December 30, 2011

Words of the Month - Don't Lose the Fat

        Here we are coming up on the New Year, and, having overindulged over the holidays, many a hopeful person makes a Resolution to lose some fat in the coming year.  Nowadays we tend to think of fat as a bad thing best avoided.  We divide up fats according to whether they're good or bad for our health: trans-fats, saturated fats, omega 3 fats…  But English has many words for fats, and they tell us a lot about how we viewed fat in past centuries.
Jack Sprat could eat no fat.  His wife could eat no lean...

fat - Let's start with the word fat itself.  This word has been with us since Old English, keeping a stable meaning all this time.  But some of the metaphorical uses of the word are more revealing.  For example, think of the phrase living off the fat of the land, in which fat means the richest and best part.  We didn't always think fat was such a bad thing.

suet - hard fatty tissue about the loins and kidneys of beef, sheep, etc.  
tallow - hard rendered fat of sheep and cattle, used to make candles and soap
lard - rendered fat of hogs, especially internal fat of the abdomen (also v. adding fat (or, metaphorically, something else) into something) (Ultimately derived from Latin for bacon)
schmaltz - rendered chicken, goose, (or pork) fat, especially in German and Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine (from German, entered English via Yiddish, cognate with melt)
        Having lots of different words for different varieties of something is always a good clue that that something is important in a culture.  Traditionally, fat was an important source of energy for hard work - calories in a world where people weren't constantly getting more calories than they needed.  Fat was also considered a delicious boost of flavor for any recipe.  Consider the process of larding lean meat with fat… nowadays we work hard to trim the fat out of the meat, but the verb lard comes from a time when people worked to put more fat in.
        Since the 1930's schmaltz has meant excessive sentimentality, presumably as in too much of a good thing.  An idiom falling into the schmaltz pot meant receiving a stroke of good luck.
        Note that the different words for fat above are divided not by their health affects as we tend to do nowadays, but according to where the fat comes from and how you use it, which tells you what was important to people then.

shortening - fat that is solid at room temperature used to make pastry or bread.  Shortening is something that shortens dough, and "short" dough is crumbly or friable, whereas "long" dough is stretchier.  (The OED lists its first use of shortening in 1823 and relates it to the sense of shorter fibers.  Some sources, however, give the word an older birthdate and attribute it to an entirely different root meaning weak or timid.  Believe whom you will.)

blubber - layer of fat below the skin of a whale or other large marine mammal (derived, apparently, as an imitative version of a Middle English word for bubble.)  Allegedly blubber is high in "good" fats and low in the "bad" fats, and tastes like arrowroot biscuits.

        Words for fat on people would, of course, be an entirely different list of words, all with their own slightly differing derivations and connotations.  Maybe losing some fat in 2012 would be a healthy resolution for some, but not for the English language.  I hope we don't trim the fat there!

[Picture: Jack Sprat and His Wife, Rosie, rubber block print by AEGN, 2001.]

December 27, 2011

Brender à Brandis Alphabet

        I got a wonderful Christmas gift from my parents - another block printed alphabet!  Now that this alphabet is added to my collection, I'm sure more of Gerard Brender à Brandis's wonderful prints will be showing up in future alphabet posts, but here's an introduction to his work.
        A Wood Engraver's Alphabet should really be called "A Botanical Alphabet."  Each letter is represented by a beautiful, detailed wood engraving of a plant, most of them being common garden flowers, with a few exotics filling things out.  Unlike me, Brender à Brandis used only common names for alphabetizing; no scientific names.  (But he did have to cheat pretty badly for X: foXglove. (Compare some other artists' attempts at X).)

        Gerard Brander à Brandis is a Canadian, born in Holland.  He's a gardener and orchidophile and has done several other books of botanical wood engravings, which I have not seen (although you can find some of the images on-line.)  I feel a certain sense of connection with another artist who works to portray something so celebrated for colors in a medium that allows only for form and pattern in black and white.  But of course his style is very different from mine.
        I just love the detail and texture possible with wood engraving.  Many of Brender à Brandis's pieces are almost lacy.  Many of them remind me of Renaissance diaper patterns (no, that has nothing to do with nappies.  A diaper is a repeated design woven into fabric.  Maybe I need to revisit this one in the Words of the Month some time.)  Anyway, what I mean is that many of the pieces in this alphabet are designed with an equal pattern all over instead of a single point of focus.  The Rose is an example of that.
        My favorites are usually the ones that have high contrast, though.  I like it when there are areas of black and white instead of everything an even level of texture.  I really love Morning Glory, for example.
        We're having a pretty mild winter here so far, but even so it's always pleasant to spend a little time among flowers in December.

