September 27, 2009

r.i.p., william safire

William Safire, self-appointed language maven of the nation, is dead. Many of his "On Language" columns in the Times magazine were, shall we say, not really inspired by linguistic research, but at least he didn't take himself too seriously:
And there were Safire “rules for writers”: Remember to never split an infinitive. Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixing metaphors. Proofread carefully to see if you words out. Avoid clichés like the plague. And don’t overuse exclamation marks!!
This is how some linguists remember him:

September 18, 2009

gladioli but not octopi

Let's continue with the flora theme. I recently came across this passage in Lorrie Moore's new book "A Gate at the Stairs," which is set in a college town in the Midwest:
"Well, sometimes she came to the market with her snapdragons. And gladioluses. People here called them 'gladioli,' which annoyed her."
"Yes," said Sarah, smiling. "I don't like that either."
Not to be nitpicky, but how likely is it that the owner of a fancy French restaurant (Sarah), you know, the kind of restaurant that serves gougères to the farmers' market crowd for breakfast, would find fault with the correct plural of a word of Latinate origin? I'd understand it if she had chosen octopi as a plural educated people find fault with. Octopus is a word from Greek, and as such the proper learned plural form is octopodes, not octopi. (The simple English plural octopuses is also appropriate, of course, and it might sit better with those who don't like gladioli.)

September 17, 2009

"That utterly preposterous spewing of fiction": An ABC of Tim Gunnisms

Thank you, Johnny, for giving us a memorable Tim Gunn moment. I'm sorry that you will now probably feel empty, but perhaps not as empty as you did when you were in the bottom three last week, because that was "the most empty feeling" you ever felt. It sounds as if life didn't really treated you all that badly.

The challenge was to create a design (any design) out of newspapers. Not exactly the most original challenge ever (see Jeffrey's dress from season 3's garbage challenge on the left), but at least it limited the designs in some way. After several weeks of pretty cocktail dresses made of regular fabric, you kind of yearn for a dress made from car parts or plastic cups.

And the results were quite interesting. True, some designers didn't shine. Nicolas's design, for example, was described as insect-like and reminded the judges of cockroaches. Gordana's fault was that her design was "very wearable," which, apparently, in fashion lingo means that it's too J.C. Penney. (Interestingly, in the workroom, Tim Gunn said about the same design that it was the "antithesis of ho-hum" and that it was "stunning". Go figure.)

Irina won with a striking ruffled trenchcoat, which the judges (again, a no-show of Michael Kors and Nina Garcia) fawned over as "Coco Chanel meets Yves Saint Laurent." If you say so.

Johnny was "out" with a sloppily constructed dress inspired by pop-art (read: he chose newspaper pages with images on them). But that was not really what made this episode stand out. The high point came at the very end of the show: Tim Gunn was outraged that Johnny had fibbed his way through the judging. Johnny's story was that his design was so poor because his first design, which he described as "very Dior", was destroyed by a sputtering iron when he steamed it. However, there was no steaming iron, and there was most certainly no "very Dior" dress. There was only "a craft project gone awry, like a bunch of kindergarteners did it," as Tim Gunn put it, and everybody knew it.

It was certainly not the only lie of the evening. Irina told the judges that as soon as she knew she had to use newspapers she had decided to do a trench coat. Excuse me? Her first design, which she wisely ditched, was a stiff mini dress, but at least she realized herself that was not presentable.

This episode will not go down in PR history for the fashion that was presented (nor, as advertised, for the "biggest lie in PR history"). It was really all about showing us a new facet of Tim Gunn. He never before took personal offense at a candidate's behavior on the runway -- and there was plenty of fibbing and lying in previous seasons (shoegate, anyone?). But never before did he have an outburst like last night. He angrily tugged on his cuffs in order to avoid as much as a handshake with Johnny. After Johnny had left the room, he said what will hopefully become a classic:
I'm incredulous of that utterly preposterous spewing of fiction.
This may be a good time to add to an ABC of Tim Gunnisms that I posted about three years ago. New entries are in green.

