A few years ago, I attended an interfaith religious service—Christian, Jewish, Muslim—not long after some hoodlums had smeared feces on a nearby mosque. I went because the announcement said there would be cookies, not so much because my going would show solidarity or make a statement. I learned my lesson about “statements” in 1974 when I threw myself into the women’s movement, which threw me out ten minutes later, after I “stated” that I liked my job but I’d rather be a stay-at-home mom. My next “statement” was to resign from activism altogether and change my party affiliation from Democrat to Independent. The world yawned, and I began showing solidarity with Groucho Marx and adopting his 1951 “statement” about not wanting to “belong to any club that would have [him]… as a member.” But—back to the Interfaith Service—I don’t mind, statementwise, being perceived as someone who would rather participate in interfaith worship than throw shit at mosques.
The service featured shofars making startling noises, which is evidently the point of shofars. I’d already been startled to the point of heart failure by an explosion of tympani sounds during the choir’s pre-service rehearsal of “Let All Things Now Living,” set to the sweet melody many of us, especially church-camp alumni, know as “The Ash Grove.” So ungentle and unexpected was the tympani’s entrance that for a beat or two I thought something had actually exploded. It hadn’t, and my pulse returned to almost normal, but it occurred to me that the interfaith gathering might be a bit more vulnerable to mischief than, say, a worship service at my own church, First Central Congregational (UCC), which hasn’t blown up even once since it was built in the early 1900s. Maybe it’s the calming effect of old oak, stained glass, traditional choral music, and soft lighting. But the interfaith event, having been widely publicized, might well have attracted the type of lunatic who as a child tormented the family cat. So went my thinking, at least, until the welcome distraction of shofar-blowing.
Note the phrase type of lunatic. I use it for convenience, knowing full well that you don’t have to be crazy to be dangerous. Not for lack of trying, I’ve discovered that it’s easier to refer to people in clumps than to become personally acquainted with everybody in the world. Sadly, due to the limitations of language and friendship, I default to clump-speak.
Before her baby talk became intelligible to adults, my grand-niece Desi had an astonishing vocabulary of Desi-invented words. She was extraordinarily fluent in nonsense, as I thought of it, but maybe she was creating the sort of lexicon we might all have to use if we couldn’t categorize things, including people. As a general practice, this approach would lead to communication chaos. No one could order pizza or get directions to the loo.
There was a time during the civil-rights movement when many well-meaning people took great pains to not allude to race. We thought it was impolite to notice skin color. Being “color-blind” was the politically correct sort of vision before, to my immense relief, Black became Beautiful. I remember a farcical conversation during the color-blind era with a classmate called Judy. We’d taken a difficult English-lit test and had just received our grades. The dialogue went something like this:
Me: I studied like crazy and got a B-minus. What about you?
Judy: I got a C. Only one person [out of forty-seven in the class] got an A.
Me: Wow! Who was that?
Judy: You know, Jeff. Sits in the third row. Tall. Dark hair.
Me, totally at sea: I have no idea who… uh, whom you’re talking about.
Judy, frustrated: You know, Jeff! He had on Levi’s and a red sweatshirt yesterday. He, um, wears John Lennon glasses.
Me: Oh, you mean Jeff, the only African-American in the class?
Judy, looking nervously around to see if my gaffe had been overheard: Yeah, that guy.
Clumping might be a linguistic necessity, but it leads to false assumptions and the resultant misinformation. Think “rock star,” and it’s a short mental hop to illicit drugs and indiscriminate sex, assumptions that are patently unfair to drug-shunning legends such as Bruce Springsteen, Frank Zappa, and Gene Simmons and his Kiss.
Failing the litmus test
House minority leader Nancy Pelosi said recently that the Democrats shouldn’t make abortion a litmus test for membership. I struggle with the idea of any litmus test for party affiliation when there are only two of them—parties, I mean. It’s difficult to imagine that there are only two kinds of people in this country: (a) those who believe in free-market capitalism, protectionism, tariffs, free enterprise, fiscal conservatism, a strong national defense, deregulation, restrictions on labor unions, and traditional values based largely on Judeo-Christian ethics; and (b) those who don’t. Once I asked my dad, a lifelong Republican, how many times he had voted for a Democrat. He looked thoughtful, puffed on his pipe, and finally said, “None.” But he had to think about it.
Terry Gross, host and executive producer of NPR’s Fresh Air, recently interviewed a onetime feminist who now considers herself “post-binary.” My voter-registration card says “Independent” because there’s no litmus test for being, by definition, nonpartisan. Someone who is uncomfortable with ambivalence might develop one, in which case I’d have to declare myself a post-independent Independent.
Since I read Martin Buber’s classic 1923 book I and Thou, I have tried, and have occasionally succeeded, to not clump people but to treat each individual as, above all else, a sacred soul—regardless of political affiliation, gender, color, age, IQ, occupation, or capacity to irritate the hell out of me.
“When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly,” Buber affirms, “God is the electricity that surges between them.”
Clearly, dualism is a dead end. The universe is a vast and wonderful array of shade and nuance. There are more microbes—which are neither plant nor animal—than all other living things put together. Some scientists even consider viruses to be “nonliving organisms.”
“People desire to separate their world into polarities,” writes the late Joy Page—“dark and light, ugly and beautiful, good and evil, right and wrong, inside and outside. Polarities serve us in our learning and growth, but as souls we are all.”
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THE IMPORTANCE OF KNOWING WHAT’S IMPORTANT
A WORD ABOUT USING EXCLAMATION POINTS: Don’t. At least, not often. Let your narrative convey excitement, even in dialogue, when the speaker is saying something terribly important, such as, “The Giant Leeches from Space have landed.”
Why? Because if you use an exclamation point at the end of an important sentence— “The Giant Leeches from Space have landed!”—and then something even more important happens—”They are entering the Schmerdlings’ house, which is next door!!”—you’ll have to use two exclamation points; and by the time the Giant Leeches from Space have drained the blood from all five Schmerdlings and their housekeeper and their Great Dane, have munched on a cluster of field mice, and have started dismantling the window of the nursery where your 18-month-old triplets just fell asleep, the exclamation points alone will have consumed two black-ink cartridges—unless you’re using a different color, maybe “Merlot,” but somehow I don’t see you fiddling with color schemes during emergencies, especially the critically important ones.
