Christmas, 2, 3, 4

December 22, 2017 § Leave a comment

“This Airport’s Christmas Tree Was So Offensively Ugly They Had to Take It Down”

[T]he people of Beirut, Lebanon were far from pleased with the Christmas tree that was standing in Rafic Hariri International Airport this season.

It wasn’t just ugly—it wasn’t really a tree. The structure was actually made of metal, fire extinguishers, life vests, and other recycled airplane parts.

The tree was actually commissioned as part of an environmental initiative from Middle East Airlines in order “to raise awareness about environmental protection and to prevent logging and awareness on the recycling process.” However, most people traveling through the airport couldn’t really get past the idea that they were looking at what was basically a Christmas tree made of garbage.

. . . . .

After many complaints, the tree was removed from the airport.

Andrea Romano, Travel and Leisure, December 15, 2017

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English Is Hard: When Your “Yes” Isn’t “Yes,” and Your “No” Isn’t “No”

December 16, 2017 § 5 Comments

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I’m glad I don’t have to learn English as a second language. Not only are there complex sentence patterns and odd figures of speech to figure out. But even the simple and basic things can be problematic. I’m talking about things such as yes and no. That’s about as simple and basic as you can get, right?

Well, my English-learning friends, here are six examples that say otherwise.

• Yeah, no

You hear it a lot. Maybe you say it a lot. It’s pure contradiction, yet it rolls off the tongue. (I caught myself saying it a few days ago and immediately thought, “Where in the world did that come from?” Then I washed my mouth out with two kinds of soap.)

Yeah, no. It comes about in conversations such as,

Do you like pumpkin pie?

Yeah, no, I think it’s great!

Here the meaning of the phrase is “yes,” but in other contexts it can mean “no.” It can also mean “yes” and “no,” with one part answering an actual question and the other answering an implied question. And then there are No, yeah and Yeah, no, yeah and all sorts of other variations. It’s enough to confuse even the most native of speakers. But no worry. You can pretty much ignore it, if you’d like. It doesn’t amount to much. Or does it?

The root of the matter: If you want to chew on the lexical meat of Yeah, no, take a look at Mark Liberman’s post at the University of Pennsylvania’s Language Log, where he analyzes its usage by sex and age and discusses it’s meanings. Also, “Steve at Language Hat” emailed Liberman and pointed to a 2002 article in The Australian Journal of Linguistics, in which the authors say that Yeah, no

serves a number of functions, including discourse cohesion, the pragmatic functions of hedging and face-saving, and assent and dissent.

Further thoughts from Kate Burridge, chair of linguistics at Monash University and coauthor of the aforementioned article, are referenced in The Age (another hat tip to Steve). She says that the phrase’s usage “falls into three main categories, each determined by context”: literal, where the speaker agrees in general with an idea and then adds something else; abstract, where a person accepts and then defuses a compliment; and textual, where someone agrees with what has been said but then goes back to an earlier point.

Kathryn Schulz, in The New Yorker, adds to the analysis, and the variations, with her look at No, totally. She calls the no in this phrase a contranym—a word with two, opposite, meanings—that came about through amelioration—where a negative word develops a second, positive, meaning. Another example of a contranym is dust, which can mean “to remove dust,” as in “dusting a shelf,” and “to add dust,” as in “dusting a cake with powdered sugar.” An example of amelioration is bad taking on the meaning “good,” as in, “I love that song. It’s really baaad!”

So does that mean that no can mean “yes”?

No, yeah, I guess it does.

(Mark Liberman, “Yeah No,” Language Log, April 03, 2008; Kate Burridge and Margaret Florey, “Yeah-no He’s a Good Kid’: A Discourse Analysis of Yeah-no in Australian English,” Australian Journal of Linguistics, volume 22, number 1, October 1, 2002; Birdie Smith, “Slang’s ‘Yeah No’ Debate Not All Negative,” The Age, June 11, 2004; Kathryn Schulz, “What Part of “No, Totally” Don’t You Understand?” The New Yorker, April 7, 2015)

• Yes, he isn’t.

Have you ever asked a non-native English speaker a negative question and gotten a simple “yes” as the answer? For example:

Is John not going to the movie?

Yes.

So now tell me about John’s plans. Are you sure?

