Reading Catullus

With the extra time to read on my hands these days, I’ve been dipping again into the poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus, Roman poet around the time of Julius Caesar. I’ve written in the past about reading Horace, a somewhat later Roman poet whom I greatly admire. I like to pick up a translation of Horace’s Odes or Epodes and read a few lines, maybe a whole poem, every now and then. Horace can be quite insightful and inspirational. Not so much Catullus for me. He’s entertaining in so many different ways. If Horace is a letter to the editor or an op-ed opinion, then Catullus is, for the most part, the editorial cartoon.

That may be a trifle unfair. What we have left of Catullus’s work is a collection of a mere 116 poems, although my translations leave out numbers 18, 19, and 20 as falsely attributed (there is some scholarly debate around them, especially 18). Most are short; some are love poems to his anonymous lover Lesbia (identified later as Clodia Metelli, a bit like Shakespeare’s Dark Lady of his sonnets), some are comments about or to other Romans, or on current events, some are scatological, some satirical, others obscene (or obscenely funny depending on your sense of humour). And a few are long, deep, and complex (like the elegaic Poem 64).

Obscene? you ask. Well, yes — by the uptight moral standards of suburban-consumerist-WASPish North American culture and that of the 19th century British school curriculum where he as required reading in Latin classes. Not by Roman standards – they were far more relaxed and open about many aspects of sex and sexuality, including homosexuality, in Catullus’ time. It’s one of the reasons Augustus tried (mostly unsuccessfully) to impose a straight-laced moral code, laws and all, on his own Roman culture. Even his own daughter failed to live up to his ideals and ended up being exiled for her wanton ways. But I digress.

Earlier translators of some of his poems tried to water down, bowdlerize, or even exclude the dirty bits. Others tried to mold his words to more sensual or erotic (and less explicit) forms. Even today some translators struggle with verbs like irrumare and try to soften them.  Me, I suppose I’ve come to the age when little in the classical world shocks me — that effect is reserved for the stupidity, selfishness, and corruption of today’s world (especially in the USA). Catullus’ frankness I find amusing.

Seen in the light of our online, easy-access-pornography culture,  I suspect Catullus’ words have less opportunity (or ability) to shock and titillate today. Many recent translations grapple to find a modern, yet linguistically accurate way to express Catullus’ sexual and scatological imagery, varying between euphemism and metaphor to outright obscenity. But Catallus, too, wrote in metaphors that one needs a critical guide to fully understand (I’m also reading Charles Martin’s Catullus, Hermes Books, Yale University, 1992, which offers an academic analysis of the works).

Perhaps the thing that strikes me most in his work— and in reading any of the classical authors — is that it shows how little human behaviour, reaction, passions, and emotions have changed in the intervening millennia. Catullus is at times horny, lustful, angry, lovesick, sad, blustering, thoughtful, friendly, and snobbish. He’s so very human in his writing, and in that he’s much like Horace.

Continue reading “Reading Catullus”

Johnson’s words

Samuel JohnsonI have recently been reading through the David Crystal anthology of words from Samuel Johnson’s dictionary (Penguin, 2006), attempting to cross-reference it with entries in the Jack Lynch anthology (Levenger Press, 2004), comparing how the two editors chose their selections, and to see how the book designers chose to present them. Yes, I know: reading dictionaries isn’t a common pastime, but if you love words, then you do it.

In part, I’m doing so for the sheer delight of the reading (Johnson’s wit shines through in so many of the entries), and as a measure of the differences in book design, but also with an odd project in mind: The Word-of-the-day From Johnson. I had the notion of transcribing a single word at random every day, and posting it online, on and social media. Not something that seems to have been done before, as far as I can tell.

I’ve previously written about how much I enjoy Johnson’s dictionary, and how I recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading, not merely bibliophiles, logophiles and lexicographers. However, there is no reasonably-priced version of the complete dictionary with its 40,000-plus entries, just various selections. As good as the abridgments are, readers will soon ache, as I do, to read more than the limited number of definitions provided in these.

Continue reading “Johnson’s words”

Decades, centuries and millennia

Blame it on DennisJanuary 1 is NOT the start of a new decade. To the CBC and the other arithmetically-challenged media who insist otherwise: it isn’t. You just don’t understand how to count to 10. No matter how you spin it, 9 years is not 10.

And even if it was, starting or ending a decade or any other period of time has no magical significance. Neither history nor culture, neither politics nor science work along calendrical timelines and our own calendar is an arbitrary construct for convenience only. But back to the numbers. It all comes down to simple numbers.

