How words get into the Oxford English Dictionary

I have seen the word "linguaphile" (meaning word lover or language lover) on Dictionary.com and the Free Dictionary, but it's not there in the Oxford English Dictionary. It no longer tries to be comprehensive. "The language is expanding so fast this may be an impossible mission," said Edmund Weiner, deputy chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Mark Abley recalls their conversation in his book, The Prodigal Tongue: Dispatches from the Future of English, where he also writes about Singlish and other variants of the English language, as I mentioned here.

"The Internet poses problems," said Weiner. "We tend to avoid citing the Web unless we feel we really have to. What we've tended to cite are newsgroups and discussion groups – they guarantee to archive them for a long time. We've occasionally taken quotations from websites. But we don't like doing that."

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Amit Chaudhuri, The Immortals

Amit-Chaudhuri It's been a long time coming. Except that Amit Chaudhuri wouldn't have used those words sung by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

The gifted Indian writer,who teaches contemporary literature at the University of East Anglia, prefers Indian classical music.

An accomplished singer himself, he pays homage to the music in The Immortals.

Now don't  let that turn you off a wonderful novel.

Even though I know nothing about Indian classical music, I was drawn irresistibly into the story.

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India many nations, not 1 nation: Lee Kuan Yew

Lky_on_charlie_rose What will India say to this? Singapore's Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew has said what the Kashmiri insurgents and other separatists in northeastern India have maintained all along.

India is not one nation, he said. "It's many nations."

"It has 320 different languages and 32 official languages," he said on the Charlie Rose show.

Can Singapore then be regarded as one nation? It, too, is a multiracial country with four official languages — Chinese, Malay, Tamil and English.

But there is one difference that gives Singapore perhaps a better claim to be a nation — almost everybody understands English.

India, on the contrary, as MM Lee said, has "320 different languages and 32 official languages.

"So no prime minister in Delhi can at any one time speak in a language and be understand throughout the country. You can do that in Beijing."

Ah, that was how he wandered into a political minefield.

Charlie Rose wanted his opinion on China and India.

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Safire goes out

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I loved William Safire — on language. He wrote about the English language with the authority of a pundit.

He was not as witty and amusing as Fowler; he did not have that lightness of touch.

But he was awesome in his encyclopaedic knowledge of language and grammar.

He reminded me of another famous American journalist, HL Mencken. One was as feisty and erudite as the other.

In Singapore, he will be remembered for his run-ins with the government. He criticized Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and the judiciary in this 1995 New York Times article. But later when they met at Davos in 1999, the interview ended with Safire saying,"Well, I enjoyed it. I hope you did, too", and Lee Kuan Yew laughing: "You are not a silly man, and I don't give you silly answers."

What I enjoyed, however, were Safire's New York Times columns on language.

What a coincidence that he wrote a column on "channelling" only three weeks before his death yesterday.

He was 79 and suffering from cancer. (The Nixon speechwriter and columnist remembered by his colleagues at the New York Times.)

No one can channel him, not the way he riffed off Hillary Clinton's ticking off a Congolese student who asked her what her husband thought, "I'm not going to be channelling my husband."

Spirits, mediums, Ouija boards, all found their way into that column — and poetry too.

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Updike, the most sensuous writer in English

The most sensuous writer in the English language is dead. No one wrote more sensuous prose than John Updike. He carried his lyricism into his 70s. He was 76 when he died yesterday. The cause was lung cancer, according to his publisher, Alfred A Knopf.

John_updike_telegraph

He was – for his style and views perhaps – overlooked for the Nobel Prize. But he did bestow it upon one of his fictional characters, Henry Bech, the womanizing, egotistical Jewish novelist who collected the literature prize in 1999, recalls the Associated Press. It adds:

His literary home was the American suburb. Born in 1932, Updike spoke for millions of Depression-era readers raised by "penny-pinching parents," united by "the patriotic cohesion of World War II" and blessed by a "disproportionate share of the world's resources," the postwar, suburban boom of "idealistic careers and early marriages."

He captured, and sometimes embodied, a generation's confusion over the civil rights and women's movements, and opposition to the Vietnam War. Updike was called a misogynist, a racist and an apologist for the establishment. On purely literary grounds, he was attacked by Norman Mailer as the kind of author appreciated by readers who knew nothing about writing.

But more often he was praised for his flowing, poetic writing style.

Updike is as famous for his graphic approach to sex as his elegantly crafted dissections of the human condition, says The Telegraph.

The Wall Street Journal writes:

Mr. Updike, who lived in Beverly Farms, Massachusetts., chronicled all of America's many anxieties about sex, work, and death. Perhaps his best-known works are the four "Rabbit" novels that feature Harry "Rabbit Angstrom," a middle-class American who struggled to find his place in society.

