Category Archives: Language


This is a still from Trail of Blood, the first movie in the Mikogami Trilogy. Jokichi is a feared samurai, who is off-camera. These are two bad guys, and the one in the rear has just said, “Don’t you know who this is? It’s Jokichi of Mikogami!”  to which the bad guy in front says, “Jokichi-schmokichi.”




Someone in the subtitle department had a small laugh.

Sparkles in the brain

Yesterday I was in the truck for an hour, so I listened to This American Life, the show called “Tribes”. Act 2 was remarkable enough that I played it for Susan last night — it’s 14 minutes. TAL’s description is “How could whispering change your life? Andrea Seigel tells this story about finding out that she is undeniably not alone,” which stems both from the show’s theme that day, and the desire not to give too much away.

But it doesn’t really explain what Seigel’s piece is about. It’s a first-person account of the phenomenon ASMR, which Vice called “The Good Feeling No One Can Explain“:

ASMR is a tricky feeling to describe… a tingle in your brain, a kind of pleasurable headache that can creep down your spine… most [people] depend on external “triggers” to set them off. Triggers can include getting a massage or a haircut or a manicure, or hearing someone talk in a soothing tone of voice (Bob Ross, the “let’s put a happy tree right here” painter from PBS, is a common trigger), or even just watching someone pay extremely close attention to a task, like assembling a model.

This isn’t a thing I have at all, and yet I get it. Though obviously different, this seems related to the flow state described by psychologists like Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, though this is not about creativity or even concentrated action. Still, the idea that our brain creates natural, meditative effects due to internal or external stimuli doesn’t sound particularly controversial. People can fall into states of acute concentration and calming focus in many settings and activities — performing music, exercising or playing sports, playing games, even “chores” such as gardening, dishes, or ironing. Again, maybe with less of the physical sensation the ASMR folks describe, but it’s all a continuum of feeling, and I envy their ability to find triggers for it. If an hour of Bob Ross is your meditation practice, who could deny you that simple joy?

This phenomenon — where people get intense pleasure from small, tinny noises like rustling paper or clicking marbles — also has its opposite, hyperacusis, a condition where people are upset by those same sounds. Which, in turn, reminded me of word aversion, in which people have a string physical reaction to specific words, like moist or squab. (Sorry if that upset you.) Slate recently covered this phenomenon, “Why Do We Hate Certain Words?

Roger Ebert

Sometime ago, I came across a passage from Roger Ebert’s Life Itself: A Memoir, set it in type and printed it to hang on the wall:

I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.

Roger Ebert died today. I am rarely saddened by the death of public figures, but in the last few years Ebert had come to mean something to me, as he moved his focus beyond movies and into his life, his times, and his feelings. He started his career as a journalist before becoming a well-known movie critic, first in print and later, most famously, on television. He loved writing about movies, but he also wrote long profiles, screenplays, and even a cookbook.

Due to the cancer in his jaw and its unsuccessful treatments, he had lost his speaking voice, and his ability to eat and drink. But he turned this deficit into the best writing of his career, through the medium of his blog. He wrote terrific, long-form entries on the death of his great friend and colleague, Gene Siskel; on eating and not eating; on his childhood and early reporter days (note three different links!); on his alcoholism; on his post-surgery condition; and on a huge variety of wonderful experiences he’d had in his life. He had no more time for anger; even his posts on things he disliked about the world had a tone of disappointment rather than rancor. His last blog post was full of his many plans for the future, even as he was telling us his plans to slow down and thanking us for spending 46 years reading his work.

I recommend the long Esquire profile from a few years ago, Roger Ebert: The Essential Man. In addition, Salon just reposted an essay Ebert adapted from his book, I Do Not Fear Death, which is where I found the quote I placed at the top. See you at the movies.


Yu Ming is Ainm Dom

What a lovely and funny short film. A bored and frustrated Chinese man decides to expand his horizons and move to Ireland.

On profanity

I exchanged email with my friend Bob Sutton on the subject of profanity. Bob wrote, in addition to many other valuable books on organizational behavior and management, The No Asshole Rule, a concise and necessary guide to bullying and other aggressive workplace behavior. Following Bob's blog has been educational, as he contends with people who react in various ways to the title of his book. He insisted on the title, because he felt that asshole resonated in ways that, say, jerk did not, and he has continued to defend that choice, even through the struggles of translating the word properly into other languages.

Bob recently wrote a blog post on the Strategic Use of Swearing in the Workplace, and I chimed in on the comments after someone took the old line that people who swear forfeit "the moral high ground" and make themselves look "dull-witted and stupid to have such a poor vocabulary and so little self control."

