Archive for the ‘Language and culture’ Category


September 26, 2023

Received in e-mail this morning, from Dave Sayers on the Variationist mailing list:

We are delighted to announce the next in the 2023-24 series of online guest seminars here in the English section at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland — open to all!

On Tues 10 Oct at 11:00 East European Summer Time Mie Hiramoto (National University of Singapore) and Wes Robertson (Macquarie University, Australia) will give a talk titled ‘Framing masculinity and cultural norms: A case study of male VIO hair removal in Japan’.

That’s it. I was baffled by VIO hair removal; it has two possible parsings, and some large number of possible interpretations. And I was baffled by what looked like an unfamiliar initialism, VIO. Masculinity and cultural norms being one of my areas of interest within the G&S (gender and sexuality) field, I wasn’t willing to let these puzzles just slide.

Two parsings (and many interpretations).

 [ VIO [ hair removal ] ‘hair removal related to VIO’, where VIO is one of: a social group, the removers of hair (cf. born-again hair removal, transsexual hair removal, Ainu hair removal, Japanese hair removal ‘hair removal by Japanese (people)’), a method of hair removal (cf. laser hair removal), a philosophy of hair removal (cf. Buddhist hair removal), a place where hair removal is practiced (cf. Japanese hair removal ‘hair removal in Japan’), or any number of other interpretations

[ [ VIO hair ] removal] ‘removal of VIO hair’, where VIO hair is hair related to VIO, VIO admitting of a wide variety of interpretations: an area of the body (cf. armpit hair, pubic hair), a racioethnic group (cf. Black hair, Jewish hair), an evaluative characterization (cf. ugly hair, unwanted hair), a physical characterization (cf. kinky hair), a color (cf. gray hair), and much more

The (apparent) initialism VIO. Acronym dictionaries list a great many unpackings for VIO, but none even remotely hair-relevant. Searching on “VIO hair removal”, I eventually discovered that VIO is Japanese terminology for the bikini zone, with the initials standing for

V line (the pubes and genitals), I line (the perineum), O line (the anus)

So: the three Latin letters are to be understood as iconic signs, as (highly abstract) pictures of the three bodyparts, not as an acronym, not as the initials in an abbreviation. I don’t think that such an interpretation would ever have occurred to me.

No doubt it never occurred to Hiramoto and Robertson, steeped as they are in Japanese sexual culture, that the letter-sequence VIO would be utterly opaque to outsiders, but it is; I had no clue as to what their paper is about, except that hair removal and males are involved, and that the removal takes place in Japan.

Missing lexical items. A recurrent theme on this blog is that languages regularly lack ordinary-language, widely used lexical items for referential categories of things that are in fact relevant in the sociocultural context the language is embedded in.

So it is for English and the body region that extends from the waistline under the crotch to the anus: the pubes, genitals, perineum, and anus, taken together. This is a region of modesty, and it’s socioculturally highly salient in English-speaking communities generally, but English has no lexical item covering just that territory.

The composite phrase private parts would have been a good choice, but it’s already taken, as a euphemism for the central portion of the region of modesty, the genitals. In this case, it’s hard to see how we could get by with a narrow sense of the phrase (the current usage) alongside a broad sense (for the region of modesty). So we’ll bump along with things as they are, as we do in lots of other cases; people cope. Maybe someone can start a fashion for VIO in English.

Cover your VIO, dude! Were you born in a barn? (And while you’re at it, close the front door!)

Annals of cultural exchange: Turkish Austrian Turkish music

September 9, 2023

A Facebook comment by Michael Covarrubias (in Turkey) on yesterday’s posting “Turkish marches” (about the Mozart Rondo alla turca and the Beethoven “Turkish March” from The Ruins of Athens):

Your second Turkish theme in only a few days! [the other was “Turkish Neutrogena” of 9/7]

When I moved to Ankara 9 years ago, a new friend would invite me regularly to classical music concerts. The most memorable was the pianist Ingholf Wunder. His encore began, and as soon as it was recognized as Mozart’s rondo, the audience made an audible delighted gasp.

Wunder ended the opening refrain with what was obviously not Mozart’s chord, and from there the fantasy swirled thru the piece, increasing in its novel energy, almost urging me for the first time in my life to stand mid-performance and applaud out of pure excitement at what I was hearing. I’ve never been so moved by an encore.

At first I thought the audience’s excitement at the opening notes was just because it’s such a well known piece, then I remembered that not everyone calls it just “rondo”. Here they really identify with the “alla turca”.

I hear the piece being played in schoolyards as the classtime bell, I hear it in elevators, I hear it all over as a welcome fanfare… They’re proud to be mentioned.

Here is a video of Wunder performing the arrangement.

And it is indeed stunning (in fact, Wundervoll — I’ll just unburden myself of that before going on). But there is something culturally notable in a Turkish fashion for the Mozart Rondo alla turca, which is one of the prime examples of a European — mostly Austrian — fashion for “Turkish music”. In other words, Turkish Austrian Turkish music. (Well, cultural exchanges do tend to bounce back and forth.)


Japanese symbolic culture, inscribed on León’s arm

September 8, 2023

About my friend (and former caregiver) León Hernández Alvarez (hereafter, LH) and the tattoos covering his left arm, from wrist to shoulder, reflecting his deep sympathy with the symbolic culture of Japan. Here’s LH in a face shot that will serve as an introduction to his text (as I edited it for compactness) taking us on a tour of the ink, along with seven photos he took to accompany the text (as I cleaned them up for presentation here):

(#1) LH showing off the arm (and the muscles he’s developed at the gym)

After most sections of LH’s text (which I’ve boldfaced), there’s some background material about the things depicted in the tattoos, with some photos from real life.

