Monthly Archives: August 2017

names

 

 

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I passed a clothing store today, Vivaldi, a boutique located on the West side of Third Avenue on the corner of 79th Street.

I have noticed this store before. I used to live on the East Side. The name of the store ANNOYS me.

Why? one might ask.

Because, giving a fancy clothing store such a name is done for no other reason than to create an impression — a faux impression — of unmerited sophistication. It’s almost the same, say, as if my parents gave me the name Wolfgang. What does a famous composer have to do with women’s styles? Nothing. It’s a bad attempt at sophistication showing an ignorance that is irksome.

I don’t mind the use of famous names a priori: say, the Ted Williams Fishing Tackle Store. That wouldn’t bother me. (It might, however, brother Williams’s heirs because of rights to the use of Williams’s name.)

There is a famous bookstore in Paris called Shakespeare and Company. It’s a bookstore and meeting place for anglophone writers and readers. Books. Shakespeare. Shakespeare and Company, meaning the Bard and other great English writers, his literary descendants. One can comprehend that.

 

 

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Later in the day, I got to thinking a bit about personal (given) names. I tend to be rather conservative in this respect. I tend to prefer names already commonly in use. I am not crazy when a name like Tiffany or Amber catches on and suddenly everyone is naming their daughter Tiffany or Amber. (I realize I have no really good reason to object.) And, I don’t like it when kids are given unusual names like Trig and Chastity.

I don’t like it when parents give feminine names to boys (e.g., Shirley; one of my cousins was married to a man whose first name was Shirley) and boys’ names to girls. I feel it could lead to kids having some identity confusion (read sexual identity) and to being teased.

I happen to like my first name, Roger. (So there!) It doesn’t call attention to itself; it’s a standard name that’s been around for a long time. Yet, it seems a bit distinctive in that it’s not that common.

 

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By the way, I found that paying attention to names helped me with genealogical research. For example, my grandfather’s name was Thomas Gordon Smith. He was formally known as T. Gordon Smith as an adult, and was informally known as Gordon. I thought Gordon was his first name.

It turned out that he had an ancestor from Scotland, his paternal grandmother, whose maiden name was Gordon. Information about her was hard to find. My grandfather’s middle name was an important clue; he got it from his grandmother.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

  August 30, 2017

grammar (again!)

 

 

“A documentary that aired on Britain’s Channel 4 two weeks ago generated news about how much sex — or not so much — Charles and Diana were having as their marriage cratered, mostly because Charles could not get over his one true love, Camilla Parker-Bowles, the Duchess of Cornwall, who he later married.”

 

— “Princes William and Harry are all grown up, and their mother would be proud,” by Karla Adam and William Booth, The Washington Post, August 28, 2017

 

 

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These two reporters do not know that it should be WHOM he later married.

If, like me, you were carefully taught the eight parts of speech in elementary school, you would have learned that there are such things as PRONOUNS; for example, the pronoun who and its variant form whom.

This would have enabled you (as it did me) to better understand how language works. A pronoun such as who when it is a subject is who, but when it is an object, it becomes whom. Elementary, my dear Watson! So we were taught by prim fussy schoolmarms eons ago. (Don’t ask me to explain why this type of variation – in spelling – occurs with pronouns and not nouns.)

But now, it’s considered to be too much to ask schoolchildren to be taxed with such lessons. And, it also seems to be considered a waste of time.

I would be willing to bet that a lot of schoolteachers nowadays don’t know the parts of speech themselves, or how they function.

 

— Roger W. Smith

   August 29, 2017

thoughts about Gogol

 

 

Elisabeth van der Meer has another great post at

https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/2017/08/28/typically-gogol/

which is about the Russian author Nikolai Gogol.

I responded as follows.

 

 

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Great post, Elisabeth. Very interesting and insightful.

A couple of things that come to mind.

The comparison to Dickens is very apt. The ability to create characters who are hilarious, idiosyncratic, total originals, and almost like distortions of real life, yet who — in their incongruity with what we think of us as “average” — are fully human and totally believable.

I read Henri Troyat’s biography of Gogol. I recall it as being very good.

