Pink Trombone is a clickable simulator of the vocal tract. Click or drag to move the lips, tongue, or soft palate and hear the effects immediately. See also this interactive sagittal section, which has narrower controls but more IPA support.
Q: My mother used to use the expression “like a death’s head at a feast” to describe a particularly disagreeable person at a social function. I use it myself, from time to time, much to the amusement of my adult children. Can you shed any light on the origin of this expression?
A: A death’s head, as you’re undoubtedly aware, is a representation of the human skull that’s a symbol of mortality. The symbol has embellished jewelry, paintings, sculpture, tombstones, and so on since the Middle Ages.
In fact, people have worn death’s head rings since at least the 1500s as a reminder of mortality, or memento mori.
As far as we can tell, the expression used by your mother first showed up in writing in the early 1700s, but it hasn’t shown up very often. We’ve found only a few dozen examples in our searches of literary archives.
The earliest example we’ve seen is from an amusing anecdote about a fancy-dress, or costume, ball, in the Sept. 7, 1713, issue of the Guardian, a short-lived newspaper founded by Richard Steele:
“In the middle of the first Room I met with one drest in a Shrowd. This put me in mind of the old Custom of serving up a Death’s Head at a Feast. I was a little angry at the Dress, and asked the Gentleman whether he thought a Dead Man was fit Company for such an Assembly; but he told me that he was one who loved his Mony, and that he considered this Dress would serve him another time.”
And here’s an example from Denis Duval, an unfinished novel that William Makepeace Thackeray was working on when he died in 1863: “His appearance at the Count’s little suppers was as cheerful as a death’s-head at a feast.”
The Oxford English Dictionary includes the Thackeray citation in its discussion of “death’s head,” but the OED doesn’t explain the origin of the full expression. And we couldn’t find anything about it in any of the reference works, online or off, that we usually consult.
However, the expression has clearly been used the way your mother used it—to describe a killjoy at a social event—as in this example from Lodore, an 1835 novel by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley:
“She looked strangely grim and out of place among all those merry young people at the wedding breakfast—like death’s head at a feast, as they say, and she had a certain dignified air of disapprobation at times on her countenance, when she looked at my dear, sweet Miss Thornhaugh, which made me hate her—such a contrast to her brother!”
The OED does discuss the origin of two similar expressions, “a skeleton at the feast” and “a skeleton at the banquet,” which the dictionary defines as “a reminder of serious or saddening things in the midst of enjoyment; a source of gloom or depression.”
Oxford describes the “skeleton” versions as an “allusion to the practice of the ancient Egyptians, as recorded by Plutarch in his Moralia,” a collection of writings about morality.
In “The Dinner of the Seven Wise Men,” a section in the Moralia, the first-century Greek scholar writes:
“Now the skeleton which in Egypt they are wont, with fair reason, to bring in and expose at their parties, urging the guests to remember that what it is now, they soon shall be, although it is an ungracious and unseasonable companion to be introduced at a merry-making, yet has a certain timeliness, even if it does not incline the guests to drinking and enjoyment, but rather to a mutual friendliness and affection, and if it urges upon them that life, which is short in point of time, should not be made long by evil conduct.”
(We’ve used the Loeb Classical Library’s translation of the Moralia.)
The earliest OED example for a “skeleton” expression is from Guy Livingstone, an 1857 novel by the British writer and barrister George Alfred Lawrence: “The skeleton of ennui sat at these dreary feasts; and it was not even crowned with roses.”
The dictionary’s latest example is from A Lonely Girl, an 1896 novel by the Irish writer Margaret Wolfe Hungerford: “To give him leisure to act the skeleton at the feast.”
We’ll end with a more recent example from The Masters, a 1951 novel by C. P. Snow about the contested election for a new head at a Cambridge college:
“I don’t want to be a skeleton at the feast, because I’ve been feeling very gratified myself, but I think it would be remiss not to remind you that the thing’s still open.”
