Visit theallusionist.org/bonus2017 to listen to and read more about this episode.
This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, help language spin straw into gold, but with some very punishing conditions attached.
Today’s show is the annual bonus episode. The people who appear on this show often tell me things that aren’t necessarily related to that episode’s topic but I think, ooh, that was interesting, stash it away for the annual bonus episode, which is NOW! But it’s not a typical Allusionist, so if this is your first time listening to the show, hello - have a go on some of the other episodes as well. We started the year at the Ripped Bodice romance bookstore, and ended it at the San Francisco Dickens Fair. We went to the Lollapuzzoola crossword tournament and the ancient Roman baths at Bath. Trans listeners talked about the complicated relationship between language and their bodies. We learned what it’s like to have no words, when Lauren Marks had a stroke and lost all her language, and we learned about having all the words, when lexicographer Kory Stamper let us in on the inner workings of dictionaries. And a dozen yoga instructors wrote to me asking “What am I supposed to say at the end of classes now you’ve ruined ‘namaste’ for me?” I have learned an awful lot this year, and I’m really grateful that you joined me for it.
Do join me in real life as well, on 12 January at SF Sketchfest at the Brava Theatre in San Francisco - I’ll be performing a live version of the Allusionist, with stories about anarchy, champions, vaudeville, and sugar, and something very special that will only happen in that theatre at that time, so you have to be there. Tickets are on sale now: tinyurl.com/allusionistsfsketchfest2017.
Now let’s hear some bonus bits.
HZ: In episode 69, historian Greg Jenner checked the Dickensian-ness of the things that Katie Mingle and Avery Trufelman saw when they visited the Dickens Christmas Fair, such as roller skates.
KATIE MINGLE: Those skates are crazy. They’re like little tiny bicycles attached to your calf.
GREG JENNER: Ha! Right. Well, that is delightful. They are not particularly Dickensian, in terms of appearing in his novels; but they had been invented in the 18th century by a Belgian fellow called John Joseph Merlin, if memory serves, who famously used to ride around on his roller skates playing the violin, and then accidentally managed to smash into a very large mirror whilst trying to perform this trick.
HZ: Haven’t we all?
On episode 60, Stephen Chrisomalis told us about indefinite hyperbolic numbers, such as squillions, bajillions, and zillions. Some people have the theory that the word zillions came about through a process known as ‘zazzification’.
STEPHEN CHRISOMALIS: I should say that I don't really believe in this theory of zazzification. So zazzification is the idea that if you're going to create a word for replacing one consonant by another that Z is actually a really nice consonant to use when you're forming English slang words. So this is given sometimes as the origin of zillion. In other words, it's not random; it's that this consonant is actually the one that's desirable when you create slang.
HZ: As the possessor of a surname with Zs in it - and it is very sweet of you to translate ‘zee’ to ‘zed’ for me -
STEPHEN CHRISOMALIS: I'm Canadian, so I probably did that without thinking.
HZ: But because I have Zs in my surname, even if I spell it out to people, they will either change the Zs to an S, or leave them out as if they don't believe me the name has Zs in it. So maybe it's just that's kind of an exotic letter that makes things seem a little bit out of the ordinary.
STEPHEN CHRISOMALIS: Well it is obviously a rare letter in English. Do they replace both of them with S, or just the second one?
HZ: Both. The first one is more likely to be replaced and the second one is more likely to be left out, probably.
STEPHEN CHRISOMALIS: As someone burdened with a long complicated name of Chrisomalis, you have my sympathies.
HZ: In episode 64, Technobabble, Katie Mack explained the big bang and black holes and dark matter.
KATIE MACK: My name is Katie Mack and I am a theoretical astrophysicist. I study the end of the universe.
HZ: And how's the end of the universe looking so far?
KATIE MACK: It's looking really fun.
HZ: Can't wait.
HZ: Here’s one way the universe might end, if you want something to look forward to: The Big Crunch.
KATIE MACK: A big crunch, or the big crunch, is this hypothetical end of universe scenario. So the universe is expanding now, and back in the 90s there was this big question of whether the expansion would continue forever or whether it would turn around and everything would come back and condense together. And the the term for that is ‘big crunch’. There was the big bang, where everything sort of expands out, and then the big crunch is it all comes back together and then becomes hot and dense again and and destroys the universe that way. So that's probably not going to happen, which is nice, because can you imagine like how upsetting that would be if we did these measurements and were like, the expansion of the universe stopped and it's turning around and all these galaxies are rushing toward us now? That would be unsettling.
HZ: Yeah. Although when you say 'rushing', does that mean in time inconceivable to the average human imagination?