Regarding Gogol’s sexuality, Simon Karlinsky’s monograph The Sexual Labyrinth of Nikolai Gogol (1976) is excellent. Karlinksy, a professor of Slavic languages and literature at UCal-Berkeley, was a top-notch scholar who produced another outstanding work on Chekhov (letters plus extensive commentary). I have read both books; they were well worth it.

The Wikipedia entry on Gogol contains the following paragraph:

In 1834 Gogol was made Professor of Medieval History at the University of St. Petersburg, a job for which he had no qualifications. He turned in a performance ludicrous enough to warrant satiric treatment in one of his own stories. After an introductory lecture made up of brilliant generalizations which the “historian” had prudently prepared and memorized, he gave up all pretense at erudition and teaching, missed two lectures out of three, and when he did appear, muttered unintelligibly through his teeth. At the final examination, he sat in utter silence with a black handkerchief wrapped around his head, simulating a toothache, while another professor interrogated the students. This academic venture proved a failure and he resigned his chair in 1835.

Troyat does a good job of describing this incident.

I will be eagerly awaiting your next post.

 

 

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Ms. van der Meer’s site is one of the best sites devoted to literature I have found. If you happen to be interested in or love Russian literature, it bears checking out. I keep recommending it to friends, including those whose literary tastes I am not sure of, but who I feel would appreciate the site.

Her site, “A Russian Affair,” is at

https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/

 

— Roger W. Smith

   August 2017

 

 

 

 

Vocabulary: Building and Using One’s Own; The Delight of Same; Its Value to a Writer

 

 

 

‘vocabulary building’ – updated December 2018

 

 

The following are some exchanges about VOCABULARY (no less) that I have had recently, via email, with friends and relatives, with persons who share my interests, and with readers of my blog.

 

 

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Roger W. Smith, email to a relative (to whom I was writing about my habit of walking):

I just Googled peregrinations. It was absolutely right. I’m impressed with my own vocabulary! I rarely seem to use the wrong word. And you thought Muhammed Ali was boastful!

 

 

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Roger W. Smith, email to Thomas P. Riggio, a Theodore Dreiser scholar:

I love to learn new words. There is one in the article you sent me: mite. [The article was about a late nineteenth century chaplain who used to solicit money for the homeless in New York City.] It usually means an arachnid (a small one). But it also has another connotation, and is just the right word for the context in the article you sent me — it’s the perfect word here. Among the meanings of the word mite are a very small contribution or amount of money. I love when words are used with such precision, and when a writer nails it. It demonstrates the power a good vocabulary can invest in a writer.

 

 

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Roger W. Smith, email to Clare Bruyère, a scholar and friend who lives in France:

 

I have always been assiduous about vocabulary. People tell me I have an excellent one.

I was reading a 1971 article in The New York Times Book Review by Edward Dahlberg (d. 1977), an American novelist, essayist and autobiographer, the other day. He uses a slew of words unknown to me.

His vocabulary is impressive, to put it mildly. He used quite a few words I had never seen before, and others that I was only faintly acquainted with. And, he used them all absolutely correctly.

Words used by Dahlberg, all in the same article: “mulligrubs” (ill temper; colic; grumpiness); “slubbered” (performed in a slipshod fashion); “scatophagous” (said here of Rabelais; means habitually feeding on dung, e.g., a scatophagous beetle); “musky” (of or like musk, i.e., the odor of same; a musky perfume; connotation: pungent); “exsanguinous” (adjective; means destitute of blood or apparently so; synonym: bloodless); “the sherds in the Mount Sinai Desert” (a sherd, or more precisely, potsherd, is commonly a historic or prehistoric fragment of pottery, although the term is occasionally used to refer to fragments of stone and glass vessels, as well; occasionally, a piece of broken pottery may be referred to as a shard); “scribble addle words” (addle: adjective, archaic; means rotten; said of an egg); “scullion reviewers” (noun, archaic: a servant assigned the most menial kitchen tasks); “Shakespeare scholiasts” (a scholiast is a commentator on ancient or classical literature); “cully” (noun; British; archaic, informal: a man, friend); “our wormy, desiccated subway” (wormy: adjective; said of organic tissue; means infested with or eaten into by worms; or of wood or a wooden object, full of holes made by woodworm; when said of a person, means weak, abject, or revolting).