For native English speakers, a one-word “Yes” answer isn’t clear (Is it “Yes, he is” or “Yes, he isn’t”?), while a simple “No” most often means “No, he is not going.” I say “most often” because it’s easy to be confused. Therefore, we often follow up the “yes” or “no” with a full-sentence explanation.

The root of the matter: This hasn’t always been a problem. Gretchen McCulloch writes in The Week that things were different around the time from Chaucer to Shakespeare (about 1340 to 1580). Back then, English speakers showed agreement or disagreement with positive statements or questions by responding with “yea” or “nay,” respectively. But negative statements or questions got a “yes” or “no” response. Having the four options helped with clarity. But reduce the possibilities and you increase the potential for confusion.

(Schulz also refers to yes/no/yea/nay in her discussion of No, totally. She writes that totally [or certainly or exactly] may serve as the needed explanation following a no that harkens back to no/nay times and answers a real, or implied, negative question.)

So where is John going? The yes for many English learners would mean “Yes, he isn’t going.” But while that technically makes sense, it doesn’t sound too well to the native-speaker’s ear. That’s because English is a “truth-based” language, which means that speakers answer a negative question with the same particle (yes/no) that they would use for a similar positive question, and the particle agrees with the positive/negative value of the sentence answer (“Yes, he is” or “No, he isn’t). But many other languages are “polarity based.” This means that speakers use the particle that shows agreement or disagreement with the negative proposition of the question (“Yes, he isn’t” or “No, he is”).

But those aren’t hard-and-fast rules. To make matters even more complicated, whether English speakers use yes or no can also depend on whether the question uses notor the contraction n’t (“Is John not going?” vs “Isn’t John going?”), on the questioner’s tone, or even on body language.

Now, is that not interesting?

(Gretchen McCulloch, ‘The Problem with Positive Answers to Negative Questions,” The Week, March 10, 2014; Feifei Li, et al., “Is Mandarin Chinese a Truth-Based Language? Rejecting Responses to Negative Assertions and Questions,” Frontiers in Psychology, December 20, 2016; Anders Holmberg, The Syntax of Yes and No, Oxford, 2016)

• Do you mind?

When we ask a question such as “Do you mind if I sit here?” or “Do you care if I use your pen?” many will answer as if the question were “Is it OK if . . .?” So if you don’t mind, you’d answer “Yes.” But, as above, a one-word answer can be confusing and often needs an explanation—because some people answer the meaning of the question while others answer the actual grammar. While related to the negative-question above, it kind of turns that discussion inside out, since “Do you mind?” and “Do you care?” are actually positive, but the ideas behind mind and care are negative.

I think I’m starting to get confused, here. Do you mind if we move on?

• Double negatives

We all know that logic tells us a double negative makes a positive. Or at least that’s what we’ve been taught. But the truth is, when we hear a double (or triple or quadruple) negative used in colloquial speech, we know that the meaning is most assuredly—and emphatically—negative. So while the prescriptivist grammarian (one who prescribes the way English should be) would say that using double negatives to express a negative thought is incorrect, a descriptivist (one who describes the way English actually is) would disagree, and might say, “That doesn’t make no sense at all.”

The root of the matter: It used to be (back to Chaucer and Shakespeare again) that people didn’t have a problem with negative concord—using more than one negation word in a sentence to express a negative meaning. But in the 1600s, when grammarians decided that the free-wheeling English language was getting out of hand, they used rules from Latin grammar to keep it in check. Not only was Latin the language of the learned, but because it was no longer spoken, it was immune to the conversational transformations of the masses. Therefore, because double negatives were not found in Latin, they should not be present in English.

I do, though, need to insert a caveat here. While this Latin-rule theory is supported by most linguists (see Linda Mitchell and Dick Leith), there isn’t 100% agreement. Amel Kallel has written an entire book arguing that the loss of double negatives was not the cause of Latin-inspired grammarians, but rather came about naturally, on its own.

Regardless of why double negatives have fallen out of favor in modern formal English, they’re not completely absent, especially in the form of litotes. Litotes is saying something by using the negative of its opposite, often with ironic understatement. Therefore, “good” becomes “not bad,” and World War II can be described as “not a small battle.” To make the meaning more clear in spoken English, a double-negative-as-litotes is often expressed by stressing the second negative, as in “Finding happiness in life isn’t nothing.”

I really hope that’s clear, because I ain’t gonna explain it no more.

