Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Down With Rudolph!

I'm not a Grinch. Really. I'm not. I love Christmas, both for its religious significance and its pervasive cultural presence. Lights, decorations and goodies. What's not to love?

But I do have a few quibbles. I don't like to hear Christmas carols in October, and I've made my position clear that Thanksgiving should not be observed amid Santas, elves on or off the shelf, angels or creches.

And I don't like Rudolph. Does that make me a bad person? Sorry. Rudolph is an upstart, and he has shoved that red nose right to the center of the celebration. Rudolph first appeared in 1939—the same year Hitler invaded Poland. Coincidence?

Unlike the Fuhrer, who blew across Europe with the speed of lightning to achieve his dream of world domination, Rudolph held back, planning and plotting, no doubt. Which one is the genius now?

Maybe the canny reindeer just felt the need to wait for the World War to blow over before implementing his own blitzkrieg. His beginnings were humble, first showing up in a promotion for the department store Montgomery Ward. Yes, Virginia, Rudolph started his career as a shill for a retailer. His creator retrieved the copyright for the reindeer's hard-luck tale and published a children's book in 1947.

Then came the master stroke—lyrics and a tune were written promoting Rudolph. Cowboy songster Gene Autry recorded it, and the song was the smash hit of 1949 (the same year Mao took control of China. Coincidence?). That cheesy song is second only to White Christmas in the holiday hit parade.

Rudolph is definitely a latecomer to the holiday lore. Santa Claus was practically invented by Clement Clark Moore in the poem A Visit From St. Nicholas, published in 1823. I'm sure visions of sugar plums danced in my head when I was a child, even though then and now, I wouldn't know a sugar plum if I choked on one.

Mr. Moore is the undisputed expert on the jolly old elf. And how many reindeer does he say pulls the airborne sleigh? Eight! Eight, tiny reindeer. That's it. Yet every present-day depiction of Santa's flight includes that mid-20th century interloper. Donder, Blitzen and the gang have been reduced to also-rans.

Rudolph has achieved his dream of Christmas domination. For now. But what goes around, comes around. Someday there may be a Hubert, the blue-eyed reindeer, with a feel-good story and a knack for promotion, who will kick Rudy right out of the harness.

Reindeer games. What's not to love?

Saturday, December 10, 2011

God Rest Ye Merry, Grammarians

Christmas is a most traditional time. We have our customs and rituals that make the season bright. Whether it's turkey or lasagna for dinner, or opening presents on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning, or decorated cookies or chocolate-covered cherries, or all of the above, there are some things we just have to do or it isn't Christmas.

Christmas carols are at the heart of all that tradition. For my seasonal music taste, the more medieval the better. Give me "Coventry Carol," "Verbum caro factum est" and "Gaudete." But most of our Christmas notions are Victorian innovations, with a Dickens Christmas as the apotheosis of the holiday.

Because singing carols is part of the ritual, it is satisfying even when we don't quite understand what it's all about. One carol frequently heard this time of year is an example—"God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen."

Notice where the comma goes in that title. This is where even Dickens—or, at least a walk-on character in "A Christmas Carol"—misunderstands this carol. From "Stave I, Marley's Ghost":

"Foggier yet, and colder! Piercing, searching, biting cold. If the good Saint Dunstan had but nipped the Evil Spirit's nose with a touch of such weather as that, instead of using his familiar weapons, then indeed he would have roared to lusty purpose. The owner of one scant young nose, gnawed and mumbled by the hungry cold as bones are gnawed by dogs, stooped down at Scrooge's keyhole to regale him with a Christmas carol: but at the first sound of —
"God bless you, merry gentleman!
May nothing you dismay!"

Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action, that the singer fled in terror, leaving the keyhole to the fog and even more congenial frost."

Not only does the hapless singer change "rest" to "bless," he, or the author, moves the comma so that he is calling for a blessing on one merry gentleman, not an apt description of old Ebenezer Scrooge.

The more accepted version has us wishing joy and pleasantry to uncharacterized gentlemen. The "rest" here means "keep" or "make." You may also note that Dickens's caroler says "you" rather than "ye." People who look into this sort of thing say the carol first appears in the 18th century with "you" in the first line. Later, "ye" is substituted, perhaps to make the carol more…medieval. 

Apparently 18th century carolers agreed with me. Medieval is better.

N.B. The reference to St. Dunstan in the Dickens quote alludes to a legend that came into currency in the 11th century about the 10th century Archbishop of Canterbury. Before his elevation, the Benedictine monk worked as a blacksmith or silversmith. The legend says the Devil appeared to him in his cell and tempted him, but Dunstan got the better of him by clamping his metal-working tongs on Old Hob’s face. That's going medieval on him, for sure.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Don't be misled

Sometime back I wrote about those snare-words that lie in wait to embarrass us. We have read them—many times—but we have never heard them said, and so, when we sprinkle our sparkling repartee with them, the trap springs. We bungle the pronunciation.

My most recent dustup with a snare-word was "wastrel," which I have always said—in my head—as though it rhymes with "wassail." My friend gleefully pounced, pointing out that since it means a wasteful good-for-nothing, it naturally has a long "a."

Today I found out that I needn't have coined a term like "snare-word" to refer to these imps. They already have a name: "misles." The name is inspired by what is arguably the most common word-we've-said-wrong-since-grade-school—"misled." While I thought all mispronouncers of this misle said "MY-zuhled," I also learned that a significant minority see the word "isle" in there and, thus, give it a one-syllable variation.

The fascinating (to me) article*  that set me straight on that also included a list of misles, many of which have earned that designation through the sad waning of the hyphen (see Hyphen, we hardly knew ye). Among the horribles are "apply (not lemony, more sort of … )," bedraggled (bed raggled)," "beribboned (berry boned)," "molester (mole ster)" and the truly horrible "middecade (middie cade)."

My favorites, though, are "unshed" pronounced as the past tense of the mysterious verb "to unsh," and "unionized acid, "which, instead of denoting a dearth of ions, calls up a vision of Hydrochloric and Sulfuric, in jeans and work boots, meeting the other fellows down at the union hall.

There are more misles out there than I ever expected. Send me more examples! I promise not to be a wastrel.


Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving leftovers

It's Thanksgiving evening and all's quiet here at the grammar ranch. Leftovers, and lots of them, have been stuffed into the fridge, and even the hum of the dishwasher has been stilled. So it's time to clean out some odds and ends from the Word Crank cornucopia. These are a few of my large collection of observations that never grew into a coherent article idea.

There are lots of words that tickle my fancy. Take "rebarbative." It means unattractive or aesthetically offensive. It comes from Old French for a confrontation "beard to beard." I don't know how that turned into art criticism, but I can just hear a curmudgeonly critic declaring "Surely you don't call that rebarbative hunk of metal sculpture." Devastating.

A better-known word that isn't used nearly enough is "odious." Reading a column that referred to "China's odious one-child policy," I was reminded of Susannah York in "A Christmas Carol" (my favorite version, with George C. Scott) calling Scrooge "an odious man," along other adjectives. She stretches out the initial "o" for several expressive beats— oooooodious.

Mr. and Mrs. Cratchit
A word that rolls around the mouth and over the tongue in a most delightful way is "imbroglio." You have to pronounce it right—imˈbrōlyō—and it helps to imitate Ms. York and spend some time on the second syllable. The word means a complicated situation, and implies something embarrassing or sticky enough perhaps to lead to a term of imprisonment. The original Italian means "a confused heap." An apt description of my kitchen at mid-afternoon.

I have a few hat tips to offer this Thanksgiving. A forgotten blogger wrote: "But when I read him back then, in the innocence of youth, the political references sailed lightly over my head. Now that I am taller, they slap me in the face." Now that's an effective image.

Jonah Goldberg wrote: "I feel a bit like a dog who suddenly realizes the car is heading to the vet, not the park." Oh, yeah. I know how he feels.