The author was awarded the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for the third novel in the series, "Rabbit is Rich," and the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for the fourth, "Rabbit at Rest."

Less flashy than Tom Wolfe, Mr. Updike's nuanced, supple prose caused many to regard him as the most talented wordsmith of his generation.

Obama supporter

Whatever his earlier views, he died an admirer of President Barack Obama. 

His most celebrated character, Rabbit Angstrom, was a Humphrey Democrat who became a Reagan Democrat. What would Rabbit make of the present election, he was asked in a New York Times video interview in October 2008. Updike replied:

“I am so much for Obama it would be hard for me to cook up a character who was for McCain. Rabbit would see, I think, the good of McCain… But luckily I am not writing about Rabbit any more.”

His last novel was The Widows of Eastwick, published late last year as a sequel to the successful The Witches of Eastwick.

He was quite perplexed to learn that both Obama and McCain included his books among their favourites, says the Guardian.

The New Yorker website features his last story to appear in the magazine, The Full Glass, published in May 2008.

The Atlantic magazine also showcases his stories, poems and essays which appeared in it.

Master of sentence, professor of desire

Troy Patterson writes in Slate:

Updike's most enduring legacy exists at the level of the sentence. Updike is, line for line, without peer, the finest American prose stylist of the postwar era. The precision is painterly in the way of photorealism, except when it's cinematic. Martin Amis, Updike's only rival as a post-Nabokov virtuoso, wrote that "having read him once, you admit to yourself, almost with a sigh, that you will have to read everything he writes."

It also must be said that, on the subject of sex, Updike could be the worst writer his publisher Knopf has ever known. Last month, Updike justly earned a lifetime-achievement prize in the Literary Review's Bad Sex in Fiction Awards. He clinched it with a passage in the new Widows of Eastwick that includes — avert your eyes, children — the following sentence: "Her face gleamed with his jism in the spotty light of the motel room, there on the far end of East Beach, within sound of the sea."

This is a very rare kind of dreck, the sort that can be secreted only by a brilliant professor of desire.

Updike's burden

The Guardian writes:

Undeniably white, heterosexual and a Protestant, during his lifetime Updike carried the burden of being a writer who was not black, not female, not gay, not Jewish – decidedly not multicultural. He had a gift for being on the "wrong" side of issues about which there was a liberal consensus. Updike supported the American intervention in Vietnam, and doubted the wisdom of government support for the arts. He wrote with passionate grace about the love of women, but found even elegant depictions of homosexuality not to his taste. Gay writers queued up to express their annoyance. With so much about him of the upper class Wasp, the reality of Updike's modest origins was forgotten.

He was born in Shillington, a small town in eastern Pennsylvania near the larger city of Reading. Updike's father Wesley, after periods of unemployment in the 1930s, found work as a poorly paid maths teacher in the local junior high school. Updike's mother, Linda Hoyer, worked as a saleswoman in a local store. Linda had a masters' degree in English from Cornell, and wanted to be a writer. (She later published two collections of stories, Enchantment, 1971, and The Predator, 1990.) When asked in later years about her son's great fame, she coolly remarked: "I'd rather it had been me."

'I'm a vanished man'

Updike achieved fame and celebrity when writers were idolized but now they play a less conspicuous role in our culture, writes Joel Achenbach  in the Washington Post:

Updike knew better than anyone that things had changed. Or at least, it had changed for him, as he told The Post's David Streitfeld back in 1998:

"I go to a college to speak and am treated like a little king, get applauded at the end — you'd be applauded no matter what you did up there. You get a lot o
f love that way, people line up with the used paperbacks to be signed. But you go into an airport bookstore on the way back and there's no Updike there. There's no Updike at all. I'm a vanished man, a nonentity as far as mass readership goes. I didn't used to always be."

Swinging Couples, Rabbit and Bech

The Telegraph says:

Updike became famous – and infamous – with his fourth novel, Couples, a sexually-explicit tale of New England suburbia in which jaded thirtysomethings stave off marital boredom by drinking, "frugging", coupling and uncoupling in an account which captured the mood of souring Sixties optimism. Published in 1968, it was to the ageing trendies of the era what Salinger's Catcher in the Rye was to its teenagers.

In his two series of novels – the "Bech" and the "Rabbit" books – he created two engagingly flawed heroes, versions of himself which somehow seemed to symbolise the American everyman: Bech, a hairy, self-scrutinising American-Jewish writer, and Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, a former basketball champion turned second-hand car dealer trapped in a tedious marriage from which he seeks refuge in extra-marital affairs.

Updike gave his own opinion of Rabbit in an interview with the Telegraph last year:

In Rabbit, Run Harry is not somebody to emulate, although in later novels I think he becomes more middle-class and loveable. My idea in Rabbit, Run is that if everybody follows their dream there'd be a lot of damage – damaged children and spouses, wrecked cars, who knows what else.