[Pictures: Fireweed, wood engraving by Gerard Brender à Brandis, from A Wood Engraver's Alphabet, 2008;
Zinnia, wood engraving by Brender à Brandis, from A Wood Engraver's Alphabet, 2008;
Rose, wood engraving by Brender à Brandis, from A Wood Engraver's Alphabet, 2008;
Morning Glory, wood engraving by Brender à Brandis, from A Wood Engraver's Alphabet, 2008.]

December 23, 2011

Gruss vom Krampus

        Greetings from Krampus

        Here's an interesting mythological creature I hadn't heard of until a couple years ago: Krampus.  Krampus is a hairy demonic creature, rather like a satyr with a long, pointed tongue.  He began as a pagan beast, but when the Christian church gave up on eradicating him from his native Alpine regions, he was adopted into the Christmas tradition of various northern European countries.  There he takes on the job of punishing bad children while Saint Nicholas rewards the good ones.
        It's really quite horrible, both in theory and in practice.  The mythological theory is that bad children will be punished with coal or sticks instead of presents.  Very bad children will be beaten by the monster with switches and chains, and the worst children of all will be stuffed in Krampus's sack and carried away to be drowned, or devoured, or delivered straight to hell.  Nice.  Because nothing says "Christmas" like child abuse and sadistic vengeance.
        The way this gets acted out in reality is not much better.  Apparently roving bands of hideously costumed drunkards roam the streets terrifying young and old (especially young women, of course, since these hooligans are mostly young men.)  The traditional night for such frolics is December 5, the eve of Saint Nicholas's Day.  Are you afraid to leave the house?  Then it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas!
        I suppose I could examine how this sort of anarchistic fantasy functions as some sort of pressure-release valve, giving juvenile delinquents a structured, limited arena in which to misbehave.  Or perhaps I could discuss how fantasy threats - boogeymen - are used in cultures all around the world to encapsulate and personify all the dangers and evils that face children who don't learn the Right ways to behave.  Maybe we could muse on the phenomenon that humans seem to want to invest all our celebrations with fantasy  (Easter Bunny?  Great Pumpkin?  Elf on a Shelf, anyone?)  Perhaps Krampus can teach us a lesson about how we tend to end up adopting the very cultural traits we try to reject.
        In fact, there are so many directions the Krampus phenomenon could lead that I think I'll just leave it here, with an invitation to thought.  I don't much like Krampus, but he's undeniably an archetype that humans have invented, adapted, and reinvented over and over throughout history and wherever we live.  What does Krampus tell us about ourselves?

        [As for these pictures, they are all Krampus postcards from the late 19th and early 20th century.  Unfortunately, to my intense frustration, although images of Krampus abound on the web, none of them seem to be attributed in any way.  Nobody even gives their dates.   The last is taken from the book The Devil in Design by Monte Beauchamp (Fantagraphic Books, 2004) but I can't find any specific info about it, either.  It pains me greatly to post images without their proper credit and information, but I simply cannot find the facts.  Sorry!]

December 19, 2011

Christmas Treasury

        Do you know about this Etsy Treasury thing?  People put together (or "curate" as they like to say) collections of items listed on Etsy that fit into a particular theme.  It's a fun excuse for combing through the cornucopia that is Etsy, and it's a fun way to give some visibility to particular items.  The etiquette is that you don't feature your own items in the treasuries you make, so it's also a fun way to share some love.  And since the true spirit of Christmas is sharing the love, I decided that for today I'd simply present a treasury of Christmassy block prints from my fellow block-printing Etsy shopkeepers.

[Picture: Paper Birch in Winter, rubber block print by AEGN, 2007.]

December 16, 2011

Dinosaur Fantasy

        As every right-thinking six-year-old will tell you, dinosaurs are awesome.  (I'm a big fan of dinosaurs myself, and am especially fascinated by the evidence that has led to the discovery that many therapods were feathered.  Definitely cool stuff.  Too bad most dinosaur fiction is behind the times on this one, but oh well...)  It's certainly no surprise that dinosaurs should feature in many a fantasy or sci fi tale, from The Lost World by Doyle (1912) and The Land That Time Forgot by Burroughs (1918) to Jurassic Park by Crichton (1990).  Interacting with dinosaurs is high on any list of geek fantasies.  Here are a few dinosaur books we've enjoyed in our family.

