We may be nearing the home stretch here, but I didn’t want to get there without mentioning the case for the (apparently) unloved current name for the homeland of the Czechs: the Czech Republic. Side note: I have yet to hear from a native English-speaker who thinks that “Czechia” is a great idea. This matters because the whole point of Czechia is to give the country a new “short English name.”
Andrea Orzoff, of the history department at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, writes about the actual merits of “Czech Republic,” as opposed to mainly pointing out (as I have done) the defects of its proposed replacement, “Czechia.” She writes:
There's a better, more historically grounded reason to keep "Czech Republic" than euphony. Czechoslovakia came into existence because its leaders promised to craft a democracy at home and foster democratic internationalism through the League of Nations.
They kept that promise, however imperfectly. Czechoslovakia maintained an adherence to democracy through 1938, and again from 1945 to 1948.
In 1989, philosopher-president Václav Havel made a point of quoting the country's first president, Tomáš Masaryk, to announce the end of Communism: "people, your government has returned to you!"
Masaryk himself was quoting the 17th century thinker Jan Comenius, which makes my point in a different way: this is a country with a long humanistic tradition as well as a strong democratic one. Worth keeping.
And maybe a useful reminder in the face of recent Czechpolitical behavior -- polls showing increasing xenophobia, president Miloš Zeman drawing closer to Vladimir Putin, internationally embarrassing treatment of Syrian refugees, etc.
Makes sense to me.
The other favorite in the anti-Czechia derby has been “the Czechlands,” on the model of “the Netherlands.” A few sample arguments:
As another potential new name for the Czech Republic, why not use "TheCzechlands" It's not inaccurate, and can cover Bohemia, Moravia and CzechSilesia. Think of it as "the Dutch Solution".
I have no particular standing to weigh in, but for what it's worth: I'm a little surprised not to have seen anyone suggest "Czechland" or "the Czechlands," which seem to avoid a number of the pitfalls of Czechia and would be analogous to a number of familiar English forms.
"Czechland" and "Czechlands" are rare in English but not totally unattested (Czechia, FWIW, has always been much more common than either and totally dwarfs both when it's included in the ngram).
I do sympathize with the desire to have a short-form name. Obviously there are other countries with two-word names, but "Republic" is a longish word, and a fairly generic one. Many, many countries have a long-form name that includes "Republic." But most countries also have a name that simply refers to the country itself; it's very rare for there to be no alternative to a name with the form "demonym + republic." "Czech" is a demonym in search of a country.
Do I have any alternative of my own to propose? Yes, though it is not a perfect solution: “the Czech Lands.” It does have the advantage of saving two syllables over “the Czech Republic” and it is more poetic than the official title.
Thanks to all. This is what you get by marrying into a Czech family, but on balance it’s all worthwhile.
In the previous posts collected in this Thread, I argued that the country officially known as the Czech Republic should resist the idea of changing its “short English name” to Czechia.
Under a proposal from the “Go-Czechia” group, people inside the country would still refer to it as Česko, and its full official name would remain “Czech Republic” in English and Česká republika in Czech. But just as the place officially known in English as “People’s Republic of China” goes by “China” in common international parlance, and just as “Republic of China” goes by “Taiwan,” so too (according to supporters of the plan) should English references to their country be to “Czechia.”
I received a lot of ill-humored mail from people in the Czech Republic after I said that I thought Czechia would sound strange in English. A representative note from a scholar who works as a translator from Czech to English and German began, “I have to strictly oppose your argumentation in the article ‘People of Czechia’ …”
I wrote back to several pro-Czechia correspondents, and have had an extended exchange with Petr Pavlinek, who originally was trained at Charles University in Prague and is now a professor in the geography and geology department at the University of Nebraska — Omaha. (Bonus info: in my role as in-law to an extended Czech-American family, I’m aware that Nebraska is one of the centers of Czech settlement here, along with Iowa, Texas, Minnesota, and of course greater Chicagoland, where all of my wife’s Czech grandparents began their American lives.) With Prof. Pavlinek’s permission I’m quoting the back and forth. It clarifies some issues, and also is just interesting.