KATIE MACK: Sure. Yeah. I mean, it would be billions and billions of years in the future. But even so, I don't know. Just knowing that the universe had like an end date where everything would come crashing the other, I think I would find that upsetting in some sort of existential way.
HZ: I find that kind of reassuring. I like being reminded of how insignificant I am.
KATIE MACK: Well I mean there's other there's other ways for the universe and that are that also have kind of a time limit. But they're they're a little bit - well they're not always gentler. There's one called the big rip, which is pretty bad.
HZ: Wow, it sounds bad.
KATIE MACK: Yes. The big rip would be this kind of thing where the universe is expanding, right. And the thing that's making the universe expand faster and faster is called dark energy, and we don't know what it is, but we call it dark energy. And if dark energy has this weird sort of pathological property, then it could make the universe expand so fast that first galaxies would rip themselves apart; and then solar systems would come unbound and then planets would rip themselves apart and then even atoms and eventually the whole universe would just tear asunder. And that's known as the big rip, and that would be really interesting; but it seems like it's probably not going to happen. But we don't know. I mean within the errors of the measurements it's possible; it's just theoretically, it's not one of these things that works really well with the theory but the observations, that's perfectly consistent. But it would be like trillions and trillions of years, really long time from now,
HZ: Nothing to stay awake over, if you're listening to this.
KATIE MACK: Yes. Yeah.
HZ: Are all of these theories for the end of the universe called big something? Are they all analogues for 'the big bang'?
KATIE MACK: No. No. There's one called heat death - although sometimes that's called the big freeze.
HZ: Heat death and the big freeze sound like they're the opposite thing.
KATIE MACK: Heat death is a weird term. What the heat death means is: the universe is expanding and it just keeps expanding forever, so much that eventually all the galaxies are so far apart from each other that they can't really see each other. And then the stars, when they just naturally die, don't get any more fuel from other galaxies and so they can't make new stars and then everything sort of burns out and then eventually like even black holes will start to evaporate and protons will decay and the universe is just sort of cold and dark and dead. And it's called the heat death because it's about the universe going to this maximum entropy state - so entropy and heat are related. And so it's just about this - like you just have no more energy to make anything happen. And so everything just kind of stops happening and the universe becomes extremely cold and dark and lonely and that one's pretty depressing too, to be honest.
HZ: It sounds like you're describing depression.
KATIE MACK: There's not really a pleasant way to end the universe; but I feel like some of them are more upsetting than others. I always worry a little bit when I when I give a talk and there are children in the audience that I have to talk about the term 'heat death' - I try to say it gently and and not make it too dramatic.
HZ: Yeah. The term 'heat death' is quite dramatic though.
KATIE MACK: It is, yeah, yeah.
HZ: Also on the Technobabble episode, we heard from Manan Arya.
MANAN ARYA: My name is Manan Arya. I'm a technologist at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California. Unofficially my title is space origami artist.
MANAN ARYA: I come up with ways of folding very large spacecraft into small spaces so they can be launched into space, and then once they get there they can unfold into their desired configuration.
HZ: Did you do a lot of paper origami to get to that stage?
MANAN ARYA: No I did a lot of.... I was interested spacecraft to begin with and then I realized there was this sort of rich vein of origami mathematics that people had developed but not really brought to bear in terms of applying them to spacecraft structures. And then I got interested in origami. So it's it's been fun. If I were to turn this camera around, you'd see just like my desk is littered with folded paper.
HZ: So what's what's the most ambitious paper origami thing you've done to date?
MANAN ARYA: To date: a six foot tall origami crane. That was incredible.
HZ: What is the area of the piece of paper as it starts out?
MANAN ARYA: That was, I think, a nine foot by nine foot piece of paper.
HZ: Where do you get that?
MANAN ARYA: That was a photography backdrop. So you know those giant rolls of paper you find photography. A friend who is a photographer was getting rid of the roll of paper and I was like All right I'll take that. It took multiple people to fold it. It was incredible.
HZ: Where do you keep it?
MANAN ARYA: Oh we we we ended up burning that. Because we had no place to store it. I mean it's the only way to get rid of it because you can’t chuck it in a dumpster. That's just not befitting of it, you know?
HZ: You could dump it in someone's driveway and they'd have this lovely surprise.
MANAN ARYA: We did plan on leaving it around the Caltech campus and just have people discover it, but it had a hard time staying upright; structurally it wasn't good enough, which is somewhat ironic given that I'm a structural engineer. But that was over the course of one night, so we didn't have too much time to mess around with putting an armature frame around it.
HZ: And also is that against the principles of origami, having structural support?
