Word by Word by Kory Stamper

Kory Stamper is a lexicographer used to work for Merriam-Webster, writing dictionaries. Word by Word is, in some sense, a memoir of her time there, from the point of view of some of the more interesting and challenging words she encountered. It’s both a description of what it means to be a writer of dictionaries, both now and in the past, as well as a vivid reminder of how language evolves. If there is nothing else to take from Stamper, it’s that language changes, that words come and go, and that there is no “correct” way of writing.

Stamper sprinkles Word by Word with stories of words the confound dictionary writers and the dictionary writers themselves. There are brief historical asides on the first dictionaries and how they changed over the years. Stamper loves English and her love shines through in her relationships with words. She throws out quite a few that caught my eye:

  • snollygoster: an unprincipled or shrewd person
  • Why do we call practical and unflappable people “phlegmatic”? Because we used to believe that they were unexcitable because they had an overabundance of phlegm in them.
  • “GI” (originally “galvanized iron,” if you can believe it, but misconstrued by soldiers and others as “government issue”)
  • “snafu” and “fubar” (“situation normal: all fucked up” and “fucked up beyond all recognition,” brought to you by government bureaucracy)
  • Who thought that “pumpernickel” was a good name for a dark rye bread? Because when you trace the word back to its German origins, you find it means “fart goblin”
  • borborygmus: intestinal rumbling caused by moving gas

A key message Stamper emphasizes multiple times: Dictionaries are not meant to be prescriptive, to tell us how to use English. Rather, dictionaries are there to record how the language is actually used. They don’t tell us what is right or wrong, but rather what is actually done. “We are just observers, and the goal is to describe, as accurately as possible, as much of the language as we can.”

As alluded to above, the parts I enjoyed the most are where Stamper rails against the so-called grammar Nazis that tell us how words have to be used. A few examples:

  • “Good” has been used for almost a thousand years as an adverb, even though usage commentators and peevers have condemned this use.
  • The fact is that many of the things that are presented to us as rules are really just the of-the-moment preferences of people who have had the opportunity to get their opinions published and whose opinions end up being reinforced and repeated down the ages as Truth.
  • Standard English as it is presented by grammarians and pedants is a dialect that is based on a mostly fictional, static, and Platonic ideal of usage.
  • People rarely think of English as a cumulative thing: they might be aware of new coinages that they don’t like, but they view those as recent incursions into the fixed territory they think of as “English,” which was, is, and shall be evermore.

One interesting bit is when Stamper goes into pronunciation, using the word “nuclear” as an example. I’m a bit sensitive to this one as people who say “nucular” are often ridiculed in my field (of nuclear materials) and I’m always a bit fearful that I say it that way. George Bush got a lot of flak when he pronounced it “nucular,” however Stamper points out that the earliest print records of that spelling come from people in the military, government, and nuclear sciences. She notes that Jimmy Carter pronounced nuclear as “nucular” and goes on to say “Jimmy Carter spent his time in the U.S. Navy working on… nuclear submarines… and actually [was] lowered into a nuclear reactor core that had melted down in order to dismantle it. To my mind, he has earned the right to pronounce ‘nuclear’ however he damned well pleases.

As someone who writes a lot, both for work and pleasure, I found Stamper’s view of the language refreshing. She doesn’t advocate for a right way of doing things, but acknowledges and indeed glories in the fact that English (and all languages, except dead ones) evolve. Every generation seems to think that the language is going to hell, that the kids don’t respect the language of their fathers and mothers. The fact is, neither did they. And that is what makes language so interesting.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

Harry August is a unique individual: every time he dies, he relives his life, with his previous memories in tact. He is not alone, as there are others with his “power.” Claire North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August chronicles, as the title says, the first fifteen lives that Harry lives, describing his brushes with history and with others with his power that have different plans on how to use it.

The idea of reincarnation is of course not new, but the spin that North gives it here — that one might be reincarnated but in their original body to live again — gives this story a different direction. People like Harry can accumulate knowledge through the living of many lives, becoming experts at many different fields. Harry, through his life, studies religion, quantum physics, and medicine, all in an attempt to learn what his place in the universe is. A very cool touch is how people like Harry communicate beyond their own lifetimes to others with their power to understand how the world evolves beyond them. Knowledge from the future can be passed backwards through overlapping lives.

