Friday, July 30, 2010


A few months ago I posted about a print of painting of a creepy girl that used to keep me awake at night. Since the object itself provided no clues as to what it was called or who it was by, I concluded that she had come into being on her own to scare the crap out of me.

This is not so!

I have learned, via my sister, that my aunt Anne has tracked down the title and artist. The painting is "Zigeunermeisje" (Gypsy Girl), by Frans Hals, 1628-30, and it hangs in the Louvre.

What is a little strange is that I went to the Louvre in 2004, and this is what I wrote about my visit: "We tried to find Vermeer but discovered that that section was closed that day, which was unfortunate because I had a suspicion that the original of the terrifying picture in Chimney Swallows was in there somewhere among the Vermeer. I wanted to see it. I thought it would be like an exorcism."

Since it is a century earlier than Vermeer, it was probably not in the same room. Which means I could well have wandered around a corner and come face to face with this:

The "exorcism" I so coolly anticipated would, I think, have consisted of me screaming mightily, being restrained, and then deported.

I will admit, as my sister pointed out, she looks a little less scary in color. BUT NOT MUCH.

Thursday, July 29, 2010


I geek out pretty bad when Ivan is incommunicado. Let's all rest today.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

P.S. To Yesterday's Post

Ivan is in bloomin' Croatia, so I'm sure she won't mind if I use one of her even days to make this very important addendum to yesterday's post about collective nouns:

This morning, while reading -- you guessed it -- Isak Dinesen, I came upon the phrase "a shoal of fish." This is interesting (to me and possibly only me), because James Lipton indicated that this usage had been replaced by "school of fish." In his explanation, he says that "school of fish" is actually a corruption of "shoal of fish," likely introduced when some monk read something wrong and then copied the error into later manuscripts. The logic, I suppose, is that it makes more sense that the collective noun should relate to where fish live than to how they are educated. Fish don't go to school. Duh.

However, if this theory is true, how did Dinesen come to use shoal?


Short answer: Because school and shoal are the same word, and neither the depth of the water nor education has anything to do with it.

Long answer: The confusion comes from the fact that we are really dealing with four words.
1. School (in the sense of school) from the Latin scola, meaning "school, lecture, discussion"
2. School (in the sense of "school of fish") from the Old English word scolu, meaning "troop or band of people, host, multitude, shoal, school (in school of fishes)"
3. Shoal (in the sense of "shoal of fish") from the same exact word as above
4. Shoal (in the sense of shallow water) from OE sceald, meaning "shallow"

Lipton chooses to follow some guy named Eric Partridge in thinking that the collective noun started as 4 and got corrupted to 1 by a coincidence of spelling. But he mentions some other guy named C. E. Hare, who argues that 2 and 3 are "variant spellings of the same word." Presumably he also argues that this word has a separate meaning from 1 and 4; Lipton doesn't say. Either way, I think Hare has it right, or is on the right track. The collective noun is using 2/3, not 1 or 4.

Here's why I think this: Lipton himself says that collective nouns tend to reveal the essence of something. Collective nouns like "a business of ferrets" reveal a what-ness about ferrets. An even better example is "a skein of geese," which refers to what they look like flying together. It isn't something I would have thought of, but it brings out a sort of poetic truth about geese, and that's what it's all about. Almost none of the animal-related collective nouns are so boring as to describe habitat. "A shallow water of fish" does not reveal the essence of fish. The way move, in massive groups, like a coordinated army, might.

"A school/shoal of fishes" only shows up in writing long after the Anglo-Saxons were gone, but it's worth mentioning that Anglo-Saxons sometimes went into battle under the protection of a shield-wall, which is exactly what it sounds like: a wall of shields overlapping each other. Like scales. Just saying. I mention Anglo-Saxons because scolu is in their language, but this battle formation went in and out of style for centuries, and would still have been known when collective nouns started to be written down.

Anyway, even though I'm siding with Hare, I'm perfectly willing to believe textual corruption was somehow involved. Words 2-4 could easily be fishy (or to use the ADJECTIVE OF RELATION, piscine), and you could make a case for 1. Whenever I hear the term "school of fish," I think of Madeline and her schoolmates following Miss Clavel. It isn't a huge stretch to think of a group of fish like pupils. Maybe the variant spellings arose because monks saw the root word and misinterpreted it as either a metaphor for fishy behavior or as a reference to where fish live. It's easy to see how all these meanings could have gotten mixed up, especially working from three similar root words. (In Old English, sc was sometimes pronounced sh, making it all the more confusing.)