In a New York Times piece about perceived back-sliding from the sexual revolution, Erica Jong wrote: “We were unable to extinguish the lust for propriety.” Beautiful. 

For wonderful words and wordsmiths who create amazing pictures with them, I am truly grateful.

Monday, November 14, 2011

What I Saw at the E-Pub Revolution

You say you want a revolution? Well, you know…writers are in the midst of one. It's the e-pub revolution and it's changing the publishing landscape like a glacier traveling at Mach 1. Get with it or get out of the way.

Because I'm a writer, and not a publisher or a literary agent, I think this brave new world looks promising, if not actually the Promised Land. We have stormed the gates and the gatekeepers are retreating. A rout may be coming.

Here's why. A recent writers' conference featured a literary agent named Anita. A blogger reported this: "Anita said her agency receives 100 queries a day (minus holidays), 35,000 queries a year. Only 952 sample page sets went to the next round. 85 full manuscripts were requested and six new clients were signed – these are 2010 numbers."

Let's recap: That's thirty-five thousand hopeful book authors winnowed to six. Six. Those are some daunting odds. I have one chance in 10,000 of being struck by lightning sometime in my life, according to the National Weather Service. What are my odds of getting an agent?

And that's just to get an agent. That agent still has to convince a publishing house to buy the manuscript, and it is entirely possible that some of those six lucky authors will not actually sell their book.

That once was the end of the story. A manuscript begun with hope and finished with innumerable hours of hard work ends up in a drawer. Come the revolution, and those other 34,994 authors head over to amazon.com or smashwords.com or any of a number of other sites, format their manuscript for the varying e-book readers and, voilà, they're published. Calloo, callay!

That's the good news, and it is really wonderful, luminous, joyous news. The thorn in this particular rosebush is DIY marketing. I don't know how many writers could be labeled "introverted," but I'm pretty sure it's not a small percentage. I remember the terror of selling Girl Scout cookies. I don't look forward to peddling my humble novel.

Then there's the real snake in the e-pub Garden of Eden. Remember those gatekeepers we defeated to usher in the dawn of publishing freedom? Well, their main function may have been to trample the hopes and dreams of writers, but on the side they did some good. Some of those manuscripts they rejected should have gone straight from the printer to the shredder, for the good of the reading public and the author, too.

I recently bought an e-book for not much money (I'm cheap) and found that I had bought a book that needed an editor in the worst way. It was written by a retired homicide detective, which was enough for me to click "Buy." The inside scoop on murder investigations—that's a must-read for me.

Here's the first sentence: "The apartment building stood quietly on a small knoll where a clove of trees sauntered with the cool spring breeze stirring the night’s air."

Oh, my. Whatever a clove of trees is, I really doubt it saunters. And that was this guy's all-important, this-is-my-very-best-writing first sentence. Someday I may get beyond the sauntering clove of trees and find out if there is a story in there somewhere. But not yet.

I'm busy reviewing my manuscript for sauntering tree cloves. When I take the e-pub plunge, I don't want to end up in someone else's cranky language blog.

Monday, November 7, 2011

What's the motto with that?

Did you know that every state has a motto? Kind of quaint, don't you think? A motto is supposed to sum up the ideals or aspirations of a group. Like Wisconsinites and Arizonans are really together on ideals in our fragmented age. Here in Alabama, we can't agree on much, except that our football team is the best. The only problem with that unanimity is that we are referring to different teams. The rivalry can get ugly this time of year.

But, still, state mottos are quirky and unexpected. I prefer my mottos to be in Latin, but I wonder if some are written in a dead language to hide from the voters what they really say. Alabama's motto—Audemus jura nostra defendere "We dare defend our rights"—is quite admirable, but, regrettably, reminds the older among us of the "states' rights" battle cry of segregationists.

Virginia's motto is in the same boat. Sic semper tyrannis "Thus always to tyrants"— encapsulates the patriotic fervor of the former colony. It would seem a bit odd in the 21st century anyway, but when you recall that Latin phrase was shouted by the assassin John Wilkes Booth after he leaped to the stage following his greatest role, it becomes downright strange. Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how do you like Virginia's motto?

South Carolina's Dum spiro spero (While I breathe, I hope) is a lovely sentiment, but as a state motto it seems a bit depressive. Are things so tough in the Palmetto State that its citizens have to mutter Dum spiro spero under their breath to keep going?

North Carolina's motto raises questions, as well: Esse quam videri (To be, rather than to seem). Again, I can't argue with the Carolinians' aspiration to be genuine, but what prompted its adoption as a motto? Roving bands of poseurs?

Maryland inexplicably chose to express its ideals in Italian, rather than Latin: Fatti maschil, parole femine (Manly deeds, womanly words). I can't believe Barbara Mikulski knows about this.

New Mexico's motto is just mystifying—Crescit eundo (It grows as it goes), and I'm sure there's a good reason that Puerto Rico chose Joannes Est Nomen Ejus (John is his name), I just haven't a clue what it is.

What would states choose if mottos were on the ballot in this election? Would New York jettison "Excelsior" for "Fuggeddaboutit"? Would California's motto include the word "dude"? Come to think of it, let's just stick with the Latin.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Hyphen, we hardly knew ye

The world of punctuation is in flux, as is every other world we know of. The steady-state model of the universe is gone with the solar wind, and so we are painfully aware that the only constant is change.

That doesn't mean we have to like it. On the whole, making a friend of change is a good approach to life, but, remember, everything in moderation. I, for one, am vexed by the disappearance of the hyphen. It's such a useful little mark. Why is it headed for the linguistic dustbin?

Well, for one thing, the Associated Press says so. The AP Stylebook recently caved to anti-hyphen trends and changed its position, vis-a-vis e-mail. After years of instructing journalists to use the hyphen, they now decree that, from now on, e-mail is email. What's next, AP? "You" becomes "u"? Stop this bus! I want to get off.

Here are a few examples showing the worth of the missing hyphen: A news report (okay, a gossip report) gave us this bit of confusion—"Bristol Palin faced off with an angry bargoer at Saddle Ranch bar and restaurant in West Hollywood Thursday night." Bargoer? I got there eventually, but wouldn't "bar-goer" have been a bit clearer?

This from a blogger: "Not a Whole Foods fan here, by the way. It reminds me too much of food coops. I have hated food coops since circa 1969." I know what chicken coops are, but food coops are a mystery. Food co-ops, on the other hand, I'm aware of. I just can't face that much produce being thrust at me each week.

I ran across a column with this headline—"Reinter the death tax." That one took a few more blinks before my brain said, "Oh, re-inter. I get it."

Readers, unite. The hyphen is our friend. Let's show it some love.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Parallel Bars at the Language Olympics

The parallel bars event showcases those compact male gymnasts swinging, doing seemingly impossible handstands and generally showing off their upper body strength. The key to the equipment is that the bars need to be, as the name suggests, parallel. A little off and none of those moves would work.

There's something called parallelism in grammar, too. Violations make us look as awkward as Paul Hamm would on non-parallel bars. I'm blowing the whistle on a couple of violators I caught recently.

The first was in a blogger's profile, where she described herself as "a mother of 3 girls and a wife of 17 years." This is a new concept for me, but I have to admit that Married to Time sounds like a pretty good novel title. Now all I have to do is figure out a plot to go with it. There's always a snag.

The second instance was, no doubt, on purpose, but I found it disturbing, nonetheless. My paper bag from Chick-fil-A says in big, bold letters "Serving Chicken and Our Community." Maybe it was a joke of sorts, but the text that followed did not contain any humor that I detected. Noticing that as I drove away, I accelerated a bit more than usual. It seemed in my interest to get out of there before I ended up on the menu.

Hey, Chick-fil-A management, those cows are saying "eat more chicken," not the community! Let's just concentrate on that, okay?

