Thursday, December 31, 2009

More joys of dictionaries of slang

The arguments justifying dictionaries are almost as entertaining as the dictionaries themselves.
The first is from the introduction to the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.

We need not descant on the dangerous impressions that are made on the female mind , by the remarks that fall incidentally from the lips of the brothers or servants of family; and we have before observed that improper topics can with our assistance be discussed, even before ladies, without raising a blush on the cheek of modesty. It is impossible that a female should understand the meaning of ‘twiddle diddles’ or rise from the table at the mention of ‘Buckinger’s boot’.

Unless of course she got fed up with her smarmy bothers, stole their book and looked up the words they were using. Then she might wonder why they were discussing such things in her presence. But I suspect the intro is not meant to be taken entirely seriously.

On the other hand: The first English Dictionary, Cawdrey’s: A Table Alphabeticall of Hard Words published in1604 contained no more than 3,000 words and spelt words two ways on the title page. It was published:

For the benefit and help of ladies, gentlewomen or any other unskilled persons. Whereby they may more easilie and better understand many hard English wordes, such as they shall heare or read in the scriptures, Sermons or elsewhere and also be made to use the same aptly themselues.

According to Simon Winchester “…fantastic linguistic creations like abequitate, bulbulcitate and sullevation appeared in these books alongside Archgrammarian, …there were words like necessitude, commotrix, and Parentate…”
The latter apparently means to celebrate ones parent’s funeral.

However, none of my slang dictionaries have “To go round the Wrekin” or any variation on this phrase.

I am disappointed.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The joys of (West-Midlands) Slang (dictionaries)

Slang dictionaries have a seductive subversive irresponsibility. Some, especially Australian ones, are dangerously funny and achieve a ribald poetry; others like the canting dictionaries of the renaissance are relics of an alternative universe peopled by rufflers and upright men, jarkmen, bawdy baskets, doxies and kinching morts .
So I have been wallowing in Chambers new Dictionary of Slang; the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue and some Tudor and early Stuart “Rogues Literature” surfacing occasionally to cross check words in the OED or Brewer’s. It’s far too enjoyable to call research.
I’ve come to the unexceptional conclusion that at some stage in the history of English almost every common word has been press ganged from its standard usage to do service as a term for something completely different. In fact, in the wrong place and time, the most innocuous sounding phrase would probably be interpreted as obscene or as evidence of membership of some kind of illegal or secret society.
But while I enjoy slang dictionaries, I remain sceptical. Even the huge Chambers leaves out terms I grew up with. How is standard usage of a slang term established? How many people have to use it and for how long before it gets recorded?

Soon after I came to Australia I read an article in the travel section of a national newspaper which purported to be the results of the journalist’s interest in West Midlands slang. I thought I’d grown up speaking it fairly fluently, or at least playing rugby with people who were experts. So it came as some surprise to learn that in the west midlands a “shag” is a type of bread roll.

The young lady journalist told her readers that if they went into a bakery in the region and asked for a “hot buttered shag” they would be offered a warm bread roll with toasted cheese on top.

So here’s my dilemma about slang dictionaries. Where I grew up, in the west midlands, and where I went to uni, still in the west midlands, if you went into a bakery and asked for a hot buttered shag they would have assumed a) you were nuts, b) into some really weird kind of perversion or c) taking the mickey. But does that mean that nowhere in the wide west midlands this term wasn’t used? Does this mean that somewhere some poor guy was wondering why his girl friend had stopped talking to him after he’d innocently offered her a bread roll?

If you lived in Coventry you knew that people in Wolverhampton spoke a strange and mysterious language. Even the move to Birmingham was fraught with incomprehension. (ok, not so bad as being English and arriving in Australia and hearing the phrase “shag on a rock” or “look at that hunk of spunk over there”..but still enough to make you wary.)

I imagine two codgers in a pub, reluctantly accepting free drinks and earnestly answering the young lady Journalist’s questions. Everyone knows the English are serious unimaginative literal minded people (unlike the Irish) and so they can be trusted to tell the God’s honest. I can also imagine two said codgers pissing themselves when she left having told her to go ask for a hot buttered shag in the local bakers. Maybe things have changed. Maybe there is such a thing, (after all you can go into a shop in Qld and ask for a Gaytime) but in the world I grew up in I’d love to have been there to see the baker’s face, and his customers’, if she did….

