Sunday, October 14, 2012

What'n the World is Go'n On?

I'm wondering if it's too late to get a proposition on the November 6 ballot. Or maybe some kind of emergency legislation. I don't mean anything as drastic as Lincoln's suspending habeas corpus. But something must be done about that linguistic changeling—'n.

I can be as folksy as the next…not very folksy person, but this 'n thing has gotten out of of control. It's roaming about pretty freely, seeking whom it may devour. Here in the Word Crank home country, it seems to be devouring festivals.

Recent civic soirees include one called, ridiculously, "Break’n Bread" or, possibly, Break ’n Bread." It's hard to tell from the advertising if there is a space between "Break" and "'n." Either way, what does it mean? Yes, there seems to be food involved. Break’n Bread is sponsored by a group of restaurateurs and locavores, and is oh-so-hip. And yes, I know they mean "breaking bread," but for heaven's sake, why don't they just say so? The name actually says "Break and Bread." Why would a hoity-toity group of foodies butcher the name for its fundraiser?

And it gets worse. I refer to the Kick'n Chick'n Wing Fest. I simply can't wrap my brain around the illiteracy of that one. If deploying an 'n or two makes an event sound ever so much more fun and happening (happen'n? happ'n'n?), I wonder what the organizers of other events were thinking.

A suburb's "Arts and Music on the Green" sounds downright staid. It so easily could have been "Arts’n Music’n the Green." And how about the local celebration of all things Hispanic? It's called, simply, Fiesta. Perhaps the organizers went through ESL classes, and, so, actually learned grammar. ("Her English is too good, he said, Which clearly indicates that she is foreign." Lyric from "You Did It," My Fair Lady)

Sad. It could have been "Lat'n Fest."

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Give Me a "D"

With all the hubbub in the world, along with the obsessive reporting on the horse race for the White House, you may have missed one news item of real importance—blogger Ted McCagg has named the Best Word Ever.

And the winner is…diphthong.

I'm a bit conflicted. Don't get me wrong. Diphthong is a great word. But is it the Best Word Ever?

McCagg arrived at diphthong through a series of bracket face-offs that first determined the best "A" word, "B" word, and so on. Then the letter winners went up against each other in a brutal lexicographic battle.

In the Final Four match-up—gherkin vs. kerfuffle and diphthong vs. hornswoggle—I am a kerfuffle partisan. If kerfuffle had gone up against diphthong mano a mano, I have to believe the k-word would win. Try it yourself. Say "kerfuffle" and try not to smile. And this delightful word lost to a pickle? We was robbed!

Lots of fun words fell in earlier rounds.  Vamoose, skedaddle and canoodle did well, but couldn't close the deal. Why didn't the "R" bracket winner, rapscallion, do better? What a great word. On the other hand, the "Q" winner—quagmire—never had a chance. It's just too familiar. One of my favorites, Quinquagesima, wasn't even in the running, a sad victim of the "modernizing" of the language of the Book of Common Prayer.

The "P" champion was phlegm. Ugh. Inexplicably, it not only left my choice—poppycock—in the dust, but actually made it to the Final 32 (West Bracket). And speaking of ick, one of everyone's favorites, and one I have to check the spelling of every time, onomatopoeia, lost to sphincter. Is it possible this McCagg dude is a really bright middle-schooler? Is there any other explanation?

So I guess it could have been worse. If sphincter had been the big winner, McCagg and I would have been involved in a kerfuffle.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Fifty Shades of I-Don't-Care

With all the publishing world agog at the phenomenon known as Fifty Shades of Grey, there's been a lot of chatter about what makes a book a bestseller. Conclusion: nobody has the foggiest idea. On the Fifty Shades marvel-of-the-moment, I have mixed feelings. I love the idea of an unknown writer doing an end-run around the haughty gatekeepers in their glass-and-steel fortresses in Manhattan and rocketing to fame and fortune. Who didn't root for Cinderella?

Unfortunately, in this case, the gatekeepers were right about quality, if not marketability. Fifty Shades is bilge water. At least, that's what I understand. I haven't read it. I will not read it. I may be the only woman in America who never cracks its spine, but that just brings to mind the classic parental phrase "If everybody jumped off a bridge…"

No. Life is too short and my to-read lists (yes, I have at least three) are too long. And there are far better novels than Fifty Shades that I refuse to read. I was reminded of that recently when one of those "How Many of These Books Have You Read" lists made the rounds on Facebook. Of 100, I counted about 30 that I had made my own. That's a pretty poor showing, but my reaction was not that I needed to upgrade my reading, but "Who makes these lists?"

I don't know who compiled the Facebook list, but checking out other such exercises in literary snobbery, I discovered that my 30 was an excellent grade in comparison. Modern Library, an imprint of Random House, put out a list of 100 novels educated folk should have read. My score: 0-2 (the variation coming from my inability to remember if I actually read Animal Farm and The Maltese Falcon. I think so, but I couldn't swear it under oath).

Call me Illiterate.

I did better on the list Time magazine put out back in 2005 of what its advisors considered the 100 best novels that had been published during its existence, i.e., 1923 to 2005. My score: about 9 (Animal Farm is on this list, too).

My defensive ego suggested that maybe I'd do better on Time's list of top 100 nonfiction books. This was updated from 2005 and expanded to 101 books, despite still being named "Top 100," I suspect to include the President's  Dreams From My Father—just one more I haven't read.

The verdict went for the defense, but just barely. My score: 11, unless I can count The Looming Tower, which I had to return to the library after only finishing the first section. (I try to keep my library fines well below the firstborn-child level of indebtedness.)

All in all, nothing to write home (or a blog post?) about. But for the blow to my self-concept, I have no regrets. Most of those books I wouldn't read even if required to by an act of Congress. So, there you have it, E.L. James. I'll get around to your masterpiece just as soon as I've finished Ulysses, Lolita, Coming of Age in Samoa, Syntactic Structures, et al.

That would be shortly after Satan's Zamboni finishes smoothing out the ice rink at the Hades Sportsplex.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Shakespeare was wrong

      What's in a name? that which we call a rose
      By any other name would smell as sweet…

That's what you think, Will. Those crazy Elizabethans knew nothing of marketing. The name's the thing, not the play. Poor Shakespeare had to muddle through with no marketing department, no focus groups. Nobody to tell him that "Hamlet" was a better name for a fast-food breakfast item than a protagonist—and, good fellow, that ending is such a downer.

We are more fortunate. If you want to know who we are as a people, look at ads. Advertising and marketing offer the truest mirror we could gaze in. It tells us what are the fairest dreams of our imagining.