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Speaking of totally awesome awesomeness

I recently read an article wondering why "awesome" took over the world and now, Khaddafy-like, refuses to relinquish power. The writer—Robert Lane Greene, business correspondent for The Economist—figures the word gained currency in its present meaning sometime before 1980, as it appeared in The Official Preppy Handbook published that year.

It doesn't seem to me to go back that far, but, no doubt, that's because I don't live on either East or West Coast, and trends take their time penetrating the hinterland. Still, we have been declaring things to be awesome for a long time now.

I detect an encouraging change, however. These days, I hear "awesome" used in a somewhat ironic way. That's generally the angle I take on it. When someone does something particularly stupid (that's usually me, by the way), the cry goes up, "That was AWESOME!" If irony has to be deployed, can abandonment of "awesome" be far behind?

Sure, it may stay with us until Doomsday Day (which, I hear, really will be awesome), but I'm hoping for a little adjectival diversity in the future. That would be awesome.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Words Gone Wild

I love a good mystery, so perhaps that is why I enjoy collecting examples of strange or puzzling word usage. Instead of a whodunnit, this quest is more of a whydunnit. For instance, I want to know what could make an educated person say, as I heard HLN talking head Jane Velez-Mitchell do, “People are mind-boggled.” This was said in the same show in which a woman-on-the-street comment began “I can’t concept that anyone could do this.”

Or this, from a budding writer, no less: "Death has such an absurd casualty in its ability to occur in the most innocuous of moments." Death usually does lead to a casualty, but I don't think that was where she was going. Presumably she meant "casualness," an admittedly blah noun. I trust in rewriting she would recast that sentence to something like: Death is absurdly casual…"

From the Huffington Post, a column by an attorney about the Anthony trial: “Despite her proclaimed hatred of the media, Casey has relished in its glare since this real life thriller began.” How do you "relish in" a glare? That's just weird.

How about the CNN host who said “He treats her with kit gloves”? Maybe his tongue just got a little off-center. The same can't be said for the blogger who wrote: "Oh sure, the Star Tribune still has a squad of reporters out digging in every nook and cranny and leaving no stone unturned to try to find the latest victim de jure." Come to think of it, anyone who has ever been sued feels like a "victim de jure," but that isn't what the blogger was writing about.

But, of course, that was a blog. Not a well-know publication with a high-paid editor, such as New York magazine, where this was written of Michele Bachmann: "Like every GOP candidate, she would lay down in traffic for Israel." To be fair, that's not a strange use of words, it's a wrong use. The mystery here is why a writer and multiple editors don't know the difference in "lie" and "lay." 
Is this a clue? According to an article in Forbes, Moody’s tracked middle class jobs that are on the decline, including proofreaders—"generally highly skilled workers with a four-year college degree—were once vital to publications and communications departments. These positions shriveled by 31%, likely due to advanced software."

Oh, dear. The software is not nearly advanced enough.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

On Writing

Eventually, every writer feels the need to offer his own contribution to the vast library of essays called "On Writing." I can't fight the urge any longer. So, herewith let me moan, gripe, explain, exult and generally ramble on this subject of imperishable interest to writers.

Like actors, writers constantly look for affirmation, for someone to say "I liked what you wrote," or even better "You're a terrific writer." Why are we so needy? Maybe because the world doesn't show us much love. Certainly, few writers are showered with accolades and lucrative contracts. For every Big Name writer there are at least 20,000* who labor in relative obscurity, filling bookshelves, but never achieving stardom, and wannabes without number.

For most of us, writing is going to have to be its own reward. While I get a nice check for magazine pieces every now and then, I'm in no danger of getting carried away, like a lottery winner, buying cars, boats and diamonds with my earnings. My highest ambition for my fiction-writing is to break even financially someday.

And did I mention that writing is hard—sometimes really, really hard? I ran across this quote from playwright Paul Rudnick recently: "Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials. It's a matter of doing everything you can to avoid writing, until it is about four in the morning and you reach the point where you have to write."

Amen. Although I am a better procrastinator than Paul. When I run out of ways to avoid writing, I just go to bed. Siempre mañana, y'all. Scarlett's got nothing on me.

Many years ago I learned that "fear is the root of all avoidance behavior." So what do Paul and I fear about writing? Are you kidding? Failure and more failure. Another writer I'll have to paraphrase because I've lost the quote (See? Failure.) said he sometimes reads over what he wrote the day before and thinks, "This sucks. This is garbage. I suck. I'm garbage."

There it is. We want so badly to write well, but it all gets tied up with our egos and even our basic sense of self-worth. Every sentence or paragraph I write is not going to be wonderful. That seems obvious to a sane person (or a reader of this blog, alas), but to us writers that is a horrifying thought that assaults our very identity. It must be wonderful or we're worthless.

Is it any wonder we eat cereal from the box?

*This is a bogus statistic. Treat it like the number 40 in the Bible. It means "lots and lots."

Monday, August 29, 2011

Random Answer

Blogger threw a random question at me when I was updating my profile. What they didn't say was there was a character limit. So my answer didn't fit. Since you never delete what you have taken the trouble to write, here it is.

Q: The children are waiting! Please tell them the story about the bald frog with the wig:

A: A young frog was elected, quite by accident, as president of the Pond Association. His name was similar to a venerable and wise frog, you see, and since all the lilypad ballots were wet, they were hard to read. To give himself an air of authority, the young frog took to wearing a powdered wig. It worked for a while, as putting up a front will at times.

But at twilight, the frog community heard the pounding of footsteps near the pond. Plop, plop, plop. They all leaped into the water. All except the new president, who hesitated to jump in for fear of ruining his new wig.

The Pond Association had to elect another president—the wise frog they meant to choose the first time. His predecessor, the foolish frog, had taken up residence in an aquarium in a small boy's room. He still had the wig, to the wonder of the humans who gazed at him. But the snails in his new glass house were not impressed.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Taking the pet peeve for a walk

One of my pet peeves has been washed and brushed and is ready to come out in public. Heel! Good peeve.

Here we go: With all sorts of loose talk about earthquakes and hurricanes these days, it's time to assess the damage on the language.* I have noted a disturbing trend in disasters, to wit, professional chatterers going on about the "damages." "There are no damages to the area reported. Back to you, Tiffany."

When did "damage" become "damages"? Did the whirlwind or storm surge pick up loose plurals and scatter them about? The word is damage, from Latin damnum for loss or hurt. Yep, the same source that gave us Rhett Butler's famous flip-off of Scarlett. "Damages" is the legal term for the compensation awarded in a successful lawsuit. You get damages for damage, but they aren't the same thing.

This trend needs nipping in the bud. Otherwise it will reach full flower, as did its elder relative, "savings." Nobody even blinks nowadays when a pitchman screams "That's a 40 percent savings off the manufacturer's price." No. No, it isn't. It's a "saving." "Savings" are what I hope you all have in the bank, or, considering current interest rates, preferably in metal buried in the back yard.

There, that wasn't so bad. Good peeve. Now back to the dungeon.

*On an uncharacteristically positive note, I see that hurricane season brings back that wonderful weather phrase "cone of uncertainty." Sounds like a chin-puller of a novel, and a pretty good description of life.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

I thought it was a metaphor

A funny line in the movie Twister comes when the fiancee of the storm chaser played by Bill Paxton whines, "When you said you chased tornadoes, I thought it was a metaphor."* That's because she was an expensively educated, intellectual type, who probably valued talking over doing. Otherwise, why would she assume such a silly thing?

Metaphors can explain and deepen insight into the world around us, but they also can just as easily lead both readers and writers off a firm path and into the woods of abstraction. Easy does it is my motto for this literary device.

I confess to feeling a bit lost when reading a news report that the U.S. government has decided that metaphors come under its purview.

