Tag Archives: The Atlantic

Kafka Makes His Canadian Court Debut

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It really is the small things in life that bring me a tremendous amount of pleasure. One of these things is when anything literary or linguistic makes its way into a court of law, which it did recently in New Brunswick, that scandalous little province always punching above its weight class.

In an article titled “Just what does ‘Kafkaesque’ mean? A New Brunswick judge weighs in,” Canadian Press journalist Rob Roberts reported from Fredericton about Paul Lynch, a local lab janitor, who was nailed for his 7th DUI-related offense in 2015. According to Roberts, “Because of his prior convictions, he [Lynch] was immediately remanded pending sentencing, and later sentenced to six months in jail.”

Here’s the problem: Nobody came to his hearing and he was never able to make a phone call, so when he didn’t show up for work the next day – or the 180 days after that – his employer fired him.

Seem logical and by the book? Well, not if you have a cursory understanding of Franz Kafka. Per the article, “In a new ruling, Justice Hugh McLellan defines Kafkaesque as the struggle ‘against rules and forces that cannot be understood.'”

What the Franz?

“Labour adjudicator John McEvoy ordered the health authority to give him his job back, in a decision that declared ‘no one . . . should face the Kafka-like situation faced by Lynch in respect of his inability to contact his employer.'”

While a little more out there than the “Oxford commagate” debacle in a Maine court case earlier this year, it’s interesting to note that Justice McLellan even invokes the legendary Prague, Bohemia, Austro-Hungarian (now Czech Republic) writer’s name in the first place, as notable publications like The New York Times and The Atlantic have published pieces in the recent past asking whether “Kakaesque” is “‘a word so overused it has lost all meaning?'”

Perhaps that’s why younger readers now say Murakamiesque? Should you need any clarification of what this adjective means, definitely pick up The Elephant Vanishes, though A Wild Sheep Chase and The Wind-up Bird Chronicle would suffice as well.

Literature aside, how can a Canadian citizen be arrested, convicted and then essentially forgotten about – and all without a single phone call?

I suppose you could ask The Globe and Mail (“Here’s how to fix a broken system“),  The National Post (“No faith in our justice system“), The Huff Post (“Canada Doesn’t Need To Fix Its Justice System. It Needs a New One“), or The Georgia Straight (“The Canadian justice system is so broken it’s criminal“).

Then again, if you wanted a slightly more objective POV, you could refer to last year’s report from the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, which graded provinces and territories in five categories: public safety, victims support, efficiency, fairness and access to justice, and costs and resources. Benjamin Perrin, a UBC professor of law, was one of the report’s authors.

How did Canada’s most populous province fair in the report card assessment? We suck, bottom third of the provinces, and an overall rating of a C+. Why, you ask? According to one CBC report by Alison Crawford, “Perrin points to how police can directly lay charges in Ontario.” That’s right. They don’t need the OK from the Crown beforehand (like in Quebec), nor do they even need the consent of an alleged victim.

As a result, says Mr. Perrin, “[T]here’s an awful lot of people being dragged through the Ontario criminal justice system who are ultimately having their charges stayed, withdrawn or acquitted. That is costing millions of dollars to the province but it’s also plugging up the system so that really important cases don’t make it through..”

That fact is scary enough, but what’s even more frightening is that Canada ranked 12th among 113 countries surveyed in 2016, according to the World Justice Project Rule of Law Index, “the world’s leading source for original, independent data on the rule of law.”

So, Mr. Lynch, if you think you had a Kafka-/Murakamiesque experience going through the justice system here in Canada, imagine what it would have been like in bottom-of-the-heap No. 113, Venezuela, 18 spots below Sierra-freaking-Leone and two spots down from Af-oh-my-ghanistan.


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The Semantics and Behaviour behind Happiness: The 2nd Hardest Word to Define/Translate

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Writing for The Atlantic, Emily Esfahani Smith (@EmEsfahaniSmith) penned an awesome piece titled “Meaning Is Healthier Than Happiness.” The byline to her article pretty much says it all:

“People who are happy but have little-to-no sense of meaning in their lives have the same gene expression patterns as people who are enduring chronic adversity.”


Ms. Smith, author of The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters, looks at one specific psychology study that in very simple terms broke down our actions as either selfless “giving” behaviour, which is associated with meaning, or as selfish “taking” behaviour, which is tied to happiness. As the authors of the study wrote:

“Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided. If anything, pure happiness is linked to not helping others in need.”

While I can see a lot of the logic behind the differentiation in the concepts of happiness and meaning/self-fulfillment, I was curious how language can, if at all, inform us of what our ancestors thought of the word “happy.” As always, diachronic linguistics (just a fancy way of saying the history behind language) can be as informative as the study of current medical and psychological data.

To begin, what we in English today refer to as “happy” or “happiness” comes from Middle English (1300-50) and essentially meant “lucky, favored by fortune, prosperous.” In fact, according to that book Donnie T. calls “a dirty old rag too stupid to capitalize my own name” – or what the rest of us dumbass plebes call a dictionary – the origin of “happy” right across Western Europe was strikingly similar:

From Greek to Irish, a great majority of the European words forhappy’ at first meantlucky.’ An exception is Welsh, where the word used first meantwise.'”

