26 fevereiro 2009
Cito Ferreira Fernandes, jornalista do DN, em crónica publicada na revista de domingo, creio, e deixo aqui outra crónica deliciosa deste senhor:
[formatação minha :)]
Or, to quote Jonathon Green, the man Martin Amis once dubbed “Mr Slang”, it is “the language that says ‘no’. No to piety, to religion, to ideology and all its permutations, to honour, nobility, patriotism and their kindred infantilisms. It is forever Falstaff, never the Prince”. It is all those words we wouldn’t utter in a job interview or in front of a maiden aunt. And it is an endless source of pleasure, which explains why dictionaries of slang are so appealing.
In common with music and clothing, slang is subject to the vagaries of fashion. It puzzles us most when old or very recent, and, while antique slang can be satisfactorily covered in a printed volume, fire-new words cannot be. Anyone genuinely interested in getting to grips with the latest usage will today begin his or her search on the internet, and a dictionary of slang, although it may help a reader of Charles Dickens or Georgette Heyer, is a cabinet of curiosities and will tend to double up as a bathroom book or an ornament of the nightstand.
This may explain why the second edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang has been given the strident title Stone the Crows. That word “modern” certainly needed nudging aside, for this is a book packed with terminology that looks decidedly whiskery – “Shylock”, “darky”, “Berkeley Hunt”. In their preface, the volume’s editors, John Ayto and John Simpson, explain that for present purposes “modern” means twentieth-century. Sixteen years having passed since the first edition, “around a thousand additional items . . . have found their way” into this one. “Found their way” seems a little relaxed, and that figure of “around a thousand” hardly sounds a lot. But let us enjoy some of the words new for this edition: “stud muffin”, “happy slapping”, “petrolhead”, “beer goggles”, “arm candy” and “builder’s bum”. Actually, we might be hard pressed to enjoy them. Perusing the new entries, it seems as though the past sixteen years have been rubbish – or rather, “minging”, “white-arsed”, “poxy”, “wack”.
The main innovation introduced for this edition is a thematic index. This, say Ayto and Simpson, “enables the user to track down slang expressions in a particular subject area, and also to gain an impression of those areas of human existence that are the most prolific engenderers of slang”. One scarcely needs the index to achieve this impression: no one will be surprised that there are an awful lot of pungent synonyms for the penis, having sex, dying, homosexuals, police officers, dislikeable people, insanity, money and drunkenness.
There is a great deal in Stone the Crows that will amuse and intrigue browsers. We may all know “sex kitten” and “shag”, but I suspect I am not alone in being tickled by the comparatively unfamiliar “liquorice-stick” (a clarinet), “stair-dancer” (a thief who steals from open buildings) or “pine drape” (a coffin).
Nevertheless, the book has some frustrating limitations. One of the familiar problems of dictionaries is that they do less than total justice to the expressive possibilities of a word. Succinctness is welcome in a definition, but there are times when it is achieved at the expense of full insight. Some of the definitions here seem minutely calibrated in ways that are not readily graspable.
Surprising omissions include “bare” (meaning “lots”), “brer” (a guy) and “creps” (trainers), all drawn from Jamaican patois and in common use among British teenagers. Yet we are told that “Claire Rayners” is rhyming slang for trainers, which seems like the kind of thing a Mockney (another word not present here) might venture in jest. Furthermore, although there is the inevitable large dose of drug vocabulary, I could not find a single reference to any of the slang connected with crystal meth, the past decade’s most aggressively modish stimulant. Acronyms are also missing. BF and OAO are included – both seem dusty – but there is no room for NSA, GSOH, VWE, LOL, or IMHO.
No dictionary, printed or otherwise, can be truly comprehensive. Ayto and Simpson describe the idea of a comprehensive dictionary of slang as “that lexicographic mirage”. But it is telling that Stone the Crows can miss so much out yet still find space for a close explanation of “ram”, a term used in Eton’s Field Game – albeit without the definition mentioning the Field Game or enlightening us about its use of the altogether less self-explanatory “rouge”. Moreover, the sexual connotations of “ram” are overlooked entirely.
“Bottler” is defined only as “(Something or someone) excellent”. But what of its now more common use to denote a coward? “Cheesy” is “Inferior, second-rate, cheap and nasty”, which surely fails to capture the complexity of a word that often has connotations of corniness and kitsch. The pejorative sense of “chief” – much employed in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth – is not here. Nor is that peculiar and ominous contemporary sense of the verb “to wet”: “to stab”.
On the other hand, Jonathon Green’s Chambers Slang Dictionary, an expanded version of his earlier substantial works in the field, shows mastery of many domains. Now meeting the lexicographic ideal of “fully nested” entries, it covers around 85,000 words and phrases. In fact, this alarmingly large tome is only a prelude to what Green terms “my overriding work-in-progress”, a database of slang “on historical principles”. Still, it’s a doozie.
Whether one trawls the pages of Green’s dictionary or merely glances at them, rich discoveries are certain. A brisk selection cannot do the volume justice, but among the items that caught this reader’s attention were the curious expressions “to knap a jacob from a danna-drag”, meaning “to steal the ladder from a nightsoil cart in order to use it for burglaries”, and “to knock the dust off the old sombrero”, a vividly weird way of referring to oral sex. Among the most recent items are “to break off one’s math”, meaning to give a person one’s phone number, and the expression “Are your arms and legs painted on?”, to be directed at someone who is perceived as lazy. Other curios include “fang bandit”, apparently an Australianism for a dentist; “Mediterranean back”, another Australian item, used to denote a supposedly fake illness; “sour-apple quickstep”, meaning diarrhoea; “Ford car salesman”, a prison superintendent who promises reforms but never carries them out; “mutton-shunter”, an archaic term for a policeman who harries prostitutes, and, in the same neck of the woods (tee hee), “Fulham virgin”, a nineteenth-century term for a whore.