Punctuation with Friends
THE POPULAR GAME WORDS WITH FRIENDS has a dictionary all its own. For some reason, it includes quite a few Scots and Welsh words. In any case, success is largely trial and error. When I accidentally spell an actual word—GLED, in this case—I look it up in the WWF dictionary; I might want to use it again. I am informed that GLED “is a valid Words with Friends word.”
This happens all the time in WWF. It’s okay. I got my 48 points, so to my mind the subject is closed—unless I really want to know the meaning, in which case I Google the word. I sometimes pause to imagine a place where only “valid Words with Friends words” are spoken—”AARRGH! GLED HOOKME, AAL! TEUGH WHEEP. TREX?”—but then I let it go and move on.
But Words with Friends isn’t finished. After defining GLED as “a valid Words with Friends word,” it apologizes:
Sorry, no definition is available at this time!
Really! You don’t say! What a curious spot for an exclamation point! Might want to save your excitement till you’re ready to announce that, yes, at last, a definition has become available!
AS SOON AS I LEARNED TO READ, I started devouring the comic strips in the evening and Sunday newspapers, including the lame ones (Henry, Nancy) and the ones that went way over my head (Pogo, the Katzenjammer Kids). I never understood why, in many of the strips, all the characters seemed to be shouting, all the time. Every sentence ended with an exclamation point, even if it was a question. “Hello!” “How are you?!” “Not so good!” “Oh!” “What’s up with you?!” “Not much!” “I see!”
In one vintage comic strip, Mary Worth—a kindly widow who was at least 50 when she was born, which puts her somewhere in her 130s—is wearing a dowdy hat and white cotton gloves, her brow furrowed in what I take to be a worried expression. Clearly, she is getting ready to go somewhere on a matter of grave importance.
The doorbell rings. Mary opens the door, and there, weeping, looking wretched but perfectly coiffed, is her attractive but despondent young friend Elaine, or Jeannine, or Delilah, who suspects that her husband is cheating on her but who has been in denial since 1955. (I was only 8 years old when I started reading Mary Worth, but it was pretty clear to me that Elaine, Jeannine, and Delilah were all married to the same worthless piece-of-shit traveling salesman.)
ELAINE: Mrs. Worth! You’re wearing your white gloves and goofy hat with a black net veil that makes it look like spiders are crawling on your forehead! You must be going out!
MARY: Yes, Elaine! I have an appointment with Dr. Edgemont!
ELAINE: Dr. Edgemont! The distinguished and handsome heart surgeon with a mysterious past! Mrs. Worth, are you all right?! Is something wrong with your heart?!
MARY: I’m fine, Elaine! Never better! As you can see, I have plenty of money though I’ve never worked a day in my life! I’m seeing a heart surgeon merely to pass the time! But I don’t have to leave right this minute! Do you have news about your faithless husband, Trent, who was seen trysting at L’Intimité with Delilah?! Please come in!
The people who wrote the Mary Worth comic strip evidently wanted us to think that what Mary and her friend were saying was critically important—more important than what Dr. Rex Morgan and his attractive nurse, June Gale, were discussing in the adjacent comic strip. In retaliation, Rex and June had to start exclaiming everything, too. The last time I read Li’l Abner, I noticed that every sentence ended with two exclamation points.
Of course, they were all competing with real adventure comics—Dick Tracy, Steve Canyon, and others, in which stuff actually happened—kidnappings, plane crashes, bank robberies—whereas, in Mary Worth, it took an entire week to get Elaine from the doorstep to the living-room sofa and another week to find out if she took cream in her coffee. The only actual plot movement in Mary Worth; Rex Morgan, M.D.; Winnie Winkle; and other soap-opera-type series occurred in the Sunday funnies, when the strips were in color and occupied a third of a page instead of a few inches next to the crossword puzzle. With all that color and activity and dialogue, the shouting rose to a din!!!!
Act now! Operators are standing by!
I HAVE IN FRONT OF ME A POSTCARD from the University of Arizona Alumni Association. It contains numerous sentences but no exclamation points. Nevertheless, I know that this is One Frigging Important Postcard. For one thing, it’s bright yellow. But besides that, just above my address there is a box with a wide black border surrounding the words—which are in bold capital letters—IMPORTANT ALUMNI VERIFICATION NOW DUE. On the other side is another box containing the words CONFIRMATION NECESSARY.
Dear Mrs. Campbell [the postcard reads], More than 80 percent of the University of Arizona alumni we’ve spoken with in regard to the verification project have made important revisions to their alumni data. This is the reason I urge you to call 1-866-555-5555 today.
If the postcard said, “Last year, more than 80 percent of the University of Arizona alumni ate mayonnaise. This is the reason I urge you to call…” it would make the same amount of sense. I can almost hear my dear mother’s voice: “Mary, if 80 percent of the University of Arizona alumni jumped off a cliff, would you jump off a cliff?”
But wait! There’s more!! “It’s critically important [the paragraph continues] to talk with each University of Arizona graduate.”
Critically important for me to talk with each U of A graduate? Or for Melinda B—, the Alumni Association president, whose name appears at the bottom of the postcard? Either way, I’m sort of busy. My toddler is spraying toilet-bowl cleaner on the cat, and a glop of the foam is on the finger she’s about to stick into her own nose. Is it okay if I take care of that before I call 1-866-555-5555? Although… Wow! I don’t know…. There’s another box around some bold type—upper and lower case, but the letters are HUGE—asking me nicely to “Please call 1-866-555-5555 (toll-free) to take care of this important matter today.” Still no exclamation point, but those letters are pretty big, and Melinda does say it’s important, and… Oh! Toll-free. Well, then. I’ll call 911 right now, and by the time the EMTs get here I’ll have finished talking to Melinda.
What’s in it for me?
ACTUALLY, I WON’T BE TALKING TO MELINDA but to someone at a company called Publishing Concepts, “a trusted partner of the University of Arizona Alumni Association.” This means that the Alumni Association has paid an obscene sum to an outside firm to compose this ill-judged attempt to coerce me into making a donation—ill-judged because (a) in 20 years I’ve never given the U of A Alumni Association a dime, and (b) the postcard is worse than a waste of time, ink, and yellow card stock; it’s offensive, and I’m not easily offended.
