Thursday, October 18, 2007

Literary link-o-rama

  • The New Yorker profiles the creators of HBO's top-notch show The Wire.
Finely tuned as Simon’s ear is for the newsroom, it is perhaps even better calibrated for the street corner and the precinct, having been sharpened by thirteen years of daily crime reporting. Viewers of “The Wire” must master a whole argot, though it can take a while, because the words are never defined, just as they wouldn’t be by real people tossing them around. To have “suction” is to have pull with your higher-ups on the police force or in City Hall; a “redball” is a high-profile case with political consequences; to “re-up” is to get more drugs to sell. Drugs are branded with names taken from the latest news cycle: Pandemic, W.M.D., Greenhouse Gas. “The game” is the drug trade, although it emerges during the course of the show as a metaphor for the web of constraints that political and economic institutions impose on the people trapped within them. And, in one memorable neologism, a penis is referred to as a “Charles Dickens.”

Because Simon and his primary writing partner, Ed Burns—a former Baltimore homicide detective who was once one of Simon’s sources—are both middle-aged white men, people tend to assume that the dialogue spoken by the drug dealers and ghetto kids is ad-libbed by the black actors on the show. In fact, one of the show’s writers was always present on the set, keeping the actors on script. A single dropped word was noted and corrected. Gbenga Akinnagbe, the actor who plays a drug dealer’s henchman named Chris Partlow, said, “This is David’s domain. He gets the streets of Baltimore better than we do.” The novelist Dennis Lehane (“Mystic River”), whom Simon hired to write several scripts, agrees: “When you hear the really authentic street poetry in the dialogue, that’s David, or Ed Burns. Anything that’s literally 2006 or 2007 African-American ghetto dialogue—that’s them. They are so much further ahead of the curve on that.”
  • The original versions of Raymond Carver's short stories may be published in the near future.
Carver, who died in 1988 at 50, had tried to set the record straight himself. He restored and republished five of the stories from “What We Talk About” in magazines or later collections. In “Where I’m Calling From,” a volume of new and selected stories that Mr. Fisketjon helped edit and that was published the year Carver died, three of the stories that had appeared in “What We Talk About” — “So Much Water So Close to Home,” “The Bath” (retitled “A Small, Good Thing”) and “Distance” — appeared in restored form. But Carver also included four other stories from “What We Talk About” in the versions edited by Mr. Lish.

“When we put together ‘Where I’m Calling From,’ these were the stories that he handpicked from his work to live in posterity in the versions that he wanted them to live in,” Mr. Fisketjon said. “If that is not the end of the story, I don’t know what that would be.”
The FCC's decision raises another mystery about swearing: the bizarre number of different ways in which we swear. There is cathartic swearing, as when we slice our thumb along with the bagel. There are imprecations, as when we offer advice to someone who has cut us off in traffic. There are vulgar terms for everyday things and activities, as when Bess Truman was asked to get the president to say fertilizer instead of manure and she replied, "You have no idea how long it took me to get him to say manure." There are figures of speech that put obscene words to other uses, such as the barnyard epithet for insincerity, the army acronym snafu, and the gynecological-flagellative term for uxorial dominance. And then there are the adjective-like expletives that salt the speech and split the words of soldiers, teenagers, and Irish rock-stars.

But perhaps the greatest mystery is why politicians, editors, and much of the public care so much.
Researchers scoured grammatical texts dating back to the days of Old English, cataloguing all the irregular verbs they came across. Among them: the still irregular "sing" / "sang," "go" / "went" as well as the since-regularized "smite" which once was "smote" in Old English but since has become "smited," and "slink," which is now "slinked" but 1,200 years ago was "slunk." They located 177 verbs that were irregular in Old English and 145 that were still irregular in Middle English; today, only 98 of the 177 verbs have not been "regularized.'"

After calculating the frequency of use of each of the 177 irregular Old English verbs, researchers determined that the words that evolved most quickly into regular conjugational forms were used significantly less than those that went unchanged over time. In fact, their statistical analysis determined that given two verbs, if one was used 100 times less frequently than the other, it would evolve 10 times faster than the verb employed more often. They predict the next verb to fall into line will be wed, the past tense of which will regularize from wed to wedded.

By being more frequent, a verb is more stable," says study co-author Erez Lieberman, a graduate student in applied mathematics at Harvard University. He adds that both the Harvard and Reading papers lay out a case for a version of natural selection that acts on linguistic evolution and mirrors biological evolution. "Both studies," he says, "illustrate this profound effect that frequency has in the survival of a word."

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