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The most commonly-used word in English might only have three letters – but it packs a punch


By Hélène Schumacher, 26th June 2020

‘The’. It’s omnipresent; we can’t imagine English without it. But it’s not much to look at. It isn’t descriptive, evocative or inspiring. Technically, it’s meaningless. And yet this bland and innocuous-seeming word could be one of the most potent in the English language.

This story was originally published in January 2020.

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‘The’ tops the league tables of most frequently used words in English, accounting for 5% of every 100 words used. “‘The’ really is miles above everything else,” says Jonathan Culpeper, professor of linguistics at Lancaster University. But why is this? The answer is two-fold, according to the BBC Radio 4 programme Word of Mouth. George Zipf, a 20th-Century US linguist and philologist, expounded the principle of least effort. He predicted that short and simple words would be the most frequent – and he was right.

The second reason is that ‘the’ lies at the heart of English grammar, having a function rather than a meaning. Words are split into two categories: expressions with a semantic meaning and functional words like ‘the’, ‘to’, ‘for’, with a job to do. ‘The’ can function in multiple ways. This is typical, explains Gary Thoms, assistant professor in linguistics at New York University: “a super high-usage word will often develop a real flexibility”, with different subtle uses that make it hard to define. Helping us understand what is being referred to, ‘the’ makes sense of nouns as a subject or an object. So even someone with a rudimentary grasp of English can tell the difference between ‘I ate an apple’ and ‘I ate the apple’.

But although ‘the’ has no meaning in itself, “it seems to be able to do things in subtle and miraculous ways,” says Michael Rosen, poet and author. Consider the difference between ‘he scored a goal’ and ‘he scored the goal’. The inclusion of ‘the’ immediately signals something important about that goal. Perhaps it was the only one of the match? Or maybe it was the clincher that won the league? Context very often determines sense.

There are many exceptions regarding the use of the definite article, for example in relation to proper nouns. We wouldn’t expect someone to say ‘the Jonathan’ but it’s not incorrect to say ‘you’re not the Jonathan I thought you were’. And a football commentator might deliberately create a generic vibe by saying, ‘you’ve got the Lampards in midfield’ to mean players like Lampard.

The use of ‘the’ could have increased as trade and manufacture grew in the run-up to the industrial revolution, when we needed to be referential about things and processes. ‘The’ helped distinguish clearly and could act as a quantifier, for example, ‘the slab of butter’.

This could lead to a belief that ‘the’ is a workhorse of English; functional but boring. Yet Rosen rejects that view. While primary school children are taught to use ‘wow’ words, choosing ‘exclaimed’ rather than ‘said’, he doesn’t think any word has more or less ‘wow’ factor than any other; it all depends on how it’s used. “Power in language comes from context… ‘the’ can be a wow word,” he says.

This simplest of words can be used for dramatic effect. At the start of Hamlet, a guard’s utterance of ‘Long live the King’ is soon followed by the apparition of the ghost: ‘Looks it not like the King?’ Who, the audience wonders, does ‘the’ refer to? The living King or a dead King? This kind of ambiguity is the kind of ‘hook’ that writers use to make us quizzical, a bit uneasy even. “‘The’ is doing a lot of work here,” says Rosen.

Deeper meaning

‘The’ can even have philosophical implications. The Austrian philosopher Alexius Meinong said a denoting phrase like ‘the round square’ introduced that object; there was now such a thing. According to Meinong, the word itself created non-existent objects, arguing that there are objects that exist and ones that don’t – but they are all created by language. “‘The’ has a kind of magical property in philosophy,” says Barry C Smith, director of the Institute of Philosophy, University of London.

The British philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote a paper in 1905 called On Denoting, all about the definite article. Russell put forward a theory of definite descriptions. He thought it intolerable that phrases like ‘the man in the Moon’ were used as though they actually existed. He wanted to revise the surface grammar of English, as it was misleading and “not a good guide to the logic of the language”, explains Smith. This topic has been argued about, in a philosophical context, ever since. “Despite the simplicity of the word,” observes Thoms, “it’s been evading definition in a very precise way for a long time.”

Lynne Murphy, professor of linguistics at the University of Sussex, spoke at the Boring Conference in 2019, an event celebrating topics that are mundane, ordinary and overlooked, but are revealed to be fascinating. She pointed out how strange it is that our most commonly used word is one that many of the world’s languages don’t have. And how amazing English speakers are for getting to grips with the myriad ways in which it’s used.

Scandinavian languages such as Danish or Norwegian and some Semitic languages like Hebrew or Arabic use an affix (or a short addition to the end of a word) to determine whether the speaker is referring to a particular object or using a more general term. Latvian or Indonesian deploy a demonstrative – words like ‘this’ and ‘that’ – to do the job of ‘the’. There’s another group of languages that don’t use any of those resources, such as Urdu or Japanese.

Function words are very specific to each language.

So, someone who is a native Hindi or Russian speaker is going to have to think very differently when constructing a sentence in English. Murphy says that she has noticed, for instance, that sometimes her Chinese students hedge their bets and include ‘the’ where it is not required. Conversely, Smith describes Russian friends who are so unsure when to use ‘the’ that they sometimes leave a little pause: ‘I went into… bank. I picked up… pen.’ English speakers learning a language with no equivalent of ‘the’ also struggle and might overcompensate by using words like ‘this’ and ‘that’ instead.

