Logophily: Memes and Macros

People [1] have occasionally [2] written lately [3] about memes — not Dawkins memes proper, but internet trope-jokes, most particularly image macros [4].

The gist of all this writing is more or less the gist of any of this type of writing: things are horrible now, memes are ruining things, kids today are terrible, all of these image macros are evidence that the current generation [5] is stupid and will ruin the world. Standard stuff.

The complaints fall into three categories: kids today ruin English by using image macros; kids today ruin comedy by using image macros; kids today don’t know what image macros are supposed to be.

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Logophily: Rednecks, or You Can't Tell a Cartoon

There’s a King of the Hill gag I’m particularly fond of. In the first season, in one of the first episodes, when the character Kahn is introduced, the white Texan characters ask if he’s Chinese or Japanese. He’s Laotian [1]. The other characters’ casual and ignorant [2] (if affable, oddly) racism annoys him. The white guys decide he’s Japanese, which will mean trouble when one guy’s father, a WWII vet, shows up.

When the veteran, Cotton, finally appears, the other characters tell him that Kahn is Japanese. Cotton looks him up and down, and says, “Nope. He’s Laotian. Ain’t you, Mr. Kahn?”

Kahn, worried, mugs at the camera [3].

I love the scene because it’s a terse, profound, ambiguous commentary on the nature of racism [4].

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Dreams: "Creative writing instructors hate that shit."

What shouldn’t you write about [1]?

I’ve most often heard about this topic in the context of creative writing class syllabi [2]. My favorite rule comes from a buddy’s class: “No losing-your-virginity stories. They all end the same way” [3].

Almost all of the teachers outlawed genre fiction. I see the point, I suppose. . . their claim was that genre fiction relies on certain conventions. Straight fiction [4] does too, of course, but those conventions are the ones covered in an introductory creative writing class [5].

After a year or two of teaching creative writing classes [6], I started telling students to avoid writing surprise endings. The trick works only once per reader. More to the point, students would typically end up telegraphing [7] the ending via accidental slip, or worse, they’d spend so much time and energy not telegraphing the ending that their prose would get really awkward, and then they’d telegraph the ending anyway, and after all of that, the surprise would be really shitty [8]. Continue reading

Logophily: 13 Ways of Not Looking at a Blackbird

I spent a good hour [1] the other day [2] firmly establishing [3] that I have no idea what a crow looks like.

I can pick a crow out of a lineup [4]. I’ve written about corvids. I’ve sculpted them. But I tried to draw one (in advance of sculpting another one), and I didn’t have a reference on hand. I could not draw something that I could recognize as a crow. An owl, sure. A turkey vulture [5], even. But my sketches of those birds relied on shorthand and gimmickry. A crow requires finesse and savoir-faire and esprit d’escalier [6].

More important than the time spent drawing and writing about crows was the time I’ve spent watching crows. It was largely unmemorable time, but I spent around an hour one morning watching a bunch of them harass a parent [7] hawk while said parent hawk watched an adolescent hawk try to hunt squirrels [8]. (I was supposed to be at work, lifting heavy objects.)

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Names: Beer, Food, Literature “I don’t particularly give a damn about that sort of contradiction”

Two weeks ago, I talked about beer names. This week, I’ll talk about beer names [1]. Also food names and literature names. But first, names:

Names are supposed to let us know what we’re talking about, in one sense or another. I claimed [2] a couple of weeks ago that disputes seem to hinge on four qualities: adequacy of names, accuracy of names, origin of names, and intent of names.

Let’s talk about black IPAs. Just trying to get to the argument I want to talk about is going to take some parsing: a pale ale is an ale brewed from pale malt. An India pale ale was (historically) that sort of beer, but high in alcohol and heavily hopped, bound for British colonial India. An American IPA is sort of that sort of beer, but not produced for export to India, typically [3].

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Names: Beer, Food, Literature — "There's not a better current term, dammit"

I’m going to talk about names: beer names, food names, genre names. I’m going to talk about names, and I’m not going to mention that quote you’re thinking of right now [1]. But I will talk about beer, food, and literature.

What are names supposed to do? They’re supposed to let us know what we’re talking about, in a broad sense [2]. They’re arbitrary, as is any other word, and as with other words, names change with language and dialect and situation (though probably more slowly). People are more likely to have an emotional investment in a name than in a non-name word. . . names come to represent (rather than just indicating) a place or person or concept. Or drink. Sometimes, people get cranky about names. In most cases, people don’t seem to object to established names, but controversy sometimes arises with new or changed names [3]. There are four broad categories into which those controversies fall: adequacy of names, accuracy of names, origin of names, and intent of names. Does the name do what it needs to do? Is it appropriate? Where’s it come from? Why is it?

(Here are my biases: I find names, their etymologies and histories and meanings, fascinating [4], but I find names themselves difficult to remember, unless I’ve known someone or something for a while.)

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Lots of words sound alike (1).

Often, this sort of thing is coincidence: a language uses only so many sounds, and there’s bound to be some overlap between and among them (2).  Lots of similar-sounding words aren’t related.  A chaise lounge doesn’t have anything to do with either chasing or lounging (3).  Niggardly might be vaguely related to gnaw, but is definitely not at all related to the racial slur, though the similar sound means it is not a good word to use these days (which is fine, as there is no poverty of synonyms) (4).

But I want to talk about words that look alike and/or sound alike and which are related.

Grass might be the easiest word in which to see this sort of relationship.  Grass is what grows.  It’s what’s green.  Our linguistic and cultural ancestors saw this stuff growing, green, and decided to name it something similar to those words.  Or they named those other words after grass.  Or it happened in some other order, or all at once.  The important thing is this part: the three words sound similar because they’re related, and because they’re related, they share meaning, in some sense.  What’s more, we seem to have some of the same connotations as those precursors did for each of the three words, since we’ve taken grass with us (5). Continue reading