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 www.youtube.com/watch?v=fCHWhIHIuhY. 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 www.powerwriting.com/vw-lemon-ad.html.

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.