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Be Less Stupid
Updated: 35 min 54 sec ago

Glaucous, the Greeny Blue of Epic Poetry and Succulents

Tue, 2017-12-12 11:40

In the first season of the television show “Fargo,” the villain, Lorne Malvo, played by Billy Bob Thornton, asks the bumbling police officer (who is slowly cottoning to Malvo’s whole slick hit man shtick) a disorienting question: “Did you know the human eye can see more shades of green than any other color?” He presents this query as a riddle. Once the policeman knows the answer, Malvo suggests, he’ll be able to figure out what is happening in his small town. He doesn’t catch on—at least, not until a female cop (the season’s protagonist) spells it out for him. People can see many shades of green, she says, because of predators. Back when we were monkeys in the jungle, the story goes, we developed the ability to distinguish between greens so we could avoid the apex predators hiding in the foliage.

It’s a neat plot device, and it helps cement the various characters into their roles. And for the show’s purposes, it hardly matters that Thornton’s character is misrepresenting how human eyes work. (We don’t actually perceive more shades of green, but our brains are better at distinguishing between various shades of green than other colors.) But this tense little bit of screenwriting bothered me because it seemed to contradict something I knew about language and color. This story of predators and green-seeing prey suggested that the most significant color in human history was green—that green could somehow deliver us from death. But green was never our primary color. According to the Berlin-Kay theory of basic color terms, when people began to create words for colors, they didn’t start with jungle shades or leafy hues, as one might expect. They began with words to differentiate between light (gleaming) and dark (shadows). When these early humans did add a first color to the lexicon, it was almost always red. Green came later, and sometimes, it didn’t come at all.

By Abu Shawka – Own work, Public Domain, Link

Ancient Greek didn’t distinguish between green and blue (they called them both glaukos). Old and Middle English used one word (glas) for green and blue, as did ancient Japanese (ao). Korean and Vietnamese speakers tend to use the same word to talk about green and blue, though they often add modifiers to the root word to describe more precise shades. The Himba tribe from northern Namibia does not have words that translate to “green” or “blue,” but instead they use a range of color terms to describe various shades of green. (“While the English language has 11 separate color categories—red, green, blue, yellow, black, white, grey, pink, orange, purple, and brown—the Himba have only five,” notes the New York Times. “That may be because their environment does not include as many gradations.”) Like all colors, green and blue exist on a spectrum; they are not the fixed categories that they initially seem. Who can say where one color ends and the other begins?

English has a lot of terms for blue-y greens and greenish blues, and some of them feel like arbitrary bullshit. So-called Cambridge Blue is obviously a variant of sage green, and Tiffany Blue is clearly just a tarted-up turquoise. No term better captures the murky waters between blue and green better than glaucous. It’s not a word you’ll hear often, but you might be familiar with its etymological offspring, glaucoma. The origin of this word can be traced all the way back to Homer, who used glaukos to describe the color of water, the color of eyes, the color of leaves, and the color of honey. It’s often translated as “gleaming,” which reflects the fact that this word wasn’t really about color, but rather the reflective properties of the object and the texture and movement of its surface.

By JMK – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

In Green: The History of a Color, Michel Pastoureau writes that the word was used “extensively” by archaic poets and “can sometimes express green, sometimes gray or blue, sometimes even yellow or brown. It conveys the idea of a color’s paleness or weak concentration rather than a precisely defined shade.” (The Greeks also had a god named Glaucus, named “in allusion to the glaucous color of the sea.” Glaucus was born mortal but after eating a magical herb known as “dog’s tooth” he became immortal, the patron god of fishermen and sailors. He had a dripping beard, bristly eyebrows, and a merman tail. He also was, like most deities, kind of a dick to women.)

By Bartholomeus Spranger[1], Public Domain, Link

In the Hellenistic period, glaukos became a little more defined, as the Greek language evolved to include more color terms (including prasinos, which was used from the third to second centuries BCE to describe “all the pronounced shades of green, especially the dark greens,” writes Pastoureau). As Greek slowly morphed into Latin, glaukos became glaucous, and as the spelling changed, the meaning narrowed. Glaucous came to describe a blue-ish gray-ish green-ish hue, murky and light enough to feel like a neutral tone. In the fifteenth century, the word glauk entered the Middle English vocabulary, meaning blue-gray.