Ten years have passed since my last mammogram, and this yellow postcard that pretends to be from the University of Arizona Alumni Association but is mailed from Dallas, Texas, is telling me what’s critically important? No.
- “Critically important” is cleaning up the water supply in Flint, Michigan.
- “Critically important” is talking someone down from a suicide attempt.
- My mammogram is important, but I’d hardly say it’s critical.
Calling 1-866-555-5555 doesn’t even make my list of “things to do after I’ve read every book in the library, painted my house, sterilized the switch-plate covers, ironed all my clothes and hung them in the closet sorted by color, and achieved world peace.”
Even if you allow that vulgar marketing instruments have their uses and you judge the yellow postcard against similar solicitations rather than the Bible or Macbeth, the yellow postcard violates the first rule of marketing:
Tell me what’s in it for me.
Melissa, or whoever, gives me no incentive to comply. Do I care that 80 percent of my fellow alums have updated their information? Is it in my interest to “ensure that the upcoming University of Arizona alumni directory project is completely accurate and up to date”?
Even if such perfection were possible, for all I care the upcoming University of Arizona alumni directory can be printed entirely in classical Latin. If it were, I’d buy it, just to see the phone numbers. Mine would be CDXXII-DCCXIX-MMCXXXIII.
The marketing drones who wrote my yellow postcard aren’t completely stupid, because they know that so many things are clamoring for our attention, claiming to be important, that if we have no clear purpose we might not rely on our own judgment. If they can convince us, even for a minute, that calling 1-866-555-5555 is more important than locking up the toxic household chemicals or taking our kids to the park or meditating or whatever it is that we know we should do but feel we don’t have time for, then they’ve got a good shot at getting our annual donation, which is what they really want. And if they’d just say so, I might cooperate. When I feel that they’re trying to deceive me, it just puts my back up.
VI; ILI; DI; Magnum, PI; mud in your eye; etc.
WE HAVE A SITUATION—I won’t even call it a problem—with language that I call verbal inflation or, when I want it to sound important, inflated linguistic importance (ILI). ILI occurs when words, phrases, and, yes, punctuation marks (often in combination with type styles) are overused and lose their shape, like old shoes, or lose their sharpness, like my mother’s expensive sewing shears that my brother and I always “borrowed” for cutting paper, which (according to my mother) dulled the blades, making the scissors unusable for sewing.
There really was a time when, to indicate that something was important, we simply said it was important. Now we add modifying words and phrases (“critically,” “extremely,” “beyond the reach of human understanding”), set the words in bold-face capital letters, italicized for good measure, and wrap them in a box.
Any more, to call a woman “pretty” is almost an insult. So, what did you think of my new girlfriend? She’s pretty. Pretty? Just pretty? Okay, she’s gorgeous. How gorgeous? Really gorgeous. Really, really, seriously, downright frigging, drop-dead, hose-me-down-and-hang-me-out-to-dry gorgeous.
The flip side of ILI, which I call disastrous insinuation [DI], is exemplified by the following:
Dear Ms. Campbell: Your recent MRI showed a small mass, called an incidentaloma, above your right kidney. The radiologist who read the MRI described the mass as “anomalous” and commented, “I’ve never seen anything like it. I wonder what it is.” If you’re wondering the same thing, you could try calling our office at your convenience to get on a waiting list to make an appointment for follow-up with one of our physicians or nurse practitioners. Good luck with that.
This sort of communication never arrives on a yellow postcard. Usually it comes in a plain white envelope. Half of these letters probably get mistaken for bills or solicitations and tossed in the recycling. You do recycle, right? Because you should. It’s critically important.
Do what you love
MY SISTER HAS ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE. She still recognizes me, and we have conversations that might appear normal to others, until they notice that it’s really just one conversation over and over, but my sister and I have a good time. She used to be a professional organizer. She wrote a book called Ready, Set, Organize. (I was coauthor of the second edition. That’s how important I am.)
In Ready, Set, Organize, she describes the technique she used with consistent success. Briefly, it works like this:
Before you can organize your schedule and your stuff, you have to define your values. When you figure out what’s important to you, and you develop goals and objectives around those values, only then can you make sensible, productive decisions about your time and your space. Without that structure, everything seems important, and the loudest and most persistent demands get the greatest share of attention. Whatever you’re doing, you have this nagging feeling that you should be doing something else, and you never really relax. You might even find yourself calling 1-866-555-5555 and giving money to a total stranger in Dallas, Texas, while your child eats toilet-bowl cleaner and Giant Leeches from Space devour your next-door neighbors.
So if you want take control of your life and gain mastery of your schedule, I suggest that you start by eliminating exclamation points. Just don’t use them. If nothing else, you’ll save on ink.
EDDIE IZZARD ON IMPORTANT COMMUNICATIONS (from “Wikipedia and iTunes,” Live at Madison Square Garden (2011), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N1ug9-rhSs4)
You’re tip-tapping away and the thing comes up and it says Would you like a software update? And you go Yeah! I don’t see why not.
Would you like to know details of the software update? And you go No! Or sometimes you go Yeah! … But before you can get the update, it says Sign a new agreement with iTunes.
… I have signed many agreements with iTunes. I don’t know what they want from us any more. Don’t they know we agree with them? They must be paranoid at iTunes, going We must ask them again, one more time, if they really, truly… we’ve asked them thirty-eight times, but one more time, just to make sure that they agree with us.
And they have made us liars. You cannot reprimand your children. No, Johnny, you said you didn’t have a biscuit but there’s crumbs all over your face and you did have a biscuit. You have lied.
[Johnny replies] But you said you had read the terms and conditions when you clicked that box, but it’s too quick for you to have read the terms and conditions.
The truth is, no one in this room has read the terms and conditions. No one in New York has read the terms and conditions. No one in the universe… even God has not read the terms and conditions. That’s probably the big gap between the beginning of the earth and when we effing turned up. He was reading the terms and conditions of the thing he just made.
Anything could be in the terms and conditions. We will take your buttocks and sell them to the Chinese…. We’re going to rearrange your toes and number them…. We’re going to put your underpants in hedges around the… and you get to the point where you want the update. You didn’t know what it was, but now you want the… Now give me the effing update! And then you get the update.
And nothing has changed.