'But you have these inner imperatives and the sense of yourself as the centre of the universe; after all, you are you, and you don't want to botch the assignment. So there is inevitably a conflict between selfishness and niceness. Philip Roth was always writing about people who want to be nice, but then they can't quite be nice because they have these terrible sexual urges.'

"Wasted" beauty?

The New York Times considers his place in the literary pantheon:

The kaleidoscopically gifted writer whose quartet of Rabbit Angstrom novels highlighted so vast and protean a body of fiction, verse, essays and criticism as to earn him comparisons with Henry James and Edmund Wilson among American men of letters.

Where James and Wilson focused largely on elite Americans in a European context, Mr. Updike wrote of ordinary citizens in small-town and urban settings.

“My subject is the American Protestant small town middle class,” Mr. Updike told Jane Howard in a 1966 interview for Life magazine. “I like middles,” he continued. “It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules.”

Mr. Updike sought the clash of extremes in everyday dramas of marriage, sex and divorce. The only wealth he bestowed on his subjects lay in the richness of his descriptive language, the detailed fineness of which won him comparisons with painters like Vermeer and Andrew Wyeth.

This detail was often so rich that it inspired two schools of thought on Mr. Updike’s fiction — those who responded to his descriptive prose as to a kind of poetry, a sensuous engagement with the world, and those who argued that he wasted beautiful language on nothing.

The Times possibly sums him up best:

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David Mamet on poetry, music and free speech

David_mamet_bbc_alistair_cooke
“Someone said that TS Eliot’s The Love Song of J Alred Prufrock is not unlike a rap song. They miss the point. It is a rap song. It’s just not a very good one,” says playwright and film director David Mamet, quoting from TS Eliot’s poem:

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?

Mamet says: “Our great American poets are not Longfellow and Robert Frost, our great American poets are Hank Williams and Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly), not our literati but our songwriters.”

Music and poetry lovers will enjoy listening to David Mamet giving the Alistair Cooke Memorial Lecture at Santa Monica on the BBC World Service. Longtime BBC listeners will remember the late Alistair Cooke, who broadcast his famous Letters from America on the BBC.

Fittingly, Mamet talks about language and culture, exploring poetry and American popular music.

And he ends by defending freedom of expression.

This is not just a speech but an essay which can be compared with Orwell’s writings on language and politics and culture.

Unfortunately, the BBC does not provide a transcript of the speech. But please click on the link and listen to the audio.

“Language, it seems to me, always has only two uses,” says Mamet, “poetry, which is an attempt to understand, and obfuscation.”

“A play is only a long, carefully structured poem,” he adds.

The magnificence of the American language like that of the Hebrew and the Bible is that it is punchy and to the point, he says.

“The chain gang chants, the jailhouse roasts, the slave songs and the blues… make up the majority of what is known around the world as the American idiom.”

“The great American writers have not been intellectuals,”  he says, “the people who shaped the language were the songwriters… They write because they got the blues.”

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A handy guide against howlers

Lapsing_into_a_comma
What The Straits Times needs is a language guide like Bill Walsh. Singapore’s main newspaper is prone to the kind of howlers Walsh is paid to prevent.

Walsh is the Washington Post’s copy desk chief for national news. He has to edit the news, correct mistakes, trim the fat and polish the copy. He enjoys playing the language cop. Going beyond the call of duty of making the Post shine, he blogs about language and has written books on grammar and style. Lapsing into a Comma contains useful tips which could help prevent boo-boos like these. All the examples are taken from the first three pages of yesterday’s Straits Times.

  • Armed with their resumes, their questions flew thick and fast at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting in Boston last month, where Singapore was making its debut. (From the front-page story: Singapore on radar of young scientists)
  • Before Boston, Mr Lim was in Pennsylvania, where he scored another coup. (From the same story.)
  • The country’s scientific output increased by 72 percent from 2000 to last year, according to Wiley-Blackwell, a leading publisher of scientific, technical and medical journal. (From the same story.)
  • The Education Ministry says there are more university places, relative to the size of the cohort, this year than any previous year. (From the page 2 blurb: No squeeze on university places.)
  • Controversial International Trade Minister Rafidah Aziz was the most notable absence from the new Malaysian Cabinet unveiled yesterday by Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, who sought to walk the line between reform and strengthening his position in Umno. (From the page three story: KL Cabinet pared down; some fresh faces.)
  • He also roped in Umno warlords who lack popular support but will be able to help consolidate his position in the Cabinet. (From the same story.)

Even if you see no need to explain what’s wrong with sentences like these, you may still enjoy reading Walsh. He covers a lot of ground. Lapsing into a Comma is a concise, practical, no-nonsense guide useful for bloggers and newspaper writers. But habits are hard to break. If I have broken any of his injunctions here, put it down to the old adage: You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.