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Chaucer, Kugel and April Fool’s Day

April Fool’s Day is no joke. Did you know April Fool’s Day pranks and celebrations can be traced as far back as 536 BC? Apparently the first known celebrations began with Sizdah-Bedar, a holiday still celebrated today in Iran, which has its roots in the Zoroastrian New Year. Sizdah-Bedar (literally ‘getting rid of 13’) is the 13th day of the Iranian New Year (right around the beginning of April) and is celebrated as a day for joy and laughter which are the strongest weapons against evil.

In the English speaking world, the tradition is typically traced back to Chaucer. A popular tale in his Canterbury Tales, “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale”, involves a cocky rooster named Chauntecleer who is tricked by a crafty fox on the 1st of April:

Now when the month in which the world began
(The month of March, when God created man)
Was over and indeed had been exceeded
(The days were thirty-two that were completed)

The phrasing is a little awkward, and the date mentioned may actually be May 2 (32 days after March ended rather than 32 days after March began), but either way, April 1st became a popular day for pranking and tricks. In France, the tradition grew to be called Poisson d’Avril or the ‘April Fish’ because they would slap a fish shaped tag on the backs of fools like a mediæval ‘kick me’ sign.

In 1983, a Boston University professor issued a kind of meta April Fools’ Day prank of his own, making a fool of much of the country. Prof Joseph Boskin was approached by the Associated Press to shed some light on the origins of April Fool’s Day. He said he had no idea. But when they pushed him further, Prof Boskin started to spin a yarn about April Fool’s Day beginning during the time of Emperor Constantine when the emperor began the tradition of allowing a jester to be king for one day of the year. This jester was referred to as the King Kugel. And the Associated Press ran this story.

If you’re not quite getting the absurdity here, kugel is a Jewish noddle casserole popular in New York. Apparently you had to be either Jewish or from New York to get the joke (which is true of many jokes actually). It didn’t take long for media outlets across the country to start looking to Prof Boskin to expound on this new information, and the jig was finally up when one of his students let the cat out of the bag.

Clearly, pranking on the 1st of April is a human tradition crossing time, land and cultures, so loosen the tops of those salt shakers, switch out the toothpaste with foot cream, and don’t forget to wish a happy birthday to Fred and George Weasley.

Etymology of ‘Sperm Whale’

One of largest living animals and the species that inspired Moby Dick, the sperm whale seems designed specifically to make 13-year-old boys giggle. Those of us who are slightly more mature will scoff at the giggling and assume that perhaps there is some archaic, etymological reasoning for the sea mammal’s unfortunate name.

Well, nope. The sperm whale is called a sperm whale for exactly the reason you think it is. Don’t forget that it was named by a bunch of sailors after all.

Early whalers found that upon harpooning this big-headed whale that it was filled with a viscous white liquid that is said to possess “the odor of the new-drawn milk“. This liquid is called spermaceti which resides in an organ above the whale’s nose and is so massive that it accounts for much of the whale’s mass. Spermaceti (which is Latin for ‘whale’s seed‘) probably functions to help with buoyancy or aid in echolocation, and was later found to have nothing to do with semen (both male and female sperm whales possess spermaceti). Though this didn’t stop early seamen from christening the species with its unfortunate name.

Unfortunate still, is that the most famous sperm whale is one Moby Dick from the Herman Melville novel Moby-Dick (yes, the novel is hyphenated and the character’s name is not). But, surely this is just an anachronistic quirk that has become euphemistic over time (like the Joker’s boner). Well, remember what I said about sailors? Moby Dick is named after a very real white whale called Mocha Dick, and yes, Dick is likely a euphemism for penis.

How to Write a Personal Statement

It’s graduation season, and students are starting to think about college and graduate school, but a crucial part of any application process is the personal statement. Below, I’ve listed a few tips to consider before you start drafting your admission essays.

Think of It Like a Job Interview

With job interviews, it’s important to explain why you think you’d be good at the job but also why the job would be good for you. The same is true with schools.

They also want to know what you’re going to bring to the school. Will you participate in extracurricular activities? Will you be involved in the local culture? Schools want to know how the education they give you (in and outside of the classroom) will fit into your ultimate career path.

To see if you’re committed to the company, employers will sometimes ask, “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” Schools want to know the same thing, but for different reasons. They want to know that you have a plan, and that the education they give you is not just going to be wasted.

