Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Annals of identity

August 8, 2013

From several friends on Facebook, links to stories about merman Eric Ducharme, for instance an International Business Times story of 4/4/13 by JR Tungol that begins:

Some people enjoy reading, while some others prefer cooking. But one man’s hobby is impersonating mermaids, or for him, mermen.

Eric Ducharme, 22, of Florida, eats, sleeps and breathes these mystical sea creatures, known for their human torsos and fin lower-halves.

“It’s a lifestyle. It’s a path in life that I have chosen,” said Ducharme, who appeared on Wednesday night’s episode of TLC’s “My Crazy Obsession,” a reality show that follows people with unique — rather odd – fascinations.

and includes the TLC  video about him.

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Origin myths

February 24, 2011

From my back files, in a story in the April 19, 2010 New Yorker (“The Memory Kitchen: A chef recovers the foods that Turkey forgot” by Elif Batuman, about Istanbul chef Musa Dağdevireyn):

“Our people are ashamed of themselves,” he remarks, alluding to Turkish chefs’ penchant for Western cuisine. “They have a complex. Go to Iran — you’ll find characteristic Iranian regional cooking. Here you open a book called ‘Modern Turkish Cooking,’ and the first recipe is for risotto.”

The other side of this shame, he continues, is false pride, which recently gave rise to an “Ottomania” fad, with restaurants claiming to serve the dishes of Sultan Suleyman’s court. There are, he says, no surviving recipes from Suleyman’s court: “People just want to think that they’re the descendants of kings.” Musa is particularly outraged by people who claim that their ancestors invented various foods. His latest historical work debunks the origin myth of döner kebab, the rotating roasted meat that forms the cornerstone of Turkish street food: a chef called Iskender is supposed to have invented it in Bursa, in the eighteen-sixties. Once, at a symbosium, Musa met a descendant of Iskender. “He was talking about how his ancestor, who was born in 1948, invented döner kebab,” Musa told me. “He had no sources. He was just going around saying this.” Combing libraries, used bookstores, and flea markets, Musa found döner represented in an 1850 engraving and an 1855 photograph. “I wanted to ask that guy, ‘So your grandpa invented döner when he was two years old?’ “

(The article is pretty much guaranteed to make you feel hungry.) Origin myths abound in the world of food, as they do in the world of word and phrase origins, and in fact amateur scholar Barry Popik has managed to do serious research in the intersection of these two worlds, for instance on the origin of the name hot dog.

It’s easy to tell (and pass on) plausible stories about origins, especially stories that are colorful, full of specific details, and favor people you admire or revere. [Note multiple-level coordination, which I didn't notice until I was proofreading.] But it can take grinding work to check out these stories, and then many of them, especially the best ones, turn out to be false, as Musa discovered when he investigated the döner story.


Multiple-level coordination

February 22, 2011

A few days ago I started writing up a note about Chinese stereotypes of Westerners, especially Western men, from my experiences teaching at Beijing Language Institute (as it was then) in 1985. The story I told began with this Chinese characterization of Western men:

(1) They are hairy, smelly, and have big noses.

(I once had a wonderful cartoon illustrating the stereotype, but I can’t at the moment locate it) — at which point I realized that (1), which was entirely natural for me, exhibited what many people take to be a failure of parallelism that results in ungrammaticality: the three apparent conjuncts (hairy, smelly, and have big noses) are flagrantly not of the same category. (Not that this is always a disastrous thing; see my posting here.)

Neal Whitman is the great student of this type of coordination, which he calls multiple-level coordination (MLC), because the conjuncts are structurally at different levels: in (1) the first two conjuncts, hairy and smelly, are structurally lower (they are complements of are) than the third conjunct, have big noses, which is structurally at the same level as are.

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Chinese lazy susan

February 17, 2011

In the Bay Area section of the NYT on February 11, Bernice Yeung’s “Lost for Years, a Trove of Chinatown Art Is Tracked Down”:

It’s a modern detective story, set in San Francisco’s atmospheric Chinatown.

It took an out-of-the-blue e-mail and some old-fashioned legwork, but Sue Lee of San Francisco’s Chinese Historical Society of America has solved a mystery that had stumped scholars of Chinese-American art for decades: the case of the missing Jake Lee paintings [depicting Chinese-Americans in a variety of activities].

… The paintings [originally displayed in Kan's Restaurant, founded by Johnny Kan in 1972] are the focal point of Ms. Lee’s exhibit [on the gallery space at the historical society]. But the show is also an homage to Mr. Kan, who is credited with introducing Cantonese fine dining to Americans, and inventing the restaurant-sized lazy susan.

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Cultural contamination

February 11, 2011

(Not about language, but culture.)

On KQED’s Forum, hosted by Michael Krasny, on Wednesday: “Anthony Tommasini’s Top 10″, an engaging interview with the New York Times music critic about his personal ranking of the top 10 classical music composers in history (Bach came in first, with Beethoven narrowly edging out Mozart in the next two slots). Then came the callers with their comments — among them a woman who went on at some length about the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth as an intensely moving masterwork.

But then she added that after she read that the “Ode to Joy” was Hitler’s favorite piece of music, the work lost all of its attraction for her.

It had become contaminated by the association with Hitler.

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Quotes and footnotes

January 7, 2011

Two volumes of bookish cultural history that I’ve been reading: Willis Goth Regier’s Quotology (Univ. of Nebraska Press, 2010), about quotations, and Anthony Grafton’s The Footnote: A Curious History (Harvard Univ. Press, 1997), about, obviously, footnotes. Both packed with fascinating detail, though their style and audiences are rather different.

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Crossbreed

December 30, 2010

In Harper’s Magazine for January 2011 (p. 17)

a September 2010 open letter to French president Nicolas Sarkozy by the Committee for the Defense of Versailles concerning an exhibition of work by the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami at the palace last fall.

signed by Pierre Charie-Marsaines, Honorary President, and Arnauld-Aaron Upinsky, President. A piece of hysterical outrage,

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The men’s underwear book

December 24, 2010

Just arrived: Shaun Cole’s The Story of Men’s Underwear (Parkstone Press, 2010), a serious culural history for a general audience, lavishly illustrated — in the vein of Alice Harris’s The White T (1996) and James Sullivan’s Jeans: A Cultural History of an American Icon (2006) and a number of books on women’s underwear. The cover:

Seems to cover all the bases, including a lengthy final chapter on “The Big Sell: Underwear Advertising” (with commentary on the themes taken up in my underwear postings here). With a glossary, footnotes, and a considerable bibliography.

 

Draper Barbie

August 10, 2010

It  was bound to happen. Barbie came out in 1959, and Mad Men is set in the 1960s:


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