"Researchers with the US Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity want to build a repository of metaphors.…Over the last 30 years, metaphors have been shown to be pervasive in everyday language and to reveal how people in a culture define and understand the world around them, IARPA says."

Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity? Does that name inspire confidence that its worker bees are fluent in English? A minimal amount of research (but not intelligence research) showed the Metaphor Program is the brainchild of IARPA's Office of Incisive Analysis. Well, thank goodness. Who knows what the Office of Fuzzy, Rambling Analysis would have done with the Metaphor Program?

I, for one, will sleep better tonight knowing that metaphors are quietly being plucked from every language and culture and transported, humanely, to the D.C. Metaphor Zoo.

There may not be anything in the Social Security lockbox when I come, key in hand, to collect in a few years, but I now know I can spend my declining years on a park bench, feeding the metaphorical pigeons, while around me metaphors of every species are studied in their controlled, life-like habitats.

Life will be a bowl of cherries. Or maybe pitted prunes.

*Quoted from memory. No representation is made to its accuracy. My memory is still breathing on its own, but the doctors are not encouraging.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Professor Higgins, the French and me

"The French don't care what they do actually, as long as they pronounce it properly." Henry Higgins, "My Fair Lady"

I'm afraid the younger generation (i.e., anyone who has never dialed a rotary phone) are not as familiar with the delightfully horrid Prof. Henry Higgins as I am. Created by a true word crank, George Bernard Shaw, Higgins was a grammarian's grammarian. Shaw made him funny and tragic. Rex Harrison made him sexy.

Higgins's (and Shaw's) insight was that language was both a barrier and a vehicle for social mobility. "It's 'aoow' and 'g'on' that keep her in her place, Not her wretched clothes and dirty face." Take away the Cockney accent and a girl living two steps from the gutter could mingle with the upper crust of stratified Edwardian society.

Twenty-first century America is not even close to that petrified social order, but accent and pronunciation still convey information about who we are, and just which pigeon hole our listeners think we fit in.

Perhaps it's a bit of status anxiety that causes me to be punctilious about pronunciation. But mostly it is that as a card-carrying logophile, I can't truly take on a new word if I don't know how it sounds. A novel with a character whose name I don't know how to say is sure to be one that I will set aside. I worry on every page how I should say the name.

Anyway, here are some recent examples of words that have confused me. A local jewelry store's Facebook post informed me that peridot is August's gem of the month, and is pronounced "PEAR-ih-doe." Really? My dictionary disagrees. According to the jeweler, only the Apache Indians who mine it pronounce the "t." They're wrong about that because it's always been "per-ih-dot" to me. So, do I go high-end and give the word a French twist or do I stay with the miners?

And would someone please tell me how to pronounce "Turandot"? The encyclopedias are all over the map. It's ridiculous that I have actually seen this opera, but I don't know how to tell anyone.

A recent plane crash caused confusion, as well. Contessa Brewer on MSNBC said it was a Delta Bombardier, which she called "bahm-BAHR-dee-ur." It's a Canadian aircraft, so I need to know if that's how "bahm-bah-DEER" is pronounced way up north.

N.B. I have always thought no one on Earth could come close to Rex Harrison's personification of Higgins. But I note now that a 1984 production of "Pygmalion" had Peter O'Toole in the role. Where is a time machine when you need one?

Friday, July 29, 2011

For Who the Bell Tolls

Did that title make you cringe? Get used to it. Our old friend from English grammar is not on life support. The plug has been pulled, and now we are just waiting to see how long the tired, old pronoun can breathe on its own.

Cause of death? Acute ignorance, aggravated by chronic regular-guy syndrome. There just aren't many of us around who know when to use it, or who, if we do, dare to use it in conversation.

My computer's dictionary says "its use has retreated steadily and is now largely restricted to formal contexts." I'll say. And even then, the who/whom conundrum catches writers with their grammatical pants down.

A writer at Reuters posted a column containing this: "But I have been working my sources to compile a speculative short list of whom might replace Geithner should that become necessary."

Admittedly, that was a tricky one, but my grammar instincts say he got it wrong. But I'm not 100 percent sure, and therein lies a glimpse of the whom-less future. If a stickler such as I (see? I didn't say "like me") can't be sure of the correct usage, where is the hope for the 99.9 percent of the English-speaking population who don't give a dangling participle about it?

To who it may concern: The bell tolls for we.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Horseshoe Awards Return, Part Deux

It's time once again to recognize those hapless writers/speakers who enliven my daily grind with their wonderful language near-misses. As long as there are those who will call a Rolex a Rolodex watch, there is laughter in the world, and I, for one, am grateful.

The latest point of light was spotted at al.com, a Web site for Alabama newspapers. Teasers scroll across the top, with links to news stories. I was intrigued as this message rolled by: "Overturned truck was filled with young beer cattle…" Well, that was a bit disturbing. What hath genetic engineering wrought? I had to click on that one, of course. The headline made clear the unfortunate bovines were "beef cattle," but for just a moment I thought maybe we lived in a world where Bossy produced Budweiser.

On a recent episode of "Pawn Stars," the bald guy says of a 19th-century revolver that was purported to be a gift to Theodore Roosevelt, "There’s no providence.” Are you kidding me? Dude! One day you're just a bald guy in a somewhat seedy business, the next you're a star of the small screen. Providence has been really, really good to you. (For those few of you who do not watch this show or "Antiques Roadshow," the word he wanted was "provenance.")

Want more beef? I spotted "calves liver" on a menu recently. I am not a fan of liver, anyway, but the liver of conjoined calves? A rare delicacy, to be sure, but a big "no, thanks" from this diner.

Horseshoe Awards go out to all the above. Let me know if there are any more sightings of the elusive beer cattle.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Gaffing the politicians

The presidential elections are a year and a half away, but we are well into the season of the favorite sport of American journalists—Gotcha. As one who plays Gotcha on a very small scale here at Wordcrank, perhaps I should not wag a finger at the big leaguers, but they seem to have lost all perspective in pursuit of a score, better known in journospeak as a gaffe.

Most of the recent scores have been fairly high on the OGG ("oh, good grief") meter. That means that players—journalists, pundits, comedians—are trying too hard to catch the hapless politician in a blunder.

The most recent high-OGG gaffe was President Obama's misstating his daughter's age. There have been hoots and shouts of laughter than the man does not know how old his firstborn is. If you missed the brouhaha, Obama said Malia is 13, when she's actually 12. He said this on June 29. Malia's 13th birthday is July 4. Maybe he should have said "about to be 13," but, really, does he have to be that precise? OGG.

Michelle Bachman got the same treatment for including John Quincy Adams as a Founding Father. No, he wasn't. He was a child in 1776, but he got a very early start on national affairs. He accompanied his father, John Adams, on his diplomatic missions to France and Holland beginning at the age of 11. He embarked on his own career at 14, when he served as secretary to the American envoy to Russia. I'd call him half a generation away from the founding and an important early national figure. He was just the sixth President of the United States. OGG.

I suppose politicians know this is part of the landscape they have chosen to enter, but it's a shame. Is it any wonder capable people decline to run for office? We voters and consumers of popular culture should remember that when next we encounter roving bands of gaffe-hunters looking for a little sport.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Stupid Celebrity Tricks

I know I probably should not venture into sociopolitical commentary. It was not my intention in launching this blog, and it just leads to hurt feelings, indigestion and war and asteroids barely missing the earth. But sometimes the temptation is too great.

Besides, if celebrities can make monumentally ignorant and insensitive statements and still get big contracts and cocktail party invitations, why can't I mildly criticize said statements and still go to Target or the Olive Garden without fear of receiving the cut direct?

Of course, if one commented on all the idiotic things well-known people are well-known for saying, well, there just wouldn't be time for salad and breadsticks at the OG. So I let Charlie Sheen blither about winning, and Rosie O'Donnell expound about fireproof steel, all without a peep.