I may have mentioned before that one of my favorite radio programs is To the Best of Our Knowledge, which consistently features the most interesting and thought-provoking interviews around; almost every time I listen (it’s on Saturday mornings from 6 to 8 on our local PBS station) I learn new things or new ways of looking at things. This morning when I staggered into the living room, my wife (who gets up earlier than I do) said “You’re just in time, they’re going to do an hour on languages!” And so they did; the show, “Saving Language,” is available here, and I particularly recommend the first two segments, David Harrison on documenting endangered languages and Danna Harman on the Yung Yiddish library in Tel Aviv.
Related: Pablo Helguera’s Conservatory of Dead Languages (“In building his Conservatory of Dead Languages, Helguera has created a kind of symbolic museum of dying languages by recording them on wax cylinders, using the method invented by Thomas Edison in 1877”). Thanks, Trevor!
In my introductory undergraduate course on English words, and in most undergraduate introductory courses on linguistics, students are invited to reflect on language and identity—how the way you speak communicates information about who you are—which they are typically very interested in. This isn't my beat, professionally speaking, but as a linguist I have a duty to help my students think through some of these issues (and, if they get interested, point them in the right direction to get really educated). To get started, I often play this one-minute clip of a Meshach Taylor Fresh Air interview from 1990, which is usually a good starting point for some discussion.
But Fresh Air (yes I'm a Terry Gross fangirl) also recently ran an interview with the biracial South African host of the Daily Show, Trevor Noah, which contained this ten-minute motherlode of a reflection on multilingualism, language choice, racism, acceptable targets of mimicry, vocabulary size, Trump's communicative abilities, resentment of accented speech… whew. I'm just going to leave it here for your edification and enjoyment. Maybe one of our more sociolinguistically expert Language Loggers will provide some more detailed commentary later. For my part — well, I just invite you to think about what kind of 500-word essay you'd write for a Ling 101 class with this 10-minute clip as your prompt.
To hear the whole interview, or read the transcript, visit the NPR Fresh Air page.
I’ve been reading Flann O’Brien again, having picked up Hair of the Dogma (Paladin, 1989), a selection from his riotous Irish Times column ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’, which he wrote under the pseudonym Myles na Gopaleen. (Brian O’Nolan was the writer’s real name; he had many pseudonyms, of which Flann O’Brien is probably the best known.)
Because Myles excelled at satire and wore many masks, it is hard to tell sometimes just how serious or truthful he is being. But I believe this passage from his article ‘J.J. and Us’ (J.J. meaning James Joyce), about a plan to translate Ulysses into Irish, to be essentially on the level:
I suppose uncertainty is the handmaid of all grandiose literary projects. Many motives lay behind that 1951 decision of mine to translate Joyce’s Ulysses into Irish. If they won’t read it in English, I said to myself, bedamn but we’ll put them in the situation that they can boast they won’t read it in Irish aither.
It’s work, though. And black thoughts encloister me, like brooding buzzards. Is it worth being accurate if nobody will ever read the translation? What’s the Irish for Robert Emmet? And who will put Irish on this fearsome thing written by Joyce himself: Suil, suil, suil arun, suil go siocair agus, suil go cuin.
See the snares in this business, doom impending, heart-break?
Aither as a Hiberno-English rendition of either is something I’ll address in a future post. What Myles calls a ‘fearsome thing’ is already in Irish (that being the joke, I suppose), or a version of Irish without accent marks, and occurs in the Ithaca episode of Ulysses as follows:
What fragments of verse from the ancient Hebrew and ancient Irish languages were cited with modulations of voice and translation of texts by guest to host and by host to guest?
By Stephen: suil, suil, suil arun, suil go siocair agus, suil go cuin (walk, walk, walk your way, walk in safety, walk with care).
By Bloom: Kifeloch, harimon rakatejch m’baad l’zamatejch (thy temple amid thy hair is as a slice of pomegranate).
How far O’Nolan got in his efforts to translate Ulysses, I don’t know. He seems to have put his mind and pen to it to some extent, as the following text from the same ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’ article suggests – though again it’s hard to know for sure how much it reflects reality and how much is dramatised for style and effect or even mischief. O’Brien scholars might know more about this abandoned project.