 

 

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Roger W. Smith, email to the Tim Robinson, editor of Penguin edition of J. M. Synge’s The Aran Islands:

 

Your introduction was so pithy and informative, so well researched and insightful. Your impressive vocabulary alone was worth the trip. I kept jotting down words and expressions such as immiserated, nucleate, impercipient, immiscible, detrital, excursus, “inanimate vastitude,” and so forth.

 

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email from a reader of this blog:

Frequently, the phrases you use make you sound pompous. A good example is the ironic “sans redundancy” comment in your email of yesterday. Is there something wrong with the word “without”?

my reply:

 

“Sans” was used playfully (as you realize). Using another word unexpectedly can sometimes enliven a piece, amuse the reader, perhaps help to keep the reader awake, and sometimes help to nail a point. Foreign words can often be used for effect, variation, to amuse the reader, or to keep him on his toes.

For example, “trottoir,” as you know, is the French word for sidewalk. Walt Whitman, who was not actually well versed in foreign languages, loved to use foreign words on occasion, mostly French ones. (“Trottoirs throng’d, vehicles, Broadway” is a line from Whitman’s poem “Mannahatta”.) He has been faulted for this. Some people can’t realize that one is not required to always say “sidewalk” when another word might be substituted. For various reasons, including a delight in language. The other day in a blog post, I asked, “are big words verboten in writing?” Obviously, I could have used prohibited. I was using the German equivalent playfully, with irony.

 

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email from a reader of this blog:

As for vocabulary, I don’t question your accuracy and knowledge, but sometimes question your choice. Why not “indigenous” instead of “autochthonous” in your Dreiser post? The two words mean essentially the same thing and your readers would have more easily gotten your point with the more commonly used word.

 

my reply:

I see your point, but one often strains to find the mot juste. Autochthonous was the best choice. There’s nothing wrong with challenging the reader. I love it when writers such as Edward Dahlberg challenge me and increase my stockpile of words. Simplicity is a virtue, but simplification because many or most readers haven’t encountered a word before is not necessarily required. William F. Buckley, Jr. could be pedantic and a showoff, but I actually liked the way he used big, arcane words. He used them well (as did Samuel Johnson two centuries earlier). Big words and arcane or archaic ones should not, a priori, be avoided; it depends on the context. Autochthonous was the perfect word to describe Dreiser. It takes years of reading and of looking up words to know and be able to use such not commonly used words when appropriate.

 

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email from a reader of this blog:

You often try to use inflated vocabulary words in your quest to dazzle.

 

 

My hypothetical response (I didn’t actually send it):

I do have an impressive vocabulary, now that you mention it. I use it well: a big word when called for, often a simple one.

 

 

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Roger W. Smith, email to two close acquaintances:

 

I ran across the word “portentous” in a book this evening.

 

portentous

adjective

1. of or like a portent

“portentous signs”

synonyms: ominous, warning, premonitory, threatening, menacing, ill-omened, foreboding, inauspicious, unfavorable

2. done in a pompously or overly solemn manner so as to impress.

“portentous moralizings; portentous dialogue”

synonyms: pompous, bombastic, self-important, pontifical, solemn, sonorous, grandiloquent

 

pretentious

adjective

1. attempting to impress by affecting greater importance, talent, culture, etc., than is actually possessed.

“a pretentious literary device”

synonyms: affected, ostentatious, showy

 

Portentous is more or less a new word for me. It’s hard to keep the two (portentous vs. pretentious) straight.

 

 

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How I Built a Good Vocabulary

 

Any language expert or English teacher will tell you: A good vocabulary is developed only by reading, not from conversation.

There is another obvious factor, which certainly pertains in my case: I have always assiduously looked up words. I began to cultivate the habit early and have never stopped, so that if I don’t look up a word, I feel a sense of something being neglected. My high school English teacher, Mr. Tighe, used to repeat the mantra: look up a word three times and it’s yours.

I still look up words conscientiously, including ones of which I may have a prior idea as to their meaning and those whose meaning I may be able to guess from the context. I want to nail their meaning down, be precise. (For a writer, this is invaluable.) And, then, I am interested in etymologies. I like to learn the origins of words. Doing so can help one remember what they mean. An example is juggernaut, meaning a huge, powerful, and overwhelming force or institution — it’s a word I learned long ago. An example of its use might be “The Trump juggernaut swept him into office.” The origin of juggernaut is fascinating. From an online etymological dictionary:

juggernaut: An idea, custom, fashion, etc., that demands either blind devotion or merciless sacrifice. A figurative use of Juggernaut, “a huge wagon bearing an image of the god Krishna,” especially that at the town of Puri, drawn annually in procession during which (apocryphally) devotees allowed themselves to be crushed under its wheels in sacrifice. [The word comes from Sanskrit.]

