Thursday, December 23, 2010

Don't Hate Me for What I Eat

It's the time of year again when many Americans find themselves isolated, out of step and even mocked and persecuted. I am one of them. This year I am stepping out of the shadows to plead for tolerance for this beleaguered minority. So here goes: I am the Word Crank and I like fruitcake.

I know. Listen to voices in the media—comedians, chatty newscasters and even advertisers—and you'll come away with the idea that no one likes fruitcake. In fact, no one even tries to eat them, instead making them ammunition in fruitcake tosses and other seasonal activities for fruitcake-haters. Then there's the joke that there really is only one fruitcake that has been passed around for centuries.

Fruitcakes (that's plural!) have been around for a millennium, at least. The ancestor of today's fruitcake was concocted by the Romans, and the fruitcake habit was spread along with the Roman legions throughout Europe. Each nation produced its own variety, from German stollen to Italian panforte to England's dense versions featuring marzipan and royal icing.

How can something so widespread be so generally reviled? There must be many of us, scattered throughout Western civilization, who actually enjoy fruitcake. But there's no denying that contemporary American culture frowns on the homely fruitcake.

Apparently the innocent generosity of the "cakers" is the source of so much resentment from the "anti-cakers." I gave a fruitcake as a gift. Once. That was when I found out that not everyone appreciates this delicacy. How was I to know? I grew up in a family of fruitcake eaters. A gooey slice of Claxton fruitcake was a staple snack during the Christmas seasons of my childhood.

I meant well. All fruitcake givers mean well. So please, America, can we let up on fruitcake? Can we start joking about jellied cranberry sauce, instead? Why are lovers of that stuff not the butt of jokes?

But, no. I mustn't take my cue from the anti-cakers. Surely the holiday table has room for all sorts of dishes that may not be everyone's cup of tea, such as pate or oyster dressing. Today I assert my right to enjoy this traditional Christmas cake. This year I will eat fruitcake boldly, right out in the open. That is, after I put on a hoodie and sunglasses and slip into an out-of-the-way grocery store to buy some.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Learning to unread

I came across a nifty idea in a column I read today in which the writer discussed his conversion to reading by Kindle light. It was interesting to get the perspective from a certified bibliophile—he described his home's decor in terms of books. But here's what caught my attention: in listing what he has stored on his Kindle, he mentioned the complete works of Dickens and Twain, among others, and "even one of Stieg Larsson's books, which I wish I could unread."

Hmm. Are there any books I'd like to unread? I can only think of one at the moment, which was a sequel too far. I fell in love with the British mini-series Flambards when it was broadcast on PBS sometime in the early 1980s. I sought out the book, which turned out to be a trilogy, published in America as a single volume. This, too, was wonderful.

Then one dark day at the library I found another sequel to the story, menacingly titled Flambards Divided. Well, you just have to wonder when an author writes a fourth book of a trilogy. All the signs and portents pointed to dirty work being done at Flambards, and they did not lie. All the ends that were neatly, and satisfyingly, tied up at the end of the third volume were undone, even shredded, by the fourth.

I have done my best to forget that horror of a novel. For a long time it destroyed my enjoyment of the original story, but now that sequel from hell has faded from memory. I think if I could find Flambards again, I could read it again, with no shadow from that literary doppelganger to dim the pleasure. But it took a couple of decades to reach this point.

Unreading is really hard.

Friday, December 10, 2010

You gotta laugh

It's time again for another grump from the Word Crank, but at present I find myself distinctly ungrumpy. So today I'll offer a miscellany of language goofs that have amused me. The television, as usual, is a gold mine of unintentional comedy. Local news shows are the best places to go for nuggets, but I can't bring myself to watch that drivel anymore. But national shows provide amusement now and then.

For some obscure reason, I enjoy watching financial news/talk shows. I don't always understand the economic stuff and, heaven knows, I never take advantage of their stock picks, but it's lively chat on subjects of real import. And, yes, the financial geniuses occasionally lose a tussle with the English language.

Speaking of some I-forget-what action of Congress, one expert said "You gotta put your hands in your head." Well, I guess if I "gotta," but it doesn't sound easy…or pleasant.

Another financial wizard botched another saying when, referring to one of those companies whose stock I failed to purchase, he declared "They're making money hand over foot."

As I have noted previously, there is no telling what nonsense I would spout if someone "miked" me and pointed a camera in my direction. So the financial talking heads are surely more to be pitied than censured. But what can you say of real estate agency that purchases ad space in a publication to announce of a listing, "Price reducted!"? Did no one question that?

And where was Spell Check when my dermatologist ordered a large poster to tout some cosmetic procedure that promised "noticable results"? I'm afraid I did not need my long sit in the waiting room to notick that.

I just read an article that contained this puzzle: "Some carry a gun to make them a man, rather than the other way around." What? Others carry a man to make them a gun? This one may keep me awake tonight.

Then there are words that aren't, but perhaps should be. Not too long ago, we donated a car to charity. I was not sure whether this was a noble gesture so much as taking advantage of the kindness of strangers to haul away a car worth approximately $7.45. Nevertheless I did it. In investigating this particular group, I was heartened by their self-assessment on their Web site: "We are honest and integrous."

Clearly an adjective form of "integrity" was needed, and Car Angels went where grammarians fear to tread. For some reason, this error made me smile. If we were all a little more integrous, there would be no need to put our hands in our heads.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Prophets Without Spell Check?

During the season of Advent, when Old Testament prophets loom large in liturgical readings, it seems appropriate to bring up the subject of what prophets do…and why we cannot spell it right. Today's "bah, humbug" is the confusion between "prophesy" and "prophecy."

Check out this example I culled from post-election reading: "Huffington Post scribbler Frank Schaeffer reveals that Americans voted Republican not only because of unemployment or skepticism of the health care bill, but also because they believe in biblical “End Times” prophesies."

Arghhh! Wrong, dog breath, as Karnak used to say. That should be "prophecies." This mistake is becoming epidemic, and there is no CDC for such outbreaks. It's up to you and me to stamp out this troubling trend. The good news is that this spelling error is easy to correct. All you need to know is "prophesy" is a verb and "prophecy" is a noun. Need something more? How about "prophesy" is pronounced "proff-eh-sigh" and "sigh" starts with an "s." Easy peasy.

Let's get this straightened out now, because I'm afraid if the epidemic continues unabated, the Word Crank may take on the demeanor of one of those Old Testament prophets. That should scare all of us.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

I'll beg your pardon…but not the question

Now that Thanksgiving has been reduced to a pleasant memory and some leftovers in the refrigerator, it's the time of year when the Word Crank gets in touch with her inner Scrooge. I'll wait until well into Advent to put up Christmas decorations, and, yes, I'll have had my fill of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Blue Christmas" well before that point. However, as my gift to you, faithful readers*, I promise not to grumble about Yule mania.

Instead I intend to say "bah, humbug" about some other pet peeves. I have quite a menagerie of them, but, in the spirit of the season, I'll only trot out a few for your inspection. Today's grump is the oft-heard phrase "beg the question." I just heard a news report about a study identifying the places in the world where people are the happiest—Singapore and some place in northern Sweden, apparently. So the anchorwoman says to the guest "That begs the question of why."

Not really. What she meant was "That raises the question…" That is what virtually everyone who uses the phrase "begs the question" really means. So that raises the question "Why are they begging rather than raising questions?"

