Hey, you! Good to see you! Pull up a chair. Grab your preferred beverage for contemplating and sit a spell with me.
I’m looking for advice. Well, actually, I’m looking for better ways to amuse you (one of my prime directives) but since I can’t actually see you react to stuff, I feel like I’m unable to hone my comedic stylings just for you. So… what things do you like reading when you come over here? I’d like to give you more of that (or less of what you don’t like) but you’ve got to tell me first.
The way I figure it, most of what I write falls into these categories:
Train of thought: the Housekeeping posts get a lot of activity, so it’s possible you guys like when I give you quick hits with interesting links…? Maybe there’s another reason?
Please vote below and leave anything you want in the comments. (I’m especially curious to know which things don’t work as well.) I will put all your thoughts into my brain pan and start shaking them around.
Every Wednesday, I explore the linguistic origins of one word in different languages I speak.
In college, I scheduled my classes so that I would always be free Friday mornings through mid-afternoon. This was for the express purpose of going to the first screening of whatever new movie was playing at the (now closed) Cheri theater near Boylston and Mass Aves. The first showtime started between 10 and 11 and was the cheapest of the day, so I made a concerted effort to go almost every week.
On October 6, 1999, the movie was David Fincher’s FIGHT CLUB and I was unusually pumped for it. After the one-two punch of SE7EN and THE GAME, I was all-in on Fincher and a fantastic cover story in EW had hinted that this movie was going to be my kind of candy.
And it was. Almost fifteen years later, FIGHT CLUB remains one of my top-5 movies. It’s always playing in the cineplex in my brain, and I sit down to rewatch it maybe once a year at home, but I hadn’t seen it on the big screen again since ’99 because I hadn’t lived in a city awesome enough to do so. Until now.
La Cinémathèque française (site) projected FIGHT CLUB earlier this year and I was there. Quite literally the first person in line to buy a ticket, over an hour before the screening, because I was determined to get the best seat in the house or else some space monkey was gonna get worse than a lye kiss on the hand from me. I may not be a unique snowflake, but I was the happiest snowflake in Paris that day.
EN → box office — a place at a theater or other arts establishment where tickets are bought or reserved. ORIGIN probably from the taking of money for “box seats” in theaters.
ES → taquilla – Casillero para los billetes de teatro, ferrocarril, etc. [Cabinet for passing theater, rail, etc. tickets.] ORIGIN Diminutive form of Hispanicized Arabic ṭáq[a] from Farsi ṭāq [: window].
FR → guichet — Petite ouverture dans une porte, dans un mur, par laquelle on peut parler à qqn ou faire passer des choses. [Small opening in a door or a wall through which one can speak with someone or pass something.] ORIGIN Old Norse vik [: bay window].
→ English note — “box office” has come to mean “total grosses” in the parlance of Hollywood, but it’s still the actual place you go for tickets.
→ Spanish note — I wish tacos or taquitos were somehow connected to this word. I <3 Mexican food the most.
→ French note — the definition is very broad and many other things qualify as a guichet, but in my experience, the place where you buy movie tickets are most typically called that.
Everyone’s a winner today because going to the movies is the real prize! (That’s a lie. “Everyone” can’t be winners.) Spanish wins because it introduced me to a crazy new character, a “t” with a dot underneath, which I will enlarge here so that you can see it better.
The most amazing conversation I ever had was with a woman at a bus stop in Barcelona in October of 2007. I was waiting for either the #43 or the #44 when she showed up. We started chatting as people do while they’re stuck together late at night, and when I turned back to her from a glance down the street, she asked me to repeat myself because she was deaf and hadn’t been able to read my lips.
I was a little surprised because I hadn’t noticed anything in her voice to indicate deafness, but didn’t think much of it. After about 15 minutes, she asked me where I was from and then I was very surprised. I quickly realized something and got so excited that my skin started to tingle because I had unknowingly been looking for this exact woman for two years. In case you missed the Life Changing Moment, it was this: a woman who could only read lips knew I wasn’t raised in Spain, even though she couldn’t hear my voice.
Prior to this, people hadn’t been able to put a finger or a name to what about me was de fuera [from outside; foreign], but there was definitely something and this lady was going to have The Answer.
At this point, she and I are finally on the bus and I ask her how she knew I wasn’t from around there. Sadly, she went with the obvious answer first: “You don’t look like you’re from here.” This statement is patently untrue, as she was looking at my face which is genetically 100% Made in Spain and I was wearing glasses that were “totally Euro” according to a friend of mine.
I asked again, saying that couldn’t be right for the reasons I just cited, and she said that while my diction was perfect (she had no problem reading my lips), my face was somehow ‘other.’ Pressed further, she said that maybe it was something about my cheeks but she couldn’t say what.