(Stan Carey, “Ain’t Nothin’ (Grammatically) Wrong with No Double Negatives,” MacMillan Dictionary Blog, April 13, 2015; Linda C. Mitchell, Grammar Wars: Language as Cultural Battlefield in 17th and 18th Century England, Ashgate 2001; Dick Leith, A Social History of English, Routledge, 1983; Amel Kallel, The Loss of Negative Concord in Standard English: A Case of Lexical Reanalysis, Cambridge Scholars, 2011)

• I can’t hardly

If someone says, “I can hardly reach the shelf,” it means that person can barely reach it, or almost can’t, but can. The phrase “I couldn’t care less about what’s on the shelf” means that someone doesn’t care at all, so cannot care to a lesser extent. But we often hear people say “I can’t hardly” and “I could care less.” But rather than having the opposite meanings of their counterparts, they mean the same thing. We could say that these second versions are “wrong,” but in a way, the phrases have become idioms, where the meaning of the entirety stays the same, even if the parts are altered.

The root of the matter: Kory Stamper, associate editor at Merriam-Webster, says that could care less shows up before couldn’t care less, appearing in the 1867 serial novel, Birds of Prey as “O, believe me, there is no one in the world who could care less for that than I do.” Notice that no one adds a negative to the sentence, so the speaker is more or less saying, “No one else could care less than me because I, myself, could not care less.”

Now my linguistic research abilities are no match for the folks at Merriam-Webster, but I was able to find an earlier occurrence of could care less. It’s in the April 1, 1864, issue of The Gospel Magazine and Protestant Beacon, where we find,

No living man can write more disinterestedly than I do on this matter; few men in the diocese could care less who are the lucky recipients of Church gifts.

But here too, notice the negation effect of “few,” allowing that while some may be able to care less, the author’s lack of caring makes that difficult.

Stamper then adds that the first couldn’t care less she and her colleagues found is from 1886: “Ralph couldn’t care less for us if he wanted to ever so much,” where, oddly enough, Ralph could not care less not because he didn’t care at all but because he cared so much that he couldn’t stop himself—it wasn’t in his power to not be that caring. (I’ll give you a moment to work through  that one.)

Can’t hardly figure it out . . . or could you care less?

(“Is It ‘I Could Care Less’ or ‘I Couldn’t Care Less’?Merriam-Webster, January 18, 2017; Mary Elizabeth Braddon, “Birds of Preey,” October, 1867; Belgravia: A London Magazine, ; S.G.O, “Abuse of Church Patronage—Family Arrangements,” The Gospel Magazine and Protestant Beacon, April 1, 1864; Ethel Karr, The Australian Guest: A Novel, Remington, 1886;

• Irregardless and inflammable

Simply put, regardless and irregardless mean the same thing: “despite that” or “no matter” (though most consider irregardless nonstandard).

And flammable and inflammable share a meaning, as well: “able to burn easily.”

It doesn’t matter that both pairs look as if they’re made up of opposites.

The root of the matter: Irregardless most likely came about (in the mid 1800s) from combining irrespective with regardless, even though the ir- of irregardless on its own means “not.” In a letter to the editor of The Telegrapher, dated 1869, some Cleveland telegraph operators describe the poor situation in their office by writing about their office manager: “In fact, he is ‘irregardless’ of our comfort.” In this case, irregardless of means something like “uncaring about” or “pays no attention to.”

The Cleveland operators also close with

We do not intend to find fault unnecessarily, but whenever such a spiteful and petty spirit is shown by a sub-official, we shall consider it our duty to inform the fraternity generally, “irregardless” of the result.

It’s interesting that the authors put irregardless in quotation marks, as if the word hasn’t quite come into common usage yet.

In regards to inflammable, lexicographer Ammon Shea tells us that the word can be found in print as far back as 1574, while flammable first shows up in 1655. Both mean “burnable,” because the in in inflammable means “in/into” (as in inflammation), rather than having the meaning “not” (as in incombustible). In the 1920s, the National Fire Protection Association became worried that inflammable would be confused with nonflammable, so they promoted the use of flammable for warning labels, to save us all from lexical confusion . . . and fire.

You say flammable. I say inflammable. Irregardless, we mean the same thing.

(Cleveland Operators, “Petty Tyrany,” The Telegrapher, April 14, 1869; Ammon Shea, “Why Do Flammable and Inflammable Mean the Same Thing?” Dictionary.com)

So, in conclusion, after all this, I offer you, dear English learners, my sympathy.