Round 1. Professor Pavlinek begs to differ with my views:
Your article on Czechia is very subjective and uninformed. It is very disappointing. Please, learn basic facts first before writing.
The fact that Czechia sounds weird to you is not an argument against using it. Czechia is perfectly fine in terms of linguistics. No one is taking the Czech Republic away and it stays in place as the official political name of the country.
Arguing for using Cesko in English is the same as saying that we should not use Austria but Osterreich or Deutchland instead of Germany in English. This does not make sense. To write an article based on what your family thinks without knowing the basic facts is unprofessional to say the least.
I sent a note back saying: OK, thanks, I’ll quote people on your side of the argument [as is happening now].
Round 2. He wants to make sure I understand:
OK. Fair enough as long as you get your facts right. As I said, the basic facts are at www.go-czechia.com. This is NOT about renaming the country but about standardizing its short geographic name. The Czech Republic remains in place as the political name.
By the way, you need to know that in order for a geographic name to be registered with the United Nations it first needs to be standardized and approved nationally. Czechia was standardized by the committee of 55 geographers, historians, linguists and others in 1993. Bohemia was not standardized and will never be because it is wrong geographically as you know. It does not include [Silesia] and Moravia.
Czech has no chance either because it is an adjective, a member of the Czech nation, the language. Czechia is the only one that is correct. The Czechlands is incorrect since the Czech Republic is not composed from any lands. That would be the first question the UN committee for the standardization of geographic names would ask: what lands is your country composed of now?
Please, see attached about the UN rules and procedures. If you study all of this, you will get a better understanding of the subject.
Round 3. In another post in this series, I quoted part of the Go-Czechia manifesto that I found unconvincing. That part said, “The Dominican Republic and the Central African Republic are the only two countries in the entire world that do not have readily available short names.” I said, only two? What about New Zealand? Costa Rica? Sierra Leone? Etc.
Prof. Pavlinek was one of many to write back and say: The length of the name is not what they’re talking about! (Despite all the emphasis on coining a new “short English name.”) The complaint is that “Czech Republic” refers to a political entity rather than a geographic place. Sample:
This [my use of Costa Rica and New Zealand as counter-examples] is completely wrong. So for example. The political name of Costa Rica is the Republic of Costa Rica, Costa Rica is its geographic name (as is Czechia), Sierra Leone is the geographic name, its political name is the Republic of Sierra Leone, Trinidad and Tobago is the geographic name, its political name is the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. I am sure you get it now.
New Zealand goes by only by its geographic name, the same is the case of Burkina Faso, Upper Volta (the geographic name) - its political name used to be the Republic of Upper Volta. Some countries do not have political names.
The number of words in the country name does not determine whether it is the political or geographic name. The political name included the nature of the political regime such as the Kingdom of Denmark, the Kingdom of Spain, the Czech Republic. Geographic names are then: Denmark, Spain and Czechia.
I hope you understand now. Should we expect a third article then?
Round 4. I noted to my correspondent that we were nearing a delicate and unfair reality of modern life. I have spent many decades wrestling with a range of languages, but the only one in which I dare undertake professional work is my own native language of English.
Thus I greatly respect the burden, challenge, and bravery of people doing professional work in their second, third, fifth, etc language, and I try always to make allowances for this uneven playing field. Still, when it comes to discussions of how things sound in English, a riposte that begins “I have to strictly oppose your argumentation ...” works with an extra handicap. (To spell it out for any non-native speakers reading along: That sentence sounds really odd and stilted in English.) So I suggested that since the audience for “Czechia” was the non-Czech-speaking, English-functional international community, perhaps the group should include some native English speakers in its deliberations?
In specific, I said, two parts of the argument raised problems for English-speakers. One is the heavy emphasis on a “short” name, when their complaint has nothing to do with the name’s length. (Ie, with what English speakers would understand from the word “short.”) Rather it is about names based on political organization — “republic” — instead of a geographic place.
