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Thursday, September 22, 2016

From the People Who Brought Us Ancient Grains and Memories of Marrakech ...

Sadly, the tomatoes did look like they had been around for a long time.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Tuesday, August 25, 2015


We have always used this word in my family to denote that feeling of helpless aggression induced when confronted by cuteness overload. Just do a Google image search of "sea otter" and you will know what I mean.

I don't know if it is a family word—I see the Singlish Dictionary does not include it—yet it is used by both the Tan and Low sides of my family, and my cousin who has Penang connections pronounces it, with Hokkien intonation, gee-lum. I can't help but wonder if the codifiers of Singlish have missed something here.

My late father used to muse that the etymology of grum was actually garang, the Malay word meaning "fierce". I guess he was referring to that feeling of aggression I noted above, wherein one might, say, handle a kitten too roughly because one is overwhelmed by how adorable it is. The aforementioned Singlish Dictionary does not include this sense in its definition of garang, however, and, for what it's worth, my retired-lexicographer husband scoffs at the notion.

I see that grum is defined by the Free Dictionary as "morose", as though a blend of grim and glum. It is also the stage name of a Scottish electronic musician and the name of a well-known (to some) botnet that is responsible for sending out scads of pharmaceuticals-related spam. A coincidental convergence of forms!

My cousin (another one—I have thirty-four first cousins) who lives in Perth, Australia named her cat Grummy, in tribute to the way he made her feel when she first fell in love with him. Now that she has a daughter (who, it must be said, equally deserves the name), I wonder if this word may yet take root Down Under?

ISAS Book Award 2015

I just received some good news, which is that M.J. Toswell's The Anglo-Saxon Psalter (Brepols, 2014) won the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists' Book Award for 2015. I wrote the index, so am happy to bask in some reflected glory!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Rise and Rise of Heteronormativity

This word, of whose existence I was unaware until some weeks ago, now keeps appearing in the books I have to index. I remarked on this (not without some emotion) to my good friend Carol, who teaches history of English at the University of Toronto, and she sent me this graph, produced by the Google Books Ngram Viewer, of its frequency of occurrence over time in the corpus of books in English on that site:

As may be seen, heteronormativity charts a meteoric rise from about 1990 to the present. Indeed, it escaped inclusion in the 2nd edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, published in 1989, but from forming precisely zero percent of the corpus of English in the 1980s, it has now zoomed upwards to form 0.0000041349 percent of printed words in English today.

Probably invisible in this screenshot of the graph is a very flat bump that occurs—like a blister—in the 1940s, when heteronormativity apparently made its first appearances in the English language. From 1944 to 1950, according to the Ngram Viewer, the word accounted for 0.0000000103 percent of the English words captured in the Google Books corpus.

Intrigued, I tracked down an occurrence to a 1947 book, the novel In a Lonely Place, by Dorothy B. Hughes, which was adapted into a film starring Humphrey Bogart. However, and disappointingly, the only place where heteronormativity features in the online In a Lonely Place is in the 2003 afterword written by Lisa Maria Hogeland. The 1940s' flirtation with my word of the week turned out to be a mirage. I had pictured heteronormativity as some sort of unholy, post-atomic by-product of the war, lurking around like a virus in search of a suitable host until its grand, fin-de-siècle outbreak and worldwide spread.

What does it mean? According to Wikipedia (which has a whole page on the subject), heteronormativity refers to "the belief that people fall into distinct and complementary genders (man and woman) with natural roles in life." It was popularized by Michael Warner, who featured it in his article "Fear of a Queer Planet," which I guess we must call seminal.

Certainly, the complacent belief referred to is worthy of a name and worthy of struggle against. And I must admit I can't think of any more appealing, plain-English word that might stand in for it. But, element for element, it strikes me that heteronormativity might in fact mean the opposite: the belief that difference is natural.