JUST WHEN YOU START TO LIKE THEM
God didn’t tell us, when he gave us children, that we’d have to give them back. There were times along the way when we’d have gladly let them go with any stranger who’d have taken them, but only till the tantrum wilted or the howling gave way to fatigue. When one had wandered from our vision, only to be hand-delivered by a supermarket manager with toddler in tow, wanting to know, Is this kid yours? we gave a heavy sigh and said, So it appears. We claimed them, even when we’d rather have owned twenty Saint Bernards, or when we heard about a friend confined to bed, in traction, and our sympathy was liberally mixed with envy.
What we craved was time alone without responsibilities or duties or demands. If now and then we asked ourselves Whatever were we thinking when we desperately wanted to conceive? nevertheless we smiled when they were sweet and when they weren’t we soldiered on. We had to. They were ours, no question, and we didn’t see the gig as temporary or ourselves as marking time until at last they flew the nest. We didn’t guard our feelings or take care to not get too attached. We gave them everything we had and then discovered fifty times as much would be exacted, so of course we gave them that and more.
We never thought of keeping score, not even when we would have sold our souls for half an hour of rest, a solitary cup of coffee and a novel we could read a chapter of uninterrupted. None of us regarded children as investments toward a worry-free old age. We sacrificed, oh, yes, but not because someday we’d be paid back. Not once did we think All this stress and heartache will in some way be redressed.
The fact remains that God stayed in the background (as it seemed) when they had chicken pox, when they were two and terrible or in their teens with hormones raging. God was waiting till they ceased to need our constant supervision and until they had depleted every penny of our savings. Once they reached the age of understanding and had learned civility and kindness, when they finally were able to secure a job and make a living—that was how we raised them, wasn’t it?—then God said Time’s up. Never mind that we weren’t ready. Too bad if we didn’t know how much we needed to be leaned on. Doggone shame if we had cherished, way down deep, the hope that all the sleeplessness, the tears, the worry and expense would be redeemed. We had them when we had them, and we’re not allowed to keep them, so we’d better take up macramé or learn Norwegian.
If we’re lucky, they might like us and decide to keep us close, to make a space for us within their grownup lives, their families, their work, their recreation. If they don’t, too bad. They didn’t ask to be here, didn’t sign a contract or accept an obligation. It was we who took them on, to satisfy a need as old as time, begun with Eve and Adam. And it’s not as if there were no compensation. We don’t get to keep the kids, but if we wish we can retain the lessons learned, the softened hearts, the lively spirits, the compassion. Best of all, we find, when all is said and done, that we ourselves are blessedly and permanently children.
Now I’ll leave you with a small suggestion: If you’re ever bored or lonely—Yes, I know, life isn’t fair, nobody cares—do what the children of the world do every day: Go out and play.
Artist Bessie Pease Gutmann (1876-1960) captured childhood innocence as beautifully as any of the Golden Age illustrators, with the possible exception of Jessie Willcox Smith. You can download A Child’s Garden of Verses with Gutmann’s illustrations at Project Gutenberg. The images below are titled Feeling, Tommy’s Wish Comes True, Nitey Night, Good Morning Little Girl, Unknown, Unconditional Love, and Sweet Roses.
An Athwartships Sort of Day
IT’S EASY ENOUGH TO BUMP ME OFF-TASK; throw a word such as DEPERM in my path and I’m off to the races.
I encountered DEPERM during a friendly game of Words with Friends. It was Janice M., one of my friendliest (and most formidable) WWF rivals, who laid out DEPERM for 39 points. My first thought, when I saw the unfamiliar word, was “hair.” Most of my woman friends have, at least once, permed and regretted it. Was it now possible to UN-perm? Had I stumbled on a new solution for overcooked hair?
Turns out DEPERM is a nautical thing. According to dictionary.com, to deperm is to “reduce the permanent magnetism of (a vessel) by wrapping an electric cable around it vertically athwartships and energizing the cable.” Wow. Move over, deperm. Make way for athwartships.
Athwartships (say it five times real fast) means “sideways (across a vessel),” but it’s far too delicious a word to withhold from landlubbers (see below). Think of parents whose kids are just starting to dress themselves: “Great job, Belinda! Oh, but you’ve put your left sock on athwartships.”
A landlubber is not a land-lover so much as a person who is unfamiliar with sailing and the sea. Sailors, it seems, use the term with contempt. Lubber, meaning “lout” or “clumsy person,” comes down to us through Middle English, possibly from Old Norse. I learned this from Kevin Stroud, whose podcast on the history of the English language is tied for first place in my PPR (personal podcast ranking), alongside David Crowther’s History of England.
Podcasts contributed a great deal to my sanity during two years when I was ill. For days on end, the only voices I heard were Kevin’s and David’s, and I realized that these guys need more than good material. They have to be credible, entertaining, and trustworthy—the last, because, after all, I was letting them into my bedroom.
David, in particular, kept me laughing. As a demonstration of his offbeat approach to history, I’ve transcribed the last few minutes (starting at 30:57) of History of England Episode 121, “Counter Revolution,” in which David is describing some of the holy relics that drew European pilgrims to religious shrines during the Middle Ages. My transcription isn’t perfect. It conveys nothing of David’s flawless comic timing. For that, you’ll have to listen to the podcast.
Occasionally a British idiom or pronunciation slipped by me. I omitted David’s mention of a relic that sounded like “the Holy Hand Grenade at Antioch” because I’m pretty sure medieval armies didn’t have hand grenades.
Once at the shrine, the pilgrims would pay money to go and see the holy relic. At Walsingham, for example, we are talking about a sealed jar containing the Virgin Mary’s milk. Nails were very popular, and bits of wood from the True Cross…. Durham [Cathedral] proudly boasted the body of Saint Cuthbert but also the head of Saint Oswald. At Hailes Abbey in Gloucestershire, they had a vial of Christ’s blood. At [the Abbey of] Fécamp in Normandy, they had Mary Magdalene’s entire arm… until Saint Hugh rather ruined it all by nibbling off a bit of her fingers….*
None of these, of course, competed with the big one…. I speak, of course, of Christ’s foreskin. The Holy Foreskin, as it was known, turned up in 800 A.D. when Charlemagne presented it to Pope Leo. It was an object of great popular veneration, as you can imagine. Indeed, like any relic it was capable of performing miracles, so that even Saint Bridget was able to report that when an angel dropped bits of it on her tongue she had an orgasm, which, it appears, for Saint Bridget was a twenty-four-carat miracle….