But for me that leads to the second problem. In fact, there are two pretty famous examples of countries known by their political name: the United States, and the United Kingdom. In the American case, you can use “American” as an adjective, just as you can use “Czech.” But the uniforms at Olympic games, the name tags at international conferences, etc say “United States,” “US,” or “USA.” So too for the Brits. We know all the common geographic names: England, Britain, Great Britain. But none of them is officially equivalent to the United Kingdom. (England is just England; Britain brings in Wales; Great Britain is the whole island, including Scotland; and the UK is all of them plus Northern Ireland.)
It’s one thing to say: the Czech Republic should change its name, because that makes it part of an outlier category whose only other members are the D.R. and the C.A.R. But the category seems more impressive and mainstream if it also includes the U.S., the U.K., and previously the U.S.S.R.
In reply, with emphasis added at one point:
Yes, you are absolutely right that it is very difficult for non-native speakers to make their point clearly in English...
As for America, you are absolutely right that it is not an official short country name (it is not included in the UN’s database) and it is not used in any official events. But the truth is that it is used informally in everyday speech as the geographic name for the country, including presidents and presidential candidates (“America first,” for example now) however wrong it might be.
The implication is that America and Britain are used in the everyday speech and in the media for the United States and the United Kingdom (shortened political names). As such, I would argue that these two countries are very different cases from those of the Dominican Republic and the Central African Republic.
I am not trying to convince you. Not at all. I just want you to have your facts right in your article. In this case about the difference between geographic and political names and examples used. Then it is perfectly fine to argue against Czechia.
Now tell me one more thing: you recognize the difficulty for non-native speakers to understand the English language. How should then the Czechs who are not English speakers decide about how the word Cesko is properly translated into English? Isn’t it the same situation as if I asked you how America should be properly translated into Czech?
Also, in your arguments you need to consider that the geographic name Cesko (Česko) is commonly used in Czech. The whole issue with Czechia and the fuss about it is actually about the proper translation of Cesko into English. Many people translate it as Czech, Czecho etc. which is wrong for obvious reasons. There is a need for the grammatically correct translation of the Czech term Cesko into English.
Your article shows clearly that translations of Cesko into other languages, such as German etc. are commonly used. What would be your advice then for its translation into English? Sticking with the Czech Republic as the only option for translating Cesko into English is not going to help here and it is not correct. What is your suggestion?
What the government is doing now is making the translation of Cesko into English as Czechia official so that these wrong translations (Czech, Czecho) are not being used. I would be interested to hear your take on this because this is really what the whole argument is about.
Otherwise, I enjoyed reading your article.
To answer the two possibly rhetorical questions: if I were trying to re-brand “America” for a Czech audience, I’d mainly ask the Czechs for advice! And if they were asking me about how to present their country in English, I’d go back to my original post. Either just stick with Czech Republic (and soon I’ll quote another historian on a very interesting reason why), or go all in with Česko. We non-Czech speakers will get used to it more easily than Czechia, and we’ll admire the pride and panache.
Thanks to Prof. Pavlinek and others for their correspondence. There is a ton more, at least some of which I’ll quote in a follow up.
Before I disappeared into article-writing land, I put up an item arguing that today’s Czech Republic, homeland of all of my wife’s forebears back when it was Bohemia within the Austro-Hungarian empire, should avoid the mistake of changing the English version of its name to “Czechia.” Instead I suggested: either stick with Czech Republic, go retro with Bohemia, or embrace the country’s own name for itself, Česko.
Little did I know that a whole website exists to advance the name Czechia, and to address “The myths and facts about the short English name of the Czech Republic.” Give it a look (I resisted saying check it out) and see if you are convinced. One of the less ironclad parts of the argument:
Myth No. 8: There are other countries that exclusively use political names without any problems. Examples include the Dominican Republic or the Central African Republic. Fact: Although that is true, the vast majority of countries use short geographic names. The Dominican Republic and the Central African Republic are the only two countries in the entire world that do not have readily available short names.
The only two countries? Umm, New Zealand? Costa Rica? Sierre Leone? Burkina Faso, the one-time Upper Volta? Trinidad and Tobago? You get the idea.
