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
SO ANYWAYS, HOW GOOD DO YOU PRONOUNCIATE THESE WORDS?
I often err (which rhymes with her).
I’ve said re-PRIZE and re-OCCUR
and of-TEN and ho-MOG-en-us.
I’ve even been a CHAUVINIST.
So ANYWAYS, I’m over it.
detritus (n)—waste material or rubbish, especially left after a particular event (Cambridge Dictionary)
A few months ago I discovered that I’d been pronouncing detritus incorrectly all my life. That’s a small exaggeration; I probably didn’t use the word at all before high school. I doubt that I ever complained to Mom that my brother had ransacked my dresser drawers and left detritus in the wake of his illegal search. If he had done so, I wouldn’t have noticed. My bedroom was a monument to detritus. My mom dealt cleverly with the pile of rubbish that was my room; she closed the door. Mom was detritus-prone herself.
I listen to numerous podcasts, and I had heard a podcaster pronounce detritus as DET-rit-us, rhyming more or less with “rest of us.” I’ve always said duh-TRY-tuss, as if it were an inflammatory disease: appendicitis, colitis, detritus. I’ve even written poems in which I rhymed detritus with something, as in
“The light is bright on my de-TRY-tritus.”
Was I going to have to change it to “…upset about my DET-rit-us”?
Today I googled detritus, and it turns out I was right all along. Duh-TRY-tuss it is. I’ll sleep better tonight.
TO AIR IS HUMAN
English-speakers are forever mispronouncing things, especially if they (the English-speakers) read a lot. It’s bad enough that British and American pronunciations often differ for no good reason. But the notoriously complex English-language pronunciation issue is rooted in the history of English and its many borrowings from other languages. I treasure English for its eclectic origins, but they leave us with spellings that bear little relationship to pronunciation, as in through. Consider height and weight, chattel (pronounced CHAT-tle) and Mattel. If you encounter a printed word but never hear it spoken, you’re likely to pronounce it phonetically, or as nearly so as you can manage.
When my daughter, Marian, was nine or ten years old, we were discussing her newest Nancy Drew book, The Clue of the Broken Locket (1934), and the characters therein—Nancy herself, of course, as well as Nancy’s father (eminent attorney Carson Drew), her chums (Bess Marvin and George Fayne), her sweetie pie (Ned Nickerson), the Drew family housekeeper (Hannah Gruen), and, in this book, someone called Gladys—which, as Marian pronounced it, rhymed with ladies. Of course it did. We’d all pronounce it that way if we’d never met a Gladys or watched an episode of the television show Bewitched featuring Samantha’s nosy neighbor, Gladys Kravitz. Coming across the name in a book, you’re not likely to “hear” GLAD-iss in your mind, but rather GLADE-eez or, at best, GLAD-eez.
I don’t speak of “correct” pronunciation, since the English language is fluid and “correctness” changes from day to day. Moreover, most dictionaries no longer judge the speaking habits of their users, preferring to be descriptive rather than prescriptive.* Twenty or thirty years ago, dictionaries gave the “correct” pronunciation first, followed by less-respectable alternatives. Now they offer pronunciation possibilities nonjudgmentally, although the standard (read “correct”) pronunciation usually appears first.
If you want prescriptive advice on pronunciation, the best source I know of is Charles Harrington Elster’s delightful book There Is No Zoo in Zoology (which has been incorporated into The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations—The Complete Opinionated Guide). From the title alone, you learn that (a) zoo-OLL-uh-jee is just plain wrong and (b) Elster’s book will tell you how and why to say it (and hundreds of other words) right. (It’s zoe-OLL-uh-jee, with a long O in the first syllable.) As useful as the book is, you’ll be dismayed to find that you’ve been mispronouncing two-thirds of your vocabulary for your entire adult life. Still, I heartily recommend Mr. Elster’s books and website.
If you want a dictionary that guides rather than merely informs you about pronunciation, you’ll appreciate online audio guides. Google the word and hear the disembodied official internet voice, which offers only one pronunciation. Not all the online guides agree, however, as in the case of err.
IF YOU CAN BE ENVELOPED, CAN YOU BE MAILED?
Abused, misused, misunderstood
SHORT-LIVED (LONG-LIVED)—The I is long; lived rhymes with hived.
