Mysteries of Czech language: K(e)rmit

(Part of an ongoing series. Previous installments begin here).

There’s a verb ‘krmit’ in Czech that describes the act of feeding an animal, small human or very old human (basically, anyone who can’t feed themselves). Czech is a very precise language in that there are often these highly specific verbs to differentiate between slightly different activities (feeding somebody else vs. feeding oneself, taking someone somewhere by car vs. taking someone somewhere by foot, and so forth). The pronunciation is phonetic: just say ‘Kermit’, but try to stifle the ‘e’ as much as possible. It helps if you smoosh your chin into your chest to constrict your throat and sort of gurgle the word out. Czech language is full of these consonant clusters– you can in fact say ‘fart, death, burp’ without using a single vowel.

I had a hard time convincing my wife that ‘Kermit’ is actually a real name in the native English-speaking world and that I wasn’t just pulling her leg. I think this might be the worst-conceived name to give a Czech kid, narrowly surpassing ‘Brezhnev’, ‘Khrushchev’ and ‘George W.’.

Do nothing day

gregory-xiiiMy favorite small residual thing about my birthday- once the day itself has passed, the festivities have ended, and the giant paper-mache birthing reenactment tube/slide has been disassembled- is easily being able to figure out what day of the month it is for the remainder of August. Because my birthday falls on the 7th, I get three-plus weeks of easy date calculation.

I wish that these powers also extended to allowing me to remember the names of months in Czech. This is one of my real downfalls when it comes to learning the language of my adoptive country. I even get a tingling ‘oh no’ sensation when the conversation swings towards some topic involving dates.

Maddeningly, Czech month names don’t stem from the familiar Gregorian etymological roots. I would be okay with this if it were a sort of pan-Slavic trait and other neighboring countries also didn’t have Gregorian-derived month names. But no: it’s specific to Czech. Even little buddy Slovakia, which shares about 95% of its language with Czech, has months that sound like January, February, etc.

Another thing that makes Czech calendar names hard to remember is that there doesn’t seem to be any handy mnemonic for keeping track of them. The names actually do mean things, like ‘falling leaves’ and so forth, but with the exception of Kveten (from ‘flower’, for May) the meanings are obscure enough that they’re no easier to remember than just learning the month name outright. Others have no meaning at all that I’m aware of and sound to me like lesser-known Soviet leaders: Duben, Brezen. Finally, they don’t have the feature of being grouped by name length – longer names at the beginning and end of the year, shorter in the middle – that I remember helping me to learn our calendar as a kid. Weirdly, the only naming convention that the Czech calendar shares with ours is similarly-named six and seventh months – Cerven and Cervenec .

Days of the week, blessedly, are much more intuitive and have personable, easy-to-remember names. My favorite is Nedele – Sunday – which means ‘do nothing’. Do nothing day. If you insist, Czech language.

Annals of less persistently being confused with more

Last week, we had a meeting with a client who predictably bleated ‘Less is more!’ at us while trying to explain his misgivings about the direction of the book we’re creating for him. I was tempted to point out to him that, actually, less isn’t more, it’s less and more is more, but decided to hold my tongue and nod, pseudo-enlightenedly.

I’ve blogged before on my feelings about this catch-phrase and my appreciation for Milton Glaser’s counter-proposal that ‘just enough is more’. The Polish Blues Brothers poster that Krafty blogged on is one piece of evidence in the case there is sometimes room for busyness in good design: it’s the jaunty details, the complexity, the sense of bustle and personality here that makes it such a winner. The same can certainly be said for this James Brown poster designed by Sergio Moctezuma at Tribal DDB that I discovered while researching type-only posters for an assignment I gave to my Prague College students. Like the Blues Brothers poster, there’s a visual generosity here that doesn’t often occur in the realm of high modernism. Of course, it also resembles the Blues Brothers poster in terms of its distinct blue cast and the evident love of hand-lettering.