The Enormous Egg by Oliver Butterworth - A farm boy discovers a large egg laid by one of his hens, and out hatches a triceratops.  How to take care of "Uncle Beazley," how to find him a home at the Smithsonian… and how to deal with politicians getting up to their usual political shenanigans are the challenges faced by our young hero.  This is a fun and funny tale, with the feel-good spirit of "Mr Smith Goes to Washington," combined with gentle satire of the foolishness of the powerful, and of course the fun of a giant dinosaur in 1950's New Hampshire.

How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight? by Jane Yolen and Mark Teague - Perhaps this isn't really a fantasy book… but what else would you call it when parents everywhere try to enforce bedtime on children who are full-sized dinosaurs (and a couple other prehistoric reptiles)?  The funny rhyming text pairs wonderfully with the bright paintings full of clever details.  I knew we'd found a winner when two-and-a-half-year-old T commented that her fussing brother was "sort of like a corythosaurus."  (This book spawned an entire series, but I remain loyal to the original.)

Captain Raptor and the Space Pirates by Patrick O'Brien and Kevin O'Malley  - This graphic novel is a masterful mash-up of all the cheesy old space adventure tropes with… dinosaurs, of course!  Our hero is a space-suited velociraptor, flying his trusty spaceship with his loyal dinosaurian crew.  It's an old tale made new and enjoyable, because who could resist Dinosaurs In Space?  Definitely not me or my nine-year-old son P!

Dinotopia by James Gurney - Once again, it's the pictures that really make this book.  The concept is "Lost World"-ish: shipwreck survivors pitch up on an island where dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures have survived, and developed a society jointly with humans.  It takes the form of an explorer's journal, so although there is a certain unfolding of plot, it's really just an excuse to show all kinds of fun possibilities for such a dino-human civilization.  We get to see everything from dung collection to the loftiest ceremonial monuments, along with notes on Dinotopian writing, timekeeping, architecture, etc.  This book is most enjoyable for browsing.  Younger kids won't read it through, but they still love the pictures.

        Also worth mentioning are: 
Danny and the Dinosaur by Syd Hoff - Okay, I never cared all that much for this one, but for a generation or more it was the book that introduced the fantasy of having a dinosaur for a friend.

The Strictest School in the World by Howard Whitehouse - I've mentioned this book before (here) but since it features pterodactyls, I had to include it in this list.

Dinosaurs Before Dark by Mary Pope Osborne - Again, not a book that inspires any passion in me (I find the whole series pretty insipid), but it is a good representative of many kids' first book about travelling to the time of the dinosaurs.  I do appreciate the attempt to get kids excited about non-fiction topics and about using their imaginations.

        I conclude with the traditional Dinotopian farewell: Breathe deep.  Seek peace.

[Pictures: Uncle Beazley out for a walk, drawing by Mark Crilley, from The Enormous Egg, 2009;
Tyrannosaurus Rex, painting by Mark Teague, from How do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight?, 2000;
Captain Raptor, painting by Patrick O'Brien, from Captain Raptor and the Space Pirates, 2007;
Treetown, painting by James Gurney, from Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time, 1992.]

December 13, 2011

Carving Water

        Water is always tricky to portray in art, but at least paints, with their liquid texture, tranparancy, and ability to blend, seem like a natural medium for trying to capture water.  But relief block printing?  How do you portray something totally liquid and transparent by carving something totally hard and opaque?  My two most recent prints, which I finished carving during my last two shows, were (entirely by coincidence) both water scenes.  I tried slightly different techniques on each, and it got me
curious to look around for some different examples of water portrayed in block prints.  As for mine, I don't think either is entirely successful, although I'm rather taken with the water in the Cormorant block, mostly just because it's a bit different from anything I've done before so it seems more interesting.
        So, here's a pretty straightforward depiction of a bay by Louis Moreau in 1910.  It's got lines in a wavy pattern, with just a bit more black to indicate dark reflections.  It looks watery enough, but it's very stylized.
        By contrast, here's a piece with remarkably photorealistic water.  Indeed, it's based on a photo of nothing but waves.  When the water is all there is in the entire piece, the artist (Vija Celmins) really has to get those details right because the viewer doesn't get any other visual cues.  This piece is all about copying those organic shapes exactly from a snapshot of nature.

