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AWADmail Issue 408

April 25, 2010

A Weekly Compendium of Feedback on the Words in A.Word.A.Day and Tidbits about Words and Language

From: Leo Trottier (leo.trottier utoronto.ca)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--vanity fair
Def: A place characterized by frivolity and ostentation.

Given that Bunyan was no doubt fully aware of the pun he was making, I don't think this term can be wholly separated from its components' meanings, can it?

Perhaps I'm entirely wrong -- the OED makes no mention of the pun, after all (though ["The name of that Town is Vanity; and at the town there is a Fair kept, called Vanity-Fair. It..beareth the name of Vanity-Fair, because the Town where 'tis kept is lighter than Vanity.] -- what does it mean for a Town to be "lighter"?)

However, the pun would have been that of interpreting "fair" as a post-positive adjective (which, though I'm not wholly sure, I believe would have been more common then). As in, "reasons unfathomable" or "god almighty". I was thus thinking Vanity as in vanity (which has aesthetic connotations), and fair as in light-skinned/pretty.

Hence, Vanity Fair might also allude to embracing vanity as opposed to rejecting it as would be the norm. I've always guessed that this was the joke that the eponymous magazine was making, and given that (according to the Wikipedia page on Bunyan) the book was known for its "quaint humor", this seems like it would be an apropos pun.

From: Steve Patterson (pattersons allentownsd.org)
Subject: Old Man of the Sea
Def: A tiresome burden, especially a person, difficult to free oneself from.

Outside of the Arabian tradition, the Greek mythology includes Proteus and Nereus, both titled old men of the sea, and shape-shifting gods, to boot. Heroes in search of secret information had to wrestle one of these gods, as the sea touches even the remotest shore, and the flow of rivers was always bringing more information to them.

From: Michelle Parsneau (michelleparsneau earthlink.net)
Subject: Quotation from Susan B. Anthony

I just want to thank you for stating that Ms. Anthony was a "suffragist" rather than a "suffragette". For several years I participated in a frontier town reenactment, as a suffragist debating the right to vote for women. As the reenactment was, for the most part, improvisational, I did a lot of research on the suffrage movement to get ideas, phrases, and slogans. I found that many who dismissed and belittled the cause used the term suffragette as a dismissive diminutive, and those who strove for women's rights often rejected the term, finding it offensive, preferring the stronger term, suffragist.

I do think it is fascinating that the term designed as an insult is the one that has stayed with us, and the other is not used much.

Also see this.
-Anu Garg

Email of the Week (Courtesy Uppityshirts -- say hello to your mother!)

From: Valerie Martinez (val-nicasio_mtz kastanet.org)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--pygmalionism
Def: 1. The state of being in love with an object of one's own making. 2. The condition of loving an inanimate object such as a statue or image.

How delightful! I have long known that My Fair Lady is based on the play Pygmalion but never once wondered what "pygmalion" meant. We love My Fair Lady, being linguists adds to the fun.

After reading A.Word.A.Day, I told our sons (ages 13 and 15) that My Fair Lady is based on a play titled Pygmalion. Their reaction was "What?!" Then I showed them what this word meant and they got it immediately. "Henry Higgins doesn't love Eliza, he loves the person that he created out of Eliza!" This is one vocabulary word that won't be forgotten.

From: Gowri (via Wordsmith Talk bulletin board)
Subject: sisyphean
Def: Endlessly laborious and fruitless.

Albert Camus wrote a limpid and moving essay The Myth of Sisyphus in which he compares man's eternal and, in his view, futile search for meaning to the task that the mythical king was compelled to perform for all eternity. He concludes by saying that life is itself the end: "One must imagine Sisyphus happy."

From: John Alzamora (catalun aol.com)
Subject: allusions

Some might say that literary allusions are inside jokes among the cognoscenti or, as Pound might have Cantoed, a way of separating the sheep from the goats. To me they are a secret garden, or a labyrinth to be explored without fear of encountering the Minotaur.

From: Michael Choi (mchl_choi yahoo.com)
Subject: This week's theme

This week's theme, allusions, reminds me of a 1991 episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" titled "Darmok" and guest-starring the late actor Paul Winfield. The plot of the episode revolves around Captain Jean-Luc Picard's action-packed encounter with a race of humanoids and their impenetrable language. It turns out that this language is entirely allusive (as well as elusive). As one character describes it, it's as if one said "Juliet on a balcony" to convey the idea of romantic love, which would be meaningless to someone who'd never heard of William Shakespeare. Captain Picard has to face a ferocious alien beast before making his communications breakthrough, but fortunately we on Earth have A.Word.A.Day to explain the meanings behind this week's allusive words!

From: Zach Shatz (prismind hotmail.com)
Subject: A storied life

You hit the nail on the head. We know the world by stories. Anything that isn't a story must become part of one for us to assimilate it, even if it's a story of chemistry or somesuch. Our own identities are but stories, and the words we use and treasure are each storied as well as stories. What is the mind but a library in full use? Thank you dearly for making all of our lives that much more of an adventure. What a page-turner!

From: Jennifer Jilks (jennifer.jilks sympatico.ca)
Subject: Fabulous work

I have religiously been reading AWAD. I am teaching a creative writing class at our local minimum security men's penitentiary in Muskoka, Ontario, Canada and I have one participant who loves words. I am going to be sharing a few words each session with them, and asking them to use them in a piece of writing. The thought just occurred to me! I often give them some words to use in such a fashion, and I am very excited about this! This is what I do twice monthly. (link)

Cut these words and they would bleed; they are vascular and alive; they walk and run. -Ralph Waldo Emerson, writer and philosopher (1803-1882)

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