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, 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.