Lexicon Valley
A Blog About Language

May 6 2016 10:45 AM

Poetry Served, but Music Shined at the Academy of American Poets’ Star-Studded Gala

Early last Wednesday night, a crowd began to gather outside Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall. The hundreds gliding into the lobby looked refined in evening wear, neat sports coats and bright silks, ready for a night at the theater. A ginger sense of anticipation hung over the crowd, and as lines to enter formed, people began to look around expectantly, hoping to glimpse a famous face. “No, after it’s over, then they come out,” one man explained to his party.

They had come, surprisingly, for poetry. But they had also come for the special celebrity guests. Organized by the Academy of American Poets, “Poetry & The Creative Mind” is a yearly benefit held at Lincoln Center. It springs from a simple yet captivating idea: famous non-poets reading poems that they love. It’s also a windfall for the non-profit. Now in its 14th year, the benefit annually brings in $175,000 for the Academy’s educational programming.

The readers everyone had come to see were an impressive range of artists, but few were closely linked to poetry. 

May 5 2016 3:00 PM

Why This Copy Editor Will Capitalize Your Name Whether You Like It or Not

Last month the National Weather Service made the long-overdue decision to cease delivering its forecasts entirely in capital letters. (Its all-caps screeds were relics of a time when weather reports were sent by teleprinter.) As the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration notes in its announcement, “[I]n web speak, use of capital letters became synonymous with angry shouting.” Online, we type in all caps when we’re enraged—ARE YOU SERIOUS?!—or overjoyed—YESSSSSSS—or amused—LOLOLOLOLOLOLOL.

It’s not just online or in all-caps constructions that capital letters carry emotional weight. Elsewhere, we capitalize words to give them gravity. Capitalization elevates nouns from common to proper: It’s not just a white house; it’s the White House. We don’t simply live in a collection of some united states, but in the United States. Charles Dickens didn’t just write a tale about a couple of cities; he wrote A Tale of Two Cities—and for that matter, Charles Dickens isn’t charles dickens, but Charles Dickens. Capital letters set these words apart and demarcate their uniqueness. There are many white houses but only one White House. There are millions of charles but only one Charles Dickens.

May 4 2016 9:00 AM

Why Do We Delete the Initial Pronoun From Our Sentences? Glad You Asked.

Something has been mysteriously absent from many of my recent emails: me. Hope all is well with you, I write, conveniently erasing myself as the subject of the sentence. Agree with Bob’s critiques. Would love to read a post on this. Can do in an hour. Look forward to reading.

Wherefore the shyness, the equivocation? Was I too busy to report for duty as a grammatical element in these statements? Was I pretending to a kind of universal authority by recusing myself? The eternal star systems in their metagalactic repose look forward to reading. And what of the messages in which I dropped the second person? Want to email the publicist? Did I hope not to symbolically conscript the recipient of the message into emailing the publicist, even though I really did need him to email the publicist? (He emailed the publicist; it was fine.) Or was I attempting to seem less grandiose, more briskly no-frills, more collaborative? Omitting the opening pronoun is not unlike leaving off an assertion’s end punctuation, as if to humbly suggest that your thoughts don’t rise to the level of a complete sentence.

May 2 2016 2:11 PM

Celebrating the Bard’s Crudest Moments

This post originally appeared on Strong Language, a sweary blog about swearing. 

Four hundred years ago, Shakespeare shuffled off this mortal coil. Across the globe, bardolators are observing the date—if not the whole month, nay, year—with various celebrations of his momentous legacy. Meanwhile, you might find some tortured high-schoolers and scholars of, you know, other Elizabethan playwrights celebrating his actual death.

I thought I’d honor Stratford’s greatest son (deal with it, millennials-upon-Avon) by celebrating not his loftiest lines but some of his crudest, as I have been periodically doing on Strong Language. I can think of no better work for the special occasion than his two-part history, Henry IV. From prostitutes in London taverns to magicking rebels in Wales, Shakespeare dizzies us with a rich array of characters, settings, and voices in Henry IV, Part 1 and Part 2. Nothing, though, quite stands out like the sleazing, boozing, and wheezing Sir John Falstaff—and not just for his size. The fat knight’s girth yields some larger-than-life mirth, if we look to some the insults his companions throw at the “fat-kidneyed rascal” (1H4 2.2.6).

April 28 2016 8:22 AM

A New Play Will Scramble Your View of How Language Means, Mystifies, and Falls Short    

How can we come together if all our words are corrupt? Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again., by British playwright Alice Birch, poses that question in ways that are fascinating even if you can’t make it to a performance at Soho Rep in Manhattan. (If you can, though, do.) The play, having its U.S. premiere, is a puckish, yet deadly serious meditation on how language molds our experience of sex and gender, a scalding cascade of interconnected vignettes exploring words and their limits.

Start with the script, a flat notation of actors’ voices, a dead thing.

“There should be at least one female character (that should probably be played by a female actor) in every scene,” the first page insists. The instructions march on: A dash indicates a change in speaker (the script refuses to assign particular lines to particular characters), words in square brackets are not spoken. “Most importantly,” Birch writes, “this play should not be well behaved.”

April 26 2016 1:00 PM

Four Femmes on the Thames

This post originally appeared on Strong Language, a sweary blog about swearing

The Four Femmes on the Thames are a cabaret-style group who specialize in old-style jazz and swing music with a comedy twist. Their song “Woman Up” was described by Holly Brockwell at Gadgette as the sweary feminist anthem of the year. I’m sure you can see the Strong Language angle (and appeal) already.