 

 

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Argot and Foreign Words; the King’s English

 

An ear for slang helps when it comes to vocabulary acquisition — it helps, say, to know what wannabe or gladhandler means — as well as a readiness to converse with others from different backgrounds, cultures, and of different ethnicities (including foreigners). Foreign languages have their own words that don’t translate (ennui, bête noir). And, of course, there are the fabulous Yiddish words, which I never heard in my native New England, words such as klutz, kvetsh, mentsh, meshuga, shlep, shlemiel, tchotchke, and yenta.

Foreign language study and knowledge, of course, help greatly, especially a knowledge of Greek and Latin. It was a commonplace when I was in high school that Latin would provide a good foundation for learning English words and their meanings, as well as a basis for the study of other languages (and of grammar). I found this to be true. I have always wished that I could have learned Greek.

It goes without saying that being a native English speaker (born, as was my case, to native English speakers) is a huge advantage. I grew up imbibing the King’s English like my mother’s milk.

 

 

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Vocabulary as a Tool on the Writer’s Workbench

 

Having an excellent vocabulary increases — exponentially as more and more new words are acquired — one’s mastery as a writer.

Vocabulary gives a writer power. Words assist and go along with complexity of thought.

It’s something akin to a composer mastering different modes and tonalities or scales, or, say, tone color, so that a piece can be scored for different instruments used for maximum effect at various places in the score. When is a particular chord appropriate? Which key? Considerations of timbre, pitch, tonality, resonance all require prior knowledge, familiarity. In the same manner, a writer has to be familiar with words beforehand and to have a store he or she can draw upon. It’s too late to start looking them up in a thesaurus; if one doesn’t already know them, one won’t feel comfortable using them.

As vocabulary increases, precision of thought increases. More subtle distinctions can be made. There are a zillion ways, for example, to say that someone is shifty and manipulative. Which is the right one? To repeat: vocabulary permits ever more subtle distinctions to be made. In describing people, situations, emotions, ideas, and so forth.

When writing, I don’t like to use words that I don’t already know. They have to already be in my quiver, my “word silo” (to mix metaphors). I do not make it a practice to seek, look up, a new (for me) word and then use it so as to (among other things) impress others with my vocabulary. But, I will admit that, lately, when I am searching for a word, I will look for synonyms on the internet. What’s the best way to say desperate? I may know that there’s a better word for my purposes, but I can’t think of it. It helps to see a list of alternative choices. But I won’t use a word that I don’t already know. I have to have a “comfort level” with the word in question.

In the case of autochthonous, which I used to describe Theodore Dreiser, the word came to mind, somehow. It was lodged in my brain. I wasn’t sure if I had used it correctly. I looked it up, and sure enough, it seemed like just the right word. Do you think before a composer sits down to write a piece, that, at that moment, he opens a music theory text or songbook to look for melodies, chords, or styles? Of course not. They’ve got to already be in his brain, so to speak. This requires extensive experience on the part of the composer with music as a listener (as a student, so to speak; as an active listener to the works of composers from various periods representing a wide variety of styles). The same thing is crucial in writing, namely, extensive reading on the part of the writer, and what goes with it: the assimilation not only of styles but also of words.

What I find is that, if the word is there somewhere, which is to say in my mental “word silo,” then fortuitous choices get made. You often chose words almost by instinct or gut feeling; you have the option of going back and checking later to (which I often do) to make sure you have used the word correctly. But, having words already there in your mental storehouse makes it a lot of fun to write, feeling very pleased with yourself when the right one pops into your head, and you, think, “Got it! That’s perfect.” It’s mentally pleasurable. It’s actually a matter of ear, just as is the case with composers. People think vocabulary is drudgery, something you have to learn by rote to get a good SAT score. Actually, words are very much part of the creative process — the writing process, that is — an essential ingredient.

We have all had the experience in conversation of sort of reaching for a word. It’s there somewhere; we want to grab it out of thin air. So we can nail a thought.