So it is interesting to see trends in ads. One that currently puzzles me is teeth-whitening procedures. There are any number of methods to get the pearly-whites whiter (and, incidentally, less pearly, since pearls are not bright white). It is not surprising that we want whiter teeth (although sometimes the unnatural whiteness can be startling).

What is fascinating is that the advertising for these methods almost never mentions teeth. Instead, they brightly talk about whitening your smile. Once I began to pay attention I have seen/heard lots of pitches for whitening products, but not one used the T word.

Is there something wrong with the word “teeth”? When did we decide we needed a euphemism for them? I don't quite get it. It reminds me of the Victorian bluenoses who insisted on referring to "limbs" because they could not bring themselves to say "legs."

The capper came in an e-mail from WebMD, with the topic "How Diabetes Affects Your Smile." Since the effects were to the gums, it seems the euphemism is spreading. Where will it end? As Will Shakespeare pointed out (As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII) we all end "Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans every thing."

Friday, May 11, 2012

Vehicles of Vanity

Did you know there is a snazzy new technology that allows you to contact people you spot tooling down the highway, or cutting you off in the mall parking lot, by keying in the auto license plate number? Me, either, until a couple of weeks ago when I saw the founder of BUMP—the name of this new "online community"—on Larry Kudlow's show. Think of it as a truly mobile Facebook.

Somehow I don't think there will be a lot of "friending" going on. Still, the company has cheery expectations for car-to-car communications. The Web site says "A survey undertaken by indicates that more than a third of respondents are interested in networking with people in other cars."

They may be right. I have been amazed by the success of a lower-tech version of "car-to-car communication"—the vanity license plate. As someone little interested in proclaiming my view of myself or my surroundings on the rear of my conveyance, I have watched the proliferation of vanity plates with some bemusement. Two questions pop into my mind when I see them: What are they trying to say to me? And why?

Some plates are easy to understand. Here in the Football Capital of the Known Universe, there are many that let passersby know which team the car owners root for, as though the bumper stickers, door magnets and window flags weren't enough of a clue. Then there's GMOTHER, GRLZCAB, LUV4TY, and the SmartCar known as LTL GUY.

But so many plates only mystify. What to make of PMOMMY? Yes, toilet training is a trying time, but unless your name is Duggar, it passes soon enough. Or the Honda Civic labelled FITSME. If you've ballooned from XXL to hatchback, it's time to hit the gym, dude. How about CME4ICE? Is there really such a job as ice salesman?

Some plates have charm even if I don't know what they're trying to communicate. I like the Range Rover that proclaims MOBETTR, the silver sedan greeting fellow drivers with L-CHAIM, and the Mini with the I {Heart} NY bumper sticker and GROUCHO plate. I also want to hear the story of the driver who chose MOR2IT as her license plate.

Others are just scary. I kept a good two car-lengths back from the car sporting the SCREWIT plate. The Silverado dubbed NFORCER was worrisome, and the venerable Buick in need of a paint job was sketchy enough without the addition of the MTHR5HP plate.

But if I sign up with BUMP, I know the first plate I'll dial. I've only seen that pickup truck once, but I've been wondering about it ever since. What does it mean? Why? Please explain your vanity plate, LEGMAKR.

Monday, March 26, 2012

You said it, Inigo

"You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

How often I have quoted this great movie line! The world is filled with Vizzinis using words with reckless abandon. There's the blogger who reports that a diet book author “was able to beat a chronic health issue in his life by using the strategies implored in The Perfect Health Diet.”

I find most diet books bark orders. Imploring might work better for me. 

Then there's the columnist who wrote: "If you like his over-the-top enthusiasm for public-employee union collective-bargaining rights at the municipal and state levels, why not urge him to get consistent and signify for unionized federal-employee collective-bargaining rights, as well?"

I think that sentence signifies the need for a dictionary.

You say the big media outlets never fall into such weird word usage? Here's the Washington Post: “Since 2004, earthquake scientists have been caught off guard, or to some extent consternated, by huge killer earthquakes in the Indian Ocean, Haiti, China, Japan and New Zealand.”

They have been caught consternated? Aren't there over-the-counter remedies for that?

But for sheer confusion, I nominate this offering from the OMG Facts Web site: “American soldiers found one of Cher Ami's decapitated legs with a message!” 

Cher Ami, apparently, was a messenger pigeon during World War I* and didn't live to tell the grandkids war stories. Decapitated legs! Inconceivable!

*N.B. This has been corrected per Don's comment. 

Monday, March 12, 2012

Whole Lotta Verbing Going On

The signs of spring-to-come are unmistakable around here—azalea blossoms, pine pollen, and primary politicians. And language starts reproducing like mosquitoes. Specifically, I have noted a surge in verbing—the process of turning a noun into a verb.

I can hear what you're saying. Get a grip, cranky. Language is living. It must grow and change to survive. I know that. Really. I don't condemn verbing willy-nilly. (The only thing I do willy-nilly is housework—if, in fact, I do it at all.) But there has to be a brake as well as an accelerator if this vehicle is going to travel smoothly on the highway of communication. I just happen to be one of the world's natural brakes.

Since we are in the throes of a presidential primary here in the Word Crank homeland, I'll mention a brand-new verb I heard for the first time about this time last year—"to primary." This seems to mean "run for election in a primary," as in will Politician X primary? Or worse, the passive voice subspecies: "Will President Obama be primaried?" Apparently, that means "will some unnamed politician run against the one (in this case, Obama) that the primary happens to.

Let me go on record as saying I'm against it—the verb, not the process. I vote "no" on the following propositions, as well: 1. A nutritionist recently spoke of a diet “that will plaque your arteries;” and 2. A radio spot for a heating and A/C company flogs an air conditioner that can be adjusted if you don’t want “to comfort an unused room.”

To be fair, that last example may not be verbing. Maybe there are people who are so sensitive that they apologize to spare rooms so as not to hurt their feelings.

Is verbing ever good? Yes. Sometimes you need a verb to fill in a gap in the language. Witness "to diet" and "to summit." They work. And there are times when a newly hatched verb is a delight. At a recent choir practice, we singers apparently were not being expressive enough in a passage of music, so the director implored us to "marcato it!"

That communicated perfectly. It also seems like pretty good advice for living. You only go around once. Marcato it!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

It's an Epidemic

We are experiencing an epidemic in this country. You see the signs everywhere. Literally.

The typo virus infects one out of every one Americans—at least the semi-literate ones with access to a keyboard. Many would like to think it hasn't hopped the Atlantic and infected Europe—they're just too smart over there, you know—but I think we're kidding ourselves about that. We just don't speak their funny languages well enough to recognize the symptoms.

There are all sorts of pictures floating around the Internet of people holding hand-lettered signs that mangle words. Yes, they're funny, but at least they have the excuse of lacking a spellcheck feature in their Magic Markers.

