Friday, March 22, 2013

Word Nerds, B Part

Here's your second installment of the Word Nerd blog from Boswellians Hannah and Mel. Here we are, tempting you to check out the new Kobo.

Well, it's been an interesting few weeks for words. Over at Boswell, we've had remodeling words (complete with free coffee and barista face-time words), awesome-events-booked-recently words, and Mercury-finally-whipping-outta-retrograde words. With spring on the calendar and frigid temps clinging to the ol' thermometer, I'm sure you've all had an interesting past few weeks with words, too. Instead of focusing on that, let's indulge in some focused, specific word awesomeness based on the Tweets and emails we've receieved in response to our first blog post. 
Thanks for your words!

Two of Boswellian Halley's favorite words are oscillate and onomatopoeia. She's our local science-book guru, so it doesn't surprise that she likes oscillate, a word frequently found in physics texts. Yet onomatopoeia makes one wonder if she's writing science-themed poetry on the side. According to Phil Cousineau's Painted Word, which you can find in the Reference case with the writing guides, oscillate means "[t]o waver, move back and forth" (253). He identifies this as "[a]n imaginative word that is rooted in the Latin oscillum, a little mouth, most visually imagined in Virgil's Georgics when he describes a small mask of open-mouthed Bacchus swinging to and fro from a tree in a vineyard."
Really hoping this doesn't infiltrate your dreams this evening.
Upon sharing this with Boswellian Sharon, she said "Oh great--now I will never be able to unsee this." He cites the "pawky" (surely another word worth investigating) H. L. Mencken's use in the epigram, which is appropriate given our words the past few weeks: "'Life is a constant oscillation between the sharp horns of dilemmas'." Innit just.

We turn again to Cosineau's Painted Word for illumination with onomatopoeia--an unintended synesthesia, surely. As "[t]he imitation of a sound associated with the thing being named," onomatopoeia comes "from onomatopoios, from onoma, word, name, and a derivative of poiein, compose, make" (250). Here we have a word for the making-up of words. Brilliant! And it sounds exactly like a made-up-word! DOUBLE BRILLIANT! For those of you who still think the English language fixed, here's your whipakeup call and onomatopoeiatic license to ill-use perfectly good words, manipulating them to be more "sonicky," which is "Roy Blount, Jr.'s term for great-sounding words."
Not just riding a penny farthing, but tricks in a long skirt!
Eating donuts whilst trick-riding on a pennyfarthing seems like the old-timey equivalent of driving a manual transmission whilst eating a cheeseburger and smoking.
Hannah's favorite word is donut. There's no surprising origin of or definition for this word. However, a gang of delicious donut slang abounds. From the OED, we learn that donut usually refers to tires and life preservers, but really covers anything oblong in shape. In 1930, someone wrote of automobile tires: "We clout ten doughnuts an' call it a day." Here HERE. By the 1960's donut had morphed into a different kind of automotive slang. It had become not just the tire or spare tire, but a "manoeuver in which a car or other vehicle is (usually quickly) turned in a complete circle." This makes us nostalgic for summer-time frolickings, which surely are just around the bend. Fresh from the OED listing, this little gem from the New York Times Magazine circa August 1999: "A freckled friend of Sex Machine's loops around him on his bicycle, lazily doing doughnuts." One wonders what a friend of someone named Sex Machine would be named. At any rate, grab any friend (why should Sex Machine have all the fun?), grab your bicycles, and we'll brave it the local donutery, maybe doing a few donuts along the way, before clouting ten donuts an' calling it a day!
These hifalutin smokestacks are totally judging you.
And now for two of Mel's favorites: hornswoggle and hifalutin. The former means "[t]o cheat, bamboozle, hoax," (169) while the latter means Fancy-Pants. Shockingly, both are perfectly functional occupational terms. Hornswoggle is "[a]n old seafaring term, first recorded around 1829, for being tossed around the ship or into the water" (169). Hifalutin brings to mind "fancy steamboats floating" on mighty rivers, their "high fluted [see the contracted hifalutin there?] smokestacks that carried the soot and cinders well away from the passengers," a luxury not extended to the river-rafting riff raff (293). 
Boswellian Anne submitted two perfectly 'placed' words: Shenandoah and Monongahela. The first we could not find a definition for (any fellow Word Nerds out there who know, please email or tweet us!), but the second has an interesting entry in the OED: "the name of the Monongahela river, which runs from West Virginia to southern Pennsylvania, through a region which was an early centre [sic] for the production of rye whisky." The entries listed in the OED stretch from 1805 to 1998, by far the best of them from 1936: "Their drink was Monongahela rye whisky, the universal tipple of the wilderness known on the Mississippi simply as 'good old Nongela'." Quite a legacy for what one writer swore off in 1847, almost a century ealier: "May I never taste Monongahela again!" Now if you'll excuse us, Hannah has to track down some of this shine, and Mel has beg Anne to teach her how to pronounce this word. We'll make a game of it--once Hannah finds her some 'Good Old Nongela,' we'll share, and try pronouncing many different kinds of words. Good. Times. 
Speaking of games, there's an awesome one for all you Word Nerds and Words with Friends afficionados out there. It's really easy: just go to the OED online (those of you with university library subscriptions have free access to it!) and look up a random word. This very well could be the equivalent of taking "dictionary breaks" whilst studying in the library. Go ahead. Need an idea? Try "cat." It'll knock your socks off!
The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language
Seriously--read this book.
 Finally, you should really carve out some time to peruse Mark Forsyth's book, The Etymologicon, next time you stop by (it's in the Reference case with the writing guides). He has a game in there that's Super Word Nerdy and party-ready to boot! Back in the Quizzes section, you stumble upon "God loves a mud-caked, travelling wolf." It's up to you to ferret out who that famous person is, based on your etymological knowledge. How about Mr. "Courageous Cabbage?" "My Little French Lady?" "The Dwarf in the Priest's Garden?" That last one is none other than Elvis Presley ("Elvis comes from Alvis, a dwarf in Viking mythology. Presley is a variant of Priestly and means one who lives on land belonging to a priest" (266)). Amazewords!!
Regretfully, there are too many words for just two posts. This very well could be a weekly blog idea, but neither Hannah nor Mel have time to commit to a weekly Word Nerd blog post, now that they've discovered Monogahela and books in Hannah's pocket. We'd like to give a shout out to some additionally awesome words submitted by fellow Boswellians and customers: East Side icon Aaron Boyd submitted infidel; our barista neighbor Nick "Slim" King of Starbucks coffee (and Beer Magazine--see below) threw in cabal; Boswellian Nick confessed to loving chocolate; and we all agree that hullaballoo and ridiculous are the bee's knees.
Thanks for indulging our etymophilia and see you around Boswell Book Company for more witty wordplay!