Atlantic divide

Even within the language, there are subtle differences in how ‘the’ is used in British and American English, such as when talking about playing a musical instrument. An American might be more likely to say ‘I play guitar’ whereas a British person might opt for ‘I play the guitar’. But there are some instruments where both nationalities might happily omit ‘the’, such as ‘I play drums’. Equally the same person might interchangeably refer to their playing of any given instrument with or without the definite article – because both are correct and both make sense.

And yet, keeping with the musical vibe, there’s a subtle difference in meaning of ‘the’ in the phrases ‘I play the piano’ and ‘I clean the piano’. We instinctively understand the former to mean the piano playing is general and not restricted to one instrument, and yet in the latter we know that it is one specific piano that is being rendered spick and span.

Culpeper says ‘the’ occurs about a third less in spoken language. Though of course whether it is used more frequently in text or speech depends on the subject in question. A more personal, emotional topic might have fewer instances of ‘the’ than something more formal. ‘The’ appears most frequently in academic prose, offering a useful word when imparting information – whether it’s scientific papers, legal contracts or the news. Novels use ‘the’ least, partly because they have conversation embedded in them.

Deborah Tannen, a US linguist, has a hypothesis that men deal more in report and women more in rapport – this could explain why men use ‘the’ more often

According to Culpeper, men say ‘the’ significantly more frequently. Deborah Tannen, an American linguist, has a hypothesis that men deal more in report and women more in rapport – this could explain why men use ‘the’ more often. Depending on context and background, in more traditional power structures, a woman may also have been socialised not to take the voice of authority so might use ‘the’ less frequently. Though any such gender-based generalisations also depend on the nature of the topic being studied.

Those in higher status positions also use ‘the’ more – it can be a signal of their prestige and (self) importance. And when we talk about ‘the prime minister’ or ‘the president’ it gives more power and authority to that role. It can also give a concept credibility or push an agenda. Talking about ‘the greenhouse effect’ or ‘the migration problem’ makes those ideas definite and presupposes their existence.

‘The’ can be a “very volatile” word, says Murphy. Someone who refers to ‘the Americans’ versus simply ‘Americans’ is more likely to be critical of that particular nationality in some capacity. When people referred to ‘the Jews’ in the build-up to the Holocaust, it became othering and objectifying. According to Murphy, “‘The’ makes the group seem like it’s a large, uniform mass, rather than a diverse group of individuals.” It’s why Trump was criticised for using the word in that context during a 2016 US presidential debate.


We don’t know exactly where ‘the’ comes from – it doesn’t have a precise ancestor in Old English grammar. The Anglo Saxons didn’t say ‘the’, but had their own versions. These haven’t completely died out, according to historical linguist Laura Wright. In parts of Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cumberland there is a remnant of Old English inflective forms of the definite article – t’ (as in “going t’ pub”).

The letter y in terms like ‘ye olde tea shop’ is from the old rune Thorn, part of a writing system used across northern Europe for centuries. It’s only relatively recently, with the introduction of the Roman alphabet, that ‘th’ has come into being.

‘The’ deserves to be celebrated. The three-letter word punches well above its weight in terms of impact and breadth of contextual meaning. It can be political, it can be dramatic – it can even bring non-existent concepts into being.

You can hear more about ‘the’ on BBC Radio 4’s Word of Mouth: The Most Powerful Word.

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New words to live by: “Sycophantification”

Time, once again (though it has been a while), for New words to live by. This is a word or phrase not currently in use in the U.S. English lexicon, but might need to be considered. Other words, such as slug monkey, obsurd, crumpify, subsus, flib, congressed, tantrumony, and others, can be found by clicking on the tags below. Today’s New Word is created by taking two nouns and creating a new word. In this instance, the new word does not borrow from the names of the old words, but from their definitions. Without further waiting here is the new word: sycophantification.

Sycophant, n. fawning parasite; a self-seeking, servile flatterer.

-ification, suffix. forming nouns of action usually from verbs ending in -fy (such as simplification from simplify ). In this case making a noun of action from a noun.

Sycophantification, n. make a class or position of sycophants. Turning a place into one filled with yes men, boot lickers, fawning parasites. Example. The sycophantification of an office. Installing toadies in every position.

Used in a sentence: Noun. The White House is the land of sycophantification. Nobody who isn’t a servile flatterer or fawning parasite lasts long in his or her position.

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This is What Your Overactive Brain Needs to Get a Good Night’s Sleep

Hint: Don’t Netflix and chill.


Fast Company

  • Tara Swart
Photo by Pinky

You already know how much better you feel after a good night’s sleep, but sleeping well helps your brain in less apparent ways than just not being groggy the next day. In fact, getting seven to nine hours of sleep each night can help secure your cognitive well-being.

In the short term, it gives your brain time to flush out refuse matter that builds up–like protein plaques and beta amyloid tangles–through a kind of waste chute called the glymphatic system. And over the long term, that can help stave off diseases like Alzheimer’s. So it pays to know a few tricks and habits to help yourself along to the land of nod. For starters, here’s what to avoid:

No More Nightcaps

It’s all too easy to slip into a routine of having a glass or two of wine each evening, and you wouldn’t be alone in thinking this helps you unwind and sleep better. But what you might not realize is how significantly impaired the quality of your sleep is when you drink.

