Category Archives: vernacular

Polyglot’s Lexicon: a Rabbit Hole

Word books are often curious, in one or another of the OED’s senses:

5 c. Devoting attention to occult art. Obsolete.
1549 N. Udall et al. tr. Erasmus Eph. in Paraphr. New Test. Argt. That Citie was full of Curiouse menne, and suche as were geuen to magicall artes.
1578 T. Tymme tr. J. Calvin Comm. Genesis 35 Certaine courious persons abuse this place to colour their vaine prognostications.
1606 Bp. J. Hall Heauen vpon Earth 191 Curious men, that consult with starres, and spirits for their destinies.

15. Calling forth feelings of interest; interesting, noteworthy. Obsolete or archaic.
1682 Bp. G. Burnet Hist. Rights Princes (new ed.) iv. 135 The curiousest Remains of former Ages that are extant.
1759 J. Reynolds Idler 29 Sept. 305 It is curious to observe, that [etc].
1793 J. Smeaton Narr. Edystone Lighthouse (ed. 2) §56 [It] would have been not only curious, but useful, had it been handed down to us.
1816 M. Keating Trav. (1817) II. 80 It would be very curious to be able to ascertain where and how the scaffolding was obtained for such a work.

16 a. Deserving or exciting attention on account of its novelty or peculiarity; exciting curiosity; somewhat surprising, strange, singular, odd; queer. (The ordinary current objective sense.)
1715 J. Richardson Ess. Theory of Painting 100 This is very Particular, and Curious.
1719 J. Richardson Sci. Connoisseur 204 What is Rare, and Curious without any Other consideration we Naturally take Pleasure in.
1769 E. Burke Observ. Late State Nation 52 A most curious reason truly!
1807 G. Crabbe Parish Reg. iii, in Poems 115 No curious Shell, rare Plant or brilliant Spar, Intic’d our Traveller.
1868 C. W. Dilke Greater Brit. II. iv. 163 Seated in the piazza..I had before me a curious scene.
1888 J. Bryce Amer. Commonw. III. xc. 251 I give here a few of the more novel or curious provisions of the Constitution of California of 1789.

One from the shelves is all-of-the-above: Polyglot’s Lexicon 1943-1966, ascribed to Kenneth Versand, with a Preface by Kenneth Schlossberg (1973) (“[Portions] originally compiled by the Research Committee on New Words of the American Dialect Society and by G. & C. Merriam Company … [and] published annually from 1943 through 1966 in the Britannica book of the year.”).

This purports to be a presentation of “new words, new meanings, extended meanings of old words, or combinations of old words”, arrayed by year, by Science, by Politics, by Grammar (nouns, verbs, adjectives) and so on. About 2/3 of the pages are line-printer output, indicating that this was one of those early uses of mainframe computers to deal with text (which takes me back to the days of Phil Stone’s General Inquirer Project at Harvard, “a computer-assisted approach for content analyses of textual data”). The original input material would have been on punch cards (lots of punch cards), and the computer’s task was to sort the fields of the cards and output ordered lists. Here are a few page images to ponder:


And what’s the use of such a compendium? When and how is it useful to discover that “white sidewall haircut” (‘A haircut in which the hair is clipped short on the sides’) appeared in the Zeitgeist in 1957? Or is it just a curiosity? The Research Committee on New Words of the American Dialect Society sounds a bit unlikely, but really did exist. But how did Polyglot’s Lexicon come to be? Who was “Kenneth Versand”? (I discover that someone of that name ran a STOP sign in California [“Rolling stops (or so-called ‘California stops’) are not permissible under VC 22450]”) It seems quite likely that “Kenneth Versand” is a nom de guerre of Edwin Schlossberg, and he is (since 1986) the spouse of (wait for it…) Caroline Kennedy. YCMTSU. In 1973 (when Polyglot’s Lexicon first appeared) Schlossberg was 27 years old, with BA and MA degrees from Columbia, on his way to becoming an “interactive designer” and Founder of ESI Design (see a summary profile; and see also a New York Times article from 1986). And then have a boo at his 1967-68 piece Among the Words, from Wordswordswords. In these contexts, his Preface to Polyglot’s Lexicon is almost comprehensible, considered as word art:



…but the Introduction, ascribed to Kenneth Versand, defies efforts to parse:



So we’re pretty far down the rabbit hole here, and who knew, when I pulled the book off the shelf to explore for this post, that such sport was to be found? Others have trod this path:

The preface is written by Edwin Schlossberg, and I wonder if he is really the author as well. ‘Versand’ is a German word for ‘ship, dispatch’ and not really a name. This fits in with Edwin Schlossberg’s projects in the 1960s when he was friends with Jasper Johns and Rauschenberg and John Cage and worked for R. Buckminster Fuller. Since he is a very famous and very private person (married to Caroline Kennedy) I think it would probably be pretty difficult to contact him to ask about the book. (https://syntopia.wordpress.com/polyglots-lexicon-an-introduction/)

Peri-urban domesticity in infrared

We chanced to spend the night in a motel in Vaudreuil-Dorion, at the confluence of the St. Lawrence and Ottawa rivers, a half-hour commute to downtown Montréal.