Thank you very much.

Oh, think nothing of it. Now, to help your confidence, repeat after me: “I can do this, in spite of all the discourse cohesion, contranyms, ameliorations, negative concord, and litotes.”

OK, here goes. I can do this, in spite of all the disc . . . disc . . . I’m sorry, what was that?

Don’t worry. Simply put, English is hard.

I know, right?

Uhh . . . way to sound fluent, but don’t even get me started on that one!

[photo: “Yes or No,” by Quinn Dombrowski, used under a Creative Commons license]

For Those in Authority, Let us Pray [—at a Life Overseas]

November 29, 2017 § Leave a comment

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One summer when I was in college, I worked at a Salvation Army day camp. We kept the kids busy with lots of activities, lots of playing, lots of singing, lots of eating, and lots of Bible lessons. During one of the teaching times on the lawn, one of the campers, a boy of about 10, got up and walked away. I caught up to him down the block, and we sat down together on the curb. When I asked him what was wrong, he said he was tired of hearing the same stories over and over again. I told him I feel that way sometimes, too. But, I said, so much of following Jesus is not learning new things but being reminded of things we already know.

So here’s one of those reminders—if not for you, then certainly for me.

“I urge, then, first of all,” writes Paul of Tarsus, “that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—for kings and all those in authority.”

Now the readers at A Life Overseas cover a lot of territory, so “kings and all those in authority” is a wide-ranging group. But are we supposed to pray for all of them?

Head over to A Life Overseas to finish reading.

[photo: “Crown,” by Sarah, used under a Creative Commons license]

Cross-cultural Books for the First Year of the Rest of Your Life

November 12, 2017 § Leave a comment

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Did you know that penguins (the birds that swim instead of fly) thrive in saltwater environments because they have a gland above their eyes that filters salt from their blood, and then the salt is excreted through their bills, either as a drip or by a sneeze?

And did you know that Penguin (the publisher that’s part of Penguin Random House) puts out a list each year aimed at first-year college students, called “Penguin Books for First-Year Experience and Common Reading Programs“?

(The rest of this post is going to elaborate on the second fact above, though the first one is pretty cool.)

Many colleges and universities have first-year-experience (FYE) programs aimed at laying an introductory foundation for beginning students. Programs often have as their focus a course taken by all new students and may also include a common text that students share in reading. Chosen well, this book expands the world of incoming students and creates avenues for growth and discussion.

Look at Penguin’s 2017-18 catalog of books recommended as common readings and you’ll find plenty of award-winning works, filled with inspiration and covering a myriad of challenging topics, and you don’t need to be a college freshman to appreciate the width and depth represented there. And within that list, you’ll also find a lot with cross-cultural and international themes—so many, in fact, that they’re worth listing here.

I’ve divided them into the categories that Penguin uses in its catalog, showing the title and author, followed by the place or situation, if not already apparent. I can’t personally vouch for all of these books, since, regrettably, I haven’t read any of them. But I can certainly say that I’d like to use these titles to start a to-read list . . . or maybe a list for Christmas.

Nonfiction:

In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom
Yeonmi Park with Maryanne Vollers

It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War
Lynsey Addario

The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border
Francisco Cantú
(at the Mexico/US border)

Fiction:

The Association of Small Bombs
Karan Mahajan
(India and the US)

City of Saints and Thieves
Natalie C. Anderson
(Kenya)

Everything I Never Told You
Celeste Ng
(Chinese Americans)

Exit West
Mohsin Hamid
(imagined world of refugees)

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia
Mohsin Hamid

Quiet until the Thaw
Alexandra Fuller
(Native Americans)

The Shadow of the Crescent Moon
Fatima Bhutto
(Afghanistan and Pakistan)

Contemporary Fiction:

And the Mountains Echoed
Khaled Hosseini
(Kabul, Paris, San Francisco, and the Greek island of Tinos)

The Cellist of Sarajevo
Steven Galloway

Don’t Tell Me You’re Afraid
Giuseppe Catozzella
(a Somali girl and the Olympics)

Ghachar Ghochar
Vivek Shanbhag, translated by Srinath Perur
(Bangalore)

Girl in Translation
Jean Kwok
(an immigrant from Hong Kong to Brooklyn)

Home Fire
Kamila Shamsie
(Pakistani immigrants in London and Massachusetts)