Alcohol is a depressant and neurotoxin, which means it slows down the central nervous system’s processes by reducing electrical conductivity in the brain. This means that neurons, which send and receive the electrical signals that cause the release of neurotransmitters, operate more slowly. In fact, if you spent the evening drinking and then went to sleep wearing a heart-rate variability monitor, it would show significantly increased levels of stress for your body while you slept.

That’s thanks to the body’s physiological response when it’s trying to break down a toxin, the liver works harder when it should be resting, leading to a stressed state from which you’ll wake up feeling exhausted. Throughout the night, as the liver uses a higher proportion of the body’s energy than usual, the brain is starved of its usual resources and struggles to recuperate effectively for the next day.

Don’t Netflix and Chill

Many people like watching TV to relax after a long workday, and while that might help distract you from your daily worries, it doesn’t prepare your brain for a good night’s rest. Melatonin, the hormone that helps regulate sleep, is released into the bloodstream by the pineal gland. But darkness triggers the gland to start working, and it gets confused by the blue light that most screens emit.

Many people have heard of this issue when it comes to their smartphones, but it may not be enough to set aside just that device and not others. Even reading an e-book on a tablet or certain kinds of e-reader, or just watching ordinary television, can be potentially problematic. Try reading paper books and make sure you stop looking at all your devices’ screens for at least an hour before you hit the hay.

(Not sure what to do instead? For what it’s worth, sexual intimacy leads to the release of the bonding hormone oxytocin, which makes you feel comfortable and lowers your guard–helping to ease you into a good night’s sleep.)

Skip the Late-Night Snack

Eating a large, heavy meal is also a bad idea, especially acidic, spicy, or fatty foods, which can actively stimulate the brain. Certain foods like bacon and preserved meats, soy sauce, some cheeses, nuts, tomatoes, and red wine contain a chemical called tyramine, which causes the release of norepinephrine, a brain stimulant that boosts brain activity. Even some milky drinks, which many believe to be sleep-inducing, contain high quantities of sugar that can also keep you up. So make sure you check the label and choose your dinner carefully.

Now that you’ve cut these habits from your evening routine, what should you add to it instead? Here are a few good options for improving both the quality of your sleep and reducing the time it takes your brain to power down for the night.

Smell Some Lavender

Lavender is a powerful neuromodulator, which means that it lowers your blood pressure, heart rate, and skin temperature, making you more relaxed and likelier to fall asleep. Smell has a powerful and immediate impact on emotion and mood because of the proximity of the olfactory nerve (which contains the sensory nerve fibers relating to smell) to the brain.

There’s also an associative quality to regularly smelling lavender before you sleep. If you make this a habit, it will signal to your brain that it’s time to wind down (once you’ve established this association, you can tap into it on the road, too; just throw some lavender in your travel bag). If you don’t like lavender, jasmine is a good alternative and can produce similar effects.

Drink Nut Milk With Turmeric

Rather than buying a powdered milky drink that’s high in sugar, you can make your own relaxing bedtime drink using a nut milk, like almond, which is full of magnesium. Magnesium helps reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol and calms the nervous system.

As a secret ingredient, add turmeric, whose powerful anti-inflammatory properties can prevent nighttime stomach problems that might interrupt your sleep (and which have even been implicated in preventing dementia). If you want to sweeten your drink, use Manuka honey rather than sugar to help boost your immunity.

Have a Soak

Circadian rhythms are our bodies’ series of physical, mental, and behavioral changes. They follow a roughly 24-hour cycle and depend primarily on how bright our environment is. Because of these rhythms, our body temperature automatically dips a couple of degrees at night, causing us to feel sleepy.

So when you take a hot bath–ideally 60–90 minutes before bedtime–your body temperature rises, but the rapid, steeper cool-down period immediately afterward relaxes you. And since the best way to increase your magnesium levels is actually through your skin, you can try adding magnesium salts to your bath to decrease cortisol levels. You should also make sure your bedroom isn’t too hot and stuffy once you get out of the bath. A cooler room can help reduce your body heat by the couple of degrees needed to drift off.

While falling asleep might seem like a passive process, there’s a whole cocktail of neurotransmitters involved in it, including histamine, dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, glutamate, and acetylcholine. But that means there are many physiological “levers” you can pull on your way to a better night’s sleep. Get your evening routine right, and you’ll be able to enjoy the spoils that come with it–better concentration, memory, and moods, enhanced creativity, and reduced inflammation and stress.

Dr. Tara Swart is a neuroscientist, leadership coach, author, and medical doctor. Follow her on Twitter at @TaraSwart.

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Archaeology Is Revealing New Clues About Shakespeare’s Life (And Death)

New technology is helping archaeologists uncover details of the playwright’s home, workplaces and his final resting place.

The Conversation

  • William Mitchell


Waxwork of Shakespeare by Madame Tussauds in Berlin. Photo from Anton Ivanov via Shutterstock.

William Shakespeare is widely regarded as one of the greatest authors of all time and one of the most important and influential people who has ever lived. His written works (plays, sonnets and poems) have been translated into more than 100 languages and these are performed around the world.

There is also an enduring desire to learn more about the man himself. Countless books and articles have been written about Shakespeare’s life. These have been based primarily on the scholarly analysis of his works and the official record associated with him and his family. Shakespeare’s popularity and legacy endures, despite uncertainties in his life story and debate surrounding his authorship and identity.