What do you make of a national magazine's Web site's story on “Essential Gear for Smart Travel” that includes a recommendation for “Tumi Wheeled Garmet Bag”? Or a New York Times opinion piece that warned of “the usual gang of fearmongerers"? Actually, I'm giving the Times the benefit of the doubt, because I'd hate to conclude that they think "fearmongerer" is a word.

Another magazine's Web site included a list of movies appropriate for Valentine's Day and included the most recent version of Pride and Prejudice with this description: "Matthew Macfadyen woes the brilliant Keira Knightley." Well, he really does "woe" her until she comes to her senses.

Also on the list was 1945's I Know Where I'm Going, in which Wendy Hiller heads to Scotland but "on the way she meets dashing navel officer Robert Livesey." I don't want to think what a "navel officer" is.

It really matters what keys, and in which order, you press when creating a written communication. Pay attention, America!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Laissez les bons pralines rouler

Mardi Gras is almost here. I can tell because purple, green, and gold masks and beads have come out of hiding to brighten cloudy February days. So it's a good time to tackle a New Orleans-style controversy—how to pronounce "praline."

I say "praw-leen." Always have; always will. I was in college before I heard the other pronunciation—"pray-leen." Now I rarely hear anything else. It's disturbing. My handy computer dictionary does not even list a second pronunciation, smugly assuring me that "pray-leen" is correct.

On the other hand, my trusty OED and Merriam-Webster at least offer the option of the traditional Southern pronunciation. The folks at say that outside the South, "pray-leen" rules, but "a praline is what we are providing here at and the pronunciation is PRAW-leen."

That's the spirit.

Here is a recipe for traditional pralines. They're so rich, you may want to stash a few in a safe-deposit box. You're on your own if you want to make pray-leens.

1-1/3 cups sugar
2/3 cup brown sugar
1-1/3 cups water
1/8 teaspoon salt
2-3 cups pecans

Dissolve all ingredients except pecans over low heat; bring to a boil. Cover and cook about 3 minutes. Uncover and cook to 234 degrees (soft-ball stage). Remove pan from heat and cool to 110 degrees. Beat until candy thickens and loses its gloss.

Drop large spoonfuls onto to wax paper. Work quickly as it gets too thick very quickly.

[This recipe is from the yellowed pages of the copy of Joy of Cooking I received as a wedding present. And, yes, in my thinner youth, I made these wonderful pralines. Those were the days.]

Friday, February 10, 2012

Who Will Edit the Editors?

Roman poet Juvenal asked "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" Who will guard the guardians? Here was a guy who understood human nature. In this time when we so often defer to experts, it's good to keep in mind that we are all caught in the snare of feeble humanity. Even those experts.

I've been reminded of this bit of wisdom lately while visiting blogs on writing. Sure, anybody can put their two cents out into the blogosphere ("Right you are, Word Crank!"), but if you're writing about writing, wouldn't you think you'd try to write right?

Don't misunderstand. I'm not pointing a shocked finger and saying "How dare you, sir?" In many cases I know how they dare—it was a mental blip that spellcheck was unable to detect. This happens to me, too. Yes. (I know you're stunned.)

That's what happened to a guy who has an excellent blog that calls the Writer's Digest Web site its home. You can't have a better platform than that, for credibility and traffic. Even so, he wrote: "Plus, remember this key tenant of marketing: …"

Is the key tenant the guy in the corner office? Don't all the tenants have keys?

Other mistakes are harder to explain. Actually they are easy to explain. They are just harder to forgive.

Here's a published author analyzing the appeal of cozy mysteries: "The heroes are real people, ordinary citizens like you or I…" Ick. I know we hear this horrendous misuse of the first person pronoun a lot these days, but come on, writers. We're better than that.

Now this one I have a harder time understanding: "I'm currently looking for anybody who is in the process of promoting their first novel, either through a mainstream publishing house or through the self-publishing route, who would be willing to share a little bit about themself…"

Themself? Spellcheck would definitely catch that. As I write it, it has put an angry dotted line beneath this pseudo-word.

Letting that ridiculous mistake make it onto the Information Superhighway is like walking out the front door with your shoes on the wrong feet and your dress on backwards. Sure, you're dressed, but you're not inspiring confidence.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Everyone's a Critic

I've been thinking about books and readers, and how and why they come together. Why does one person love a book that the next person hates? (Writing a novel will do that to an otherwise normal person.)

The truth is, there's no knowing. Even if my novel turns out as close to perfect as I can make it, some people—actually, lots of them—will not like it. That's a bitter pill to swallow, but grab a big glass of water. It's got to go down. And if one of those admittedly strange people happens to be the acquisitions editor to whom I have submitted my manuscript, well, that's all she wrote. Literally.

A fellow author provided a generous helping of perspective by mining readers' reviews on sites such as Goodreads. I checked, and these reviews are real from actual people (or, in the case of the first example, some life form cleverly disguised as a human).

I am the original Jane Austen freak. I am on record as saying that Pride and Prejudice is the most perfect novel in the English language. It is the fiction pearl-of-great-price. But here's what one reader had to say: "This book is quite possibly the most insipid novel I have ever read in my life. I would rather read Twilight twelve more times than read this again."

I cannot fathom that. Insipid? Did she miss all the humor? The social commentary? The unblinking assessment of human nature? I guess so.

Here are few of the more astounding comments: “Just people acting stupidly for no apparent reason except to be disagreeable.” Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass, Lewis Carroll. “It is incredibly flowery, particularly strange given the “thriller” genre that it tries being a part of.” Dracula, Bram Stoker. “First, C.S. Lewis… is not a good writer, plain and simple.” Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis. “What is seriously lacking in Tolkien’s world is any original idea or just imagination in general.” The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien.

So I'll be in pretty good company if (when) someone says they hate my writing. Many writers consider a bad review a badge of honor. I'm beginning to see why.

It might surprise the Goodreads reviewer that Tolkien responded to his criticism long ago: "Some who have read the book, or at any rate have reviewed it, found it boring, absurd, and contemptible; and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their work, or of the kind of writing they evidently prefer."

Ouch. Another of my favorite authors, P.G. Wodehouse, characteristically responded to critics with humor. In a novel foreword, he wrote, "“A certain critic—for such men, I regret to say, do exist—made the nasty remark about my last novel that it contained 'all the old Wodehouse characters under different names.' He has probably by now been eaten by bears, like the children who made mock of the prophet Elisha: but if he still survives he will not be able to make a similar charge against Summer Lightning. With my superior intelligence, I have out-generalled the man this time by putting in all the old Wodehouse characters under the same names. Pretty silly it will make him feel, I rather fancy.”

