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?)
Had I been a member of the House of Representatives during the body’s impeachment deliberations, I would have added to Trump’s indictment the crime of pandemicide, naming him as responsible for most of the COVID-19 deaths that transpired while he, the nation’s leader, was preoccupied with damning Joe Biden’s election victory. Trump’s failure to, as he vowed in his oath of office, “faithfully execute the office of president of the United States” promulgated a scale of lives lost exceeding anything experienced in the country since the Civil War, 160 years ago.
Pandemicide is a new word, although Garrett is not the first person to use it. In September 2020, David Bookbinder, a psychotherapist who lives near Boston, published an essay (also released as a free e-book) titled “Pandemicide,” in which he makes an argument similar to Garrett’s: that throughout the pandemic, “Trump & Company have encouraged the virus’s spread”:
This was not denial, not incompetence, not accidental. Not even manslaughter, because manslaughter is unpremeditated. It is pure, cold-blooded murder-by-virus.
If you’re new to the earworm-y maritime-song craze that’s taken over TikTok and other social-media platforms, I invite you to read my new post for Amateur Music Network, “Why We’re Singing Sea Shanties in 2021.” If you have linguistic questions about the trend, rather than musical ones, stick around and I’ll do my best to answer them here.
To get in the mood, please enjoy the TikTok that started the trend in late December, “Soon May the Wellerman Come,” sung by Nathan Evans, a Scottish postman. Or check out one of the many Wellerman remixes. Or listen to something different: “Rollin’ Down to Old Maui,” sung by Matt Young on #shantytok.
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.
“Is Tinsel Canceled?” asks a headline in the December 19 New York Times Style section. The verdict: “Glitter, tinsel and shiny wrapping paper are now signs of the apocalypse, judging by the #zerowasteholidays and similar hashtags that are blooming on Instagram.”
That may be an overstatement: Tinsel tours and tinsel trailsstill thrive in various US municipalities, and mirror-bright strips adorn plenty of wreaths and trees. So let’s table the eco-arguments aside and get to the question at hand: What is this stuff called tinsel, and where does that word come from?
What’s your grief, and how are you coping with it? Perhaps you suffer from climate grief, a term that may have been coined in 2007, by the authors of an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, to describe the despair and depression people experience when they contemplate the climate crisis. Maybe you console yourself by eating, which may result in what Germans call kummerspeck (literally “grief fat”).
Or maybe you, like New York Times opinion columnist Michelle Goldberg, are experiencing democracy grief: not merely “anxiety and anger” but also “a demoralizing degree of fear, even depression” that—as one psychologist put it to Goldberg—“the institutions that we rely on to protect us from a dangerous individual might fail.”
How Democracies Die (2018). by Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, who warn of the “gradual chipping away of democratic institutions” that makes it “harder and harder to dislodge the incumbent [elected official] by democratic means.”
Another week, another epithet. Last week we had a look at soy boy, although I’d considered shining a spotlight on incelinstead. (For an analysis of this insult, a portmanteau of involuntary and celibate, see Ben Zimmer’s essay for Politico.) This week we have another way to dis (white) men, this one instigated by our cousins across the pond: gammon.
Fooled you! Today’s gammon is unrelated to backgammon.
Such a lovely-sounding word; such a subtle, complex, and nearly universal emotion: “acute vexation, annoyance, or mortification, arising from disappointment, thwarting, or failure,” as the OED puts it*; “disquietude or distress of mind caused by humiliation, disappointment, or failure,” according to Merriam-Webster. It found its way into English from French in the late 17th century, and was considered “affected or frenchified” for several decades thereafter. Alexander Pope used chagrin in his 1714 narrative poem “The Rape of the Lock,” where he rhymed it with “spleen.” (Pope may have been singlehandedly responsible for rescuing chagrin from French purgatory: the OED gives two additional example sentences from his correspondence.)
I was surprised to learn that chagrin comes not from the language of moods but from the lexicon of the physical world. You may know its Anglicized form, shagreen (yes, rhymes with “spleen”), which means “rough, untanned leather … prepared from the skin of the horse, ass, etc., or of the shark, seal, etc., and frequently dyed green.” It’s also a color name.
From The Spruce, a home-and-family website: “If you're looking for a fun green paint color, consider Shagreen. This green is right on the cusp of warm and cool, with just enough softness to push it over to the cool side.”
How did a word for a type of leather become a word for a type of feeling?