This month I listened to At the Strangers’ Gate (2017) written and narrated by Adam Gopnik, one of my favorite New Yorker writers. (His latest New Yorker essay is about two new biographies of Buster Keaton, one of which—Camera Man, by Dana Stevens—I’ve just begun to read.)
At the Strangers’ Gate covers the 1980s, when Gopnik and his new bride arrived in Manhattan from Montreal and he began his writing career. It’s a decade I’ve been thinking about a lot lately (AIDS, Reagan, Madonna, Bonfire of the Vanities), and Gopnik evokes it with keen observations, especially about the art and literary scenes. You can skip directly to Chapter 9, “Writing,” for Gopnik’s insights into the differences, and occasional overlaps, between those scenes. Here he is on art, writing, and money:
Art world paydays made book world paydays look like no paydays at all. Visual artists hunted for golden tickets, and when they got one, they were set. Good pictures in the art market—a market that has never stopped booming in all the years since—buy estates in the Hamptons. Even large royalties in the literary world (the handful—no, fingerful—of truly “commercial” writers aside) bought small apartments in the upper reaches of West End Avenue, and then in Park Slope—no small or bad thing, but not the same thing.
Gopnik is the rare author who’s also an outstanding narrator; his slightly Canadian inflections and wry line readings make this audiobook a joy. But it’s also a book I want to own in print, on paper, between covers.
One final round of 2021 words of the year:
- The American Dialect Society chose insurrection, which had been my top pick until I switched to Big Lie. Other ADS picks included antiwork (most likely to succeed), hard pants (most useful), and boosted (pandemic-related word of the year). For the second consecutive year, the voting was done via Zoom, which did not at all diminish the liveliness of the session.
- At Separated by a Common Language, linguist Lynne Murphy posted her transatlantic words of the year: university as the UK-to-US import (as in “he studied physics in university,” instead of the more customary U.S. parlance “in college”) and the “doon” pronunciation of dune as the US-to-UK import.
- For the seventh year in a row, Ben Zimmer presided over the Strong Language blog’s annual Tucker Awards for Excellence in Swearing. (“As we never tire of explaining, the awards are named in honor of the patron saint of Strong Language, Malcolm Tucker, the profane political spinmeister brought to life by Peter Capaldi in the BBC series The Thick of It and the movie spinoff In the Loop.”) Top honors went to Wendy Molyneux for her McSweeney’s essay, “Oh My Fucking God, Get the Fucking Vaccine Already, You Fucking Fucks.” But there’s much, much more. Read the whole fucking post, why don’t you?
- Listen to the Spectacular Vernacular interview with Wordle’s creator, Josh Wardle—yes, that’s his name, lucky him
- Read Linda Holmes’s NPR story about Wordle strategy.
- Find out why we can’t resist Wordle, even though, as Kyle Chayka writes in the New Yorker, “[i]n contrast to seemingly everything else on the Internet, Wordle is not designed to be addictive.”
- Try your hand at a Wordle knockoff like Sweardle (four-letter words only, of course) or Absurdle (which changes the word as you’re trying to guess it—grrr), or just read about them and the other Wordle spinoffs like Queerdle and Wheeldle.
- Or make your own Wordle!
And finally: Clive Thompson gives six design lessons from Wordle’s success. (“3. Make things for an audience of one.”)
The Lowering the Bar blog (“Legal humor. Seriously”) has been s-l-o-w-l-y cataloguing the “official state crap” (their term) of each of the United States. The most recent entry is Indiana, whose official language is English (“other languages make Mike Pence nervous”) and whose state snack is “popcorn, but only ‘popcorn grown in Indiana.’ (The Spanish word for popcorn is palomitas, but if you use that in Indiana it won’t be official, I guess.)”
From Defunctland, a YouTube series “telling the stories of pop culture’s past,” here’s a Twitter thread of actual newspaper headlines announcing the death of Walt Disney in 1966. Click through to read them all.
Boss: "We need a headline for the unexpected death of one of the most famous people that has ever lived."— Defunctland (@Defunctland) January 20, 2022
Reporter: "Hmm let me think, um, Walt Disney Dies.... movie.... tv.... notable."
Boss: "Copy, print it." pic.twitter.com/v842B8KJdm
Back in 2020, Mondelēz announced it would “stop marketing and start humaning,” which prompted a lot of (deserved) derision. But is there a place for a more human approach to branding that doesn’t require torturing the language? Creative content strategist Luc Benyon takes a serious look at the question for BrandingMag. (Hat tip: Emily Penny).
“Nearly 70 years ago, the Cincinnati Reds decided their name wouldn’t cut it in a political climate of anti-communist hysteria. Days before the start of the 1953 season, the team surprised sportswriters and fans when they announced that they would now be known as the Redlegs.” Fredric J. Frommer wrote for the Washington Post about a famous (temporary) name change.
“While most companies would want a brand that’s considered and well designed, there are some situations where having a nice brand feels out of place or even suspect.” (Eli Altman for A Hundred Monkeys)
Janelle Shane trains artificial intelligence to come up with—among other strange things—weird names. (I wrote about her AI’s paint names back in 2017.) Her latest project involves creating novel breakfast cereals with commensurately novel names. Anyone for Foam Squares? How about some Carbonated Waffle Balls?
Tallow Rods! Yum! Via AIWeirdness