A confident authority percolates through the book’s pages, but for all his obvious excellence Green doesn’t always get things right. Immediately before “Fulham virgin” he lists “Fulham tractor” (“a sports utility vehicle”), but far more often this contraption is known as a “Chelsea tractor”. I doubt, moreover, that there would be widespread agreement that “Swedish” is a modern Americanism for “homosexual”, and the notion that “Jonathan Aitken” is rhyming slang for “eggs and bacon” is probably the result of a journalist’s small joke.
The more one rummages in these two volumes, the more one sees how quickly slang becomes dated. Not all slang is ephemeral, but its essential intimacy and spontaneity make it the most disposable kind of poetry. Carl Sandburg once opined that “Slang is the language that takes off its coat, spits on its hands, and goes to work”. But slang often doesn’t even get around to taking off its coat – and when it does, it is less likely to go to work than it is to lie down for a snooze, strum itself senseless, or collapse in the gutter.
Here are some of the AskOxford team's favourite entries from the Oxford Dictionary of Slang...
phishing (noun) Getting people's details, esp. credit card details, through fake websites or e-mails. 2001-. [A respelling of fishing.]
metrosexual (noun) A heterosexual male whose attention to his appearance is likened to that of a homosexual. 1994-.
blog (noun) An Internet website containing an eclectic and frequently updated assortment of items of interest to its author. 1999-. [Shortening of weblog.] So blogger (noun).
bootylicious (adjective) orig US 1 A term of commendation of rap lyrics. 1992-. 2 Very sexually attractive. 1994-. [Blend of booty buttocks and delicious.]
five-finger discount (noun) US, euphemistic, mainly CB users' The activity or proceeds of stealing or shoplifting. 1966-. LIEBERMAN & RHODES The perfect 'gift' for the 'midnight shopper' looking for a 'five-finger discount' (1976).
Sweeney (noun) Also Sweeny. Brit (A member of) a police flying squad. 1936-. N. LUCAS By the way, don't bother to call the Sweeny (1967). [Short for Sweeney Todd, rhyming slang for 'flying squad'; from the name of a London barber who murdered his customers, the central character of a play by George Dibdin Pitt (1799-1855).]
underfug (noun) Brit, public schools' An undervest; also, underpants. 1924-. B. MARSHALL The matron kept everybody's spare shirts, underfugs and towels and dished clean ones out once a week (1946). [From under- + fug noun, stuffy atmosphere.]
white hat (noun) 1 US naval An enlisted man. 1956-. 2 orig US A good man; a hero. 1975-. GUARDIAN WEEKLY His judgments of the men he dealt with. . . . The white hats are Truman [etc.]. A prime villain is Britain's postwar foreign secretary (1978). [In sense 2, from the white hats traditionally worn by the 'goodies' in Western films.]
droog (noun) A young ruffian; an accomplice or henchman of a gang-leader. 1962-. TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT How long ago it seems since the New York Times referred to the spray-can droogs of the subways as 'little Picassos' (1984). [An adaptation of Russian drug friend, introduced by Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange.]
droopy drawers (noun) jocular An untidy, sloppy, or depressing woman or man. 1939-. A. GILBERT The neighbours round about thought what bad luck on that charming Mr. Duncan having a droopy-drawers for a wife (1966). [drawers underpants.]
blatherskite (noun) mainly US (orig Brit dialect) Also bletherskate. 1 A noisy, talkative person, esp. one who talks utter rubbish. c.1650-. 2 Foolish talk, nonsense. 1825-. C. WILSON For Nietzsche . . . there is no such thing as abstract knowledge; there is only useful knowledge and unprofitable blatherskite (1956). [From blather, blether foolish chatter + skite, corrupt use of skate, the fish (in Scottish used contemptuously).]
agricultural (adjective) Of a cricket stroke: ungraceful, clumsy. 1937-. TIMES Keith . . .took an agricultural swing at Wardle and was bowled (1955). [From the unsophisticated strokeplay associated with village cricket.]
25 fevereiro 2009
In the third century BC, when Roman ambassadors were negotiating with the Greek city of Tarentum, an ill-judged laugh put paid to any hope of peace. Ancient writers disagree about the exact cause of the mirth, but they agree that Greek laughter was the final straw in driving the Romans to war.
One account points the finger at the bad Greek of the leading Roman ambassador, Postumius. It was so ungrammatical and strangely accented that the Tarentines could not conceal their amusement. The historian Dio Cassius, by contrast, laid the blame on the Romans’ national dress. “So far from receiving them decently”, he wrote, “the Tarentines laughed at the Roman toga among other things. It was the city garb, which we use in the Forum. And the envoys had put this on, whether to make a suitably dignified impression or out of fear – thinking that it would make the Tarentines respect them. But in fact groups of revellers jeered at them.” One of these revellers, he goes on, even went so far as “to bend down and shit” all over the offending garment. If true, this may also have contributed to the Roman outrage. Yet it is the laughter that Postumius emphasized in his menacing, and prophetic, reply. “Laugh, laugh while you can. For you’ll be weeping a long time when you wash this garment clean with your blood.”
Despite the menace, this story has an immediate appeal. It offers a rare glimpse of how the pompous, toga-clad Romans could appear to their fellow inhabitants of the ancient Mediterranean; and a rare confirmation that the billowing, cumbersome wrap-around toga could look as comic to the Greeks of South Italy as it does to us. But at the same time the story combines some of the key ingredients of ancient laughter: power, ethnicity and the nagging sense that those who mocked their enemies would soon find themselves laughed at. It was, in fact, a firm rule of ancient “gelastics” – to borrow a term (from the Greek gelan, to laugh) from Stephen Halliwell’s weighty new study of Greek laughter – that the joker was never far from being the butt of his own jokes. The Latin adjective ridiculus, for example, referred both to something that was laughable (“ridiculous” in our sense) and to something or someone who actively made people laugh.
Laughter was always a favourite device of ancient monarchs and tyrants, as well as being a weapon used against them. The good king, of course, knew how to take a joke. The tolerance of the Emperor Augustus in the face of quips and banter of all sorts was still being celebrated four centuries after his death. One of the most famous one-liners of the ancient world, with an afterlife that stretches into the twentieth century (it gets retold, with a different cast of characters but the same punchline, both in Freud and in Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea), was a joking insinuation about Augustus’ paternity. Spotting, so the story goes, a man from the provinces who looked much like himself, the Emperor asked if the man’s mother had ever worked in the palace. “No”, came the reply, “but my father did.” Augustus wisely did no more than grin and bear it.
