Where in world...?

An old friend phoned the other day. He never phones. But this time he just had to know: "What are you doing living in Florence?"
He thought I was in Florence, Italy. I told him it was Florence, Massachusetts.
Here are some answers -- my occasional wanderings through Florence, MA and the surrounding Pioneer Valley.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Limning Linguistic Lines of Travel

Looks like it should crunch when you step on it, but it doesn't.
Feel free to copy for your computer's desktop.
Today we woke up to a frost coating the world. For days now we have needed extra time to put on layers before going out for daily walks. At our park this morning we could see the frost at work. This is a moment when I thought the word "limn" makes the most sense -- just enough frost to emphasize the edges of the leaves, dead or alive, and remind us of nature's beauty in everyday things. WRONG. The word "limn" refers firstly to drawing and illustration, with the idea of highlighting coming from the third, or tertiary definition and even that refers to an obsolete medieval usage derived from the word "illuminate."

Here you are witnessing one of Florentina's moments of linguistic obsession, where the definition of individual words can take a thinker from one place (in this case, real and rather cold) to another (I would need a time machine to revisit the Middle Ages and those monasteries, as well as a good drag disguise.). We are able to travel through closer examination of language and in this case, one's mistaken usage of language to see how we are able to access what otherwise would be ancient and dusty. Each of us has the ability to take such a trip by looking at a good dictionary that gives information on the derivations of words.

For Florentina, this obsession has often taken place in two languages, if not more. I would often ask my parents about where certain words come from, in our dialect of Chinese spoken at home. An example: the phrase used at my parents' house for what Americans call "Swiss chard" always provokes a plea for something a little more dignified than "hog weed" or something like that. Every summer, this phrase provokes my usual questions: Where the heck did they get that? Can't we call it something nicer? Why, my mother claimed her sister in California told her that was what it was called. In fact, the vegetable gardening book I bought for my dad last year clearly indicates a more dignified name for what we call Swiss chard. It is so dignified that I can't remember how it translates.

Swiss chard, as sold at the Crescent City Farmer's Market,
New Orleans, LA (GoNOLA.com)
What this shows is how we can influence language usage through individual means, sometimes for the better and for the more amusing. You can see that I'll always remember "pig weed" in this Chinese dialect, but not that more dignified name you might be able to use at a Chinese-speaking garden store to impress someone. It is also important to recognize that language usage outside of the country of origin is also "legitimate" and productive. While I might look like  fool asking for "pig weed" in a moment of weakness in California, after we've had a good laugh about it, the other party will recognize that at least the language of one's origins is still living, though it has taken on a rather different turn. Think of language in its second generation as being similar to children of immigrants, and you'll think twice about how language is learned, used, and retained in this transient world where everyone privileges authenticity, but has no real definition for it.

So, if the grasses and leaves aren't limned, what is it? Turns out that it's hoar frost. This kind of frost occurs when heat from living grasses, etc. meets with colder surrounding air, in a changing season. The frost crystals are rather soft, as Joey found out when he stepped on them. And today we are scheduled to get the year's first snowfall. Wish us luck for tomorrow's walk.

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