When one does so, there is a palpable sense of satisfaction; the opposite, frustration, is the case when the word eludes us. When it comes to colloquy, arguments, political debate, rejoinders, irony, sarcasm, and the like, vocabulary is a definite factor and can make or break the speaker or writer. If the expression rapier wit connotes sharpness, then a good vocabulary will sharpen the blade while a limited vocabulary will blunt it.

 

 

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Dictionaries

 

I have to have a dictionary at hand when I read. For years, I have kept replacing my dictionary due to its being battered, the spine broken and the cover torn from use. I would always buy the same one: Webster’s New World College Dictionary. It has clear, lucid, well written definitions and good etymologies. There are a lot of Americanisms. The dictionary provides sensitive guidance on usage, unlike the infamous Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (1961).

My Webster’s New World contains entries for all the words I ever need to look up; there has hardly ever been an exception. I never cared for unabridged dictionaries or found them useful. I purchased one, The Random House Unabridged Dictionary, from a book club once and found that I almost never used it. It seemed to me that the dictionary’s bulk was a product of having all sorts of variant forms of the same word listed as separate entries and including entries for lots of technical and specialized vocabulary used in fields such as aeronautics or organic chemistry, say, that the ordinary reader would never need to look up. And, anyway, I much prefer the clear, well written definitions in Webster’s New World.

 

 

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Newspeak

 

Is a writer is obliged to always use the most common, simplest word?

No. Thank God such a rule isn’t enforced.

A point made by one of my readers to this effect — i.e., that the simpler, more common alternative should be chosen (see above) — has gotten me to think about the analogy with Newspeak. In George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, Newspeak is the official language of Oceania.

Syme, who is working on the Eleventh Edition of the Newspeak dictionary, tells Winston Smith:

It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. Of course the great wastage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well. It isn’t only the synonyms; there are also the antonyms. After all, what justification is there for a word which is simply the opposite of some other word? A word contains its opposite in itself. Take “good”, for instance. If you have a word like ‘good’, what need is there for a word like ‘bad’? ‘Ungood’ will do just as well–better, because it’s an exact opposite, which the other is not. Or again, if you want a stronger version of ‘good’, what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like “excellent” and “splendid” and all the rest of them? ‘Plusgood’ covers the meaning, or ‘doubleplusgood’ if you want something stronger still. Of course we use those forms already. but in the final version of Newspeak there’ll be nothing else. In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words–in reality, only one word. Don’t you see the beauty of that, Winston?

(See fuller excerpt below.)

Note: I am not against the use of plain, simple, and common words a priori. The important thing, in my opinion, is that words be used correctly, and that they be used well. The key determinant is context. Variety, meaning that sometimes big words are used and at other times short, simple, and pithy ones, can enliven a piece of writing.

There’s another determinative factor here. What kind of writing are we talking about? An evocative piece about a walk in the woods? A prose poem? A piece of literary criticism? A philosophical tract? Vocabulary will vary accordingly. And, yes, a highfalutin word might spoil that descriptive piece about your nature walk.

 

 

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Vocabulary Is Built by Reading

 

I wish to note that I am not trying to emulate Noah Webster or compile a vocabulary primer. Almost all of the words and expressions I have learned over the past year or so were encountered in my recent reading. If you are inclined to say, that’s impressive, I would be inclined to respond by saying: proves my point: vocabulary is built by reading.

 

 

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Acquiring Vocab from the Greats

 

Different writers, ranging from Shakespeare to Charles Dickens and from Walt Whitman to Thomas Wolfe, have their favorite words — often arcane ones –which they will use repeatedly, and this will augment one’s vocabulary. (Plus, in the case of a great writer such as Shakespeare, their coinages.) It goes without saying that literature will broaden one’s vocabulary, from pithy, evocative words to high-flown abstract ones. Usually, these words will be used wisely and well, effectively.

And, then, different disciplines have their own vocabulary and buzzwords. An avid reader with wide ranging interests will pick up many words this way. This could include specialized words used in various professions and industries and in technical fields which often have a wider use. And, the reader who is not limited to deep reading in just one field (e.g., literature) but ranges far abroad (to, say, history or the social sciences, philosophy, the pure sciences, and so on) will acquire vocabulary which, needless to say, has a wide applicability and, in itself, can broaden knowledge.

