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.