        Here's some very serene water, depicted by… nothing.  For the most part the water isn't carved at all (or is carved entirely away, depending how you think about it), but you know it's there because of the scenery.  The absence of any wave lines gives the scene a feeling of deep peace.
        And here's the opposite: raging water… but once again pretty stylized.  I like the few white circles in amongst the lines that make up the waves.  This is done by Lynd Ward from one of his graphic novels.

        In terms of a really different technique, here's a cool example of one of the few ways in which hard wood comes out with a watery advantage.  This artist (Merlyn Chesterman) has used the grain of the wood for the texture of waves.  I love it!  It must be fun to search for wood with the right sort of grain lines, and then build the scene out of the grain that nature gives you.
        Lots of other pieces I've shown in other posts feature water, as do lots more of my own pieces.  After all, we do live in a watery world so water is bound to show up in a lot of art.  Keep your eyes open for all the different techniques printmakers use in the quest for the wateriest water!

[Pictures:  Cormorants at the Old Pier, rubber block print by AEGN, 2011;
A Quiet Place on the Journey, rubber block print by AEGN, 2011;
Nice (Promenade des anglais), woodcut by Louis Moreau, 1910 (image from Pierre Alechinsky);
Ocean Surface Woodcut 1992, woodcut by Vija Celmins, 1992 (image from the National Galleries of Scotland);
Landscape, woodcut by Sigge Bergstrom, 1909;
Illustration from God's Man, woodcut by Lynd Ward, 1929;
Life Rock, Bear Rock, God's Finger, woodcut by Merlyn Chesterman (visit her web site here.);
Piping Plover, rubber block print by AEGN, 2008 (sold out).]

December 9, 2011

The Morality of "World of Warcraft"

        I am a rather unlikely player of the massive multi-player on-line role-playing game "World of Warcraft."  For those not familiar with the phenomenon, World of Warcraft is a computer game on which you create a character which you then run around in the virtual world completing quests in order to gain experience and loot.  Millions of people have characters, so some of the characters in the world (such as quest-givers and shop-keepers and random villagers) are controlled by the computer, but all the other "heroes" with whom you can interact are being controlled by other real people all over the world.  Why do I play?  Simple: "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em."  My husband D loves his computer games of all sorts, and more than five years ago I decided that if I wanted an activity we could take part in together in the evenings, it would have to be a computer game.  So I signed up.  I am now the proud(?) alter ego of a level 85 night elf moonkin druid as well as several lower-level characters.
        There are things I really like about this game, even besides the fact that I play it with my beloved husband.  It's a fantasy world, and I love the beautiful scenery and cool creatures.  I love the silly extras, like the fact that each kind of character can dance and tell jokes.  I love that you can collect pets that will run along behind your character just for fun.  Many of the "boss fights" are interesting tactical puzzles that
must be solved, giving a satisfying feeling of mastery when your group finally succeeds.  I'm in awe of the size and complexity of the world.  But there are also things about World of Warcraft that I really dislike.  One that's been much improved since I started playing is just how much time you have to devote to the dumb thing if you want to get through an entire chapter at a time.  They've now made lots more bite-sized pieces, thank goodness.  And of course I could get into the typical player complaints about how I hate the most recent changes to my favorite spells or the mechanics of some talent, etc etc…  But the number one thing I dislike about World of Warcraft is its morality.
        With a name like "World of Warcraft," you can imagine that this is a game about fighting, but it isn't the explicit violence that bothers me.  Injury and slaughter are not depicted particularly graphically in this game, so even someone as squeamish and tender-hearted as I am doesn't get too disturbed by what they see and hear.  What does disturb me, however, is the assumptions implicit in the laws of the universe as written into the code of the game.  Quite simply, every problem can be solved with violence and only violence.  Many quests, of course, are to go off and fight the enemy in circumstances that "Just War" advocates would find acceptable.  But if a quest asks you to negotiate, chances are you'll get to the target and the only option the game gives you is to attack.  Then after you beat up the target enough, he'll "agree" to your "negotiating."  This is the way the laws of the World of Warcraft universe operate.  But is it the way our universe operates?  Or if the quest asks you to recover a stolen item, you're sent to a village and expected to kill every person or creature in the village until you find the stolen object on one of the corpses.  The universe of the game presents this as perfectly straightforward and reasonable, but I find it insanely horrifying.  Can you imagine applying this logic in our world?
        Of course, World of Warcraft doesn't ask you to kill real people or commit real violence.  You're just having your pixels do things to other pixels.  Your average person can differentiate perfectly clearly between pixels and people.  Besides, often you have to cooperate with other real people so that all your pixels can work together.  That's a good thing, surely.  The debate over whether violent video games cause real violence is certainly a valid and interesting topic of discussion that I think all parents need to consider very seriously when deciding what games their children should play and at what age and for how long.  And responsible adults should be considering how they themselves are affected, too.  I wouldn't class World of Warcraft among the really violent games: the first-person shooter games, the games with horribly graphic depictions of blood and carnage, the games in which the violence is portrayed in real-world settings where the victims look like real-world people.  I think any normal, healthy human seeing World of Warcraft is perfectly able to draw the line between fantasy and reality when looking at the scenery, the characters, the magical spells being cast… At the same time, however, I do wonder how insidiously the myth of redemptive violence sneaks in.  Unlike the beautiful fantasy setting and characters, the inner workings of the universe's morality are never explicitly stated to the player - and therefore never explicitly evaluated for their realism.
        But this insidious sub-text is not confined to video games.  The central message of the "Justice League" cartoon series aimed at children is that the solution to all problems is to hit someone.  And if hitting doesn't work at first, hitting again, harder, will make things turn out right for sure.  The central message of Pullman's popular "His Dark Materials" series of books is that any means are justified for even the most arbitrarily defined ends.  The central message of any number of books, movies, television shows, and government policies is that violence never fails, and if it ever seems to be failing, it's only because it's just not violent enough.  Perhaps the time has come for us to take this message out of the unnoticed, undiscussed realm of invisible assumptions, and treat it as the fiction it is, as fantastical as any other system of magic.  Perhaps it's time we noticed that this is one of the elements of fantasy that doesn't translate well to the real world.

