Category: Words

Ever from the sparkles of ideas sprouts… found poetry!

To make sport of bad English translations by non-English speakers is to flirt with, nay dive headfirst into, unbecoming condescension. But sometimes, it’s irresistible.

“Please use it referring to as equipped,” has been an all-purpose mantra in my house ever since those words arrived on the wrapper of a Honda Civic air filter sometime in the 1980s.

Last weekend, my son Silas received a set of Chinese-made Edifier speakers he had ordered on line. Among the packaging, he found this poetic brand testimonial:


I believe this can only be fully appreciated as blank verse:

Big surprise, astonishment, and enjoyment.

Ever from the sparkles of ideas sprouts
out of designer’s sketch.
Every piece of edifier’s works
breathes with a vivid life,
palpitating with the spirit of music.
For music is a spiritual thing,
and youth hood is creed.

In the domain of music,
we promenade hand in hand.
Edifier is not only a product,
but also a harmonious attitude to life.

Silas gave the speakers three stars out of five. Please use it referring to as equipped.

Lier’s manifesto

Writing in the New Republic, Ben Crair has ripped off a screed against the current fashion for standing desks — that is, desks you work at while standing or, for extremists, walking on a treadmill. To prepare Screw Your Standing Desk! A sitter’s manifesto, Crair asked writers about their sitting/standing/treadmilling work habits. Most replied they had more important things to consider, but Gary Shteyngart, author of The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, Absurdistan, and Super Sad True Love Story, offered this response, dear to Contrarian’s heart:

I do not sit. I lie. I am in bed now, writing to you. All my writing is done in bed. As a result I suffer from tendinitis, rotator cuff injuries, poor posture, and hamburger helper syndrome. I’m not well. But I’m not getting out of bed either.

I destroy chairs. One quasi-executive model from staples is ready for the dumpster. The pieces of two other wooden veterans clutter a spare bedroom, waiting for me to hammer them back together with a rubber mallet and Elmer’s glue. The legs of the current victim, a press-back kitchen jobby, splay ominously.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s advice to a would-be pro

MirandaJuly Miranda July has a publishing project underway that exists only in your email inbox. She asked 10 famous and somewhat famous friends and acquaintances (writers, actors, scientists, artists, athletes)  to look through their email archives and send her real emails in which they discuss particular topics like money or giving advice. She groups these by topic, and she’ll be sending out a set every Monday from July 1 through November 11, 2013. You can sign up to receive them.

“How they comport themselves in email is so intimate, almost obscene — a glimpse of them from their own point of view,” July writes.

Here is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar‘s advice to a student who wrote asking how to become a pro basketball player:

Hi Max,

Thank you for your recent email. I’m glad you enjoyed my visit to your school and that I was able to autograph your book. I’m just happy kids your age know who I am let alone ask me for advice. You wanted to know the best way to become a professional basketball player.

The first part of my advice you’re probably not going to like very much. Ready? Here it comes: Go to college, study really hard, and get good grades. I know the life of a pro looks pretty glamorous with fancy cars and lots of money, but the truth is that money doesn’t make life interesting and neither does just playing basketball. What makes life really fun is interacting with all kinds of people and if all you can do is talk about the shot you made or the ball you stole, you won’t be very interesting to people.

kareemabduljabbarAlso, life is long but basketball careers can be short. Injuries, age, or just better players make the average length of the pro career about six years. Mine was twenty years, but that’s unusual. Even with my long career, I’ve been retired from the game longer than I played it, which is why I’m so grateful I studied so hard at UCLA. My studies in history and English have made it possible for me to become a writer rather than just a guy who used to play basketball.

Now, if that scared you off, then you never really wanted to be a pro, because a pro can’t be scared off. He or she can’t picture anything else but themselves playing on that court night after night. There is no one path to becoming a pro, but there are some general guidelines that might help:

1.     Practice every spare moment you can.
2.     Never neglect your studies for basketball.
3.     Don’t rely only on the moves you’re already good at. Keep developing new skills. Each skill you have that someone else doesn’t makes you that much more valuable on a team.
4.     Go to college and play your heart out, but don’t go to college just to play. Treat it as an extra-curricular activity—one that you love, but that’s not as important as your studies.

Hope that helps, Max. Good luck to you.