 

 

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Concrete vs. Abstract

 

Many of the words I have looked up denote very specific things that one can visualize, e.g., berm, cladding, scantling. These words, because they are so specific, I find harder to remember, if, as is often the case, they refer to some observation I would not be inclined to make, for example, carpentry, a beach, building materials, and the like. Yet, they still intrigue me, especially their etymologies.

Maureen Dowd in a New York Times op ed piece used the word cratering to characterize Richard Nixon’s downfall. One would ordinarily think of crater, a concrete noun (a crater on the moon). But here she was using a verb which denotes a concept. I find it easier to remember the meaning of abstract words.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

    August 2017

 

 

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Appendix:

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four; an excerpt from Part One, Chapter 5

 

 

“How is the Dictionary getting on?” said Winston, raising his voice to overcome the noise.

“Slowly,” said Syme. “I’m on the adjectives. It’s fascinating.”

He had brightened up immediately at the mention of Newspeak. He pushed his pannikin aside, took up his hunk of bread in one delicate hand and his cheese in the other, and leaned across the table so as to be able to speak without shouting.

“The Eleventh Edition is the definitive edition,” he said. “We’re getting the language into its final shape–the shape it’s going to have when nobody speaks anything else. When we’ve finished with it, people like you will have to learn it all over again. You think, I dare say, that our chief job is inventing new words. But not a bit of it! We’re destroying words–scores of them, hundreds of them, every day. We’re cutting the language down to the bone. The Eleventh Edition won’t contain a single word that will become obsolete before the year 2050.’

He bit hungrily into his bread and swallowed a couple of mouthfuls, then continued speaking, with a sort of pedant’s passion. His thin dark face had become animated, his eyes had lost their mocking expression and grown almost dreamy.

“It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. Of course the great wastage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well. It isn’t only the synonyms; there are also the antonyms. After all, what justification is there for a word which is simply the opposite of some other word? A word contains its opposite in itself. Take “good”, for instance. If you have a word like ‘good’, what need is there for a word like ‘bad’? ‘Ungood’ will do just as well–better, because it’s an exact opposite, which the other is not. Or again, if you want a stronger version of ‘good’, what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like “excellent” and “splendid” and all the rest of them? ‘Plusgood’ covers the meaning, or ‘doubleplusgood’ if you want something stronger still. Of course we use those forms already. but in the final version of Newspeak there’ll be nothing else. In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words–in reality, only one word. Don’t you see the beauty of that, Winston? It was B.B.’s idea originally, of course,” he added as an afterthought.

A sort of vapid eagerness flitted across Winston’s face at the mention of Big Brother. Nevertheless Syme immediately detected a certain lack of enthusiasm.

“You haven’t a real appreciation of Newspeak, Winston,” he said almost sadly. “Even when you write it you’re still thinking in Oldspeak. I’ve read some of those pieces that you write in ‘The Times’ occasionally. They’re good enough, but they’re translations. In your heart you’d prefer to stick to Oldspeak, with all its vagueness and its useless shades of meaning. You don’t grasp the beauty of the destruction of words. Do you know that Newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year?”

Winston did know that, of course. He smiled, sympathetically he hoped, not trusting himself to speak. Syme bit off another fragment of the dark-coloured bread, chewed it briefly, and went on:

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed, will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten. Already, in the Eleventh Edition, we’re not far from that point. But the process will still be continuing long after you and I are dead. Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller. Even now, of course, there’s no reason or excuse for committing thoughtcrime. It’s merely a question of self-discipline, reality-control. But in the end there won’t be any need even for that. The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect. Newspeak is Ingsoc and Ingsoc is Newspeak,” he added with a sort of mystical satisfaction. ‘Has it ever occurred to you, Winston, that by the year 2050, at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now?”

 

 

a premonition

 

 

My wife Janet and I had a very pleasant lunch with my brother and sister-in-law in Manhattan today. They were going to a matinee performance of a Broadway play.

My wife and I walked up Fifth Avenue together and parted at the corner of 39th Street. A beautiful day. We had separate plans for the rest of the afternoon.

I kissed her goodbye and was overcome by a powerful emotion, a visceral sense like a stomach pain. I felt a pang of loss parting from her, albeit briefly.