The pronunciation (-laɪvd) is etymologically correct since the compound is derived from the noun life, rather than from the verb live. But the pronunciation (-lɪvd) is by now so common that it cannot be considered an error. In the most recent survey 43 percent of the Usage Panel preferred (-lɪvd), 39 percent preferred (-laɪvd), and 18 percent found both pronunciations equally acceptable. English Language & Usage Stack Exchange
KUDOS—This much-abused word has strayed a great distance from its original pronunciation and usage. Usually pronounced KOO-doze and treated as plural in the U.S.—though there’s no such thing as one KOO-doe—It means “the praise and respect that you get from other people because of something that you achieved” (Cambridge Dictionary). Some Americans, most Brits, and Charles Harrington Elster say KYOO-doss.
The noun kudos was originally a mass noun, but it is now sometimes treated as a plural noun,… contrary to the original Greek κῦδος (kûdos), which is a singular noun. The American pronunciation implies this plural usage, which many authorities nevertheless consider erroneous. Wiktionary
CLOTHES—The items that hang in my closet are cobwebs. The stuff behind them is what I refer to as my close—shirts, pants, dresses, and so forth. Clothes, with the th combination pronounced, is difficult to say. I suspect that one day soon, CLOZE will be the standard pronunciation. That day, sadly, has not yet arrived.
ARCTIC—Even experienced network news announcers say ARTIC and ANTARTIC, and they’re wrong, wrong, wrong. It seems to me there’s even a beverage called something like ARTIC BLAST. Let’s agree to get this one right and unite behind ARCTIC.
HISTORY, HISTORICAL, preceded by A or AN—It’s a mystery to me that so many people drop the H when saying historical and precede it with the article AN, as in “an historical account.” There’s no accounting for what the British do, but in the U.S., the H in history (and historic, historical, and so forth) is sounded, not silent as in honor and heir, and the construction “an historical” is incorrect.
ENVELOP, ENVELOPED—Letters placed in envelopes are not thereby enveloped. The verb envelop (enn-VELL-up) means to wrap, enclose, or shroud: “The landscape was enveloped in fog.” In the past few weeks, I’ve heard two Hay House authors on hayhouseradio.com talk about being enveloped in a sense of peace, which might have been worth hearing about had they not said ENN-vuh-loped.
SO YOU THINK HE’S A CHAUVINIST? Here, so and chauvinist are usage issues, not pronunciation ones, but they bug me so I’m slipping them into this discussion. Why, over the last six or eight months, have I begun hearing so many people introduce a sentence with the superfluous word so? It’s common in radio interviews:
INTERVIEWER: Dr. Mathers, why did you resign from your position at the university?
MATHERS: So… my department head was a chauvinist S.O.B. who treated women like the lower orders of rodents… worse, even… like fleas on rodents.
INTERVIEWER: Dr. Mathers, are you saying that your department head was aggressively and blindly patriotic, especially devoted to military glory, as the word chauvinist suggests? Or do you mean that he was a male chauvinist, aggressively and blindly sexist in his dealings with woman faculty members?
MATHERS: So… yeah, that. What you said.
anyway not anyways
cardsharp not card shark
cavalry not Calvary
champ (not chomp) at the bit
cohabit not cohabitate
diphtheria not diptheria
espresso not expresso
February not Febuary
for all intents and (not intensive) purposes
forte not fort
herbal not erbal
homogeneous (5 syllables) not homogenous
lambaste not lambast
mauve (rhymes with rove)
mischievous (3 syllables) not mischevious (4 syllables)
often (rhymes with soften; the T is silent)
orient not orientate
potable (rhymes with notable)
recur not reoccur
reprise (second syllable rhymes with ease), not reprize
spayed not spaded
spit and (not spitting) image
suite not suit
supposedly not supposably
utmost not upmost
verbiage (3 syllables) not verbage (2 syllables)
*The truth of the matter is that today virtually all English language dictionaries are descriptive. The editors will usually say that they are simply recording the language and how its words are used and spelled. True, there may be some guidance. For example, most Merriam-Webster dictionaries will note if certain words are deemed nonstandard or offensive by most users; however, the words are still included. Of modern dictionaries, only the Funk and Wagnall’s contains a certain amount of prescriptive advice. All the major dictionary publishers – Merriam-Webster, Times-Mirror, World Book, and Funk and Wagnall’s – will tell you that they are primarily descriptive. Englishplus.com
A podium is something you stand on
THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE NEVER STOPS EVOLVING. Since I’ve learned to accept change as an inevitable and even beautiful quality of our language, I’ve become more flexible, less rigid, and more adventurous about choosing and arranging words on a page. Right. When pigs fly and hell freezes over. I hate change. If it were up to me, the Dodgers would still be in Brooklyn.
Change is sometimes necessary, even beneficial. I get that. Pantyhose had to go. Lard in the cupboard, lead in the gasoline… I don’t miss them. But the English language is, for the most part, nontoxic and fat-free, so let’s not mess with it more than we have to.
