Thursday, December 23, 2010
Thursday, December 16, 2010
Friday, December 10, 2010
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
Saturday, November 27, 2010
Saturday, November 20, 2010
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.
Saturday, November 13, 2010
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
"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.
Thursday, November 4, 2010
Thursday, October 28, 2010
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.
Tuesday, October 19, 2010
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
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
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
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
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
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
Wednesday, September 15, 2010
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
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.
Sunday, September 5, 2010
Monday, August 30, 2010
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.
Monday, August 23, 2010
Saturday, August 14, 2010
Monday, August 9, 2010
Friday, August 6, 2010
Tuesday, August 3, 2010
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
Monday, July 26, 2010
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.
Tuesday, July 20, 2010
Thursday, July 15, 2010
Monday, July 12, 2010
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.
Friday, July 9, 2010
Tuesday, July 6, 2010
Friday, July 2, 2010
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.
Tuesday, June 29, 2010
Monday, June 28, 2010
Friday, June 25, 2010
Wednesday, June 23, 2010
Tuesday, June 22, 2010
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.