We're really surprised that your favorite word isn't "beer."

Friday, March 15, 2013

At the Crossroads of Gender and Literature: a bookseller conversation

(This written exchange came about as a result of a drawn-out philosophical conversation had by two Boswellians today after they both read a piece in The Daily Beast, titled "Is Masculine Writing Dead?" by novelist Frank Bill, who will be visiting us this Monday, March 18th.)

I would say the answer to this question is "Absolutely not." Then again, I am one of those readers who "can relate to and enjoy testosterone-fueled prose." I love that sort of prose, regardless of if it's written by a man or a woman, though I love it most when it's written by a woman. Doesn't that already blur the lines between what is considered masculine or feminine writing? Hell, I think the headline is pretty misleading because Bill doesn't seem to actually be arguing that it is dead. Also, is it possible to even have this conversation with defining what it even means to say "masculine" or "feminine" writing? Isn't that the argument going on all over literature right now?

Seconded on the hesitation about the title of this piece: it mostly seems polemical, designed to lure suckers like us onto clicking the hyper-link (clearly it worked!). And, agreed on the let's-define-our-terms point, too. At some points throughout this piece it seems like Bill is actually arguing not for a resurgence, or a greater attentiveness, to a kind of literature, but for a return to a way of life or to widely shared traditional cultural gender roles. Maybe that's the question that we should get clear on first: what exactly is Bill arguing for?

