Tuesday, December 20, 2011
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
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 —
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."
Tuesday, December 6, 2011
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
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|
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
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
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
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
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
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
Wednesday, September 7, 2011
Monday, August 29, 2011
Thursday, August 25, 2011
Wednesday, August 17, 2011
Thursday, August 11, 2011
Friday, July 29, 2011
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
Friday, July 1, 2011
Monday, June 27, 2011
Wednesday, June 8, 2011
Saturday, May 28, 2011
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
Friday, May 6, 2011
Friday, April 15, 2011
Friday, April 8, 2011
"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."
Saturday, March 26, 2011
"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
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.
Monday, March 7, 2011
Friday, February 25, 2011
Friday, February 18, 2011
Saturday, February 12, 2011
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.