Not so! And only a certain kind of person still thinks this way, I believe. One marker might be generational — my father, even after 20-plus years in the Navy, has never been comfortable with swearing. Another might be religious, though I think that may reflect a respect for the values of elders more than an objective consideration of why certain words are taboo. (However, Bob told me that one of his readers, a blogger and publisher of Christian books, told his readers who were offended by the title to "get over it.")

My two sons (21 and 24) grew up with a lot more profanity in the air (not from me, except strategically!). Since they were young, they've been immersed in the censorless internet, the dauntingly crude and misogynistic language of rap, exceedingly profane stand-up comedy, and violent, profanity-filled, but really well-made movies by directors like Tarantino, the Coens, and even Scorcese (The Departed had the most 'fucks' of any Oscar winner). Jon Stewart and others play TV "dirty," knowing the bleeps hardly matter to his audience — in fact they add to the humor by keeping them naughty. Even academic books have titles like On Bullshit and The No Asshole Rule. The lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower did a whole scholarly study on The F-Word (an excellent book).

Anyway, rather than seeing this as a decline of morals, it's more like a couple generations have grown up to discover the words their parents drew lines around have only a little of the power they did even thirty years ago. It's such a small list of words, and everybody knows them; they have a venerable history. It's more like we've all woken up to see the arbitrariness of the taboo and decided to just slowly ignore it.

Well, "woken up" is wrong — we had some help from folks like Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and George Carlin:

Snakes on a stick!

Sistinesnakes An amusing thing happened not long ago: when I was exploring the Sistine Chapel, I noticed a snake coiled around a pole, the symbol for medicine or doctors or something. I thought it was a caduceus of Hermes, but it turns out it’s the staff of Asclepius! Isn’t that hilarious?

No? Well, I had never before paid attention, but looking into this urgent matter I discovered there are two versions of this symbol: the one-snake staff of Asclepius and the two-snake caduceus, symbol of Hermes.

Asklepios As you all remember, Asclepius, the God of Medicine, was the son of the god Apollo and a nymph, Coronis. Apollo killed the still-pregnant Coronis for infidelity, but plucked Asclepius from her womb while she cooked on the pyre. He was trained in healing arts and medicine by the centaur’s centaur, Chiron. Finally, Zeus killed Asclepius for restoring Hippolytus from being all dead, which Zeus felt infringed on his territory.

Asclepius Asclepius is usually depicted holding a staff that has a single snake coiled around it, for reasons that are obscure — one theory holds that doctors of old would deworm a person by slowly pulling it out of a slit in the skin and wrapping it around a stick. That yummy visual is provided free of charge. Thus, his symbol ever since has represented medicine and doctors.

Hermes Now, Hermes, different guy altogether. He was the son of Zeus and a different nymph, Maia. The day he was born he invented the lyre and stole Apollo’s immortal cattle. Raising kids is hard. Later, when Zeus ratted him out, he played the lyre for Apollo, who forgave him and traded him the cattle for the lyre. It was a really nice lyre, before they started making them overseas.

Hermes was the messenger of the gods, which makes him the “patron of boundaries” and a trickster god — always with the jokes, that one. Because he delivered messages from the gods to the humans, his name gave us the term hermeneutics, the study of interpretation. Hermes is a mover, helping shepherds, cowherds, and travelers get from one place to another — especially, escorting the dead to the underworld — which attaches his name to commerce and trade. Taken all together, Hermes may not be the best spokesman for the world of medicine.

Ama-oldHe’s usually shown with a winged hat and winged shoes, often carrying a caduceus, which is a wand or staff wrapped with two snakes, often with wings at the top. This origin’s even more obscure, but one story has the blind prophet Tiresias using his rod to break up a couple of copulating snakes, which gave it magical properties. The connection to Hermes isn’t quite clear — Apollo may have given it to him with the immortal cattle. Helluva lyre-picker, Hermes must have been.

AMASo, how did the double-snake staff become synonymous with the single-snake staff? Things get murky here. According to one source, in 1871 the US Public Health Service purposely chose a double-snake version, with a fouled anchor instead of a staff, which was meant to represent the ailing seamen of the merchant marine. That is, it was purposely chosen knowing its connotation with commerce. Later the US Army Medical Corps adopted it (though not the medical division of other services), and it passed into general use as a medical symbol. (There are many other possibilities, including the fact that many printers used it as a symbol on their frontispieces.) The AMA used the double-snake briefly before returning to the Asclepian model, shown here in its recent, rather springy redesign (wouldn’t the snake fall off?). This is what happens when you cut classics scholarships in school.