There must be a better way to write respectfully than this:
Someone’s at the door. I wonder what they want.
Someone’s at the door. I wonder what he or she wants.
The latter is “correct,” but neither is going to win a prize for dialogue. No one talks like that, just as no one answers the question “Who’s there?” by saying—correctly—“It is I.” We can be forgiven for colloquial speech that breaks the rules… until it descends into grunts and snarls. I’ve been embarrased by my own mumbles lately during the half-block stroll to the grocery store. I usually pass other pedestrians, and one of us says something on the order of
“How ya’ doin’?”
Understanding that this isn’t a request for an organ-by-organ medical status report, I used to answer…
I’m doing well, thanks. How are you?
…but lately what comes out of my mouth sounds more like this:
Doin’ gud. H’boucherself?
Speaking is work…
…a highly complex motor task that involves approximately 100 orofacial, laryngeal, pharyngeal, and respiratory muscles… [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Speech_science]
and we sometimes take short cuts. Over time, our sloppy speech becomes formalized in the language. What’s a contraction, after all, except sanctioned laziness? It’s easier to say “didn’t” than “did not,” and even easier to say “di’n’t,” dropping that second pesky plosive altogether.
This is nothing new. The word lord, for example, comes from the Old English hlāfweard with a meaning similar to “breadwinner.” I learned this from Kevin Stroud on his excellent History of English Podcast (mandatory listening for anyone who’s interested in English-language and British history). Kevin explains how our language evolves to reflect the way we actually speak. A word’s journey from its earliest appearance—quite possibly among the ancient Indo-European people long before there was an alphabet—to its current spelling, pronunciation, and usage, can be a fascinating tale. When you know the word’s story, you don’t like to see it misused.
Consider, for example, the beleaguered podium. If ever a word deserved mercy, surely podium is that word. It’s expected to do not only its own job—that is, to be the word associated with a low platform of the type shown in Fig. B (above right)—but also the job of another word, which was assigned hundreds of years ago to objects such as that shown in Fig. A (above left); and that word is lectern.
- A podium is a platform upon which a speaker stands.
- A lectern is the tall desk or stand, usually with a slanted top, that holds the speaker’s books, notes, sermons, and so forth.
- You stand on a podium and behind a lectern.
As a rule, using the wrong word interferes with communication, but that’s not the case here. If I ask, say, the Scratchnsniff triplets to come on stage by summoning them “to the podium,” and there is no podium—only a lectern like the one shown in Fig. A— the siblings will cope. They won’t get lost or wander around looking for the podium that wasn’t where it was supposed to be. Why? Like 58.17 percent of the English-speaking population, they think that podium and lectern are synonymous.
I stand by podium for a different reason—its etymology. Podium is related to the Greek word pous “foot.” Octopus has the same root. Did you know that the plural of octopus is octopodes (if you are Greek)? Pous evolved from the Proto-Indo-European root ped– “foot” c. 2000-4000 BCE.
Thus, podium has something like five or six thousand years of history to its credit, as summarized below:
The Life & Times of Podium
- Starts out as ped- with the Indo-Europeans, c. 2000-4000 BCE.
- Evolves as pous among the Greeks, arty souls who refined it as podion, meaning “foot of a vase.”
- Borrowed into Latin, where the Romans fiddled with it and came up with podium “raised platform.”
- Word and meaning arrived intact in English, late 17th or early 18th century—not the typical way for Latin words to enter the language. Most of our Latin vocabulary came through the French language after the Norman French invaded England in 1066. The army—led by the Duke of Normandy (soon to be King William I of England)—mopped the floor with weary English foot soldiers at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. In the aftermath, Normans and their families arrived in great waves, bringing their culture, their customs, and their language. Obviously, podium wasn’t part of the initial onslaught.
What, precisely, do a podium and a foot have in common? I guess I had assumed, without giving it much thought, that the podium got its name because people stand on it. You know, with their feet. No; that’s not it at all—though it can be a useful memory trick. The “foot” in this equation isn’t a human foot but an architectural or artistic one, as illustrated in the photo labeled “foot of a vase” below. As the Romans apparently saw it, a podium was analogous to the foot of a vase (Greek podion).
Got an extra podium? Maybe you should take out an ad: Podiums for sale. You could use podia instead, but trust me, people will smirk when your back is turned. Me, I’m a Nebraska girl. I don’t say celli or concerti or podia or gymnasia, I don’t eat raw fish, and I buy my jewelry on eBay.
Where do you stand?
Unlike podium, the word lectern—which originally meant a reading desk in a medieval church—came into Middle English “through channels,” you might say, if you don’t mind perpetrating a vicious pun that relies on a clumsy reference to the English Channel , which separates France and England. In any case, lectern came through Old French letrun, from medieval Latin lectrum, from legere “to read.”