Bright Star

Bright star

So instead of the usual grumbling, something positive.

I wasn’t going to go.
1) I don’t like films that claim to be about “historical characters’ . Usually the writers take liberties with the truth in the name of entertainment. It really doesn’t matter if you give Beowulf and African father, he’s fictional. But a film that pretends to be about about William Wallace, the real human being, might as well be about a character called Jock McJockstrap.
2) There's a trend to write biographies of the partners of famous people. Who'd remember Gilbert Imlay if he hadn't been involved with Mary Wollstonecraft? Isabel Burton was the subject of a huge biography which couldn't avoid the fact that if she hadn't married Sir Richard no one would have remembered her outside her family and friends. All the evidence suggests Fanny Brawne is only memorable because her boyfriend was one John Keats.
3) I’d read a review of Bright Star that discussed Campion’s career in terms of making films about strong women struggling with patriarchal oppression. There’s no way, given the evidence , you can interpret Fanny Brawne in those terms.

However, who wouldn’t want to meet the Keats of the letters, or the hero of Gitting’s biography? Or see the settings made real.

So orf I went.

And bloody good it is too. For once I don't have to worry about possible fall out in the class room. (No dotty, there were no Female actors in Shakespeare's time, yes, i know you saw a film with one in but it wasn't true....)

It looks beautiful. The script is good (Keats’s lines are often taken from his letters) and although after an hour I was wondering how it was going to end (Please god don’t let him make a miraculous recovery, please god do not let them go to bed) she pulls it off beautifully.
So she exonerates Fanny a little. Brown and Keats accuse of her flirting but you don’t see her doing this. She does catch the lighter side of Keats’s character; this was no brooding tortured Romantic parody but Junkets, the man who delighted in company and playing silly game. The acting is very good. From the two main leads all through the cast, especially the moppet who plays toots.
And if it makes people pick up the letters or the poems to find out more, it can only be good.

Friday, December 11, 2009

with all due respects your Honour

I’ve been reading “The Mad Woman in the Attic”. I feel guilty because it’s taken me so long to get round to reading it, and I’m impressed by the readings of the Brontes. (and a little embarrassed to have missed some of the things they point out.)

But the general sections are getting harder to read. It’s not that I doubt the truth of their argument, I’m just getting put off by the way they are making it.

The real problem seems to be their use of “women”. As if “women’ in 19th century England had the same experience regardless of race, rank and personality. When they write about women being encouraged to be passive, to adopt a role of almost willing invalidism, and how anorexia and agoraphobia were almost de rigueur, they seem to have forgotten that to be the pallid angel in the house you had to have robust servants to do all the hard work. They seem to have forgotten that the majority of the population (regardless of Gender) would quite happily have swapped the problems of economic survival for the conditions that allowed writers (male for female) to agonise about their role in the literary tradition.

While Anne Finch, countess, was writing sonnets (and fine sonnets they are too) about the problems of being a woman who wrote, men and women denied her education and her leisure were living a life one step up from slavery to keep her household running and allow her the time to worry about such things. Virginia Woolf had leisure to ponder the problems of having a room of ones own because people bought up in houses where the whole family lived in one room were running around doing the housework for one.

My other problem is that they buy into Bloom’s fantastic version of literary history and then use it as a touchstone. What they don’t so is show how the spectre of Milton, for example, which in the 19th century cast a long shadow over a certain type of poet, was different for men and women. They quote Woolf’s response at length, but I don’t see how that response is particularly “a woman’s”: it reads like an intelligent response to the complicated work of art that is Paradise Lost and there is nothing in it to gender that response. Present it clean, without the author’s name, and I defy you to identify the gender of the writer.

I suspect they don’t try to differentiate because since all women are the same, and would obviously share Woolf’s response, then all men must be the same and any male poet would simply acquiesce in Milton’s rank misogyny while girding up his loins to kill Milton’s ghost in the boxing ring of Bloom’s Freudian mishmash. Woolf’s contemporary, Robert Graves, who last time I checked was male, hated Milton. Personally.