But there was a problem…. Rival foreskins kept appearing, until eventually there were twenty-one Holy Foreskins spread around Christendom… [creating] something of a glut in the foreskin market…. Monks kept appearing in Rome demanding that the Pope make a ruling on which was the authentic foreskin. One theologian tried to solve the problem by claiming that the Holy Foreskin had ascended into Heaven to become the rings of Saturn…. Eventually the Church cracked… and in 1900 it became a crime worthy of excommunication to even talk of the Holy Foreskin. I await my Bull of Excommunication as we speak… but I give notice that any foreskins found lying around my house will be binned rather than venerated.
* Saint Hugh—at that time Hugh of Lincoln; he wasn’t canonized until 1220.
How Oxford Online Brought About My Demise
Five fewer ways to be a know-it-all. It’s lonely being right. I discussed this existential isolation recently with my articulate friend Eric Somers, an internationally respected sound designer and an expert in a number of other fields as well. (See Eric’s useful and entertaining blog at theaudiopenguin.com.)
We were talking about the pronunciation of music vocabulary and composers’ names, which challenges classical-music lovers in general and public-radio hosts in particular. We made cruel fun of people who say chy-KOW-skee for Tchaikovsky—”a rather easy word if you know Russian” according to violinist.com, but “the second syllable can be… tricky because there is a literal orchestra of grammar going on in these 3 short letters.” A literal orchestra, you ask? Seriously? Read on.
We expressed equal contempt for those who omit the final consonant in the surname of the French composer Saint-Saëns, an error committed by those who have enough French to know that, in general, the ess sound at the end of a word is pronounced only when immediately followed by a vowel sound: thus, Je suis [swee] française but Je suis [sweez] anglaise. For reasons that I don’t quite grasp, even after reading two entire blogs on this esoteric matter, the final s in Saint-Saëns is supposed to be given light sibilant attention. For a full discussion and a link to the spoken name, see the contemporary-music blog icareifyoulisten.com.
Inflammatory words. This morning, seeking confirmation of my view on the choice of that or which to introduce a relative clause, I happened on the blog post that would literally spell my doom: “5 Language Arguments You Can Stop Having.” It seems that nothing is certain in the rough-and-tumble progress of our language through time and space. Here is what I learned:
- Biweekly can properly mean “every other week” or “twice a week.”
- Nauseous can correctly describe the feeling of nausea in addition to “causing nausea.”
- Flammable is preferable to inflammable when referring to something that is easily set aflame. (This was not news to me, although I still fail to understand why anyone would interpret inflammable as “not flammable.” If a truck contains material that’s not likely to catch fire, why say so?)
- Further is acceptable when describing physical distance—that is, as a synonym for farther, although I will need to think further about whether to use it in an other-than-metaphorical context.
- Here’s the killer: It’s just fine to say literally when you mean “figuratively.” After all, “literary luminaries such as Mark Twain and F. Scott Fitzgerald have used the word in this sense. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the word has been used figuratively since the mid-18th century.”
Recalling all the manuscripts in which I have gleefully (and possibly literally) pounced upon this last misuse, I literally died of chagrin. Thus I will be unavailable for further comment.
For more on these no-longer-controversial usages, see the full story here. I’m going to go pound another nail in my coffin.
THE SHORT STORY: When it comes to customer service, forget Twitter. Microsoft, on the other hand, gets five stars—though I’m not sure how brightly MS might have shone had I not saved the relevant emails and online-chat transcripts.
The Microsoft epic began November 16 when I tried to prepay for software rental. The chat guy, Marcus, told me I could do that. Sure, he said. Buy a digital gift card, he said, and immediately redeem it. The money would go into my Microsoft account, which would be tapped when the monthly rental fee—seven dollars and forty-eight cents—came due. Marcus sounded like he knew his stuff, so I bought a $15 gift card, followed the instructions to stash the fifteen bucks in my Microsoft account, and congratulated myself for being uncharacteristically smart about a financial matter. Bad karma. Yesterday my bank statement showed a December 2 Microsoft charge for $14.96, twice the rental fee.
Scurrying to Microsoft’s help site, I searched for “billing error” and came up empty… except for the “call us” option, a rarity in the digital world. It was like finding a ruby in the cat-litter box. With astonishing ease I scheduled a phone call, hardly believing my luck. Microsoft was going to call me! I could have placed the call, but the site obligingly informed me that the “wait time” was forty-seven minutes. I asked for a callback in an hour. Sure enough, sixty minutes later my phone rang… tinkled, actually, but you don’t need to know that.
Who’s playing games?
Microsoft Agent Corinne and I had a delightful conversation. Yes, the December 2 charge was twice the monthly fee, but somehow Microsoft had neglected to bill me in November, so that was all right. Unfortunately, Marcus had been wrong about the account-debit deal, so I had fifteen unspendable dollars sitting in my Microsoft account.
It turns out that Microsoft gift cards can be redeemed only in the Microsoft store. Not being a gamer, I was pretty sure I’d find nothing there of interest in the fifteen-dollar price range, but my son Jack’s birthday was just a few days away.
“Well,” suggested Corinne, “just apply the money in your account to a gift certificate for your son. Log in, hop over to the store, select a gift card, and at checkout choose ‘Microsoft account’ as the payment source.”
Wonderful! Fantastic! I’ll just do that little thing! And I did, except that when I got to checkout and clicked “pay,” at the speed of a whizzing electron Microsoft charged my bank account and thanked me for my purchase. Hmmm…. Seems there was a proviso I’d overlooked: You can’t buy a gift card with a gift card. Corinne, like Marcus, had misspoken. I had just bought another inoperable gift card.
“Okay,” said I to myself. “Since this gift-card-transfer thing isn’t working, here’s what I’ll do: I’ll put this new card in my Microsoft account and Jack will have thirty dollars to spend. He can visit the Microsoft store, make his selection, tell me what he wants, and I’ll buy it with my Microsoft balance.”
To be honest, I probably would have given Jack an Annagrammatica birthday card and a nice homemade carrot cake if there hadn’t been inaccessible funds floating around in cyberspace—not that I don’t possess infinitely more than thirty dollars’ worth of love for my son, I just don’t have thirty expendable dollars, especially at Christmastime.
Following, once again, the instructions, I applied the gift card to my Microsoft account and got an immediate Microsoft pat on the back: “Good for you! You now have $15 in your account! Yay, you!”