I get that counting from one to 10 is tricky for some folk (like CBC editors). It’s easy to get lost and forget that there are ten digits in there. “One, two, three, uh… seven… nine… four… is that it?” But here’s how it works:

1… 2… 3… 4… 5… 6… 7… 8… 9… 10

Feel free to print this sequence out for future reference. Try it using your fingers. See? Ten numbers when you count from one to ten. Pretty amazing, eh? Well, that’s how our calendar works, too.

So if the above arithmetic hasn’t boggled your mind too much already, let’s do some basic counting. We’ll start with a decade. The word itself comes from the ancient Greek through Latin: dekas is in ten in Greek, decas is Latin. A decade can mean a set of ten things, such as books, chapters, or even prayers, but for this article we’re interested in one use: counting years. A decade is ten years. Not nine, not eleven.

Sure, you can pick any arbitrary group of ten years and call them a decade, but that dilutes the significance considerably. 1964-1973 is a decade, technically, but unless it’s associated with a significant historical event or issue, so what? Who celebrated the start of a new decade in 1974?  Same with 2010-2019 – technically correct only as a decade in marketing or in slipshod media reckoning. (I’m sure you are aware that, in the example decade above, it marked the ten years of direct U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.)

The first decade in the western calendar starts with year 1, just like your fingers do,  and ends with… have you figured it out yet? That’s right! Year 10. Years 1 through 10 are the first decade. Now with a little effort, you can calculate the first century – 100 years. Spoiler alert: that’s years 1 through 100. And the first millennium? Right: years 1 through 1000. See the pattern? You start counting with 1, not 0. Decades, centuries and millennia all start with a year ending in 1. And they close with a year ending in zero. Just like counting from one to 10 on your fingers. You don’t count from 0 to 9, do you? Then why do it with years?

So what is 2020 in those terms? Start with 2001, the first year of this millennium and count 10… 2001 to 2010, then another 10; 2011 to 2020. So 2020 is the LAST year of the current decade, not the start of a new one. Got that? Apparently the CBC doesn’t, but like local media, their credibility is long past its best-before date. I digress.

Calendars are not like the odometer on your car. Odometers start at zero, so when you see 1, you’ve travelled 1 km (or miles if you prefer the archaic imperial system). When the numbers on an odometer roll over to 2,020 it means you’ve travelled a full 2,020 kilometers and number 2,021 is just starting. Calendars, on the other hand start at 1, and the appearance of year 2020 indicates we’ve done 2,019 years and the 2,020th is about to begin, not ending.

You can also count years like you count the pages in a book. You start with one. You don’t begin reading the second set of 10 until you read to the very end of page 10. Or like money – count from one. If I owed you $10 and gave you $9 because I started counting from zero – would you accept it? Think of years as pennies. How many pennies are in $20? Is $19.99 the same amount as $20? Would a bank give you a $20 bill if you gave it $19.99 in pennies? We count house numbers, cookies, bottles of beer – everything else from one. So why are some people trying to make us count years from a non-existent year zero? Zero isn’t a number – it’s a place marker. Doesn’t anyone take math in schools these days? Or maybe they think there’s a ‘decade’ with only nine years lurking in the calendar.

I blame Dennis.
Continue reading “Decades, centuries and millennia”

The dictionary of delight

Johnson, a la BlackadderMohocks, Samuel Johnson informed us in 1755, was the “name of a cruel nation of America given to ruffians who infested, or rather were imagined to infest, the streets of London.” Moky meant dark, as in weather. Gallimatia was nonsense; talk without meaning. Commination was a threat; a denunciation of punishment, or of vengeance. Tachygraphy was the art of quick writing. Eftsoons meant soon afterwards. Saltinbanco was a quack or a mountebank. A dotard was a man whose age impaired his intellects (no Donald Trump jokes, please).

A lexicographer is a “harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.” So reads the self-deprecating entry in Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary of the English Language.  It’s a wonderful book to read even today, and not only for those few of us who delight in reading dictionaries.

Reading through Samuel Johnson’s dictionary is, for anyone interested in words and history, a delightful, entertaining experience. Johnson’s wit and intelligence come through in every entry, more so when you consider it was a one-man project that took eight years to complete. A truly remarkable accomplishment. 

And it remained the basis of all subsequent dictionaries and remained in print right up until the absolute crown of dictionaries: the Oxford English Dictionary (compilation began in 1857, but  it didn’t start publishing until 1884, and the full dictionary itself did not see print until 1928!)