A surprisingly rich stream of responses has arrived while I’ve been away, in three main categories: linguistic, historical, and flat-out angry (from boosters of the “Czechia” cause). I’ll start off with the linguistic.
Reader Andreas Stolcke, whose first language was German and who now does language-related computer work at Berkeley, goes into the details. The illustrations he has provided are Google ngram charts, showing the frequency of certain words in books over the years:
Two observations (and associated questions):
1) As a native speaker of German, I was surprised to read about the rebranding proposal because German speakers have adopted the proposal a long time ago!
Tschechien is the popular way to refer to the neighbors on the other side of the Bohemian Forest. Personally, the term actually seems foreign to me and I like the sound of Tschechische Republik better, but this Google ngram frequency plot [below] proves I’m in the minority. Maybe the Czechs had German branding consultants in this matter?
1b) BTW, the corresponding plot for the English terms shows that there is no contest. [That’s the one shown at the top of this post.]
1c) Analogous to German, how many have other languages/countries effectively already adopted the Czechia proposal, i.e., have a commonly used term for the country of the Czechs that is a word with a root cognate to "Czech" and a simple suffix that means "land of" ?
2) The German Wikipedia page says that the Czech word for Bohemia is in fact Čechy, i.e., cognate of Czech. How do the Moravians feel about this? Do they feel like an appendage to the Czech/Bohemian “core” of the country? With your familial contacts you might be in a position to research this question ... And how does this play into the discussion that no doubt is taking place internally about this rebranding proposal? While both Czechia and Czech Republic are based on the same word, the latter has a slightly neutral feel (the
“Czech” part makes up only 50% of the complete name ;-).
Actually, German has a third term for Czechia (I’m using the proposed term now for the sake of brevity only—maybe that's the argument that will ultimately win out here).
That alternate term is Tschechei, using a toponymic suffix -ei that is used elsewhere, such as in Slowakei (Slovakia), Mongolei (Mongolia), etc. I was familiar with that term but always associated it with my grandparents’ generation. Indeed, the German Wikipedia page states that the term became widely used in the 1930 and was promoted by the Nazis.
After the war the term continued to be used, but upon the creation of the Czech Republic in the 1990s, the Czech government requested that the usage be discontinued in favor of Tschechien, precisely because of the association with Nazi colonial ambitions (Hitler used the term Rest-Tschechei to refer to what would be left of Czechia after subtracting the areas with German population). It seems the request was successful—except in revisionist circles.
What is neat is that the Google ngram frequency plot for all three terms bears out this interesting history of linguistics and politics quite accurately.
Among other things, it shows that the current preference of Tschechien over Tschechei is not just the result of political correctness but actually predates the Nazi's favoring the latter term. For example, in books published in 1920,Tschechien was 8 times as often used as was Tschechei, so the short form is legitimately old.
Anyway, this is a detour into the specifics of German-Czech history, but it is clearly useful to know as background to the discussion of country naming.
Scholar that he is, Stolcke proposed a direction for further research:
Regarding the question I posed earlier, one methodology for resolving it would be to inspect the wikipedia pages for Czech Republic in other languages (conveniently linked to on the left side) and look for a single-word term, then try the frequency of both that and the official two-word term according to Google ngrams. That would be quite time-consuming, so I didn't do it (yet). However, it looks like Spanish, French, Polish, and Danish all have a single-word terms listed that looks vaguely similar to Czechia. In other words, English might really be an outlier in linguistic terms.
I thanked Stolcke for his research — and thanked him again when he reported back after doing the further hypothesis-testing he had set out:
Applying the suggested approach to four European languages, taken from three different IE language sub-families spoken on the continent:
1) Italian: the one-word form exists (Cechia) but is not nearly as much in use as the two-word form (Repubblica Ceca). Still, Cechia is obviously the older term, since there was no Czech Republic until fairly recently! (See ngram plot below.)
Spanish and French also seem to have little use for their one-word equivalents of Czechia.
2) Russian: in 2008 books, the one-word form (RЧе́хия) is about three times as frequent as the two-word form (Че́шская Респу́блика). (See ngram plot:)
3) Danish: the Google ngram viewer doesn't have a Danish corpus, but the number of web pages retrieved by google.dk for Tjekkiet is about twice that forTjekkiske Republik.