Recently a chap said to me: How’s it going? I told him it was going so-so. Slow of course. These things take time. . . . Uphill work when all decent Christians are in bed. The midnight oil. Drudgery of a special kind.
Told you. Bit off more than you could chaw. You and all that B. Comm. crowd is too smart.
No, no, no, I told him. The job COULD be done. There were, of course, difficulties – minute things of rhythm, luminance, impact. The acute difficulty in translation lay in the lucid conveyance of obscurity. Even the hidden thing was susceptible of diacrisis. Not in the same darkness were all dark things enwrapped.
His sceptical interlocutor tells him there’s no future in it, and that he’d be ‘a damn sight better off’ playing bagpipes in Bagenalstown. Myles presents him with a sample, reading first the text from Ulysses:
Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eye. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot . . .
And then his translation into Irish, which he reads ‘from my large manuscript’:
Mionshamhlíocht dosheachanta an tsofheicse; fiú an mhéid sin féin, intiniocht tré fháisnéis súl. Lorg an uile a bhfuil agam annso le sonnrú, scéag mara, leathach, an tuile i gcuaird, an bhróg úd mheirgeach . . .
My Irish is nowhere near good enough to judge the literary merits of this translation, but it sounds good to the ear, and I would tend to trust in O’Nolan’s competence: he was a native speaker who wrote often in Irish, and was an erudite polyglot receptive to puns and rarefied allusions alike.
I also read a very good illustrated biography of Flann, by Peters Costello and van de Kamp, which I’m told is out of print. There are a few excerpts in this string of tweets, and on my Tumblr quotes from Flann on literature being disgusting, on recasting classic characters in fiction, and, famously, on the thrill of waiting for the German verb.
Finally: anyone interested in the works of this uniquely talented and protean writer will find much to enjoy at the International Flann O’Brien Society, which publishes a terrific journal called The Parish Review, to which you can sign up by email.
Filed under: books, Ireland, literature, translation, writers, writing Tagged: books, Flann O'Brien, Ireland, Irish, Irish language, irish literature, James Joyce, literature, Myles na Gopaleen, translation, Ulysses, writers, writing
Among the pleasures of Robert Graves and Alan Hodge’s writing manual The Reader Over Your Shoulder: A Handbook for Writers of English Prose (1943) is their attempt to put some order on phrases of approximate quantity. It appears among the book’s Principles of Clear Statement, the principle in question being: ‘There should never be any doubt left as to how much, or how long.’
After grumbling briefly about the ‘proper’ (read: borderline etymologically fallacious) use of terms like infinitesimal and microscopic, the authors state that there is ‘a popular scale of emotional approximation’ – not found in any dictionary or reference table – for ‘estimating the comparative degrees of success in, say, catching a train’. It goes like this:
Not nearly, nearly, almost, not quite, all but, just not, within an ace, within a hair’s breadth – oh! by the skin of my teeth, just, only just, with a bit of a rush, comfortably, easily, with plenty to spare.
You might dispute the order of these terms, or suggest additions – some of the idiomatic ones seem chosen rather arbitrarily; others have dated – but it is interesting to see them lined up sequentially like this. If you’ve ever wondered if nearly or almost is closer to the target, well, here are two careful readers who feel nearly is nearer the thing.
Graves and Hodge then decide that the ‘popular measure of proportion’ (nearly all, part of, etc.) could be translated into percentage terms, and duly lay it out as follows (the underlines are mine):
(100%) Mr. Jordan’s fortune consisted wholly of bar-gold.
(99%) Practically all his fortune consisted of bar-gold.
(95%) His fortune consisted almost entirely of bar-gold.
(90%) Nearly all his fortune consisted of bar-gold.
(80%) By far the greater part of his fortune consisted of bar-gold.
(70%) The greater part of his fortune consisted of bar-gold.
(60%) More than half his fortune consisted of bar-gold.
(55%) Rather more than half his fortune consisted of bar-gold.
(50%) Half his fortune consisted of bar-gold.
(45%) Nearly half his fortune consisted of bar-gold.
(40%) A large part of his fortune consisted of bar-gold.