[Pictures: This huge, slovenly, mixed-up beast is my moonkin character;
Scenery in Zangarmarsh, with my moonkin character in night elf form;
Scenery in Nagrand;
Guild group by the bones of Marrowgar;
all screen shots from World of Warcraft game.]

December 6, 2011

Engravings by George Cruikshank

        George Cruikshank (1792-1878) was an artist and engraver who came to fame first as a satirical cartoonist, then later as an illustrator.  He learned painting, caricature, and engraving as his father's apprentice, but he quickly outstripped his father.  He was considered the "Hogarth" of his era for his social and political caricatures.  His popularity
and influence are indicated by the fact that he was given a royal bribe not to "caricature His Majesty in any immoral situation" (in 1820).  One of the causes he embraced later in his life was abstinence, and he eventually shifted from illustration to produce several series of engravings portraying the evils of alcohol.
        But Cruikshank isn't here on "Black and White" just as an engraver.  It's his work as an illustrator - and an illustrator of fantasy - that earns him a post here.  Cruikshank illustrated some of Dickens's work, notably Oliver Twist (for which he claimed credit for much of the plot, to Dickens's irritation), but I'm most interested in his illustrations of fairy tales.  I believe his first were for German Popular Stories,
the first English translation of the Grimm Brothers' tales.  He also did a number of other fairy tales which he edited himself as a vehicle for his illustrations.
        Many of Cruikshank's fantasy illustrations maintain his satirical style with rather caricatured depictions of noblemen and villains.  He's been credited with being one of the first to put humor in illustrations for children.  There's a more gentle humor in the look on Cinderella's face at the appearance of her fairy godmother - a bit taken aback, a bit surprised, maybe a bit dubious about this strange little old woman.
        But I particularly like Cruikshank's backgrounds, especially the interiors.  In his illustration for The Golden Bird, Cruikshank puts a wonderful castle in the background (and I like the whimsey of the young man riding the fox's tail.)  The illustration for Jorinde and Joringel
captures perfectly the strange, brooding atmosphere of the story with its dark castle hung with hundreds of bird cages.  I love the intricate vaulting.

        (You can see more Cruikshank illustrations - and tons more fairy tale illustrations by dozens of other illustrators - at the great site SurLaLune.  Check it out.)