Dog/frog (blog)

n660301918_1698920_365866Back in high school, we had this weird friend who used to insist that ‘dog’ and ‘frog’ don’t rhyme, and would look at us with stunned amazement when we maintained that they did. ‘Dog…. frog….’  he would repeat patiently, sure that we would eventually be able to hear their non-rhymingness.

It turns out to be weirdly difficult to prove that something does or doesn’t rhyme. Maddeningly, the dictionary seemed to support his side of the argument: the phonetic spelling of dog was given as ”dȯg’ whereas frog was ‘ˈfräg’. How can you make a creditable argument that two words rhyme when one has a freaking umlaut and the other doesn’t? (I note with some satisfaction that the current Merriam Webster dictionary clearly shows them as rhyming with matching phonetic spellings.)

Of course, blogs didn’t exist back then. I wonder if he would have claimed that ‘blog’ rhymes with ‘dog’, or with ‘frog’, or with neither of the above.

Photo: shot somewhere in San Francisco, stolen from my friend’s mobile uploads on Facebook. No frog available. Thanks, James!

Steve Miller vs. Miles Davis

JohnnyO at Burrito Justice was kind enough include Mock Duck in a write-up about blogs he enjoysFinally…….. a shred of recognition! I nearly wept tears of joy onto my keyboard before I remembered that the salt would corrode what’s left of my decaying laptop.

He also turned me onto 40 Going on 28, which is a great blog in the time-honored tradition of Some Engaging Guy Ranting About Stuff. Ribald, highly ribald. I was particularly drawn to this lyric deconstruction of Steve Miller’s Take the Money and Run. So, I thought I’d also chime in on the subject of Steve Miller  and his unique brand of wistful, easy-rockin’, middle-of-the-road hamminess.

image001One of my favorite reads is Miles Davis autobiography. For one thing, it opens with the word ‘Motherfucker:’ and also ends with that same word. OK, I made that up, but it’s practically the case. The guy who co-wrote it, Quincy Troupe, commented that [paraphrase]: “Miles had a colorful use of swear words– at times, he would use them to add emphasis, and other times merely as punctuation.”

One great part is Miles’ account of the phase in his career when he would open up for rock bands at giant festivals. Interestingly, he has great things to say about the Grateful Dead, whom he respects both as musicians and personalities. However, he goes on to say [paraphrase]: ‘But another time, we had to open up for this no-playing motherfucker named Steve Miller.’ Hilarity abounds as he goes on to describe Steve’s prima donna behavior on tour and his general total disdain for Steve’s music. You can just picture SM doing his general jivvy pseudo-blues thing to a rapt audience and Miles looking on in complete disgust from somewhere in the crowd (decked out, no less, in his malevolent-space-alien look that he sported through the early 70s).

Kentucky Fried Konservatism

colonel-sanders_KFCAnother interesting bit of Daniel Pearlstein’s Nixonland (previously mentioned in the Up With People post) is its account of George Wallace’s presidential third-party run in 1968. Wallace, the ultimate uber-racist, narrowed down his vice president list to three possible candidates, whom together must constitute the ultimate rogues gallery of American politicians:

Choice 1: Curtis LeMay, the inspiration for the mad general character in Dr. Strangelove. LeMay wound up being the eventual VEEP pick and instantly torpedoed the entire Wallace For President campaign by happily telling news corps that he would nuke Vietnam without hesitation.

Choice 2: J. Edgar Hoover. Yes, the same man who as FBI Director tried to blackmail Martin Luther King into committing suicide.

Choice 3: Harlan Sanders, aka Colonel Sanders, the great purveyor of fried chicken!