If you’ve been keeping up, you’ll be wondering, as I was, what happened to the original fifteen dollars. Fifteen plus fifteen equals thirty, right? …unless you’re Bill Gates and you no longer recognize two-digit numerals.
Person to person
A good night’s sleep would be essential before taking on Microsoft again. I’d planned to wait till after lunch today, but at 10:30 this morning I opened an email from Microsoft Billing. They were sorry as sorry could be that I had canceled my monthly software rental and hoped that Microsoft could assist me in the future. I think I said Aaaahkk and hopped around like Yosemite Sam. I might have torn my hair. Whatever I did, it must have resettled my karma.
At 10:33, I girded my loins and prepared to schedule another Microsoft phone call, but apparently there was zero “wait time” just then. So I punched in the number and got—not a recording thanking me for calling Microsoft and to serve me better would I please enter my account number and someone will be right with me after they’ve dealt with the seventy-three callers ahead of me—no, I got Charles, a real, live human being who wanted nothing more in the entire universe than to address my situation and make things right.
It took Charles forty-seven minutes to reinstate my software rental, but I got two free months out of that deal. As for the missing gift-card money, Charles, with what I like to think was genuine regret, had to transfer me to Accounts & Billing, but he thoughtfully gave me a transaction number so that in case my call got dropped or disconnected I wouldn’t have to start over with someone else.
No dropping or disconnecting occurred, and in under a minute I was speaking with Suzette and relating my odyssey… and this is where my meticulous record-keeping saved the brussels sprouts. By quoting the relevant bits of my chat with Marcus and the Microsoft emails confirming my purchases, I handed Suzette all the info she needed to determine that on November 16 I had purchased a digital gift card and on December 2 I had purchased a store gift card. Who knew?
Suzette was still tapping away, either searching through data or dropping M & M’s on the floor—to no avail, as it happened, because she still couldn’t actually find the missing $15 from the first purchase. Well, this is where Microsoft shines more brightly than Sirius the Dog Star. Do you know what Suzette did? She gave me fifteen dollars. Yep, she was telling me in so many words, You paid it and we can’t find it, so here’s a replacement.
Suzette stayed on the line, the way emergency dispatchers do when you call nine-one-one because you’ve severed a limb, until we were both certain that my Microsoft account contained thirty dollars redeemable for Microsoft-store purchases. She sent me a confirmation email and read out another transaction number in case, God forbid, I needed it. After only two hours and seventeen minutes, our work was done and I hung up the phone. So to speak.
For the record, of the three people I actually talked with, Suzette was the one least likely to be physically located on another continent, and the quality of that call, in terms of scritchiness, was the worst of the three. If I’d had to guess, based on background noise, I might have thought she was working in a laundromat. So there you are.
And what about Twitter?
The folks at Twitter have better things to do than talking to me about their screw-up with my account. If you’re going to have a problem with Twitter, it had better slide neatly into one of six or seven common categories, such as “can’t log in” or “forgot my username.” Otherwise, Twitter customer service consists of a very short loop. If your question isn’t answered on the page you’re routed to, they send you back to the list of ordinary problems that aren’t yours. If, out of desperation, you choose “my hashtags aren’t working”—just so they’ll give you space amounting to one hundred and forty characters to explain that hashtags aren’t really your problem, it’s that your account has gotten tangled up with someone else’s and when you post to Twitter your tweets show up on the other person’s Twitter feed—then Twitter emails you instructions for the proper use of hashtags.
In more than an hour spent scouring the Web for advice from people with a similar dilemma—and they are legion—I learned that it is virtually impossible to talk to or even chat online with an actual Twitter representative. There is, however, a small industry developing around Twitter’s arrogant unhelpfulness: Starting at $20, some enterprising individual, presumably with inside information, will try to get Twitter’s attention. It strikes me as being a little like asking one of the lesser-known saints to intercede for you because God’s busy elsewhere. Twitter, are you listening?
POINTERUTI TO YOU TOO, PAL
You want to play Words with Friends. Well, good. If it’ll keep you off the streets, I say, go for it. WWF exercises your brain and occupies your attention when you need a break from candidate-bashing on Facebook. You should know, however, that the name of the game is deceptive. “Words, Quasi-Words, and Outright Nonwords with Friends (WQWONWF)” is more like it.
Be warned: Words with Friends is not Scrabble. Besides being more sanitary and less social, WWF is both faster—in that you don’t have to sit there chewing a hangnail while other people stare at their tiles—and slower than Scrabble. I play six or eight games at a time, each lasting from a few days to a week. But the biggest difference is the WORDS.
In my Scrabble-playing days, we didn’t use a dictionary. We played words that other English-speaking persons recognized as such: rabbit, fracas, papa—like that. Words with Friends is stingy with vowels (until it decides to give you only vowels), so at least half the words on the board at any given time are either cryptic or Kyrgyz (the language of Kyrgyzstan, an eastern European nation that apparently keeps most of its vowels in locked warehouses, maybe a holdover from the Soviet era).
I exaggerate, but only a little. Winning WWF involves a lot of experimentation, crunching letters together unimpeded by logic. If you do this long enough, tossing tiles like pickup sticks and seeing what turns up (Anyone remember pickup sticks?), eventually you’ll spell TEUGH, or perhaps WHEEP—which is, we’re told, a “valid Words with Friends word. Sorry, no definition is available at this time.” What does that mean? They’ll get back to me? A definition will be available tomorrow afternoon? Likewise for WAUK, HOOKME, TREX, AAL, and AARRGH.*
On Valentine’s Day 2012, Forbes.com writer Jeff Bercovici publicly broke up with WWF, citing just such idiosyncracies.
Scrabble, to be sure, is not without this kind of thing. There are all the lists of words you more or less need to memorize if you want to compete seriously… the two-letter words, the words that let you play a “q” without a “u,” the words that consist entirely of vowels or consonants. But those, at least, are things you learn. Words With Friends doesn’t require you to learn anything, just to be persistent in your ignorance.
