Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘language’

13 DECEMBER, 2012

The Fine Art of Italian Hand Gestures: A Vintage Visual Dictionary by Bruno Munari

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A pocket guide to Neapolitan nonverbal communication.

Somewhere between his seminal manifestos on design as art and his timelessly delightful children’s books, legendary Italian artist and graphic designer Bruno Munari made time for a number of idiosyncratic side projects. Among them is Speak Italian: The Fine Art of the Gesture (UK; public library) — a charming, quirky, minimalist guide to Italians’ expressive nonverbal communication originally published in 1958 as a supplement to the Italian dictionary, inspired by The Ancients’ Mimic Through the Neapolitan Gestures, the first collection of gestures made by Canon Andrea de Jorio in 1832. Unlike the hefty and sparsely illustrated 380-page original tome, however, Munari’s pocket-sized version features frugally descriptive text and ample, elegant black-and-white photographs of hand-gestures for everything from mundane activities like reading and writing to emotive expressions of praise and criticism.

In the short preface, Munari notes the globalization of nonverbal vernacular, as Neapolitan gestures begin being recognized worldwide and American imports like “OK” permeate Italian culture, then promises:

We have collected a good many gestures, leaving aside vulgar ones, in order to give an idea of their meaning to foreigners visiting Italy and as a supplement to an Italian dictionary.

Old Neapolitan gestures, from left to right: money, past times, affirmation, stupid, good, wait a moment, to walk backward, to steal, horns, to ask for.

Another illustrated page of the book of Canon Andrea de Jorio. Meaning of the gestures: silence, no, beauty, hunger, to mock, weariness, stupid, squint, to deceive, cunning.

Gestures of drinking and eating (from an old Neapolitan print)

'You make a mockery of the 'madam'!' (from an old Neapolitan print)

For a naughty twist, complement Speak Italian: The Fine Art of the Gesture with the surrealist chart of erotic hand signaling.

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29 OCTOBER, 2012

The Etymology of “Hangover”

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What George Washington and coarse French fabric have to do with the language of drunkenness.

The fringes of language have a special kind of allure, especially when it comes to the unsuspected origins of common words. That’s precisely what Mark Forsyth explores with equal parts wryness, curiosity, and erudition in The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language (public library), based on his popular language-geekery blog The Inky Fool. Among Forsyth’s fascinating, meandering stories of linguistic historicity is that of the hangover — a phenomenon encrusted with rich empirical familiarity, and even some scientific knowledge, but paltry etymological grasp.

[George Washington] had an elder half-brother and mentor called Lawrence Washington who had, in fact, been a British soldier. Specifically, he was a marine in the Royal Navy. As a recruit from the British dominions in North America, he served under Admiral Edward Vernon in the Caribbean, and was part of the force that seized a strategically important base called Guantánamo, which has some minor position in modern history.

Lawrence Washington was very attached to admiral Vernon. So loyal was he that when he went home to the family estate, which had been called Little Hunting Creek Plantation, he decided to rename it Mount Vernon. So Washington’s house was named after a British admiral.

Admiral Vernon’s naming exploits didn’t end there, though. In 1739 Vernon led the British assault on Porto Bello in what is now Panama. He had only six ships, but with lots of derring-do and British pluck, et cetera, he won a startling victory. In fact, so startling was the victory that a patriotic English farmer heard the news, dashed off to the countryside west of London, and built Portobello Farm in honour of the victory’s startlingness. Green’s Lane, which was nearby, soon became known as Portobello Lane and then Portobello Road. And that’s why the London market, now one of the largest antiques markets in the world, is called Portobello Market.

But Admiral Vernon’s naming exploits didn’t end there, either. When the seas were stormy he used to wear a thick coat made out of coarse material called grogram (from the French gros grain). So his men nicknamed him Old Grog.

British sailors used to have a daily allowance of rum. In 1740, flushed from victory at Porto Bello and perhaps under the pernicious influence of Lawrence Washington, Vernon ordered that the rum be watered down. The resulting mixture, which eventually became standard for the whole navy, was also named after Vernon. It was called grog.

If you drank too much grog you became drunk or groggy, and the meaning has slowly shifted from there to the wages of gin: a hangover.

The rest of The Etymologicon traces curious linguistic origin stories connecting concepts as seemingly unrelated as sex and bread, Medieval monks and cappuccino, sausage poison and botox, and much more.

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12 SEPTEMBER, 2012

Thoughtful Alphabets: Edward Gorey’s Lost Cryptic 26-Word Illustrated Stories

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A delightfully dark journey into the love of language.

Having a soft spot for all things Edward Gorey and unusual alphabet books, I was thrilled by Pomegranate’s new edition of Thoughtful Alphabets: The Just Dessert and The Deadly Blotter (public library) — a collection of two cryptic 26-word stories, in which the word begin with the letters of the alphabet in order and the story progresses as the alphabet does in parallel.

The stories belong to a mid-90s “Thoughtful Alphabets” series, the first six volumes of which were released as hand-lettered posters illustrated with clip-art. Then, several years ago, stories numbers XI and XVII emerged as signed limited-edition books featuring Gorey’s original drawings — but the books quickly went out of print. In this beautiful resurrection, Gorey’s signature blend of wit and dark whimsy shines in each of the micro-vignettes — a fine complement to his beloved alphabet classic, The Gashlycrumb Tinies.

Illustrations © The Edward Gorey Charitable Trust, courtesy Pomegranate. All rights reserved.

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