Since we don't use school or shoal in the senses of 2 or 3 anymore, outside of the collective noun for fish, what we have all been doing (I would guess) is rationalizing "school/shoal of fish" using the meanings we know. Since those meanings coincidentally lend themselves to fishy interpretations, we have not been very bothered by this. Except for when someone asks the pesky question, "Is it 'school of fish' or 'shoal of fish'?" Here is the answer, or as close as I will ever get: It is both. They are equally correct. They also both happen to be reasonably clever puns that nobody will ever get, so don't laugh after you make them, or you will have to explain what a geek you are.

Incidentally, Isak Dinesen probably used shoal because she learned British English, and Lipton probably listed school and felt shoal had fallen into disuse because he speaks American English. In both countries one is marginally more popular than the other. Also, in case you are remotely interested, both words are also verbs for two specific ways that fish group. Shoaling fish are just hanging out together in a haphazard arrangement, schooling fish are moving in the same direction at the same speed in a coordinated fashion.

P.P.S. I am done with Isak Dinesen now so I will probably stop bringing her up all the time. I cannot say the same about etymology. Until I am invited to dinner parties this is my only outlet for all of these fascinating and crucial issues.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

An Exaltation of Larks

When I go to the used book section at Barnes and Noble I always come out with something that I do not realize may be seen as inappropriate until I hand it to the person at the counter and they raise their eyebrows at the title. Last time it was Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition. I really could have used that book for my ninth grade research paper and I felt that I needed to own it on the off chance that I am someday required to repeat high school, as happens so frequently in nightmares. Also, what an arresting title. I regret a little that I don't have the second edition, which is surely more enlightened than the 1985 edition, but this is a subject for a different post.

The other title to cause the person at the checkout to wonder about me was An Exaltation of Larks or, The Venereal Game. We were talking about adjectives of relation a few posts ago -- "venereal" is a handy one that you can drop into silences at dinner parties you didn't want to attend in the first place to make sure that you will never be invited back. "Madam hostess, shall I delight the company with the thrilling tales of my venereal pursuits?" You would, of course, be referring to "venery," or the hunting of wild animals, but the adjective is extremely misleading and you can only hope some delicate flower will faint in the soup.

Ever since one of my professors starting telling my class that he was going to teach us all kinds of things that would make us the center of dinner parties, I have been eagerly waiting to be invited to one. It has not yet happened. I wonder if dinner parties will have gone out of fashion before I am old enough to get invitations to them. I hope not, for I have such a large store of things to say, and I'm sure I will be adding to it from the many delightful items in this book, An Exaltation of Larks.

The first thing to note is that An Exaltation of Larks was written by James Lipton. I thought there must be another James Lipton, but there is not, it is the same James Lipton you are thinking of right now. James Lipton the actor, the interviewer, and the . . . collective noun enthusiast? Yes, indeed. James Lipton is an absolute scholar of the collective noun. Collective nouns, you will remember, are the ones used to describe groups: a school of fish, a gaggle of geese, a murder of crows, an exaltation of larks. They began as official hunting terminology in the fourteenth century (or earlier), and somewhere along the way expanded to include groups of people or professions or just about anything. Lipton notes a collective noun I never would have noticed in the phrase "a chorus of complaint." Essentially, this book is a brief history of collective nouns with examples.

But, there is another notable thing here, and that is this: it was designed by Samuel N. Antupit, who I was not surprised to learn had a rather distinguished history in graphic design. (His impressive obituary is here.) He gave this book the exact design it demanded. Here's the first page of the introduction:

Look at those indents! You know it's going to be good when there are crazy indents and the page number is in an unexpected place. The red line is there so you can see how much the paragraphs do not line up. That, too, is a good sign. It means the book was printed before computers robbed books of character.

The lists of collected nouns are presented quite simply, sometimes with etymological notes. They are accompanied by these strange and creepy illustrations of anthropomorphized animals. Crows are popular, as are cats and deranged-looking monkeys.

Even the dust jacket fades in the most charming possible way, yellowing so that it looks like it was printed on two-hundred-year-old parchment.

