In their quest to add more and more arcane content to every page, Amazon recently added Statistically Improbable Phrases to their pages for books that have the “Search inside…” feature. Apparently, Amazon is using an algorithm to determine which phrases in particular books are less likely to appear in other books with some interesting, though not terribly useful, results. Or so it would seem to me. (Although there is the prospect of a third party using this data to come up with some interesting applications). Anyway, to see it in action, let’s look at the page for Oblivion by David Foster Wallace, and you’ll see this near the top of the page: ” SIPs: consultant caste, executive intern, snoring issue, head intern, dominant village,” those, apparently, being some of the Statistically Improbable Phrases contained within the book. Then, if you want you can click on one of the SIPs to see other books that contain it. Here’s the short list of books that contain the phrase “snoring issue.”
Unlike in recent years, I didn’t get a ton of books this year for Christmas nor did I give any – and, no, this had nothing to do with Joe Queenan’s recent screed in the New York Times against giving books as gifts – though I can see where he’s coming from. Nonetheless, I did get a couple of pretty cool items. The one that I’m most thrilled about is the shiny, new Complete New Yorker that my parents – who know me well – gave me. When I first heard about this back in June, I said this: “My fear is that once I got my hands on this set, I would be compelled to consume every word of it at the expense of school and work and everything else, possibly even eating and sleeping. I may have to put myself into forced hibernation starting in October in order to keep those DVDs from falling into my hands.” But now that I actually own it, I’m willing to take the risk. In fact, I can’t wait to get back to Chicago so I can start digging into this thing. I’ll let you know how it goes.My brother gave me another cool “complete” set, the National Geographic Maps collection which contains every single map supplement published in the magazine from 1889 through 1999 on CD-ROM.From my parents, I also received a collection of interviews with writers like Thomas McGuane and William Styron called Story Story Story. Mrs. Millions, meanwhile, received a weighty tome called The World’s Greatest Architecture: Past and Present from her folks.My favorite non-book gift, though, would have to be the XM Radio that Mrs. Millions gave me. I actually can’t wait for our 14 hour drive back to Chicago so I can soak in all that satellite radio goodness.
As any student of the history of the English language – or of Walter Scott – knows, our having, as English speakers, different words for food on the hoof and food on the table is no idle fact. Consider the opening scene of Ivanhoe, in which the swineherd Gurth and Wamba the jester debate this very point:Why, how call you those grunting brutes running about on their four legs?” demanded Wamba.”Swine, fool, swine,” said the herd, “every fool knows that.””And swine is good Saxon,” said the Jester; “but how call you the sow when she is flayed, and drawn, and quartered, and hung up by the heels, like a traitor?””Pork,” answered the swine-herd.”I am very glad every fool knows that too,” said Wamba, “and pork, I think, is good Norman-French; and so when the brute lives, and is in the charge of a Saxon slave, she goes by her Saxon name; but becomes a Norman, and is called pork, when she is carried to the Castle-hall to feast among the nobles; what dost thou think of this, friend Gurth, ha?””It is but too true doctrine, friend Wamba, however it got into thy fool’s pate.”After the Norman Invasion in 1066, Norman French became the language of power in Britain, spoken by the king and court and any who wanted favor from them. The conquered residents of Britain, speakers of the Germanic Old English, were those who raised, tended, and hunted animals: Thus, cow (kuh), calf (kalb), swine (schweine), deer (deor), sheep (schaf), and hen (huhn) for living animals, while the wealthy Norman conquerors tended to be those who enjoyed the animals at table: Thus, beef (boeuf), pork (porc), mutton (mouton), and poultry (poulet).The English words have always seemed to me more sturdy – as well as more coarse. Like chewing a mouthful of rocks or biting into the branch of a sapling – too fibrous to chew, sour with sap. The French words seem like tiny exhalations of essence – bouef, mouton – the soul of the thing rather than sinews and bones.I think brains can take the character of their mother tongues. I am quite sure my brain is Anglo-Saxon – all sap and fibers and rocks and bones.
If you’re a New Yorker obsessive like I am, then you’ll love the new feature at Emdashes. Emily has lined up a pair of librarians who work at the New Yorker to answer questions about the magazine, and as one might expect, they are very thorough in their responses. The first installment covers A.J. Liebling’s start at the magazine, spot illustrations, typewriters, Calvin Trillin’s food writing, movie reviews, and fact-checking cartoons. There will be more installments to come, so send in your questions.
I listen to a lot of Public Radio, perhaps too much. And while I probably shouldn’t be scheduling my days around radio shows devoted to cooking or news quizzes, there are some Public Radio personalities that do deserve my devotion (and you probably yours too.) One of these is Ira Glass, host of This American Life. Glass was recently in the news for his vocal protests of FCC crackdowns. In this essay from the New York Times Magazine he takes up for Howard Stern and criticizes the absurdity at the center of the decency battle. And the Houston Chronicle explains that Glass isn’t just a public radio host, he’s also a sex symbol. Often considered one of the funniest voices on radio, David Sedaris is a frequent contributor to This American Life. His fans are already clamoring for his latest book due out this June. Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, another of Sedaris’ collections of humorous, autobiographical essays, is previewed here in the Sydney Star Observer. And then there is Terry Gross, master interviewer and host of the long running show Fresh Air. A collection of Gross’ famous interviews will be coming out this fall, titled All I Did Was Ask. Here’s an interview with the queen of interviewers at the Detroit Free Press.