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Cigar Time 2012

Another year has burst upon us, and what better way to celebrate than to pass out virtual smokes to those who got "close, but no cigar"—hapless speakers and writers who missed their targets by a millimeter or a mile.

The "Bless Your Heart" Award goes to the decorator who wrote in an e-mail that she had found a pretty bedside table at a "flee market." I think that means the mall.

The "Well, That's the Way It Sounds" Award is shared by a couple of bloggers. The first detected "deep-seeded hate" in someone who was not even a gardener. The second wrote on relationships, noting "Grant it, in many situations these long-term couples were young when they met and may have grew apart." (The WTTWIS Award is for the "grant it," not the "have grew." That's a different problem altogether.)

The "I've Never Seen This Word in Print" Award goes to a radio host who clarified that the "and" in a Web address was an "ampersign."

The "What's a Mixed Metaphor?" Award goes to another radio personality who assured his audience that "No team has the corner market on lunatic fans." Worthy of mention, of course, but he got the corner market on this award by declaring that someone "bit the farm." I just can't manage a visual on that one.

The "SpellCheck Can't Help You" Award goes to a celebrity gossip site that someone must have told me about because I would never waste time on that rubbish. Here's what I, um, I mean, somebody found there: "Craig found two new targets: Tony Blair, and, low and behold, politicians in general."

The "SpellCheck Can Make Things Worse" Award is presented to the Travel Channel's Web site. “Serial killer Albert Disavow, The Boston Strangler, murdered 13 women in Beacon Hill and other areas of Boston.” Um, that’s Albert DeSalvo. I figure the only way to get Disavow out of DeSalvo is through the magic of Spellcheck.

The "Give My Regards to Broadway" Award goes to a commenter to an online opinion piece, who declared "For too many years members of all media have hidden behind our belief in their pledge to just get the story regardless of who came out looking bad as a result. You know… 'just the facts mame’…" Sure. Put the blame on Mame.

Go ahead, award winners, smoke 'em, 'cause you got 'em.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Posh talk? Pish-tosh.

It's January, and we are in the high season for that winter parlor game known as the making and breaking of New Year's resolutions. Some party poopers refuse to play, but most of us join the game with varying levels of enthusiasm and hope. Personally, I'm afraid of what my life would devolve into if I gave up the game altogether.

That doesn't mean I resolve to do anything earth-shaking. No, my resolutions have become fairly modest—there's the usual "eat better" and "exercise more," but since the baseline for comparison is my December diet and exercise regimen, i.e., eating enormous quantities of high-calorie food and strolling through department stores, those resolutions are not as ambitious as they might seem. 

But I haven't stopped there. I am truly committed to self-improvement. I also have resolved to use, mostly, the proper fingers to type numbers in 2012, and to give "hallowed" the right emphasis when reciting the Lord's Prayer. No more sing-song "hal-LOWED" for me from now on.

Of course, if someone had given me Pocket Posh Word Power: 120 Words You Should Know for Christmas, I'd really be approaching perfection. The book description on Amazon starts off like this: "Words such as propinquity, armillary, and farrago should be vocabulary staples."

Wow, really? Those are great words, make no mistake, but staples? I'm particularly fond of "farrago," defined as "a confused mixture." Yes, that could come up quite a bit. "Sweetie, I love you, but your place is a farrago of dirty clothes, dirty dishes and dirty dirt." I'm not sure I want to have to take that from my friends and family.

As for "propinquity," well, I've got less use for it. "Honey, your propinquity with the TV screen is going to hurt your eyes." Meh. Doesn't work for me.

But the prize has to go to "armillary." Seriously? An armillary sphere—its friends call it simply "armillary" for short—is that farrago of metal hoops and arrows representing the heavens that astronomers used before they had computer programs for that sort of thing. An armillary certainly is a posh bit of home decor, but since I don't have a posh house, I don't own one. And even if I did, how often would I talk about it? "I don't think I can make it to your party. I've got to dust my armillary."

I guess I won't be doing any posh talking in 2012. It's just as well. I'm pretty sure no one would understand me if I did.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

That does not translate

Happy New Year, one and all.

As today is a Sunday, it is fitting that my first grump of 2012 comes from the Bible. I am tempted to go Old Testament on the translators of the New Revised Standard Version who gave us this: "Then Ahab said to Obadiah, 'Go through the land to all the springs of water and to all the wadis; perhaps we may find grass to keep the horses and mules alive, and not lose some of the animals.'"

Wadis? This passage is from 1 Kings, chapter 18, which, most likely, was written in the 6th century B.C. Why have the translators inserted an Arabic word that can be traced back no further than the 17th century? (The language did not coalesce into early Arabic until centuries after Christ's birth.) Did they think it would lend a little Middle Eastern flavor to Ahab's orders? Sorry, guys. Despite Ray Stevens' song (which I trust will now be going through your mind, as it is mine), Ahab was not an Arab.

Maybe a message I received in the course of business can shed light on the translators' motives. After an exchange of e-mails, my e-correspondent sent me this gem: "I hope you aren’t offended by my explanation marks, I am not being rude by any means, just think they look better than periods."

I had not previously heard exclamation points called "explanation marks," but I was dumbfounded with the explanation of the marks. She just likes the way they look! Isn't that how we all choose our punctuation?

Those translators just liked the sound of "wadis" ever so much better than "stream beds" or "valleys." Never mind if it's a weird anachronism that probably does not communicate to many English speakers. It rolls off the tongue so nicely! And looks so much better with explanation marks!

It's 2012. Do you know where your sanity is?

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Down With Rudolph!

I'm not a Grinch. Really. I'm not. I love Christmas, both for its religious significance and its pervasive cultural presence. Lights, decorations and goodies. What's not to love?

But I do have a few quibbles. I don't like to hear Christmas carols in October, and I've made my position clear that Thanksgiving should not be observed amid Santas, elves on or off the shelf, angels or creches.

And I don't like Rudolph. Does that make me a bad person? Sorry. Rudolph is an upstart, and he has shoved that red nose right to the center of the celebration. Rudolph first appeared in 1939—the same year Hitler invaded Poland. Coincidence?

Unlike the Fuhrer, who blew across Europe with the speed of lightning to achieve his dream of world domination, Rudolph held back, planning and plotting, no doubt. Which one is the genius now?

Maybe the canny reindeer just felt the need to wait for the World War to blow over before implementing his own blitzkrieg. His beginnings were humble, first showing up in a promotion for the department store Montgomery Ward. Yes, Virginia, Rudolph started his career as a shill for a retailer. His creator retrieved the copyright for the reindeer's hard-luck tale and published a children's book in 1947.

