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Solstice: Dies Natalis Invicti Solis

22 Dec

It’s winter solstice today here in the Northern hemisphere (or, if you’re an ancient Roman, the birthday of the unconquered sun!). It’s the time of year to spend many hours inside, doing home-y things. Like baking cookies to mail to your friends and give to your neighbors and then eating them all instead. And reading Adrienne Rich poems about winter:

Homage to Winter 
by Adrienne Rich

You: a woman too old
for passive contemplation
caught staring out a window
at bird-of-paradise spikes
jewelled with rain, across an alley
It’s winter in this land
of roses, roses sometimes
the fog lies thicker around you than your past
sometimes the Pacific radiance
scours the air to lapis
In this new world you feel
backward along the hem of your whole life
questioning every breadth
Nights you can watch the moon shed skin after skin
over and over, alway a shape
of imbalance except
at birth and in the full
You, still trying to learn
how to live, what must be done
thought in death you will be complete
whatever you do
But death is not the answer.

On these flat green leaves
light skates like a golden blade
high in the dull-green pine
sit two mushroom-colored doves
afterglow overflows
across the bungalow roof
between the signs for the three-way stop
over everything that is:
the cotton pants stirring on the line, the
empty Coke can by the fence
onto the still unflowering
mysterious acacia
and a sudden chill takes the air

Backward you dream to a porch
you stood on a year ago
snow flying quick as thought
sticking to your shoulder gone
Blue shadows, ridged and fading
on a snow-swept road
the shortest day of the year
Backward you dream to glare ice
and ice-wet pussywillows
to Riverside Drive, the wind
cut loose from Hudson’s Bay
driving tatters into your face
And back you come at last to that room
without a view, where webs of frost
blinded the panes at noon
where already you had begun
to make the visible world your conscience
asking things: What can you tell me?
what am I doing? what must I do?

May your days continue to lengthen, dear readers. And have a good solstice – those cookies are in the mail, I promise. *covers mouth*

Amusing lesboslang

3 Nov

Cruising around the internet, one encounters quite a bit of entertaining slang. Some of it is geared toward the gay, lesbian and otherwise queerly-inclined folks. A selection, presented for your amusement:

Hasbian:  One who used to be a lesbian. Often can be counted among the Five Allies in Queerland.

Lesbient: A stoner lesbian. “Ent” comes from the tree people from J.R.R. Tolkien’s famed Trilogy of the Rings, in case you didn’t know.

Lesberina: This is pretty much what I wanted to be when I grew up when I was a kiddo. Just guess the definition.

Lesberjack: Urban Dictionary defines this as “a woman who wears plaid to clearly identify herself as a lesbian.” Clearly, though, nowadays, if one isn’t careful with accessorizing, one could be mistaken for a Mere Hipster.

Lesbaru: A Subaru, driven by a lesbian. Urban Dictionary says this has to be a late-model Subaru, but can be driven by any woman. I disagree, Urban Dictionary, particularly since Subarus in the Pacific Northwest are driven by pretty much everyone. Related: We also need a word for Lesbian Pickup Trucks. Ten points to the first person to come up with a clever moniker for that.

Lesbionic: Again, I disagree with Urban Dictionary here. They define it as “something pertaining to two female robots or cyborgs who are emotionally and sexually attracted to each other.” Since there’s no such thing as robots, clearly what they meant to say was a lesbian with bionic superpowers. Duh.

What internet slang did I miss (no offensive stuff, please)? What slang do you use in your own social group that the internet doesn’t know about yet? Tell me in the comments.

A poem I like

22 Aug

Antilamentation
by Dorianne Laux

Regret nothing. Not the cruel novels you read
to the end just to find out who killed the cook.
Not the insipid movies that made you cry in the dark,
in spite of your intelligence, your sophistication.
Not the lover you left quivering in a hotel parking lot,
the one you beat to the punchline, the door, or the one
who left you in your red dress and shoes, the ones
that crimped your toes, don’t regret those.
Not the nights you called god names and cursed
your mother, sunk like a dog in the livingroom couch,
chewing your nails and crushed by loneliness.
You were meant to inhale those smoky nights
over a bottle of flat beer, to sweep stuck onion rings
across the dirty restaurant floor, to wear the frayed
coat with its loose buttons, its pockets full of struck matches.
You’ve walked those streets a thousand times and still
you end up here. Regret none of it, not one
of the wasted days you wanted to know nothing,
when the lights from the carnival rides
were the only stars you believed in, loving them
for their uselessness, not wanting to be saved.
You’ve traveled this far on the back of every mistake,
ridden in dark-eyed and morose but calm as a house
after the TV set has been pitched out the upstairs
window. Harmless as a broken ax. Emptied
of expectation. Relax. Don’t bother remembering
any of it. Let’s stop here, under the lit sign
on the corner, and watch all the people walk by.