Another Germanic language is German, of course, where the one-word formTschechien is used about three times as much as Tschechische Republik (as shown earlier).
a) Google ngrams are collected from books only. Usage in the language more broadly may be have a different profile, though one would think that the shorter (one-word) forms are even more preferred in informal and spoken language.
b) The frequencies are for the citation forms. I'm not sure how inflectional morphology, e.g., in Russian, would change the relative frequencies. Probably not much.
c) The data stops in 2008.
Bottom line: in the matter of Czechia vs. Czech Republic English behaves much more like French than a Germanic language (not that surprising given the Norman invasion).
So how did English speakers refer to the land of the Czechs before, say, 1960, since they didn't have the historical one-word country name that the Germanic and Slavic languages had in their dictionaries? I'm guessing that the answer lies in this plot.
If he were alive and writing today, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle may have Sherlock Holmes solve "A Scandal in Czechia".
Now we know! Thanks to Andreas Stolcke.
Historians, and angry readers, to be heard from soon.
My two sons are each 50% Czech by background. So through the laws of algebraic equivalence, obviously this means that I myself represent one full Czech person. When you add in Deb, my all-Czech wife, in turn it’s obvious that our household constitutes two Czech votes. And then when you include the two halves from our sons, that makes three of us.
OK, just kidding on the imaginative math, plus warming up for creative delegate-counting at the GOP convention this summer. But I can honestly claim to be a native speaker of English. And in that role, I entreat authorities in my homeland-by-marriage of the Czech Republic: please, don’t change the English version of your name to “Czechia,” as apparently you’re planning to do.
What’s wrong with this new name? The minor issue — again, drawing on my authority as an English-speaker, since we’re the intended audience — is that it’s weird. No one in the English-speaking world has seen or heard it before.
Which leads to a larger problem: outsiders have heard the very similar-sounding (in English) name Chechnya. After the Boston Marathon bombing, the Czech ambassador complained that his country was being unfairly confused with Chechnya, where the bombers were from. Linguists at Language Log elaborated on the problem. Long before the bombing, the famous “Pine Barrens” episode of The Sopranos turned on the same confusion. Trust me, it’s only going to get worse with Czechia.
What’s the alternative? Our household casts its votes for any of these three:
Czech Republic. Ain’t broke, don’t fix it (an English-language idiom). Lots of countries have two-word names. Dominican Republic. Costa Rica. Ivory Coast. New Zealand. Saudi Arabia. Sierra Leone. El Salvador. Sri Lanka. South Korea. In ye olden days, the Soviet Union. Puerto Rico, which participates in the Olympics separate from the United States. And, for that matter, the United States itself (plus the United Kingdom). The desire to boil the name down to one word is said to lie behind this move. That’s not a very good reason.
Bohemia. OK, the Moravians and Silesians wouldn’t like it. But the rest of the world would recognize it immediately. It has panache.
Česko. This is what you call yourselves already. Make it the English name too! No risk of confusion with any other countries. The flair of being the only country (that I’m aware of) with a C-with-háček in the international version of its name: Č means a ch- sound. Pride in saying: here’s our name, get used to it, rather than the corporate-branding workaround of Czechia.
That’s how our branch of the diaspora votes. Česko, Bohemia, or Czech Republic, Yes. Czechia, Ne.
UPDATE The Czech word for “yes” is ano, as I realize from visits there. So logically the concluding sentence of the post should have said: “Česko, Bohemia, or Czech Republic, Ano. Czechia, Ne.” I chickened out from writing it that way, for fear that ano would be even more confusing to English readers than Czechia itself. (The meaning of ne is easier for English speakers to guess.) In any case this is the explanation for the mixed English/Czech Yes/Ne pairing in that sentence.
The former president’s message at his Arizona rally was as clear as it was dishonest: He didn’t lose to Joe Biden in 2020, and he’ll spend the next year working to elect Republicans who agree.
