Origin Unknown

Posted in America, Clips, Language, Culture on February 5, 2016 by frankbures

LQ

From Lapham’s Quarterly:

Anatoly Liberman is a tall man with a slight stoop and an accent that is hard to place. The stoop comes from decades spent searching for the hidden history of words in one of the fifteen languages he can read. It may also be from the weight bearing down on his shoulders as he races the clock. At the age of seventy-nine he is trying to finish one of the greatest achievements in the annals of lexicography: a history, as complete as possible, of some the last words in the English language whose origins remain unknown.

They are simple words, common words, but words whose origins are a mystery: he, she, girl, pimp, ever, gawk, yet. We use these words every day, but Liberman has been working for thirty years to unearth their roots. His sharp mind, breadth of language, and sense of mission have kept him moving steadily toward that goal for the last half of his life. He is driven by the knowledge that if he were gone, no one would have the depth of linguistic knowledge, let alone the drive, to complete his work.

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Live Well, Die Fast

Posted in America, Books, Culture, Geography of Madness, Science on January 22, 2016 by frankbures

1215_CoverThe business of longevity is massive in America—land of perpetual youth. One of its most ardent boosters is Dan Buettner, who has created a minor industry around the so-called “Blue Zones,” where people are reported to live extra-long lives. Most of his advice qualifies as common sense: Eat plants, exercise, be part of a community. I don’t have any problem with most of this. In fact, I do most of it.

What I do have a problem with is the way the Blue Zones capitalizes our refusal to accept death as part of life. And even if we allow that some Blue Zones exist (though many have been debunked), the idea that you should try to replicate those in your own life strikes me as naive and sad and beside the point. The science of longevity is extremely complex. How long you live depends not only on what you eat, but on what you believe—something I write about in my new book, the Geography of Madness. For example, one study found that those with a more positive view of aging live an average of 7.5 years longer than those with a negative one. If that’s true, it means the very people most desperate to stave off the end (the natural market for the Blue Zones) would be the least likely to benefit from such advice.

In any case, if you care, you can read my short critique here.

On Frankenwords or The Love Song of David Shing

Posted in America, Books, Clips, Culture, Language, Writing on January 8, 2016 by frankbures

rotarian_jan16These days, we’re all becoming Humpty Dumpty:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean— neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – – that’s all.”

–Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871)

In The Rotarian this month, I have a column about the growing distance between words and their meanings, something that often fills me with despair. It’s not a new phenomenon: Orwell wrote about it in his 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language.” But it is, I fear, a problem that has ballooned with the Internet and the surplus of words in our lives. Today we live in a world where “shredding papers” is “document management,” where “failure” is “deferred success,” and where “surveillance” is  “data collection.” Maybe that’s just the invisible hand at work, but for what it’s worth, read on here.

A Few of my Favorite Books, 2015

Posted in Africa, America, Art, Books on December 23, 2015 by frankbures

KitchensAs usual, reports of the death of printed books have been greatly exaggerated. There were lots of incredible works published this year (on paper and otherwise), too many for anyone to read, let alone know about. I spent a good chunk of the year reading post-apocalyptic fiction, for reasons that will be clear in the near future. A few standouts from that bunch (not all published this year) are Ben Percy’s The Dead Lands, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Hugh Howey’s Wool, and Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, which sort of took my breath away. Back in the the present day, the best novel I read Two Hoursthis year was one that I never would have picked up, but for some trusted recommendations: J. Ryan Stradal’s Kitchens of the Great Midwest. It was brilliant and generous and moving in all the best ways. In the factual world, I loved Ed Caesar’s Two Hours, about Kenyan runners, the likes of which I have been wanting to see for a long time. In it he delves into not just the technical side of East Africa’s running boom, but also the rich, complicated, compelling stories behind the runners themselves.

On The Pitfalls of Self-Promotion

Posted in America, Art, Books, Clips, Culture, Uncategorized, Writing on December 17, 2015 by frankbures

jf16_coverI’m not sure that I should be considered any sort of “branding expert,” but I do have an essay in the current Poets & Writers on my ambivalence about self-promotion, and the struggle to balance promoting your work with promoting yourself. See the print edition if you can get it!

On Speaking

Posted in America, Clips, Culture on November 30, 2015 by frankbures

the-rotarian-coverFrom The Rotarian:

When I was in high school, public speaking was not considered glamorous. It was a required course relished only by people who also approached debate as a sport or who were thrilled by the prospect of student government.

The rest of us dutifully stood at the front of the class, reading rushed words off index cards, trying to picture our classmates in their underwear, but feeling naked instead. When it was over, we were glad we would never have to do that again.

Life, however, has a funny way of making you regret much of what you did – and didn’t do – in high school. Some years later, as a writer, I found myself giving readings and talks. I realized I would actually have to know how to stand up in front of (fully clothed) people and give a speech.

Being a decent writer doesn’t make you a decent speaker, and I quickly discovered that public speaking wasn’t something I could wing. As my high school teacher tried to tell us, it’s a skill that must be acquired.

I started looking around for help and found an organization formed by people in my shoes. We met weekly. Everybody stood up and spoke. We had to give a succession of speeches, which was hard at first. I gave a speech introducing myself, then went on to give others about things like Googling myself and the Dunning-Kruger effect. (Look it up.) People laughed and seemed to enjoy them, so I relaxed and gradually improved.

Read the rest here.

Rain the Color of Blue With a Little Red in It

Posted in Africa, Arts in Africa, Music, Video on November 22, 2015 by frankbures

The Tuareg remake of Purple Rain.  More here.

 

 

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