My theory: somewhere, sometime, someone heard a debate in which one of the participants accused his opponent of begging the question. The anonymous auditor must have liked the sound of the phrase, without actually understanding it, and went forth and erroneously "begged the question" all over the countryside. Soon we were all doing it.

Cut it out! Avoid this phrase unless you are using it correctly to mean a logical fallacy in which the question (or issue in argument) is assumed true by the argument presented or is sidestepped altogether by the argument.

I don't know about you, but I rarely need to point out this particular error. (On the other hand, I find many opportunities to exclaim "That's a non sequitur!") So let's swear off all this begging, unless you have a red kettle and are ringing a bell for the Salvation Army.

*To date, my blog has received more than 1,500 page views. Wow. Many thanks for joining me in this linguistic adventure. It has been such fun!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Great Thanksgiving Controversy

Thanksgiving at my house long has been a process of compromise and conciliation. That is because Thanksgiving, like Christmas, comes weighted with tradition, but when a man leaves his mother and father and cleaves to his wife, unless they are from the same clan, the new family has to mesh their differing holiday customs into one fete.

I conceded Christmas right from the start. My family's more relaxed, ad hoc approach to the big mac-daddy of holidays just couldn't compete with my husband's list of Yule "thou shalts." Although, I finally convinced him that I simply would not have hot chocolate and Christmas cookies for breakfast on the big day. Thou shalt not take away my coffee.

But for Thanksgiving we go back and forth between Southern staples and Yankee traditions. Sweet potatoes or winter squash? Rice or mashed potatoes? Cornbread dressing or stuffing? I have done all of the above, sometimes at the same time. All in all, I'm happy with the situation. I like change, so as long as there's turkey and pumpkin pie, I am content to play around with the side issues.

But in recent years I have become aware of another Thanksgiving conflict on which there will be no compromise. That is the pronunciation of the gravy that goes equally well on dressing and stuffing. Giblet gravy. I would have thought the controversy would be over those giblets—gizzard, heart and liver—but it isn't. Increasingly one hears "giblet" pronounced with a hard "g" as in, well, "gizzard."

No, no, no! It's a soft "g," as in "gin" or "gimcrack." I understand that for those who want the rules to be rigid, it's annoying that "g" can be pronounced two ways. At least, you say, it should be consistent when followed by an "i." I understand. I do. But that's just not the way English rolls. Here's my advice on giblet gravy: use the heart and gizzard to make stock, but put only the liver in the gravy, then pronounce it correctly.

Otherwise, I may have to start putting gin among the giblets to cope with this distressing Thanksgiving trend.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

A Matter of Some Delicacy

My recent illness—a bug that the Pentagon may want to investigate for its germ-warfare potential—led me to ponder the paucity of terms for one of the ways the disease “presented,” as the medicos say. In addition to throwing up until I was actually sore from retching, I had diarrhea.

There, I said it. Well-brought up Southern ladies are not supposed to mention such unpleasantness. I always feel that I’ve done something vaguely shameful—”What will the neighbors say”?”—when all I did was contract a beastly bacterium.

I can’t help but wonder if others share this reluctance to admit that the “stomach virus” reached somewhat lower. I think they must, because there are so few ways to admit it. While there are endless ways to let others know that what goes down must come up—barf, hurl, lose one’s lunch, toss one’s cookies, puke, spit up, upchuck and many more—there are relatively few euphemisms for an episode of Montezuma’s revenge.

In addition to the Mexican tourist’s nemesis, my computer’s thesaurus offers “the runs” and “the trots,” as well as “the squirts,” which is altogether too graphic for me. Perhaps I’ll adopt the archaic “the flux.” Everyone will just be mystified.

Maybe not. I’ll just stick with the term I learned many, many years ago from—where else?— Reader’s Digest. My parents were faithful subscribers, and, as a child, I read every joke and anecdote in every issue. One involved a letter home from a child at summer camp. He reported that, in addition, to swimming and hiking, he recently had suffered from the “dire rear.” Genius!

N.B. Scientifically minded readers may note that I used "bacterium" and "virus" interchangeably in the above. I was too…busy…to determine which wee beastie had caused my predicament. Let's let that one go, shall we?

Monday, November 8, 2010

Change is Spare for Celebs

"The only constant in the universe is change." So said Heraclitus of Ephesus and his words have been repeated for 2,500 years. If he were around today, he may have to modify this aphorism. There is one thing that never changes and that is the hairstyles of the stars.

I just skimmed an article at on Tom Selleck, complete with a photo of the superannuated hunk still sporting his 1970s moustache. If you squint, you can imagine that you're looking at Thomas Magnum taking a break from chasing bad guys (who curiously get up to no good despite being in Paradise).

Okay, I get that it's a "signature" feature, but really, it's a style more than three decades out of date. Surprisingly, the article tiptoes up to the question of why he doesn't shave the darn thing off, saying that throughout his career "Selleck's moustache has been a mainstay and a topic of relentless interest among the press." I'm guessing that the author really did ask, because Selleck is quoted as saying "I've gotten to the point where I'm saying, 'The moustache has its own publicist—call him.'"

I saw Selleck in a made-for-TV movie called "Ike: Countdown to D-Day" in which the 'stache was gone, as well as most of his hair. Naturally, playing Eisenhower, he had to look the part. And yes, he still looked good (Mamie only wished Ike had looked like that.) So I know that Selleck would not suddenly lose all his charisma, Samson-like, if he were clean-shaven.

If it were only Tom, then I'd say, "It's just Tom." But it's almost all celebrities with significant mileage on the career odometers. Early in their ascent to stardom, they decide on a look and they never change it. Leon Russell's flowing blond locks are flowing snow-white locks, but he apparently never gave in to the urge to stop the flow. Sally Field is shilling for osteoporosis medicine, yet she is still sporting the same hairstyle that she surfed with in Gidget. And when I caught Dyan Cannon in a Lifetime movie, I was so appalled that I lost the thread of the tissue-thin plot. There were those signature long, long curls attached to a scary crone who has had one two many "procedures." I still shudder at the memory.

I don't get it. I've had dozens of hairstyles in those years. Of course, I've never achieved fame, so maybe I can't understand what that does to the mind. Is it superstition, like a baseball player's lucky socks? Is it denial-on-steroids? "I'm still young, really. I can carry off this outdated style. I don't look ridiculous at all."

Whatever it is that prompts celebs to preserve their "look," as opposed to their "looks," in amber, I'm glad I don't have it. Change is good. A new look is refreshing. Besides, old Heraclitus knew what he was talking about. I'll bet he shaved off the beard every now and then, just to keep things interesting.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

A Miscellany of Pronunciation

"Why can't the English teach their children how to speak? … One common language I'm afraid we'll never get. Oh, why can't the English learn to speak?" So said Prof. Henry Higgins in song. Sort of. As played by Rex Harrison, Higgins intoned the memorable "My Fair Lady" numbers in something midway between speaking and singing.

From the amount of grumbling I hear from those who do not share my love of the English language, I gather that it is considered difficult. Knowing how to pronounce words seems particularly troublesome for many. I usually counter that dictionaries literally spell out how to say words. Or I did until a co-worker airily dismissed this objection, saying she had no idea how to interpret the dictionary's phonetic markings. I was shocked into silence. How do you get out of school without learning that? And even if you did, it is clearly explained in the first few pages.