(35%) Quite a large part of his fortune consisted of bar-gold.
(30%) A considerable part of his fortune consisted of bar-gold.
(25%) Part of his fortune consisted of bar-gold.
(15%) A small part of his fortune consisted of bar-gold.
(10%) Not much of his fortune consisted of bar-gold.
(5%) A very small part of his fortune consisted of bar-gold.
(1%) An inconsiderable part of his fortune consisted of bar-gold.
(0%) None of his fortune consisted of bar-gold.
They describe this scale as ‘generally accepted’ but regretfully observe that it is ‘confused by writers who, for dramatic effect, try to make 5% seem more than it is’. Accepted by whom exactly, I don’t know, but the second point is certainly true: many writers are prone to exaggeration for effect or emphasis, perhaps from lack of faith in what they have to say or in how they are saying it.
Bars of gold aside, we can imagine situations where this scale could, if not resolve disagreement, at least offer a point of reference. Just as we all divide the colour spectrum slightly differently, so are we likely to have different ideas about how much the greater part or a small part amounts to. And if I eat 35% of this apple tart, I now know precisely how to formulate my indulgence.
Filed under: books, language, literature, semantics, words, writing Tagged: adverbs, Alan Hodge, books, exaggeration, journalism, language, literature, Robert Graves, semantics, usage, words, writing
Urban North Americans live in what is probably the most status-conscious culture on earth. The reason we don’t recognize it as such is because most of us are stuck in a model derived from the old aristo/bourgeois/prole hierarchy, where status is linear and vertical, a ladder on which one may (or may not) be able to move either up or down.
That model of status is pretty much obsolete. Over the course of the 20th century, the dominant North American leisure class underwent three distinct changes, each marked by shifts in the relevant status symbols, rules for display, and advancement strategies. The first change was from the quasi-aristocratic conspicuous leisure of the late 19th-century time to the bourgeois conspicuous consumption that marked the growing affluence of the first half of the 20th century, a pattern of status competition that is commonly referred to as “keeping up with the Joneses.”
The next change was from bourgeois consumerism to a stance of cultivated non-conformity that is variously known as “cool,” “hip,” or “alternative.” This form of status-seeking emerged out of the critique of mass society as it was picked up by the ’60s counterculture, and as it became the dominant status system of urban life we saw the emergence of what we can call “rebel” or “hip” consumerism. The rebel consumer goes to great lengths to show that he is not a dupe of advertising, that he does not follow the crowd, expressing his politics and his individuality through the consumption of products that have a rebellious or out-of-the-mainstream image—underground bands, hip-hop fashions, skateboarding shoes, and so on.
But by the turn of the millennium cool had ceased to be credible as a political stance, and we have since seen yet another shift, from conspicuous non-conformity to what we can call “conspicuous authenticity.” The trick now is to subtly demonstrate that while you may have a job, a family, and a house full of stuff, you are not spiritually connected to any of it. What matters now is not just buying things, it is taking time for you, to create a life focused on your unique needs and that reflects your particular taste and sensibility. (more)
Let’s see, conspicuous leisure, then conspicuous consumption, then conspicuous non-conformity, then conspicuous authenticity. What’s next?
Maybe no one you know will read the above, and you can safely ignore it. But if you start to learn that many people you know are starting to see conspicuous authenticity as just another way that posers vie for status, then of course your community will come to not accept that as giving real status. No, you’ll start to see some new kinds of behavior as the sort of thing that people do who don’t care about status, but are just being “real”.
Then you’ll start to become aware that other people that you know agree with this new attitude of yours. You’ll get more comfortable with saying that you approve of these sorts of behavior in others, with hearing others say the same thing, and you’ll notice that you feel good when other people credit you with such behavior. You and your associates will all feel good about themselves, knowing they are all good people who deserve respect because they do these things, things that they all know are not about status seeking.
At which point these new behaviors will have become your new status game. You see, status-seeking behavior must be a respected behavior that isn’t seen as overtly status seeking. Because we all agree that we don’t respect behavior that is done mainly to gain status. Even though we do, we do, we very much do.