Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Work on show

A view of one of the cases of work I am showing at London's Pride, at Valentines Mansion from Thursday 29th March till Sunday 1st April.

Why do we give animals names which reference other animals, especially ones which are vastly different?  In this case, marine invertebrates being given names which reference terrestrial vertebrates - apart from one, which references another mollusc, but one that lives on land. 

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

William Blake: a source for 'The Fly'?

I have been working on the British Library’s English Online project, researching for a hypertext contextualisation of English Literature between 1780 and 1900. Recently I have been working on William Blake, whose work has been challenging me since I was at school. Some recent work based on Michael Phillips’ admirable examination of Blake’s writing processes (William Blake, The Creation of the Songs, British Library, 2000) has fixed one poem in my mind. Here it is:

The Fly

Little Fly,
Thy summer’s play
My thoughtless hand
Has brushed away.

Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?

For I dance
And drink, and sing,
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.

If thought is life
And strength and breath
And the want
Of thought is death;

Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die.

For me this is about as good as it gets for the English language, and poetry, and much more besides. On a very basic level, every time I feel I have to kill a fly, and most times I see one, it comes into my mind. Nothing is there in the poem that doesn’t need to be there, and everything that needs to be there is there. As Michael Phillips writes, ‘Blake’s choice of language [is] as spare as anything written since the seventeenth century, apart, perhaps, from the Jubilate Agne of Christopher Smart.’ It was probably written after 1791, deduced from analysis of Blake’s handwriting. ‘Will Blake’, as he signed his name in some of his letters to his friend George Cumberland.

Following a reference to Blake’s engravings made in the previous decade I looked at Joseph Ritson’s Select Collection of English Songs (1782), for which Blake did eight engravings. The first section of the songs covers drinking songs, not what I would immediately associate with Blake (I also looked at a letter by Cumberland written in 1815, in which he mentions visiting the Blakes, drinking tea with them, and Mrs Blake uttering seditious comments). Song XIX goes as follows:

Busy, curious, thirsty Fly,
Drink with me, and drink as I;
Freely welcome to my cup,
Could’st thou sip, and sip it up.
Make the most of life you may,
Life is short, and wears away.

Both alike are mine and thine,
Hastening quick to their decline;
Thine’s a summer, mine no more,
Though repeated to threescore;
Threescore summers, when they’re gone,
Will appear as short as one.

It is marked “Made extempore by a Gentleman, occasion’d by a Fly drinking out of his Cup of Ale.”

Similar thoughts, occasioned by the visitation of a fly. Maybe the same fly landed on William Blake’s cup of tea eight years later? 

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Affectation, something affectated

Further to words that develop an added ‘-ate’, as in ‘commentate’ and ‘orientate’.

This morning on BBC Radio4 the playwright Alex Bulmer used the word ‘oriented’ and then corrected herself to say ‘orientated’, excusing herself by saying that the shorter word was Canadian usage. A contributor to this blog (Ms. Dig) raised the awful prospect of the word ‘registrate’, and ‘conversate' was brought to Twitter by Janet Byron Anderson on 12 Jan 2012: ‘Back-formed vb "conversate" (meaning converse) -- definitely "low" register. Not used by educated speakers.’ 

What ‘registrate’, 'orientate’, ‘commentate’, and probably ‘conversate’ share, in my mind, is an idea that in the user’s view the simpler form is too simple, deceptively simple. Anyone can ‘comment’ on something, but ‘commentating’ requires some setting up of systems and controls, qualifications and experience. ‘Commenting’ on a cricket match may take a few seconds; ‘commentating’ may take five days. ‘Orienting’ yourself maybe involves no more than knowing which way you are facing, while ‘orientating’ yourself implies a complex set of geographic and cultural and maybe personal relations with the world. ‘Strangling’ is very different from ‘strangulating’. By virtue of its being more complex, the ‘-ate’ form sounds more deliberate, more arranged, less spontaneous, and thus more official. The addition of ‘–ate’ in ‘conversate’ may be an attempt to sound more formal and educated.

Does it work? If someone near me on the Tube ‘perspirates’ am I more likely to sympathise and offer to call a doctor rather than discreetly moving to a distance? Am I more likely to talk about a lion ‘predating’, and a hyena ‘preying’? Clearly some of the ‘added –ate’ forms have been embraced, while some which are on their way in, even possibly ‘conversate’, are horribly jarring today, and part of the language tomorrow. But during that process ‘foundate’, ‘affirmate’, ‘limitate’, and ‘reservate’ fortunately still provoke spellcheck’s wiggly line, and thus can still be regarded as linguistic affectations (things which you affectate). 

Ultimately I wonder if this doesn’t come down to the familiar pattern whereby if you want to make something sound more formal and imply a structure behind it you add a bit more Latin to it; that is, you make it more Latinate. 

Monday, 12 March 2012

More Banerkness

Thanks to J Coates for comments on Banerk - see  Banerk , particularly for the fact that he has spotted a howler - using 'verb' where I should have used 'adjective'. Small consolation that these terms are so untaught that they are in the process of becoming jargon, specialised terms for those working within the field rather than common parlance.

But the case does flag up the current freedom regarding the way that words move across grammatical boundaries of use, which would in former times have had English teachers gnashing their teeth. 'To friend' someone, and 'very fun', are exciting or ugly and ungrammatical, depending on your point of view.  When feeling unsure of how I feel about these I revert to  pragmatism - if it works, it works. But have I got anything other than a gut feeling to know whether it works? And if so, my gut feeling is determined by my cultural capital, what I read now, what books there were in my home when I was a child, current and long-gone conversation round meal tables, what newspapers I choose, and so on, all delineated by Pierre Bourdieu long ago. Trying to ditch prejudices as regards 'good English' does maybe allow me to look at current changes in language in the same light as past imaginative literary usage, but it's not easy; it means ditching a part of what makes me me.  

If 'bad' English sticks in the throat, then sometimes good 'bad' English restores faith in the dynamism of the language.  I like 'kardash'; it's fun, and there's wit in the punning image of people rushing to get away from a ceremony.  In Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, Cleopatra's battle of verbal irony with Octavius is summed up in her 'He words me, girls, he words me, that I should not be noble to myself'. No question that the use of 'word' as a verb here works, and then some (not sure yet about how I feel about that last phrase - maybe raincheck it in a decade or so). 

'Raincheck' as a verb?  Why not? A rain check was originally a definite booking for a later date, but the open-endedness implied in 'check' has led to a change of meaning, at least in the UK in my experience, possibly because 'check' is used primarily as a verb rather than a noun.  Thus 'I'll take a rain-check on that' used to mean 'I'll definitely come back to that later', but is now used in the UK in the sense 'I'll see about that later referring to the circumstances pertaining since it's raining now and it might or might not be later on' - partial understanding of the original usage redifined by the legendary British weather. But definitely a case of one word being better than several (no main verb).

And just to point out again that while 'banerk' is a portmanteau word, strictly speaking 'portmanteau' is not. Watch the Marx Brothers film A Night in Casablanca to see a portmanteau in use. In fact, watch it anyway.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Embroidery for Nymans Unravelled

The first photographs of my work for the catalogue for Nymans Unravelled, taken by Sussie Ahlberg.  The show, opens on 5th May; the participating artists are Alec Stevens, Guy Holder, James Sutton, Matt Smith, Lauren Adams, Lucy Brown, David Cheeseman, Sally Freshwater, Steven  Follen, Caitlin Heffernan, Gavin Fry, and Julian Walker.