If others are as clueless, I guess it explains a radio spot currently running here. It's for Birmingham magazine, a slick, upscale publication directed at the area's most affluent citizens. Touting an issue focused on arts, the "voice talent" promises articles on area "artesians." Oh, my. I guess the arts in this city are so abundant it's as if they are springing from the earth.

Of course, he means "artisans," which really refers to skilled craftsmen, but why quibble? "Artesian" does sound grander, if you don't actually know it refers to wells. Clearly Mr. Voice Talent is unfamiliar with the concept of looking up a word before heading into the recording studio.

I'll grant that knowing how to pronounce words can be tricky. On two recent occasions I have gone to the dictionary to check strange pronunciations from a couple of educated speakers. One was "fiat." I heard a historian say it, in the sense of an arbitrary order. While I pronounce it the same as the automobile, this man said FEE-uht. Guess what? That's the first pronunciation.

The second occasion was hearing a Brit say "miscellany." I don't know if this is the way it's pronounced across the pond, but he said miss-SELL-uh-nee. Again, I found this was an acceptable pronunciation. Now I'm thinking it's actually easier to say it this way. But I'm resisting the temptation to give it the British twist, because I doubt people around here would know what I was saying…despite all those artesians we have.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

A Wisp of a Tale

It's October, the witching month, if neighborhood decorations and movie channel lineups are reliable guides. I don't go all out for Halloween. My frightful rituals are limited to hanging a faded paper pumpkin on the front door on the 31st and buying big bags of assorted candy bars—fun-size, of course—for the zero to one trick-or-treaters that will ring my doorbell.

So I was amused that a recent dip into etymology brought me a Halloween surprise. I read the phrase "will o' the wisp" in a context I have completely forgotten. Ignoring whatever important point the article's author was making, I went in search of the underlying meaning of the old-fashioned phrase. I knew it as a description of something insubstantial or foolish for which one may strive in vain (not to mention as one of the descriptions of Maria by the nuns in "The Sound of Music.")

I was surprised to find that it actually means something more sinister, something fitting for All Hallows Eve. does not bring up an entry for "will o' the wisp," but instead diverts to "jack o' lantern." Jack and Will are twins. The grinning pumpkin and the…well, what is Will? Scientifically speaking, a will o' the wisp, a.k.a. ignis fatuus or "foolish fire," is swamp gas that spontaneously bursts into flame and then burns off on its own.

Less scientific minds, such as my ancestors in the British Isles, came up with their own explanations of the flickering lights in the night. In folklore, both Jack and Will were considered to be souls so malignant they were blackballed by demons and forced to wander in creepy marshes, lighting their way with incandescent coals from Hell.

According to Wikipedia (yes, I know), "wisp" refers to a bundle of sticks or twisted straw or paper used as a torch. So Will o' the Wisp is the identical twin of Jack o' Lantern. They often were associated with fairies, which in folk tales are not pretty, gossamer-winged girls, but evil beings who lured lonely travelers to their doom or enticed young children away from their homes to similar fates.

Yes, Jack and Will are a wicked pair, but while Jack is famous and is represented on doorsteps nationwide in October, Will has faded to obscurity. You know, Clement Clark Moore introduced Dasher and Dancer and the boys in his poem "A Visit From Saint Nicholas" in 1822. It was not until 1939 that an advertising copywriter for Montgomery Ward stores reminded the world of Rudolph, "the most famous reindeer of all." Ten years later, Gene Autry recorded a song and the world never looked back. Prancer who?

If I could just write a spooky, but catchy, song about Will o' the Wisp, maybe he, too, could come into his own. It's time for the poor guy to put down that hot coal and stop haunting the marshes. And I wouldn't mind the royalties and product tie-ins. That would be a Halloween treat healthier for my bottom line than all those leftover candy bars.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Froward, march!

I just came across a word I had not seen in years—"froward"—and I realized that back when I saw it occasionally, I didn't know what it meant. It was a read-over word for me then (see Read-Over Words). But today I was so delighted to see it that I bestirred myself to look up its definition.

Here goes: "of a person, difficult to deal with; contrary." That makes me wonder why I have not heard "froward" more often and in connection with myself! It comes to us from the Old English frāward, meaning leading away from, and based on Old Norse frá, meaning simply "from."

The "ward" part implies direction, as in "windward" or "homeward." Froward, then, is the opposite of toward. It's going away from something, rather than to something. "You can go toward that nonsense if you want," the stubborn Old Englishman must have said. "I am definitely going froward it."

Rather easy to see how it evolved to apply to a cantankerous person. Yes, at times I feel quite froward. When I listen to the news of an increasingly intrusive and cockeyed world, I feel a strong urge to hasten froward it.

Friday, October 15, 2010

One side and the other

There's an old song that says "Love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage…You can't have one without the other." [Baby Boomers can sing the alternate lyrics, thanks to Campbell's advertising: "Soup and sandwich…"]

Alas, this sentiment is as dated as the horse-and-carriage reference. You most certainly can have one without the other, and so it is with what I call one-sided words—they imply an opposite that does not exist. These are a source of a lot of fun for those of us who like that sort of thing.

Most of the one-sided words I can grab off the top of my head begin with "dis." While you can be either disheartened or heartened you really cannot be either dishevelled or shevelled (hevelled?). You can disburse, but not burse, just as you can reimburse when necessary, but not imburse in the first place.

If I can be disgusted (and, believe me, I can), why can I not be gusted? If you can dismantle a structure, why can you not mantle it? Or remantle it? If I can be dismayed, can you be mayed?

The master of funny writing, P.G. Wodehouse, must have wondered the same thing when he used a one-sided word for comic effect. "I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled."

One can imagine serious writers and critics frowning as they look on such questions with disdain. That's why they are serious, also known as humorless. I, on the other side, look with considerable dain on the situation. What are such language quirks for if not to provide a bit of fun? I find that I am quite gruntled.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Can't anybody here speak this language?

In 1962, manager Casey Stengel reportedly lamented of his new team, the hapless New York Mets, “Can't anybody here play this game?” The answer was “no,” at least considered at the level of major league baseball. When I hear educated Americans speaking their native tongue, I get an inkling of how Stengel felt. If these people can’t get it right, who can?

I recently listened to a Wall Street wizard talk about the government’s intention to redistribute wealth. Only he said reDIStribute…twice. Okay, the word “redistribution” had been bandied about, so the rhythm of that word was in the guy’s brain. But it’s hard to believe that once he heard himself say such a silly thing, he not only did not correct himself, but went on to mispronounce it again. And this was not an isolated incident. I have heard this new word—DIS-tri-bute—on many occasions.

Another errant emphasis has found its way into the rather formal and legal-sounding “aforementioned.” I have caught two local radio hosts recently throwing this word into their broadcast conversations, and both, for reasons I cannot think, put the stress on the first syllable—AFF-or-mentioned. Why are they working so hard? It’s just two words, “afore” and “mentioned,” shoved together. Pronounce them just as though they were separated by a space.

These are not mistakes made because speakers find the words hard to pronounce, like “lackadaisical” or “asterisk.” I can’t account for these new pronunciations. Maybe they didn’t mean it.

As Yogi Berra told reporters, “I never said most of the things I said.”

Monday, October 4, 2010

Inspired by a catalog

It’s October, so catalog season is well underway. After all, Christmas (or the generic Holiday) is almost here, if you’re on Retail Standard Time. I enjoy perusing catalogs early in catalog season, before the weight of each day’s delivery threatens to topple the mailbox.