Bloody Welsh! Always usurping the rest of Europe with their flute-playing high-falutin beliefs. Must be their enviable weather and mouth-watering laverbread.

But I digress. As usual. Same-same but different this time.

Let’s go back even further in history, shall we? It would seem the Romans had the same idea behind their concept of “happy,” as their words – laetus (masculine) laeta (feminine) and laetum (neuter) – meant (1) favourable/propitious; (2) cheerful/joyful/glad; and (3) prosperous/successful.

One step back in time and we arrive at the ancient Greeks, who finally had a unique idea all their own (how did nobody from Homer to Aristotle ever get anything right!); “happiness” for them was “experiencing the fullness of something.” Now contrast that with its opposite, which Aristotle defined as “to be in want, to be in need, to be destitute.”

Okay, maybe the Greeks got something right besides a salad.

In any event, I wanted to look at a completely different language and one with no ties to English, Germanic, Latin or Greek to see what the etymology behind “happiness” was somewhere else in the world. Enter, stage left, Messrs Chinese and Korean.

In Korean, the noun “happiness” is 행복 (haengbok), while in adjective form (which is technically a verb in KO-ree-an…yeah, wrap your head around them apples!) “happy” is 행복하다 (haengbokhada). Both the haeng and bok characters are derived from Classical Chinese, haeng being translated as “fortunate” and bok meaning “happy.”

(Strangely, the opposite of haengbok from Characters is 명복, myeongbok, whose two geulja refer to “dark” (or Hades by extension) and “fortune” (the same bok in “happy/happiness”), which taken together are translated as “happiness in the after life.”)

This led me to don my Ignatius J. Reilly sleuthing toque and go behind the scenes to figure out what the Chinese characters xing (haeng) and fu (bok) originally referred to from their radicals.

As it turns out, xing (haeng) comes from two radicals, land & bitter (filed under the radical for “shield” in a Chinese dictionary), meaning “fortunate/lucky,” while fu (bok) stems from four radicals, manifest, mouth, one & field (filed under the radical for “manifest” in a Chinese dictionary), meaning “happy/prosperity/luck.”

So what do we take away from this hot mess of language and science? Basically, the Greeks had it right all along when it comes to the notion of “happiness,” a fact now backed up by empirical data. (Jeez, even the Welsh seemed to have a better handle on this notion than the rest of the world, at least linguistically).

Be that as it may, I for one – when speaking in English – do still consider happiness as being both blessed and fortunate, a state of mind that propels us to be kind to others and to practice selflessness over selfishness, peace over turmoil, love over hate.

The byline to my post today is “The 2nd Hardest Word to Define/Translate,” which begs the question: What is the hardest word to define in and translate from English?

Ooh ooh ooh! A cliffhanger ending! The reader has a mild inclination to scoff and then kill this window, but an even greater desire to slap me silly unless I follow through with my pledge and answer this confounding conundrum posthaste. You might have to wait a day or two for that, though…

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Warning: Reading in Bed Can Kill

Image result for bed on fire

Writing for The Atlantic, Nika Mavrody wrote an interesting piece on reading titled “The Dangers of Reading in Bed.” Now, Ms. Mavrody is specifically referring to 18th-century Europe, but the interesting thing here is, at least for me, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Let me explain.

Back in the 1700s, people were discouraged when it came to reading at bed, especially late at night. The first reason is an obvious one: With candles and lanterns providing the necessary light to read, it was inevitable that some people died a fire-filled fiery death when some part of the bed or curtains or covers caught on fire. (To be fair, of the 29,000 fires recorded over a 30-year period in London in the 19th century, reading in bed was responsible for just as many fires as – you guessed it! – cats. Duh.

Anyway, the real problem 300 years ago was that reading was discouraged in bed because (1) you were supposed to be praying at night before drifting off to sleep; (2) it was “condemned for fear that individual autonomy would lead to a breakdown in the collective moral order”; and (3) it became analogous to masturbating, which is/was clearly a cardinal sin. Double duh.

Ironically, though the times have changed and so have the reasons for not reading in bed, that is, it can lead to disruptive sleep patterns and even insomnia (professionals caution that beds should be used for only two purposes: sleep and sex), we now have an altogether stranger problem. As Philip Roth told Le Monde in 2013:

“One must acknowledge the triumph [of] the screen. I don’t remember ever in my lifetime the situation being as sad for books—with all the steady focus and uninterrupted concentration they require—as it is today. And it will be worse tomorrow and even worse the day after.”

We’re basically so wrapped up in visual stimuli like TV, computer screens, text messaging, and social media that we lack the powers of concentration to actually sit still in a quiet room, late at night, and actually read more than a page before we get antsy, fidgety, or downright bored.

Perhaps it really is true that the more things change, the more they stay the same. At least when it comes to reading in bed.

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