Thursday, January 22, 2009

Pedantic Usage Maven

I’m a pedantic usage maven particularly regarding the transfer of Japanese words into English.

I have remarked in this space before on the correct pronunciation of karaoke (kah rah oh kay), but I’m not going to harp on that now, as I really am thinking about usage and grammar at the moment, not phonetics.

The first and most important point is that there is no –s plural in Japanese. Most educated people sense this and do not say, for example, samuraiS or sushiS. (I have often heard kimonos, though.) Following this logic, benshi should never be followed by an –s. Ever.

It is important to note (I mean, I guess it’s important) that we have come to refer to our doctored film projects as benshi when in fact benshi means narrator. That means we are the benshi (no –s!), not our projects.

A similar issue came up recently when I was collaborating recently with Adeena Karasick and Sharon Mesmer on a conference proposal entitled “Towards a Testicular Feminist Poetics.” We wanted to describe our poetics in terms of the practice of bukkake, which Wikipedia defines as “mass ejaculation on any part of the body.” One of my collaborators had written that our poems “spew bukkake,” but that unnerved me a little. Bukkake is not semen; it is the act of mass ejaculation. Thus it was very hard to translate. In Japanese it’s bukkake suru which literally means, “to do bukkake” (which sounds a little awkward, but not unpleasingly so, in English). I was hard-pressed (as it were) to figure out how to better express (as it were) it, and I think I left the phrase as it was.

OK, one more little niggling annoyance, and it has to do with transcription and pronunciation. The stuff you buy in health food stores that is a combination of sesame seeds and sea salt is goma-shio (sesame salt), but the macrobiotic food companies render it as “gomasio,” which is truly unfortunate. First of all, Americans do this weird thing of accenting the second syllable, so it sounds like some kind of weird Spanish word: goMAseeoh. No! No! No! My ears hurt! Every syllable gets just about the same stress, and it sounds like this: go mah shee oh.

Am I just insufferable?

p.s. My mom wonders why Obama says Pahkistahn but not Ahfghanistahn….

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