How I Became a North Korean
Krys Lee
(at the Chinese border with North Korea)

The Idiot
Elif Batuman
(immigrant and international students at Harvard)

In the Language of Miracles
Rajia Hassib
(Egyptian immigrants to the US)

Lucky Boy
Shanthi Sekaran
(an undocumented Mexican immigrant and Indian-American in the US)

Redeployment
Phil Klay
(US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan and returning home)

Refuge
Dina Nayeri
(an immigrant from Iran to the US to Europe)

Reputations
Juan Gabriel Vásquez, translated by Anne McLean
(Colombia)

The Shape of Bones
Daniel Galera
(Brazil)

A Tale for the Time Being
Ruth Ozeki
(Tokyo)

A Word for Love
Emily Robbins
(Syria)

General Nonfiction

Excellent Daughters: The Secret Lives of the Young Women Who Are Transforming the Arab World
Katherine Zoepf

A School for My Village: A Promise to the Orphans of Nyaka
Twesigye Jackson Kaguri with Susan Urbanek Linville
(Uganda)

Shooting Ghosts: A U.S. Marine, a Combat Photographer, and Their Journey Back from War
Thomas J. Brennan and Finbarr O’Reilly
(Afghanistan and Iraq)

The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine
Ben Ehrenreich

Memoir and Biography

Autumn
Karl Ove Knausgaard
(Sweden)

The Bosnia List: A Memoir of War, Exile, and Return
Kenan Trebinčević and Susan Shapiro

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
Daniel James Brown

Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West
Blaine Harden

The Girl from the Metropol Hotel: Growing Up in Communist Russia
Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

Looking for Palestine: Growing Up Confused in an Arab-American Family
Najla Said

An Ordinary Man: An Autobiography
Paul Rusesabagina and Tom Zoellner
(Rwanda)

Shoot like a Girl: One Woman’s Dramatic Fight in Afghanistan and on the Home Front
Mary Jennings Hegar

Stealing Buddha’s Dinner
Bich Minh Nguyen
(Vietnamese immigrant in Michigan)

Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League
Dan-el Padilla Peralta

Wine to Water: How One Man Saved Himself While Trying to Save the World
Doc Hendley

You Will Not Have My Hate
Antoine Leiris
(Paris)

And finally, a few books on listening and telling stories, all from David Isay, the founder of StoryCorps:

Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work

Listening Is an Act of Love: A Celebration of American Life from the StoryCorps Project

Ties That Bind: Stories of Love and Gratitude from the First Ten Years of StoryCorps

[photo: “Happy World Penguin Day,” by Christopher Michel, used under a Creative Commons license]

Seaweed, It’s Not Just for the Fishes

November 4, 2017 § 2 Comments

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On Wednesday, while we were watching Game 6 of the World Series, I saw a commercial that featured a young girl introducing herself to her new classmates. Her parents met in Texas, she tells them, then relocated to Washington, and she was born at Fort Knox. Next came Georgia and then Korea. “Mmm,” she says, pointing to South Korea on the wall map, “Seaweed snacks.”

Her fellow students think that sounds pretty awful, but my son, who was born in Taiwan, yelled out, “See? See? I’m not the only one!”

She ends her introduction with “And now we live here for good.”

What were they advertising? I didn’t know, but I wanted to find the commercial online and watch it again. I Googled “home ad seaweed.” Google asked if I meant “home and seaweed” and showed me 5 Creative Uses for Seaweed in the Home, from Rodale’s OrganicLife: fertilizer, dietary supplement, East Asian cuisine ingredient, pet food ingredient, and beer additive. It also led me to a Wired article telling me, “This Seaweed-Covered House Is the World’s Coziest Sushi Roll” (“The primary challenge for the designers was turning an unruly weed into a consistent building material”), and The New York Times sharing that “Seaweed’ Clothing Has None, Tests Show” (“the labs found no evidence of seaweed in the Lululemon clothing”).

Thinking the commercial might be selling houses, I searched for “real estate commercial seaweed,” but that honed in on “commercial seaweed,” which gave me Grand View Research’s “Commercial Seaweed Market to Reach $22.13 Billion by 2024,” and “The Power of Seaweed, from the Wall Street Journal (“there’s growing evidence that seaweed might fit the bill as a raw material for biofuel, and one Indian entrepreneur is hoping to exploit it”).