Then came the master stroke—lyrics and a tune were written promoting Rudolph. Cowboy songster Gene Autry recorded it, and the song was the smash hit of 1949 (the same year Mao took control of China. Coincidence?). That cheesy song is second only to White Christmas in the holiday hit parade.

Rudolph is definitely a latecomer to the holiday lore. Santa Claus was practically invented by Clement Clark Moore in the poem A Visit From St. Nicholas, published in 1823. I'm sure visions of sugar plums danced in my head when I was a child, even though then and now, I wouldn't know a sugar plum if I choked on one.

Mr. Moore is the undisputed expert on the jolly old elf. And how many reindeer does he say pulls the airborne sleigh? Eight! Eight, tiny reindeer. That's it. Yet every present-day depiction of Santa's flight includes that mid-20th century interloper. Donder, Blitzen and the gang have been reduced to also-rans.

Rudolph has achieved his dream of Christmas domination. For now. But what goes around, comes around. Someday there may be a Hubert, the blue-eyed reindeer, with a feel-good story and a knack for promotion, who will kick Rudy right out of the harness.

Reindeer games. What's not to love?

Saturday, December 10, 2011

God Rest Ye Merry, Grammarians

Christmas is a most traditional time. We have our customs and rituals that make the season bright. Whether it's turkey or lasagna for dinner, or opening presents on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning, or decorated cookies or chocolate-covered cherries, or all of the above, there are some things we just have to do or it isn't Christmas.

Christmas carols are at the heart of all that tradition. For my seasonal music taste, the more medieval the better. Give me "Coventry Carol," "Verbum caro factum est" and "Gaudete." But most of our Christmas notions are Victorian innovations, with a Dickens Christmas as the apotheosis of the holiday.

Because singing carols is part of the ritual, it is satisfying even when we don't quite understand what it's all about. One carol frequently heard this time of year is an example—"God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen."

Notice where the comma goes in that title. This is where even Dickens—or, at least a walk-on character in "A Christmas Carol"—misunderstands this carol. From "Stave I, Marley's Ghost":

"Foggier yet, and colder! Piercing, searching, biting cold. If the good Saint Dunstan had but nipped the Evil Spirit's nose with a touch of such weather as that, instead of using his familiar weapons, then indeed he would have roared to lusty purpose. The owner of one scant young nose, gnawed and mumbled by the hungry cold as bones are gnawed by dogs, stooped down at Scrooge's keyhole to regale him with a Christmas carol: but at the first sound of —
"God bless you, merry gentleman!
May nothing you dismay!"

Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action, that the singer fled in terror, leaving the keyhole to the fog and even more congenial frost."

Not only does the hapless singer change "rest" to "bless," he, or the author, moves the comma so that he is calling for a blessing on one merry gentleman, not an apt description of old Ebenezer Scrooge.

The more accepted version has us wishing joy and pleasantry to uncharacterized gentlemen. The "rest" here means "keep" or "make." You may also note that Dickens's caroler says "you" rather than "ye." People who look into this sort of thing say the carol first appears in the 18th century with "you" in the first line. Later, "ye" is substituted, perhaps to make the carol more…medieval. 

Apparently 18th century carolers agreed with me. Medieval is better.

N.B. The reference to St. Dunstan in the Dickens quote alludes to a legend that came into currency in the 11th century about the 10th century Archbishop of Canterbury. Before his elevation, the Benedictine monk worked as a blacksmith or silversmith. The legend says the Devil appeared to him in his cell and tempted him, but Dunstan got the better of him by clamping his metal-working tongs on Old Hob’s face. That's going medieval on him, for sure.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Don't be misled

Sometime back I wrote about those snare-words that lie in wait to embarrass us. We have read them—many times—but we have never heard them said, and so, when we sprinkle our sparkling repartee with them, the trap springs. We bungle the pronunciation.

My most recent dustup with a snare-word was "wastrel," which I have always said—in my head—as though it rhymes with "wassail." My friend gleefully pounced, pointing out that since it means a wasteful good-for-nothing, it naturally has a long "a."

Today I found out that I needn't have coined a term like "snare-word" to refer to these imps. They already have a name: "misles." The name is inspired by what is arguably the most common word-we've-said-wrong-since-grade-school—"misled." While I thought all mispronouncers of this misle said "MY-zuhled," I also learned that a significant minority see the word "isle" in there and, thus, give it a one-syllable variation.

The fascinating (to me) article*  that set me straight on that also included a list of misles, many of which have earned that designation through the sad waning of the hyphen (see Hyphen, we hardly knew ye). Among the horribles are "apply (not lemony, more sort of … )," bedraggled (bed raggled)," "beribboned (berry boned)," "molester (mole ster)" and the truly horrible "middecade (middie cade)."

My favorites, though, are "unshed" pronounced as the past tense of the mysterious verb "to unsh," and "unionized acid, "which, instead of denoting a dearth of ions, calls up a vision of Hydrochloric and Sulfuric, in jeans and work boots, meeting the other fellows down at the union hall.

There are more misles out there than I ever expected. Send me more examples! I promise not to be a wastrel.


Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving leftovers

It's Thanksgiving evening and all's quiet here at the grammar ranch. Leftovers, and lots of them, have been stuffed into the fridge, and even the hum of the dishwasher has been stilled. So it's time to clean out some odds and ends from the Word Crank cornucopia. These are a few of my large collection of observations that never grew into a coherent article idea.

There are lots of words that tickle my fancy. Take "rebarbative." It means unattractive or aesthetically offensive. It comes from Old French for a confrontation "beard to beard." I don't know how that turned into art criticism, but I can just hear a curmudgeonly critic declaring "Surely you don't call that rebarbative hunk of metal sculpture." Devastating.

A better-known word that isn't used nearly enough is "odious." Reading a column that referred to "China's odious one-child policy," I was reminded of Susannah York in "A Christmas Carol" (my favorite version, with George C. Scott) calling Scrooge "an odious man," along other adjectives. She stretches out the initial "o" for several expressive beats— oooooodious.

Mr. and Mrs. Cratchit
A word that rolls around the mouth and over the tongue in a most delightful way is "imbroglio." You have to pronounce it right—imˈbrōlyō—and it helps to imitate Ms. York and spend some time on the second syllable. The word means a complicated situation, and implies something embarrassing or sticky enough perhaps to lead to a term of imprisonment. The original Italian means "a confused heap." An apt description of my kitchen at mid-afternoon.

I have a few hat tips to offer this Thanksgiving. A forgotten blogger wrote: "But when I read him back then, in the innocence of youth, the political references sailed lightly over my head. Now that I am taller, they slap me in the face." Now that's an effective image.