Given the serious problems facing women in the 19th century: an invidious legal situation, lack of access to formal education, exclusion from careers and the vote, the fact that a small group of leisured ladies worried about their literary role doesn’t seem that important. And I’m not sure that the Brontes, or Emily Dickenson, are any more representative of their gender than Coleridge Robert Graves or Tiger Woods.

I don’t doubt their case your honour, and I know this was a brilliant pioneering work that's been argued over and developed in subsequent years, but with all due respects, I think they are calling the wrong witnesses and spoiling the argument by asking some wrong questions.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The truth about them Anglo-Saxons

This is from "Young Folks' History of England" published in 1873.
Its the final paragraph in the chapter about the Normans.

In the end, the coming of the Normans did the English much good,
by brightening them up and making them less dull and heavy; but
they did not like having a king and court who talked French, and
cared more for Normandy than for England.

The Book depository is offering over 11,000 titles as free ebooks. They download as small PDF files. Which I where I found this, as well as several 19th century deportment manuals I'd been looking for. Of which much more later.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

stupidity and the cliche generator

New Moon star Ashley Greene thinks vampire sex is 100 times better than human sex.
The 22-year-old actress plays vampire Alice Cullen in the hit movie series The Twilight Saga. Asked what vampire sex is like, she said: "Take the best sex you've ever had in your life and multiply is by 100, and that's vampire sex.

End of quotes.
Ok, so it was a stupid question. It would be like asking Harrison Ford what it was like to dine with Ewoks or Sean Connery to reveal what Robin Hood was really like. And if either actor had started talking as though either meeting had really happened the men in white coats would be on standby.
So let us assume that the young lady was talking in character, and/or not expecting to be taken seriously. There is also the possibility that this may be a quote from the book.
Irrespective of this how can something with no numerical value be 100 times less than a similar experience also with no numerical value? Even if there was such a thing as “vampire Sex’ (and the bad puns and ugly jokes queue up) what could it possibly mean to say it is one hundred times better than anything else? And why did a journalist think repeating such a dumb statement was a career move?
It’s about as sensible as some of the vomit inducing political statements being made today after far too many people hit the cliché generator and left it running. Spewing out endless tides of nothing.
Why isn’t there a prevention of cruelty to language movement?

Vampyr (1932)

Vampyr (1932)

Unlike Nosferatu, which tried hard to pretend it wasn’t based on Stoker’s book and failed because it obviously was, Vampyr claims to be based on Le Fanu’s “In a Glass Darkly”. The beautiful Criterion Collection DVD version even comes with a print copy of ‘Carmilla’. But even if Le Fanu’s descendants were as finickity as Joyce’s they’d be hard pushed to prove any breach of copyright.
Dreyser’s film ghosts the stories: an image here, a piece of plot. There’s a vampire, and she’s female (though old and ?blind?), and there’s a young female victim, but that’s about it. You could track other allusions. But even the obvious reference to the Dragon Volant, or the mysterious stranger in the bed room from …which story was that…. are not exclusive to those particular stories and all the allusions remain like occasional snatches of familiar music in an unfamiliar soundtrack.
The fact the story is not tied to any sources is an obvious advantage. There’s no primary text to provide easy answers to the obvious puzzles. So, a recognisable version of Carmilla this is not, although Laura’s habitual ”it appeared to be’ “it seemed” has been taken to the limit. A conventional horror story this is not and even the vampire element, which is explained by the old book, is muted.
Shadows move, some separate from their bodies, some return to them. Scene and time shift abruptly without causal linkage. Characterisation is missing. Narrative discontinuity starts to seem perfectly sensible. Images seem weighted with significance that is never explored or explained. Light becomes a character just as the old book does. In a fog bound, physically realistic landscape (Dreyser shot the whole film on location) which it would be impossible to map. All this and the editing and camera work create a beautiful film which explains very little. It’s what surrealist poetry could have been. A tribute to the time when film was still regarded as an experimental art form.
What we do get is the subjective experience of the inexplicable. If such things happened, and you were caught up in them,remembering them would, I suspect, feel a lot more like this than most modern “horror films”.