But I just have to say something to Prince (the artist formerly known as a symbol not found on my keyboard—what a marketing genius!). The Guardian quotes the musician as saying: “It’s fun being in Islamic countries, to know there’s only one religion. There’s order. You wear a burqa. There’s no choice. People are happy with that.”

Wow. I guess that whole freedom-of-religion thing has been a drag for these 200+ years. And a burqa would certainly simplify the question of what to wear for any occasion.

Now that I have decided to comment, I find that I really can't. There just are no words. Except this: Mr. Nelson, let's see you in a burqa next time you're on stage. And no scantily dressed women, either. They should be in burqas too. Might make it hard to do your normal show, but never mind. It's fun.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Bah, humbug

It's that time of year again, when people spend all their money, then spend someone else's money, promising to repay it with interest, so that the big day will be completely wonderful and dreams will come true. Where have I heard all this before?

Yes, it sounds a lot like Christmas, but this is Yuletide on steroids. This is Wedding Season. Because I have written a few too many articles on lavish weddings, my thoughts on these ceremonies tend to be a bit acerbic. Does "lavish" (from Old French for a deluge of rain) adequately describe a wedding in which the budget for flowers alone was $40,000?

Weddings today are over the top, and I don't mean that in a good way. Web sites devoted to wedding planning say the average wedding cost is around $25,000. Are you kidding me? Have we all gone barking mad?

It seems that weddings have increased in elaborateness and expense as marriage, the purported reason for the wedding, has decreased in respect and occurrence. The 2010 census found that, for the first time in our history, the majority of American households were not formed by married couples.

So, we may not like marriage much, but we love weddings, if the number of books, magazines and TV shows devoted to them is any indication. And all that wedding talk is the source of my biggest wedding gripe, summed up in the phrase, "It's your day!" What a poisonous idea.

Budding bridezillas are told implicitly and in so many words that weddings are all about them. Not only is it foolish to encourage that sort of self-centeredness, it's just not true. The wedding is just the kickoff for the marriage, which, after all, is the really important thing. And marriage certainly is not all about the bride.

While weddings should be fun and festive occasions, at the heart they are solemn, sacred ceremonies. Keeping that in mind might keep all the frills in perspective, as well.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Smoking a Conestoga

It’s a holiday weekend, so here at Word Crank it’s time to kick back with a stogie.* That’s right, it’s cigar time once again, as in “Close but no…” (No actual tobacco products were burned in the writing of this post.)

First up, I was reading a review of a New York hotel on one of those sites where people post their opinions. One woman offered this: “The hotel, sadly, seems like it's in its death throws.” A death throw is, I suppose, the specialty of a spear-wielding warrior, but it has nothing to do with the demise of a Manhattan hotel. What the woman meant was “death throes.” “Throes”—always plural—means intense struggle or pain, from the Old English words for calamity and suffer.

There are figures of speech we use without knowing the underlying meaning of the words, and that can get us in trouble. For me, it is “hoist with one’s own petard.” I know its figurative meaning—to fall in the trap one has laid for another—but the literal meaning escapes me. A detective on a true-crime television show was hoist with something when he said “It ran the whole gambit.” Oh, so close. He meant “gamut,” of course. It really does help to know “gamut” comes from music and means a complete scale or the range of an instrument. “Gambit” is an opening tactical move in chess.

A similar problem vexed a columnist commenting on MSNBC’s firing of Keith Olbermann. In the days that followed that dust-up, he suggested that Olbie’s nemesis, Fox News, should hire the volatile commentator. “This would enable Fox to increase its already significant market share as well as guide its viewer demographic profile into unchartered waters.” The writer has a lot of company in this error, but what he should have said was “uncharted waters,” as in unmapped territory—off the charts.

Okay, that’s enough for now. Chart your course for the gamut of holiday fun.

*from Conestoga, because long, thin cigars are thought to have been smoked by the drivers of Conestoga wagons.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

You don't say?

Is there a word like schadenfreude* for the pleasure one takes in the inane writings of others? Maybe dummschreibendfreude? I think I'll break out that one the next time I fill out a form that asks for my hobbies. (I actually was asked that on a form for, I think, my cardiologist. I wonder what his other patients are up to that he feels the need to inquire.)

Anyway, I do enjoy coming across idiocies that have been committed to print for all the world to laugh and point at. There's a likeness to gallows humor in it, as every time I put metaphorical pen to paper I run the risk of providing such entertainment for others.

One category I hope to avoid is one I like to call "News of the Screamingly Obvious" or the "Sherlock File." Here are a couple of examples of entries in this category.

In an article on diet tips: "Usually, by the time you have identified a pattern, eating in response to emotions or certain situations has become a pattern." I was caught by surprise by the sudden loop back to the beginning of that sentence. It's like a grammatical Mobius strip.

This jewel came from Anglotopia, a blog for Anglophiles like me: "One of my favorite events in the U.K. sporting calendar is the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race. Held every year for hundreds of years, it's a rivalry that goes back centuries." But is it a competition of long standing? I wish they would clear that up for me.

See, wasn't that fun? Of course, it's a little mean to laugh at it, but I just can't help it. Perhaps dummschreibendfreude has more in common with schadenfreude than I would like to admit.

*Schadenfreude—The pleasure derived from another's misfortune.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Just the facts, ma'am

Joe Friday, the TV detective who made investigating 1960s-style psychedelic baby-killing seem as exciting as double-entry bookkeeping, said that early and often in Dragnet. "Just the facts, ma'am." The phrase was suitably terse and more polite than saying "Save your whining or your drama or what you had for lunch, just tell me what happened."

Now I'm wondering what happened to the facts. Sometime soon after Friday turned in his badge a hideous phrase gained currency. I speak of "true facts." It didn't seem to bother many people that such a phrase was laughably redundant. And so it was that soon it wasn't. Because if there are "true facts," then there must also be "false facts."

Somehow, facts became assertions, even though the definition is a model of clarity. A fact is "a thing that is indisputably the case." As John Adams said, "Facts are stubborn things." But, unfortunately, that is only true if you know what a fact is.

Concerning the recent demise of Osama bin Laden, a Washington Post story said that despite some dispute about the resale value of the terrorist mastermind 's living quarters, "the underlying facts about bin Laden's lifestyle remained true."

Yep, facts tend to remain true. Indisputably. Stubborn, remember? (Definition: "having or showing dogged determination not to change…")

Friday, April 15, 2011

I Correct You Because I Care

Whenever the conversation turns to pronunciation (it does occasionally, doesn't it?), the objections usually come pretty quickly. "Gimme a break; you knew what I meant." "What difference does it make?" "I don't care how it's pronounced." "Shut up." Or my favorite, a good friend's invariable response to my gentle corrections is "B*tch!"

I recently perused a Web page that offered corrections and chidings far more persnickety than any I ever felt moved to make. In fact, he/she zinged me on several, e.g. insisting on the "broo" in "February" and the "l" in "yolk," as well as three clearly enunciated syllables for "mayonnaise."

Despite the surprises on the list of "100 Most Often Mispronounced Words and Phrases," the comments were even more remarkable. Along with suggestions for the next 100 words were about an equal number of "How dare you!" and "Where do you get off?" responses. Among these commenters, the word "elitist" was thrown around a lot, as well as accusations of not caring for the poor and undereducated among us.

The animus aroused by the preference for correct grammar and pronunciation is amazing to me. I just like to get these things right, okay? It's much like the desire for neatness and order in one's surroundings. I don't personally have that particular gene, but I understand that others do, and I won't call you a fascist or a prig because your house looks like a magazine photo spread. Neat freak, maybe, but that's as far as I go.

So, no name-calling, please. Grammarians need love, too, perhaps even more than that other put-upon group, dentists. Even if our helpful corrections cause wincing not unlike one's experiences in the dentist's chair, we can't help ourselves.