Tyrants, by contrast, did not take kindly to jokes at their own expense, even if they enjoyed laughing at their subjects. Sulla, the murderous dictator of the first century BC, was a well-known philogelos (“laughter-lover”), while schoolboy practical jokes were among the techniques of humiliation employed by the despot Elagabalus. He is said to have had fun, for example, seating his dinner guests on inflatable cushions, and then seeing them disappear under the table as the air was gradually let out. But the defining mark of ancient autocrats (and a sign of power gone – hilariously – mad) was their attempt to control laughter. Some tried to ban it (as Caligula did, as part of the public mourning on the death of his sister). Others imposed it on their unfortunate subordinates at the most inappropriate moments. Caligula, again, had a knack for turning this into exquisite torture: he is said to have forced an old man to watch the execution of his son one morning and, that evening, to have invited the man to dinner and insisted that he laugh and joke. Why, asks the philosopher Seneca, did the victim go along with all this? Answer: he had another son.
Ethnicity, too, was good for a laugh, as the story of the Tarentines and the toga shows. Plenty more examples can be found in the only joke book to have survived from the ancient world. Known as the Philogelos, this is a composite collection of 260 or so gags in Greek probably put together in the fourth century ad but including – as such collections often do – some that go back many years earlier. It is a moot point whether the Philogelos offers a window onto the world of ancient popular laughter (the kind of book you took to the barber’s shop, as one antiquarian Byzantine commentary has been taken to imply), or whether it is, more likely, an encyclopedic compilation by some late imperial academic. Either way, here we find jokes about doctors, men with bad breath, eunuchs, barbers, men with hernias, bald men, shady fortune-tellers, and more of the colourful (mostly male) characters of ancient life.
Pride of place in the Philogelos goes to the “egg-heads”, who are the subject of almost half the jokes for their literal-minded scholasticism (“An egg-head doctor was seeing a patient. ‘Doctor’, he said, ‘when I get up in the morning I feel dizzy for 20 minutes.’ ‘Get up 20 minutes later, then’”). After the “egg-heads”, various ethnic jokes come a close second. In a series of gags reminiscent of modern Irish or Polish jokes, the residents of three Greek towns – Abdera, Kyme and Sidon – are ridiculed for their “how many Abderites does it take to change a light bulb?” style of stupidity. Why these three places in particular, we have no idea. But their inhabitants are portrayed as being as literal-minded as the egg-heads, and even more obtuse. “An Abderite saw a eunuch talking to a woman and asked if she was his wife. When he replied that eunuchs can’t have wives, the Abderite asked, ‘So is she your daughter then?’” And there are many others on predictably similar lines.
The most puzzling aspect of the jokes in the Philogelos is the fact that so many of them still seem vaguely funny. Across two millennia, their hit-rate for raising a smile is better than that of most modern joke books. And unlike the impenetrably obscure cartoons in nineteenth-century editions of Punch, these seem to speak our own comic language. In fact, the stand-up comedian Jim Bowen has recently managed to get a good laugh out of twenty-first-century audiences with a show entirely based on jokes from the Philogelos (including one he claims – a little generously – to be a direct ancestor of Monty Python’s Dead Parrot sketch).
Why do they seem so modern? In the case of Jim Bowen’s performance, careful translation and selection has something to do with it (I doubt that contemporary audiences would split their sides at the one about the crucified athlete who looked as if he was flying instead of running). There is also very little background knowledge required to see the point of these stories, in contrast to the precisely topical references that underlie so many Punch cartoons. Not to mention the fact that some of Bowen's audience are no doubt laughing at the sheer incongruity of listening to a modern comic telling 2,000-year-old gags, good or bad.
But there is more to it than that. It is not, I suspect, much to do with supposedly “universal” topics of humour (though death and mistaken identity bulked large then as now). It is more a question of a direct legacy from the ancient world to our own, modern, traditions of laughter. Anyone who has been a parent, or has watched parents with their children, will know that human beings learn how to laugh, and what to laugh at (clowns OK, the disabled not). On a grander scale, it is – in large part at least – from the Renaissance tradition of joking that modern Western culture itself has learned how to laugh at “jokes”; and that tradition looked straight back to antiquity. One of the favourite gags in Renaissance joke books was the “No-but-my-father-did” quip about paternity, while the legendary Cambridge classicist Richard Porson is supposed to have claimed that most of the jokes in the famous eighteenth-century joke book Joe Miller’s Jests could be traced back to the Philogelos. We can still laugh at these ancient jokes, in other words, because it is from them that we have learned what “laughing at jokes” is.
This is not to say, of course, that all the coordinates of ancient laughter map directly onto our own. Far from it. Even in the Philogelos a few of the jokes remain totally baffling (though perhaps they are just bad jokes). But, more generally, Greeks and Romans could laugh at different things (the blind, for example – though rarely, unlike us, the deaf); and they could laugh, and provoke laughter, on different occasions to gain different ends. Ridicule was a standard weapon in the ancient courtroom, as it is only rarely in our own. Cicero, antiquity’s greatest orator, was also by repute its greatest joker; far too funny for his own good, some sober citizens thought.
There are some particular puzzles, too, ancient comedy foremost among them. There may be little doubt that the Athenian audience laughed heartily at the plays of Aristophanes, as we can still. But very few modern readers have been able to find much to laugh at in the hugely successful comedies of the fourth-century dramatist Menander, formulaic and moralizing as they were. Are we missing the joke? Or were they simply not funny in that laugh-out-loud sense? Discussing the plays in Greek Laughter, Halliwell offers a possible solution. Conceding that “Menandrian humour, in the broadest sense of the term, is resistant to confident diagnosis” (that is, we don’t know if, or how, it is funny), he neatly turns the problem on its head. They are not intended to raise laughs; rather “they are actually in part about laughter”. Their complicated “comic” plots, and the contrasts set up within them between characters we might want to laugh at and those we want to laugh with, must prompt the audience or reader to reflect on the very conditions that make laughter possible or impossible, socially acceptable or unacceptable. For Halliwell, in other words, Menander’s “comedy” functions as a dramatic essay on the fundamental principles of Greek gelastics.