Be Specific

Specificity is a crucial part of any writing process, but it is absolutely necessary with personal statements which often have limiting word counts. Also, the person (or people) reading your personal statement has a stack of essays about two feet high to get through, so specificity is your opportunity to separate yourself from the pile.

Look up course listings for courses you’re interested in taking. Name specific courses you’ve already taken. If you’re interested in extracurricular activities, don’t say extracurricular activities; name the actual clubs and organizations. If you’re interested in theatre, don’t say theatre; give the name of the actual theatre company.

As far as the school is concerned you are just a piece of paper with the same story to tell as everyone else, but if you can provide a specific story, with concrete details, then you can transcend the paper and become real. And it’s much harder to say ‘no’ to a real person.

Prove You Know Where You’re Applying

Always have a separate personal statement for each school you’re applying to. Never say, “I’m applying to this school…” Give the name of the school you’re applying to.

It also might be a good idea to look up the mission statement of the schools you’re applying to to better understand what is special about that particular school and the particular program you’re applying to.

Remember that you’re not applying to “graduate school” (or college, or a scholarship), you’re applying to “Brown University’s Literary Arts program” (for example). Schools don’t want to know why you want to go to graduate school. They want to know why you want to apply to their specific program, so prove to them that you know it.

Proofread!

Finally—as is good practice with any piece of writing—don’t just type it up right before the due date and send it out. Proofread it. Have a friend read it. Sleep on it, and then proofread it again out loud.

Irregardless Dictionary of Nonwords (entry #2)

biget – (n.) a person taller than a midget, i.e. big midget (usage note: this term is considered derogatory. The preferred term is big person.)

buttaful – (adj.) not attractive, yet unique and intriguing in presence; beautifully ugly

contra sequitur – (n.) the exact wrong thing to say in a given situation (usage note: where non sequiturs are often illogical and random, contra sequiturs are deliberate and precise opposites of expected responses)

doppeldangler – (n.) a double, or exact look-alike, of one’s own penis (in folklore, seeing your doppeldangler typically represents great misfortune for your penis)

evesdrop – (v.) to choose not to take part in the festivities of a holiday until the calendar day of the holiday

Defining ‘Pretentious’

Among the anti-hipster crowd, the word pretentious is tossed around like a well-worn hacky sack. Everything from art and music to fashion sense and word choice has been labeled pretentious. And while some brush it off as a meaningless insult stemming from intellectual insecurity, the line between pretentious and genius proves to be something more than a matter of perspective.

Pretension is characterized by a falseness: a thin veil of intelligence, wisdom or general importance where that veil is only supported by ego. The pretentious reveal ignorance through pseudo-intellectual arrogance or condescension.

Ultimately, nothing profound is being said. It’s sold as deep, though is ultimately shallow. It’s college freshmen repeating tenets of Philosophy 101 and selling them as groundbreaking. It’s undeserved grandeur or sentimentality.

Pretension is an attitude, and so detecting it can sometimes be cloudy work (labeling something as pretentious relies upon an assumption of intention), but this does not mean it only exists in the mind of the accuser. While the word is often overused, it is neither subjective nor meaningless.

Etymology of ‘Mamase Mamasa Mamakusa’

If you’re familiar with the Michael Jackson song “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” (or if you’ve heard one of its countless covers) you’ve probably wondered what the hell mamase mamasa mamakusa means.

Well, it doesn’t mean anything. Technically.

But it’s based off of a refrain from the song “Soul Makossa” released in 1972 by Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango. The original lyrics were “ma-mako, ma-ma-sa, mako-mako ssa” which were a play on the word makossa. Makossa is a style of music originating in Cameroon in the 1960s and evolving from Western influences, like Latin jazz and instruments, and Pan-African influences, like the claps and chants of kossa dancing.

A decade after “Soul Makossa”, Michael Jackson ‘borrowed’ the refrain for his Thriller track “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”, and the chant underwent minor pronunciation changes to turn it into the scat-like mumbo-jumbo we remember today.

A Plea Against Meta

Meta is what happens when art criticism imitates art.

Self-reflexive, deconstructive, postmodern—whatever it may be—it is often used as a tired gimmick for masking a lack of creativity and imagination.