There are two main themes of this story, at least that I picked up on. The first touches on our role in the universe. Do we have any special place, special role that we are supposed to fulfill? Harry has this special ability to relive his lives. Does this mean he also has some special purpose? Is his purpose any more special than anyone else’s? The second theme relates to knowledge, and what knowing does to us. Does it make us wiser? What do we do with that knowledge? If we know Hitler is going to destroy so many lives and we can kill him as a baby, is that overall good? What about unforeseen consequences? What if others learn you have knowledge of the future?

Harry and his kind have great power — they know what the future will hold through their backwards communication. They can essentially experiment with world events and see if things turn out better or worse through the course of several lifetimes. But, they have found that history is too complex to control and thus they have settled into some kind of apathy, justifying any real action because of the complexity of the consequences. How do any of us justify our actions when a seemingly insignificant remark or activity may have a butterfly effect beyond our control or even comprehension? For Harry these questions are exaggerated as he has an even greater ability to understand the consequences of his actions, but this question applies to all of us, to some degree.

North does an excellent job of describing Harry’s lives and his interactions with both history and others like him. She touches on some deep questions and does so with elegance. She brings Harry alive with his internal commentary and his interactions with others. Some bits that resonated with me include:

  • I was out of shape, having never been in much of a shape to get out of, and my confinement had hardly aided the process.
  • He said, “We don’t want to hurt you, Harry. Christ, I’m not that guy, I’m just not; I’m one of the good guys. I’m a good guy trying to do the best. We don’t want to hurt you, but you gotta understand this is bigger than you or me, much, much bigger.”
  • “The most it ever seems we know how to do with time is to waste it.”
  • “Everyone’s a decent person,” she replied softly, “in their own eyes.”

As I’ve said before, a great story is one that keeps you entertained while also exploring some deep questions. North’s story does just that. There is a strong action/adventure element (that takes place over the span of Harry’s fifteen lives) that serves as the backdrop to discussions on humanity’s role in the universe, the power of knowledge and technology, the consequences of actions, and the nature of good and evil. This is a great story that I highly recommend.

Why I post about the books I read

When my brother found out that I post online about the books I read, his reaction was “Why”. Why would anyone care what you read? Are you some kind of narcissist?

Well, maybe, though I don’t think any more than any of the rest of us. Reading takes some amount of time and effort and sharing thoughts, as brief as they are, is one way of recognizing it. It’s also the new equivalent of the massive bookshelf in one’s home, showing off the wide range of interests and knowledge one accumulates over a life time. Especially in an age of digital books where there is no longer a bookshelf to place them to show off (and gather dust) after they’ve been read, posting about them is one way of showing off what I ready.

So, yeah, I can’t deny that element.

But, really, the main reason is for myself, and to have a record of what I read because, honestly, I have a horrible memory. I can’t recall much of anything and having some record is my way of jotting down what I felt was interesting or important in that book. The very act of writing about a book helps store something in my brain about it. It also gives me a potential place to go back and look at what I thought about the book, gives me some record I can refer to in case I want to revisit what I thought. At the very least, it gives me a record of what I’ve read, so I don’t end up rereading something.

This isn’t unique to me. It is generically hard to remember what we read. Especially when it comes in bursts, like on an airplane, in stead of steady, dedicated reading of a text. We all consume lots of information of various sorts, and this is my way of trying to remember, at least a bit, what I’ve consumed.

That I post my thoughts online instead of in a private diary, well, that admittedly is a bit of narcissism. Maybe someone else will read something because I’ve written about it. Maybe not. Maybe someone will follow up with a great recommendation. It really doesn’t matter. Mostly, this is for me and if anyone else gets any benefit, that is gravy.

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale is set in old Russia, long before there was a Soviet Union and even┬ábefore a Russia existed. There was only the Rus people and they lived scattered, outposts of people in an otherwise hostile world. A world in which the creatures of fairy tales are real, though very few people can see them directly.

Vasya, the daughter of Pyotr, the leader of one of the furthest settlements, is one such person. She can see these creatures everyone since, in old Rus lore, they literally exist everywhere. Every building has such a creature that tends it — the house, the bathhouse, the stables. Vasya, being one of the very few that can see them and thus interact with them, and unburdened by the harsh interpretation that Christianity imposes about them, becomes their friend and learns from them. They teach her the impossible, such as how to talk with animals, and soon she is riding horses bare-back with a skill that rivals the best warriors of the village.

