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…")