As the centuries wore on, glaucous fell out of use, only to be revived by the Romantics, who loved all things Hellenistic. In “Prometheus Unbound,” Percy Bysshe Shelley writes of the “glaucous caverns of old Ocean / Within dim bowers of green and purple moss” where Ione and Panthea embrace with “soft and milky arms” and “dark, moist hair.” (It’s kind of a damp and sexy moment.) Years later, Sylvia Plath would employ the anachronistic term in “Whitsun” to describe the “weed-mustachioed sea” and its “glaucous silks, / Bowing and tucking like an old-school oriental.” Leaving aside the casual racism, Plath uses the word like Shelley did before her—to evoke a surface quality of glimmering motion, green and salty and somehow alive.

By Taken byfir0002 | 20D + Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 – Own work, GFDL 1.2, Link

Although it was the OG green in western culture, glaucous has been relegated to the realms of poetry and science. There are few glaucous paints on the market, and I’ve never heard the word used in conversation. Since it is rarely used, it is rarely represented accurately (the hex code for glaucous is a smoky blue, not a lichen-like green that one would expect). These days, you’re far more likely to read of a glaucous-winged gull (named for the dull gray color of its feathers) or the glaucous bloom on a grape. In the world of botany, glaucous is used to refer to the waxy white coating that can form on certain fruits and plants, like plums, apples, and cactuses. (The technical name for this coating is cutin and it is a naturally occurring substance that helps protect the plant from drying out.)

By AWeith – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

Over the years glaucous has gone from meaning “gleaming” or “shining” to describing objects that have a dull, lusterless coating, which makes it somewhat of a Janus word (or if you prefer, a contronym), since the original meaning does still hold. Look it up and you’ll find glaucous defined as “dull gray or blue” and also “shining.” I like that linguistic twistiness—Janus words are a special love of mine—but in reality, no one uses glaucous to mean shining unless they’re a freshman poetry major writing an ode to the ocean. Occasionally, you may hear the word uttered; there is an asteroid named 1870 Glaukos, as well as a submarine, though both were named for the god rather than the color. It seems that glaucous is a lost color, as dead as ancient Greek, Old Latin, and that ancient pantheon of gods. Perhaps someday Pantone will revive it, but given their propensity for pop culture colors and nonsense quasi-political statements, I am not holding my breath for a classical color revival.


Friday Dunard, "Keine Gerade"

Tue, 2017-12-12 10:00

Here’s music. Enjoy.

New York City, December 10, 2017

Mon, 2017-12-11 18:50

★★★★ The snow, clean white in the sun, still crisply traced balcony rails and building tops. A lilac haze prettified New Jersey. Someone had built a decently orthodox three-ball snowman on the middle of one of the rooftop tables across the way. Downstairs the snow had held its place and its whiteness even down in the shrubbery. The light found little unpatterned ripples in the undisturbed surface on the top slope of a construction fence. Despite its stretched-out low angle, the sun still could modulate the cold. The wind that was hurrying the ivory-tinged fractus clouds along overhead was not reaching down into the streets. There was enough slush off toward the curb to walk through for peace of mind after dodging along a dog-spattered stretch of sidewalk. From the apartment, enough of the playground was visible to tell there’d be no point in bringing a basketball. Up close, yesterday’s delightful snowfield was now pocked and puddly, no good for snow play or anything else. The only clear option was the swings, though the six-year-old’s parka tail kept slipping off the rubber seat. When the swinging palled all that was left was snowball fighting. The snow from the foot of the fence could be packed into a perfect-looking sphere, but its true and greatest virtue was that it could also not be shaped at all: an unmodified handful of it, once scooped, would stay stuck together, heavy enough to fly true and loose enough to explode and spray on contact.

The Greatest Gift We Can Give at the Holidays is Zero Fucks

Mon, 2017-12-11 11:51

Image: optische_taeuschung via Flickr

“I’m terrible at shopping for gifts. What should I do?” —Giving Gary

The holidays aren’t really about getting and giving great gifts. At least I hope not. Because I am one of the lamest gift givers in the world. I do my best shopping on Christmas Eve, when there’s only a few things left and I am at an airport news stand. Last year, I wrote Ben a poem—that’s how lame I am. I also bought him some weird Christmasy things at the local Goodwill. One was a weird foam reindeer. The other was a weird plush frog nutcracker with a paperclip sword.