Jonah Goldberg wrote: "I feel a bit like a dog who suddenly realizes the car is heading to the vet, not the park." Oh, yeah. I know how he feels.

In a New York Times piece about perceived back-sliding from the sexual revolution, Erica Jong wrote: “We were unable to extinguish the lust for propriety.” Beautiful. 

For wonderful words and wordsmiths who create amazing pictures with them, I am truly grateful.

Monday, November 14, 2011

What I Saw at the E-Pub Revolution

You say you want a revolution? Well, you know…writers are in the midst of one. It's the e-pub revolution and it's changing the publishing landscape like a glacier traveling at Mach 1. Get with it or get out of the way.

Because I'm a writer, and not a publisher or a literary agent, I think this brave new world looks promising, if not actually the Promised Land. We have stormed the gates and the gatekeepers are retreating. A rout may be coming.

Here's why. A recent writers' conference featured a literary agent named Anita. A blogger reported this: "Anita said her agency receives 100 queries a day (minus holidays), 35,000 queries a year. Only 952 sample page sets went to the next round. 85 full manuscripts were requested and six new clients were signed – these are 2010 numbers."

Let's recap: That's thirty-five thousand hopeful book authors winnowed to six. Six. Those are some daunting odds. I have one chance in 10,000 of being struck by lightning sometime in my life, according to the National Weather Service. What are my odds of getting an agent?

And that's just to get an agent. That agent still has to convince a publishing house to buy the manuscript, and it is entirely possible that some of those six lucky authors will not actually sell their book.

That once was the end of the story. A manuscript begun with hope and finished with innumerable hours of hard work ends up in a drawer. Come the revolution, and those other 34,994 authors head over to or or any of a number of other sites, format their manuscript for the varying e-book readers and, voilà, they're published. Calloo, callay!

That's the good news, and it is really wonderful, luminous, joyous news. The thorn in this particular rosebush is DIY marketing. I don't know how many writers could be labeled "introverted," but I'm pretty sure it's not a small percentage. I remember the terror of selling Girl Scout cookies. I don't look forward to peddling my humble novel.

Then there's the real snake in the e-pub Garden of Eden. Remember those gatekeepers we defeated to usher in the dawn of publishing freedom? Well, their main function may have been to trample the hopes and dreams of writers, but on the side they did some good. Some of those manuscripts they rejected should have gone straight from the printer to the shredder, for the good of the reading public and the author, too.

I recently bought an e-book for not much money (I'm cheap) and found that I had bought a book that needed an editor in the worst way. It was written by a retired homicide detective, which was enough for me to click "Buy." The inside scoop on murder investigations—that's a must-read for me.

Here's the first sentence: "The apartment building stood quietly on a small knoll where a clove of trees sauntered with the cool spring breeze stirring the night’s air."

Oh, my. Whatever a clove of trees is, I really doubt it saunters. And that was this guy's all-important, this-is-my-very-best-writing first sentence. Someday I may get beyond the sauntering clove of trees and find out if there is a story in there somewhere. But not yet.

I'm busy reviewing my manuscript for sauntering tree cloves. When I take the e-pub plunge, I don't want to end up in someone else's cranky language blog.

Monday, November 7, 2011

What's the motto with that?

Did you know that every state has a motto? Kind of quaint, don't you think? A motto is supposed to sum up the ideals or aspirations of a group. Like Wisconsinites and Arizonans are really together on ideals in our fragmented age. Here in Alabama, we can't agree on much, except that our football team is the best. The only problem with that unanimity is that we are referring to different teams. The rivalry can get ugly this time of year.

But, still, state mottos are quirky and unexpected. I prefer my mottos to be in Latin, but I wonder if some are written in a dead language to hide from the voters what they really say. Alabama's motto—Audemus jura nostra defendere "We dare defend our rights"—is quite admirable, but, regrettably, reminds the older among us of the "states' rights" battle cry of segregationists.

Virginia's motto is in the same boat. Sic semper tyrannis "Thus always to tyrants"— encapsulates the patriotic fervor of the former colony. It would seem a bit odd in the 21st century anyway, but when you recall that Latin phrase was shouted by the assassin John Wilkes Booth after he leaped to the stage following his greatest role, it becomes downright strange. Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how do you like Virginia's motto?

South Carolina's Dum spiro spero (While I breathe, I hope) is a lovely sentiment, but as a state motto it seems a bit depressive. Are things so tough in the Palmetto State that its citizens have to mutter Dum spiro spero under their breath to keep going?

North Carolina's motto raises questions, as well: Esse quam videri (To be, rather than to seem). Again, I can't argue with the Carolinians' aspiration to be genuine, but what prompted its adoption as a motto? Roving bands of poseurs?

Maryland inexplicably chose to express its ideals in Italian, rather than Latin: Fatti maschil, parole femine (Manly deeds, womanly words). I can't believe Barbara Mikulski knows about this.

New Mexico's motto is just mystifying—Crescit eundo (It grows as it goes), and I'm sure there's a good reason that Puerto Rico chose Joannes Est Nomen Ejus (John is his name), I just haven't a clue what it is.

What would states choose if mottos were on the ballot in this election? Would New York jettison "Excelsior" for "Fuggeddaboutit"? Would California's motto include the word "dude"? Come to think of it, let's just stick with the Latin.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Hyphen, we hardly knew ye

The world of punctuation is in flux, as is every other world we know of. The steady-state model of the universe is gone with the solar wind, and so we are painfully aware that the only constant is change.

That doesn't mean we have to like it. On the whole, making a friend of change is a good approach to life, but, remember, everything in moderation. I, for one, am vexed by the disappearance of the hyphen. It's such a useful little mark. Why is it headed for the linguistic dustbin?

Well, for one thing, the Associated Press says so. The AP Stylebook recently caved to anti-hyphen trends and changed its position, vis-a-vis e-mail. After years of instructing journalists to use the hyphen, they now decree that, from now on, e-mail is email. What's next, AP? "You" becomes "u"? Stop this bus! I want to get off.

Here are a few examples showing the worth of the missing hyphen: A news report (okay, a gossip report) gave us this bit of confusion—"Bristol Palin faced off with an angry bargoer at Saddle Ranch bar and restaurant in West Hollywood Thursday night." Bargoer? I got there eventually, but wouldn't "bar-goer" have been a bit clearer?

This from a blogger: "Not a Whole Foods fan here, by the way. It reminds me too much of food coops. I have hated food coops since circa 1969." I know what chicken coops are, but food coops are a mystery. Food co-ops, on the other hand, I'm aware of. I just can't face that much produce being thrust at me each week.

I ran across a column with this headline—"Reinter the death tax." That one took a few more blinks before my brain said, "Oh, re-inter. I get it."