I approve of this. I also approve of collective nouns. Here are some good ones out of various books from the last several centuries:

a business of ferrets
a crash of rhinoceroses
a skein of geese
a clowder of cats*
a smack of jellyfish
a pencil of lines (used in math)
a superfluity of nuns
an impatience of wives
a prudence of vicars
a draught of bottlers
a proud showing of tailors
an impertinence of peddlars
a fighting of beggars
a foresight of housekeepers
a goring of butchers
a rascal of boys

*Clowder probably means clutter. My father and Ivan's brother will agree that cats are clutter.

And here are a bunch that James Lipton and others have made up playing the dubiously-named venereal game:

a piddle of puppies
a wince of dentists
a sneer of butlers
a disagreement of statesmen
an indifference of waiters
a bloat of hippopotami
a conjunction of grammarians
a shrivel of critics
a hack of smokers
a no-no of nannies
a consternation of mothers
a slant of journalists
a recession of economists
a complex of psychoanalysts
a fifth of Scots
an overcharge of repairmen

There are many more of these, and I believe the second edition is double or triple the length of the first. I think I'll see how many of these I can work into daily conversation before I go looking for more. However, I can quickly stock up on the rest if you invite me to a dinner party. Please also invite at least two or more ferrets, tailors, housekeepers, hippopotami, grammarians, or Scots, so that I will have occasion to use them.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Simon & Ivan's 600th Post . . .

 . . . is four days late and extremely foreboding. Yesterday over a cup of tea I was reading a lovely little story called "The Sailor-Boy's Tale," out of that book by Isak Dinesen/Karen Blixen/Baronness Why Must She Have Two Names.

The story is about a young sailor named Simon. It starts out very nicely with Simon rescuing a falcon from the rigging of his ship. What a lovely boy. La la la, the story proceeds pleasantly enough: Simon thinks about getting a watch, Simon buys an orange, Simon meets a pretty girl, Simon makes a date with the pretty girl, etc. Then Simon comes across a crew of Russian sailors. I quote: "One of the Russians was a giant, as big as a bear; he told Simon that his name was Ivan."

Oh lovely! I said to myself. It is a story about Simon and Ivan!

During the course of the night, Ivan gets really drunk and sort of loses Simon, but later finds him again: "I have found you, my little chicken. I have looked for you everwhere, and poor Ivan has wept because he lost his friend."

How sweet, I thought. What a nice story.

But then! The drunken Ivan becomes vaguely predatory and sort of alarming. His effusive proclamations of friendship, and moreover the bear-hug he has Simon in, threaten to keep Simon from his meeting with the pretty girl. So Simon stabs him. And he dies.


The rest of the Russians are now after Simon, but an old woman tricks them into thinking he's her harmless and innocent son. She turns out to be the very same falcon that he saved from the rigging. (She's a Lapp; Lapps can turn into falcons, didn't you know?) These stories emphatically do not have morals to them, but at this point I would have thought the lesson here was that you should be nice to animals. However, the old falcon lady then says this:

"So you are a boy who will kill a man rather than be late to meet your sweetheart? We hold together, the females of this earth. I shall mark your forehead now, so that the girls will know of that, when they look at you, and they will like you for it."

I, as a female of this earth, have a couple of objections to this. First, with the exception of the obligatory sharing of Ibuprofen, I am pretty sure women do not hold together much better than any other random sampling of the population. And second, having "casual murderer" marked on your forehead is not going to attract the ladies.

But it is silly to treat fairy-tale sentiments as if they could hold up in the world as we know it, so let us put that aside and focus on what a really disturbing story this is to have a Simon and an Ivan coincidentally show up in.

Ivan, I promise never to stab you if you promise never to refer to me as "my little chicken." Fortunately, I think these stipulations fall safely in the category of Unnecessary Guidelines for a Successful Friendship, right under, "Never remove a fly from your friend's forehead with a hatchet." Happy six-hundredth post, co-blogger!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

It's okay to laugh because he's making it up. I think.

I am reading Isak Dinesen's Winter's Tales. In the first story, "The Young Man with the Carnation," a fellow named Charlie has an existential crisis and abandons his wife and ends up drinking at an inn in the middle of the night with a bunch of sailors. This is part of their conversation:

"May your coffee do you good," said the captain. "You look as if you had got the fever."

"Nay, but I have had a great sorrow," said Charlie.

The others put on condolent faces, and asked him what sorrow it was.