The life and times of William Shakespeare and his family have also recently been informed by cutting-edge archaeological methods and interdisciplinary technologies at both New Place (his long-since demolished family home) and his burial place at Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon. The evidence gathered from these investigations by the Centre of Archaeology at Staffordshire University provides new insights into his interests, attitudes and motivations – and those of his family – and shows how archaeology can provide further tangible evidence. These complement traditional Shakespearean research methods that have been limited to sparse documentary evidence and the study of his works.

Archaeology has the ability to provide a direct connection to an individual through the places and objects associated with them. Past excavations of the Shakespearean-era theatres in London have provided evidence of the places he worked and spent much of his time.

Attributing objects to Shakespeare is difficult, we have his written work of course, his portrait(s) and memorial bust – but all of his known possessions, like those mentioned in his will, no longer exist. A single gold signet ring, inscribed with the initials W S, is thought by some to be the most significant object owned and used by the poet, despite its questionable provenance.

Shakespeare’s House

Shakespeare’s greatest and most expensive possession was his house, New Place. Evidence, obtained through recent archaeological investigations of its foundations, give us quantifiable insights into Shakespeare’s thought processes, personal life and business success.

The building itself was lost in the 18th century, but the site and its remains were preserved beneath a garden. Erected in the centre of Stratford-upon-Avon more than a century prior to Shakespeare’s purchase in 1597, from its inception, it was architecturally striking. One of the largest domestic residences in Stratford, it was the only courtyard-style, open-hall house within the town.

This type of house typified the merchant and elite classes and in purchasing and renovating it to his own vision, Shakespeare inherited the traditions of his ancestors while embracing the latest fashions. The building materials used, its primary structure and later redevelopment can all be used as evidence of the deliberate and carefully considered choices made by him and his family.

Shakespeare focused on the outward appearance of the house, installing a long gallery and other fashionable architectural embellishments as was expected of a well-to-do, aspiring gentleman of the time. Many other medieval features were retained and the hall was likely retained as the showpiece of his home, a place to announce his prosperity, and his rise in status.

It provided a place for him and his immediate and extended family to live, work and entertain. But it was also a place which held local significance and symbolic associations. Intriguingly, its appearance also resembled the courtyard inn theatres of London and elsewhere with which Shakespeare was so familiar, presenting the opportunity to host private performances.

In Search of the Bard

Extensive evidence of the personal possessions, diet and the leisure activities of Shakespeare, his family and the inhabitants of New Place were recovered during the archaeological investigations, revolutionising what we understand about his day-to-day life.

An online exhibition, due to be made available in early May 2020, presents 3D-scanned artefacts recovered at the site of New Place. These objects, some of which may have belonged to Shakespeare, have been chosen to characterise the chronological development and activities undertaken at the site.

Open access to these virtual objects will enable the dissemination of these important results and the potential for others to continue the research.

Here Lies …

Archaeological evidence recovered from non-invasive investigations at Shakespeare’s burial place has also been used to provide further evidence of his personal and family belief. Multi-frequency Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) was used to investigate the Shakespeare family graves below the chancel of Holy Trinity Church.

A number of legends surrounded Shakespeare’s burial place. Among these were doubts over the presence of a grave, its contents, tales of grave robbing and suggestions of a large family crypt. The work confirmed that individual shallow graves exist beneath the tombstones and that the various members of Shakespeare’s family were not buried in coffins, but in simple shrouds. Analysis concluded that Shakespeare’s grave had been disturbed in the past and that it was likely that his skull had been removed, confirming recorded stories.

These family graves occupy a significant (and expensive) location in Holy Trinity Church. Despite this, the simple nature of Shakespeare’s grave, with no elite trappings or finery and no large family crypt, coupled with his belief that he should not be disturbed, confirm a simple regional practice based on pious religious observance and an affinity with his hometown.

There is still so much we don’t know about Shakespeare’s life, so it’s a safe bet that researchers will continue to investigate what evidence there is. Archaeological techniques can provide quantifiable information that isn’t available through traditional Shakespearean research. But just like other disciplines, interpretation – based on the evidence – will be key to unlocking the mysteries surrounding the life (and death) of the English language’s greatest writer.

William Mitchell is a Lecturer in Archaeology at Staffordshire University.

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Find the Letter M

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May 3, 2020 · 5:05 am

Ann Patchett on running a bookshop in lockdown: ‘We’re a part of our community as never before’

Ann Patchett

Fri 10 Apr 2020 02.00 EDT


The novelist reveals how the store she co-owns in Nashville is making, and remaking, plans to get books to readers who want them more than ever.

We closed Parnassus Books, the bookstore I co-own in Nashville, on the same day all the stores around us closed. I can’t tell you when that was because I no longer have a relationship with my calendar.

All the days are now officially the same. My business partner Karen and I talked to the staff and told them if they didn’t feel comfortable coming in that was fine. We would continue to pay them for as long as we could. But if they were OK to work in an empty bookstore, we were going to try to keep shipping books.

In the first week we did kerbside delivery, which meant a customer could call the store and tell us what they wanted. We would take their credit card information over the phone and then run the books out to the parking lot and sling them into the open car window. Kerbside delivery seemed like a good idea but the problem was, so many people were calling that the staff wound up clustered around the cash registers, ringing up orders. No good. We reassessed and decided that all books would have to be mailed, even the books that were just going down the street.

We make our plans. We change our plans. We make other plans. This is the new world order.