Lena Dunham consoles a lovelorn friend:

lena-dunhamListen to me. I am a woman who loves and adores and, I believe, understands you. You did nothing wrong. He is NOT NICE. He says not nice things in a nice voice so they seem nice but they are not. He isn’t kind or careful with you, he wants to suck the kindness out of you, and if he’s like this after 10 years of group therapy then G-d help us all. He’s not for you bc he’s not for anyone. Do you hear me? Good. I understand SO much the appeal, but he’s not worth your energy and someone like art guy may not be perfect or right but he’s starting on a good foot by offering some of himself to you and wanting to give you pleasureful times

Ok my lecture is done


H/T: Ashley McKenzie

Judgment call: appeal dismissed

Webster's Third 250It’s always risky to opine on issues of spelling and grammar, and sure enough, several readers have objected to the graphic I posted [original source unknown] mocking a purported spelling error in the Harper Party’s TV ad attacking newly anointed Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. These readers variously argue that many dictionaries rate judgement (two e’s) a perfectly acceptable spelling, or even consider judgment (one e) to be an exclusively American orthography.

Arguing from the authority of recent dictionaries is a mug’s game, since postmodernist lexicographers have rejected prescriptivism in favor of descriptivism. The job of a dictionary, these rubber-kneed democrats believe, is not to tell readers how words should be spelled or used, but merely to record how they are spelled and used—by pretty much anybody, including party hacks in the PMOs media firm de jour.

The Merriam-Webster Company set this trend in motion half a century ago with its 1962 publication of the massive Webster’s Third International Dictionary, which critics of the day scorned for its unhelpfully equivocal definitions like the following:


It is the case that British usage favors (or should I say favours) an extraneous e in judgement, but this has never been standard Canadian usage, let alone USian. The Supreme Court of Canada uses judgment. So do the Appeal Court of Nova Scotia and all its lesser progeny. The Canadian Press Style Book uses judgment. The Globe and Mail Style Book uses judgment. Etc., etc.

Sure, like many usage tiffs, it’s a picayune point, more likely to entertain those who despise Harper than those who revere him. Picayune, but valid.


Snap quiz:  What do the following verses have in common?

And that’s how it went
all afternoon, one lizard
after another

It made me wonder
if snow leopards have a taste
for joggers as well

As is typical,
the Pope stayed above the fray
and did not comment.

Whether such tactics
will have a chilling effect
remains to be seen.

Answer: All four are inadvertent haikus, composed by humans but discovered by machines.

The first two come from a Tumblr blog created by New York Times editor Jacob Harris, who adapted some open-source compter code to scan the homepage of the New York Times, looking for snippets of text that conform to the Haiku syllabic structure: 5:7:5.

“Sometimes it can be an ordinary sentence in context, but pulled out of context it has a strange comedy or beauty to it,” Harris told the Nieman Journalism Lab.

The next two come from Haikuleaks, a project that searched for serendipitous poetry among the thousands of diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks in 2010.

A purest might say these poems are not really haikus, since they lack the requisite seasonal reference (kigo), and the twist (kireji) that injects the last line with surprise.

“Not every haiku our computer finds is a good one,” Harris wrote on the Times Haiku blog. “The algorithm discards some potential poems if they are awkwardly constructed, and it does not scan articles covering sensitive topics. Furthermore, the machine has no aesthetic sense. It can’t distinguish between an elegant verse and a plodding one. But, when it does stumble across something beautiful or funny or just a gem of a haiku, human journalists select it and post it on this blog.”

Both the Times project and Haikuleaks have their roots in Haiku Finder, an open source python script that crawls through text and ferrets out haiku. You can try it yourself by copying a large block of text—the bigger the better—and pasting it into the Haiku Finder search box.

If you do that with, oh, say, Nova Scotia’s broken Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, Haiku Finder coughs up this ironic bit of poetic wisdom:

Where accuracy
is critical, please consult
official sources.




How to write about people – updated

When I was a teenager, my parents were friends with Malcolm Hobbs, publisher of what was then a weekly newspaper in Orleans, Massachusetts.

The Cape Codder was a respectable example of what might be called the golden age of community weeklies. From time to time, it ran detailed articles — “profiles” — of local worthies, a habit that one day generated a warning letter from a lawyer for The New Yorker magazine. The term, “Profile,” he asserted, was a trademark of the great journal, who legendary founding editor, Harold Ross, first applied it to detailed articles about individuals sometime in the 1920s. The Cape Codder must cease and desist from its use, he cautioned.

There was much clucking of tongues in Hobbs’s social circle about what seemed an arrogant and absurd claim. If memory serves, Hobbs mined the episode for a witty column about the perils of journalistic hubris.

I can’t find any evidence on line that the magazine is still pressing its proprietary claim over those seven letters. In the interview below, however, The New Yorker’s current editor, David Remnick, who once edited a collection of great New Yorker profiles, makes a strong case for why the magazine just might have first claim on the form, if not the label.