Flipping through a particularly promising catalog, I found an item called “A Woman of Valor Bowl,” $19.95. The brightly painted decorative item was inscribed with these words: “A woman of valor, more precious than rubies.” The phrase set a faint bell ringing in the back of my mind, so I read the product description, which said the item was “inspired by Proverbs 31:10.”

Inspired by…that’s a phrase that brings out the caution flag for me. As a one-time historian, I have problems with movies that proclaim themselves “Inspired by a true story.” I admit to being a bit stiff-necked about this issue, having skipped or delayed seeing movies that I knew played fast and loose with historical facts. To pick an example from long ago, I waited many years to see the Oscar-winning “Amadeus” because of its implication that Antonio Salieri, a real person, may have murdered Mozart. I thought that was a terrible thing to do to poor, put-upon Salieri. Silly, I know. Of course, I loved the movie when I finally saw it.

Anyway, seeing the “inspired by” admission was an “aha!” moment. Shouldn’t that bowl say “A woman of virtue”? The Authorized Version, a.k.a. the King James Bible, gives the verse as "Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies." Most other versions have similar translations. The NIV makes it “A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth more than rubies.” Some other translations used “excellent” or “worthy.”

The only translation I saw that talked of valor was the Douay-Rheims Bible, actually an English translation of the Latin Vulgate, which is the Catholic equivalent of the King James version. It said “Who shall find a valiant woman? far and from the uttermost coasts is the price of her.”
So I suspect the artist who designed the bowl did a bit of translation shopping, taking the “valor” from one place and the “rubies” from another. The reason seems clear. If the catalog item was “A Woman of Virtue Bowl,” how many bowls would ship in time for Holiday? I imagine the numbers would be disappointing.

It is telling that in our time, no woman or man wants to be known as “virtuous.” Once the highest praise, the word now is redolent of starched collars and pursed lips. What a shame. If we do not value virtue, how can we be dismayed, or even surprised, at malfeasance in public office or betrayal in personal relationships?

I don’t know. Maybe just a bit of starch in our collars might not be a bad thing.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Feeling Solastalgic

In the waning days of summer, Travelsmith, a purveyor of clothing and accoutrements for travelers, posted a question on Facebook that started me thinking—“Are there picturesque coastal views that bring back memories of childhood?”

The site asked for photos as well as responses, and there were some lovely shots. What troubled me is that the coastal views of my childhood in most cases no longer exist. I remember the coast of the Gulf of Mexico in Alabama and the Florida panhandle when it truly was the Redneck Riviera. There were no high-rise hotels and no one would have known what a condominium was (in fact, they would have forbidden the word’s use in front of children).

A trip to the beach meant a sojourn in an exceedingly modest motel, heading to the beach with just a towel—for sitting as well as drying—and showering off in a cinderblock bath house. It was beautiful.

There are stretches of beach in state parks that still approximate the views of my childhood, but elsewhere they have been obliterated. While I find this sad in some ways, at least I have found a word that describes the feeling of loss—“solastalgia.”

This neologism was coined by an Australian philosopher to describe the distress or melancholy caused by change in one’s local environment, such as when farms turn into suburban real estate developments. Nice as those new houses may be, part of me misses the ramshackle farm buildings and rows of crops.

The term has been popularized—maybe that’s too strong, so let’s say adopted—by environmentalists to describe their general distress about generally everything. But I am wondering if I could stretch its meaning to describe a feeling I often have—a tinge of melancholy that I can’t visit the places I have loved through books or movies. I don’t mean fictional places, although we might need a word for that, too. I mean real places. Just not as they are now.

I would love to visit the Mayfair that was so familiar to Bertie Wooster. I would love to see Bath and Lyme Regis as seen by Anne Elliott, or the Lake District that inspired Wordsworth. Oh, to see Hawaii as Mark Twain saw it in 1866, or O. Henry’s turn-of-the-century New York. Even visiting places in my own time would be nice—I would love to see my hometown in the 1950s and early 1960s through adult eyes, and whenever I watch a favorite little movie, “The Dish,” I yearn to be in Australia in 1969.

Of course, all these places would be wonderful to visit even now. But there is that tinge of loss. Certainly I would leap at a chance to travel to Australia, but the knowledge that now there are philosophers Down Under makes me solastalgic.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Green at last

I have gone green. It’s taken a long, long time, but finally I’m there. I’m not talking about environmentalism. I’ve been recycling for years. I also turn off the water while I brush my teeth, and, to the extent possible, eschew products with wildly excessive packaging. (The apotheosis of ridiculous packaging has got to be those individually wrapped prunes. Are you kidding me?)

No, I’m talking about greens. Despite being Southern, born and bred, I have never been able to stomach greens—turnip, collard, mustard, whatever. I do like spinach, but, despite Popeye’s endorsement, spinach never seemed to make the cut as greens on the Southern table.

As a child, I hated both turnip greens and black-eyed peas. This was enough to make some question my heritage. I made my peace with peas years ago and now enjoy them from time to time. But not turnip greens. Many years ago I had the bright idea that maybe it was the way my parents cooked them that made them taste that way. While many greens eaters sprinkle liberally with “pepper sauce” at table, my folks put it right in the cooking water. Like they weren’t bitter enough without adding vinegar. So I bought and cooked a batch of turnip greens and bravely tasted a bit. No, no that wasn’t it.

So I adapted. Instead of turnip greens, I substituted cabbage for the obligatory “green for money” in the traditional New Year’s Day good luck dinner. (Perhaps this explains the noticeable absence of riches in the Merrill household.)

But late in life I have made a discovery. Kale. It’s a certified cruciferous green—right up there with turnip, collard and mustard greens—and it looks similar by the time it hits the plate. I sauté the torn kale in mild-flavored oil until good and wilted, but not an overcooked mess. It has a hint of bitterness—just enough to let you know you’re eating something good for you.

I like it. What an amazing revelation. Why did no one grow kale in the backyard gardens of my childhood? My life could have taken a completely different course. You know, the one that includes fine jewelry, summer homes and extended, expensive travels.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Horseshoe Awards Return

It's time once again for the Word Crank Horseshoe Awards to recognize those hapless speakers and writers who let their thoughts go awry by reaching for the right word…and missing.

The nominees: First up is the local newscaster reporting on the collapse of a radio tower when "workers clipped a guide wire." Actually they cut a "guy wire," a line fixed to the ground to support a structure. Okay, maybe he just got tripped up while reading, but I'm betting more than one listener thought that was right. (In the same way, I can't tell if the proper term in auto racing is "pit row" or "pit road." I just can't distinguish between the two when I hear the commentators. Race fans, give me the 411 on this.)

Then there was money maven Dave Ramsey who, in talking about financial reform, said "they brought in the calvary." Dave isn't the only one who mixes up "calvary" and "cavalry" (I think most of us who grew up singing hymns about "Calvary's tree" have struggled with this one), but he did it on a syndicated radio show, so he becomes the nominee. "Calvary" is derived from the Latin calvaria, meaning skull, translating the New Testament's Greek "golgotha," or place of the skull. "Cavalry," on the other hand, comes from the French "cavallerie," and ultimately from the Latin caballus, horse.