Oh, and apparently the word I should have used above to describe the punctilious Web poster is "pernickety." According to this guy, "it is a Scottish nonce word to which U.S. speakers have added a spurious [s]." Now, really. You knew what I meant.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Tomayto, Tomahto

"Why can't the English teach their children how to speak?" So said Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, and I would only add that Americans don't do any better. Of course, Prof. Higgins averred in the same song that "In America they haven't used it —(the English language)—for years."

Higgins was concerned with pronunciation and the "verbal class distinction" that flowed out of the different accents found in Old Blighty. Accents and speech patterns certainly can hinder one in career ladder and social climbing, even in our far-more fluid society than Higgins's London. But I'm more concerned here with words that we, as a society, just can't seem to decide how to pronounce.

One that has bothered me for years is "Caribbean." I continue to pronounce it as I first heard it, with the accent on the "be." That's certainly the way Southerners—and Brits, such as Prof. Higgins—traditionally pronounced it. It's far more euphonious to my ear than the "rib" emphasis, but the latter pronunciation is becoming the norm. I attribute the spread of Ca-RIB-be-an to advertising by the cruise line Royal Caribbean, which selected that pronunciation. Of course, Capt. Jack Sparrow and the gang from Pirates of the Caribbean gave a boost to my team, but unless the cruise line goes under, metaphorically speaking, I expect that to fade as the films disappear into Disney's movie vault.

Then there's "caramel." We have at least three frequently heard pronunciations for that: "CARE-uh-muhl," "care-uh-MELL" and "CAR-muhl." So far I haven't heard "cuh-RAM-uhl," but it could be just a matter of time.

What about pajamas? I don't know why some people choose to have "jam" with their pajamas, but I'm told the word came to us from Hindustani, by way of the British Raj. Surely Col. Pickering wore pa-JAH-mas. (The colonel was Prof. Higgins's house guest and foil in the musical.)

For me, the greatest confusion of all comes from "route." Frankly, I don't know how I pronounce this. I think it differs by context. If I were ever to get my kicks on Route 66, I would certainly say it the way the song does—"root." However, the device that plugs into my modem is certainly my "rowter." I just have to avoid this word in conversation. "I don't have to map out a…way to go. I just follow my Garmin's directions."

That useful device not only obviates map-folding, a skill I never acquired, but saves me from the awful root-or-rowt decision.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Captain and Me

"What we've got here is a failure to communicate." This famous line, uttered by the Captain, the head of a Florida prison work camp in the 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke, once was a catch phrase that was invoked when misunderstandings came to light. I don't hear it often anymore, not because we are all communicating so well, but, since only film buffs among those less than middle-aged will have seen the Paul Newman flick, it has faded from public consciousness.

Too bad. The line so completely describes so much writing these days, from serious periodicals to texts and tweets that use so many abbreviations and symbols that I sometimes feel that I am deciphering hieroglyphs without the benefit of a Rosetta Stone.

Take this paragraph found on Good Morning America's Web site: “Although cannabis has been consistently associated with psychosis in prior studies, there is an ongoing debate about whether the relationship is causal, whether it can be explained by residual confounding, or whether it can be explained by the use of the drug to self-medicate for existing psychotic symptoms.”

Personally, I can't explain anything by “residual confounding.” I had to do a little research to find out that it means an "effect that remains after one has attempted to statistically control for variables that cannot be measured perfectly." And that cleared that up, right? Here's the problem I have with this writing example—look back at where I found this nugget. Good Morning America's Web site. Couldn't the writer put it in a little more everyday language for what is certainly a site geared to Joe Six-Pack (or, more likely, Mrs. Joe Six-Pack).

A perplexing online abbreviation I ran across recently was "LDS SAHM." It was used as an identification by commenters on a book review. I knew "LDS"—Latter Day Saints or Mormon—but "SAHM" stumped me. Fortunately, scrolling through the comments I found someone equally confused who asked for clarification. Turns out that "SAHM" means "stay-at-home mom." Now I know, but, really, why are we putting up barriers to understanding?

Then there's just the near-incoherent. A staffer for a New York politician wrote this: "She doesn’t suffer people who don’t support her lightly." Really? Did you read that sentence before hitting "send"?

Failure to communicate is still with us. By the way, if you haven't seen the movie, add it to your Netflix queue. From then on, you'll read the words "failure to communicate" in Strother Martin's Deep South drawl. My own memory of the movie includes the reflection that I saw it with what must have been a very disappointed date. When he asked what I wanted to do when we went out, I immediately answered that I wanted to go to the drive-in theater. A hold-over from the heyday of drive-ins, it screened way-past-their-expiration-date movies, and Cool Hand Luke was playing. I ate popcorn and soaked up the classic film.

Looking back on it, I think my date and I may have had a failure to communciate.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Hello Kitty go bragh!

It's spring break here. Half the population has decamped for the beach, and even those of us left behind to keep the economic trains running have been excused from any deep thinking. So this post will be shallow…on purpose, as opposed to most of the others.

It's also St. Patrick's Day, so Erin go bragh, y'all. That ubiquitous greeting of the day is a simplification of "Éirinn go brách," which means "Ireland forever" or "Ireland until Judgment Day," which gives a more sober perspective on the day. It could cause one to forgo that last green beer. I've always suspected that a green beer hangover would be just that much worse than an average one, anyway.

Everybody who is not at the beach this week follows the stay-at-home spring break tradition of crowding area malls. I am no exception, but my excuse was exercise. It was too chilly to walk outside the other day, so I headed for the Galleria, where I encountered some mysteries.

First, there is the acupressure place (salon? clinic?) where the sign proclaims "Acupressure prevents blockages that can cause physical and emotional problems." Well, that's all right, but…blockages of what, exactly? I need that spelled out before I submit to…whatever it is they do there.

Then there is the trendy, youth-oriented store for guys where I couldn't help noticing a strange new (to me) phenomenon. When did male mannequins sprout nipples? And why? I'm not ready for these life-sized dolls to get any more anatomically correct.

But the most startling development was at Sephora, the "beauty retailer." (I'd like to buy some beauty, but I'd rather get wholesale.) A large poster announced the arrival of a new brand of makeup—Hello Kitty. "Hello Kitty is bringing her playful spirit to a new beauty line," according to the store's Web site.

I admit I never saw that coming, but just a little googling revealed my naivete. It was so, so inevitable. For a taste of the nightmare that is the Hello Kitty World, go to www.kittyhell.com, a blog tagged "One Man's Life With Cute Overload."

Apparently we will have Hello Kitty until Judgment Day, and that day may be sooner than we think. God help us.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Is that the word I want?

There are strange words out there. Or at least strange word choices. I read and hear them frequently. Sometimes I'm not sure where the fault lies. Despite having the temerity to blog about language, I don't pretend that I know everything about usage. So I'll just share a few instances of word choices I found odd and wait to be corrected. I look forward to receiving the Internet equivalent of the traditional "Dear sir, you cur" letter.

Remember the gas pipeline explosion in California? One commentator said of the victims, "These folks have been disenfranchised from their homes." My computer's dictionary is okay with this usage, I gather, from its third definition: "deprive someone of a right or privilege." I object. Let's keep "disenfranchise" for instances of denying the right to vote or the effect of a vote.

Even my handy computer dictionary can't help the caller to a local radio show who confessed that he "used to follow football, I bled crimson and white, but I got disenfranchised with all that."

I could find no backing for this strange use: The Southern Poverty Law Center had to apologize to a scholar it accused of denying Turkey's massacre of Armenians during and after World War I. In so doing, they called the incident "a conflict earmarked by widespread civilian suffering on all sides." Earmarked?

There has been a great deal of jawing among the political class about earmarking, but it has concerned the practice of designating funds for a particular purpose. An earmark is exactly what it sounds like—a mark on the ear of a farm animal. The SPLC's use of the word just makes no sense.