The title, if you’re wondering, inverts the sexist idiom man up, and instead of grow a pair the Femmes suggest that people grow a twat, recalling a quip (“Grow a vagina—those things can take a pounding”) often misattributed to Betty White. The song is a three-minute NSFW delight; lyrics and more below the fold:

April 26 2016 8:00 AM

We’re Quoting the Wrong Shakespearean Prince to Honor Prince    

Prince’s sudden and shocking death last week prompted an outpouring of responses on social media, with one particularly widespread commemoration taking the form of the quote: “Good night, sweet prince.” While the words make for a pithy and tender remembrance, you’ll agree, if you’re familiar with the source of the saying, that they simply call up the wrong prince for Prince.

Another genius gave us “Good night, sweet prince”: William Shakespeare, who also died at a tragically young age, 52, at least by our modern standards. Like Prince, Shakespeare was an artistic polymath, writing, performing, and producing many of his works. The phrase appears in Hamlet, which features such hits as “to be or not to be,” “infinite jest,” “the lady doth protest too much,” “to sleep, perchance to dream,” “something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” and “words, words, words.” These lines, and many more, have become so ingrained in the English language that it’s as if they’ve always existed. We can forget Shakespeare even wrote them, just as many of us were surprised to learn Prince, aside from his own hits, authored the Bangles classic “Manic Monday.”

Most of these Hamlet hits are spoken, in the epic guitar solo that is the Shakespearean soliloquy, by the play’s title character. But not, of course, “Good night, sweet prince.” Spoiler alert: After Hamlet dies in the final scene’s bloodbath, his friend Horatio offers: “Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince,/ And flights of angels sing these to thy rest.–” (Hamlet 5.2.302-03). These are tender lines, and mellifluous, too. But I think we are hanging too much on surface similarities in this passage.

April 22 2016 10:59 AM

Fat-Shaming in Shakespearean Dialogue

This post originally appeared on Strong Language, a sweary blog about swearing

Men: How far we haven’t come. 

During the Utah caucuses last month, a super PAC supporting presidential candidate Ted Cruz attacked his Republican counterpart, Donald Trump, with an advertisement featuring a nude photograph of Trump’s wife, Melania. In keeping with a long-evidenced pattern of misogyny, Trump responded by retweeting photographs that suggested Cruz’s wife, Heidi, is less attractive than Melania.

Little has changed, it seems, in 400 years: Not even the great William Shakespeare was above shaming women on the basis of their looks, if his The Comedy of Errors is any measure. But at least he left us with some memorable wordplay, I suppose.

April 22 2016 7:30 AM

The Surreal, Dionysian Poetry of Prince’s Lyrics

“All art aspires to the condition of music,” wrote Walter Pater, and Prince’s lyrics are as hot and dreamlike and weird as his sound. Saturated in color, wild with bizarre imagery, they overload the senses and short-circuit the brain. Rolling Stone described the Purple One’s aesthetic as “sensual anarchy,” a phrase that helps capture the intoxicating drive of his poetry. (What if not poetry would you call these lines from “Raspberry Beret”: “Now, overcast days never turned me on/ But something about the clouds and her mixed.”) Prince told us to move and dance and fuck our way to utopia, to grind “until the castle started spinning/ or maybe it was just my brain.”

He was our Dionysus, and his lyrics were full of beasts. “You’re just as soft as a lion tamed,” he crooned. “Take me to the place where your horses run free,” he begged. And he saw in color: red corvettes, pink cashmere, purple rain, purple everything. Prince understood T.S. Eliot’s notion of the objective correlative, the concrete object that stands for a chaotic, vibrant mass of emotions. “She wore a raspberry beret,” he sang, and once it was worn he didn’t say much more.

April 18 2016 11:17 AM

From Theater to Therapy to Twitter, the Eerie History of Gaslighting    

In the 1938 play Gas Light, a felonious man seeks to convince his wife that her mind is unraveling. When she notices that he’s dimmed the gaslights in the house, he tells her she is imagining things—they are as bright as they were before. The British play became a 1944 American film starring Ingrid Bergman as the heroine, Paula, and Charles Boyer as Gregory, her abusive, crazy-making husband.

A match struck; a metaphor flickered to life. Gas Light reminded viewers how uniquely terrifying it can be to mistrust the evidence of your senses. Flame made an evocative figure for Paula’s consciousness—her sense of self guttering when Gregory insisted she hadn’t seen what she saw.

Today to gaslight means to overwrite someone’s reality, to manipulate her into believing she’s imagining things. Remember the traveling salesman who bade the common folk marvel at the glamorous weeds of their naked emperor? (If they couldn’t see the clothes, it had to be their fault—they were bad at their jobs.) Prototypical gaslighter. The term can attach to anything surreal enough to make you question your sanity, like the political news cycle, but gaslight arose from psychoanalytic literature, where it described a specific “transfer” of psychic conflicts from the perpetrator to the victim. In a 1981 article called “Some Clinical Consequences of Introjection: Gaslighting,” psychologist Edward Weinshel sketched out the dysfunctional dance: One person “externalizes and projects,” while the other “incorporates and assimilates.”* Introjection was Weinshel’s Freudian update to the kindergarten song “I’m rubber, you’re glue,” a name for the process by which a single player absorbs all the fault, irrationality, and madness in a relationship.