For a great word picture, the recipe I found that called for "burglar wheat" (I'm pretty sure bulgur wheat was meant) deserves an honorable mention. But nothing rivals the unintended humor found in a Joe Sixpack "book review" on Amazon: "McDaniels served in the Navy during the Vietnam War (1965-1972), was shot down while flying an A6A jet on May 19, 1967, and crushed two vertebrates after falling forty feet from a tree." No word on the condition of the unnamed vertebrates.

I'm giving all these linguistic fails their own gleaming, golden virtual horseshoe for the entertainment value of their spoken and written pratfalls. Keep up the bad work, America! There are more horseshoes in the Word Crank prize closet.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


If you aren't already afraid of homophones, you should be. They're the evil twins of language, popping up where their benign counterparts were meant to be. There (their, they're) are the usual suspects—your, you're; it's, its—and there are the less public ones that can catch a perfectly good sentence unawares.

Take this sentence from a recent article: "'Using herbs and spices expands your palette without extra calories and may decrease the amount of salt, fat and sugar you use without sacrificing flavor,' says Kate Geagan, MS, RD, author of Go Green, Get Lean: Trim Your Waistline With the Ultimate Low-Carbon Footprint Diet."

Did you spot the evil twin? That's right. It's "palette." The unknown author of this article fell into a homophone trap. She meant "palate," of course. A palette is the little board that painters daub their colors on, or, figuratively, a range of colors or color family used, say, in home decor or fashion. It means "little shovel" in French. Palate means, literally, the roof of the mouth, or figuratively, a person's taste or appreciation of food.

In my own writing, I have had the most trouble with "mantle/mantel." Every time I had to describe a display above the hearth I had to consult the dictionary to make sure I chose the right one. (It's mantel. I just looked it up.)

An increasingly common homophone confusion is "led/lead," as in "The lieutenant lead his squad into the battle." From the context, it's clear that what is meant is "led." I see this all the time. So far, I have not found any opposite errors of the "Ancient Roman cups were made of led" variety.

Like a lot of logophiles, this homophone switcheroo is a burr in my saddle. Or so I thought until last week. A recent article used that particular cliché, but spelled burr "bur." That looked really strange, but I looked it up on the off-chance it was correct. Guess what? A "bur" is a prickly seedcase or flowerhead that clings to hair and clothes. A "burr" is an accent characterized by a rough sound of the letter "r." Scots are most frequently described as speaking in a burr.

Homophones! Like those prickly burs, they'll get you when you least expect it.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Simple as ABC? Not to me

What's in a name? That's what Will Shakespeare wanted to know, but what did he know about marketing? It's all about the name, the logo and the "brand," meaning the indelible mark the marketing wizards mean to leave in our brains.

Somewhere or other, the wizards and I got out of sync. The new titans of Madison Avenue eschew the jingle, which burrows so deeply into my cranium that I can sing snippets about products that I would be hard pressed to find nowadays. Remember "Sing it over and over and over again, Frosty Morn!"? No, they choose slicker, jazzier visuals and music and sometimes even copy that flow over and around me, making no impression.

But by far their most nefarious schemes involve changing the names of well-known businesses and, worse, not-so-well-known concerns. I've given up trying to know the names of our local banks in the aftermath of a tsunami of mergers and acquisitions. And now more and more companies are just known by letters. The reduction of venerable firms to letters of the alphabet has been going on a long time, but the pace seems to be increasing.

Not too long ago, I noticed that NPR has changed its name to NPR, that is, those letters no longer stand for National Public Radio or anything else. What was the point of this exercise? Sure, everybody knows it as NPR, but there was something underlying those letters. The CEO (that still stands for chief executive officer, right?) says "NPR is more modern, streamlined."

I can't argue with that, but for streamlined, go to your local Y. Having long ago jettisoned the old-fashioned "Young Men's Christian Association" moniker, the YMCA has shed even more weight on its logo and is now just the Y. Will NPR become just N somewhere down the road?

The real problem for me comes when presented with an alphabet company that doesn't have an anchor of words in my brain. I recently saw a television commercial for a company called BDO that had something to do with business. Curiosity took me to Google, through which I found that BDO is an accounting firm that began in New York in 1910 as Seidman and Seidman. Having gone international in the 1960s, the company became Binder Seidman International Group, known, naturally, as BSIG. More mergers brought in Messrs. Dijker and Otte, at which time the firm was christened BDO (the founding Seidmans having been pushed down the memory hole).

I can understand the progression of names, I just can't hold on to "BDO." I wondered why I had the idea that it was connected to advertising when I realized it brought to mind DDB, the iconic New York ad agency formally known as Doyle Dane Bernbach. This was an agency of real marketing wizards. In the "Mad Men" days of the 1960s, DDB came up with the Volkswagen commercials that made the original Bug an unexpected success in the days of big, flashy cars. To relive a classic, check out Genius. I can only hope that, though universally called DDB, it still has both the spark and the real name. Becoming just another group of letters would be a real lemon of an idea.

*To read the copy on the VW "Lemon" ad pictured here, go to

Sunday, September 5, 2010

It's a singular thing

I recently read a piece by a writer known for peppering his writing on serious subjects with facetious remarks. It contained a sentence in which the author spoke of returning to the city where he and his wife were married "and where I killed a man with a salad tong." Saying that was a story for another day, the author went on with his main point. After chuckling, I was left not only wondering how one could kill a man with a salad tong, but, equally mysterious, how one could serve salad with it.

You see, you have to have tongs to bring the leafy goodness from salad bowl to plate. There is, in fact, no such thing as a tong. A pair of tongs is "an instrument with two movable arms that are joined at one end, used for picking up and holding things."

Tongs, like scissors, come only in pairs. Alone, each arm or blade is fairly useless. There are many other nouns that only appear in the plural, such as grits. A local radio spot for McDonald's touted the chain's breakfast offerings, including one that came with "a hash brown." Apparently, at least one copywriter here can conceive of such a thing, but I confess I'm stumped as to what would constitute one hash brown.

I suspect that advertising genius may once have written fashion copy. After years of crafting beautiful descriptions of the latest style of "pant" or "jean," naturally she lost her judgment in a sea of singularity. Having worn away her innate sense of the two-by-two nature of pants, she could look at sauteed shredded potatoes and see a "brown." Thank goodness McDonald's doesn't serve grits.

Monday, August 30, 2010

I heard the news today…oh boy

Publishers are meant to be unseen and unheard. It isn't often that one makes the news, but today was an important day for wordies. Major news outlets are reporting that Nigel Portwood of Oxford University Press thinks the third edition of the full-length Oxford English Dictionary, only 25 percent complete, may never go to press.

The OED has gone high-tech. The definitive compendium of the language went digital at in 2000. How's that for a millennial event? It is updated quarterly and is about as jazzy as a dictionary can be. Much as I would like to dip into it, it is accessed by subscription only and that costs nearly $300 a year. I suppose I could afford that if I diverted my ice cream budget to the cause, but I buy a half-gallon of Blue Bell at a time, not with one annual bill.

Okay, not many people have the 20-volume second-edition OED on their bookshelves, and the shorter versions that comprise the bulk of the press's dictionary product line will continue to be printed and sold…for now. But I can see the writing on the wall—the moving finger writes and, having written, uploads to the Internet.

Convenience and cost will trump nostalgia, and they should. Good dictionaries now are available to anyone with a computer, and that is a good thing. But there will be no flipping through pages and hitting at random on wonderful new words. Not to mention no cartons of vanilla, peach or pralines and cream in the freezer.

