Archive | January 2015

The Language of Food

I just finished reading a Christmas present, The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu by Dan Jurafsky. Dan Jurafsky is a linguistics professor at Stanford whose work I had previously read in a research context. The Language of Food is a delightful and highly readable exploration of the history and etymology of various foods. It was less linguisticky than I was expecting (computational analyses of online menu and restaurant review corpora and an introduction to front and back vowels notwithstanding), but this was not a disappointment because there was just so much to savor. Like recipes gleaned from almost every era in history, from a description of how to brew beer from 1800 BCE to Emily Dickinson’s recipe for “Cocoanut Cake”. If you’re someone who likes to discover the connections between words (and if you like to eat!), you’d probably love this book. You can get a taste for Jurafsky’s approach in this New York Times piece.

A few tidbits I found particularly interesting: I started The Language of Food right after finishing Ancillary Sword, in which the characters drink an alcoholic beverage called arrack. I thought Ann Leckie had made it up. So imagine my surprise when a mere 2 pages into Jurafsky’s book I encountered a reference to arrack, the liquor, which is very much of our world. I also learned that ketchup is originally Chinese (both the word and the condiment, though it might be a stretch to say that about the condiment). I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised; isn’t everything originally Chinese? (Aside: I used to think catsup was a general term and ketchup a brand name that had been genericized, though in retrospect this doesn’t make much sense.)

Jurafsky talks about the confusion over the bird we call the turkey. Though I knew the French word for turkey was dinde, I didn’t realize this was from d’Inde, meaning “from India”. And then when I read that Europeans mixed up the American turkey and the West African guinea fowl, it struck me that there had to be a connection to the fact that in French “guinea pig” is “cochon [pig] d’Inde”.

Jurafsky also devotes a chapter to sound symbolism and food names, specifically brand names. Sound symbolism is the idea that there is some inherent, possibly iconic, link between the forms of words and their meanings. The most commonly discussed pattern is the association of front vowels (like [i] in see, [ɪ] in thin) with smallness and back vowels (like [u] in moo, [o] in go) with bigness. I once went to a talk by the linguist and fieldworker Claire Bowern on this very topic in Australian languages. Coming back to food, Jurafsky found that names for ice creams (think rich, creamy, heavy) tended to have a lot of back vowels while names for crackers (think light and crisp) tended to have a lot of front vowels.

Anyway, just reflecting on this book is making me hungry, so I’ll stop there.

The 27th Annual All-California Sacred Harp Convention

I spent the long weekend in San Francisco at the All-California Sacred Harp Convention. It was my second time attending this convention in as many years. The All-California rotates between Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego; it was in Los Angeles last year.


Wrong state, I know, but I picked one of these up in Minnesota in December and can’t resist sharing it. That is a shape note bumper sticker on my cello case, because I don’t have a car.

I rode up to the Bay Area in a small carpool from Los Angeles. We took Route 101, and a lot of the drive was quite picturesque. California has a lot of hills. We saw cows, horses, sheep, goats, and alpacas on green slopes, drove through clouds, and occasionally caught an ocean vista.

San Francisco is a beautiful city, one I’d like to spend more time in someday. I stayed with a friend from college, a fellow shape note singer and linguist. The convention itself was in Alameda, in a park recreation center. It was a big crowd, over two hundred singers, and the singing was excellent. On Saturday, I led the tune Clamanda (whose text appears in disguised form in Ancillary Justice!), and on Sunday, I led Plenary (which has the same melody as Auld Lang Syne). Multiple people at the convention seemed to know of me as a linguist, which I found slightly curious.

A funny side effect of shape note singing is that seemingly random numbers start to take on meaning. A leader announces the tune she’s going to lead by calling out the song’s page number, and Sacred Harp songs are generally referred to by both their tune name and their number. The more singings you attend, the more tune numbers you start to have memorized. So for example, on the journey home, we stopped at a Trader Joe’s to get a few things for lunch. When I saw $3.68 on my receipt, I thought, Huh, that’s 368 Stony Point. Also, back when I was revising (mostly shortening) Book 2 at the end of last year, I tracked the downward progress of my manuscript’s page length by Sacred Harp tunes. I remember passing through 270 pages, which corresponds to Confidence (“Away my unbelieving fear…” I can totally edit this book down!).