I’m pretty sure he didn’t come up with the title, or the brief summary underneath. The Daily Beast has more to gain by seeming polemical, than the author does. It seems he’s more into defining what HE sees as his own definition of “masculinity,” with regard to how his personal experiences inspire his writing. After all, the women whose work he reads and admires is a group of writers who offer sparse prose, who keep overt expressions of emotion to a bare minimum and don’t shy away from violence: “Bonnie Jo [Campbell], and Dorothy Allison, Flannery O’Connor, and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.” He gives them the same qualification of identity as he gives the male writers who pen that sort of prose and story, saying they “come from and know struggle, understand the land they were raised upon, can wield an edge or a gun…” 

It actually seems like his argument has very little to do with literature at all. He says, "when walking the isles of a bookstore, those are the characteristics that interest me most, writers who shed light on what masculinity means, what it is to be tough, to be rugged, to be able to take care of your damn self." And bemoans the fact that, "a large number of men have lost their ruggedness. Maybe they never had it. I believe to be a man is to be tough mentally and physically. To have a small set of skills to survive from day to day when needed. Like lifting weights or boxing in a dust and spider-web-infested concrete shed with a tin roof." Really, Frank Bill? "Being a man" means lifting heavy boxes? This is the sort of thing that is going to drive people outside of his target audience absolutely bonkers. Normative claims about "what it is to be a man," and then the caricature of those techno-gadget, McDonald's eating suburban pansies -- we're all pretty tired of those sorts of gender-role rants.

Is it fair to ask writers to only portray gender as fluid and not concrete in any sort of culturally-broad, understood terms? I mean, you assert that by writing such views, he’s going to “drive people outside of his target audience absolutely bonkers.” Since when do (or should?) writers care about people outside their target audience? What’s wrong with writing meth-fueled, adrenaline-pumping narratives of desperate, violent men and women and their lives? Don’t they deserve a voice, too?

I think there's a subtler point, though, to be drawn out of Bill's essay. There's a toughness that's a part of some people's perspective -- let's not make the objectionable assumption that this is "manliness" or even "masculinity" just yet -- and this is something that seems to be of great value to illustrate in fiction.

Definitely. It can be argued, based on recent neuroscience, that there is such a thing as “masculine” and “feminine” brains—meaning people are wired to perceive, feel, and interact with the world in ways that are inherently masculine or feminine. The twist here is that this is a sliding scale and that both genders find themselves along that scale in differing ways that can differ even depending on whether we’re talking spatial skills, language, artistic aptitude, empathy, logic, etc. Writers have the opportunity to explore that scale, whether it’s Jennifer Weiner or Emily Giffin writing casual, yet believable dialogue, about women in romantic entanglements in contemporary life while caring about fashion brands; or Ben Percy or Cormac McCarthy writing the sparest prose possible about men hunting, fighting, surviving, and coming-of-age. Then you have Peter Geye, who writes these very masculine stories featuring very manly men with what could be considered feminine prose—lots of carefully wrought, adjective-laden detail and consideration of emotional connection and depth. Or take Alyson Hagy, Jaimy Gordon or Tom Franklin, who both span a wide range of masculine and feminine stories and writing styles.

Reading The Road I was dumbstruck by the depth of character, the strength and resilience, the sheer toughness of the Man. On the other hand, I'm not sure that any of these properties had to do with the Man's..."manliness."

Is “manliness” the same as “masculinity”? Can I be “feminine”—let’s say enjoy makeup and frilly dresses and heels—but also be “masculine” in my ability to navigate, or swing an ax or fire a gun in order to protect or feed my babies?

Sure, it may be easy to group the set of properties -- ability to survive, willingness to protect, loyalty to one's offspring -- under a single term. But why "masculinity?"

Because it quantifies a particular set of beliefs and actions that are quickly and easily recognizable and contextualized for the general public. Both men and women cultivate an “ability to survive, a willingness to protect, loyalty to one’s offspring.” Perhaps it’s in the cultural ways in which they do those things that divides “masculine” from “feminine.”

My point, then, is just that Bill's essay seems to apply more to fiction that exemplifies a particular set of properties or virtues -- things that we tend to see as valuable in themselves -- and, if we think of it in this way, I'm all for his conclusion: let's not forget this aspect of the human experience. Let's even celebrate literature that illustrates it and illustrates it well! But why rely on those tired gender distinctions, or try to make the point more about traditional gender roles? Drop all that, and I'm in whole-hearted agreement with Frank Bill. I guess you could say, I appreciate this essay in spirit, if not in letter.

You know, the work of VIDA:Women in Literary Arts is entirely focused on all sorts of tangents related to this issue. They want to make sure there is no distinction between male and female writers. The problem, inherently, is that there is a distinction. The fight in literary fiction right now, then, is to not only understand that women can write “masculine” books and men can write “feminine” books, but that we need more representation of women who write and review any books at all. One only needs to look at the results of “The Count” to see that the conversation needs to continue. Maybe our solution today, to this particular argument, is to make a display of “masculine” fiction, but with only women writers.