[links go to merriam-webster online]

  1. ancillary (from the Latin word for "handmaid"), antithesis (from the Greek word for "opposition), awry (based on an Old English verb for "move forward")
  2. bifurcate (from the Latin word for "two-pronged"-- the word is related to "fork")
  3. chacun à son goût (French for "each to his own taste")
  4. daunting (from Latin "domitare", to tame)
  5. egregious (from the Latin word for "flock", as in "towering above the flock")
  6. faux bois (French for "false wood")
  7. grievous (from French, related to "grave")
  8. haute couture (French for "high sewing"), ho-hum (from the interjection expressing boredom)
  9. idiosyncratic (from Greek "personal mixing"), incredulous (from the Latin word for "believe")
  10. joie de vivre (French, "joy of living")
  11. kindergarten, as in "kindergarten play of camelot" (from German for "children's garden", "camelot" is the name of King Arthur's castle), also kindergarteners
  12. lexicon (from the Greek word for "of words")
  13. malfeasance (from French, "wrong doing", -feasance is related to "faire", "do" in French, or "facere" in Latin, which is the source for the English word "fact", "that which has been made")
  14. nominations sought!
  15. omniscient (from Latin "all-knowing")
  16. preposterous (from Latin the Latin word for "absurd, reversed", from "prae" + "posterus", "before" + " coming after")
  17. quilt-like appliqués (from Old French "cuilte", the word for "stuffed sack" or "mattress")
  18. reverie (from Old French, "rejoicing, rage", related to "rave")
  19. Sturm and Drang (from German, "storm and urge", the title of a play by the German author F. M. Klinger (1776), seized upon by the historians of literature as aptly expressing the spirit of the school to which the author belonged [OED], used for young writers characterized by extravagance in the representation of violent passion [OED])
  20. trepidation (from Latin, "trapidus", meaning "scared, alarmed"), spewing of fiction (from the Old English word fro "to spit")
  21. ultra-glamorous (from Latin, "ultra", meaning "beyond", first used in French in the combination "ultra-royaliste", related to "ulterior")
  22. voluminous (from Latin, "volumen", meaning "roll, coil")
  23. woeful (from an Indo-European interjection expressing grief or lamentation)
  24. x-uberant [sorry, had to cheat on this one]
  25. nominations sought!
  26. zaftig (from Yiddish "zaftik", "saftig" in German, meaning "juicy)

foppish flowers and men

I always see these flowers on the farmers' market in late summer, but I could never be bothered to look up their name. (I'm not very good at remembering plant names, so there seemed to be no point.) Last Saturday, however, a seller's sign indicated that they are called "Cockscomb", and that made immediate sense, of course, if you imagine a rooster with a furry comb.

(Their botanical name is Celosia cristata, which sounds almost like a spell from Harry Potter.)

Spelled with an X, coxcomb refers to the human version of the rooster with the furry comb. Jane Austen heros are just the opposite of them.

"Do you know Mr. Robert Ferrars?" asked Elinor.

"Not at all--I never saw him; but I fancy he is very unlike his brother--silly and a great coxcomb."

September 10, 2009

now that you've said smurf...

Another boring challenge: Make a pretty dress for a pretty woman. You'd think the designers would have used the openness of the challenge to create a signature look that would leave a mark, but not so. So let's not even talk about the dresses, especially since I didn't "get" the winning look. The skirt looked like bloomers to me, and like Heidi Klum, I'm not a big fan of a look that "needs help up top" (only that HK said this about another designer's look. She elaborated: "They have to be perky and they have to be in the right spot.")

Let's talk about... smurfs instead. The Oxford English Dictionary doesn't recognize them, but if you grew up in Germany in the late 1970s, there is no way you could have escaped the smurf craze. And this is how they dress (from Wikipedia):

Almost all the characters look essentially alike — mostly male, very short..., with blue skin, white trousers with a hole for their short tails, white hat in the style of a Phrygian cap, and sometimes some additional accessory that identifies a personality...The male Smurfs almost never appear without their hats, which leaves a mystery among the fans as to whether they have hair. ...Smurfette [a Barbie-type female smurf] is not one of the original smurfs because she was created by Gargamel, the evil wizard.