Monday, August 23, 2010

When words jump off the page…into the mouth

Language lives on two planes—spoken and written. Written language bears little relationship to the way people speak. If I were saying what I have just written, I would say something like "We don't talk the way we write." (Come to think of it, that's better.)

When the two planes cross, sometimes the result is a blunder, perhaps not on the scale of the streams crossing in Ghostbusters, but embarrassing, nonetheless. It happens when, in conversation, you finally bring out a word that you may have read many times but have never heard anyone say. How many blushes I could have been spared if I had just looked up the pronunciation of a "book word" before allowing it to come out in public.

Many, many years ago, when I learned a little about economics, I could discuss some of the tenets of the Keynesian school of thought quite creditably. Unfortunately, I called it key-NEE-zhun. I had no idea that John Maynard Keynes pronounced his name "canes," and so was happily showing my ignorance every time I spoke about it.

A much more up-to-date example was a former co-worker, a film buff, who told me about a bye-AH-pic he had seen. I stared at him quite a while before I realized he was talking about a biopic. I have to admit that when first encountering that word in print, I had to think hard about what that might mean. And the co-worker who told me about a drink that involved "carraca" has, I'm afraid, changed forever how I think about curaçao (although, come to that, I hardly ever think about curaçao).

"Dour" is a word that sometimes tempts readers to pop it into a conversation (or sermon, as I heard it most recently mispronounced). Most Americans, it seems, decide, on no evidence whatever, that it must rhyme with "sour." But no, "dour" is probably of Scots derivation and properly rhymes with "tour."

The examples of bungled book words are plentiful—the financial advisor on TV who talked about a "harbinger of recovery," only he gave the harbinger a hard "g", the narrator of a crime documentary who talked of the criminals' cachet—he wasn't really admiring the ne'er-do-wells, what he meant was "cache" (pronounced "cash"), not cachet. I put "often" with the "t" pronounced in this category, as well.

I outwitted myself on a book word, as I recently discovered. In reading, I had always pronounced "trope" as "troh-pee," on the assumption that it was Greek in origin and all syllables would count, as in "calliope." So when I heard a TV talking head say "trohp," I laughed and shook my head. Until I consulted the dictionary, that is. It is from the Greek, through Latin, but the root word is "tropos." Our "trope" is just a shortening of the original and the talking head was right. Darn it.

Why had I never looked it up? And I thought John Maynard Keynes had taught me my lesson.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Fun with Latin

There's nothing like Latin to express high-flown ideas or attempt to impress listeners with one's sense of superiority. Most of the high-falutin' words in English are derived from Latin. Many ordinary words are, as well, but there is a cultural divide in English etymology (which comes from Greek through Latin).

An interesting explanation of this phenomenon comes from Sir Walter Scott in Ivanhoe. English society in the time period of the novel was sharply divided between the Anglo-Saxon peasantry and the Norman-French ruling class (remember 1066 and all that*?). The animals that the peasants raised were called cows (Old English cü), but the food that ended up on the nobility's trenchers was beef (Middle French boef, from Latin bos).

The Norman Latinate influence was important, but so was the fact of medieval life that the language of the learned was Latin. Even into the 20th century, Latin was the lingua franca (Latin through Italian) of church and law. For centuries, scholars routinely have gone to Latin or Greek to create words to express new ideas.

The result is that more than half of English words are drawn from Latin. That is misleading, though, because so many of those are $20 words that are rarely used. Ordinary words—house, day, dog, cloud, dirt, man, floor—are usually Germanic. When we speak plainly, we are speaking 21st century Anglo-Saxon. And it is no accident that in former, more polite days, profanity was delicately referred to as an Anglo-Saxonism. When we refer to it we speak Latin—profanity from Latin profanitas. When we commit it—fill in your own favorite—we are pure Anglo-Saxon.

I have always enjoyed Latin-derived words and phrases that sound great tripping off the tongue. In college, I yearned for a T-shirt with a wonderful phrase I learned in biology or anthropology—"ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny." It was not that I advocated that since-discredited view that human embryos go through stages that reflect evolution of species, it's just that it was fun to say.

Later I found the luminous phrase "immanentize the eschaton." I actually came upon this gem again in a column by Jonah Goldberg just last week—"When we try to create heaven on earth, we are immanentizing the eschaton." That's pretty much the definition.

Even when you know what these phrases mean, it isn't in the sense that you understand simple English, like "get out" or "I'm hungry." You have to peer around those words to the meaning, rather than the words disappearing into meaning, as with simple words. That's why they are fun! Go ahead, roll them around on your tongue. See what I mean?

*1066 and All That is a small book satirizing/mangling English history. The subtitle is A Memorable History of England comprising all the parts you can remember: including 103 good things, 5 bad kings and 2 genuine dates.

Monday, August 9, 2010

It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a misnomer!

Another nice, well-brought-up word that has strayed from the straight and narrow in recent years is "misnomer." It started hanging out on street corners, smoking cigarettes and running with the wrong crowd, and before we knew it, "misnomer" had lost its real meaning.

I can't remember the last time I heard this word used correctly. No, when "misnomer" goes out in public nowadays, it's taking the place of "misconception" or "misapprehension." Though wearing a disguise, "misnomer," in perfect irony, acts out its true identity—a misnomer is a wrong name.

Here's the difference between "misnomer" and "misconception": It is a misconception (a wrong idea) that sitting in a draft will cause one to catch a cold. The "American Civil War" is a misnomer—the bloody conflict was far from "civil."

Friday, August 6, 2010

Oh, the enormity of it all

Listening to talk radio while driving round town, I heard a discussion on the news from the Gulf oil spill, particularly the story of where the oil has gone. One chap offered that you have to compare the gallons of oil gushing into the Gulf waters with the "enormity of the ocean." This is at least the third time recently I have heard someone say much the same thing in this context—the enormity of the Gulf, the enormity of the earth's seas.

I'd like to gently remind anyone tempted to say something along these lines that "enormity" does not mean "enormousness." Consulting holy writ—the OED—one finds the definition as "extreme wickedness" or "an act of extreme wickedness."

Yes, I know. Words change through usage. Entropy cannot be reversed. "So Eden sank to grief, So dawn goes down to day." No doubt someday "enormity" will be accepted fully as the noun form of "enormous." But for now let's resist. Let's keep a little bit of gold tucked away in our vocabularies as long as we can.

When you stand on a seashore, by all means feel the vastness, the immensity, the utter enormousness of the ocean. Just please do not commit a linguistic enormity.

[Today's literary reference is to Robert Frost.]

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Kindling a love of reading

A reader (thanks, Cindy!) sent this observation:

Woe is me! This was on the front page of Houston paper - "E-book sales pass hardcovers on Amazon. Some think paper variety may go way of dead trees."

As I sit and share books with my granddaughter daily, hoping she will cultivate a love for the written word, stories like this break my heart. I know we live in age of technology and that her world looks very different from mine, but there is still room for page turning!

There are many who feel the same way. Will real, bound books become one with Nineveh and Tyre*? Maybe so. I do not yet own a Kindle or Nook, but I am intrigued. If I did much traveling I would definitely snag one. The newest Kindle says it will hold 3,500 books. That would get you through the longest airport layover.