Readers, unite. The hyphen is our friend. Let's show it some love.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Parallel Bars at the Language Olympics

The parallel bars event showcases those compact male gymnasts swinging, doing seemingly impossible handstands and generally showing off their upper body strength. The key to the equipment is that the bars need to be, as the name suggests, parallel. A little off and none of those moves would work.

There's something called parallelism in grammar, too. Violations make us look as awkward as Paul Hamm would on non-parallel bars. I'm blowing the whistle on a couple of violators I caught recently.

The first was in a blogger's profile, where she described herself as "a mother of 3 girls and a wife of 17 years." This is a new concept for me, but I have to admit that Married to Time sounds like a pretty good novel title. Now all I have to do is figure out a plot to go with it. There's always a snag.

The second instance was, no doubt, on purpose, but I found it disturbing, nonetheless. My paper bag from Chick-fil-A says in big, bold letters "Serving Chicken and Our Community." Maybe it was a joke of sorts, but the text that followed did not contain any humor that I detected. Noticing that as I drove away, I accelerated a bit more than usual. It seemed in my interest to get out of there before I ended up on the menu.

Hey, Chick-fil-A management, those cows are saying "eat more chicken," not the community! Let's just concentrate on that, okay?

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Speaking of totally awesome awesomeness

I recently read an article wondering why "awesome" took over the world and now, Khaddafy-like, refuses to relinquish power. The writer—Robert Lane Greene, business correspondent for The Economist—figures the word gained currency in its present meaning sometime before 1980, as it appeared in The Official Preppy Handbook published that year.

It doesn't seem to me to go back that far, but, no doubt, that's because I don't live on either East or West Coast, and trends take their time penetrating the hinterland. Still, we have been declaring things to be awesome for a long time now.

I detect an encouraging change, however. These days, I hear "awesome" used in a somewhat ironic way. That's generally the angle I take on it. When someone does something particularly stupid (that's usually me, by the way), the cry goes up, "That was AWESOME!" If irony has to be deployed, can abandonment of "awesome" be far behind?

Sure, it may stay with us until Doomsday Day (which, I hear, really will be awesome), but I'm hoping for a little adjectival diversity in the future. That would be awesome.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Words Gone Wild

I love a good mystery, so perhaps that is why I enjoy collecting examples of strange or puzzling word usage. Instead of a whodunnit, this quest is more of a whydunnit. For instance, I want to know what could make an educated person say, as I heard HLN talking head Jane Velez-Mitchell do, “People are mind-boggled.” This was said in the same show in which a woman-on-the-street comment began “I can’t concept that anyone could do this.”

Or this, from a budding writer, no less: "Death has such an absurd casualty in its ability to occur in the most innocuous of moments." Death usually does lead to a casualty, but I don't think that was where she was going. Presumably she meant "casualness," an admittedly blah noun. I trust in rewriting she would recast that sentence to something like: Death is absurdly casual…"

From the Huffington Post, a column by an attorney about the Anthony trial: “Despite her proclaimed hatred of the media, Casey has relished in its glare since this real life thriller began.” How do you "relish in" a glare? That's just weird.

How about the CNN host who said “He treats her with kit gloves”? Maybe his tongue just got a little off-center. The same can't be said for the blogger who wrote: "Oh sure, the Star Tribune still has a squad of reporters out digging in every nook and cranny and leaving no stone unturned to try to find the latest victim de jure." Come to think of it, anyone who has ever been sued feels like a "victim de jure," but that isn't what the blogger was writing about.

But, of course, that was a blog. Not a well-know publication with a high-paid editor, such as New York magazine, where this was written of Michele Bachmann: "Like every GOP candidate, she would lay down in traffic for Israel." To be fair, that's not a strange use of words, it's a wrong use. The mystery here is why a writer and multiple editors don't know the difference in "lie" and "lay." 
Is this a clue? According to an article in Forbes, Moody’s tracked middle class jobs that are on the decline, including proofreaders—"generally highly skilled workers with a four-year college degree—were once vital to publications and communications departments. These positions shriveled by 31%, likely due to advanced software."

Oh, dear. The software is not nearly advanced enough.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

On Writing

Eventually, every writer feels the need to offer his own contribution to the vast library of essays called "On Writing." I can't fight the urge any longer. So, herewith let me moan, gripe, explain, exult and generally ramble on this subject of imperishable interest to writers.

Like actors, writers constantly look for affirmation, for someone to say "I liked what you wrote," or even better "You're a terrific writer." Why are we so needy? Maybe because the world doesn't show us much love. Certainly, few writers are showered with accolades and lucrative contracts. For every Big Name writer there are at least 20,000* who labor in relative obscurity, filling bookshelves, but never achieving stardom, and wannabes without number.

For most of us, writing is going to have to be its own reward. While I get a nice check for magazine pieces every now and then, I'm in no danger of getting carried away, like a lottery winner, buying cars, boats and diamonds with my earnings. My highest ambition for my fiction-writing is to break even financially someday.

And did I mention that writing is hard—sometimes really, really hard? I ran across this quote from playwright Paul Rudnick recently: "Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials. It's a matter of doing everything you can to avoid writing, until it is about four in the morning and you reach the point where you have to write."

Amen. Although I am a better procrastinator than Paul. When I run out of ways to avoid writing, I just go to bed. Siempre mañana, y'all. Scarlett's got nothing on me.

Many years ago I learned that "fear is the root of all avoidance behavior." So what do Paul and I fear about writing? Are you kidding? Failure and more failure. Another writer I'll have to paraphrase because I've lost the quote (See? Failure.) said he sometimes reads over what he wrote the day before and thinks, "This sucks. This is garbage. I suck. I'm garbage."

There it is. We want so badly to write well, but it all gets tied up with our egos and even our basic sense of self-worth. Every sentence or paragraph I write is not going to be wonderful. That seems obvious to a sane person (or a reader of this blog, alas), but to us writers that is a horrifying thought that assaults our very identity. It must be wonderful or we're worthless.

Is it any wonder we eat cereal from the box?

*This is a bogus statistic. Treat it like the number 40 in the Bible. It means "lots and lots."

Monday, August 29, 2011

Random Answer

Blogger threw a random question at me when I was updating my profile. What they didn't say was there was a character limit. So my answer didn't fit. Since you never delete what you have taken the trouble to write, here it is.

Q: The children are waiting! Please tell them the story about the bald frog with the wig:

A: A young frog was elected, quite by accident, as president of the Pond Association. His name was similar to a venerable and wise frog, you see, and since all the lilypad ballots were wet, they were hard to read. To give himself an air of authority, the young frog took to wearing a powdered wig. It worked for a while, as putting up a front will at times.