FLORENCE, Ariz.—Tonight, deep in the Arizona desert, thousands of people chanted for Donald Trump. They had braved the wind for hours—some waited the entire day—just to get a glimpse of the defeated former president. And when he finally appeared on stage, as Lee Greenwood played from the loudspeakers, the crowd roared as though Trump were still the commander in chief. To many of them, he is.
“I ran twice and we won twice,” Trump told his fans. “This crowd is a massive symbol of what took place, because people are hungry for the truth. They want their country back.”
Tonight’s rally was Trump’s first public event since July. On paper, the gathering was meant as his response to the anniversary of January 6, as well as an unofficial kickoff for his efforts to support Republicans in the midterm elections. But the event also served as the soft launch of Trump’s 2024 presidential campaign. Although he didn’t say the words, the former president seems poised to run in two years—“Make America great again again … again,” he joked to the crowd—and tonight, his message was as clear as it was dishonest: He didn’t lose to Joe Biden in 2020, and he’ll spend the next year working to elect Republicans who agree.
Right now, there is a hole in my living room. It was not there last week. We’ve tried to cover it up, but nothing seems to work. Rearranging the furniture somehow only makes the hole grow. The space, which once radiated a hopeful glow, now feels hollow. When I stare at this hole, I begin to feel as if a light has gone out in the world. Actually, not just one, many. And that’s because they have.
I am, of course, talking about my Christmas tree (RIP).
If you live in one of the 94 million homes or apartments that purchased or displayed a tree this holiday season, then maybe you feel the same melancholy that I do now. It’s grim out there. Two weeks ago, my street was a Griswoldian wonderland with twinkling lights silhouetting the eaves of my neighbors’ houses and robust-looking conifers standing proudly in their windows. Now my street is an evergreen graveyard with damp, sickly looking pines discarded by the side of the road, half buried in the driven slush.
I thought I was done dating. But after moving across the country, I had to start again—this time, in search of platonic love.
Thirty-seven minutes after sitting down to lunch, Francesca and I hugged goodbye in a strip-mall parking lot. We were both fairly certain, I think, that we would not be seeing each other again. The high-school classmate of a friend’s friend’s husband, she’d been such a promising friendship prospect: She was a professional violinist and fellow New Yorker who was writing her dissertation on pollen. But I was awkward, smiling too much and saying things like “That’s so funny” in lieu of actual laughter, while Francesca (not her real name) was overworked and seemed full of derision for Bozeman, Montana, the town to which I had just moved, and from which she and her husband were determined to flee.
The top player in men’s tennis is yet another anti-vaccine athlete who’d rather create chaos than get a shot.
After a dramatic weeklong fight with the world’s top men’s tennis player, Australia’s immigration authorities wisely decided to revoke Novak Djokovic’s visa a second time because he flouted the country’s COVID-19 policies. Although the Australian authorities and tennis officials aren’t blameless, this is a huge, self-inflicted public-relations crisis for Djokovic that has smeared his legacy.
SNL’s inaugural episode of 2022 turned to dark, and often awkward, absurdity to explain our exasperating moment.
Saturday Night Live’s first episode of 2022 attempted to make up for the strange, empty show that ended 2021 amid the rise of the coronavirus’s Omicron variant. The cast was back, the masked audience was back, and the show, as they say, went on. But it couldn’t escape the world outside of 30 Rock’s doors.
This season has thus far blended thin political fare with dour-noted escapism, as though the pleasure of putting on a live show is more about continually agitating a bruise than finding true comedic relief. Like so many of its viewers, SNL has been waiting to turn a corner, to move past a scenario with little to laugh about. Last night’s episode felt like one long exasperated sigh. As James Austin Johnson’s Joe Biden wretchedly joked in the opening presidential address, “People got vaccinated and the pandemic got worse.”
Climate change is a tough subject for any film, let alone a satire.
Adam McKay’s disaster satire Don’t Look Up is many things at once: a parable of our distracted society, a primal scream of a warning, and a broad comedy from the writer/director of Anchorman. Such a delicate balance has made the star-studded Netflix film a polarizing movie.
