Friday, March 8, 2013

Author Q&A with Donald Freidman

You're My Dawg, Dog: A Lexicon of Dog Terms for People is the new book by Donald Friedman with illustrations by J.C. Suarès. It is a wonderful and entertaining book for dog lovers and word lovers alike with over 140 canine-based terms, metaphors, idioms and proverbs, and numerous charming illustrations.

I recently had the opportunity to pose some questions to the author. Following are my questions and Mr. Friedman's answers. 

Donald Friedman

Q. Cognitive linguist George Lakoff believes that metaphor is essential to human thinking. How powerful do you think metaphor is in everyday life? Do you view it as simply a literary device or do you believe it plays a larger role in the way humans conceptualize the world around them?

A. I don’t know what’s essential to human thinking but suspect it’s something more than metaphor—maybe fish oil, or potassium—but whatever it is, it seems to be lacking in a huge number of people, and virtually all our leaders.  That said, I do think that metaphor reflects something profound in the nature of human creativity, and in the nature of art forms themselves. 

Considering the second first, I think that all the forms secretly aspire to be another.  Art, even the most abstract, and certainly traditional painting and sculpture is all about narrative.  Words, on the other hand, give us images.  I was reflecting on this two nights ago at the ballet, in which I saw both classical and contemporary choreographers use the dancers movements to carve stories out of the air.  (For more on this kind of stuff, see my book The Writer’s Brush, Paintings, Drawings, and Sculpture by Writers.) I also have fantasized about designing a course using ekphrastic methods—say having students listen to music and then paint what they heard, look at a painting or piece of sculpture and write a story or poem inspired by it, take a story or abstract idea and render it in some other material—not so much to produce something new, although that would be great, but as a means of entry into the other form.

Back to human thinking.  What I found when I was doing The Writer’s Brush was that these 260-odd great writers who also drew and painted, were frequently also musicians and held down creative day jobs, many as lawyers and doctors.  In short they were real polymaths.  A number of them admitted to being synesthetes—to having sense confusion, or sense linkages.  They would smell a flower and hear a clarinet, attach colors to numbers and letters and notes.  Among the extreme cases was the great Austrian writer Grillparzer who would sit down at the piano and play an etching put before him.  Some neuroscientists have suggested that synesthesia is the essence of and essential to creativity.  And, given that it is the intermingling of senses that makes a good metaphor, there’s probably something to it.

All of this provides a lot of elaboration on the theme without answering your question directly.  So let me add that, yes, I do see metaphor  as a sort of schema by which we organize the world, particularly in the way it helps us to see abstract governing principles, and to perceive emotions by grounding them in the particular—even if the metaphor is bad and the analog weak or wrong.  After all, we are imprisoned in our selves, see through a glass darkly, and all we perceive merely shadows on a cave wall.  Metaphors help set our minds free.

Q. I wrote my master’s essay on the patterns and productivity of a subset of noun-noun compounds that I labeled “animal for human” metaphoric compounds. Your book contains a great example, dish dog. Your definition for dish dog even goes on to demonstrate the productiveness of this type of compound word by suggesting three similar constructions: grill dog, ball dog and bag dog. Can you think of a novel, canine- based “animal for human” metaphoric compound that would be useful in today’s technologically advanced world?

A. I can’t think of animal for human metaphoric compounds off the top of my head and really don’t have the time to come up with any (at least any good ones) at the moment.  Your emphasis on their also being useful in this technological world of ours resonates.  I think that we have in many ways dehumanized ourselves and as we head down the road of becoming more and more cyborgs, live in a jacked-in, digitized context, I believe we are discomfited at heart and long for real-world references.  (Have you heard about kids texting that they want to meet IRL, as in real life?)  That’s what genius Jobs was after, I think, when he named his cutting edge tech company Apple and insisted the logo had to be concrete enough to show a bite taken out of it. It’s why a meta-search engine calls itself Dog Pile.  It’s why massive storage servers in remote places are called The Cloud.  We are reassured by references to dogs and apples and clouds as we spend more and more time in an unfathomably abstract environment.

Q. In addition to word and phrase metaphors, your book contains numerous idioms and proverbs that also rely on metaphoric interpretations. Idioms and proverbs are wonderful tools for teaching basic truths in an easy-to-remember format. Because animals are considered to be the basis of more metaphors than any other nonhuman source, can you think of some non-canine, animal-based idioms or proverbs that have fallen out of use but are applicable today?

A. Probably, but no better than you.

Q. Have you thought about writing lexicons for lovers of other types of pets in the future, for example: cats, birds, goldfish, or horses? If so, which animal do you think is most productive in terms of providing a basis for metaphors?  

A. I haven’t, but if I can’t come up with other procrastinating devices, I might.

Q. Lastly, and on a lighter note, who are Herb and Sally and what type of business is Amalgamated Schmaltz, i.e., how did you come up with the generic names used in your definitions?

A. Amalgamated Schmaltz is a portmanteau.  My late father, an investment banker with a great cynical streak, always used “Amalgamated Horse Manure” when he needed a hypothetical company to drive home an object lesson in investing.  Chicken schmaltz is rendered chicken fat, often with fried onions in it, which you can feel congeal your blood vessels as you eat it.  It was used by my immigrant grandparents and their generation as a substitute for butter. My father once remarked that he thought it killed more Jews than Hitler.  I’m a novelist so creating characters is what I do.


To learn more about how the book came into being there is an informative self-interview by/with the author at the You're My Dawg, Dog website. The site also has a page for readers to submit dog terms that are not in the book with the chance to win a You're My Dawg, Dog poster.

You can read my review of You're My Dawg, Dog here

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As someone who really enjoys the company of dogs and someone who is fascinated by the English language, I am really interested in exploring this book for my own education and enjoyment. Thanks for sharing.

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