As much as I depend on it for my livelihood, most academic writing will never strike me as elegant. But, for now, I'm happy to report that homonationalism (yes, it is out there! I have seen it!) returns no results at the Ngram Viewer.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

A Shaddock Is Not a Female Haddock

A few years ago, while sightseeing on the beautiful island of Barbados, we came upon the description of a grand banquet held by one of the island's early sugar barons, which featured among other things the luxury food item shaddock.

"What's a shaddock?" I asked. "A female haddock," one of my travelling companions helpfully supplied.

I laughed at the time, but while I knew she had answered facetiously, I couldn't shake the notion that a shaddock was some type of fish. After all, shad is a fish and so is haddock. By interpreting the second syllable as a k-diminutiva suffix (which I also mention here), mightn't a shaddock be in fact a shad in miniature?

I finally happened upon the answer last week, while reading the "On the Margin" column in the November 22, 1950 issue of The Straits Times. A reader in Jesselton (the old name for Kota Kinabalu in Sabah) had written in to ask what a "pumblenose" was, after reading this passage from Beeckman's 1718 "Voyage to Borneo":

The Country abounds with Pepper, the best Dragons-blood, Bezoar, most excellent Camphire, Pine Apples, Pumblenoses, Citrons, Oranges, Lemons, Water Melons, Musk Melons, Plantons, Bonano's [!], Coconuts, and with all sorts of Fruit ...
A "pumblenose", declared the columnist "Cecil Street", is a pomelo (or Citrus maxima). Then he adds:

In the West Indies, the pomelo is called the shaddock, after a sea-captain of that name who first introduced it into those islands from the East Indies.
This etymology is confirmed by the OED, which has this citation from 1707:

In Barbados the Shaddocks surpass those of Jamaica in goodness. The seed of this was first brought to Barbados by one Captain Shaddock, Commander of an East-India Ship, who touch'd at that Island in his Passage to England, and left the Seed there.
I could have sworn Captain Shaddock was a creation of the cartoonist Hergé, but I guess he was instead the man who lent his fishy-sounding name to a most delectably unfishy-tasting citrus fruit—thereby transcending mortality.

There is much to say about pumblenose, pampelmousse, shaddock and pomelo that must be left for another day. Meanwhile, I have to dash to my zumba class, which my curmudgeonly husband says is a class where zoomers rhumba 'til they're zombies.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Chay-bah! and Other Obsolescences

A friend's recent triumph—in locating a Malaysian restaurant in London that I'd recommended and having "the best chicken rice" of his life there—elicited from me the happy interjection "Chay-bah!"

I fell then to thinking of my late father, who said "Chay-bah!" or sometimes simply "Chay!" when something good happened that made him happy. At these moments, he would raise a loosely formed fist and shake it in the gentlest, mildest manner you could imagine.

For my dad, chay-bah wasn't for the big moments of pride in his life, as when my brother was accepted into medical school or when we learned of my good result in my university finals. It was for the little triumphs like winning a board game or proving he could still carry off a smash with a badminton racquet.

His was the generation that also said, with no self-consciousness whatsoever, gostan to mean "reverse (a car)". Gostan is, of course, one of those words seized upon by early observers of Malayan English and since written about extensively—originating in the nautical imperative "Go astern". I can still see him directing a three-point turn from the sidewalk (I mean, the pavement), winding his arm around at the elbow and shouting "Gostan! Gostan!" in a slightly desperate tone of voice.

Though the Singlish Dictionary lists gostan as current, it has certainly been many years since I heard anyone say it except as a lexical curiosity. Even my dad seemed to cease saying it in the last couple of decades of his life, as if aware the word had passed from widespread usage. Chay-bah, on the other hand, is marked with the dagger of obsolescence. Latterly, we resurrected it to celebrate my father's good haemoglobin test results, while he struggled with the blood disorder that would eventually steal his life.

Languages change. Words and phrases fall out of use as new ones come along. As a student, I was taught to view these processes with scientific dispassion. But when old words vanish along with the people we care about, their ghosts hang around to disorient us and catch at the heart.