He rarely likes the kind of things I buy for him. Usually some version of fleece hoodies from the university bookstore I work at or Detroit sports team loungewear. My only holiday hope for Ben is that he is warm. This year I bought us Christmas Eve tickets to The Phantom Thread which will be weird for me because I don’t think there are any super heroes in that movie at all. But it’s supposed to be beautiful and during the holidays when the days are short and dark we could all use a little beauty. Falling snow, shimmering lights, fancy costume drama.

The only person I am any good at shopping for is my mother. She loves to read books. And I’ve worked in bookstores for forever. So we’re a good match. She likes travel books, memoirs, the occasional novel. She’s a librarian. I became a bookseller because I always thought people should pay for books. That they should keep them forever in bookshelves and that they should lend them to their friends for a while. “Oh, I just read this! You’ll love it!” I guess you could do that at the library, too, but they don’t let you talk there. I always get shushed. One of the happiest love affairs I ever had was with a page at my mother’s library. We would make out in a deserted part of the third floor. I would kiss her neck and she would shush me.

I guess with the people we love it doesn’t really matter what kind of gifts we give each other. I rarely ever wrap mine. Usually I’ll just wrap the bag tightly around the book. Or grab up someone else’s torn-apart wrapping paper and slide my gift for you right in there. I’m just usually broke, I procrastinate buying gifts and then end up scrambling at the very last second. Thankfully I don’t have a ton of people to buy gifts for. 

For me, a terrible gift-giver, gifts are not the main thrust of the holidays. I just like having time off of work, getting a chance to travel home and take it easy for a few days while eating my Mom’s cooking. Last year I traveled to San Diego on Christmas Day and spent a few days with all of them. No gifts were exchanged. Well, my parents footed the bill for me to fly and stay in a hotel. But the giftless Christmas did not change the season. When my nephew threw up in the bathroom of a Cheesecake Factory, I bought him a ginger ale at the Hotel. “Merry Christmas!” I offered. He looked like he was going to throw up on me.

So, Gary, it’s late capitalism, as they say. Gift-giving is really just to keep the economy afloat. Imagine if we suddenly stopped? It would be the end of the world, or the beginning of one of those dystopian children’s book trilogies they make movies out of. Starbucks gift cards are fine gifts. Just buy everyone one of those. Even the kids, soon Starbucks will start selling Adderall and Ritalin. They might as well. And a $25 Starbucks card gets you a few treats. Who could ask for more? I had one of their Christmas Tree frappuccinos and it didn’t taste like a tree at all! It gave me a minty ice-cream headache. But it was worth it. For an hour I felt grimly buzzed, and forgot about all of my other problems because of the headache. Soon, coffee will be extinct. And Starbucks gift cards will be worth more than bitcoins. Because if anyone has any coffee stashed away anywhere it’s the green mermaid lady. Then who will your favorite uncle be? The one who grabbed up all those Starbucks cards at the airport while he was waiting to board his plane, that’s who.

Anyway, the best day to shop for gifts is really the day after Christmas. You can fill an entire Walgreens bag with weird holiday stuff that’s like half off. And hide it someplace for next year’s gifts. The problem in our apartment is always, where did we hide the Walgreens bag? We’ll find it when we move again, I guess.

But this year is pretty simple: there’s a new Star Wars movie. Just buy everyone on your list an action figure. Or a lightsaber. Or take them to the movies. Everyone loves going to the movies during the holidays. Just hanging out in the dark with the people they love. And all their Star Wars pals. The greatest gift we can give during the holidays is to not give a fuck. Instead of trying to make everything perfect for the people we love, just be together. Imperfectly. May the force be with you.


Jim Behrle lives in Jersey City, NJ and works at a different bookstore now.

Russian Nesting Dolls

Mon, 2017-12-11 11:27

Fuckthegovernment.Ltd, "(I've Seen) Love From Tokyo" (Boo's UnderWorld Remix)

Mon, 2017-12-11 09:44

Weren’t we just here? Wasn’t it moments ago that we were waking up to a new week, full of dread and barely able to drag ourselves to the starting line? Didn’t we just complain about how exhausted we were and wonder how much more we could take? I guess the good news is I can copy and paste this exact block of text over and over again until it finally all comes down, because we live in a world where it’s always like this now. Here’s some music. Enjoy. [Via]