On other occasions, it is not always immediately clear how or why the ancients ranked things as they did, on the scale between faintly amusing and very funny indeed. Halliwell mentions in passing a series of anecdotes that tell of famous characters from antiquity who laughed so much that they died. Zeuxis, the famous fourth-century Greek painter, is one. He collapsed, it is said, after looking at his own painting of an elderly woman. The philosopher Chrysippus and the dramatist Polemon, a contemporary of Menander, are others. Both of these were finished off, as a similar story in each case relates, after they had seen an ass eating some figs that had been prepared for their own meal. They told their servants to give the animal some wine as well – and died laughing at the sight.
The conceit of death by laughter is a curious one and not restricted to the ancient world. Anthony Trollope, for example, is reputed to have “corpsed” during a reading of F. Anstey’s comic novel Vice Versa. But what was it about these particular sights (or Vice Versa, for that matter) that proved so devastatingly funny? In the case of Zeuxis, it is not hard to detect a well-known strain of ancient misogyny. In the other cases, it is presumably the confusion of categories between animal and human that produces the laughter – as we can see in other such stories from antiquity.
For a similar confusion underlies the story of one determined Roman agelast (“non-laugher”), the elder Marcus Crassus, who is reputed to have cracked up just once in his lifetime. It was after he had seen a donkey eating thistles. “Thistles are like lettuce to the lips of a donkey”, he mused (quoting a well-known ancient proverb) – and laughed. There is something reminiscent here of the laughter provoked by the old-fashioned chimpanzees’ tea parties, once hosted by traditional zoos (and enjoyed for generations, until they fell victim to modern squeamishness about animal performance and display). Ancient laughter, too, it seems, operated on the boundaries between human and other species. Highlighting the attempts at boundary crossing, it both challenged and reaffirmed the division between man and animal.
Halliwell insists that one distinguishing feature of ancient gelastic culture is the central role of laughter in a wide range of ancient philosophical, cultural and literary theory. In the ancient academy, unlike the modern, philosophers and theorists were expected to have a view about laughter, its function and meaning. This is Halliwell’s primary interest.
His book offers a wide survey of Greek laughter from Homer to the early Christians (an increasingly gloomy crowd, capable of seeing laughter as the work of the Devil), and the introduction is quite the best brief overview of the role of laughter in any historical period that I have ever read. But Greek Laughter is not really intended for those who want to discover what the Greeks found funny or laughed at. There is, significantly, no discussion of the Philogelos and no entry for “jokes” in the index. The main focus is on laughter as it appears within, and is explored by, Greek literary and philosophical texts.
In those terms, some of his discussions are brilliant. He gives a clear and cautious account of the views of Aristotle – a useful antidote to some of the wilder attempts to fill the gap caused by the notorious loss of Aristotle’s treatise on comedy. But the highlight is his discussion of Democritus, the fifth-century philosopher and atomist, also renowned as antiquity’s most inveterate laugher. An eighteenth-century painting of this “laughing philosopher” decorates the front cover of Greek Laughter. Here Democritus adopts a wide grin, while pointing his bony finger at the viewer. It is a slightly unnerving combination of jollity and threat.
The most revealing ancient discussion of Democritus’ laughing habit is found in an epistolary novel of Roman date, included among the so-called Letters of Hippocrates – a collection ascribed to the legendary founding father of Greek medicine, but in fact written centuries after his death. The fictional exchanges in this novel tell the story of Hippocrates’ encounter with Democritus. In the philosopher’s home city, his compatriots had become concerned at the way he laughed at everything he came across (from funerals to political success) and concluded that he must be mad. So they summoned the most famous doctor in the world to cure him. When Hippocrates arrived, however, he soon discovered that Democritus was saner than his fellow citizens. For he alone had recognized the absurdity of human existence, and was therefore entirely justified in laughing at it.
Under Halliwell’s detailed scrutiny, this epistolary novel turns out to be much more than a stereotypical tale of misapprehension righted, or of a madman revealed to be sane. How far, he asks, should we see the story of Democritus as a Greek equivalent of the kind of “existential absurdity” now more familiar from Samuel Beckett or Albert Camus? Again, as with his analysis of Menander, he argues that the text raises fundamental questions about laughter. The debates staged between Hippocrates and Democritus amount to a series of reflections on just how far a completely absurdist position is possible to sustain. Democritus’ fellow citizens take him to be laughing at literally everything; and, more philosophically, Hippocrates wonders at one point whether his patient has glimpsed (as Halliwell puts it) “a cosmic absurdity at the heart of infinity”. Yet, in the end, that is not the position that Democritus adopts. For he regards as “exempt from mockery” the position of the sage, who is able to perceive the general absurdity of the world. Democritus does not, in other words, laugh at himself, or at his own theorizing.
What Halliwell does not stress, however, is that Democritus’ home city is none other than Abdera – the town in Thrace whose people were the butt of so many jokes in the Philogelos. Indeed, in a footnote, he briefly dismisses the idea “that Democritean laughter itself spawned the proverbial stupidity of the Abderites”. But those interested in the practice as much as the theory of ancient laughter will surely not dismiss the connection so quickly. For it was not just a question of a “laughing philosopher” or of dumb citizens who didn’t know what a eunuch was. Cicero, too, could use the name of the town as shorthand for a topsy-turvy mess: “It’s all Abdera here”, he writes of Rome. Whatever the original reason, by the first century BC, “Abdera” (like modern Tunbridge Wells, perhaps, though with rather different associations) had become one of those names that could be guaranteed to get the ancients laughing.
