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?