Despite their sartorial shortcomings, the smurfs were very successful in the entertainment industry. They even topped the German (and Dutch) charts.

As warm as these memories are, there are probably not too many contexts in which a dress that can be described as a "smurf prom dress" is a good decision. Logan seemed to hope that Tim Gunn would contradict him, but he didn't: "Now that you've said smurf...". Another conundrum. (Now that's an idea for a challenge: Create a prom dress for Smurfette!)

Unlike Logan, Carol was praised for having created a "sophisticated" look, which made Heidi almost forget that Carol used the Southern expression "y'all". It just shows that speaking a dialect doesn't mean you're a country pumpkin.

Somebody who missed the mark was Johnny. His dress also earned the much-dreaded label "bridesmaid". He was told to "push the envelope," an expression that originated in aeronautics. The "flight envelope" refers to the set of combinations of speed, altitude, etc. that are possible for a particular aircraft, and from there the meaning of "envelope" was extended to non-aeronautical contexts. The "envelope" is a boundary, and "pushing the envelope" means..., well, you get the idea.

The greatest shocker in this episode was the rudeness of guest judge Jennifer Rade (Jennifer Who?). True, Cristyl's design for Valerie was not very sophisticated, but her client, Valerie, liked it -- to which JR responded "but that's why Valerie is not a designer". And that's why you, JenniferBadmouthRade, will never be asked to write a book on wit or style.

Please come back soon, FashionDirectorOfMarieClaireNinaGarcia and AmericanTopDesignerMichaelKors, or we'll all end up in Smurfville.

September 03, 2009

a capital WTF

This was a badly designed challenge. The first part was boring and uninspired ("Create a fun and fashionable surf wear look" and "infuse it with a point of view" - how much blander can it get?), the second part (creating an "avantgarde design" to accompany the first look) was incomprehensible and merely tacked on. Oh, and it was a team challenge. Brought to us "by our friends at Garnier."

In previous seasons, the avantgarde challenge was a high point. Just think of the fabulous dress created by Christian Siriano and Chris March two seasons ago. It's a PR icon. As was the runner-up, a stunning coat ensemble designed by Jillian Lewis and Victorya Hong. This, ladies and gentlemen, is fashion.

This time, however, the avantgarde aspect of the challenge was a complete letdown, or, to put it more euphemistically and Tim Gunn-like: The whole episode was an "enormous conundrum"*, or, as Ra'mon succinctly stated, a "capital WTF". I firmly believe that nothing good can come from a challenge that involves sending Tim Gunn to the beach in flip-flops.**

I clearly don't have a clue what "fun and fashionable surf wear look" means, because most of the designs just looked like ordinary summer clothes to me. And the common denominator of the avantgarde designs seemed to be that they were costumy, heavy-handed, and unflattering. See exhibit A.

The teams that were the greatest pain to watch (thanks, editors) ended up as the teams with the highest and the lowest score. Epperson and Qristyl (how my fingers itch when I have to type that letter combination!) gave us a master lesson in passive aggressiveness, and Mitchell and Ra'mon illustrated the importance of prepositions: Working in a team does not equal working as a team. Heidi Klum considered Mitchell's performance, or rather non-performance, as his third strike against the law of Project Runway ("You have to design, and create, and sew"). Three strikes and you're out.

In a surprising turn, the judges took a strong liking to Ra'mon's last-minute lime-green seaweed-washed-ashore
neoprene*** dress and declared him the winner. I hope that this means that we're done with beach challenges -- I'd rather not see Tim Gunn in flip-flops again.

* The origin of this word is, well, a conundrum in itself. It may have been created as a parody of a Latin term. Alternative spellings of the word include conimbrum, quonundrum, quadundrum.
** In 1937, the name Neoprene was adopted to describe some kind of chloroprene rubber formerly sold under the trademark "DuPrene".
Interestingly, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the use of the word flip-flop to describe a politician who changes his mind to go with the flow precedes the use as a word for a type of sandal. Normally, the more abstract meaning is derived from the more concrete meaning, but perhaps wavering politicians have been around longer than rubber sandals.