I could adapt myself to playing Words With Friends the way it encourages you to. I could make sure that, before entering what I know to be a word, I first try every random permutation of tiles that might yield a higher score. But that’s not my idea of fun. Fun, for me, is looking at an unpromising slate of tiles and suddenly realize you have the letters to make “kudzu.” Moments like that are why I play. —Words with Friends, I’m Breaking Up with You, Forbes, 2/12/2014
It’s true. I forget, between WWF sessions, which two-letter combinations will play: EK, KE, AK, IK, EU, IO? I have trouble remembering that AJ didn’t work last time and, no, it’s not going to work this time, although I swear the WWF Nazis keep switching the rules. I can’t prove it, but everyone I’ve discussed it with agrees that the rules are arbitrary and WWF changes them daily.
Why, you wonder, is AW okay but EW gets bumped? AUROR exists only in the world of Harry Potter, not in Muggle games such as WWF. You can play AMU (atomic mass unit) but not TV or OK, OJ, DJ, or OB. AA is valid but EE isn’t? I say “EE” fairly often. I never say “AA,” unless I’m talking about Alcoholics Anonymous, but WWF doesn’t mean “A-A,” it means “AAA,” like at the dentist’s. If you try to play EE or OO, the game punishes you with a briefly annoying ker-THUNK. Play OH, and WWF emits an approving jingly sound that makes you think of pixie dust and lasts a nanosecond too long—just enough to make your teeth hurt. A lot of players mute the sound on WWF.
When luck is with me and I’ve assembled, oh, AKEE with impunity, I look it up. (It’s a tropical tree of the soapberry family.) I didn’t always. In the case of AKEE, I’ll never use it in conversation. I haven’t needed it for nearly seven decades. My mental lexicon is already bulging. I’m choosy about putting in new information, and AKEE wasn’t going to make the cut—at first. My new rationale is this: Yes, I discovered AKEE it by accident, and no, I have no interest in trees of the soapberry family, but it might come in handy later—in Words with Friends if nowhere else. Thus I have become master of WHID (def: move quickly and quietly), JO (def: beloved one, darling, sweetheart), and a few dozen other vocabulary boosters.
Everyone who’s played WWF for any length of time has cursed the game for spilling out a complete word—seven letters needing no assistance from the board—without giving you a place to play it. You have all the letters for REBATED (or DEBATER, or maybe BREADET or TERBADE), but you need a word on the board such as LOVE that will accept the D to become LOVED (If only it could be so easy), plus there must be space for the rest of the letters without bumping up against another word. Too bad, because if you use all seven of your letters on a single play you get fifty big, fat extra points.
Once I needed an E from the board for CLEMENCY. All the saints and angels wanted me to play it, but there just wasn’t an available E. I moved over to another game and used all my letters for HOTSPUR. The next letter dump contained (with no rearranging) FARTSYQ.
In one game it seemed divinely ordained that I play INSULT, tidily completing three additional words: KORAN, PEGS, and TSMOG. Yeah. Couldn’t make TSMOG work. Tried several times. Likewise, in other games, JAZINE, JOTUBONG, and POINTERUTI.
And then there are the “If it’s not a word, it should be” words—MISDIAPERED comes to mind. If OUTROAR is a word, shouldn’t JOUTROAR be one too? My niece Paige and I started making up definitions for such words—the ones you have the letters for but WWF rejects.
TARTURE—being forced to work on a road crew
SPLANERS—Lucy and Ethel
HAMF—My proposed definition was “50 percent of an Easter entrée,” but Paige found HAMF online as an acronym for HARD A** MOTHER F*****. While we’re on the subject, you can play SHIT and FART but not SLUT. What’s with that?
A whole set of other should-be words are those that just seem logical. In a language such as English, some seventeen hundred years old, containing merely twenty-six letters, you’d think that, for example, AFA would have found a place by now, not as an acronym but as a real word—a building block, in fact. We have MAMA, EVE, AIN, OLLA, IVY, and FEE, not to mention DOG, CAT, and POP. How did AFA escape being drafted for duty, along with its sisters EFA, IFA, OFA, and UFA?
So you see, Words with Friends inspires reflection, investigation, and conversation about words—at least in my small circle of enthusiasts. If, as Jeff Bercovici writes, “Words With Friends doesn’t require you to learn anything,” it certainly doesn’t prevent you from doing so. It also gives you little rewards, as when I won my “weekly challenge: JQXZ words—33, POINTS—2780.” Since the points have no value—they’re not redeemable for airline tickets or even a pizza—I don’t pay much attention. I’d rather make up definitions or, better yet, use the words on the board in sentences, sometimes in unidentifiable languages, possibly Kyrgyz.
OHO! GEL PLANERS LETCHED. MY KAT GRACE TAGS HAM. BYE.
OW! CHURLS! ZAS BITE!
DOT JIB! AKELA DE MOR. QIS TOY?
WOW! VAW FEH DE QIS! NE MORE SAVOYS!
And, in closing,
AHA OHO. HA.
To be continued…
* HAMADA, I was told by the WWF dictionary, was a “valid Words with Friends word,” with no additional information forthcoming. You almost get the impression they’re hiding something, like when a friend of yours is in the hospital after a car crash and the nurses will tell you nothing about her condition other than that she’s “resting comfortably.” So I decided to check out HAMADA on my own. The definition popped up immediately in Wikipedia, so if it’s supposed to be a secret, someone’s not doing his job.
HAMADA (Arabic, حماده ḥammāda) refers to “a type of desert landscape consisting of high, largely barren, hard, rocky plateaus, with very little sand because this [sand] has been removed by deflation…. Hamadas are produced by the wind removing the fine products of weathering: an aeolian** process known as deflation. The finer-grained products are taken away in suspension, whilst the sand is removed through saltation and surface creep, leaving behind a landscape of gravel, boulders and bare rock.” So now you know. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamada
**Aeolian=relating to or arising from the action of the wind.
BONUS: Words with Friends Poetry
by Mary Campbell
Product strategies? Off with their heads!
Craigslist handed me a beautiful gift today—a help-wanted ad that’s sillier than one I could make up. Like most ads written in corporate-speak, it expresses a preference for applicants who “exhibit strong written & verbal communication skills” that are so plainly absent in the ad itself. (Note: Written & verbal “exhibits” redundancy. By verbal, the writer probably means spoken. It’s common to see the phrase “verbal agreement,” as if any agreement expressed in words—written or spoken—were not verbal. But I pick nits, when there’s so much more to bewail in this misguided verbal-communication endeavor.)
