Monday, February 16, 2009

Mishmash and Rehash

On the way to language ...

Septuagenarian William Safire is still writing his "On Language" column in the New York Times and the latest attempts to track a direct line from refacimento (also spelled rifacimento) to remix and mashup to mishmash:
Other old citations prefer refacimento, pronounced re-FATCH-i-men-toe, from the Italian word taken up in English that means, in the definition of the Oxford English Dictionary, 'a new-modelling or recasting of a literary work.' Such recreativity is accelerating today, especially in music, suggesting to me an updating to 'the radical refashioning of a work of art, often by computer.' It has spawned a new set of synonyms beginning with re, Latin for 'again.'
Even for a former Nixon speechwriter (yes, that Nixon), remix is all about art and culture and, more importantly for our purposes, creativity (again).
In re re-mash: This could be a remix of a remix, or a remix of a mash-up, or a mash-up of a remix; it seems to be a coinage in process. On ABC Radio in 2005, Amanda Smith reported from the Sydney Festival that "DJ Spooky, that Subliminal Kid, is here to perform his live 'remash' of D. W. Griffith's silent epic, ‘Birth of a Nation’ (1915)."
Safire writing about Spooky? It's ... well, spooky.

But the surprise link in the column is when Safire traces mashup from old English through Jewish slang:
The old word that underlies all these galloping gallimaufries is mishmash. I recall a letter written to Gov. William Scranton of Pennsylvania, who was running for the Republican presidential nomination in 1964: "Dear Sir: If you contemplate campaigning in any more Jewish neighborhoods, I suggest you learn how to pronounce 'mishmash.' It is not pronounced 'mash,' as you said on 'Meet the Press,' but rather as though it were spelled MOSH. Sincerely, Groucho Marx."

That word has been in the English language since 1475, its meaning 'hotchpotch, jumble.' It is not a Yiddishism, though one copy editor, playing on the punch line of a Jewish joke, told me long ago, “Funny, it doesn’t look English.” A frequent pronunciation, as Groucho insisted, is mishmosh.
Playing it out to an extreme, I can't help but wonder where does the term mosh pit come from?

H.R. (Paul Hudson) of the Washington, D.C. area hardcore punk band Bad Brains, regarded as a band that "put moshing on the map",[5] were partly responsible for coining the term. Due to their affected Jamaican-accented pronunciation of the word mash in their lyrics and stage banter, fans in D.C. heard this as mosh instead.
Safire's mainstream attention on the linguistic trace of remixology throughout human history has me wondering if we can seriously remix ourselves out of this economic calamity we are surely living through and that has only just begun. Is it even possible to, say, mash-up The New Deal with An Inconvenient Truth? Dangermouse used the Beatles and Jay-Z to create the Grey Album but what about some Red and Black? Is that just one serious urban mashup away?

Given the instability of the entire global economy, one cannot help but wonder where we will find our Moshe the Mashup Artist to part the (deep in the) red seas so that we can get back into the black.

The self-proclaimed anarchist Bob Black (as his name just so happens to be) has always been a proponent of "ludic activism" where "the theory of comedic revolution is much more than a blueprint for crass struggle: like a red light in a window, it illuminates humanity's inevitable destiny, the declasse society." He even wrote a Theses on Groucho Marxism to prove it:
Although not entirely lacking in glimmers of Marxist insight, socialist (sur)realism must be distinguished from G-Marxism. It is true that Salvador Dali once gave Harpo a harp made out of barbed wire; however, there is no evidence that Harpo ever played it.
As Moshe the Rastafarian Mashup Artist himself might have once said, "Do you follow me?"

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