But at twilight, the frog community heard the pounding of footsteps near the pond. Plop, plop, plop. They all leaped into the water. All except the new president, who hesitated to jump in for fear of ruining his new wig.

The Pond Association had to elect another president—the wise frog they meant to choose the first time. His predecessor, the foolish frog, had taken up residence in an aquarium in a small boy's room. He still had the wig, to the wonder of the humans who gazed at him. But the snails in his new glass house were not impressed.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Taking the pet peeve for a walk

One of my pet peeves has been washed and brushed and is ready to come out in public. Heel! Good peeve.

Here we go: With all sorts of loose talk about earthquakes and hurricanes these days, it's time to assess the damage on the language.* I have noted a disturbing trend in disasters, to wit, professional chatterers going on about the "damages." "There are no damages to the area reported. Back to you, Tiffany."

When did "damage" become "damages"? Did the whirlwind or storm surge pick up loose plurals and scatter them about? The word is damage, from Latin damnum for loss or hurt. Yep, the same source that gave us Rhett Butler's famous flip-off of Scarlett. "Damages" is the legal term for the compensation awarded in a successful lawsuit. You get damages for damage, but they aren't the same thing.

This trend needs nipping in the bud. Otherwise it will reach full flower, as did its elder relative, "savings." Nobody even blinks nowadays when a pitchman screams "That's a 40 percent savings off the manufacturer's price." No. No, it isn't. It's a "saving." "Savings" are what I hope you all have in the bank, or, considering current interest rates, preferably in metal buried in the back yard.

There, that wasn't so bad. Good peeve. Now back to the dungeon.

*On an uncharacteristically positive note, I see that hurricane season brings back that wonderful weather phrase "cone of uncertainty." Sounds like a chin-puller of a novel, and a pretty good description of life.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

I thought it was a metaphor

A funny line in the movie Twister comes when the fiancee of the storm chaser played by Bill Paxton whines, "When you said you chased tornadoes, I thought it was a metaphor."* That's because she was an expensively educated, intellectual type, who probably valued talking over doing. Otherwise, why would she assume such a silly thing?

Metaphors can explain and deepen insight into the world around us, but they also can just as easily lead both readers and writers off a firm path and into the woods of abstraction. Easy does it is my motto for this literary device.

I confess to feeling a bit lost when reading a news report that the U.S. government has decided that metaphors come under its purview.

"Researchers with the US Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity want to build a repository of metaphors.…Over the last 30 years, metaphors have been shown to be pervasive in everyday language and to reveal how people in a culture define and understand the world around them, IARPA says."

Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity? Does that name inspire confidence that its worker bees are fluent in English? A minimal amount of research (but not intelligence research) showed the Metaphor Program is the brainchild of IARPA's Office of Incisive Analysis. Well, thank goodness. Who knows what the Office of Fuzzy, Rambling Analysis would have done with the Metaphor Program?

I, for one, will sleep better tonight knowing that metaphors are quietly being plucked from every language and culture and transported, humanely, to the D.C. Metaphor Zoo.

There may not be anything in the Social Security lockbox when I come, key in hand, to collect in a few years, but I now know I can spend my declining years on a park bench, feeding the metaphorical pigeons, while around me metaphors of every species are studied in their controlled, life-like habitats.

Life will be a bowl of cherries. Or maybe pitted prunes.

*Quoted from memory. No representation is made to its accuracy. My memory is still breathing on its own, but the doctors are not encouraging.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Professor Higgins, the French and me

"The French don't care what they do actually, as long as they pronounce it properly." Henry Higgins, "My Fair Lady"

I'm afraid the younger generation (i.e., anyone who has never dialed a rotary phone) are not as familiar with the delightfully horrid Prof. Henry Higgins as I am. Created by a true word crank, George Bernard Shaw, Higgins was a grammarian's grammarian. Shaw made him funny and tragic. Rex Harrison made him sexy.

Higgins's (and Shaw's) insight was that language was both a barrier and a vehicle for social mobility. "It's 'aoow' and 'g'on' that keep her in her place, Not her wretched clothes and dirty face." Take away the Cockney accent and a girl living two steps from the gutter could mingle with the upper crust of stratified Edwardian society.

Twenty-first century America is not even close to that petrified social order, but accent and pronunciation still convey information about who we are, and just which pigeon hole our listeners think we fit in.

Perhaps it's a bit of status anxiety that causes me to be punctilious about pronunciation. But mostly it is that as a card-carrying logophile, I can't truly take on a new word if I don't know how it sounds. A novel with a character whose name I don't know how to say is sure to be one that I will set aside. I worry on every page how I should say the name.

Anyway, here are some recent examples of words that have confused me. A local jewelry store's Facebook post informed me that peridot is August's gem of the month, and is pronounced "PEAR-ih-doe." Really? My dictionary disagrees. According to the jeweler, only the Apache Indians who mine it pronounce the "t." They're wrong about that because it's always been "per-ih-dot" to me. So, do I go high-end and give the word a French twist or do I stay with the miners?

And would someone please tell me how to pronounce "Turandot"? The encyclopedias are all over the map. It's ridiculous that I have actually seen this opera, but I don't know how to tell anyone.

A recent plane crash caused confusion, as well. Contessa Brewer on MSNBC said it was a Delta Bombardier, which she called "bahm-BAHR-dee-ur." It's a Canadian aircraft, so I need to know if that's how "bahm-bah-DEER" is pronounced way up north.

N.B. I have always thought no one on Earth could come close to Rex Harrison's personification of Higgins. But I note now that a 1984 production of "Pygmalion" had Peter O'Toole in the role. Where is a time machine when you need one?

Friday, July 29, 2011

For Who the Bell Tolls

Did that title make you cringe? Get used to it. Our old friend from English grammar is not on life support. The plug has been pulled, and now we are just waiting to see how long the tired, old pronoun can breathe on its own.

Cause of death? Acute ignorance, aggravated by chronic regular-guy syndrome. There just aren't many of us around who know when to use it, or who, if we do, dare to use it in conversation.

My computer's dictionary says "its use has retreated steadily and is now largely restricted to formal contexts." I'll say. And even then, the who/whom conundrum catches writers with their grammatical pants down.

A writer at Reuters posted a column containing this: "But I have been working my sources to compile a speculative short list of whom might replace Geithner should that become necessary."

Admittedly, that was a tricky one, but my grammar instincts say he got it wrong. But I'm not 100 percent sure, and therein lies a glimpse of the whom-less future. If a stickler such as I (see? I didn't say "like me") can't be sure of the correct usage, where is the hope for the 99.9 percent of the English-speaking population who don't give a dangling participle about it?

To who it may concern: The bell tolls for we.