Mark Twain on typewriters

Mark Twain writes about using one of the first typewriters, disliking it, and attempting to get rid of it:

In a previous chapter of this Autobiography I have claimed that I was the first person in the world that ever had a telephone in his house for practical purposes; I will now claim — until dispossessed — that I was the first person in the world to apply the type-machine to literature.

That book must have been “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” I wrote the first half of it in ’72, the rest of it in ’74. My machinist type-copied a book for me in ’74, so I conclude it was that one. That early machine was full of caprices, full of defects — devilish ones. It had as many immoralities as the machine of to-day has virtues.

After a year or two I found that it was degrading my character, so I thought I would give it to Howells. He was reluctant, for he was suspicious of novelties, and unfriendly toward them, and he remains so to this day. But I persuaded him. He had great confidence in me, and I got him to believe things about the machine that I did not believe myself.

He took it home to Boston, and my morals began to improve, but his have never recovered. He kept it six months, and then returned it to me. I gave it away twice after that, but it wouldn’t stay; it came back. Then I gave it to our coachman, Patrick McAleer, who was very grateful, because he did not know the animal, and thought I was trying to make him wiser and better. As soon as he got wiser and better, he traded it to a heretic for a side-saddle which he could not use, and there my knowledge of its history ends.

Via Futility Closet.

On the purported oppression of writers

Chris Weigl on why being a writer is dreadful:

There are times where being a writer sucks. In fact, tell me when I get to the good part. You struggle your whole life to fight for an idea that needs validation from someone in a position of authority to succeed. It’s nearly impossible for writers to earn a living and by that I mean earn a mediocre living wage so we can live in some of the most expensive cities in the world. You can’t get a job because just about every job feels unfulfilling compared to writing. In essence one cannot get a job because they would lose their will to keep on writing. That’s where society’s values are at. […]

If you believe the right-wing lie about makers vs. takers though writers would be the worst offenders as most of us can’t afford to pay our bills, can’t afford health insurance, and depend on government services to be doing things that corporations should be paying us for. The issue isn’t makers vs. takers at all. If it were writers would be sitting on the upper triage of society along with teachers, engineers, architects and construction workers. We’re the people who really make shit. Yet, most writers are at the mercy of corporate America and we get screwed every time. Our skills are de-valued for reasons passing understanding while those who prop up said corporations decry America’s moral decay. […]

Journalists are viewed as parasites, but it’s their job to keep people in power honest because passive voters sure as hell aren’t doing it.

As much as I appreciate “creative” people, and fully support a guaranteed minimum income, I’m weary of the kinds of arguments that “creatives” often make with respect to their work and its devaluation.

My uneasiness stems from two facts: The simple truth that all people are profoundly creative, and that designating a particular class of individuals as “creative”, only serves to devalue the great majority who don’t have the luxury of living a life of the mind—a luxury despite the financial difficulties of “creatives”. One who has a couple children, a mortgage, and a car or two isn’t necessarily living high on the hog, yet for them the option to join this “creative” class essentially doesn’t exist. Presumably they are to be considered deficient in some way.

The second reason resembles the first in its arrogance: Even if we accept that “creatives” are a distinct class of people, virtually every difficulty that Weigl mentions applies doubly to many people in the United States, let alone the forgotten non-people stuck in the Third World.

Indeed, one can quite literally replace “writers” with “people” in Weigl’s post, and achieve a fairly accurate picture of the world. The failure of many writers to acknowledge this or engage with ordinary people—people often ridiculed as “passive”, members of the teeming masses, the bewildered herd, and so on—can’t be discounted as a source of their financial woes. More importantly, however, such egoism is perfectly compatible with the social stratification and oppression that Weigl regrets.

One way to oppress others is to stomp them with your boot. Another is to form a kind of vanguard, anointing oneself to lead the ignorant masses to salvation. Both should be avoided.

Literally literally

Stan Carey writes about the usages and history of literally:

Last week I heard a news reporter on Irish television describe people as “literally gutted” by the news of job losses. She meant, of course, that they were devastated, not that their intestines were spilt: she used literally to intensify a figurative statement. This is typical of how the word is often informally used – many would say misused.

Like it or not, literally is used to mean more than just “literally”, and it has been for a very long time. Some people – I’m one of them – prefer to use it only in its narrower, more literal senses. A subset – I’m not one of these – insist on it. […]

Language is fundamentally metaphorical, and with literally we have walked a very long way from the Latin for letter. “[I]t’s impossible to tell where literality leaves off,” writes linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, “nor is there usually any practical reason for trying to do so.”

As an unapologetic fan of hyperbole, I make extensive use of the non-literal “literally”. I’ve never observed my usage causing confusion, so can fairly easily write off any such concern.

More generally, I’m not sure why some people insist on notions like “misuse”. I think it’s literally impossible to “misuse” a word, if the vitality of language arises from actual usage, rather than “correct” usage that some cabal imposes by fiat.

I should note that such a “cabal” is not literally a cabal, as they’re probably not politically motivated, and aren’t really very secretive about their existence or their priggishness. Similarly, this “fiat” cannot be understood as a literal fiat, because that would probably require the issuance of all sorts of very important and formal looking documents, or at least the use of one of those neat embosser things that notaries use for no discernible reason.

