language wars

posted in: words | 0

For you English language buffs: a brief history of the fight between prescriptivists and descriptivists (by Joan Acocella in the New Yorker). In short, prescriptivists believe language follows certain rules, so there is a correct way to speak and write; descriptivists believe that language doesn’t necessarily follow strict rules so the best we can do is describe how people currently use it.

Anyway, one funny bit in the article was a short table of “upper-class” and “non upper-class” English words:



False TeethDentures
House (a lovely)Home (a lovely)
Awful smellUnpleasant odor

Get it? It shows what words (non-U) middle-class people use to pretend to be upper-class. At least in 1954, when this table was published (this was taken from “U and Non-U: An Essay in Sociological Linguistics” by Alan S. C. Ross).

So folks, the moral of the story is not to use fancier sounding language when a simpler word exists.*


*Unless you’re a lawyer, in which case the extreme version of “non-U” is how you make their money.

per petterson

posted in: words | 0

James Wood, from the New Yorker:

I have a friend, a writer, who became so obsessed by the Norwegian novelist Per Petterson’s “I Curse the River of Time” that he copied it out, word for word—perhaps hoping that his pure replica might unlock the secrets of that mysterious book, with its curling form and drifting sentences. When he told me this, I had not read anything by Petterson. But how could anyone resist such a recommendation? As soon as I opened “I Curse the River of Time” (one of the great titles), I understood the dementing lure.

(read more here)

And who could resist *that* recommendation? Up to now I’ve only read Out Stealing Horses, which Wood calls “more straightforward and less interesting” (and more prize-winning). Was happy to find a copy of Jeg forbanner tidens elv on our bookshelf, but yes, in Norwegian…


thinking in norwegian

posted in: oslo, words | 0

A common difficulty for Norwegian learners is to distinguish between the different “thinking” words. Using the right word for the right context is not always easy–at least if you’re worried about offending people.

jeg tror = I think, but only in circumstances for which you are uncertain about something. for example, “I think he is 32 years old”–implying that you don’t know for sure (if you did, I suppose you would say “I know he is 32” or simply “he is 32”). as a result, it is mildly offensive if to say something like jeg tror du er pen (“I think you’re pretty”): the uncertainty in the word tror implies that you are either unsure or lying.

interestingly one uses the same word for religious belief: jeg tror på gud = I believe in god.

jeg synes/mener = I think, in the sense of “in my opinion”. So you can safely use this one if you want to say that “I think he is nice”.

jeg tenker på = I think about, as in, the actual process of thinking (“I think a lot about work”).

Only after a year do I actually get it. Or at least I recognize now when I’ve used the wrong one. (Knowing is half the battle, right?)

how Ai Weiwei got his name

posted in: china, words | 0

well, this is according to Wikipedia, but it’s cool if true: Ai Weiwei’s father was a famous Chinese poet called Aì Qīng (艾青). But that wasn’t his real name; his original name was Jiang Zhenghan (蒋正涵), styled Jiang Haicheng (蒋海澄)–in addition to his numerous pen names.

Anyway, this poet was tortured and imprisoned in 1932 for opposing the Kuomintang (KMT) party. While in prison, he wrote his first book Da Yan River–My Wet-nurse (《大堰河——我的保姆》)… But while writing his surname (Jiang) he stopped at the “艹”, because he resented sharing the same surname as KMT leader Chiang Kai-shek (“蔣介石”). So he finished the rest of the word with an X. This happens to be the Chinese character ai (), and since the rest of his name, Hai Cheng, meant qing (, the color blue), he adopted the pen name Ai Qing.

sounds like an interesting family.

Self-portrait by Ai Weiwei: its caption(草泥马挡中央, "grass mud horse covering the middle") sounds almost the same in Chinese as 肏你妈党中央, "Fuck your mother, the Communist party central committee". (The Australian via Wikipedia)
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