[Pictures: A Splendid Spread, engraving by George Cruikshank from The Comic Almanack, 1850;
Fagin in the condemned Cell, copperplate engraving by Cruikshank from Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, 1838 (first two images from Wikimedia Commons);
Frontspiece for Cinderella and the Glass Slipper, engraving by Cruikshank from Fairy Library edited by Cruikshank, 1854;
The Golden Bird, copperplate engraving by Cruikshank from German Popular Stories by Grimm, 1823 (image from Rosenbach Museum & Library);
Jorinde and Joringel, copperplate engraving by Cruikshank from German Popular Stories by Grimm, 1823.]

December 2, 2011

A Farmful of Block Prints

        Today's theme is block prints of farm animals.  Why?  Since P and T were four years old we've created a tradition in our family of buying them farm animals for the holidays.  We've bought the family rabbits, llamas, honeybees, more rabbits, guinea pigs, sheep, ducklings, chicks, more rabbits, a water buffalo, and one year I even bought myself a camel.  This December we'll be getting our children a couple of goats.  This would be quite messy and noisy, not to mention illegal in our suburban yard, except that we aren't the ones who keep the animals.  They get sent all around the world to help families in need.
        Heifer International is one of my favorite organizations because their help solves so many problems at once - hunger, lack of education, degradation of the environment, oppression of girls and women, community divisions, injustice…  By giving families farm animals and teaching them how to care for their animals in an environmentally sustainable way, those families are able not only to feed themselves, but to send their children to school.  Both woman and men are able to prove their competence at earning and controlling property, and at teaching others the skills they've learned.  Because recipients must pass on the gift of livestock and skills to others in their communities, not only do the physical gifts get spread, but so do the respect, generosity, sense of community, and
bridging of barriers.  Please visit Heifer's web site and read all about what they do.
        So every year around Thanksgiving or Christmas we buy our children farm animals that aren't for them.  We do also give the kids a token gift that they can keep, usually a small stuffed animal or figurine to remind them of their chosen animal.  One can argue about the philosophy of expecting to receive gifts for oneself when giving to others, but for children we've found that the little toys they receive help them to remember what we've done and why.  Every time they get tucked into bed with their stuffed rabbits they might just
remember how important it is that we try to make the whole world a better place as best we can.  Every November when P and T get to look through Heifer International's gift catalogue to see what animal they'd like to share this year, they are reminded of how important it is that every person in the world get a chance to work hard, care for their families, and share with others in turn.
        In the past couple of years we've started giving Heifer animals to our parents, our brothers and sisters-in-law, and our nephews, too.  It's so much fun trying to match up what animal would be most pleasing to everyone, and P and T sometimes help with that, too.
        If you don't do so already, please consider enriching your holiday gift-giving this year with "alternative gifts."  It doesn't have to be farm animals.  You can give gifts that help the environment to those who love wildlife and the outdoors, gifts to foster the arts to those who love music and art, gifts to soup kitchens for cooks, gifts to urban gardening initiatives for gardeners, gifts that foster education for teachers…  Let your imagination widen out until it embraces the entire Earth, and then show your family and friends how much you really care - about our whole beautiful world.

[Pictures: Two Cows - South Dakota, rubber block print by AEGN, 1997 (sold out);
Family Portrait, rubber block print by AEGN, 2001 (sold out);
Jewelweed, rubber block print by AEGN, 2006;
Three Rabbits, rubber block print by AEGN, 2009 (sold out);
Hen & Chicks, rubber block print by AEGN, 2009 (sold out);
One Hump or Two?, rubber block print by AEGN, 1998 (sold out);
Home, rubber block print by AEGN, 2008 (sold out).]