An account of my weekend wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the food. At the dinners on the grounds, there was key lime pie and chicken mole and butternut squash risotto and what seemed like half a dozen pans of macaroni and cheese, among many other dishes. At his house, my friend fed me homemade soft pretzels and apple pie, and on Sunday evening we visited another college friend of ours (my fellow co-president of Folk Dance Club, whom I hadn’t seen since we graduated) and we all made crêpes with sweet potato and spinach and ricotta fillings.

Anyway, I’ll have Sacred Harp songs swirling through my head for days, I expect. I hope to be in San Diego next year!

The Books I Read in 2014

Reprising last year’s exercise, I’ve compiled the list of books I read in 2014. These titles were again collected from my journals, since I’ve refused to keep track of my reading in a more systematic fashion. A year ago, I hinted that I expected to read fewer books in 2014 than in 2013 (my total for 2013 was 119). This turned out to be true, though not by as much as I would have predicted. I read 93 books in 2014. They are listed below (titles I was rereading are in bold, titles I’ve blogged about on other occasions have links):

Rebel Heart Moira Young
Rose Under Fire Elizabeth Wein
Spell It Out David Crystal (did not finish)
The Merlin Conspiracy Diana Wynne Jones
The Fault in Our Stars John Green
Sorrow’s Knot Erin Bow
Eleanor & Park Rainbow Rowell
Pantomime Laura Lam
The Diviners Libba Bray
The Book of Salt Monique Truong
The Night Circus Erin Morgenstern
Silent House Orhan Pamuk
Uses for Boys Erica Lorraine Scheidt
The School for Good and Evil Soman Chainani
The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: The Interrupted Tale Maryrose Wood
Flygirl Sherri L. Smith
Reckless Cornelia Funke
Fearless Cornelia Funke
Charm & Strange Stephanie Kuehn
Saving Francesca Melina Marchetta
The Piper’s Son Melina Marchetta
Defy Sara B. Larson
All the Wrong Questions: When Did You See Her Last? Lemony Snicket
The Final Descent Rick Yancey
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making Catherynne M. Valente
The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There Catherynne M. Valente
The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two Catherynne M. Valente
The Nethergrim Matthew Jobin
A World Without Princes Soman Chainani
The Magicians Lev Grossman
The Girl of Fire and Thorns Rae Carson
Midnight for Charlie Bone Jenny Nimmo
Grimm Tales Philip Pullman
The Magician King Lev Grossman
The Crown of Embers Rae Carson
The Bitter Kingdom Rae Carson
Tell the Wolves I’m Home Carol Rifka Brunt
All Our Pretty Songs Sarah McCarry
Raging Star Moira Young
Wildwood Imperium Colin Meloy
I Am The Clay Chaim Potok
Girl in Translation Jean Kwok
Bitter Melon Cara Chow
Sex & Violence Carrie Mesrobian
Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea April Genevieve Tucholke
In the Shadow of Blackbirds Cat Winters
Winger Andrew Smith
This Song Will Save Your Life Leila Sales
Breadcrumbs Anne Ursu
The Real Boy Anne Ursu
The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf Ambelin Kwaymullina
The Year of Shadows Claire Legrand
Ancillary Justice Ann Leckie
Where the Streets Had a Name Randa Abdel-Fattah
Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock Matthew Quick
Persepolis Marjane Satrapi
Persepolis 2 Marjane Satrapi
The Bells Richard Harvell
To Live Yu Hua
Chronicle of a Blood Merchant Yu Hua
The Eyre Affair Jasper Fforde
A Spy in the House Y. S. Lee
The Body at the Tower Y. S. Lee
Witchlanders Lena Coakley
The Traitor in the Tunnel Y. S. Lee
Rooftoppers Katherine Rundell
The Impossible Knife of Memory Laurie Halse Anderson
Daughter of Smoke and Bone Laini Taylor
Lost in a Good Book Jasper Fforde
The Well of Lost Plots Jasper Fforde
We Were Liars E. Lockhart
Complicit Stephanie Kuehn
Girls Like Us Gail Giles
Like No Other Una LaMarche
Something Rotten Jasper Fforde
The Screaming Staircase Jonathan Stroud
A Wrinkle in Time Madeleine L’Engle
The Left Hand of Darkness Ursula K. Le Guin
First Among Sequels Jasper Fforde
One of Our Thursdays Is Missing Jasper Fforde
The Dream Thieves Maggie Stiefvater
The Shadow Hero Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
Blue Lily, Lily Blue Maggie Stiefvater
The Woman Who Died A Lot Jasper Fforde
Days of Little Texas R. A. Nelson
Sabriel Garth Nix
Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets Evan Roskos
The Falconer Elizabeth May
Five Flavors of Dumb Antony John
Lies We Tell Ourselves Robin Talley
The Glass Sentence S. E. Grove
Feynman Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick
I Work at a Public Library Gina Sheridan