"I will tell you," said Charlie. "It is better to speak of it, although a little while ago I thought the opposite. I had a tame monkey I was very fond of; his name was Charlie. I had bought him from an old woman who kept a house in Hongkong, and she and I had to smuggle him out in the dead of midday, otherwise the girls would never have let him go, for he was like a brother to them. He was like a brother to me, too. He know all my thoughts, and was always on my side. He had been taught many tricks already when I got him, and he learned more while he was with me. But when I came home the English food did not agree with him, nor did the English Sunday. So he grew sick, and he grew worse, and one Sabbath evening he died."

"That was a pity," said the captain compassionately.

"Yes," said Charlie, "When there is only one person in the world whom you care for, and that is a monkey, and he is dead, then that is a pity."

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Today in the post came the most amazing package full of Joy and Wonder. Meet my new pet, Mimsey. He is much quieter than the ACTUAL birds my roommate bought... but that is a story for another day.

Monday, July 19, 2010

In Which Simon Whines About Dictionaries. Again.

Today I learned that the adjective for algae is algal. I did not know that. I would very much like to have a book that lists only unusual adjectives: porcine for pig-like, crotaline for rattlesnake-like, and halolimnic for sea creatures who spend time in fresh water-like.* There is, in fact, a website which lists many of these excellent words. It is called The Phrontistery and I would be a better writer (or at least more obscure writer, which is not the same) if I memorized the entire site from beginning to end. However, it does not list all of these adjectives ever in the entire world, and I want a complete compendium. Or, alternatively, I would like to request that dictionaries list adjectives of relation even when they are not etymologically related to the root word. You can look up algae and get algal, but you cannot look up goat and get hircine. Instead you get goat-like, which I am not convinced is a proper word the way hircine is a proper word. This, I think we can all agree, is a crime.

*I am not sure what this definition means. It sounds like this particular group of sea creatures has a permanent address in saltwater but vacations in fresh water. Thanks to my other favorite site Online Etymology Dictionary, which says halo- has to do with salt, and the internet at large, which says limnetic has to do with fresh water, I am going to guess the halolimnic sea creatures do cross over . . . but it would be easier if I could just look it up.** Therefore I would like to complain that the Oxford English Dictionary, the only one that actually has the words that you really, really can't guess at, costs thirteen hundred bucks and takes up half your house. Alternatively, one could pay three hundred bucks and get access to the website, which is much more logical, but provides less cause for outrage, and this post is about outrage!

**Turns out my other other favorite site says slightly more! Under halolimnic: "Designating marine organisms so modified that they can live in fresh water." By modified I assume it means evolved, but with dictionaries these days, who can tell.***

***, my other other other favorite site, can tell. It says halolimnic is a variant of halilimnic. AHA. "Living in fresh water, but exhibiting genetic affinity with forms of life that are restricted to salt water; actually limnetic, but phylogenetically marine."

I'm now wondering if I should have just described this algal water as slimy and saved myself an hour. This is why this novel is taking so long. DICTIONARIES.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Out of Africa

Earlier this week I finished Out of Africa, Karen Blixen's account of the seventeen years she spent running a coffee farm in Kenya. It's an episodic memoir with no particular narrative arc, filled with strange, brief stories of happenings on the farm, and portraits of people she knew there. From other accounts it's clear that she was not always happy there, running an isolated and unprofitable farm by herself, but she didn't write the book until she had moved back to Denmark and had time to develop some nostalgia.

I couldn't read it without being perhaps hypersensitive to the implications of her being a white colonist in Africa, but I think one is unlikely to find a less racist account published before 1937. This is not to say Blixen is a model of enlightenment, just that she seems to have been one in her time. Much of the book is about the native Africans on her farm, and the attention she pays to their cultures, their conflicts, their personalities, and most of all their individuality, is fairly astonishing. I suppose I'm comparing her to Joseph Conrad, who, as I read him, was horrified by the idea that Africans might be as fully human as white people. Blixen seems to take this as a fact, and doesn't appear to be remotely troubled by it.

At any rate, it is inarguable that Blixen is an extraordinary writer. Just today I finished another book which shall remain nameless, in which this description appears:

"The air was clear, and the clouds piled high above the mountains were just beginning to be glossed with pink and gold rays from the early evening sun. And I knew suddenly that without taking a step or counting a second, I had yet reached some other world, that co-existed with my own. I felt the infinite space about me, and knew that I and Dora [the horse] and each tree and human being were carved from that infinity of time and space. The fading leaf and uncurling petal each held a place in the great design as important as the mountains and towering clouds, and all bore within them the seeds of a majesty beyond our horizons."