I hope to post separately about LH, including some about his personal qualities, but here I offer four important pieces of biographical data: LH is in his early 40s, he’s Mexican (here on a work visa), he has an MBA and a previous history working in business in Mexico, and (like me) he’s gay.


The sea captain figure fantasizes in Cambridge MA

August 8, 2023

Today’s Zippy strip takes us to the Summer Shack seafood restaurant at 149 Alewife Brook Parkway, Cambridge MA 02140:

(#1) The sea captain figure fantasizes about his Easter Island ancestry: Massive Stone Heads R Us


Thai Tanic restaurants

March 2, 2023

From the annals of goofy commercial names, in this case a Thai restaurant name that seems to be intended to project both playfulness — the name is a pun — and power, as in the model for the pun, the adjective titanic ‘of exceptional strength, size, or power’ (NOAD). Thai food that will blow you away.

What makes it goofy is the unfortunate echo of the proper noun Titanic; from NOAD:

a British passenger liner, the largest ship in the world when it was built and supposedly unsinkable, that struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic on its maiden voyage in April 1912 and sank with the loss of 1,490 lives.

I was made aware of the restaurant name by a Susan Fischer Facebook posting yesterday; she was passing on, from others on the net, this restaurant image:

(#1) Not identified in its net appearances, but this is a real Thai restaurant, not a piece of digital art or photoshopping: Thai Tanic at 1326 14th St NW, Washington DC (near Logan Circle)

Commenter on this image, someone who got the ship echo: This restaurant is going down.


S Novym Godom!

January 1, 2023

🐇 🐇 🐇 greeting the new month and the new year, with Happy New Year! greetings in Russian, on a postcard showing a polar bear and a penguin — symbols of cold polar places, hence of winter — about to shake hands on a globe:

(#1) The Soviet Visuals Facebook page identifies it merely as: “Happy New Year!” Soviet postcard, 1960 (hat tip to Dennis Lewis on 12/31)

Soviet Visuals is a FB site for the Stratonaut shop, which sells all sorts of items from, or harking back to, the Soviet period of Russian history. Alas, in two hours of searching, I couldn’t find #1 anywhere on the Stratonaut site, or anywhere else, for that matter. This is of some interest, because the imagery (the polar bear and penguin) and the apparent message (a wish for unity and amity throughout the world) would be unsurprising in an American card for the Christmas / New Year season, but looks unparalleled in a Russian context — where I can’t find any polar bears or penguins at all, and where the iconography is deeply Russocentric (in one way or another) rather than universalist.



September 13, 2022

The introductory paragraph below was written in a moment of hope yesterday morning (9/12). But then I was consumed by medical problems triggered by last week’s extraordinarily high temperatures; by hours and hours of making arrangements for medical appointments (one this morning, others on each of the following mornings this week, some in the future); hours of doing work-arounds for the continuing non-renewal of my Adjunct Professor position at Stanford; and then, this morning (9/13), trying to cope — all afternoon, problem still far from fixed — with Gmail access on my computer (receiving and sending) disappearing entirely. I am crazed, distraught, angry, gasping for breath, afflicted by joint and muscle pains. But Not Dead Yet.

I did achieve my minimal goals for symbolic recognition of the two cultural holidays yesterday, but at 7 p.m. had to give up on explaining Knabenschiessen to you in a timely fashion. But I’m not sure when I’ll be able to craft a posting. Watch this space.

[9/12] In one part of my life, the Chinese-culture-friendly part, this is the third and last day of the Mid-Autumn Festival weekend, for which I will sacrifice a red bean mooncake as the sun sets. In another part, the Swiss-culture-friendly part, this is the third and last day of (as we would say it in English) Boys-Shooting weekend, for which I am wearing (by fortunate accident) my Swiss flag gym shorts (I have four handsome lightweight gym shorts I rotate through by the week — last week’s Pride Rainbow pair just came out of the washer). (I am also wearing a pink Gay as Fuck t-shirt, but that’s untethered to any immediately relevant gay-cultural occasion.)


The fish art of Ray Troll

December 15, 2020

An accidental find in preparing yesterday’s posting on Ray Troll’s 2011 political cartoon “Octopi Wall Street”: a whole vein of Ray Troll fish art, most of it silly or raunchy, full of bad puns and surprising references to fish (“The Da Vinci Cod”, featuring the Mona Lisa with a fish). Four examples from a great many…


Before or after?

July 26, 2020

In the 9/14/19 One Big Happy, Ruthie wrestles with a workbook question, apparently something along the lines of “Does 4th Street come before 6th Street or after it?”:


There’s a lot packed in here. Crudely. the strip is about what before conveys, and that turns out to be dependent on the context. Ruthie takes before to refer to the ordering of a particular 4th and 6th Street in her own actual neighborhood, taking herself to provide the point of view for the spatial ordering (every spatial ordering via before rests on some point of view). But what’s the point of view of a workbook exercise? Who’s asking the question? For what purpose?

Now we’re out in the pragmatic weeds. Crucially, Ruthie has to understand that the workbook question is not an attempt to elicit useful information from her, but instead aims to get her to perform in a test of her sociocultural knowledge.


The clown facial

June 18, 2019

Today’s Rhymes With Orange, with a clown facial:


From NOAD, the nouning of the Adj facial ‘of or affecting the face’:

noun facial: a beauty treatment for the face.

Then the noun facial ‘facial treatment (for beauty)’ serving as head in the N + N compound clown facial (for a pieing — a pie-in-the-face — involving a clown or clowns), which contrasts in interpretation with the compounds cum facial (for a sexual practice in which semen is ejaculated onto the face) and beauty facial (used to clarify that the ‘facial treatment’ sense is intended).