The plot involves some powerful beings from Russian folklore and Vasya’s role in protecting her family from them. Saying more would give it away. However, throughout the story, Vasya is the strongest character, the one that stands up for what is right even if it means being on the wrong end of scorn and, often, punishment. Her strength is juxtaposed with the weaknesses of her step-mother, who can also see the so-called ‘demons.’ In the end, it is Vasya’s willingness to accept the reality around her and her ability to see beyond the social constructs that dictate the lives of everyone else that enable her to be such a strong protagonist. She doesn’t constrain her beliefs and actions on what is right or wrong by social norms, she simply does what she thinks is right.

Vasya’s world is filled with the supernatural, a world that even her closest relatives are almost completely ignorant of. They have their superstitions and such, but they don’t directly interact with the supernatural. Arden does a great job of bringing the supernatural to life in this story as well as juxtaposing Vasya’s existence in it, on the one hand deeply immersed in a world of fairies and on the other the mundane world of humans. Vasya lives in both worlds and, through her initial innocence, is able to do so without any contradiction. To her, both are part of the natural world. For her, the world of people, and the people themselves, are often more frightening than the supernatural creatures she encounters.

Vasya also lives in a time where women were expected to do one of two things: become a wife and mother or join a convent. “I was born for a cage, after all: convent or house, what else is there?” She sees much more in the real world and longs for a freedom that simply isn’t an option for women of her time.

The supernatural world is handled deftly by Arden. While ever-present, it isn’t overwhelming either. That is, it adds to the story rather than distract from it. Arden also develops an interesting view on magic. One character tells Vasya “Nothing changes, Vasya. Things are, or they are not. Magic is forgetting that something ever was other than as you willed it.” Magic is looking beyond the possibilities the world imposes on us, whether expectations of what things or of what people are. Either can become more than what they were originally intended if you can look beyond that original purpose.

This is the first of three books that follow the story of Vasya. In this one, we mostly follow her life as a child and her growing into her role in the world, both human and supernatural. It seems like it will be a challenge to retain the innocence that drives a lot of Vasya’s character in this chapter of the story. However, that also means that Vasya is destined for even greater things. We shall see.

Spillover by David Quammen

Many, if not the majority, of human diseases are what are called zoonotic. They don’t originate in humans but pass to humans from animals. Ebola, the common flu (“…wild aquatic birds are now known to be the ultimate origin of all influenzas…“), and AIDS are just a few examples. It seems that the rate at which such diseases are making their way to the human population is increasing. In his book Spillover, David Quammen delves deep into this question, traveling the globe, interviewing leading scientists, and witnessing first-hand our response to these diseases.

Spillover is one of those “popular” science books that it would behoove everyone to read. It is accessible, boiling the science down to the essentials and describing it in a way that is understandable. More importantly, it discusses a topic that is often in the news and which will only become more prevalent and newsworthy as time passes. Further, the types of diseases that Quammen investigates are becoming more common and understanding why and how may┬ábe a critical step in preventing a future epidemic.

This is one of those books where I was constantly highlighting passages, as I was continually learning something new, interesting, and, seemingly, important. Quammen is a field reporter, having worked with publications such as National Geographic. He doesn’t just report but he participates in his stories. As such, he has a multitude of anecdotes to share. Some of them are very enlightening as he describes, for example, how he helped capture bats to test them for various viruses. Once or twice, his penchant for storytelling goes a little astray, for instance when he hypothesizes the voyage of one of the first HIV positive men in Africa traveling along the river and settling in a city where he spreads the disease. In these instances, I grew a bit impatient and wished he would get to the science. But, overall, his vibrant descriptions broke up what might have been a dull narrative and certainly gives it flavor.

Quammen describes the basics of zoonotic diseases. They have some animal host, that often is unaffected by the pathogen. Often there is an amplifier host, another animal in which the virus can quickly replica and from which it can be quickly injected into the environment and find its way to humans. He goes in to detail about numerous zoonotic outbreaks and how scientists trace the origins of those outbreaks and try to develop vaccines for them. This effort reads like a detective mystery, as scientists have to piece together very fragmentary bits of evidence to build a picture of what is going on. And this is a hard problem. We still don’t know what the host animal is for the Ebola virus, despite the effort put into identifying it.