Johnson’s work is also a window into the literary and social world of the 18th century as seen through the language. Johnson was contemporary with Adam Smith,  Edward Gibbon,  Jonathan Swift, Daniel Defoe, Rousseau, Kant, Spinoza, Voltaire and many other great authors and thinkers. It was also the era of political upheaval: both the French and American revolutions erupted.

If you’ve seen the wonderfully funny Blackadder episode about Johnson’s dictionary (Ink and Incapability), you get a bit of the sense of how much fun a dictionary can be. Who can forget Blackadder’s contrafibularity? Anaspeptic? Interfrastically? Frasmotic? You probably even tried to look them up in a more modern dictionary (yes, of course I did…).

Continue reading “The dictionary of delight”

Dictionary vs Dictionary.com

Concise OEDDid you know that doxastic is a philosophical adjective relating to an individual’s beliefs? Or that doxorubicin was an antibiotic used in treating leukemia? Or that doxy is a 16th century word for mistress and prostitute? That drack is Australian slang for unattractive or dreary? Drabble means to make wet and dirty in muddy water? A downwarp is a broad depression in the earth’s surface? Drail is a weighted fish hook? Dragonnade means quartering troops on a population while dragonet is a small fish but a dragoman is an interpreter? That a dramaturge is a literary editor on a theatre staff?

These are words I read when I was looking up the word doxology last night. They all appear close to doxology, either on the same or the adjacent page. Anyone with even a modicum of curiosity opening a dictionary can find these and other words in your search for the meaning of an unfamiliar or uncommon word. In fact, it’s quite entertaining to simply open a dictionary at any random page and read because you are likely to learn something new each time (well, perhaps less so if you use one of the generic no-name dictionaries you bought in the box store).

My bedside dictionary is the Concise Oxford, but I also have several other Oxford editions, a Random House, Merriam Webster, and Chambers, plus some others. I often refer to several for a more comprehensive understanding of a word. And yes, I do keep one by the bed because I read a lot before sleep and sometimes encounter unfamiliar words. Oxford because it’s simply the best, I like the layout and typography, and it’s English, not American.
Continue reading “Dictionary vs Dictionary.com”

 Writers and reading

Chicago Manual of Style, 2017 - 17th edn.This post is about, and for writers, for reporters and editors, for book authors and editors, magazine editors, feature writers, layout artists, copy editors and anyone who either fancies themselves one of these, or has the curious desire to become one (curious because, at least for freelancers, it often involves spending more money on books than you get in income…). If you aren’t in that company, you should probably read something else, maybe just watch TV, because it’s going to be boring and a little pedantic. It’s about the books writers and editors read – or should read – to stay at the forefront of their game.

But also we read these books because we derive a basic joy from them. Strange as it sounds, it’s true. Like any hobbyist, aficionado or enthusiast, we like to read about the subjects dear to our hearts: grammar, punctuation, style, language, vocabulary, etymology, style, writing… reading about them isn’t just a trek through known territory: in many of them we find new landscapes to explore, new arguments to debate, new words, new uses to test.

Yes, writers read, those worth the name, anyway. Just like doctors, mechanics, chefs, wine makers, musicians, astronomers, naturalists, electricians and every other profession reads. Even politicians read – aside, of course, from our own Block on Collingwood Council, who despise the activity. Reading is part of the ongoing self-education process everyone who gives even the slightest damn about their work continues to pursue. It’s part of the continued goal of competence.

Let me stop here and say that if you know of a so-called writer, editor, communications officer, PR specialist or reporter who doesn’t regularly read books on grammar, language, style or structure, or don’t regularly look things up in these guides, who don’t have them at hand in their work area, they don’t deserve the description. They are, to paraphrase Truman Capote, mere typists. They do not do justice to their profession and should look for more suitable employment. Walmart greeters are in demand, I hear.

And, no, age and experience don’t mean you can stop learning. In fact, both contribute to lifelong bad writing habits that only remedial study can correct. Since language is fluid, it requires attention to keep up with its fluctuations and changes, its mood swings in permissive and restrictive usage. Unless you keep up with it, you start to come across as ossified, archaic and fusty. That’s when writers need to retire.

A writer who doesn’t read books on language and grammar is like a sommelier who doesn’t drink, not even taste the wine. It’s like a pilot who refuses to board a plane. A hockey player who doesn’t skate. It’s an oxymoron.
Continue reading ” Writers and reading”