The prices, beyond the initial investment in an e-reader, hover between the cost of a typical mass-market paperback and a hardback. A title in the Hamish Macbeth mystery series is $10.99. A current bestseller is $2 more. A little pricier than I would expect for relieving the publisher of printing and shipping costs, but not bad and certainly convenient.

But give up real books altogether? Hmm. I get most books I read from the library. That's FREE, an important feature to a cheapskate. If real books go away, will libraries lend e-books? The Nook's advertisements boast that its owners will be able to lend books, so maybe so. The real test is "Can I read in the bathtub?" So far, neither the Kindle or Nook is saying it's safe for the bubble bath.

On the other hand, Cindy's concern for children's books resonated with me. Surely this will be the actually printed word's last stand. Could a Nook reproduce Dr. Seuss's illustrations? What would Kindle do with "Anno's Counting Book" which had no words at all? Of course, the iPad looks fully capable of handling "Hop on Pop" and "The Poky Little Puppy."

The bottom line is the bottom line. If people continue to buy books, they will continue to be printed. The future is in our hands.

*Obscure English literature reference, a la P.G. Wodehouse. See "Recessional" by Rudyard Kipling.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Horseshoe Award

I have opined here before on verbal near-misses, but, doggone it, they're funny. I have been keeping an informal list of stupid things I have heard on radio or television—so far, friends and family have been spared, but I make no promises for the future. Well, okay, I promise not to use real names.

Anyway, today's Horseshoe Award for getting close to the right word goes to a local radio host who, speaking on the current immigration imbroglio, allowed that Arizona governor Jan Brewer's "got some kahunas."

Oh, dear. It's always dangerous launching into a foreign language in which we are not fluent. Ever since I learned that JFK's famous line to embattled, but gracious, Berliners actually translated to "I am a jelly doughnut," I have feared the foreign phrase.

"Kahuna" is a Hawaiian word meaning shaman or sorcerer. The Big Kahuna was a fictional surfer in the Gidget movies/TV show. I feel sure Gov. Brewer is not employing a gaggle of Hawaiian shamans or surfer dudes.

We all know the hapless radio guy meant to say "cojones," which, literally of course, Gov. Brewer certainly does not have, either. But the somewhat vulgar phrase translates to courage or daring. It seems to me that Gov. Brewer's feistiness casts considerable doubt on the equation of "cojones" with combativeness.

Monday, July 26, 2010

What the fork?

Through the good offices of Netflix, I have been watching the excellent HBO series John Adams. For such a well-done production, I know the clothing and house furnishings must have been meticulously researched, but one scene raised a question.

The indomitable Abigail Adams is at a high-tone dinner party and she is shown eating in what is known as the continental or European manner, i..e., fork in left hand, tines down. Was this the way colonial Americans dined? If so, when did American manners evolve into what Emily Post called the "zigzag" manner, cutting with fork in left hand and knife in right, then switching the fork to the right hand for the trip to the mouth? (I assume right-handedness not only because "Righties Rule," but until relatively recently in our history, lefties were required to use the right hand at table, regardless of the awkwardness involved.)

This question has proved difficult to answer. According to Wikipedia, it was not until the 18th century that forks came into common use in England. The modern curved-tine fork was developed in Germany in the mid-1700s. That's really close to the time period in question.

According to Margaret Visser in The Rituals of Dinner:The Origins, Evolution, Eccentricities, and Meaning of Table Manners, an American etiquette book published in 1837, still conditionally approved eating with a knife, the everyday manners of many centuries standing. In continental Europe, on the other hand, a fashion arose in the 19th-century for the zigzag method. Perhaps to distance themselves from the effete French, the English went to the fork-in-left-hand method that soon crossed the Channel and conquered the continent.

Americans kept on with their zigzag eating, representing a survival on our shores of older English ways. (The word "gotten" is another. The English long ago gave it up, preferring "had got," but that development occurred after the great rupture separating our two cultures. So Americans hang onto a relic of Middle English.)

So, did Abigail really eat as shown in the miniseries? I doubt it, but I don't know. If I ever make it to Colonial Williamsburg, I know what question I will ask.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Going Postal

How do you abbreviate the names of states? My guess is 98 percent of the American public follow the dictates of the U.S. Postal Service in reducing states to two capital letters. It's pervasive and wrong.

Sure, when you address an envelope (how often do you actually do that in 2010?), use the USPS code, trying to remember if AK is Alaska or Arkansas and which of the Mi. states is MI. And when faced with a little box on a form, your only choice is to squeeze in those two capital letters.

But, please, when writing anything else—an engagement announcement, letter to the editor or the annual Christmas letter—either spell out the state or use the old-fashioned abbreviations that we all knew before the government swept them away for the sake of their sorting machines.

This is not just the Word Crank being crotchety, although that's enough for me. Associated Press style still calls for the old-school abbreviations. There are a couple of reasons for it—clarity, recognizing that most people are hazy about faraway states and the old abbreviations give more of a hint to which state they belong, and aesthetics. When looking at a block of type, as on a newspaper or magazine page, it is jarring and ugly to see ungrammatical capitals studded throughout.

So my plea is for writers to assert their rebel roots. Don't bow to government fiat. Rediscover proper abbreviations. For those who have forgotten them, and young folks who may have never seen them, below are the AP's state abbreviations. Note that some states, those with short names, are not listed. They should be spelled out.

Ala., Ariz., Ark., Calif., Colo., Conn., Del., Fla., Ga., Ill., Ind., Kan., Ky., La., Md., Mass., Mich., Minn., Miss., Mo., Mont., Neb., Nev., N.H., N.J., N.M., N.Y., N.C., N.D., Okla., Ore., Pa., R.I., S.C., S.D., Tenn., Vt., Va., Wash., W.Va., Wis., Wyo.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Weather, anyone?

A television meteorologist recently said "There's a lot of weather in store for us today." Well, thank goodness for that. I have trouble imagining a day without weather, and I certainly am not ready to experience it.

The weather guys love jargon and too-cute phrases almost as much as their colleagues on the sports desk (I once swore that if I had to read the phrase "three-peat" one more time, someone was going to get a "peat-down"). I confess to enjoying those broadcast weather-thons on a stormy evening, with talk of supercells and wall clouds. I can curl up on the couch and catch up with static-filled updates from weather spotters and junior staffers at obscure places I suspect they make up on the spot.

"We've got butter-bean size hail here in Trailerton, where Co. XYZ crosses U.S. 747, at the Pig Trot Truck Stop and Barbecue."

If it weren't for hail and the odd tornado, no one would ever hear about Trailerton. Apparently in Alabama, where two or three are gathered together, there a town shall be, also.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Calling Out the Troops

A reader (thanks, Bruce!) sent me the following:

The collective noun troop has been turned into a singular noun over the last few years by the news media ("Three US troops were killed today in Iraq."). The first few times I heard it used this way I wondered to myself, how many people constitutes a troop? but eventually I realized the way they are using the word the answer to that question is "one." My theory about why this has come about is that (a) they don't want to use soldier lest they offend the Marines and pilots, (b) they don't want to use men lest they offend the women, (c) they don't want to use people lest they offend the squeamish, and so they redefined troop from "a group of soldiers" (Merriam-Webster) to mean one individual soldier/sailor/pilot/Marine.

I think this usage goes back quite a bit further, perhaps even to the Vietnam War. Does anyone recall? However, my copy of the Associated Press Stylebook, vintage 1994, still defines "troop" as a group of soldiers. The word came from the Latin for "flock."