Snakes_on_a_plane Now, of course, the snake on a staff motif has an earlier Biblical version, namely the Nehushtan of Moses (which seems to be why it’s on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel), and snakes and staffs separately have even more ancient history in many cultures. But I love to see the symbols of the ancients repurposed for modern uses, especially when there seems to be a knowing nod toward their mythic connotations. I mean, that’s gotta be why they chose to illustrate Snakes on a Plane with the commerce-leaning caduceus instead of the medicinal staff of Asclepius, right? Or was it just because it looked cool?

Today’s ephemera: Collabolate!

CollabolateThe small print says 

Collabolation–through the complex creativity, we found a possibility of reaching to the new scope that no one has ever known. 

That's a pretty big burden for a notebook.

Roger Ebert and the Meaning of Life

I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn't always know this, and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.

-Roger Ebert

These words come as close to stating my version of the meaning of life as anything I can imagine writing.

Roger Ebert is a great writer. He started his career as a journalist, then became a well-known movie critic, first in print and later, most famously, on television. He loves writing about movies, but he has also written long profiles, screenplays, and other features, including a forthcoming cookbook. In the last few years, due to cancer in his jaw and its unsuccessful treatments, he has lost his speaking voice, and his ability to eat and drink. But he has turned this deficit into the best writing of his career, through the medium of his blog. He has written terrific, long-form entries on the death of his great friend and colleague, Gene Siskel; on eating and not eating; on his childhood and early reporter days; on his alcoholism; on his condition; and on a huge variety of wonderful experiences he's had in his life. He's got no time for anger anymore; even his posts on things he dislikes about the world have a tone of disappointment rather than rancor.

I liked the paragraph above when I first read it, and I'm glad to have read it again in this excellent profile of Ebert in the latest Esquire. I recommend it.

Google storytelling

These Search Stories from Google are an excellent example of storytelling without relying on clichéd elements like narration or captions. Yes, they're ads for Google, but they're a little more complex than that, with embedded ads for other companies, blogs, and services. Each one is also uplifting, aspirational, and memorable, and that's pretty hard in less than a minute just using Google results pages. (These may remind you of the brilliant Web 2.0 … The Machine is Us/ing Us from a couple years ago, which certainly inspired these stories.)

The first one I saw, Parisian Love, is my favorite, but look for stories involving The National and Jack Kerouac, too.   

Here's another example of using Google to tell a story: Mr. Plimpton's Revenge: A Google Maps Essay, in Which George Plimpton Delivers My Belated and Well-Deserved Comeuppance, this time a charming incident in the life of writer and teacher Dinty W. Moore.

Picture 1  

Friar to monkey to coffee to doo-wop

Friars In the early 16h Century, a Franciscan friar, Matteo di Bassi, felt his order wasn't copying St Francis quite closely enough, and he tried to live more as he did. He grew a beard, went barefoot, lived liked a hermit, and preached to the poor. More important for my purposes, he designed a new habit — same brown fabric as the Franciscans but now with a pointed hood.

This hood is cappuccio in Italian, capuche in old French, which comes from the Latin cappa, hood, and ultimately from Latin caput, head, which led to cape (like a cloak), cap (on your head), and to a lot of other words.

Anyway, others followed Matteo, dressing the same, and they got the French nickname capuchin, and cappuccino in Italian — presumably, "little hood-wearer." After some internal Franciscan strife, the Pope allowed him to form a new order, a Franciscan offshoot named the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin, after their distinctive hoods.

White_faced_capuchin_monkey When explorers came to the Americas, the saw a new species of small monkey that immediately reminded them of the monks — with the pale face and a cap of dark hair atop the head, they called them Capuchin monkeys. 

Cappuccino-cupAnother connection is of course the coffee drink, which seems directly connected but has two or three stories about how it came about. Most often, the color of the cappuccino reminding someone of the Capuchin robes — but why not call it a Francisccino? Another says that the froth was pointed, and another that the foam sat on the top, like a monk's hood.

 The-chaperoneAlso related to Latin cappa is chaperone. A chaperon was originally a hood for a hawk. From that sense, a verb chaperonner, to cover with a hood, or protect, and from there to an antique sense of an older woman who accompanied a young woman in public as her protector. 

Further on, cappa as cloak brought us chapel, which was originally a very specific place: a place to hold the cape of St Martin of Tours, venerated by France's first kings. Latin for chapel was capella, and the a capella groups of today are merely singing in the manner of the choir in church — without instruments.