Compare this to Blixen's description of air and what it brings to mind:

"The chief feature of the landscape, and of your life in it, was the air. Looking back on a sojourn in the African highlands, you are struck by your feeling of having lived for a time up in the air. The sky was rarely more than pale blue or violet, with a profusion of mighty, weightless, ever-changing clouds towering up and sailing on it, but it has a blue vigor in it, and at a short distance it painted the ranges of hills and the woods a fresh deep blue. In the middle of the day the air was alive over the land, like a flame burning; it scintillated, waved and shone like running water, mirrored and doubled all objects, and created great Fata Morgana. Up in this high air you breathed easily, drawing in a vital assurance and lightness of heart. In the highlands you woke up in the morning and thought: Here I am, where I ought to be."

Blixen has ruined all other prose for me. She has a way of writing beautifully and exactly without straining, whereas you can sometimes see other writers pulling a hamstring to achieve something undeservedly florid and inexact, which leaves you asking yourself whether you can't make it mean much because you're stupid, or because it doesn't actually mean much. To be fair, the first quotation is from a book that probably would be classed as "faux literature" and may not have been aiming for life-altering profundity. I am also comparing a novel with a memoir, which is not entirely fair. But I have gotten a book of Blixen's stories out of the library and shall report back whether her descriptive powers go to pot when she's making things up. Somehow I doubt it, though. This book contains some of the best writing I've come across in an awfully long time, and is worth reading for the descriptions of Africa alone.

I would happily do a whole segment comparing the book and the movie, but even though I saw the movie less than a year ago, I remember very little about it. I believe Meryl Streep spends some time on a veranda. And I think Robert Redford is in it. The main difference I can think of is that in the movie you can obviously tell that the author is a woman, while the book gives no personal details whatsoever and was published under a man's name. This is not insignificant, as it means we are given no insight into how Blixen's gender affects her experiences in Africa, which would probably have been interesting. Anyway, after I read the book I went looking for answers to all of my unanswered questions and I ended up reading IMDB's trivia for the movie. There, I found this: "Meryl Streep was extremely nervous throughout the hair-washing scene, which was shot close to some very territorial hippopotamus." Aaaaand my interest in moving to Kenya and running a coffee farm is officially over! But it's okay, because Out of Africa is so clear and precise that just having read it makes me feel like I've already had the experience. That will save me seventeen years and some close calls with lions.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Mother Put Him on a Diet

He's quite svelte now, thankyouverymuch.

Somebody's* cat . . .

. . . is so fat that when he leaps off a bed upstairs, it sounds like a grown man just crawled in the window and fell on his head. Which is unsettling when no one else is supposed to be in the house.

*Let's call this anonymous person, oh, I don't know, Ivan.

Thursday, July 08, 2010


I boiled an egg.

And it worked!

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

piano piano

Sometimes Simon posts something obscure and I go OH MY GOD, WE ARE SO FAR APART AND STILL SO CONNECTED WITH AWESOMENESS. Many times the awesomeness is bacon related and we have opposing views whether said awesomeness is actually awesome, but I digress. Last month Simon posted this and I immediately stopped drinking my hot beverage to send her this photo:
I actually found that in a cupboard at work and decided it was so weird no one else would steal it. I was right. ALL MINE. Now, to find a way to keep my fork from disappearing...

Simon begged me to post my photo here, but I have been so preoccupied with Egyptian mummies and irregular Italian verbs that I forgot-- but today I received fresh inspiration!

My wonderful neighbor has been tutoring me in Italian. Every afternoon I drag myself out of bed and up a flight of stairs to apartment 12, where Mariangela makes coffee and forces me to do terrible things like MATH. IN ITALIAN. I have to think about 3x8 in English, so doing it in a foreign language is like digging through the junk drawer of my brain and coming up with "venti quatro" ten minutes later. But she has the patience of a saint and every time I give her the blank stare of "I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about," she simply says "piano piano" and comes up with simpler words. Never again will I take language for granted. So today, before we started to review the words for "mole" and "kite", she brought out the espresso--

And I cannot wait for the day when I have enough Italian words to explain why I needed to photograph her coffee cups. We did learn "hedgehog" on Tuesday... perhaps I can start there.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Need I even say it?

If you absolutely must know more, see this article in Bacon Today, a terrible terrible website teeming with grotesquely inappropriate uses of bacon.