your Foreign Accent: engelsche uitspraakoefeningen. In the appendix, he included a poem titled “The Chaos,” a virtuoso, tongue-twisting demonstration of somewhere around 800 irregularities in English spelling and pronunciation. No one now remembers the textbook, and the poem might have disappeared too were it not for efforts of the Simplified Spelling Society, which tracked fragments of it through “France, Canada, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and Turkey.”

The poem's history, as told in the Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society (JSSS) in 1994, shows how it traveled around Europe, in pieces, confounding and bedeviling aspiring English speakers. Full of homonyms, loan words, and words which—at one time—actually sounded the way they’re spelled, the poem’s fifty-eight stanzas may be the most clever and comprehensive “concordance of cacographic chaos,” as the JSSS puts it. Admired by linguists and historians of English, it has, since its 1994 republication, become something of a cult hit for enthusiasts of language everywhere.




You can read it here, hear it read above by YouTube’s Lindybeige, and see a transcription into IPA, the international phonetic alphabet. Though it's popularly represented as a kind of sorting mechanism for “the English-Speaking Elite,” that’s hardly accurate. English once sounded like this and this, then like this, and now sounds completely different according to hundreds of regional dialects and accents around the world. The society gestures toward this in their introduction, writing, “the selection of examples now appears somewhat dated, as do a few of their pronunciations. Indeed a few words may even be unknown to today’s readers.”

“How many will know what a ‘studding-sail’ is, or that its nautical pronunciation is ‘stunsail’?,” asks the JSSS. It seems reasonable to wonder how many people ever did. In any case, English, Lindybeige writes, “is a rapidly-changing language,” and one that has not made much phonetic sense for several centuries. This is exactly what has made it such a bear to learn to spell and pronounce—for both English language learners and native speakers. Try your hand at reading every word in “The Chaos,” preferably in front of an audience, and see how you do.

via Mental Floss/The Poke

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Napoleon’s English Lessons: How the Military Leader Studied English to Escape the Boredom of Life in Exile

When we talk about country club prison sentences, we tend to imagine a marginal amount of time spent on the inside, though the phrase sounds like an extended vacation. Napoleon Bonaparte—exiled to the island of St. Helena for his crimes against Europe—got the full treatment, what some might even call a sweetheart deal. As the Public Domain Review notes, “the British had agreed to provide Le Petit Caporal with plentiful wine, meat, and musical instruments.” He was given his own comfortable lodgings, a spacious country house, though it’s said to have been draughty and full of rats.

On the other hand, Napoleon had to foreswear “what he most craved—family, power, Europe,” for a condition of extreme isolation. The loss weighed heavily. After spending six years 1200 miles from shore, he died, some say of poisoning, but others say of boredom. Of his few amusements, conversing with Count Emmanuel de Las Cases—“historian and loyal supporter who had been allowed to voyage with him to Saint Helena”—proved most stimulating. Prevented from receiving newspapers in French, he longed to read the few he found in English.




Las Cases endeavored to teach Napoleon the language of his jailers, and the former Emperor struggled mightily to learn it. After three months on the island, he spent the following three studying every day, eventually producing translations from his French like that below:

When will you be wise
Never as long as j should be in this isle
But j shall become wise after having passed the line
When j shall land in France j shall be very content…

My wife shall come near to me, my son shall be great and strong if he will be able to trink a bottle of wine at dinner j shall [toast] with him… / The women believe they [are] ever prety / The time has not wings / When you shall come, you shall see that j have ever loved you.

Eight pages in Napoleon’s own hand remain from his time as a student of English on St. Helena in the first few months of 1816. They are “some of the most evocative documents we have from Napoleon’s time” on the island, the Fondation Napoleon writes, bearing “poignant witness to the frustration Napoleon felt in exile…. It is tempting to read a refusal of exile in these sheets, both in the sentences themselves, and in Napoleon’s insistent use of ‘j’ (as in the French ‘je’) rather than the English ‘I.’”

In one letter that survives from March 7, 1816 (see it scanned above), written for Las Cases to correct the following day, Napoleon takes stock of his progress, or lack thereof.

Count lascases — Since sixt week j learn the Englich and j do not any progress. Six week do fourty and two day. If might have learn fivity word four day I could know it two thusands and two hundred. It is in the dictionary more of fourty thousand; even he could must twinty bout much of tems for know it our hundred and twenty week, which do more two yars. After this you shall agrée that to study one tongue is a great labour who it must do into the young aged.

Las Cases reports that his student “had an extraordinary intelligence but a very bad memory.” Grammar came much more easily than vocabulary. His frustration over being “imprisoned in the middle of this language” is recorded in Las Cases' Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène, a record of his fifteen months on the island with Napoleon. The book became “a publishing sensation” and would “do much,” the Public Domain Review writes, “to turn the perception of Napoleon from a dictator into a liberator.”

via Public Domain Review

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

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