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.