Now, if you can remember that we read at a lectern and stand on a podium, my work here is done.
Is lectern lost forever?
I was a fan of Allison Janney in the role of C. J. Cregg on NBC television’s The West Wing. She was spectacular, and I’m sure she didn’t mean to stomp on my heart every time she spoke of the “podium” in the White House press-briefing room, night after night, week after week, for seven agonizing years. As White House press secretary, C. J. spent a great deal of time at, behind, beside, or otherwise in the aura of the miscalled “podium.”
During 155 episodes in seven seasons, certainly hundreds of people, if not thousands, had to have noticed the solecism: There’s a lectern on your television screen for all the world to see, and a star of the show is calling it a podium. No doubt many viewers contacted the show. But the lectern remained a “podium” throughout the program’s run, and that means one of two things:
(a) Nobody in the real White House ever referred to the thing as a lectern, or
(b) lectern is yesterday’s soggy Rice Krispies. It’s been written out of The West Wing and drop-kicked out of our lives. If it were a lame horse it would be taken out and shot, and We the Righteous are going to have to suck it up… unless…
Hey! You guys wouldn’t want to join me in putting our collective foot down and making a stand for standing on (not at or behind) a podium, would you? Because if you would, send me an email (email@example.com) for a list of public officials and prominent educators to contact, starting with the Secretary-General of the United Nations. The man conducts his entire life behind a lectern.
Okay, maybe it’s not a global hot button, but the podium | lectern controversy isn’t just about little me with a bug in my brassiere. The experts and scholars are unanimous in their assent: A lectern isn’t a podium and it’s not okay to call it one. Here’s a heartening comment from a Toastmaster, followed by another from an authority on public speaking:
A podium is a platform upon which a speaker stands while speaking. If that sounds like a stage, you are correct. It is like a stage. A podium can have a lectern on it, [as]… can a stage. You could have a lectern on a podium on a stage. A speaker stands on a podium. —Message Masters Toastmasters
Many people confuse the words lectern, podium, rostrum, and dais. A lectern is the slant-topped high desk that you as the speaker stand behind and use when reading your presentation notes. It can be placed in the middle of the stage or off to one side. To remember lectern, think lecture.
A podium is a raised platform on which a speaker stands during a presentation. To remember podium think podiatrist – which is a foot doctor. You will want to use a podium, especially if you are short or there are more than three rows of chairs, to ensure everyone in the back of the room can see you. Standing on a platform will also dramatically increase your vocal projection. A rostrum or dais is a larger platform or stage on which a head table might be placed during a formal dinner.
More voices for the good and the true
The Daily Chronicle, “Never again confuse lectern for a podium”
Mannerofspeaking.org, “Podium vs. Lectern”
Dailywritingtips.com, “Podium vs. Lectern”
…and here’s the megasite for all things presentation-related:
Does it really matter?
No and yes. If it were only a matter of clarity, using podium instead of lectern might actually be the better choice. If you ask for a podium, you’ll probably get a lectern. If you ask for a lectern, you’ll probably get a blank stare.
From the Daily Chronicle story cited above…
Just before a speaking engagement at a hotel several years ago, Mose asked a hotel staff member for a lectern, describing its intended use: to hold notes for the presentation. “You mean a podium?” the young man asked. “No, a lectern,” Mose insisted, though he should have known better. The man came back a few minutes later with a lectern, which he continued to refer to as a “podium.”
I won’t give up, but I’m not optimistic. When the White House falls, can the entire free world be far behind? Maybe I’ll reach out to the Lectern people, see if they’re interested in a combination fundraiser | podium/lectern-awareness event: Pennies for Podiums… in the U. K., maybe Pounds for Podiums and, um, Lbs. for Lecterns? Meanwhile, if you’re looking for me, I shouldn’t be hard to spot; I’ll be (sigh) the Last Man Standing.
July 23, 2016
There are three principles in… being and life: the principle of thought, the principle of speech, and the principle of action. The origin of all conflict between me and [all others]… is that I do not say what I mean and I don’t do what I say. —Martin Buber
INTRODUCTION: 3 WRITING ESSENTIALS
From the forthcoming handbook Writing for Humans, by Mary Campbell, Annagrammatica.com
The person who has learned to write with candor, clarity, and pleasure can be a healer of the planet.