Anyway, I think Bruce has hit on several plausible explanations for the current usage. I lean toward the simplest—the need for a generic term for a soldier/sailor/Marine, especially for headline writers. When you have only a small space to get across the gist of a story, such a word is sorely needed.

I am just glad that the news readers have not landed on something worse. Given that our military is frequently referred to as "U.S. forces," it may be just a matter of time before we see a soldier called a "force."

Friday, July 9, 2010

A World Cup Homage

The talk of the soccer World Cup has been, aside from the usual bashing of Americans for our lack of enthusiasm for the sport, the vuvuzela and its role in driving those of us who wanted to watch a bit of Cup action absolutely crazy. Were this just a World Cup phenomenon I would not be concerned. But there is a clear and present danger of the plastic horns showing up at American sporting events.

It was with dismay that I read of the infernal plot between a promotional company, a Chinese manufacturer and the Florida Marlins baseball team to introduce the hellish horn to Major League Baseball. Say it ain't so, Joe!

But the news report's wording also caught my eye: "As an homage to the South African World Cup, (the Marlins) ordered their branded horns back in February..."

An homage? My computer dictionary and my OED both stick with the traditional pronunciation of homage as "HAH-mij." That's it. There's no second pronunciation contemplated. So I would say "a homage." I wonder if the writer of that news clip has fallen victim to the film industry's self-important Frenchification of the word as "oh-MAHZH."

"Homage" has a French derivation all right, but it probably crossed the Channel with the Normans. It certainly has been with us since at least the days of Chaucer. Surely we can give it an Anglo-Saxon pronunciation after more than seven centuries.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Un momento, por favor

Television is a great source for observing the state of language, simply because it brings more speakers to our attention. Here you can hear candid speech and scripted speech. It is unsurprising to hear bad grammar and strange word choice in the former, but when errors creep into scripts, we know there is a problem.

I am more amused than dismayed by the widespread mispronunciation of "nuclear." Not only two presidents (G.W. Bush and Carter) invariably said "nucular," so did Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer and the narrator of a documentary on, believe it or not, nuclear power. You'd think if your script called for a narrator to say "nuclear" about 1,000 times, you'd make sure he could pronounce it.

I'm more bothered by "momento." Recently I heard a narrator—therefore scripted—say that someone had taken an item as a "momento." Did the script say that? The word he wanted was "memento."

"Memento" comes from the same Latin word as "remember." So, really, it should be easy to remember because memento and remember are first cousins.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Capital, Capital

I recently read an online column that referred to Washington, D.C., as "the nation's capitol." Oh, dear. I'm sure it was a slip of the keyboard, because we all know that Washington is the "capital," while the "Capitol" is the building in which Congress meets.

But a question occurred to me for the first time—why? Why does the building have an "o"? This turned out to be a more difficult question to answer than I had imagined. The Capitol's Web site's FAQ page does not answer it, and there is no SAQ page for Seldom Asked Questions. The history of the Capitol addresses why the building is placed where it is, but no source I found contemplated the question "Why is it called the Capitol?"

The only other "capitol" I could find was a fleeting reference to the Collis Capitolinus or Capitoline Hill in Rome, the site of the ancient Temple of Jupiter, now called Campidoglio.

I can only infer that our Capitol was named for the long-gone structure that was ancient Rome's preeminent temple. The Founding Fathers, many of whom were beneficiaries of a classical education, made reference to the Roman republic in their writings and organizations, such as the Society of the Cincinnati, based on the Roman consul, Cincinnatus, a farmer who led Rome in time of war and then returned to his farm. George Washington, even then thought of as America's Cincinnatus, was the society's first president.

Maybe I should let the folks who manage the Capitol Web site know about this.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Techno Overload

This technical conglomeration was perpetrated by my husband, but sometimes I think it's a metaphor for technology in my life. I have managed to make a friend of technology for the most part, but every now and then it it gets the better of me. I was defeated by this setup the other day because I couldn't figure out which keyboard or mouse to use.

Fortunately, I do not often have to approach this techno-Frankenstein. My Mac laptop is showing its age a bit, but then so am I. We get along well.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Rendering Unto Grammar

Last night I heard an expert on one of the many true-crime TV shows I watch (a subject for another day!) say a crime was "heart-rendering." Ooo, that sounds icky. We often pull out words that are close to the ones we really want, but not quite there.

Fat is rendered (melted and clarified), but not hearts. The expert meant "heart-rending" (tearing or splitting) or possibly "heart-wrenching" (violently twisting).

What are other examples of close-but-no-cigar expressions?

Friday, June 25, 2010

Read-Over Words

You know those words you encounter when reading that you don't really know what they mean? From the context you may have an idea or just a feeling about what the writer is getting at, or it's not crucial to understanding the text, so you just keep going.

Those are read-over words. I have decided to capture those words, pin them down and try to tame them.

First up is one of those foreign terms that pop up from time to time. When I read for the third time recently the adjective "soi-dissant," I decided to track it down and find out what it really means. I don't speak French, so this one didn't speak to me, although I could tell from the context that it is not meant as a compliment. It turns out to be laughably simple.

Soi-dissant means "self-styled," like "so-called" with the extra twist of the implication that the soi-dissant person may be the only one who would call him such.

So, I am a soi-dissant word crank. Now if I can use the term a couple more times today I can consider it mine.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Last of the Daylilies

When I was a child, I grieved my mother, a Master Gardener and member of the Hemerocallis Society, with my sassy opinions of her favorite flower.
"They're all orange," I said, to her horror.

"No, look at all these colors," she replied, brandishing a daylily catalog.

"They're shades of orange," I huffed. While I still think daylilies remain planted at the orange side of the color wheel, I have come to appreciate them and actually have a few in my yard. No danger yet of turning into my mother, but now I'm old enough to know that's my loss.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The I's Have It

If there is one word that is more misused than any other these days, it may be the simple and serviceable “I.” When we talk about ourselves, we have a choice—we can say “I,” “me,” “myself.” That’s it. Choose A, B or C. There has always been a certain amount of confusion, but now so many of us get tangled up in that simple choice. We’re okay as long as the spotlight is on us alone. The problem crops up, ironically, when we try to expand our viewpoint to include others.

When I was a child, I always said, “Me and Janie went swimming.” Ungrammatical, but, also, unpretentious. Teachers and parents impressed on me that others must come first, at least in sentence structure. So I changed to “Janie and me went swimming.” Of course, I would never have said “Me went swimming,” and moving the pronoun closer to the verb made it clear that “me” wasn’t the right choice. So, eventually I became more civilized and arrived at the grammatical “Janie and I went to the mall.” (I had quit hanging out at the pool by that time.)

Unfortunately that sophisticated “I” has migrated to the rougher neighborhood once the turf of the earthier “me.” It seems that so many of us who used to misuse “me” have decided that it is a forbidden word that must never soil our lips. This speech disorder has reached epidemic proportions. “They went to the theater with John and I” may sound more elegant to the grammatically confused, but it is wrong, wrong, wrong. To go all English teacher (which I’m not; I just play one on the Web) about it, “me” is the right word for the objective case; “I” is the right word for the nominative case.

Rule of thumb: changing “John and I” to “we” or “us” will tell you which case you want. If “we” is the answer, then say “John and I.” If “us” sounds right, choose “me.” That is, until we (us?) screw that up, as well.