Neither does this, from the Washington Post: "…the U.S. government, which helped to create ICANN in 1998, has been reprimanding the nonprofit group to give foreign nations more say over the Web's operations."

I don't think you can reprimand someone to do anything. What did the Post writer mean? That the U.S. government repeatedly has reprimanded the group in hopes that it will change its policy? Or did s/he mean the government is pressuring the group to make a change? I can't say.

Another strange word choice turned out not only to be correct, but seemed, on second look, a wonderful return of an old usage. When I first read this sentence—"The status quo may be fraught and unnatural, but it is endlessly preferable to those options"—I was stopped by "fraught" not followed by "with." The word's second definition is "causing or affected by great anxiety or stress." It can, in fact, stand alone.

Using out-of-the-ordinary words is fraught with the danger of a communication breakdown, but our conversations need not be fraught. Just stay away from those painful earmarks.

Friday, February 25, 2011

East is East and West is West, but where are they?

All the ruckus in the Middle East has got me thinking. Not about peace, or even sanity, in the region—that's too much of a conundrum for my brain. No, I've been thinking of the interesting—to me!—question of why in the world we call it "the Middle East."

I know the "Far East" designates China and Japan and their neighborhood. Then there's the Middle East, an area with which we are all too familiar by now. So, if it's the middle, what's on the other side? True, one hears about the "Near East" now and then, and it would be logical to conclude that some lands to the west of the Middle East must constitute the Near East. Except there isn't any land to the west of the Middle East. There's just the Mediterranean (Middle Earth) Sea.

North Africa, you say? Where much of the current excitement is taking place? No. Listen to your favorite newscaster or read any news outlet. All that trouble? They say it's taking place in the Middle East.

It gets worse. In the Associated Press Stylebook, "Near East" is essentially a synonym for "Middle East." According to Wikipedia (yes, I know), the definitions and delineations of "Near East" and "Middle East" shifted around a lot until the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 so confused geographers and the British military—which had adopted and tried to tame these terms—that everybody just gave up on "Near East" and everything from the Caucasus to the Atlantic shore of Africa became the Middle East.

Apparently diehards at the United Nations continue to use the phrase "Near East," by which they seem to mean the Levant only, but they are not any more influential in matters of language than they are in matters of diplomacy.

I won't even get into the hyper-sensitive objections that calling anyplace at all "East" is Eurocentric or Occident-centric or some such. I mean, we have to able to call these areas something or how can we even begin to have a "peace process" there?

Well, I hope that clears up any lingering questions about that region's name. Fittingly, it is just as much a confused mess as the Middle East itself. I know I feel better.

Friday, February 18, 2011

More verbing

As I have previously noted in this space, even in these dreary economic times, one part of the manufacturing sector is doing brisk business—the creation of new verbs. Spotting them makes reading newspapers and magazines ever so much more fun.

A local bookseller sends out a chatty newsletter in which he shared this: "I arrive at the bookstore two hours before opening time to catch up on newly acquisitioned books." Why not "acquired," I wonder? I suppose it is in imitation of "requisition," a noun that got in touch with its verbal side in Victorian military lingo.

My ear picked out our old friend the back-formation on an episode of "Intervention," a TV show about people with addictions. A therapist warned, "If she doesn't get treatment, she will continue to compulse." Ugh. That sounds really terrible.

A columnist explaining his views on life and death said "This is a one quarter, one life game. When you die, you die. That can be discomforting for many (even some of my fellow atheists)." I found "discomforting" discomfiting. The New Oxford American Dictionary allows "to discomfort," but, like the ubiquitous "to disrepect," it sounds strange to my ear.

Sometimes verbing creates a gem. Discussing the Wikileaks brouhaha, another columnist pointed out that the leaks were all from liberal democracies. Where was the gossip and insider information from the world's more numerous authoritarian regimes? "Such governments do not customarily go to court against their leakers; they gulag them…or liquidate them."

Turning "gulag" into a verb by rights should annoy me, but it does seem to be the mot juste in that context. Just this once. If it becomes a habit, we may have to gulag that writer.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The St. Valentine's Day Stick-Up

Valentine's Day looms, and each year I consider the occasion with decidedly mixed feelings. Childhood memories of lace hearts and decorated paper bags filled with dime-store cards are as sweet as candy hearts. Valentine's Day then was pure fun. Everybody got cards, from the most popular girl to the most misfit boy, and the sentiments—"Be Mine!" "You're the Greatest, Valentine!"—meant nothing. Nothing at all. Why this was such a treat I cannot explain. It was a childish delight.

Then there were the awkward years. Valentine's Day became the culmination of a fortnight or more of anxiety. Would Cupid smile and shoot and field-dress a date for the big day? Or, if there was a steady date on the scene, would he stay steady until after V-Day or evaporate before having to invest in flowers? And just what was the proper gesture from the female for the occasion? A card? Did Hallmark have a card expressing the sentiment, in rhyme, "I'm so glad you're around because I didn't want to be the only girl in the dorm who didn't get flowers, but really I don't know if I have anything to say to you"?

Of course, now Valentine's Day brings on other quandaries, such as "Do I postpone the after-Christmas diet until March so I can indulge in Valentine chocolates?" or "Do I buy the chocolates for Valentine's Day, or wait to get them on sale?"

Mostly my feelings are of sympathy for the poor men I see crowding the card and candy aisles on Feb. 13, or their more desperate brothers, grabbing up bouquets of whatever flowers are left on the day itself. Anything, apparently, is better than going home empty-handed.

Maybe true love means ignoring Valentine's Day, our annual celebration of hearts-and-flowers extortion. It's all over-the-top and, ultimately, silly. Except for the chocolate. Come to think of it, Valentine's Day is an important part of our national retail cycle, banishing the winter blues and giving business a lift after the tightened belts of January.

No, our noble candymakers must not suffer. Viva Valentine's Day, and bring out the chocolate.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Don't faze me, bro!

I admit to being fazed (disturbed or disconcerted, from Old English fesian) by made-up words that elbow their way into the language. Sometimes, if the neologisms are useful, I'll relent and adopt them, but not without a breaking-in period, usually accompanied by a modicum of grumbling.

Many of these new words have been tortured from existing ones in a process known as "back formation," for example, crafting a new verb from a real noun. When a protestor reached for Internet stardom and uttered the immortal words "Don't tase me, bro!" he bastardized a verb from a trademark name, Taser. ("Bastardize" is also a verb teased from a noun.)

Clearly, the public feels the need for a verb to describe the act of using a Taser. I don't think we have settled yet between "tase" and "taser" as a verb, but the instant popularity of the protestor's phrase may tip the balance toward the former.

"Liaise," a back-formation from "liaison," provides a verb for those who insist on one, but I cannot approve. Like many back-formations, it is clunky and, to make this one worse, it has a faintly pretentious air. How hard is it to say "John will act as liaison"? You'll sound more polished and you won't annoy me. Win-win.

Sometimes back-formed verbs are chosen instead of perfectly good, dictionary-approved ones. That's when I can be heard either yelling or mumbling, depending on my mood, "idiot!" or "are you kidding me?" to the television. Such as when a reporter told of a nutburger whose significant other was a large doll. TV reporter: "He believes some day they will create a doll that will conversate with him." Conversate? What is wrong with "converse"? Maybe the guy was too weirded out to think clearly. I can understand that.

I had the same reaction when I heard a TV talking head come out with the word "metamorphosize." "Metamorphose" is the right word and it's shorter by a syllable, two advantages that the commentator disregarded.