Meta offers the intellectually arrogant a way of staying a step above the fantasy without ever being implicated: never admitting it to be real (always with a wink and a nudge), and never truly committing to the vulnerability of sincerity.

If you’re going to create, be bold enough to believe in your fiction rather than some wallflower too cool to dance—too hip to be genuine.

Tolkien on Creation and Fantasy

“The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into swift water. If it could do the one, it could do the other; it inevitably did both. When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already an enchanter’s power—upon one plane; and the desire to wield that power in the world external to our minds awakes. It does not follow that we shall use that power well upon any plane. We may put a deadly green upon a man’s face and produce horror; we may make the rare and terrible blue moon to shine; or we may cause woods to spring with silver leaves and rams to wear fleeces of gold, and put hot fire into the belly of the cold worm. But in such ‘fantasy’, as it is called, new form is made; Faërie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator.”

~ from the essay “On Fairy Stories” by JRR Tolkien

How to Pronounce ‘#’

Have you ever wondered how to say #? For most of my life I either called it ‘the number sign’ or ‘the pound sign’, but once Twitter culture took over the collective consciousness, I’ve found myself unwillingly slipping into saying ‘hashtag’. I’ve recently decided to rebel by using the archaic pronunciation, ‘octothorpe‘.

Confusion isn’t limited to the #, though. For instance, how do you say !, and what do you call that symbol that looks like an ‘a’ with a circle around it, you know, the @ symbol? Different cultures have different words, but the Internet (that great crash site of cultures) is leading to a standardized nomenclature. Jeff Atwood discusses the issue over at Coding Horror.

The Future of Books

Tech geeks and bandwagoners—ever ready to kill off the old customs and quickly adopt the next shiny new trend—have been calling the death of print media for years, but as much as they herald the reign of the e-reader, one thing remains certain:

Books aren’t going anywhere.

The Value of Digital Media

Even the most stoic of book-lovers must admit that e-books have great value. Not having to lug around giant textbooks to and from class and being able to do keyword searches through texts make the digital platform the natural home of reference works. We were just waiting for someone to invent it.

E-books and e-readers are certainly a great addition to the family of publication media—and pretending they’re not is an immature delusion—but that doesn’t mean that print books are yesterday’s news.

The Value of Print Media

As valuable as digital platforms are, there are some things they just can’t achieve. Things like art books and children’s picture books will remain in print, because their product is not translatable to the Kindle or iPad. It’d be like watching a film on your iPhone. Sure, you’re getting the content, but you’re not experiencing it the way it was created to be experienced.

iPads cannot adapt to the unique dimensions and textures that book-artists create. Tammy Oler at Zeitgeist NYC recently wrote about the struggles of coding poetry for digital consumption. For poets, line breaks can be an important part of how a work is interpreted, but because e-books adapt their size to the size of your e-reader or the level of your zoom, line breaks are mostly ignored.

The problem is, e-readers force the art to adapt to the medium rather than the medium adapting to the art. So as long as books remain art, they will remain in print.

Print media also provide ideal conditions for works like poetry that require meditation and contemplation that even paperbacks can’t provide. A nice cloth-bound hardcover with thick deckle-edge paper is the equivalent of dimming the lights while watching a movie. It’s an experience enhancer. It’s a mood-setter. It’s a way to obtain full immersion.

The Future of Books

The future of books is the present of music. 8-tracks died out, cassettes came and went, and CDs are on their way out, but vinyl records continue to thrive.

Just like vinyl, books will remain for the collector: someone concerned with aesthetics. The type of people who never bought paperbacks or avoided movie tie-in covers will continue to by print books, and as long as there’s a market, there will be a product.

Publishers will pay more attention to the quality of their product and not just what books are made, but how those books are made.

As e-readers imitate print books more and more closely (with their page-turn animations, and low glare screens), print books will start going back to their roots. Publishers will remember that it’s not just the text that’s valuable, but the book itself. A thousand years ago when monks would spend years copying over the contents of a single book, they would dedicate their time not only to correctly copying the text, but also to creating intricate illustrations, making quality time-lasting paper, and binding with exotic leathers, fore-edge paintings, or valuable woods inset with gems.

These were heirloom quality works meant to exist beyond the life of the purchaser. But the concept of heirloom doesn’t exist in the digital world. Everything is transient, meant to exist only until the next technological upgrade.