There is a lost book by Dickens, one that recorded some of the most remarkable encounters of his life. Within it, he catalogued the stories told him by the women – prostitutes, confidence tricksters, thieves and attempted suicides – whom he interviewed before they were admitted to Urania Cottage, the refuge for fallen women he established in Shepherd’s Bush in the 1840s and effectively directed for a decade or more. The money – substantial sums, for this was “high-end philanthropy” – came from the immensely wealthy Angela Burdett-Coutts, but the initial scheme and much of its everyday direction was Dickens’s alone, his most important and most characteristic charitable venture. Jenny Hartley’s excellent new book tells this extraordinary story with compassion, common sense and a lively awareness of the unruly, self-dramatizing energies (both Dickens’s and the women’s) at play within and beyond the home’s four walls.
You have only to look at his collected letters to marvel that a man who was already writing novels, running a weekly magazine, conducting a splendid social life, bringing up nine children, and raising money for other charitable causes, should find time to visit the house in Shepherd's Bush, often several times a week, to supervise it, select inmates, consult with prison governors, hire and fire matrons, deal with the drains and the gardener, report to Coutts in detail several times a week on whatever was happening there, handle the money, keep careful written accounts of the backgrounds of the girls, and arrange their emigration to Australia, South Africa or Canada.
Hartley reminds us how women were dealt with in Victorian institutions in London: the harsh, silent prisons, and the Magdalen Hospitals for penitent prostitutes, where they were constantly reminded of their shame as they worked under strict rules at sewing and laundering. The plan Dickens sold to Coutts was to make the home like a real home, with a matron who would never ask about the pasts of the young women, with comfortable bedrooms and good food, a garden where they could grow flowers, books to read - even a piano.
Claire Tomalin for The Guardian
A long time ago in a galaxy close, close to us.
War! The Windows empire is crumbling under the
attacks of the ruthless Sith Lord, Count Tux.
There are heroes on both sides. Evil is everywhere!
23 fevereiro 2009
It means, literally, "breaking sugar on someone's back," or engaging in malicious gossip about someone. In other words: backbiting, which, come to think of it, is slightly food-related too, in a cannibalistic sort of way.
For example: "Dès qu'il sortait, ses collègues se mettaient à casser du sucre sur son dos." ("The minute he was out the door, his coworkers would start breaking sugar on his back.")
According to these sources, this idiom appeared in the late 19th century, and may derive from the older expressions "sucrer quelqu'un", which meant mistreating someone, and "se sucrer de quelqu'un," which meant taking someone for a fool. Sugar was then a symbol of wealth; why it was linked to such negative notions, however, is unclear.
16 fevereiro 2009
A evolução de Darwin
De 12/02/2009 a 24/05/2009
Das 10h00 às 18h00
Terça a Domingo
Galeria de Exposições Temporárias da Sede
Blog supporting this exhibit:
All about him:
15 fevereiro 2009
Early this week I was in a supermarket stocking up on light bulbs, which I seldom replace until they all fail and I have to find my way out of my office by feeling the furniture, swearing all the way.
But I wouldn't swear if children were present. Perhaps I should. Swear words are only words and a case can be made for children hearing as early as possible the language of the world they will grow up in.
I wonder, though, if that case is very good. The young mother who was checking out in the next aisle to mine seemed to have no doubts on the matter. She was no harridan. In fact she looked like a fashion model. But she had a trolley piled high with stuff, her two attendant children were behaving like children, and she told them off in roughly the following terms. "Stop something about or I'll something leave you at home next time."
The word "something" was delivered several times with tremendous force, so that the light bulbs rattled in my trolley. I use the word "something" instead of the word she used. The BBC has rules about using that word and I wouldn't want to use it anyway if I didn't know who was listening.
In private, when I do know who's listening, I use it frequently, possibly too frequently - a question I'll get to. But I can't imagine myself using it in the presence of children. The young mother with the trolley couldn't imagine anything else. It was clear that she used it all the time because the children didn't bat an eye.
You would think their lack of response might have tipped her off to a salient fact. The word can't have any shock effect if you use it all the time. It is indeed only a word, but it isn't even that if it's done to death. Bad language can energize normal language, but bad language used all the time is no language at all. The only signal that it sends is that the user is in the grip of anger, or is nervous, or is a member of the male television cooking profession, or perhaps all three.
Or the constant user might be a comedian. Almost all stage comedians of the present day use swear words constantly. The comedian Frank Skinner, however, has just told us that for purposes of experiment, for a single night on his latest tour, he tried doing his stand-up act without any of his usual swear words, and that the act went surprisingly well.
He didn't say how much shorter it was, but apparently nobody complained. Nobody came up to him afterwards and said: "Your something act was 20 something minutes shorter than something usual and I'm really something disappointed." Everybody thought he was just as funny as ever.
“ Swear words are barely words at all without an idea behind them - mainly they're just punctuation ”
Having made this discovery, Frank Skinner has transmitted it to us via the press, with the proviso that he still thought some parts of his act really needed the swear words so he put them back in the next night. On the whole, though, he was amazed by the results of his bold venture. He had left most of the swear words out and the audience had still laughed.
He didn't draw the conclusion that all the other comedians should follow his example and leave most of the swear words out, but he seemed to be asking for someone else to draw it for him, so let me be the one to try.
At this point I should hasten to say I made a big mistake last week when I conjured a fantasy of Hollywood action movies that left all the violence out in favour of reasoned discussion. And a version of Hamlet in which everyone took counselling instead of fighting with swords. I was joking, but some of the people who wrote in to the BBC website didn't realise it.
Perhaps I didn't swear enough. Swearing has become the mark of comedy, but I really do think that comedians who swear a lot are hardly ever funny, and this time I'm not joking. People with a talent for comedy should watch their language and people who can't watch their language should cook food. There, I've "something" said it.
Stage comedy was already filthy well before the time of Shakespeare, and the puritans who tried to clean it up were always more frightening than the poor clowns dishing out the verbal offal. When it comes to the stage, where nobody is exposed to the spectacle except people who buy a ticket, better the most depraved comedian than any censor.