*Discovered via my DC friend, Deena.

Beware the Insidious Honorifics: Mr., Mrs., Miss, Ms.

13 Jul
From here.

Did you know that honorifics, seemingly applied equally – and equally respectfully – to men and women, are not, in fact, equal, nor equally respectful?

There’s a very interesting post from dictionary.com, a useful word-nerd web site, on the topic of the etymology of Mr. and Mrs. According to the folks over there, the origins of “Mr./Mister” are as follows:

“Once used to address men under the rank of knighthood, by the mid-18th century mister became a common English honorific to generally address males of a higher social rank.”

Here we see that “Mister” does indeed have its roots in a term of respect (or alternatively, fear and control. Either way, not too bad of a deal for the recipients of the prefix).

On Mrs.:

“Mrs. is a contraction derived from Middle English maistresse, ‘female teacher, governess.’ Once a title of courtesy, mistress fell into disuse around the late 14th century. The pronunciation, however, remained intact. By the 15th century, mistress evolved into a derogatory term for “a kept woman of a married man. … ‘Miss’ also derives from ‘mistress.’ ”

Both “Mrs.” and “Miss” derive from questionably neutral (female teacher, governess – it could be argued that these were servant-class occupations back in the 17th century, hence why neutrality is questionable) and outright negative (kept woman of a married man) origins.

So while the use of the term “Mr.” is straightforward, the use of any honorific for a female is not. Even the use of the quasi-neutral phrase “Ms.” has alienating potential in certain fundamentalist/antifeminist circles. Nowadays, “Mrs.” simply means “married.” Which is pretty darn problematic in and of itself – defining women by their marital status, but not men, is so far beyond the pale of how modern society should be functioning that writing more on the topic seems redundant – it’s why “Ms.” was coined.

Sure, maybe it’s just a question of semantics – and I’ll admit I’m overly sensitive to such things – I do, after all, cringe every time someone abuses an adverb (“Eat Local”?!? No, it’s eat locally! If you’re going to be snobby about your food, you may as well be snobby about your grammar as well. Sheesh.) and have to bite my tongue when I overhear someone saying “There is five options …”

But I’d argue that the use of honorifics of any sort is damaging not only to women, but to society in general. Look closer and you’ll see they’re more insidious than simple grammatical gaffery. The use (or conspicuous lack of use) of honorifics is a way to editorialize – just like the use of modifying words like said/claim. Extreme case in point? The NY Times stopped using “Mr. bin Laden,” switching to just “Bin Laden” at some point, but kept the honorifics for everyone else. Although no one will argue that criminals ought to be accorded extra social niceties, it’s easy to see how the subtle drop of an honorific prefix could be used as a lexocological weapon.

It remains interesting to me that the New York Times continues to insist on using honorifics – with notable exceptions. Gender-neutral outs exist only for people with Ph.Ds and religious credentials, which is yet another way to subtly reinforce class striation from within the confines of the printed word.

What do you think – does being called Mr/Mrs/Miss/Ms or ma’am/sir connote old-fashioned respect or outdated snobbery? Is this type of thing done in other countries outside the US?

Read the full Dictionary.com post here.

Six strange Sarah things

27 Jun

This is the first in a series of reader requests! This one is from sillywrongbutvividright, who asks, “Sarah … why don’t you keep a personal blog anymore? Go on, give us something of you ;)”

Well OK then. How about more than you ever wanted to know?

1. I sign the alphabet along with dialogue in movies. It helps when watching very tedious films, like, say, Gone in 60 Seconds, to see whether or not I can keep up with the dialogue when spelling out each word letter-by-letter with my hands instead of speaking. I usually can, unless it’s something really talky like a Whit Stillman flick. Sometimes I catch myself doing this in public, like in long meetings or while talking to boring people.

2. When going up or down stairs, especially new sets of stairs I’ve not been up or down before, I count them. If I’m going to be going up or down them often, I feel like it’s important to know exactly how many there are. In the house I grew up in, for example, there were 14 stairs to get to the front door, and another 16 to get to my room. My old office was 65 steps from the ground floor. It takes three steps to get to my front door now.

3. I am terrified of escalators. Especially getting on them when going down. What seems to go totally unnoticed in the general population is that these things are death machines. Who’s to say my pant cuff won’t get caught in those evil-looking teeth? And what happens if I stand between a step instead of on one? Surely I should plummet to my untimely demise. I have a similar dislike of treadmills for this reason, much to the amusement of my physical therapist.