Someday we will be parted forever, I thought.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

August 26, 2017

 

epiphany

 

 

Scott and Janet —

 

It’s almost 7:30 p.m. The library is about to close, and I’m heading uptown on Lexington Avenue to 47th Street.

It was another beautiful day. I love summer evenings.

I’ve been having a mystical experience during my short walk.

The air, the breeze, feels so nice and cool — Walt Whitman would call it delicious.

People on the sidewalk — people everywhere — seem different at this hour. There are less of them. They don’t seem to be in a hurry; the work day is over.

Whitman got a charge from being part of a pedestrian throng, from exchanging looks with passersby.

The women! They never seem to look uptight or fearful of being accosted; instead, they look contented, relaxed. There’s an openness about them. This seems to be true in general of the swell of humanity as they appear to someone like myself “jaunting” in the City.

I passed a chartered bus parked on the west side of Lexington Avenue in the mid-30’s. People were getting off with suitcases. It looked like they were returning from an excursion to the country. A woman was rolling her suitcase along the sidewalk. She looked contented and very relaxed. Living in Manhattan, you can have the best of both worlds.

There’s something special about early summer evenings. Time seems to stand still. There is such a feeling of tranquility, of peace and serenity.

It must be what the poet felt when he wrote: “God’s in His heaven— / All’s right with the world!”

 

— Roger W. Smith

   August 23, 2017

 

 

 

J-school students, give heed!

 

 

Yes, I’m a J-school grad.

M.A., Journalism, New York University, 1988.

All journalism students are taught, first and foremost, the importance of the LEAD.

Here’s a stupendous one:

Without it, if you are a New Yorker of a certain age, chances are you would have never found your first apartment. Never discovered your favorite punk band, spouted your first post-Structuralist literary jargon, bought that unfortunate futon sofa, discovered Sam Shepard or charted the perfidies of New York’s elected officials. Never made your own hummus or known exactly what the performance artist Karen Finley did with yams that caused such an uproar over at the National Endowment for the Arts.

The Village Voice, the left-leaning independent weekly New York City newspaper, announced on Tuesday that it will end print publication. The exact date of the last print edition has not yet been finalized, according to a spokeswoman.

“After 62 Years and Many Battles, Village Voice Will End Print Publication”

By John Leland and Sarah Maslin Nir

The New York Times, August 22, 2017

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   August 2017

 

no greater love

 

 

This morning I was thinking about something seemingly unremarkable that I observed in my neighborhood about two weeks ago. I told my wife about it the other day.

I live in what would probably be called a working class residential neighborhood in New York City. On a recent Sunday morning, I was walking to a store about four blocks from my home to run an errand.

I like to people watch; however, there were few people out and about at the time. I sort of half noticed a woman who I would guess was in her thirties standing on a street corner, across the street from me, with a daughter who looked to be about eight. They were in front of St. Stanislaus Kostka Roman Catholic Church (known locally as St. Stan’s).

Suddenly, the girl broke free, as it were, from her mother and started running headlong down the block. I then noticed out of the corner of my eye a sixtiesh woman walking towards the girl and her mother, which was across the street and in the opposite direction from me.

“Grandma!” the girl shouted joyously, almost crying out of joy (as her quaking voice revealed). She leaped into her grandmother’s arms, buried her head, and clung to her grandmother — it was bowed as she leaned against her.

Her mother was smiling. The grandmother was overcome. Granddaughter and grandmother stood there hugging one another tightly as the mother approached and joined them.

Surely, I thought, then (inchoately) and shortly thereafter (reflecting upon the scene I had witnessed), such love — innocent, genuine, heartfelt, unspoiled — confounds philosophy.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

    August 2017

Astral Weeks

 

 

 

 

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In my young twenties, shortly after I had moved to New York, I was listening one afternoon to a progressive rock radio station playing the type of music that everyone seemed to be listening to back then, at least all of the people my age, it seemed, who were into 60’s rock and had grown past a Top Forty mindset. I was into groups such as Cream, Blood, Sweat and Tears, Blind Faith, and several others, yet, while they were good, I feel, in retrospect, that the music of the 60’s was not as good as it seemed to me back then.