But on stage, the filth that works the trick has always depended more on the dirty idea than the dirty words. Max Miller, who dominated the music halls from the 1930s to the 50s, dealt in a line of innuendo scurrilous beyond belief. But he never swore, he just conveyed insalubrious ideas. In fact he sometimes never even completed the idea. He let the audience complete it in their minds and then accused them of being filthy.
Delighted, they agreed. They were all adults and they were on a night out away from the kids. The BBC banned him for a good reason: some of the kids might still be awake. In modern times, Lenny Bruce pushed comedy into forbidden areas, and those who thought that he was shining a necessary light on darkness were right to praise him.
Later on Richard Pryor took it further and people were right to praise him too. But always these liberating advances into a less squeamish awareness - a true and necessary breaking down of barriers - depended more on the picture conjured up than on the words employed, and trouble began to arrive when there were suddenly thousands of comedians who had no pictures to conjure up, only bad language to distract the listener from their paucity of invention.
For a long while, television would not do what the stage did, but finally the argument began to win out that comedy has to have "edge". Victoria Wood was the first comedian I ever heard who was brave enough to wonder aloud if "edge" was a good thing in itself.
But by now, I think, most comedians who actually know how to raise a genuine laugh are wondering seriously if their profession hasn't been invaded by people who either aren't working hard enough or have very little to work with. With no boundaries left to push, with no edge left unexposed, those comedians devoid of any real ideas will have no resort except to join all the swear words together, putting in nothing except what Frank Skinner left out.
Suppose they did so, would any grown-up get hurt? Well, probably not, even if they did it on television. Only words, swear words are barely words at all without an idea behind them. Mainly they're just punctuation and when we get a message that's all punctuation we either wait for a real message, or, more likely, shut down the computer.
Love, worship and poetry
The test is, can you say something interesting without the swear words? If you can, then you can always bung a few in to make what you say more effective in the right company. You might be trying to entertain your friends. If you're a man you might be trying to impress a woman. Very dangerous, that, she might be well brought up. Or you might just be telling someone to go away. But in that case, the person you are telling to "something" off had better be smaller than you are. Not so small, however, as to be a child.
Which is where we really come to the crunch. A child who grows up not knowing the difference between swearing and ordinary language will not be employed by anyone who does know the difference, and there are still quite a lot of people like that, although their number might be declining. And a child who grows up listening to swearing adults, and who in turn becomes an habitually swearing adult, has been deprived of one of the most precious features of the English language.
The English language has many levels, stretching from the mundane, the everyday, to the divine, the level of love, worship and poetry. Used with point and a sense of pace, the profane can reinforce all of them. But it is not a language level in itself, and anyone confined to using nothing else has effectively been deprived of speech.
Luckily nobody has to stay that way. Anyone with any brains at all will eventually notice that most people are getting more said with fewer expletives, and will try to copy them, if only to land a job.
It's a counsel of despair to say that we can't get back to decent speech. Almost everybody gets back to it for at least part of the day. I myself swear too much in private company and swear far too much when I am alone and the last lightbulb goes out.
But when I watch my words, I realise that I have fallen back on a swear word for effect only because I ran out of ideas for saying the same thing better. No, I don't mean that all comedians should clean up their act. I just want them to be something funnier.
I don't think Frank Skinner would have made his historic statement on this subject if he hadn't been aware that the tide is on the turn. I hope the puritans aren't trying to regain their lost ground, and if they are, I hope I'm not one of them. But I do think the time might have come to listen to the laughs more carefully.
Comedians always listen to the laughs. Quite often they count them. But a wise comedian listens to the quality of the laugh. Is it that thin laugh he gets when people are determined to have a good time and will laugh at anything flagged as funny? Or is it the solid laugh that they grant to something really funny? There's all the something difference in the something world.
Like poetry and pornography, slang is easier to recognize than to define. Most of it is disapproved of by someone, but obscenity alone doesn't qualify. It isn't slang, for example, to refer to manure with a four-letter word. But if you put the article "the" in front of that four-letter word and equate the president-elect of the United States to it, then slang it is, and very complimentary. Further complicating matters, a great deal of slang is completely inoffensive. Journalists call the first sentence of an article the lede, the last the kicker, the motive for reading it the hook and the paragraph that encapsulates its argument the nut graf--terms that might puzzle an outsider but won't scandalize anyone.
Sometimes a slang word or phrase springs free of the people who coined it, but it remains slang only for as long as it trails groupiness of some kind, however attenuated or abstract. You needn't work for the sanitation department to call maggots disco rice, a term recorded by the New York Times in July 2004, but the term nonetheless implies that a vivid acquaintance with the larvae was picked up somewhere. In September, when a writer for New York magazine hailed Sarah Palin's promised son-in-law for attracting "the cougar vote," the writer probably didn't intend to signal that he and his readers belonged to the romantic community that unites older women and younger men. But he probably did expect that he and his readers shared an urbane taste for following pop-culture reportage on sexual behavior into its sillier vicissitudes.
To a lexicographer, slang's abundance may present an even greater challenge than its definition. Although humans coin words as prolifically as bees make honey, dictionaries of standard English only include lexemes that have become a stable currency among strangers. Slang is not confined by this useful limit. My boyfriend and I refer to going online as checking our bids, in memory of a bygone fascination with eBay. Because we once elaborated the no-chicken label on a box of vegetarian broth into a fowl-friendly warning--"No, no, chicken! Keep away from the boiling water!"--we now always call the broth no-no chicken. The glossy young rich who crowd us out of our favorite restaurants are known to us as kittenheads, on account of a bus-side ad I once saw that juxtaposed an enormous fluffy white feline head, a crystal goblet full of glistening diced organ meats and the slogan "Next Stop, Uptown." This is just the tip of the iceberg of our private slang, and we're only two people. Multiply our sample by all the groups, large and small, who improvise with the English language for their own convenience and pleasure, and you see the problem. Slang is virtually infinite. It helps to exclude slang that hasn't been published, but in the Internet age it doesn't help much.