Our bookstore is spacious and tidy, with rolling ladders to reach the highest shelves, a long leather sofa, and a cheerful children’s section with a colourful mural featuring a frog telling a story to a rapt pack of assorted animals. The backroom is the polar opposite, a barely contained bedlam jammed with desks, towering flats of broken down boxes, boxes full of new releases, boxes of books to be returned. There are Christmas decorations, abandoned spinner displays, dog beds, day-old doughnuts. We are squashed in there together, forced to listen to one another’s private phone conversations and sniff one another’s perfume.

It is not the landscape of social distancing.

But in the absence of customers coming to browse, the backroom folks have moved to the capacious store front, setting up folding tables far away from each other to make our private spaces. We crank up the music. We pull books off the shelves. The floor is a sea of cardboard boxes – orders completed, orders still waiting on one more book. We make no attempt to straighten anything up before leaving at night. We have neither the impetus nor the energy. There are bigger fish to fry. Orders are coming in as fast as we can fill them.

I think of how I used to talk in the pre-pandemic world, going on about the importance of reading and shopping local and supporting independent bookstores. These days I realise the extent to which it’s true – I understand now that we’re a part of our community as never before, and that our community is the world. When a friend of mine, stuck in his tiny New York apartment, told me he dreamed of being able to read the new Louise Erdrich book, I made that dream come true. I can solve nothing, I can save no one, but dammit, I can mail Patrick a copy of The Night Watchman.

At least for now. We’re part of a supply chain that relies on publishers to publish the books and distributors to ship the books and the postal service to pick up the boxes and take them away. We rely on our noble booksellers filling the boxes to stay healthy and stay away from each other. So far this fragile ecosystem is holding, though I understand that in the distance between my writing this piece and your reading it, it could fall apart. Today is what we’ve got, this quiet day in which finally there is time to read again. So call your local bookstore and see if they’re still shipping. It turns out the community of readers and books is the community we needed in the good old days, and it’s the community we need in hard times, and it’s the community we’ll want to be there when this whole thing is over.

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All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg review – the sins of the father

This penetrating examination of misogyny and family ties focuses on a dying gangster, and the women he made suffer


Ben Libman

“The only problem she had was men, who constantly bothered her”: this might be the motto of Jami Attenberg’s latest novel. The line is uttered by Twyla, the daughter-in-law of a dying misogynist gangster named Victor Tuchman. She’s not alone in feeling this way about men in general, and Victor in particular. His wife, Barbra, and his daughter, Alex, have also gathered to see whether the man who made their lives miserable will die, and to figure out how much they really care. This story is about them.

The bulk of the novel takes place over a single day, just after Victor has been for a heart attack. The setting is present-day New Orleans, where Victor and Barbra have moved after a long, mansion-bound life in Connecticut, ostensibly to be near their son, Gary, and his wife and daughter, Twyla and Avery. But Victor is a deceptive man, even to his children. He is also a bad man.

Though we’re never given the exact nature of his crimes, we learn that he was a New Jersey gangster, more or less of the Sopranos variety. He was also an abusive husband and father, a philanderer and a tyrant and likely a rapist. Whatever the details of his life, their implications have long been clear to Alex: “Her gut told her he should be in jail right now.”

It is the women around Victor – Barbra, Alex and Twyla – who must endure the hurricane of his life, who must try to love him, to make him happy, to cover up for him, and who are all upbraided and assaulted by him. Much like Attenberg’s 2012 book The Middlesteins, this novel is uncompromising in its penetrating treatment of the ties that bind a family together.

Attenberg weaves her narrative with a scintillating and often wry prose; her love for her characters, and her keen interest in their joys and longings, never fails to shine through. Often she sets scenes with the terseness of a screenplay, but periodically she plunges into rich description, as when Twyla, crying, looks in the mirror and notices “lips in distress, cracked at the edges, only half the color left behind, the other half disappeared, god knows where, absorbed into skin, into air, into grief”.

These tears are not just for Victor’s victims. Alex must plead with her ex-husband, Bobby, not to expose their daughter to his compulsive lechery. Twyla has lived the bulk of her life trying not to wither beneath the male gaze, and now finds herself more distanced from Gary than ever. Barbra struggles to understand why she still loves her husband, after all this time. And all of them live under the shadow of another, casually destructive man: as Alex thinks every day, “our president [is] a moron and the world [is] falling apart”. The varied experiences of these characters make it clear that the bad man is not an exception to the rule of manhood; he merely defines its borders.

Jami Attenberg

The novel is not only concerned with gender politics: it also frequently returns to questions of socioeconomic class. And yet, it is weaker on this topic. We get cursory moments of virtue-signalling, when the narrative pauses briefly on working people – a cashier, a waitress, a tram driver – to tell us about the second job they’re forced to hold, or about how much they hate privileged tourists. The novel tells us about mass graves for the indigent, and gives us 30 pages with Sharon, a black woman only tangentially related to the plot, who lifts up her neighbourhood while suffering the effects of white gentrification.

But none of these people is a protagonist, none of their lives is centred. The novel points to them, wants them to be recognised; but it refuses to perform that recognition itself. “Whatever we do tonight, let’s not talk about politics,” Alex says to a man she meets at a bar, just after an altercation with a homeless man on the street. Despite the book’s signals to the contrary, this might be its other motto.