And then I knew. I realized that my English-speaking facial muscles were too pronounced and that my face wasn’t making smooth enough movements when connecting different Spanish sounds. This may sound crazy to you, but imagine how English speakers imitate the French, by pursing their lips and stretching the cheeks down and out. This isn’t just a stereotype, it’s the shape your face needs to be to make lots of French sounds. English requires a lot of upper-cheek work (feel your own face when making a long “e” sound like “cheese”).
→ JEOPARDY! knowledge: The football huddle was invented by the Galludet team to prevent their opponent from reading their hand signs. Galludet is the world’s first all-deaf university.
→ ASL (American Sign Language) is not signed English — it has its own grammar and is only called that because it was developed in the States.
→ SWITCHED AT BIRTH, a show with a main character who’s deaf and attends a deaf school, is pretty damn good. I first heard about it in The New Yorker, and am glad I checked it out. The premise is that two girls were switched at the hospital and grew up rich/poor, white/Hispanic, nuclear family/single-mom, hearing/deaf and how they come to grips with what their lives should have been. Last year, they did an episode that was almost entirely devoid of spoken dialogue which was mesmerizing and fascinating.
→ While on the bus with that lady, I told her about an interesting study I’d read about in the Times. Scientists determined that babies were able to distinguish between spoken languages on videos without sound.
→ A Standford student, deaf since birth, describes the process and pitfalls of lip-reading.
I was sitting at an outdoor bar near the beach in Barcelona on a sunny day like any of the hundreds I spent while living there. This particular day I was staring intently into the pint of beer in front me, willing myself to drink it before it got warm or I threw up.
I was achingly hung over. My head hurt, my liver ached, my kidneys were screaming in protest and the air was starting to heat up like an oven. Throwing up was a very real possibility. Instead, I took a sip. It stayed down, so I took another. Feeling no additional ill effects, I gulped the rest of the beer down and felt many degrees better. Hair of the dog always does the trick, if you can stomach it.
Feeling the world come into focus again, I looked up from the table top and saw that Franc, my friend’s husband, was staring at me oddly. I met his look with my own contemplative one and he finally exploded: “Are you wearing pyjamas?!”
I was and I didn’t care who knew it. “I barely slept, I’m hungover, it’s hot as hell. It’s a miracle I showered today, so, yes, I’m wearing pyjama pants.” I considered the matter closed, but when my friend Melissa returned from the bathroom, Franc incredulously told her I was attired in sleepwear. “Oh, that’s a good idea. I wish I’d worn pajamas.” Franc is South African and sometimes misunderstandings cropped up between our cultures. “What’s with you American girls?” he asked us. “You’re never embarrassed about anything!”
The truth is I’m not embarrassed very often, but it’s not because I’m American. It’s because, like Rhett Butler, I just don’t give a damn.
Think about something
Pyjama (my preferred spelling) is a unique word because it’s the same in my main languages: pajamas (US), pyjamas (UK), pyjama (FR), pyjama (ES). ORIGIN: early 19th cent.: from Urdu and Persian, from pāy [leg] + jāma [clothing.]
And, just for fun
Updates on stuff I’ve written and your comments.
→ My mother says that the Spanish aguacate [avocado] comes from the Nahuatl (pre-Spanish Mexican language) word ahuácatl, which also means testicles. Quoth she: “which, if you think about it, gives a new dimension to eating it.” It’s a wonder I make such weird connections to stuff sometimes.
→ Elizabeth mentioned that the term “handegg” had been proposed as a replacement name for that dumb sport hulking Americans play. I approved the change and then found Internet evidence that suggests this may catch on someday.
→ For a show that had elements of many of the things I love, namely 80s music and spy stuff, FX’s THE AMERICANS left me pretty underwhelmed. The highpoint of the first season was during the finale when the big moments were scored to Peter Gabriel’s “Games Without Frontiers.”
→ James Cameron’s movies are horrible. Excepting ALIENS (which was based on pre-existing characters), all of his films feature terrible dialogue, worse plotting and zero character development. Given that I have such strong feelings about him and his œuvre (hi Ethel!), it may be surprising that I vociferously criticize the Spanish translation of “Sayonara” over “Hasta la vista, baby” in T2, but that line actually makes sense. The Terminator has spent the whole of the movie bonding with a young John Connor in Southern California where Mexican and surf cultures collide and where “Hasta la vista, baby” is a thing people actually say. Side note: I think about movies too much.
→ Actual names are the last thing I get to when considering a thing, but it turns out that there may be inherent qualities to some words that affect how we perceive the things being named. Gods, the last thing I need is more things to think too much about.