Rocks and stones

Andrea Badgley ponders the difference between rocks and stones:

It’s funny, the word rocks is much harsher to me than the word stones. […]

When I think of rocks I see dusty gravel, grey granite shards with glints of quartz or mica, the rocks themselves planed and angular, bumpy with unclean breaks. Triangles protrude from a pile looking jagged and dangerous. Unwelcoming. […]

Stones, though. Stones are smooth and rounded. Domes of shiny grey on a Maine beach. They are welcoming. They fit in the palm of your hand and are comforting in their age and smoothness.

I share Andrea’s intuition about the difference between rocks and stones, but Merriam-Webster apparently does not. On the other hand, geology writer David B. Williams observes commonly held distinctions between the two:

I found that some people thought that stone was more British; that rock could be hard and soft, whereas stone was always hard; that stones are smooth and rocks rough; and that stones are small and rocks are big.

He also notes that the Oxford English Dictionary defines rock as “A large rugged mass of hard mineral material or stone”, while a stone is “A piece of rock or hard mineral substance of a small or moderate size.” Here, this indicates that rocks are stones, while stones may not be rocks, while acknowledging a particular use of rock that specifies the object is rough.

Nevertheless, it seems ambiguous enough that we should specifically indicate (where relevant) whether a rock or stone is rough or smooth. But that doesn’t really satisfy my curiosity about how these peripheral meanings are formed, and why they are commonly shared.

I wonder if it has something to do with the aesthetics of these words. I observe that the words sofa and couch seem to share a similar distinction, where sofa seems more refined than the terse couch. Somehow the word sofa seems to pair better with stone and smooth than rock does. And somehow couch jibes with rock and rough.

Pleasingly convoluted words

James Harbeck of Sesquiotica on a few pleasingly convoluted words:

When I was a little kid, certain adults would tell me to eat the crusts on my bread because they would make my hair curly.

This did not make me want to eat the crusts on my bread. […]

Some words are like that curl: unnecessary ornaments used just because someone thinks they will look good: “A longer, hairier word would go better here.” I have nothing against ornamental words, of course – I have a massive collection of them – but I also don’t think they are intrinsically better. There is no prima facie reason to think that a polysyllabic Latin-Greek confection is a truer, more accurate name for a thing than two syllables of Anglo-Saxon. But words are known by the company they keep, and some words just look like they belong to the best clubs. […]

So. I am leiotrichous. This may sound like the self-introduction of some ancient monster or warrior, but it just means I have straight hair – Greek λεῖος leios ‘smooth’. Certain adults of my childhood thought it was better to be ulotrichous: to have curly hair – Greek οὖλος oulos ‘crisp, curly’. Many people favour being cymotrichous: having wavy hair – Greek κῦμα kuma ‘wave’. I like all sorts of hair, and all lengths from ankle to none. I’m fine with what I have.

Many people have a strong aversion to polysyllabic words, considering their use a mark of pretension. It’s not completely unjustified, given that such words are often the province of obscurantists and what Harbeck might call “ostentatious sesquipedalian pseudo-classicists.”

Nevertheless, there is a certain pleasure in collecting these words, as if they’re some “odd mystical little object that looks rare and special and pricey but that is unidentifiable.”

My own tastes tend toward quirky and ethereal Britishisms like wonky, and labyrinthine writing that, as Virginia Woolf put it, is “flawed and imperfect, but starred with poetry.”

Pedants, and not the multitude, are the first to decry these, and it’s a shame because we might otherwise find ourselves united as hoarders.

On not knowing

Tim Kreider on confessing one’s own ignorance in their writing:

Real life, in my experience, is not rife with epiphanies, let alone lessons; what little we learn tends to come exactly too late, gets contradicted by the next blunder, or is immediately forgotten and has to be learned all over again. More and more, the only things that seem to me worth writing about are the ones I don’t understand.

When I look back at my favorite essays, I find they often raise more questions than they answer. And the answers they do give are self-consciously tentative.

Americans fancy Britishisms

Alex Williams accusatorially speculates on Americans’ fancy for Britishisms:

Or maybe it’s just pretension, an instance of long-simmering Anglophilia among the American striver classes bubbling over into full-fledged imitation — or in the view of British observers, parody.

Among the words that ought to be banned from American use are cheers, sacked, clever, loorubbish, and wonky.

It’s a shame that Williams couldn’t suspend his priggishness to consider an alternative motive; namely, that these words are just plain fun.

The decay of Western civilization – really?

Neil Genzlinger on the decay of Western civilization and the modern use of “really”:

“Really?” was once an expression of wonderment that also acknowledged a gap in the user’s knowledge. Back when Einstein first announced that energy equals mass times the speed of light squared, the “Reallys?” that resulted were saying: “I am astounded by your discovery, so much so that I can scarcely wrap my head around it. You, sir, are a genius.”

Jerry Seinfeld responds:

When I hear people say, “If you can wrap your head around it,” I want to wrap their heads around something, like a pole.

There’s no “wrapping.” There’s no heads going around.

Don’t preach to us about “Really?” and then wrap our heads around things.

Creativity and writing for the web

Om Malik on creativity and writing for the web:

When you have a minute-and-a-half of someone’s attention, simply putting forward a persuasive argument, a clear and simple story or factual news is creativity. That ability to edit everything down to the very essence in an elegant, interesting and enjoyable way that delights (and informs) is what writing is all about.

There’s certainly real beauty in brevity, but I wouldn’t say that’s what writing is all about. There’s also what Virginia Woolf says1 of Charles Lamb’s essays with the “lightning crack of genius in the middle of them which leaves them flawed and imperfect, but starred with poetry.” The unwieldy often has its own sort of beauty.

  1. In A Room of One’s Own