All This Could Be Yours is published by Serpent’s Tail.

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Book Review: “Dragon’s Egg”

Dragon's Egg by Robert L. Forward

Dragon’s Egg by Robert L. Forward

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Published in 1980, parts of the book take place in 2020, so it was interesting to see what Dr. Forward thought of the 2020. There was no virus running rampant, no nut in the White House, and in many ways a saner world than this 2020. Is it too late to change?

Anyway, this is what would be called a hard science fiction book. The human race in 2020 discovers a traveling neutron star passing though the solar system. In 2050, a group of humans find a way to orbit the star to study it. While studying it they discover there is a race of beings that lives on the star that has a gravity of 67 billion g’s. That means whatever something weigh on Earth, it would weigh 67 billion times that on Dragon’s Egg — the name of the neutron star.

The novel is about how the microscopically sized race of beings — the cheela — develop on Dragon’s Egg, before, during, and after human contact. There is no interstellar war, no invasion of Earth, no plaque vested one species by another. It is a story of how a race advances from infancy to maturity, eventually outpacing its teachers — the humans. This happens in part because time passes faster for the cheela than humans. Consequently, the humans seem slow to the cheela and the cheela come and go quickly to the humans.

This is not a perfect book. The humans are father flat, while the physically flat cheela and more well rounded. Also, the idea that humans rather easily share all the knowledge they have with the cheela. Nobody objects to this and nobody has to check back with Earth, which I don’t think would happen in real life. Also, once the cheela surpass the humans, they share many parts of their beyond-human knowledge and send other parts in code that the cheela say the humans will decipher eventually. No explanation for this cloaking of knowledge is given and it strikes as bit of a plot device than an organic part of the story.

Overall, an interesting read, especially if hard science fiction is you interest.

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The Four Desires Driving All Human Behavior

Bertrand Russell’s magnificent Nobel prize acceptance speech.

Brain Pickings |

Maria Popova


Bertrand Russell (May 18, 1872–February 2, 1970) endures as one of humanity’s most lucid and luminous minds — an oracle of timeless wisdom on everything from what “the good life” really means to why “fruitful monotony” is essential for happiness to love, sex, and our moral superstitions. In 1950, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for “his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought.” On December 11 of that year, 78-year-old Russell took the podium in Stockholm to receive the grand accolade.

Later included in Nobel Writers on Writing (public library) — which also gave us Pearl S. Buck, the youngest woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, on art, writing, and the nature of creativity — his acceptance speech is one of the finest packets of human thought ever delivered from a stage.

Russell begins by considering the central motive driving human behavior:

All human activity is prompted by desire. There is a wholly fallacious theory advanced by some earnest moralists to the effect that it is possible to resist desire in the interests of duty and moral principle. I say this is fallacious, not because no man ever acts from a sense of duty, but because duty has no hold on him unless he desires to be dutiful. If you wish to know what men will do, you must know not only, or principally, their material circumstances, but rather the whole system of their desires with their relative strengths.


Man differs from other animals in one very important respect, and that is that he has some desires which are, so to speak, infinite, which can never be fully gratified, and which would keep him restless even in Paradise. The boa constrictor, when he has had an adequate meal, goes to sleep, and does not wake until he needs another meal. Human beings, for the most part, are not like this.

Russell points to four such infinite desires — acquisitiveness, rivalry, vanity, and love of power — and examines them in order:

Acquisitiveness — the wish to possess as much as possible of goods, or the title to goods — is a motive which, I suppose, has its origin in a combination of fear with the desire for necessaries. I once befriended two little girls from Estonia, who had narrowly escaped death from starvation in a famine. They lived in my family, and of course had plenty to eat. But they spent all their leisure visiting neighbouring farms and stealing potatoes, which they hoarded. Rockefeller, who in his infancy had experienced great poverty, spent his adult life in a similar manner.


However much you may acquire, you will always wish to acquire more; satiety is a dream which will always elude you.

In 1938, Henry Miller also articulated this fundamental driver in his brilliant meditation on how money became a human fixation. Decades later, modern psychologists would term this notion “the hedonic treadmill.” But for Russell, this elemental driver is eclipsed by an even stronger one — our propensity for rivalry:

The world would be a happier place than it is if acquisitiveness were always stronger than rivalry. But in fact, a great many men will cheerfully face impoverishment if they can thereby secure complete ruin for their rivals. Hence the present level of taxation.

Rivalry, he argues, is in turn upstaged by human narcissism. In a sentiment doubly poignant in the context of today’s social media, he observes:

Vanity is a motive of immense potency. Anyone who has much to do with children knows how they are constantly performing some antic, and saying “Look at me.” “Look at me” is one of the most fundamental desires of the human heart. It can take innumerable forms, from buffoonery to the pursuit of posthumous fame.


It is scarcely possible to exaggerate the influence of vanity throughout the range of human life, from the child of three to the potentate at whose frown the world trembles.

But the most potent of the four impulses, Russell argues, is the love of power:

Love of power is closely akin to vanity, but it is not by any means the same thing. What vanity needs for its satisfaction is glory, and it is easy to have glory without power… Many people prefer glory to power, but on the whole these people have less effect upon the course of events than those who prefer power to glory… Power, like vanity, is insatiable. Nothing short of omnipotence could satisfy it completely. And as it is especially the vice of energetic men, the causal efficacy of love of power is out of all proportion to its frequency. It is, indeed, by far the strongest motive in the lives of important men.