No World Series commercial yet, but I didn’t give up. And through some combination of search terms, I found what I was looking for. The ad is from Navy Federal Credit Union and is titled “Here for Good.” I couldn’t embed it, but you can watch it at iSpot.tv.

Are you like the students in the commercial and you think that eating seaweed is more yuck than yum? Or are you like my son: “Edible seaweed? What’s not to like?” Either way, if you want to find out more about “the new potato chip,” edible seaweed (nori in Japanese, hai tai in Mandarin, or kim in Korean), take a look at KQED’s “Savoring Seaweeds: What You Need to Know before Diving In.” More options? Well Deutsche Welle would like you to know “Seaweed Wine Hits Germany’s Stores, and The Portland Phoenix wants to introduce you to “Seaweed Tea: The Next Big Drink Trend?

Of course, the chips aren’t made from potatoes, the wine isn’t made from grapes, and the tea isn’t made from tea. They’re all made from marine algae.

So, how long before you’re saying, “Mmm. Marine algae.”

[photo: “Wasabi flavored snack nori わさび风味のり,” by kattebelletje, used under a Creative Commons license]

What Did I Do Today? I Made a Copy. Woohoo! [—at A Life Overseas]

October 28, 2017 § Leave a comment

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An imagined but quite possible day in a life overseas . . .

This morning I woke up with my to-do list waiting for me on the nightstand. Item number one was Get out of bed (I’d written that one down so I could start the day by crossing it off). Number two said Copy document. That’s because yesterday at the county government office, when I went to get my resident permit renewed, the lady behind the desk told me I needed to bring a copy of my registration letter to leave with them.

I was more than ready to get that taken care of and move on to the other, bigger, better, more important things on my list. It was an impressive list. I had quite the day planned.

After a quick shower and a slice of toast for breakfast, I grabbed my permit documents and walked the four blocks to the bus stop and took the bus to the copy shop, about 15 minutes away. But when I stepped off the bus I saw that the copy shop wasn’t a copy shop anymore. Instead,  sometime over the weekend, it had been turned into a KFG Chicken restaurant. (That’s right, a KFG not a KFC. This one had a big green smiling rooster on its sign.) I called my teammate to get her advice, and she said I could get a copy at a bank. There was a bank down the street, and after going there and standing in line, I asked the teller if she could help me make a copy. She said that was impossible.

On the way back to the bus stop, I called another teammate, and he told me to try the photo shop next to the new high school. I decided to take a taxi there to save time, but the only cash I had was a large bill and I figured the driver wouldn’t have change for it, so I walked back to the bank to withdraw some money from the ATM. But then the ATM ate my card and wouldn’t spit it out no matter how many buttons I pushed. I went back into the bank to retrieve it, but they said that was impossible—at least until after two business days.

You can read the rest at A Life Overseas. . . .

[photo: “Braden’s Woohoo!,” by Laura Molnar, used under a Creative Commons license]

MacGregors, Madras, and Maasai: Rockin’ the Tartan around the Globe

October 20, 2017 § 2 Comments

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I recently visited my sister’s Presbyterian Church, and they, as part of their year-long recognition of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, will be celebrating the Kirkin’ o’ the Tartan this month. Not knowing what that was, I did some Googling and learned a thing or two . . . or three or four.

First, according to none other than the Scottish Tartans Authority, the Kirkin’ o’ the Tartan was begun (at least in the US) by the Reverend Peter Marshall. Born in Coatbridge, Scotland, in 1902, Marshall came to the States at the age of 24 and eventually became pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church and chaplain of the US Senate. While at New York Avenue, he held a kirkin’ service as a way to raise money for World War II.

You might be wondering what it means to kirk a tartan (I know I was). Well, kirk is Scottish for church, and tartan was originally a word for a woolen fabric, and then it became the name for the plaids worn by Scottish Highlanders, with each clan having its own distinct colors and pattern. So to kirk the tartan means to wear your kilts and other Scottish-plaid garments to church.

Since its creation, tartan (plaid) has certainly gotten around and made its mark on the world. In fact, as Elizabeth Wayland Barber writes in The Mummies of Ürümchi, the oldest existing piece of tartan fabric was found in the tomb of a Celtic man (known as Cherchen Man) from around 1,000 BC, unearthed in, of all places, northwest China. And since then, it’s put down roots all over.