A few remarks:

  • As in 2013, I did some series reading in 2014. The Thursday Next binge is probably most notable.
  • I didn’t dislike Spell It Out; it’s just hard for a non-fiction book to keep my attention when so many novels are beckoning. Also, the non-technical way Crystal threw around the terms “long vowel” and “short vowel” started to drive me batty.
  • I think I just might not be a Diana Wynne Jones person. She’s a fantasy giant, but I’ve never been able to enjoy a book of hers. A quote from my journal about this year’s attempt to read her: “I’m still slogging through this interminable Merlin Conspiracy which I swear has no plot (or at least the plot’s structure is very odd; I’m three quarters through and we don’t seem to have advanced much from the inciting incident, and there are all sorts of random side adventures involving cricket stadiums in France and circus elephants and contraband salamanders that seem to have no relation to the central conflict).” If you can recommend a Diana Wynne Jones book you think I’ll like, please do, but don’t say Howl’s Moving Castle.

Some number crunching for 2014:

  • Total books read: 93
  • Books in French: Um, zero
  • Books that were not novels: 4 (4%) (Non-fiction: 1 (did not finish); Fairy tale collection: 1; Graphic biography: 1; Humor: 1; also Persepolis, Persepolis 2, and The Shadow Hero are graphic novels)
  • Books read in translation: 7 (8%) (Turkish: 1; German: 2; French: 2; Chinese: 2)
  • Books read for the first time: 86 (92%)
  • Books read not for the first time: 7 (8%)
  • Books by female authors: 61 (66%)
  • Books by male authors: 32 (34%)
  • Books by authors of color (some authors appear more than once; also, how someone identifies can’t always be deduced from a name and an author photo, and I tried to be conservative): 17 (18%) (hmm, this is lower than I expected and represents a lot fewer than 17 authors…)
  • Books by category (as decided by me): Adult: 23 (25%); Young Adult: 51 (55%); Middle Grade: 16 (17%); Indeterminate: 3 (3%) (the two Persepolises and Grimm Tales)

Finally, my top books of 2014 (last year I picked 13 because it was 2013, so rightfully I should’ve picked 14 this year, but instead I rather arbitrarily chose 12–and if I’d drawn up this list on a different day it might’ve been a different 12):

  • Rose Under Fire Elizabeth Wein
  • Sorrow’s Knot Erin Bow
  • Eleanor & Park Rainbow Rowell
  • The Diviners Libba Bray
  • The Night Circus Erin Morgenstern
  • Tell the Wolves I’m Home Carol Rifka Brunt
  • In the Shadow of Blackbirds Cat Winters
  • Ancillary Justice Ann Leckie
  • The Eyre Affair Jasper Fforde
  • Witchlanders Lena Coakley
  • Complicit Stephanie Kuehn
  • The Glass Sentence S. E. Grove