→ Oh, man. I didn’t think I could like Brooklyn less. After writing about how there’s a concerted effort to train the French to pick up their dogs’ poo in public, I read about New Yorkers who are now teaching their children to poop “on the ground or behind a tree.” It’s like Americans are becoming Spanish! Dogs and cats, living together! Mass hysteria!
→ I swear I’m going to stop thinking about rabbits soon but all my mental energy has finally cracked a life-long mystery. The Easter Bunny’s chocolate eggs look like rabbit poop. The Easter Bunny is leaving poop-substitutes for children. They aren’t eggs at all. They are turds. I find this sooooo upsetting, I can’t even tell you.
→ To cleanse the palette, here’s David Sedaris’s great story about American Easter and learning French. (Scroll down to “Jesus Shaves.”) I clearly remember the first time I read this in Esquire (my boyfriend), lounging on my sofa in my fourth-floor walk-up in Chinatown. How could it have been 13 years ago?
One year, the Lesson my siblings and I learned about life on the farm was how to make a cow. My grandmother’s recipe? One barn + four cows + one rented bull = cows. I don’t remember when in the summer the mating took place, but by the next year, we had one calf in a smaller pen in the barn, the other three having been sold off.
I loved that damn cow. I called it Bambi because I was a child but I’m also historically bad at naming things. I would visit his pen every day, taking him special treats like sugar cubes and carrots. Sometimes, I was allowed to help muck out his little space and I’d rub him down and sometimes Bambi would lick my face and I would laugh because cow tongues are insanely rough, like industrial sand paper, a cat tongue times 1000, but it was funny because I had a pet cow and he loved me (and my face was probably dirty anyway).
Toward the end of the summer I was told that Bambi was actually a girl and I was disappointed. I think that I was given this piece of information so that I might read between the lines, but I was even more dense then than I am now, so I didn’t think anything beyond how lame it was that he was a girl too.
Upon arrival the following year I did my usually checking-in on the state of my affairs: saying hi to all the animals, doing an inventory of all the games and toys, searching around for things I’d hidden the year before. A couple days later, we were having lunch in the dining room and I asked where Bambi was since I hadn’t seen him/her yet. I think my mother tensed up because she’d hoped that I’d forgotten but I have a memory like a steel trap and having a pet cow is not something a kid is likely to overlook. My grandmother paused for a second, maybe because she was taking the temperature of the room or maybe she was just swallowing. “Bambi’s here,” she said, generally indicating a dish piled with my favorite thing, bistec.
In my memory, I scrunch my forehead up in thought and slowly work through what she just said, trying to make sense of it. Many things were wending their way through my mind as I puzzled through the information, making connections between disparate ideas, then coming to conclusions and finally forming words.
“Bambi tastes good,” I said.
Today I Learned
… that bistec, a thing I have been eating since I had teeth, is (linguistically) a bastardization of “beefsteak.” God. damn. rabies. I hate you so much.
Every Wednesday, I explore the linguistic origins of one word in different languages I speak.
I love it when a plan comes together. I’d been trying to find an organic way of talking about beer for a while, partly because I love it, but also because I read something really weird several months ago and wanted to write about.
See, I was glancing through the newspaper and came across mise en bière, a phrase that I translated as “put in beer” which sounds awesome but didn’t make any sense in context because it had nothing to with the liquid but instead with that final party that we all attend, The Big Sleep.
EN → coffin — a long, narrow box, typically of wood, in which a corpse is buried or cremated. ORIGIN Latin cophinus [coffer].
ES → ataúd — Caja, ordinariamente de madera, donde se pone un cadáver para llevarlo a enterrar. [Box, usually wooden, where cadavers are placed to take them to be buried.] ORIGIN Aramaic attabút [??] from Hebrew tēbāh [step forward] and Egyptian ḏb’t [adobe-like clay].
FR → cercueil — Long coffre servant à contenir le corps d’un mort qu’on ensevelit. [Long box used to contain the corpse of a dead person for burial.] ORIGIN Latin sarca [chair] from Greek sarkophagos [stone + chair].
In French, “mise en bière” means to put someone in their coffin, also known as a bière. Despite watching every episode of Six Feet Under, I don’t know if there’s a specific phrase in English for this; not the embalming part, put the physical act of en-coffin-ing someone. In France, this act is federally regulated under the Code géneral des collectivités territoriales Article R2213-15. Apparently, this is to ensure that all corpses are disposed of properly so that they don’t contaminate crops or water supply. This is a good thing.
How the hell did Spanish get the craziest damn combination of roots I’ve come across in all the time I’ve been sourcing these Word Mysteries?! On an academic level, I understand how it happened but, c’mon! Aramaic! And Hebrew! And Egyptian! It’s too much — Spain wins all the awards this week and may, if a final tally is ever made, get additional points for difficulty.