One of the central themes of Quammen’s book, one that he raises multiple times but doesn’t really beat to death, is that the reason that zoonotic diseases are on the rise is because humans are continuously disrupting the habitat of animals. By deforestation and construction, we encroach into new areas where animal hosts with these diseases have lived maybe for millennia and now we are exposed to them and their diseases. It is our increased interaction with remote species that seems to be the driver. As Quammen puts it “Human-caused ecological pressures and disruptions are bringing animal pathogens ever more into contact with human populations, while human technology and behavior are spreading those pathogens ever more widely and quickly.” By the latter, he means our ease of global travel, where a virus originating in China can make its way through Hong Kong and then to Europe and the Americas before anyone comes down with symptoms. There are also a lot more of us than there used to be. From the planet’s point of view, we might be one of the more successful pathogens… As Quammen summarizes the situation “Ebola virus is not in your habitat. You are in its.” Further, climate change may exacerbate the problem. Drier climates can lead to easier transmission of pathogens as they can carry on the air easier.

Often, the host species are bats. This surprised me to some degree. Why would bats be special? This is a question that is still being understood. Bats are very abundant. One quarter of all mammal species on the planet are bats. They also behave very differently from other mammals in that they can fly long distances and roost together in large communities, enabling the transmission of pathogens. However, the role of bats as hosts seems greater than their shear number. There is something about viruses that are harmless to bats, and so they carry them, that are deadly to humans. This is still an open scientific question.

Quammen goes through the basics of disease science: how scientists model disease spread, how we characterize diseases, and how we use that information to trace the origins of the disease. He provides numerous examples of how we have been able to isolate the nature of the specific virus that is attacking humans and where it might have originated from. AIDS is an interesting example. There are lots of internet rumors and stories about where AIDS started. However, I have to be honest: I have never heard about the current best theory. My knowledge is clouded by the false information or earlier false leads and the current best hypothesis never made it to me. For those who are interested, it seems that the best hypothesis now is that an African hunter likely killed an infected chimp, for meat, way back in the early 1900s, maybe about 1908, way before we first identified the disease in humans. That is, it has been circulating in humans for the better part of at least 50 years before we even realized what was going on.

There are also interesting dynamics between the different levels of animals involved in the spread of disease. Take ticks and Lyme disease as an example. Ticks catch the disease from mammals, most often small rodents, who then pass it on to the next generation of ticks. That is, ticks aren’t born with the disease, they catch it from other animals. As one scientist quoted by Quammen says, “If mammals didn’t make ticks sick, ticks wouldn’t make mammals sick.” Further, the relationship to the animals we might interact with, in this case the deer, is not so obvious. It was thought that culling the deer would make the disease go away. It didn’t. It made it worse, in fact. This is still being studied, but it seems that the more we disrupt the native animal population, the more we increase the risk of spreading these diseases.

To reemphasize the central tenet of Spillover, the increase in these disease is a direct consequence of humans’ expansion across the globe. However, there are a lot of complex and interconnected factors at multiple levels that drive the spillover of a disease from the animal host to humans. “Habitat disturbance, bushmeat hunting, the exposure of humans to unfamiliar viruses that lurk in animal hosts — that’s ecology. Those things happen between humans and other kinds of organisms, and are viewed in the moment. Rates of replication and mutation of an RNA virus, differential success for different strains of the virus, adaptation of the virus to a new host — that’s evolution. It happens within a population of some organism, as the population responds to its environment over time.

Another theme that Quammen emphasizes is that, while we can, with enough diligence, understand and potentially control an outbreak, we cannot predict where the next one will be. There are too many things we simply don’t — and can’t — know, to make such a prediction. Thus, we need high levels of readiness to respond when the next outbreak occurs. “If we can’t predict a forthcoming influenza pandemic or any other newly emergent virus, we can at least be vigilant; we can be well-prepared and quick to respond; we can be ingenious and scientifically sophisticated in the forms of our response.”

Blah, blah, blah… I've got the blahs.

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