Love of power is greatly increased by the experience of power, and this applies to petty power as well as to that of potentates.

Anyone who has ever agonized in the hands of a petty bureaucrat — something Hannah Arendt unforgettably censured as a special kind of violence — can attest to the veracity of this sentiment. Russell adds:

In any autocratic regime, the holders of power become increasingly tyrannical with experience of the delights that power can afford. Since power over human beings is shown in making them do what they would rather not do, the man who is actuated by love of power is more apt to inflict pain than to permit pleasure.

But Russell, a thinker of exceptional sensitivity to nuance and to the dualities of which life is woven, cautions against dismissing the love of power as a wholesale negative driver — from the impulse to dominate the unknown, he points out, spring such desirables as the pursuit of knowledge and all scientific progress. He considers its fruitful manifestations:

It would be a complete mistake to decry love of power altogether as a motive. Whether you will be led by this motive to actions which are useful, or to actions which are pernicious, depends upon the social system, and upon your capacities. If your capacities are theoretical or technical, you will contribute to knowledge or technique, and, as a rule, your activity will be useful. If you are a politician you may be actuated by love of power, but as a rule this motive will join itself on to the desire to see some state of affairs realized which, for some reason, you prefer to the status quo.

Russell then turns to a set of secondary motives. Echoing his enduring ideas on the interplay of boredom and excitement in human life, he begins with the notion of love of excitement:

Human beings show their superiority to the brutes by their capacity for boredom, though I have sometimes thought, in examining the apes at the zoo, that they, perhaps, have the rudiments of this tiresome emotion. However that may be, experience shows that escape from boredom is one of the really powerful desires of almost all human beings.

He argues that this intoxicating love of excitement is only amplified by the sedentary nature of modern life, which has fractured the natural bond between body and mind. A century after Thoreau made his exquisite case against the sedentary lifestyle, Russell writes:

Our mental make-up is suited to a life of very severe physical labor. I used, when I was younger, to take my holidays walking. I would cover twenty-five miles a day, and when the evening came I had no need of anything to keep me from boredom, since the delight of sitting amply sufficed. But modern life cannot be conducted on these physically strenuous principles. A great deal of work is sedentary, and most manual work exercises only a few specialized muscles. When crowds assemble in Trafalgar Square to cheer to the echo an announcement that the government has decided to have them killed, they would not do so if they had all walked twenty-five miles that day. This cure for bellicosity is, however, impracticable, and if the human race is to survive — a thing which is, perhaps, undesirable — other means must be found for securing an innocent outlet for the unused physical energy that produces love of excitement… I have never heard of a war that proceeded from dance halls.


Civilized life has grown altogether too tame, and, if it is to be stable, it must provide harmless outlets for the impulses which our remote ancestors satisfied in hunting… I think every big town should contain artificial waterfalls that people could descend in very fragile canoes, and they should contain bathing pools full of mechanical sharks. Any person found advocating a preventive war should be condemned to two hours a day with these ingenious monsters. More seriously, pains should be taken to provide constructive outlets for the love of excitement. Nothing in the world is more exciting than a moment of sudden discovery or invention, and many more people are capable of experiencing such moments than is sometimes thought.

Complement Nobel Writers on Writing with more excellent Nobel Prize acceptance speeches — William Faulkner on the artist as a booster of the human heart, Ernest Hemingway on writing and solitude, Alice Munro on the secret to telling a great story, and Saul Bellow on how literature ennobles the human spirit — then revisit Russell on immortality and why science is the key to democracy.

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The ‘Untranslatable’ Emotions You Never Knew You Had

From gigil to wabi-sabi and tarab, there are many foreign emotion words with no English equivalent. Learning to identify and cultivate these experiences could give you a richer and more successful life.

By David Robson / BBC Future


Have you ever felt a little mbuki-mvuki – the irresistible urge to “shuck off your clothes as you dance”? Perhaps a little kilig – the jittery fluttering feeling as you talk to someone you fancy? How about uitwaaien – which encapsulates the revitalising effects of taking a walk in the wind?

These words – taken from Bantu, Tagalog, and Dutch – have no direct English equivalent, but they represent very precise emotional experiences that are neglected in our language. And if Tim Lomas at the University of East London has his way, they might soon become much more familiar.

Lomas’s Positive Lexicography Project aims to capture the many flavours of good feelings (some of which are distinctly bittersweet) found across the world, in the hope that we might start to incorporate them all into our daily lives. We have already borrowed many emotion words from other languages, after all – think “frisson”, from French, or “schadenfreude”, from German – but there are many more that have not yet wormed their way into our vocabulary. Lomas has found hundreds of these “untranslatable” experiences so far – and he’s only just begun.

Learning these words, he hopes, will offer us all a richer and more nuanced understanding of ourselves. “They offer a very different way of seeing the world.”

Lomas says he was first inspired after hearing a talk on the Finnish concept of sisu, which is a sort of “extraordinary determination in the face of adversity”. According to Finnish speakers, the English ideas of “grit”, “perseverance” or “resilience” do not come close to describing the inner strength encapsulated in their native term. It was “untranslatable” in the sense that there was no direct or easy equivalent encoded within the English vocabulary that could capture that deep resonance.

Intrigued, he began to hunt for further examples, scouring the academic literature and asking every foreign acquaintance for their own suggestions. The first results of this project were published in the Journal of Positive Psychology last year.