It’s full of pithy advice for writers:

Very, very often, any young journalist being honest with himself, who listens to a tape of his interview with somebody, will always come to the same conclusion: I talked too much. Big mistake….

Constant disappointment is a very good spur to sometimes doing something halfway decent. if you’re really self-satisfied all the time, you probably are a lousy writer.

H/T: Joseph MacKay

Update:  Bethany Horne writes:

For David Remnick:

The word “very” does not make your point stronger (not even when used twice in succession)—and I’m so bored of people using the masculine form of pronouns as the neutral choice. Can’t we move away from “himself” and the like? Most writers are, after all, women.


Another irrefutable argument for the serial comma

An anonymous cartoonist strikes a blow for virtuous punctuation:

When will newspaper style guides wake up to its obvious superiority?

H/T Lee Amme Gillan via David Rodenhiser. This has been cropping up on the net since mid-September. If anyone can devine the artist’s identity, I’ll update.

Those aborted cuts – feedback

Civil Rights activist Warren Reed took the time to read the complex documents setting forth the Dexter Government’s furtive plan to slash medical benefits for residents of special care homes. The documents were posted here last night. The Dexter Government shelved the plan, which would have required residents making less than $2,000 per year to pay for needed medical supplies, dental treatments, vision care, and certain drugs including, in some cases, insulin and anti-seizure medication. The unannounced cuts, developed without consultation, were to have been implemented Canada Day, but were put on hold late Thursday after the Canadian Press wire service started asking questions of the Community Services Minister Denise Peterson-Rafuse.

Reed writes:

The documents evoke the fine old days of the workhouse. I thought Dickens was dead. The whole plan is so paternalistic and antediluvian as to be worthy only of incineration. Yossarian himself would perk up at the “Policy Objectives” section, which parses into something like, “The objective is the policy and the policy is the objective.”

Unfortunately,  you have let a bit of unnecessary cliche creep into your language. As suggested below, you could have written the whole article without reference to “disabilities” (proposed deletions highlighted in yellow). 

By reminding the reader that the policy merely affects the “disabled” you plant the thought that these people are different from us. They are us.

Warren has a point, though I think he carries it one step too far. That this policy would have applied only to Nova Scotians with disabilities is a pertinent fact readers ought to know. It’s not just a mean policy, but a discriminatory one that targets a group of Nova Scotians ill-equipped to stick up for their rights. Alas, having made that point, I then slipped into the common error of repeatedly defining the affected people by their disability. Warren is right. They are not “the disabled.”

They are us.

Words we don’t say

When Hugo Lindgren took over as editor of New York in 1997, he found the magazine’s staff grieving over the firing of his predecessor, Kurt Andersen, now a best-selling novelist. Now top dog at the New York Times Magazine, Lindgren reports that Andersen unwittingly left behind a gift.

Tacked to the bulletin board in the office I took over was a single page titled “Words We Don’t Say.” It contained, as you might surmise, words and phrases that Kurt found annoying and didn’t want used in his magazine.

The list [pdf] stands up pretty well, but I’ll bet Contrarian readers could nominate a few submissions. I would allow indie, and nominate the following additions:

Journey (except meaning “long trip”)
The rest, as they say, is history
Speak to [a topic]

After the jump, the original list:

Read more »

Chicago’s hidden poetry

The Chicago Manual of Style, grand dame of copydesk styleguides, has published its 16th edition, but Ed Park, writing at, recalls the 14th fondly:

Though I never read the book cover to cover, the Chicago Manual of Style took up a lot of brain space during my copyediting years. Section headings suggested good titles for poems or chapters: “Mistaken Junction” (5.63), the vertiginous “Words Used as Words” (6.76). Ostensibly a reference work, it was really a form of secret potent literature, offering some of the challenges and unconventional pleasures of the sort of doorstop-shaped fiction I was consuming back then anyway.

Chicago’s examples could be recondite or mischievously witty or of a weirdly resonant blandness. You could be boning up on the proper use of brackets (section 5.129) and be hit with quotes like this:

During a prolonged visit to Australia, Glueck and an assistant (James Green, who was later to make his own study of a flightless bird [the kiwi] in New Zealand) spent several difficult months observing the survival behavior of cassowaries and emus.

You’d feel an urge to procrastinate, to follow these intrepid antipodean emu watchers, but alas: The sadistic authors of the fourteenth knew that less is more.

Where did these fragments come from? What did they mean? Sometimes there would be a message just for me. On late nights while I waited for proofs to materialize, I would think of the poem disguised as 5.136, which asks the reader to “consider the range of expressiveness achieved by the following changes in punctuation”:

Go home.
Go home!
Go home?
Go home?!

The comment section has a useful note on atomic typos.

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