Monthly Archives: June 2018

Pronunciation tip: Dvořák

I’ve been listening to classical music on the radio a lot lately. A perennially popular composer – for good reason – is Antonín Dvořák. Because English speakers are the way we are, I’ve been hearing a certain amount of “duh-vor-jack” for his name, which is… nah. So, for those who are wondering about how best to say it, here you go: both the way Czechs say it and the way ordinary non-Czech-speaking English speakers can reasonably say it. Because there’s a sound in the Czech that is deliberately difficult!

izzat

Izzat is a word for reputation.

Sometimes your reputation precedes you: “Izzat who I think it is?” Sometimes you create your reputation with your presence: “Hey, who izzat?” And sometimes your reputation is subject to question: “Izzat so?”

This isn’t a word I’ve made up. It’s a real word, in circulation in English for a century and a half so far. The Oxford English Dictionary says it means “honour, reputation, credit, prestige”; Webster’s Third New International Dictionary gives two definitions, “personal dignity or respect honor” and “power to command admiration prestige.” And William Shakespeare says it is “an idle and most false imposition, oft got without merit and lost without deserving.”

Well, OK, that last quote was specifically about reputation, and it was words put in the mouth of the villain Iago from Othello. But Shakespeare liked to put uncomfortable home truths in the mouths of villains and clowns. And every izzat, whether it be “Izzat who I think it is?” (Webster’s first sense) or “Hey, who izzat?” (Webster’s second sense), is – or should be – subject to some “Izzat so?”

After all, we often get reputation by association. Perhaps we know the right people. Perhaps we come from the right place or the right family. Or perhaps we just look or sound the part – tall men tend to get much farther ahead in business and politics than shorter ones; people of any exclusive social set will judge others on the basis of their attire and their choice of vocabulary, grammar, and accent. A person who is near enough can often be pulled in and altered to fit.

Such happens, too, to the reputations and impressions of words. If a word sounds too much like an unpleasant word, it is likely to be avoided or at least altered in pronunciation (some may find this a niggardly harassment, but it undeniably affects usage more broadly than we think); if a word sounds similar to another more common one, there is likely to be some bleeding of sense and form (even though some may find such internecine interaction an outrage).

I won’t say that has happened with izzat. It did start as Arabic ‘izzah, meaning ‘glory’, but it became izzat in Urdu. Still, the crosstalk effect with “is that” is hard to miss (at least for those who like wordplay), even though its pronunciation is actually supposed to be like “is it,” not like a quick “is that.” On further reflection, one may even be tempted to say it means ‘the last word’ and associate it with izzard, a name for the last letter of our alphabet.

Well. I can try to steer it if I want, and if I’m the main press agent for this word for many people who have heard of it at all, I may even have some effect. But your reputation – and other people’s – is never entirely in your hands. Oscar Wilde wrote “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” But if you seek renown, you may, on gaining it, find yourself looking at clippings and quotes and the general evidence of your izzat – and the effects of your spending its credit – and asking yourself, “Izzat what you wanted?”

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Reading: languor, languid, languish

I’m audio-recording every one of my blog posts now… but just for subscribers at the $2 per month level. Would you rather listen to five minutes of lush words instead of just seeing them on the screen? Stop by patreon.com/sesquiotic and sign up at the Word Lush level. Over the course of each month, for the cost of a coffee, you get an hour’s worth of listening. Here’s a free sample.

languor, languid, languish

The long, languorous days of summer are here. Depending on your disposition – and your reserves – you may move at a lush, delicious languid pace, or you may languish in torpid inactivity. Lolling about in otiose inaction is a luxury for those who have the means to thrive in spite of it; for those without all-access passes to the pleasure boat, a lack of activity is the anguish of languishing. It all comes down to who is peeling the grapes for whom.

And to the languid sense-shifts of our language.