Many of the terms referred to highly specific positive feelings, which often depend on very particular circumstances:

  • Desbundar (Portuguese) – to shed one’s inhibitions in having fun
  • Tarab (Arabic) – a musically induced state of ecstasy or enchantment
  • Shinrin-yoku (Japanese) – the relaxation gained from bathing in the forest, figuratively or literally
  • Gigil (Tagalog) – the irresistible urge to pinch or squeeze someone because they are loved or cherished
  • Yuan bei (Chinese) – a sense of complete and perfect accomplishment
  • Iktsuarpok (Inuit) – the anticipation one feels when waiting for someone, whereby one keeps going outside to check if they have arrived

But others represented more complex and bittersweet experiences, which could be crucial to our growth and overall flourishing.

  • Natsukashii (Japanese) – a nostalgic longing for the past, with happiness for the fond memory, yet sadness that it is no longer
  • Wabi-sabi (Japanese) – a “dark, desolate sublimity” centred on transience and imperfection in beauty
  • Saudade (Portuguese) – a melancholic longing or nostalgia for a person, place or thing that is far away either spatially or in time – a vague, dreaming wistfulness for phenomena that may not even exist
  • Sehnsucht (German) – “life-longings”, an intense desire for alternative states and realisations of life, even if they are unattainable

In addition to these emotions, Lomas’s lexicography also charted the personal characteristics and behaviours that might determine our long-term well-being and the ways we interact with other people.

  • Dadirri (Australian aboriginal) term – a deep, spiritual act of reflective and respectful listening
  • Pihentagyú (Hungarian) – literally meaning “with a relaxed brain”, it describes quick-witted people who can come up with sophisticated jokes or solutions
  • Desenrascanço (Portuguese) – to artfully disentangle oneself from a troublesome situation
  • Sukha (Sanskrit) – genuine lasting happiness independent of circumstances
  • Orenda (Huron) – the power of the human will to change the world in the face of powerful forces such as fate

You can view many more examples on his website, where there is also the opportunity to submit your own. Lomas readily admits that many of the descriptions he has offered so far are only an approximation of the term’s true meaning. “The whole project is a work in progress, and I’m continually aiming to refine the definitions of the words in the list,” he says. “I definitely welcome people’s feedback and suggestions in that regard.”

In the future, Lomas hopes that other psychologists may begin to explore the causes and consequences of these experiences – to extend our understanding of emotion beyond the English concepts that have dominated research so far.

But studying these terms will not just be of scientific interest; Lomas suspects that familiarising ourselves with the words might actually change the way we feel ourselves, by drawing our attention to fleeting sensations we had long ignored.

“In our stream of consciousness – that wash of different sensations feelings and emotions – there’s so much to process that a lot passes us by,” Lomas says. “The feelings we have learned to recognise and label are the ones we notice – but there’s a lot more that we may not be aware of. And so I think if we are given these new words, they can help us articulate whole areas of experience we’ve only dimly noticed.”

As evidence, Lomas points to the work of Lisa Feldman Barrett at Northeastern University, who has shown that our abilities to identify and label our emotions can have far-reaching effects.

Her research was inspired by the observation that certain people use different emotion words interchangeably, while others are highly precise in their descriptions. “Some people use words like anxious, afraid, angry, disgusted to refer to a general affective state of feeling bad,” she explains. “For them, they are synonyms, whereas for other people they are distinctive feelings with distinctive actions associated with them.”

This is called “emotion granularity” and she usually measures this by asking the participants to rate their feelings on each day over the period of a few weeks, before she calculates the variation and nuances within their reports: whether the same old terms always coincide, for instance.

Importantly, she has found that this then determines how well we cope with life. If you are better able to pin down whether you are feeling despair or anxiety, for instance, you might be better able to decide how to remedy those feelings: whether to talk to a friend, or watch a funny film. Or being able to identify your hope in the face of disappointment might help you to look for new solutions to your problem.

In this way, emotion vocabulary is a bit like a directory, allowing you to call up a greater number of strategies to cope with life. Sure enough, people who score highly on emotion granularity are better able to recover more quickly from stress and are less likely to drink alcohol as a way of recovering from bad news. It can even improve your academic success. Marc Brackett at Yale University has found that teaching 10 and 11-year-old children a richer emotional vocabulary improved their end-of-year grades, and promoted better behaviour in the classroom. “The more granular our experience of emotion is, the more capable we are to make sense of our inner lives,” he says.

Both Brackett and Barrett agree that Lomas’s “positive lexicography” could be a good prompt to start identifying the subtler contours of our emotional landscape. “I think it is useful – you can think of the words and the concepts they are associated with as tools for living,” says Barrett. They might even inspire us to try new experiences, or appreciate old ones in a new light.

It’s a direction of research that Lomas would like to explore in the future. In the meantime, Lomas is still continuing to build his lexicography – which has grown to nearly a thousand terms. Of all the words he has found so far, Lomas says that he most often finds himself pondering Japanese concepts such as wabi-sabi (that “dark, desolate sublimity” involving transience and imperfection). “It speaks to this idea of finding beauty in phenomena that are aged and imperfect,” he says. “If we saw the world through those eyes, it could be a different way of engaging in life.”

David Robson is BBC Future’s feature writer. He is @d_a_robson on Twitter.

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