In the early 1600s, he British East India Company established a trading post, including Fort St. George, in the fishing village Madraspatnam (later Madras and now Chennai). They chose the location, in part, because of the cotton cloth made there, and developed it into a textile hub. About 100 years later, madras came to the American colonies when the former governor of Fort St. George, Elihu Yale, made a donation, including madras cotton, to the Collegiate School of Connecticut. In recognition of his gift, the school changed its name to Yale College (today’s Yale University). Move ahead another 100 years or so, and the tartan pattern—handed down from the Scots—was woven into Madras cloth and became a hit, so much so that madras is now virtually synonymous with brightly colored plaids.

(There are a lot of sources for the history of madras, but I chose the Gentleman’s Gazette, because not only can they tell us how madras came to the Ivy League, they can also tell us how to wear madras shirts, shorts, jackets, ties, and belts to sport that Ivy League style.)

2415702086_024797459e_zThe British and French brought madras fabric to the Caribbean in the 1600s, and according to Carol Tulloch, in Defining Dress: Dress as Object, Meaning, and Identity, the madras “handkerchief” fabric became “a currency of slavery”—made in India, sold to traders in London, and then “used to barter for slaves in West Africa and to clothe slaves in the West Indies.” It’s unclear to me exactly when the madras cloth flowing into the Caribbean took on its characteristic plaid, but tartan is now part of the national dress of several islands, such as the quadrille of Jamaica and the karabela of Haiti.

7559678650_0542f004fe_zSome say that the use of madras in the slave trade is what brought it to East Africa, where it has become a major element in the traditional dress of the Maasai, in the form of the shuka. Others claim the origin of the “African blanket” is from Scottish troops stationed there or it was introduced by Scottish missionaries. An article in The Star of Kenya includes the tale of tartan coming to East Africa by way of the British, stating that during a visit by Queen Victoria, tartan fabric was used for table coverings and the Maasai were told to clothe themselves with the tablecloths so as not to offend the queen with their nudity. This seems rather apocryphal to me, especially since before wearing the modern cloth shuka, the Maasai wore a version made from animal hides, which would seem to have covered their nakedness just fine.

1118423019_1f7d916359_zIn South Africa, not only do traditional dancers from the Pedi people group wear red plaid, but it’s actually in the form of a kilt. In another somewhat fanciful, but popular, story, as recounted in South Africa’s Mail & Guardian, it is said that when British troops came to the area in 1878, they were led by kilt-wearing soldiers. The Pedi, thinking they were fighting against women, refused to shoot until it was too late and the battle was lost. (So maybe the Pedi donned the kilts as a future battle tactic?) But others say the kilts were adopted after the Pedi fought by the side of the Scots during World War II.

Of course, I didn’t need to do any research to know that donning plaids is an essential part of the traditional dress of many tribes. Take, for instance, preppies, lumberjacks, and hipsters. But I certainly hadn’t put the pieces together for tartan’s reach around the globe and beyond.

Beyond? you ask. Lunar module pilot Alan Bean took care of that in 1969 when he carried a swatch of Clan MacBean Tartan to the moon and back during Apollo 12. A few years ago Bean gave a piece of that cloth to the Scottish Tartans Authority for safekeeping.

Now that’s getting around, in style.

(Todd Wilkinson, “The Kirkin’ o’ the Tartan,” Scottish Tartans Authority ; Elizabeth Wayland Barber, The Mummies of ÜrümchiNorton, 1999; Sven Raphael Schneider, “Madras Guide–How the Shirt, Pants & Jackets Became Popular,” Gentleman’s Gazette, July 12, 2013; Carol Tulloch, “That Little Magic Touch: The Headtie,” Defining Dress: Dress as Object, Meaning, and Identity, Amy de la Haye and Elizabeth Wilson, eds, Manchester University, 1999; Andrea Bohnstedt, “The Maasai ‘Shuka’ Has Evolved into a Brand,” The Star, May 17, 2014; Paul Alexander, “The Tale of the Kilt,” Mail & Guardian, June 13, 1997; Todd Wilkinson, “Armstrong’s Lantern: Spaceflight Scottish Connections,” Scottish Tartans Museum)

[photos: “Sporrans on Parade,” by Stuart Grout, used under a Creative Commons license; “Dominican Plaid,” by Ken Bosma, used under a Creative Commons License; “Maasai Mara Adventure,” by Gilad Lotan, used under a Creative Commons License; “Pedi Man,” by firesika, used under a Creative Commons License]

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