To steer successfully between the normal and the too-peculiar, a slang dictionary must be an exercise in tact as well as linguistics. As a result, it's likely to evince personality. Stone the Crows, the second edition of Oxford University Press's dictionary of modern slang, is eccentric and risqué, like a well-read, intermittently potty-mouthed uncle. The charms of The Routledge Dictionary of Modern American Slang and Unconventional English, on the other hand, are somewhat coarser, and bring to mind a younger brother with troubled friends who has memorized long stretches of dialogue from movies starring stoners or mobsters. To explain the word "fairy," the Oxford quotes Evelyn Waugh. To explain "dirtbag," the Routledge quotes Ferris Bueller's Day Off. It isn't quite fair to compare the two, because the Oxford collects English-language slang in use anywhere (but predominantly in Britain) since World War I and the Routledge restricts itself to America since World War II. Accordingly, the Oxford features "Joe Bloggs" (an average fellow) and "Joe Soap" (a gull), while the Routledge has "Joe Sixpack" (a blue-collar type), "Joe Schmo" (a representative dimwit) and "Joe Cool" (someone who aspires to the sang-froid of Snoopy in sunglasses). But the difference in catchment areas cannot alone explain how little overlap there is. The Oxford claims that the Swiss itch, a style of tequila drinking that involves licking salt beforehand and sucking lime afterward, is American and dates from 1959, but the Routledge doesn't know about it. The words "love apple," "ladies' aid" and "joybox" look naughty but have innocent meanings, a contrast that might be expected to appeal to the Oxford's whimsical spirit; but only the Routledge reveals that they refer to a tomato, a pool-cue support and a piano, respectively.
And that's as it should be. There's more slang in the world than dictionaries can capture, and there's no reason for them to repeat one another's labor. Absent from both the Oxford and the Routledge, for example, are "lede," "hook" in its journalistic sense (unless you count the seventeenth meaning given by Routledge: "in a confidence swindle, the stage in the swindle when the victim is fully committed to the scheme"), "nut graf," "disco rice," "cougar" and "kittenhead." (I ought to confess, though, that the Oxford taught me "zhoosh," and the Routledge "thirty-three" and "long-winded.") It is easy and uncharitable to prolong such a list, but I'm unable to resist adding that neither dictionary mentions "beemo," the mildly pejorative word for a zealous student that haunted my 1970s childhood in central Massachusetts; "gaybait," a generalized taunt from the same milieu, whose literal meaning occurred to none of us there, I'm fairly sure; "demap," a synonym for kill coined by David Foster Wallace in Infinite Jest; "muzzleloader," gay slang for someone who shares what is said to have been Alfred Kinsey's chief sexual perversion and which means what you think it means; "sketchy," an adjective that I overheard on the subway just last night in reference to a potentially dangerous situation; or "money quote," a piece of blogger's cant patterned after a term of art in the porn industry and used to introduce a crucial excerpt--the nut graf as seen from the other side of the table. Both dictionaries dip into Internet slang--the Routledge knows what it means for a McCain adviser to complain that Sarah Palin didn't have the "bandwidth" to prepare for her media interviews, and the Oxford is down with "warez" as a synonym for pirated software or media--but neither mentions the new Internet-accelerated interjections "meh" ("I am unimpressed") or "teh" ("I am emphasizing and ironizing simultaneously by deliberately mistyping the word 'the,'" often used in conjunction with the spurious plural "Internets," which was pioneered by George W. Bush during the 2004 presidential debates).
Yet these dictionaries contain riches. As one sifts them, one may even be led to imagine that they reveal our deepest preoccupations. People used to spend themselves in sexual climax; later they came, and I've long wondered what shifted the metaphorics underlying the highest human pleasure from commerce to presence. Nowadays people merely cum, as if the very spelling of the word rebelled against anything so grand as immanence and insisted that the act was no more than physiological. As research for further such speculations, I tried for a while to keep score while reading the Routledge--toting up the dingle-dangles, meat whistles, one-eyes and jing-jangs to see whether they outnumbered or were outnumbered by the maw-maws, chi-chis, dubbies and jigglies--but in the end I despaired. My psychoanalysis is therefore no more than impressionistic.
It nonetheless seems to me that the American id, viewed through the lens of slang, dwells much on human worthlessness, failure, drug addiction, homosexuality (imagined as a come-down, not a turn-on), oral sex, penises and breasts--as if the nation collectively feared that it might be sucking hind tit (suffering deprivation on account of low status) and were in search of compensation. At the end of Stone the Crows there's a very clever subject index where one may see at a glance all the slang for, say, a drinking spree: "on a whizzer; on the bash; on the batter; on the bend; on the piss; on the skite." The collective id of the Commonwealth nations is therefore easier to assess, and my sense is that it highly values intoxication, foolishness, money and cheating. Perhaps these are more complex vices than the American ones, or perhaps the slang of one's own people inevitably becomes monotonous. In any case, I found myself tiring of deep-dicking American macks and the deprecation of knobslobbers, pratt boys and morphodites. But those kiwis and limeys! Those gumsuckers, bananalanders and their corresponding sheilas! They track with one another instead of merely dating, put anchovies on toast and call them whales, shout one another drinks, get squiffy together, go home for a little rumpty-pumpty and complain the next morning that they must have been starkers. It's irresistible, as are the Oxford's usage examples. This 1945 quote from Lawrence Durrell, for instance, illustrates a word for an angry letter: "I was afraid...that you would write me a stinker calling me a peach fed sod." (The peaches are not explained.) I even found strangely compelling this 1970 line from the Daily Telegraph that instanced a synonym for addiction: "Hundreds of domestic pets die each year after becoming 'hooked' on slug bait." One almost wants to try some.
The Oxford's etymologies are also entertaining. The affectionate moniker "toots," for example, ultimately derives from "foot," and the Australian put-down "warb" ("an idle, unkempt, or disreputable person"), from the maggot of the warble fly. The Routledge, for its part, excels in its explanatory notes, which give a word's originating or most famous-making context. The entry for "tea-room," for example, follows gay restroom sex from the late nineteenth century through Laud Humphreys's acclaimed 1970 sociological study to the recent travails of Idaho Senator Larry Craig. A note for "gonzo" credits its coining to a friend of Hunter S. Thompson's, and one for "hillbilly heroin" refers to the oxycodone addiction of radio personality Rush Limbaugh. It transpires that "pixie" became celebrated after a reference to the amours of Roy Cohn during the McCarthy hearings.