Hyphens do matter, as “exhibited” in phrases such as “cross portfolio strategies” and “cross functional stakeholders.” If there’s anything worse than a functional stakeholder, it’s an irritable functional stakeholder, I always say, when I’m talking about stakeholders of any stripe—something I go out of my way to avoid. But maybe that’s because I lack the ability to evolve strategic & tactical elements based on research, data, & industry trends. Perhaps one can learn to evolve such elements only in highly matrixed organizations. Most of my experience has evolved in organizations with lowlier matrixes. I suspect I’ve even executed collateral among stakeholders in matrix-deficient organizations. Let’s have that be our little secret, if you don’t mind. I might need to pull the matrix card in a job interview someday.
Below you’ll find (a) the ad, (b) my email response, and (c) an excerpt from the Harvard Business Review Guide to Better Business Writing, whose author joyously deplores the sort of verbiage you’re about to read… if you have the stomach for it.
A. The ad
Organization seeks Marketing Specialist who supports the execution of product strategies and cross portfolio strategies and works with moderate guidance across businesses to create and execute supporting communications.
- Assists in the design, development, editing & execution of marketing messaging & collateral including advertisements, direct mail & technical information for targeted audiences in conjunction with internal marketing team and external agencies, including LMR processes and requirements.
- Understands the sales budgeting process and participates in the prioritization of tactics.
- Exhibit strong written & verbal communication skills along with excellent interpersonal skills.
- Demonstrated strategic thinking, initiative, and creativity.
- Show agility with a proven ability to evolve strategic & tactical elements based on research, data & industry trends.
- Demonstrated problem solving and analytical skills.
- Demonstrated ability to work with cross functional stakeholders. OR. Demonstrated ability to work in a highly matrixed organization.
- Proven track record of achieving goals. OR. Proven track record of meeting financial and other quantitative goals.
- Demonstrated success working in a team environment.
B. My response
C. HBR excerpt
Under the Scholar’s Collar
Sent in by alert reader Doug Pillsbury in response to this blog’s recent post “Test Your Pronunciation.” Attributed to Gary L. Flagel
This little poem came about as an exercise for multi-national translation
personnel at the NATO headquarters in Paris. English wasn’t so hard to learn,
they found, but English pronunciation is a killer.
After trying the poem, native French interpreter said he’d prefer to spend
six months at hard labor than reading six lines aloud.
English is Tough Stuff
Dearest creature in creation
Study English pronunciation.
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse.
I will keep you, Suzy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy.
Tear in eye, your dress will tear.
So shall I: Oh hear my prayer.
Just compare heart, beard, and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word,
Sword and sward, retain and Britain.
(Mind the latter, how it’s written.)
Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as plaque and ague.
But be careful how you speak:
Say break and steak, but bleak and streak;
Cloven, oven, how and low,
Script, receipt, show, poem, and toe.
Hear me say, devoid of trickery,
Daughter, laughter, and Terpsichore,
Typhoid, measles, topsails, aisles,
Exiles, similes and reviles;
Scholar, vicar, and cigar.
Solar, mica, war and far;
One, anemone, Balmoral
Kitchen, lichen, laundry, laurel;
Gertrude, German, wind and mind,
Scene, Melpomene, mankind.
Billet does not rhyme with ballet,
Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet.
Blood and flood are not like food,
Nor is mould like should and would.
Viscous, viscount, load and broad,
Toward, to forward, to reward.
And your pronunciation’s OK
When you correctly say croquet,
Rounded, wounded, grieve and sieve,
Friend and fiend, alive and live.
Ivy, privy, famous; clamor
And enamour rhyme with hammer.
River, rival, tomb, bomb, comb,
Doll and droll and some and home.
Stranger does not rhyme with anger,
Neither does devour with clangor.
Soul but foul, haunt but aunt,
Font, front, wont, want, grand, and grant,
Shoes, goes, does. Now first say finger,
And then singer, ginger, linger,
Real, zeal, mauve, gauze, gouge and gauge,
Marriage, foliage, mirage, and age.
Query does not rhyme with very,
Nor does fury sound like bury.
Dost, lost, post and doth, cloth, loth.
Job, knob, bosom, transom, oath.
Through the differences seem little,
We say actual, but also victual.
Refer does not rhyme with deafer.
Foeffer does, and zephyr, heifer.
Mint, pint, senate and sedate;
Dull, bull, and George ate late.
Scenic, Arabic, Pacific,
Science, Conscience, scientific.
Liberty, library, heave and heaven,
Rachel, ache, moustache, eleven.
We say hallowed, but allowed,
People, leopard, towed, but vowed.
Mark the differences, moreover,
Between mover, cover, clover;
Leeches, breeches, wise, precise,
Chalice, but police and lice;
Camel, constable, unstable,
Principle, disciple, label.
Petal, panel, and canal,
Wait, surprise, plait, promise, pal.
Worm and storm, chaise, chaos, chair,
Senator, spectator, mayor.
Tour, but our and succor, four.
Gas, alas, and Arkansas.
Sea, idea, Korea, area,
Psalm, Maria, but malaria.
Youth, south, southern, cleanse and clean.
Doctrine, turpentine, marine.
Compare alien with Italian,
Dandelion and battalion.
Sally with ally, yea, ye.
Eye, I, ay, aye, whey, and key.
Say aver, but ever, fever,
Neither, leisure, skein, deceiver.
Heron, granary, canary.
Crevice and device and aerie.
Face, but preface, not efface.
Phlegm, phlegmatic, brass, glass, bass.
Large, but target, gin, give, verging.
Ought, out, joust and scour, scourging.
Ear, but earn and wear and tear
Do not rhyme with here, but ere.
Seven is right, but so is even,
Hyphen, roughen, nephew Stephen,
Monkey, donkey, Turk and jerk,
Ask, grasp, wasp, and cork and work.
Pronunciation – think of Psyche!
Is it paling, stout and spiky?
Won’t it make you lose your wits,
Writing groats and saying grits?
It’s a dark abyss or tunnel:
Strewn with stones, stowed, solace, gunwale,
Islington and Isle of Wight,
Housewife, verdict and indict.
Finally, which rhymes with enough –
Though, through, plough, or dough, or cough?
Hiccough has the sound of cup.
My advise is to give it up!!!
Gary L. Flegal
How Do YOU Talk/Tawk/Tok?
Rick Aschmann’s comprehensive assessment of North American English dialects