MANAN ARYA: Yes. Yes. The rules for origami: there's three of them. One is kind of flexible: the first one is it has to be a square piece of paper - people often work around that. And the second one is you can't cut. The third one is you can’t glue. Which mathematically turns into a very interesting set of rules because it means you have to do isometric maps; you have to preserve the lengths on a sheet of paper from one form to the next. And so topologists find this interesting. I’m not a topologist.
HZ: In episode 59, Caetano Galindo talked to us from Brazil about his work as a literary translator of authors including James Joyce, David Foster Wallace, Charles Darwin and TS Eliot.
HZ: Because some of the stuff you translate it is quite old, what do you do when there are words that they've used that are now very problematic words so they might be racist or something like that. Do you choose a comparable word in the other language? Or do you go for one that does not have those connotations?
CAETANO GALINDO: There's quite a bit of editing when you when you translate, because you have to make all sorts of choices that could help to ensure a brighter future for the book in your country, to your readers. And that happens not only with with problematic words - especially because problematic words tend to happen in different contexts. We don't have the same problems with racial terms in Brazil; we have different problems, but we have different taboos, different kinds of stigma with certain words. So he had to sometimes invent an offensive language because there is no such thing so clearly as there is in the United States. So yes, sometimes you can tone down some offensiveness in the original and you can do it without violating any sort of integrity, because this kind of - let me say with digital quotation marks here - this kind of adaptation happens all the time in translation, not only when there is a cultural or a racial or a gender problem, because you have to do it all the time. Most of the time when you work with classical literature, as as you mentioned the texts are really old and you have to face the dilemma that you cannot write some sort of a pastiche of old Portuguese to make it sound like the original would have sounded in, say, 1850; but you cannot write it in contemporary Brazilian Portuguese. You have to find this middle of the road solution. And this involves some sort of editing and this involves the possibility of making choices that sometimes will tone down some things, some strangeness, some friction and some offensiveness in the text. And you can do it without sacrificing what I would call the integrity of the original and the translation. That's one of the marvels of literary translation, because as I always tell my students for instance, you cannot deny that when I, in Brazil, read a Brazilian translation of War and Peace, for instance, I am reading a text that was made for me in a way that the Russian contemporary reader cannot do with the original. The original is forever locked in the past as a classic. And translations keep making the texts alive again and make them breathe differently. And that comes in all shapes and sizes.
HZ: Episode 54, The Authority, featured lexicographer Kory Stamper, who has worked at the Merriam-Webster dictionary for two decades. That job involves tracking how words change in meaning and use, which inevitably they do - but a lot of people think that language is fixed and should not change. And I was curious to know why she thought so many people are resistant to the idea that language evolves.
KORY STAMPER: Our language is our identity, and we code switch between different types of language to suit the situation to suit the context. And that's hard enough as it is; and I think when we say that language is changing, people panic and think if it's changing it must be degrading because that's all they ever hear. Right? No one ever hears language is changing and that's wonderful. They hear language is changing and English is going to all to hell; it's just going to hell and we're all going to speak Klingon or something. So people assume that language change equals language degradation, when of course that's not the case: it's not wrong, it's just different. But I also think when language changes and you're on the outside of that change, it feels very othering, it feels very like you're being left behind in some ways. I certainly find, even with all my training, as I get older when my children say certain things - like my kids will use the word 'vers' as a verb. So instead of saying “It's our team versus their team” they will say “Our team vers their team”.
HZ: It is quite sensible.
KORY STAMPER: It is very sensible. But it's something I didn't do as a kid so therefore it must be wrong. I think that's where we immediately go: “I didn't learn that, that's not right.” So even even with all my training I still have to buck against feeling like "wait a minute wait a minute wait a minute we have we have this all taken care of already. You don't need to create the verb 'vers'. You don't need that." And so I think we just - we panic, we don't like change and I think we feel like it's just too much to keep up with too. Language is so huge, and the idea of all parts of language changing in very subtle ways all the time - I mean I can barely keep up with my laundry, how am I supposed to keep up with language change?
HZ: I don’t know, listeners; let’s stick together and we’re just going to do our best, huh? Where language goes, we will go.
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Well, that’s it for the Allusionist in 2017. Thanks so much for listening.
Your randomly selected word from the dictionary today is…
zoolatry, noun, rare: the worship of animals.
Try using it in an email today.
This episode was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman. Martin Austwick makes the music. If you enjoyed it you can hear it with lyrics - he has a new album out at palebirdmusic.com. Thanks to everyone who contributed their knowledge to the show this year, and to the staff at PRX who work so hard behind the scenes to keep the shows of Radiotopia going.
The Allusionist will return with new episodes at the end of January 2018. But you can join me in real life on 12 January at SF Sketchfest, and let’s convene online - facebook.com/allusionistshow and twitter.com/allusionistshow - and pay a home visit to theallusionist.org.