Critics, audiences, and activists have both savaged and praised the movie, and the backlash has highlighted the difficulty of conveying an urgent message with comedy. Has political satire lost its power? Or has reality become so absurd that it’s now beyond parody?
That challenge was evident in the making of Don’t Look Up. As McKay told David Sims, he wrote the story about a planet-killing comet (and our society’s inability to act collectively to stop it) as a climate-change metaphor. But after the script was done, production shut down for the pandemic and he watched the follies of a real-life disaster surpass his fictional one.
Today’s norms of responsiveness are ridiculous. We shouldn’t apologize for failing to meet them.
At first, being reachable all the time felt good. To professionals who started using BlackBerries 20 years ago to conduct business on the go, it registered as a superpower. “They felt like masters of the universe,” Melissa Mazmanian, an informatics professor at UC Irvine who studied the devices’ uptake in the early 2000s, told me. But as more people got mobile devices, responding to messages anytime became the norm among co-workers as well as friends and loved ones. The superpower morphed into an obligation.
This is an evolution that Mazmanian refers to as the “spiral of expectations.” When communication technology makes a new thing (like responding on the go) possible, doing that thing can be a way for people to signal how dedicated they are as workers or family members—and, crucially, not doing that thing can suggest that they aren’t dedicated enough. Now when people feel they haven’t responded sufficiently quickly, they think they owe their correspondent an apology.
In Disney’s latest blockbuster, Encanto, a magical family called the Madrigals have escaped the violence and chaos of their homeland by crossing a river into an enchanted paradise that endows each with wondrous gifts that they use to protect and enhance their community. As the generations go by, however, the magic of the new world starts to fade and the family buckles under the pressure of their responsibilities while struggling to maintain the illusion that everything is fine. One grandchild, we learn, has no gift at all; another worries that she cannot keep up the appearance of perfection that is crushing her from the inside out; while another, still, panics that she is losing her superhuman strength. Luisa, the strong one, sings out her fears:
Early cringe culture was about empathy and secondhand embarrassment. Today, being “cringe” is a serious infraction.
Take a tweet from the week after the Capitol riot in January 2021: “A Liberal insurrection would have looked very different. We would have escorted the original Broadway cast of Hamilton into the galleries. They would softly sing … as members of the GOP spewed their lies.” This was apparently intended as satire of a certain type of extremely online and cringe-inducing liberal smugness, but it came off as the thing itself and then produced more of the same. “I’ve literally been listening to the Hamilton soundtrack at work for days now,” wrote one woman. “This is EXACTLY what would’ve happened. ALL the theater kids everywhere,” wrote another.
Then the joke became real. Last week, as part of a series of public events marking one year since the January 6 riot, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi introduced a prerecorded performance by the cast of Hamilton, singing “Dear Theodosia.” Pelosi read aloud from the song’s lyrics: “We’ll make it right for you. If we lay a strong enough foundation, we’ll pass it on to you; we’ll give the world to you.” There was no need to debate whether this was cringe (which is now an adjective, as well as a noun and verb), because cringe is a you-know-it-when-you-see-it type of thing. And these days, you can seeiteverywhere.
Recently I met the astronomer Pascal Oesch, an assistant professor at the University of Geneva. Professor Oesch and his colleagues share the distinction of having discovered the most distant known object, a small galaxy called GNz-11. That galaxy is so far away that its light had to travel for 13 billion years to get from there to here. I asked Professor Oesch if he felt personally connected to this tiny smudge on his computer screen. Does this faint blob feel like part of nature, part of the same world of Keats and Goethe and Emerson, where “vines that round the thatch-eves run; to bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees”?
Oesch answered that he looks at such distant smudges every day. Sure, they’re part of the universe, he said. But consider the abstraction (thought I). A few exhausted photons of light from GNz-11 dropped on a photoelectric detector aboard a satellite orbiting Earth, produced a tiny electrical current that was translated into 0s and 1s, which were beamed to Earth in a radio wave. That information was then processed in data centers in New Mexico and Maryland and eventually landed on Professor Oesch’s computer screen in Geneva. These days, professional astronomers rarely look at the sky through the lens of a telescope. They sit at computer screens.