Of course, back-formations cannot, and should not, be eschewed completely. They can be helpful in communicating and provide flexibility to the language. I may even make my peace with "liaise." It may help eliminate another annoyance by teaching the public how to pronounce "liaison." If use of that back-formation stamps out "lay-uh-zahn," it will have become a force for good.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Cutting Back on Southern-Fried Speech

Southerners have long been known for colorful expressions and honeyed tones. But just as Southern accents are fading, Southern idiom is gradually disappearing. Check it yourself. When was the last time you heard anyone say "yonder?"

It's inevitable, of course. The South is no longer a backwater, populated by poor folks enduring a hard-scrabble life. Thank goodness. Regional differences across the American landscape have been smoothed and graded by exposure to the voices pouring from radio and television. Again, that's on balance a good thing. It is often noted that before the Civil War, "the United States" was a plural name, as in "these United States." Citizens felt their first loyalty to their states, then the federation. Today's Americans would consider that a strange notion.

While it's all to the good, I can't help mourning the loss of the traditional Southern way of speaking, a bit slower, with all the rough edges polished away. I regret that I would no longer say "We're going to that shop over yonder." Now I "take" a friend to the shop, rather than "carry" her. And I "carry" a shopping bag, rather than "toting" it.

I remember my grandmother, when giving me an errand, urged me not to dawdle by saying, not "hurry up," but "make haste." (It took me a while to realize that was what she was saying, as it sounded like "may case" to me. But I knew it meant "get a move on.") If I tried that command now, doubtless it would produce baffled stares instead of the desired snapping to.

There must be hundreds of Southernisms that gradually faded from my vocabulary, and, at times, I miss them. Likewise, there must have been a proto-Word Crank centuries ago who lamented that young folk no longer say "forsooth" or "prithee" as their elders did.

I understand that language constantly undergoes a destruction-creation cycle. It's all very natural, if bittersweet. But wait, a kernel of Southern speech not only survives, but even has been spread by displaced Southerners to other parts of the country.

Take heart. No matter how homogenized our speech becomes, we will always have "y'all."

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Virtue of Patients

As I write this, I am awaiting a call-back from yet another medical establishment to set an appointment. I have always enjoyed robust health, but now, in late middle age or early seniority—whatever you want to call this awkward age between "Life Begins at 40" and the first Social Security check, it is all catching up to me. I seem to develop a new malady every other month.

After I get the sleep study scheduled, I need to make an appointment with my dermatologist, and the question is, should I make it for my sixth-month check-up in June or go earlier to talk about the latest symptoms? It becomes increasingly obvious that I am heading for that mad whirl of doctors' appointments and lab tests that the elderly organize their lives around.

I don't want to go there. Every appointment equals about half a day lost to productivity. The above-mentioned dermatologist probably wins the prize for keeping patients waiting long after their appointment times. Her waiting room is filled with people in varying states of anxiety and grumpiness. Every 10 or 15 minutes, someone will pop up, walk to the receptionist's desk to ask, querulously, when the doctor will see them, adding that they have to a) catch a plane, b) pick up kids from school or c) run screaming from the place, tearing at their hair in sheer frustration.

The old joke says that all that waiting is why we are called patients. That, as it turns out, is not far from the truth. Both "patients" and "patience" come from the Latin word pati, meaning "to suffer."

Somehow, it makes me feel a bit better to think of all of us in that waiting room as "sufferers." I may even be more patient.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Reading in a soft, electronic glow

Now that the century is in its second decade, the Word Crank finally has shuffled into it with the acquisition of one of those high-tech devices that so define our times. Yes, under the Christmas tree was a Nook, Barnes and Noble's answer to Amazon's Kindle. It is the color version, which is especially snazzy.

I am on record as being intrigued, but somewhat dubious about the necessity for these devices. So, now that I have one, what is the verdict? I love it. I still fear its ability to lure me into spending money needlessly (parsimony being one of my virtues/vices), but I'm giving myself self-discipline pep talks. Five and ten dollar book purchases can add up, but I have a $15 a month budget to keep me from going overboard.

Advantages: Portability. The Nook packs easily in luggage or purse. I've already taken mine on a short trip to Mobile. It slips into a pouch in the purse I also got for Christmas and has accompanied me to a couple of doctor appointments.

The Nook also stays open to the page I am reading without requiring a hand, so it's great for solo lunches. Just be cautious of flying food particles. Keep it well clear when eating chicken and dumplings at Cracker Barrel. Trust me.

An unforeseen advantage is the ability to read after lights out. If only I had had this at Camp Kiwanis so many years ago. Now when the spouse grumbles that my bedside lamp is keeping him awake (usually said in a brief hiatus from snoring), I have an option.

An extra benefit is the encouragement to read books outside the usual run of preference. While I have a reading list with more than 100 titles that I would like to check out, the first book I read on my Nook was Dracula. This is not a novel I ever had any interest in reading, but somehow in the process of downloading Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park, B & N decided to give me Bram Stoker's classic, as well as Little Women. They just showed up on my Nook.

Sitting with my Nook in a doctor's crowded waiting room, I decided to read the editor's intro to Dracula for the very reason that I was not interested in the book. I was in the midst of another book, a hardback, and didn't really want to start another. I just wanted to while away the time. Well, as I waited and waited, I read the intro, then started the novel and before I knew it, I was hooked.

The only disadvantage I can think of, besides not being compatible with a bubble bath, is that it is not quite so easy to page forward to find the next break, a habit of mine to see if I should keep reading or turn out the light.

Clearly the pros far outweigh the cons in my book (or should I say Nook?). Besides, I shouldn't take many bubble baths anymore. A long bath is so drying to the skin. The Nook even has dermatological benefits!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Measuring words for the memory hole

A new year has begun and with it the language mavens at Lake Superior State University have published their annual list of words and phrases they wish to toss from the American lexicon. Here they are: viral, epic, fail, wow factor, aha moment, back story, BFF, man up, refudiate, mama grizzlies, the American People, I'm just sayin', live life to the fullest, and using Facebook or Google as verbs.

In case you wondered, as I did, Lake Superior State University is in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., a rather charming blue-collar town that I never knew boasted a university. Clearly, an interdisciplinary cadre of fellow cranks came up with a fun and satisfying publicity vehicle for their obscure state college. They deserve kudos, but I think most of us could come up with lists just as newsworthy.

I'll agree on some of the 2011 banished words, but some are okay with me. I am still amused by "man up," and while Facebook should never be a verb, I rarely go a day without googling.

I would submit a few particularly grating words of my own. Before we enter another election campaign, I wish to erase from memory the pompous term "gravitas." This one word makes the writer/speaker look much sillier than the candidate whose claim to seriousness is being questioned.

A warning to candidates and other public figures—when something you have said makes headlines and prompts head-shaking editorials, think before you trot out the old chestnut "They took it out of context." That phrase seems to have been drained of its meaning in recent years. Apparently, many people think it just means "let me off the hook; I'm not a bad guy."

Taking something out of context means just that! The context gives the controversial phrase a different meaning than the excerpt would indicate. A film critic may say "This movie has everything an audience could want, if they came to the theater to catch up on their sleep." The movie theater's ad uses the quote, leaving off the second clause. That's out of context!

Another phrase I'd like to ban is "Our thoughts and prayers are with [insert victims or families of victims of some disaster/crime/enormity]." I recognize the good intent behind this phrase, but I'm tired of it nonetheless. In addition to being banal and cliched, it is meaningless. Our thoughts may be with the victims, but so what? Why in an attempt to comfort those in sorrow are we so eager to pat ourselves on the back? "I'm thinking of you" puts the emphasis on me and my compassion rather than you and your troubles.

As to the second part of the phrase, well, it just doesn't make sense. Our prayers are with you? How can prayers be "with" someone? It would make more sense to say "Our prayers are for you" or, far better, "We are praying for you." Ah, but that requires action and some measure of commitment. It's a little too serious for the quickly tossed-off pro forma condolence.

Well, I suppose that's enough to offend a few of you, my BFFs. Man up! I'm just sayin'.