It’s a bit surprising to find out that the iconic Colonel Sanders was a real person in the first place– it would be like discovering that Ronald McDonald had actually been a key harlequin entertainer in Queen Victoria’s court. Stranger still to imagine that the Colonel could have wound up a proverbial heartbeat away from the presidency. I imagine him wielding his influence to insure that the infamous Cluck would be served as part of public school lunch programs. Harlan Sanders also gets a interesting bio treatment in Fast Food Nation, where we learn that he was a two-bit huckster for most of his life before rising to prominence in his later years (indeed, he was 78 years of age when Wallace considered picking him as his running mate).

Most endearingly, he apparently struggled his entire life with a determination to stop swearing. I love this image, for some reason.


I like to imagine what would transpire if you wrote all the normal emails you write in a week – for most of us, a mix of personal, professional and bureaucratic – but steadfastly signed them all ‘Love, ___’ just to see what would happen. I think this would be a good wager for a small bet– loser has to do this and see what the ramifications are.

Futurism and the Musee Mecanique

This year is the 100th anniversary of the Futurist Manifesto, when F.T. Marinetti (the self-proclaimed ‘most modern man in Europe’ at the time) introduced his cult of dynamism to the world through a combination of incendiary rhetoric, genius publicity stunts and Fascist agitating. The Futurists were fascinated by speed, technology, war, Moussellini, masculinity, action and loud noise; they were contemptuous of civility, history, culture, women, and everything else they associated with polite society and the existing status quo. The only avant-garde art movement I’m aware of with a strong right-wing orientation, Futurism remains weirdly alluring and seriously off-putting.

As Futurists were obsessed with the dynamics of the early machine age, I had the idea many years ago to illustrate their manifesto with photos taken from San Francisco’s Musee Mecanique, a highly-enjoyable collection of antique arcade machines. The common link is that both the Manifesto and the MM collection show the imaginative possibilities of the early machine age, and both produce results that are both appealing and monstrous. I printed a few copies of this as accordion-folds.

Front and back cover:



(Note how much the giant doll on the cover looks like Moussellini- a happy coincidence!)

Inside spreads:







Table Talk

A first from the Codger’s Corner. Used to be in a restaurant that a waiter or waitress would just walk up and ask for your order. But now there’s a whole series of statements and questions to which one must respond.  (Note that I did NOT write “litany of statements . . . .”  A  stop must be made to the the misuse of  “litany” as synonymous with “list.)”  Anway . . .oh, yes:  Perhaps you the reader can suggest some responses that are a cool, clever, but not at the expense of the unfortunate young man or woman who hasn’t found any better work than waiting on me.

First, there’s “My name is Michelle, I’ll be etc.”  I don’t see the sense of this.   In what later part of the transaction do first names matter?  It happens that this Michelle was a sweet ingenue, but as she didn’t follow her name with her phone number, what was the point?  In any case, the principle of egalitarianism that may be this country’s (and my own) one virtue requires that I tell Michelle my name is Joe.  Which is absurd.  Let’s go around the table introducing ourselves.

Later comes the question, “Is everything all right?”  This is usually asked solicitously, expressing his or her interest in my welfare. Accordingly, I should answer in an appreciative spirit of enthusiasm that the meal is indeed delicious. At the same time, I’ve been told that the question is a legalistic ploy by which the restaurant covers itself.  If the customer answers “Yes,” then the customer supposedly can’t refuse to pay the bill on account of some fault in the meal served.  Since I haven’t finished the meal, I’m not sure that it deserves payment, so I have to be guarded as well as gracious in my response, which is hard to pull off.  (By the way, I wonder if the question really  could work as  legalistic ploy.  A lawyer here would help.)

Finally, there’s the most irksome question of all:  During a pause in your eating, he or she comes up and asks, “Still working on it?”   This is supposedly more polite than “Are you finished?” but actually casts the  situation in a light unflattering both to the eater, who is working away like an animal on its prey,  and the food, whose consumption has become an unpleasant task.  Sometimes I try to indicate that eating, usually and in this particular case, was not intended by our Creator to be work, but rather a gift of refreshment for our spirits and strength.  I’d like to come up, however,  with something less didactic.  Any ideas?