November 29, 2011

Words of the Month - Unmentionables

        Cultures around the world invest their languages with taboos so that some words are considered "bad."  Most commonly, "bad words" are those that refer to bodily functions, sex, and religious subjects too holy or too evil to be spoken of.  There's nothing surprising about this - culture is all about defining acceptable behavior.  And as a good little girl with Prude Pride I don't use "bad words" in my own speech, believing that use of lots of cusswords is not only potentially obnoxious, but also betrays a certain laziness and lack of creativity.  However, while I don't find "bad words" themselves particularly interesting, there is a linguistic phenomenon that I do find fascinating: when speakers are so anxious not to be vulgar that they start to avoid or modify perfectly "good" words that happen to sound just a little too similar to something unacceptable.
        The Victorians, according to the legend, were so shy of referring to people's legs that they couldn't refer to the legs of tables or chairs, either.  I don't know whether this is true, but it isn't implausible.  Languages adopt silly conventions like this all the time.
        Take the example of the word cock.
        It begins all the way back in Old English as the male of the domestic fowl.  By the end of the fifteenth century it was being used to mean a pipe and valve for liquids (as well as referring to a number of other more specialized or uncommon items).  So far so good.  By the mid eighteenth century, however, it had also come to be a vulgar term for penis (possibly by extension from the water spout definition…)  Well, as soon as that sort of slang gained currency, how could any respectable person mention domestic fowl in polite company?  A decent substitute is rooster, which gained currency (chiefly in the US) in the early nineteenth century, around the time we were going all Victorian.  And if you're going to be truly polite you have to start using the word faucet, too.  Less likely to be misconstrued, you know.  It was around 1840 that B.D. Walsh noted: "Cock-roaches in the United States… are always called 'roaches' by the fair sex, for the sake of euphony."  (He didn't mean euphony, of course.  He meant euphemism.)  The mere sound cock apparently couldn't pass the lips of a lady no matter what its actual meaning.
        But don't think this sort of behavior was confined to those uptight Victorians.  Do you say the name of one of our fair planets cautiously so as to avoid the sound of "your anus?"  It's my hypothesis that the pronunciation of Uranus was shifted some time in the 1970's or 80's by people every bit as over-genteel as the Victorians.  I admit that I have little evidence to confirm this hypothesis, however, because information about historical pronunciation is not easy to come by.  It would be interesting to study newsreels and television through time for evidence of if and when a shift took place.
        I suspect that the pronunciation of harassment in the US has also shifted due to squeamishness about the syllable ass.  The pronunciation harris-ment has been the British version right from the start, but in the US har-ass-ment was standard until about the time of the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill controversy in 1991, when newscasters found themselves having to say the uncomfortable word with unwonted frequency.  But just use the British version and - hey presto - you're completely inoffensive.  (Really annoying, perhaps, but inoffensive.)
        One of the coolest things about the human capacity for language is that we're never just saying what we're saying.  With every word we're communicating a vast wealth of information about ourselves and our relationships with the society around us.  When I speak (or write) I'm happy to be perceived as genteel, polite, and inoffensive… but really, let's just let the poor rooster be a cock!

[Picture: Chanticleer, rubber block print by AEGN, 2009 (sold out).]

November 25, 2011

The Biggest Block

        While we're on the topic of big things, how about the biggest wood block print in the world?  According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the longest woodblock print in the world was 281 feet and 9 inches long.  Entitled "Type A," it was made in 2007 by Christopher Brady, an art graduate student.  I'd love to show you a picture of the full print so we could see what the piece looks like independent of its world-record-holding status, but alas, I couldn't find a straight-up picture of the piece anywhere.  (There may not even be one.  Apparently it ripped during measuring, and has since been divided up and sold in smaller segments.)  My info, such as it is, comes from an article on the University of Mississippi web site.  The article implies that the piece is not printed from a single 282 foot long block.  When you think about it, that's
pretty obvious - after all, wood blocks just don't come that big.  But what I wish I knew was whether the separate blocks were fastened together in some way to be inked and printed all at once, or whether the parts of the woodcut were each printed separately.

        Here's another oversized wood block print: in this case the block is a floor (the floor of a theater orchestra pit).  It amuses me that it's referred to as a "floorcut."  This is attributed to Thomas Kilpper, although of course it took a whole crew of people to accomplish the project.  You can find a lot more details at the blog Printeresting, where I ran into it.
        And finally, another fun thing that the world of the oversized block prints embraces is printing with road rollers.  When you're dealing with a block larger than even the big presses then of course backs of wooden spoons aren't really feasible, either.  A road roller really makes an excellent press, and I can see how it would be a lot of fun getting together a whole bunch of artists and fooling around with the technique.  If you google "road roller printing" or something along those lines you'll end up with a number of videos of people printing big blocks this way.  Here are a couple of photos of a 24 foot long print from a road roller printing event in London in 2010.

        So, with all this inspiration, who's going to aim for the next world record?  A round 300 feet perhaps?  I look forward to seeing it!

[Pictures: Christopher Brady with Type A, wood block print by Brady, 2007;
block of Cómo puede superarse el estado de negligencia?, wood block print by Thomas Kilpper, 2011;
The London Fields, linoleum block print by about 20 artists, 2010;
 and the rolling of the block (photos by Teresa Eng).]