squibs

I remember the first time I was assigned to write a squib, a couple years ago in a phonology course, I had no idea what I was being asked to do. The dictionary entry for squib didn’t help much.

1. a short and witty or sarcastic saying or writing.
2. Journalism a short news story, often used as a filler.
3. a small firework, consisting of a tube or ball filled with powder, that burns with a hissing noise terminated usually by a slight explosion.

Presumably, my phonology write-up wasn’t supposed to be witty or sarcastic, but what did I know? I was bit embarrassed to ask the prof or other students since it seemed squib was a word budding linguists were expected to know, so I just wrote up my analysis of Spanish spirantization (or whatever), and that was that. Since then, I’ve written lots of squibs, but only recently did I find out what a squib really is—at least in linguistics, and at least originally.

Poking around online a couple months ago, I stumbled on Squibnet, a collection of scanned, handwritten squibs by the linguist Haj Ross (as well as some by Paul Postal). I don’t know whether or not Ross was the first to commandeer squib (the OED dates squib to the 16th century) and use it with a meaning specific to language and linguistics, but in any case, he does provide a nice description of what a squib is to him.

Squibs are short notes about kinky facts of language. They may occasionally be welcome, in that they provide evidence for someone’s pet theory. Most frequently, however, they are rambunctious, insolent, nose-thumbing bazookas, taunting theoreticians of every stripe, daring them to stretch their minds enough to wrap around the damned facts the squibs call to our attention.

In Athenian Greece, poets were not allowed to be citizens – they were too unpredictable, irreverent. Squibs are the poets sneering outside the walls of Theoretopolis, mocking us.

But with luck, squibs become seeds.

If you look at a few of the scanned squibs, you’ll see that many are nothing more than a few scribbled words, arrows, and question marks. They really are just short notes of interesting ideas. Nowadays in linguistics, I think squib has come to denote something longer and more detailed, though not as long and detailed as, say, an article.

Whatever a squib is, the purpose of this blog is to get myself into the habit of jotting down ideas and thoughts, keeping productive. Topics will certainly include language and linguistics, but also things like math, logic, science, computery stuff, maybe even music and film, and whatever other random nerdery comes to mind. With enough writing, and with any luck, I’ll figure out what squib means to me.

brian

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