Anyway, the disc jockeys on such stations wouldn’t just spin platters with happy talk. Whatever station it was (I forget), the program host said, “I am now going to play for you what is simply the best rock song ever made.”

Whereupon he played the song “Madame George” from Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks album.

“Madame George” is very long for a rock song. It lasts nine minutes and 45 seconds.

I humbly submit — I am no rock expert — that Astral Weeks is, in my experience, one of the best rock albums ever.

 

 

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A Wikipedia entry contains the following:

Astral Weeks

Studio album by Van Morrison

Released November 1968

Astral Weeks is the 1968 second studio album by Northern Irish singer-songwriter Van Morrison. It was recorded at Century Sound Studios in New York City during three sessions in September and October 1968, although most participants and biographers agree that the eight songs were culled from the first and last early evening sessions. Except for John Payne, Morrison and the assembled jazz musicians had not played together before and the recordings commenced without rehearsals or lead sheets handed out.

The cover art, music and lyrics of the album portray the symbolism equating earthly love and heaven that would often be featured in Morrison’s work.

When Astral Weeks was released by Warner Bros. Records in November 1968, it did not receive promotion from the label and was not an immediate success with consumers or critics. Blending folk, blues, jazz, and classical music, the album’s songs signaled a radical departure from the sound of Morrison’s previous pop hits, such as “Brown Eyed Girl [a song I love].”

Astral Weeks’s critical standing eventually improved greatly, however, and it has since been viewed as one of rock music’s greatest and most important records. Sometimes referred to as a song cycle or concept album, critics laud the album’s arrangements and songwriting; Morrison’s lyrics are often described as impressionistic, hypnotic, and modernist. It was placed on numerous widely circulated lists of the best albums of all time and had an enduring effect on both listeners and musicians.

Forty years after the album’s release, Morrison performed all eight of its songs live for the first time during two Hollywood Bowl concerts in November 2008.

I went with my sister (who enthusiastically suggested it) to one of the two Hollywood Bowl concerts in November 2008. My sister later gave me the album of the live performance as a gift. It was a disappointment. I guess Morrison’s voice wasn’t the same. At any rate, the original album was far better.

 

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What is the album about? I always felt, intuitively, that it was about growing up in Morrison’s native Belfast, and about being an adolescent. The lyrics express this poignantly.

A couple of Wikipedia entries bear this out:

According to Roy Kane, who grew up with Morrison in Belfast, Cyprus Avenue “…was the street that we would all aspire to — the other side of the tracks … the Beersbridge Road had the railway line cut across it; and our side of it was one side of the tracks and Cyprus Avenue was the other… there was an Italian shop up in Ballyhackamore, that’s where all the young ones used to go of a Sunday… we used to walk up to the Sky Beam for an ice cream or a cup of mushy peas and vinegar… We used to take a short cut up Cyprus Avenue…”

Morrison told biographer Ritchie Yorke that along with “Madame George” (which also references Cyprus Avenue), the song “Cypress Avenue” came to him in “a stream of consciousness thing”: “Both those songs just came right out. I didn’t even think about what I was writing.” As journalist Matthew Collin described the song: “Morrison reminisced about a more innocent time, recounting the sights and sounds of a bygone life while escaping into his imagination, an oasis of romantic reverie.”

The album contains a number of references to places and events in Belfast. Cyprus Avenue is a tree lined, up-market residential street in east Belfast. Sandy Row is a working class staunchly Unionist/Protestant neighborhood in south Belfast. “Throwing pennies at the bridges down below” was a practice of Northern Irish Unionists as they travelled on the train from Dublin to Belfast where the train crossed the River Boyne.

And so on.

I must be psychic!

 

 

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Posted here are my five favorite songs from Astral Weeks:

“Astral Weeks”

“Sweet Thing”

“Cypress Avenue”

“The Way Young Lovers Do”

“Madame George”

 

— Roger W. Smith

   August 2017

a note to the Tooth Fairy

 
Henry's note to Tooth Fairy, Februar y 1995

 

 

 

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Tooth

 

Re: Tooth

Amount of money: $5.00

 

Tooth Fairy (Mommy) —

Directions; 1. Take tooth; 2. Leave cash (no checks please) Hint: look under pillow.

Only stupid people don’t get this.

   Love,

Henry

(from our son Henry to his mother, February 1995)

 

Roger W. Smith