One of the most amiable kinds of slang is the micro-joke, as in "deep sea fishing" (medical slang for exploratory surgery) or "dorm rot" (college slang for a hickey). The Routledge reports that a gay man who flits from one doomed romance to another is known as a Camille and that ordering Navy recruits to tread water at length is called drown-proofing them. But I think my favorite slang genre, which I hadn't previously realized was populous enough to constitute one, consists of phrases derived from the names of pop-culture figures, remembered and unremembered. The Routledge contributes a few American examples: to pull a Hank Snow is to leave, in allusion to Snow's chart-topping 1950 country song "I'm Movin' On," and a John Wayne is an exaggerated punch. But the British and the Australians are fonder of them, so many more are to be found in the Oxford. A Jimmy Woodser is a drink one drinks alone, named for the Australian poem "Jimmy Wood," about a "solitary Briton" who, according to teh Internets, denounced "shouting" and preferred to "drink his poison--solus--nice and quiet." In drinking or any other endeavor, solitude may be described as being on one's tod, because the last name of the jockey Tod Sloan rhymes with "alone." Indeed, rhymes motivate quite a few. A Captain Cook is a look, a Harry Tate is a nervous state and Britney Spears are beers. More ingeniously, Harriet Lane is canned meat, in memory of a famous murder victim, and Fanny Adams is meat stew for a similar reason. A Kathleen Mavourneen is an interminable prison sentence, evoking the refrain of a song with that title: "It may be for years, it may be for ever." The V-for-victory gesture that Americans associate with Nixon is in Britain called a Harvey Smith, because there a horseman by that name popularized it. "Gordon Bennett" expresses astonishment by its resemblance to "God blind me" and in honor of the scurrilous nineteenth-century newspaper editor James Gordon Bennett, who no doubt deserves to be remembered in his afterlife as an expletive. And if you suspect me of having sucked this review out of my thumb, as a South African friend of mine used to put it, feel free to dismiss it as all my eye and Betty Martin. No idea who she is, but apparently she's been around since the 1780s.
We Brits have a way of feeling guilty about our pleasures, as if there were something morally dubious, or beyond the merely vulgar, in the pursuit of happiness enshrined in the constitution of our more overtly fun‑loving American cousins. This is not an issue addressed by Paul Martin in his extensive survey of the pros and cons of pleasure, and its bittersweet role in all our lives. Mercifully, however, he does seem to conclude that pleasure-seeking is, on balance, a good thing, for all the efforts of religious and (often) socio-political forces to persuade us otherwise.
But pleasure is also, as he insists from the outset, “a slippery beast”. Plato argued that it was “the greatest incentive to evil”, Aristotle the opposite, and so it has confusingly continued ever since, via the likes of Nero and Casanova to Schopenhauer, Freud and beyond. For Martin, a behavioural biologist, the “holy trinity” of pleasures that can inevitably lead to pain, not least in the shape of potentially lethal addiction, are those of his title – sex, drugs and chocolate.
Sex is discussed in blindingly obvious, at times somewhat alarming, detail and is generally recommended, “preferably with someone else”. In this, as in most of the other pleasures on his menu, Martin is commendably non-judgmental, short of pornography and paedophilia, even when discussing the more exotic sexual variants to which some societies have seen fit to attach a death sentence. Recreational drugs don’t get off so lightly; however tantalising readers might find his evidence that some can apparently evoke sensations 20 times as pleasurable as an orgasm, these kinds of drug can also kill you – which is deemed, on balance, not such a good thing.
For the traditional sex, drugs and rock’n’roll mantra of the Sixties, Martin inexplicably (for this reviewer) substitutes the latter with chocolate – a pleasure, to be sure, but is it really an obsession to more than a worried-about-its-weight minority? Even his dust jacket boasts a sultry set of female lips oozing an overdose of unattractively molten chocolate (which could, in chapter three, be quite another viscous fluid). One can only conclude that this particular vice, if so it be, is dictated either by his publisher’s commercial imperatives or the author’s unspoken guilt as to his own personal predilections. When making his point that most pleasures can (and should) reach a point of satiety, his climactic example turns out to be: “Even eating chocolate in the bath will eventually pall.”
I rest my case.
Beyond this titillating trio, many daily pleasures for most of us don’t make the cut. There are detailed and well-informed discussions of alcohol, tobacco and caffeine, porn, gambling and guzzling, and such recreational drugs as ecstasy, plus thumbnail sketches of dissolute figures from Suetonius’s Twelve Caesars to Elvis Presley, Errol Flynn, Janis Joplin and the 17th-century libertine Lord Rochester. While arguing that boredom “reveals more about the person than it does about the world around them”, Martin wheels on such troubled if delightful souls as the late Peter Cook to suggest that the pursuit of self-destructive pleasures can, for some, prove the only alternative to dying of boredom with the quotidian banality of life.
Sleep and dreams are granted a high place amid life’s unavoidable pleasures. But less obviously harmful delights such as reading, dancing, sport, opera, game-playing, conversation get short shrift amid Martin’s concentration on the links between pleasure and pain – the latter of which, ironically enough, prompts one of the book’s best passages. What he gives with one hand, he invariably takes away with the other. Without sex, we wouldn’t be here. Without drugs, many showbiz celebrities still would. But Coleridge wouldn’t have written “Kubla Khan”.
Even with such vivid subject matter, Martin has a prose style which is pedestrian to the point of tedium; there is many a moment, amid his impressive assemblage of facts and statistics, at which one aches for an articulate philosopher to take over. But it is hard to disagree with what appears to emerge as his general conclusion: we all get only one life, and – hey, what the heck – it’s our right, if not exactly our duty, to get out there and enjoy it to the full