Thursday, December 15, 2011

Very true

So this is weird.

We all know that the word "really" can be the adverbial version of "a lot": He was really tall.

We all know that "literally" is often misused as an adverbial version of "a lot": He was literally the tallest man I had ever seen.

And we all know that "very" is the traditionally preferred adverbial version of "a lot": He was very tall.

But did you know they all have the same root meaning? "Really" and "literally" both retain their "actually" sense: It's really going to happen. We're not talking about metaphors here. He's literally going to punch me in the face. "Very" doesn't retain that sense any more, but apparently it used to have the same sense:
1200–50; Middle English  < Anglo-French; Old French verai  (French vrai ) < Vulgar Latin *vērācus,  for Latin vērāx  truthful,equivalent to vēr us true (cognate with Old English wǣr,German wahr  true, correct) + -āx  adj. suffix
Sociolinguists of the World: What does it mean that our words for "a lot" are all related to our words for "actually"?

UPDATE: I just saw this quote from Michael Crichton: "Anyone who says he knows God's intention is showing a lot of very human ego." Since you can't (technically) be more or less human, then I guess we do occasionally use "very" to mean "actually."

Sunday, December 11, 2011

TV rots your brain

Watching X-Files with no lights on,
We're dans la maison.
I hope the smokey man's in this one.
- Ed Robertson (c.1999)

I recently began watching The X-Files. When I first started, I couldn't help but notice how terrible some of the effects are. The kind of terrible that might make you stop watching a show or that tear you out of the hypnotic trance a good piece of art puts you in. But as I kept watching, I noticed that the special effects, while terrible, somehow don't pull you out as much as they could. I think it's because the characters are so interesting and engaging. Fox Mulder with his quasi-paranoid search for the truth. Dana Scully with her bewildered attempt to hang on to make sense of everything she's seeing. And, we can never forget, the dozen other characters, both recurring and one-off, who get interesting little backgrounds and add spice to the show.

The characters make the show, not the mysteries or the visual effects. At least through 10 episodes, the creators of The X-Files haven't forgotten that.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

A man and his horse trudge along a country lane. It is early evening, but the sun has gone down and the light of the moon is covered by a thick blanket of clouds. The snow falls steadily, all-but-silently covering first the ground and then itself and then itself again.

The lane dips to meet a frozen lake, and the man and his horse pause to collect themselves before tackling the climb back up. What looked like a hill in the warm sunshine looms ahead like a craggy peak.

The man looks around. "Whose woods these are, I think I know," he mumbles to himself, thinking he might find a warm bed or at least a cup of coffee. But he shakes his head. "His house is in the village though."  There is no one around for miles. "He will not see me stopping here to watch his woods fill up with snow."

The man's mind wanders while he puts off climbing the hill, and he thinks about his horse. "My little horse must think it queer to stop without a farmhouse near." Queer indeed. No farmhouse. "Between the woods and frozen lake. The darkest evening of the year." The man closes his eyes and opens them slowly. What a place to stop.

The horse, as if to show that horses know what cold means, "gives his bells a little shake to ask if there is some mistake."

But the man, too cold and too tired to focus on anything for long, doesn't respond. His mind has already wandered on to the loneliness and silence of this particular stretch of highway. "The only other sound's the sweep of easy wind and downy flake."

The near silence. The darkness. The cold. He wants to lie down and sleep. The woods might offer some shelter. They don't look intimidating or scary. In fact, they "are lovely, dark and deep."

"But," he remembers, "I have promises to keep." He turns his face forward. "And miles to go before I sleep."

He puts one foot in front of the other and his horse follows. The words echo in his exhausted mind. He tries to push sleep a little further away. "And miles to go before I sleep."


My wife and I are in the middle--well, the middle of the beginning--of a long, long journey. We finished one long journey a few years ago and promptly started another. Some days feel like the darkest evening of the year, and I wallow in the kind of self-pity that says, "It's so dark! And it's not even 9 o'clock yet!"

But somehow, and I don't understand this, somehow there is comfort in the idea that others have gone through these types of journeys before. I don't know whether Robert Frost finished his, but maybe that's the point.

Maybe journeys aren't about getting where you're going; maybe they're about being where you are.