4. Shopping malls give me panic attacks. I can tolerate being inside one for maybe a half an hour before I start to feel an overwhelming sense of doom, freak out, and have to make a beeline for the exit – escalators be damned. It matters not whether I’ve purchased or even located whatever it was I came to buy – I have to leave right then and there – no time for Orange Julius, it’s out, out, OUT I SAY!

6. I smell books. All books. Library books. New books from the bookstore. Books you lend me. Books that come in the mail. I do this in public, in front of people. I can’t help myself. Something about growing up being the nerdliest of all the nerdly readers has given me a peculiar affection for books – their weight, their smell, their binding, their textured pages and covers. You can’t get that from a Nook or a Kindle or even packages of books on tape. I will always be a book sniffer.

One word can make a difference

11 Nov

A recent NYTimes piece by Karen Zraick brought iHollaback, a nifty web site that now has its very own smartphone apps for the low low price of whatever it is those things cost these days, to my attention. According to the story, iHollaback “is a Web site that encourages women to post their accounts of harassment and abuse as part of a campaign to end practices that are seldom discussed but that many women say are pervasive.”

What’s interesting about this article, other than iHollaback itself, which satisfies an obvious need and looks kind of fun (if anything related to street harassment can be fun), is the way Zraick chose to phrase the above sentence. But before we get into that, a little background:

Journalists understand the power of words. Particularly words like “say,” “claim” and “allege.” At first blush these words look like nothing more than synonyms for “speak.” But seasoned professionals have the ability to wield them in ways that can slant a story without making it seem slanted at all – many may even do it completely unconsciously.

Any of the aforementioned words, when used as modifiers for a statement that, alone, would be taken at face value, have immense power. With that in mind, take a look at the article excerpt again:

“[iHollaback] is a Web site that encourages women to post their accounts of harassment and abuse as part of a campaign to end practices that are seldom discussed but that many women say are pervasive.” (emphasis mine)

Use these infinitive-prefacing verbs sparingly.

Note the difference in the way the two assertions in the sentence are presented. The practice of harassment lacks a “says/alleges/claims” modifier: “practices are seldom discussed.” This leads the reader to take it as an empirically verifiable fact. In contrast, harassment’s pervasiveness requires a modifier: “many women say the practice is pervasive.” Here’s a clue that the author doesn’t think this fact is supported by any evidence other than the claims of a party, in this case “many women.”

There are two main flaws with this syntax and its implications. Firstly, these “practices are seldom discussed.” Says who? Was there a study? I don’t know about you, but I discuss these practices all the time. I’m not refuting the statement – in mainstream Amerikuh, I don’t doubt that street harassment, and women’s rights in general, come up in conversation with disturbing infrequency, but it’s in no way more well-supported than the second statement.

Secondly, the subject matter of the article itself would suggest that the second statement does not require a “says” modifier. iHollaback is a Web site that sprung up to address a practice that is so pervasive that the site has regional and global variations, viral participation, at least one bajillion press mentions, an iPhone app and an Android app in development. This should be enough to, if not present pervasive street harassment as an irrefutable fact, at least qualify the statement for a modifier bye.

Modifiers are equally powerful when included or omitted, serving the opposite purposes of discrediting when included, and supporting when omitted. Thus, they can be used strategically to make a point. By modifying “these practices are pervasive” with “says” but not doing so with the previous statement, the author skewed the “truthiness” playing field – leaving readers to assume that while harassment is certainly rarely discussed, it may not actually be as common as “some women” would lead you to believe.

While this may be considered nitpicking, it’s important to realize that these people are professionals – they understand the impact a single word can have, and so choose (or should choose) them carefully. Journalists are the gatekeepers of information, and the filter through which millions of people see the world. One word can make a difference.

Verbing cunnilingus: The sexy nerd’s quest

29 Mar

Ever since I first learned the word “cunnilingus,” I’ve been trying to verb it. We English-speakers can easily verb “fellatio,” right? It’s easy for folks to fellate, the sexually adventurous have fellated for years, and fellating is pretty common even in states where it’s illegal. But the only amusing vocabularic derivation of cunnilingus is a noun (albeit a fun one): cunnilinguist.

Why is this, dear readers? If it can be assumed that a language’s construction tells us most of what we need to know about a culture, then is it not true that, in our culture, fellatio is an action, whereas cunnilingus is a concept? I will bet you a whole platter of cookies that the reason that there is no verb form of cunnilingus is the same reason that there are about twice as many words for “rich” as there are for “love.”

Ponder on it, and tell me how you’d verb cunnilingus in the comments!

Related post: The Plural of Clitoris

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