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The Poet Who Traveled the U.S. Speaking Only Faroese

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There is a tiny cluster of islands in the sea between Norway and Iceland where sheep roam green meadows, puffins swoop over, in, and out of fjords, and people speak a language close to the Old Norse spoken there by Viking settlers 1000 years ago: Faroese. The Faroe Islands is a self-governing nation that is part of the Kingdom of Denmark, and while Danish (as well as English) is a common second language for the inhabitants, not everyone speaks it. Or at least Steinbjørn Jacobsen didn’t. He was a poet, author, and agitator for secession from Denmark who spoke and wrote in nothing other than Faroese. So in 1978, when the U.S. State Department brought him over for a tour (something they did then with various political activists in order to win them over in case they needed them later), they found themselves in a bind when trying to get him an interpreter.

They called on Eric Wilson, who spoke no Faroese but had studied Old Icelandic, and whose essay (from the New England Review, posted at LitHub) about the experience of escorting the poet around the U.S. is a gripping and hilarious tale of communication and miscommunication with university professors in fancy offices, coal miners’ sons in Appalachia, Latino farm workers in California, and hikers in the Grand Canyon, all filtered through layers of historical Nordic linguistics. This is how they first meet:

I knocked loudly, but there was no response. Reluctantly I let myself in. The air conditioning had been set at arctic. The floor was littered with tiny liquor bottles from the mini-fridge, as well as wrappers from Oreo cookies, Mars Bars, and Snickers. In a corner I saw a figure slumped down on the floor, leaning back against a wall, apparently sound asleep. All he was wearing was a colorful pair of paisley Faeroese skivvies.

I knelt down and shook his knee; slowly he opened his eyes. They were an amazingly piercing blue, but at this point too bleary to pierce much of anything. I told him my name and that I would now be his escort-interpreter. I was here; I would stay with him. I said this in my dodgy Danish, which he didn’t appear to understand. I tried again, pronouncing all the Danish sounds that are normally slurred or silent. Finally I sensed he was absorbing what I was saying.

Pulling him up by both hands, I was able to get him to his feet. I was surprised at how short he was. As he tried to bring me into focus, his eyes filled with tears. I put my hands on his shoulders, trying to steady him. I wasn’t ready for any of this. Although this assignment still seemed preferable to KATKINS für die Katze, I knew I was out of my depth.

Trying to keep him upright, I asked if he wanted something to eat. I used the Danish word “spise” and then the Swedish word “äta,” miming lifting a spoon out of an invisible bowl. He shook his head no. I heard “sove” as he mimed tilting his head down into his folded hands. So I led him into the bedroom.

I watched him crawl onto the rumpled unmade bed. Then, lying on his back, he stared up at me and broke into a smile before he closed his eyes. He didn’t say goodnight. All he said before he fell asleep was, “Eiríkur.” My name in Faeroese.

My instincts told me to call State immediately and tell them I couldn’t do this. But then they had already been stranded once. And I had given them my word.

Many more liquor bottles are emptied and many more communication barriers are broken—or at least peered over—before the end of the trip. Read the rest of the crazy story at LitHub.

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Big Questions
Where Should You Place the Apostrophe in President's Day?
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Happy Presidents’ Day! Or is it President’s Day? Or Presidents Day? What you call the national holiday depends on where you are, who you’re honoring, and how you think we’re celebrating.

Saying "President’s Day" infers that the day belongs to a singular president, such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, whose birthdays are the basis for the holiday. On the other hand, referring to it as "Presidents’ Day" means that the day belongs to all of the presidents—that it’s their day collectively. Finally, calling the day "Presidents Day"—plural with no apostrophe—would indicate that we’re honoring all POTUSes past and present (yes, even Andrew Johnson), but that no one president actually owns the day.

You would think that in the nearly 140 years since "Washington’s Birthday" was declared a holiday in 1879, someone would have officially declared a way to spell the day. But in fact, even the White House itself hasn’t chosen a single variation for its style guide. They spelled it “President’s Day” here and “Presidents’ Day” here.


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Maybe that indecision comes from the fact that Presidents Day isn’t even a federal holiday. The federal holiday is technically still called “Washington’s Birthday,” and states can choose to call it whatever they want. Some states, like Iowa, don’t officially acknowledge the day at all. And the location of the punctuation mark is a moot point when individual states choose to call it something else entirely, like “George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day” in Arkansas, or “Birthdays of George Washington/Thomas Jefferson” in Alabama. (Alabama loves to split birthday celebrations, by the way; the third Monday in January celebrates both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert E. Lee.)

You can look to official grammar sources to declare the right way, but even they don’t agree. The AP Stylebook prefers “Presidents Day,” while Chicago Style uses “Presidents’ Day.”

The bottom line: There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Go with what feels right. And even then, if you’re in one of those states that has chosen to spell it “President’s Day”—Washington, for example—and you use one of the grammar book stylings instead, you’re still technically wrong.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Here's the Right Way to Pronounce Kitchenware Brand Le Creuset

If you were never quite sure how to pronounce the name of beloved French kitchenware brand Le Creuset, don't fret: For the longest time, southern chef, author, and PBS personality Vivian Howard wasn't sure either.

In this video from Le Creuset, shared by Food & Wine, Howard prepares to sear some meat in her bright orange Le Creuset pot and explains, "For the longest time I had such a crush on them but I could never verbalize it because I didn’t know how to say it and I was so afraid of sounding like a big old redneck." Listen closely as she demonstrates the official, Le Creuset-endorsed pronunciation at 0:51.

Le Creuset is known for its colorful, cast-iron cookware, which is revered by pro chefs and home cooks everywhere. The company first introduced their durable pots to the world in 1925. Especially popular are their Dutch ovens, which are thick cast-iron pots that have been around since the 18th century and are used for slow-cooking dishes like roasts, stews, and casseroles.

[h/t Food & Wine]

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