T.S. Eliot on knowledge

When there is so much to be known, when there are so many fields of knowledge in which the same words are used with different meanings, when everyone knows a little about a great many things, it becomes increasingly difficult for anyone to know whether he knows what he is talking about or not.

The Perfect Critic (1920). Via Alan Jacobs’ How To Think

Tutus, Cul-de-Sacs and French Bottoms

The French are always inserting their arses into the English language. There is, for example, the cul-de-sac which literally means arse of a bag and which sneaks onto English street signs without anybody noticing. Before this disgusting French term was introduced, the English had a much better, cleaner native term for a dead end; we called it a butt-hole. Indeed, the Oxford English Dictionary’s butt-hole entry lists this as the only meaning.

Source: Inky Fool: Tutus, Cul-de-Sacs and French Bottoms

Why do we use non-English words?

We resort to foreign words for a number of psychologically interesting reasons. A lot of them, I’d argue, are rooted in the middle class aversion to bluntness or crudeness. When what we’re saying has an underlying tone that may cause embarrassment to either the speaker or listener, we borrow from Latin or modern European languages (often French) to give a veneer of refinement, glossing over what’s crass, base, or stark.

Source: Strictly entre nous: why do we use non-English words? – OxfordWords blog

For example, on the use of entre nous: “I want to gossip but gossiping is common so I’m going to get away with it by using the pretentious French phrase for it.”

What you should read, depending on the season

One should read the classics in winter, because then one’s mind is more concentrated; read history in the summer, because one has more time; read the ancient philosophers in autumn, because they have such charming ideas; and read the collected works of later authors in spring, because then Nature is coming back to life.

Source: What you should read, depending on the season

This, by Chang Ch’ao in the 17th century and via Austin Kleon, has been on my mind recently. I don’t subscribe to the principle anywhere near as rigidly as this, but I do see patterns in the types of books I read across a given year.

Also, increasingly: non-fiction during the day, fiction once the sun’s gone down.

The two Macedonias

Here’s a geolinguistic dispute I didn’t know existed:

Matthew Nimetz wants to make something clear – he has not spent every waking moment of the past 23 years thinking about one word: “Macedonia”.

“I have probably thought about it more than anyone else – including in the country,” says the 78-year-old US diplomat. “But I have to disappoint anyone that thinks it’s my full-time job.”

Since 1994, Nimetz has been trying to negotiate an end to arguably the world’s strangest international dispute, in which Greece is objecting to Macedonia’s name and refusing to let it join either Nato or the EU until it’s changed.

Greece says the name “Macedonia” suggests that the country has territorial ambitions over Greece’s own Macedonia – a province in the north of the country – and is a blatant attempt to lay claim to Greece’s national heritage.

When you look at it on a map, you can appreciate the potential confusion:

Even when a nation has a fixed, agreed name, people call it different things. See this Quora answer to the question “Why is the word Germany different in different languages?”:

Basically, because there were Germans before there was a Germany. Each of the Germans’ neighbors came up with their own name for them, long before there was a German state that people might want to refer to uniformly.

And spare a thought for Guinea. Which one though?

Guinea. Equatorial Guinea. Guinea-Bissau. Papua New Guinea. The Gulf of Guinea. Guinea, Virginia. Guinea, Nova Scotia. The world has more Guineas than a pirate’s treasure chest. What explains the prevalence of the name?

The Zombie Diseases of Climate Change

The Arctic permafrost was once an area full of vegetation. But it’s been freezing for 35,000 years or so. Every summer it thaws slightly, and every winter it refreezes.

As climate change sets in, the summers have got longer and the winters are warmer. This means more of the permafrost melts, and the remnants of that vegetation—protected from decomposition by the freezing temperatures—is exposed.

As it melts, microbes and other forms of life will reawaken. What forgotten pathogens lie beneath?

And then, as they watched, a virus appeared in their viewfinder: Pithovirus sibericum, a massive ovular virion that had survived 30,000 years frozen in the ice core. It was also the largest virion ever discovered.

“We tried to isolate amoeba viruses without knowing they were going to be giant viruses—and a totally different type of virus than we already know appeared,” Claverie said. “It turns out the viruses we are getting [in the permafrost] are extremely abnormal, extremely fancy.”

Claverie and Abergel’s viruses aren’t a threat to humanity—yet. But human pathogens have also survived freezing and thawing in the permafrost. Last summer, an outbreak of anthrax in Siberia infected dozens of people and killed one child. The vector of disease is thought to be the thawing and decaying carcass of a reindeer killed in 1941.

And a team of Canadian scientists recently found a strain of bacteria, Paenibacillus, in a cave in New Mexico that had been closed off for more than 4 million years. Though harmless to humans, the ancient bacteria was resistant to most clinical antibiotics, including most of the newest and most aggressive. The discovery suggested that bacteria can survive the most exotic and remote environments.

The problem is compounded by our desire to access precious metals, rare earths, petrol, gas and gold throughout the arctic. If, say, Russia wants to access them, millions of tonnes of permafrost needs to be moved for the first time in millions of years.

Even more worrisome are the microbes we don’t know. “No one really understands why Neanderthals went extinct,” Claverie said. Sometimes, he catches himself when talking about these possible permafrost-locked diseases—they may have threatened humans or human relatives in the past, he’ll say. Then, he’ll change tense, emphasizing that they could do so again.

Source: The Zombie Diseases of Climate Change – The Atlantic

The First Woman to Translate the ‘Odyssey’ Into English

Not only is she the first woman, but she’s making some fairly radical changes to the established translations:

“Treat me,” I interrupted, “as if I don’t know Greek,” as, in fact, I do not.

“The prefix poly,” Wilson said, laughing, “means ‘many’ or ‘multiple.’ Tropos means ‘turn.’ ‘Many’ or ‘multiple’ could suggest that he’s much turned, as if he is the one who has been put in the situation of having been to Troy, and back, and all around, gods and goddesses and monsters turning him off the straight course that, ideally, he’d like to be on. Or, it could be that he’s this untrustworthy kind of guy who is always going to get out of any situation by turning it to his advantage. It could be that he’s the turner.”

Source: The First Woman to Translate the ‘Odyssey’ Into English – The New York Times

See also two ‘Troy Story’ videos we made that re-tell the Iliad and the Odyssey in a couple of minutes each:

 

On dreaming

Ordinarily she didn’t tend to dream much. Even if she did, she usually had forgotten most of the dream by the time she woke up. Sometimes faint scraps of her dream would get caught on the wall of her consciousness, but she couldn’t retrace these fragments back to any coherent narrative. All that remained were small, random images. She slept deeply, and the dreams she did have came from a very deep place. Like fish that live at the bottom of the ocean, most of her dreams weren’t able to float to the surface. Even if they did, the difference in water pressure would force a change in their appearance.

—Haruki Murakami, 1Q84