It starts with classical Latin languere, which the Oxford English Dictionary translates as “to be faint, feeble, to be unwell, sick, to be languid, drowsy, to droop, wilt, to be dim or faint, to be weak or feeble, to be idle or inert.” It may be related, way back, to lax and slack. In our language, it gave us languish, which meant to enter or exist in a state of weakness and ill health. It has, over the centuries, gained figurative senses, such as wasting away out of love and longing. It is now often used to refer to resting neglected; the Corpus of Contemporary American English tells us that words it is often seen with include left, let, while, jail, continue, children, allowed, foster, and prison. It is a word of long anguish.

With that verb languish also came the noun languor, a word so slothful it can’t even be bothered to get the to go after the where you expect it. Languor first – back in the 1300s – referred to “pining, longing, sorrow, grief,” as Oxford says. Three centuries later it had come to mean physical or mental weariness, tiredness, or lethargy. It persists in a sense of summery torpor, but it also connects to languorous, which is now “characterized by pleasurable relaxation,” to quote Oxford one more time. When we look at what words are near languor, we find such as delicious, summer, loose-limbed, dreamy, exquisite, and tropical. It has become an Eva Longoria of the language.

But then there is that other adjective, languid, which partakes of the idiom of the id. Although it first – when we gained it, in the 1500s – spoke of weakness, fatigue, and inertia, it soon enough shifted to a sense of laconic slowness, the sin of sloth (itself such a word of economy of effort that it dropped the from slowth). But by the 1700s, and increasingly in the 1800s, idleness and leisure ad libitum became supportable and sustainable enough to be desirable. And now, near languid, we see words such as long, lady, pace, hand, grace, slow, air, days, body, pose, summer, ease, movement, and voice.

But in times of inactivity we also fantasize about activity. Andrew Lang wrote this poem in the later 1800s:

As one that for a weary space has lain
Lull’d by the song of Circe and her wine
In gardens near the pale of Proserpine,
Where that Æean isle forgets the main,
And only the low lutes of love complain,
And only shadows of wan lovers pine—
As such an one were glad to know the brine
Salt on his lips, and the large air again,—
So gladly, from the songs of modern speech
Men turn, and see the stars, and feel the free
Shrill wind beyond the close of heavy flowers,
And through the music of the languid hours
They hear like Ocean on the western beach
The surge and thunder of the Odyssey.

A century earlier, William Blake wrote this stanza in “Song: My silks and fine array”:

My silks and fine array,
My smiles and languished air,
By love are driven away;
And mournful lean Despair
Brings me yew to deck my grave:
Such end true lovers have.

“Smiles and languished air.” There is a sun-bleached something about it, isn’t there? And really, that’s the heart of it. As delightful as languors may seem, as much as it may be fun to lie on the beach and sun ourselves, to drink wine and take water in wafting warmth, there is no great energy to it. At the first breath of coolth, the first free shrill wind, our vigour is reignited. Algernon Charles Swinburne captured it in “Dolores”:

Could you hurt me, sweet lips, though I hurt you?
Men touch them, and change in a trice
The lilies and languors of virtue
For the raptures and roses of vice;
Those lie where thy foot on the floor is,
These crown and caress thee and chain,
O splendid and sterile Dolores,
Our Lady of Pain.

Many a moment in hammock-hung days, on white sofas in shady verandahs and around the corner from patio lunch prosciutto and mimosas, and draped on lawn or beach, have taught us all that there may be vice in languour. But rapture? We’ll get to that… in a few months. Relax.

 

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Is text-speak replacing speech?

Every so often, some get-off-my-lawner launches another jeremiad about the demise of English and points the knobbly finger at that interweb text thing the youth do. Are we losing the ability to communicate in basic, decent English? Is this text-speak taking over from talk? Well… no (hell no) and yes (sorta). We’re not losing anything; we’re just adding another variety of English, which I’ve taken the liberty of calling live internet vernacular English. I explain in my latest article for the BBC:

Will we stop talking and just text?

Pronunciation tip: Riesling and Gewürztraminer

Summer is here, and the time is right for drinking white wines with German names. I’m not going to bother with Sylvaner or Müller-Thurgau because anyone who actually says those is usually close enough. But not everyone is sure how to say Riesling or Gewürztraminer. So I’ll give you the standard German way and the usual English way of pronouncing them.