St Lawrence1

Along the rivers are houses that enjoy docks on the water, and that give full scope to Quebecois architectural styles. Consider this magnificent faux-château Trianon, and imagine the pride of its owners:

StLawrence11

StLawrence10

StLawrence9

StLawrence8


This house’s dock is middling-modest:

StLawrence4

And other nearby neighbo[u]rs express themselves variously:


StLawrence3

StLawrence5

StLawrence2

StLawrence6

Another new project: Abandoned Ancestors

staring

Over the years I have collected lots of pictures of unknown folks, the most coherent subset of which is arrayed in Nova Scotia Faces and also configured as a book, Bluenose Physiognomy. The images that have no direct relation to Nova Scotia need their own site, so that I can begin the process of organizing them into a book. The springboard is a separate suite of web pages, which I expect will sprawl and interdigitate in the by-now-familiar mode. The beginnings are available at Abandoned Ancestors. Stop by for a look.

on the Harmless Drudge account

another passage from Jonathon Green’s Odd Job Man

The slang lexicographer is by very nature a voyeur. The lexis undoubtedly leans toward pimping and prostitution, crime and imprisonment, violence and cruelty, drugged and drunken debauches, but the lexicographer is neither whore nor thief, thug nor prisoner, addict nor drunkard. Or not professionally. They are linguistic reporters, except that unlike the tabloids’ traditional formula they make no excuses and they do not leave. The job is to collect knowledge, to explicate it, and to disseminate the information that emerges. As I say, a voyeur, but ideally an informed one. (pg 38)

Green’s Dictionary of Slang

A week or two ago I saw the announcement for Green’s Dictionary of Slang in its online version, and almost bit (at about $60/year). Intrigued, I looked on Amazon and (1) found that the 3-volume print version could be had for a bit less than $600 via Prime, and in used form for around $300; and (2) that Jonathon Green’s Odd Job Man: Some Confessions of a Slang Lexicographer (2014) was about $4, plus shipping. I ordered the latter, and started reading it when it arrived. Fantastic so far, and I’m only 20-odd pages in. His first substantive chapter (‘Beginning’) is a fascinating and utterly unique take on autobiography, raggedy bits of wry memory:

This is in no way a conventional memoir, but some things must be said. Or so it seems to me, whose working life is so committed to searching the past for origins and roots. It is a beginning that, without the memories that those from more settled lineages have on tap, has always seemed abrupt. Perhaps, like newly arrived immigrants looking forward to their future and rushing to move beyond the past, the young have no interest in asking questions about ‘before’? Perhaps that was merely me? I failed to ask and remain in ignorance. And since the past was quite literally another country, and that country no longer exists remotely as it was, I am not going to find out. I have been trying to make up for it, by proxy, ever since. (pg 15)

A quick calculation tells me that $60/year is not all that much more than $1 a week, cheap at twice the price for a subscription. So I bit. And it looks like a real winner, now that I’ve browsed a bit and tried out the various features.

Townscape in Göynük

We spent a few hours in Göynük, a small town that preserves Ottoman architecture and is built on the steep hillsides of a river valley.

Göynük hillside

Göynük hillside

Göynük architectural details

Göynük architectural details

Göynük architectural details

Many of the houses can only be reached by foot, via precipitous pathways that must be especially challenging in winter.

up and down in Göynük up and down in Göynük up and down in Göynük

Most houses have gardens, even if they’re just some soil in an empty tin or yogurt pail:

Göynük gardens Göynük gardens

Göynük gardens

Göynük architectural details


and some are more elaborate:
Göynük gardens

Göynük gardens Göynük gardens

It’s possible to see construction details in houses that await renovation


Göynük details

Hugh10wall

Göynük details

…but eventually entropy manifests:
Göynük details

There’s lots more to be said, of course, and quite a few more Göynük images, but I think I’ll get this one launched…

in the new year

I’d like to think that I’ll use this medium more, and more creatively. We’ll see how that works itself out in the light of various realities. The vernacular architecture project is the main arrow in the quiver at the moment, and here’s a recent contribution:

keeper's house at Marshall Point

vernacular architecture of a sort

David Malki captures an essence that I should have thought of myself (given that I’m thinking about how people construct the spaces they live in –and given that we now have a camera that can capture stuff in very low light). Not that there’s so very much Xmas decorating of this sort in the Midcoast, but I ought to collect some examples of what there is.


(he says permission to embed is granted)