I haven’t recommended a book in a while, so this month I’m recommending two, both of them new, both of them about language. (And each one blurbed by the author of the other one, which must be a coincidence, right?)
Speaking of dictionaries, lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower has compiled a new historical dictionary of science-fiction, and it’s out of this world. Read about it in Wired (Adam Rogers calls Sheidlower “a lexicographical mad scientist”) and in theNew York Times (Jennifer Schuessler calls Sheidlower’s 1995 book, The F-Word, “a cheekily learned history of the notorious obscenity”).
Happy Festivus, the holiday for the rest of us! The traditional Airing of Grievances seems superfluous this year: we’ve been airing and grieving for most of 2020. So let us gather quietly—and virtually—around the traditionally unadorned Festivus pole and wish for feats of strength to get us through the season.
The American Dialect Society, the OG Word of the Year anointer, usually holds its WotY contest in person, and it’s always a rollicking event. This year ADS is soliciting nominations and taking reservations online, and there’s a bonus pre-event event: On December 10 at 12 pm EST/9 am PST, famous word guy Ben Zimmer, in partnership with Washington’s new Planet Word Museum, will explain the nomination and selection processes and talk about his year’s likely candidates. Register here (free). Or you can skip directly to registration for the ADS livestream on December 17, and nominate up to five words while you’re at it.
“What’s the word?/Thunderbird!/How’s it sold?/Good and cold.” More about the word (and the wine) at Modern Drunkard magazine.
Lynne Murphy, a UK-based American linguist, blogged recently about “British words (most) Americans don’t know”—such as pelmet, quango, and bolshy. Many of the words were unfamiliar to me, an American who tries to keep with such things but doesn’t always succeed. (See, for example, my post about tannoy.) But one of them, plaice, not only registered but brought back some amusing memories from my freelance-journalism past.
Lynne writes that plaice “is a kind of flatfish that's common at British fish-and-chip shops. The OED says ‘European flatfish of shallow seas, Pleuronectes platessa (family Pleuronectidae)’, but some other fish (esp. outside the UK) are sometimes called plaice. The name came from French long ago. It shows up in *many* punny shop names”—Our Plaice, The Happy Plaice, Park Plaice, and so on.
My own introduction to plaice came from a different punny restaurant name—possibly the original one. In 1985, a magazine I wrote for, Tables, sent me to London to interview Bob Payton, an American ad-guy-turned restaurateur who was making waves over there with his Chicago-style pizza places, a Chicago Rib Shack, and a seafood restaurant called, yes, Payton Plaice. It was a double pun.
Peyton Place was a bestselling 1956 novel, a 1957 movie starring Lana Turner, a 1961 sequel, and a TV soap opera that aired from 1964 to 1969 and introduced 19-year-old Mia Farrow to viewing audiences (and set off a trend for “Allison”—the name of her character—as a girl’s name). “Peyton Place” became a synonym, or metonym, for “small town with a lot of hanky-panky.”
This month I’ve been reading Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America, published in August by Kurt Andersen. According to the publisher, it’s “the epic history of how America decided that big business gets whatever it wants, only the rich get richer, and nothing should ever change.” Andersen also pinpoints a when for the everything-going-to-shit: around 1980. (Perhaps you remember who was elected president that year.) Andersen is a deft writer who makes even dense economic theory fun to read—he is, after all, one of the founding editors of Spy, the satirical magazine of the 1980s and 1990s that dubbed DJ Trump a “short-fingered vulgarian.” For me, though, the book’s most interesting insights are about nostalgia and how everything became “retro” or a “reboot”—or, in movies, a sequel or remake. Andersen says we started retreating into nostalgia in the 1970s, as an exhausted response to the “disorienting” newness of the 1960s. But we’ve never really shaken off that nostalgia-fever. The entries under “Nostalgia” in the Evil Geniuses index fill more than a column, and include these headings: “of blue-collar workers for time when they were majority,” “default to, enabled building of reproduction-old-days political economy by economic right-wingers,” “as fuel for fantastical or irrecoverable post politics,” and “‘USA! USA!’ chant.” I quoted a particularly excellent sentence from Evil Geniuses in last month’s linkfest, which you can read here.
Earlier this month, the US Supreme Court heard arguments (by telephone, because of the COVID-19 pandemic) in a case with special interest for those of us who follow developments in naming and trademark law. U.S. Patent and Trademark Office vs. Booking.com, the case argued on May 4, is the culmination of eight years of efforts by Booking.com, which calls itself “the world’s #1 choice for booking hotel accommodations,” to register its full name, including the .com, as a US trademark. My latest column for the Visual Thesaurus gives you a sense of what’s at stake by examining some key terms, including generic, domain, and, yes, booking.
The Booking.com wordmark
Full access to the column is restricted to subscribers (still just $19.95 a year!). Here’s an excerpt:
Lynne Murphy wrote about the original UK slogan coronavirus slogan—“Stay at home/Protect the NHS/Save lives”—and its replacement (“Stay alert”), which was “mocked relentlessly on UK social media within a day of its announcement.” My own thoughts went immediately to an old joke, which I see is still alive and well.
I’m a fan of this balanced two-part slogan from PassItOn.com: “Stay apart. Pull together.” Their other pandemic-related billboards—“First In. Second to None”; “Nursing a Country Back to Health”—are good, too.
My American friend Diana Howard wrote about her experience of COVID-19 “confinement” in Aix-en-Provence, France, where she has lived for several years. Diana and I met when she was a graphic designer; we worked on a number of projects together. She’s now a full-time artist, and the accompanying illustrations are charming.
BREAKING NEWS: The Académie Française, the French language police, have just announced that while Covid19 *could* be a masculine word because of “le virus” that it’s preferable to be feminine because of “la maladie.” https://t.co/rsYWY97VEJ
Erin Griffith interviewed me for a New York Times article about all those Zoom-y business names. And then she … zoomed away with it. It’s hilarious, and just the teensiest bit deranged. (Check out the URL.)
And speaking of me, my latest story for Medium is about my adventures in picking up trash during the pandemic. Medium says it’s a four-minute read, but you can stretch it out to six if you pace yourself.
This month’s book recommendation is The Plague and I, published by Betty MacDonald in 1948. The book is a lightly fictionalized account of MacDonald’s nine-month stay in a Seattle tuberculosis sanatorium in the late 1930s, when TB was known as “the white plague”; there were no effective vaccines; and treatment entailed rigorous bedrest, hearty meals, and an occasional session of artificial pneumothorax, in which gas was injected into the pleural cavity. Survival was far from certain and recovery times were long: many of MacDonald’s fellow inpatients remained at the sanatorium for years.
Sounds grim, right? Here’s the thing: it’s a hoot. MacDonald is sadly overlooked now—she died in 1958—but she was one of the foremost comic writers of her era, and The Plague and I is sharply observed, un-self-pitying, and downright chipper. (One of the chapters is titled “I’m Cold and So Is the Attitude of the Staff.”) I guarantee it will make you feel much more upbeat about our own current predicament.
What are the odds? Whether through coincidence or cosmic convergence, two new novels with nearly identical titles—The Revisioners and The Revisionaries—are being published within a single 30-day period this autumn.
I haven’t yet read either of the books, but I am interested in title trends (read my Medium story about book titles here), and this one is especially intriguing. Sexton’s book is about women, race, and the stories told in families; Moxon’s is about a street preacher, a mental patient, and a religious cult. (And yes, I noted the other coincidence: both authors have an X in their surnames.) What is it, I wonder, about revision that appeals so strongly right now to two writers with such different interests and approaches? And not just those two writers: I see revisionist and revisionary cropping up regularly in popular culture.