IF YOU WANT TO
- write joyfully and efficiently, and
- create documents that are readable, informative, maybe even fun to read… and that support your organization’s brand
…THERE ARE THREE ESSENTIALS:
- Love of writing
- Respect for the reader
WRITING CREATES HOSTILITY
…when the writers don’t enjoy writing
…when the writing distances readers—through boredom, fear, intimidation, or obfuscation (lack of clarity)
WRITE FOR A BETTER WORLD
Written language has the potential not only to build goodwill, promote understanding, and facilitate communication… but also to heal breaches planetwide and advance the cause of peace and prosperity. As the shadow side of that power, language can also be divisive, distancing, and inflammatory. 
When words are a call to arms, there is a price to pay, and not just in lost sales and disgruntled employees. Hostility in the air has social costs.
It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that the person who has learned to write with candor, clarity, and pleasure can be a healer of the planet. With more than four billion web pages at our fingertips, language is ubiquitous. “Let peace begin with me” ceases to be an idealistic bit of fluff and becomes an inspiring possibility.
When I confront a human being as my Thou and speak the basic word I-Thou to him, then he is no thing among things nor does he consist of things. He is no longer He or She, a dot in the world grid of space and time, nor a condition to be experienced and described, a loose bundle of named qualities. Neighborless and seamless, he is Thou and fills the firmament. Not as if there were nothing but he; but everything else lives in his light. —Martin Buber
THE HABIT OF HELPING
For writers, the first habit to cultivate might well be curiosity, particularly when the question is “What can I do to serve you?” Do you know a better way to begin or invigorate a relationship than to hold in thought the question “How can I make your life better?”
Let’s set aside for now the distinctions among types of relationships—personal, social, familial, business, professional, and any others that are based on roles. The Golden Rule doesn’t stipulate status, age, or gender. It doesn’t counsel us to “do unto other English-speaking American males above the age of 10 as you would have other English-speaking American males above the age of 10 do unto you.”
And we are, after all, talking about habits, which are so much easier to form if the behavior always applies. I recently overheard a discussion about whether you should use your turn signal if you’re in a left-turn-only lane. I mean, really. It’s not exactly a hardship to press down on that little lever. Do you honestly want to have to decide whether or not to use the turn signal every time it might be helpful, based on the lane you’re in or, perhaps, the presence of pedestrians in the crosswalk?
Seek to serve. Cultivate the habit of helping all the time. It will magically improve your writing, even if you do nothing else.
WHY SMART PEOPLE DON’T WRITE WELL
In over forty years as a writer, editor, and instructor, I’ve worked with men and women in the public and private sectors; small, midsize, and large companies; federal agencies and public universities; and a score of industries and professions, from architecture and broadcasting to science and technology. I’m still not sure why many intelligent, articulate people—strong leaders who are brilliant in their fields—communicate so clumsily in writing. I have a few theories, however.
Each industry and profession has its peculiar jargon, some of which is necessary—it’s the language that colleagues and clients understand. But that doesn’t explain why media releases, annual reports, newsletters, and even advertisements are unfriendly and offputting, often in direct contrast to branding efforts meant to portray an organization as warm, caring, and trustworthy.
Smart people sometimes defend their poor writing by saying that they were too busy becoming experts in their particular disciplines to learn the discipline of writing. But if that were really the problem, these smart people would also be mute, rendered unable to speak by the same preoccupation.
Nonwriters naturally make mistakes in grammar, syntax, spelling, and punctuation—the mechanics of writing. That’s why God made editors. But when writing fails to communicate, the cause goes deeper. It might signify
- lack of focus; disorganization. When writers aren’t sure what they mean to say, they lose sight of the document’s purpose and message. See Essential Number 2, Clarity.
- lack of concern for the audience—readers or listeners—who, for one reason or another, are being deceived or misled. See Essential Number 3, Respect.
I can’t help the writer who has no message or whose motive in writing is something other than to serve (inform, inspire, comfort, or entertain) readers. Fortunately, about eighty percent of the time, the problem with poor writing is one I can solve:
LACK OF ENJOYMENT—WRITERS WHO DON’T LIKE TO WRITE
Many uninspired writers believe that writing is fundamentally different from speaking. One of the most strikingly intelligent people I’ve had the pleasure to know—an architect with a warm manner and a ready wit—goes into an altered state when he has to write something. One minute we’re talking, the next minute we’re disintermediating, and it’s all downhill from there. Whatever the topic, it inevitably involves harnessing relevant data, addressing critical elements, strategizing broad-based solutions, and optimizing tailored interactions.
I’ve wondered if there’s a virus—maybe originating in Washington, D. C.—carried by a mosquito that flies around offices looking for people who are about to write something. Maybe these people release an enzyme that makes the mosquito think “Dessert!” The virus’s telltale symptom is a writing style that you’d expect from someone who was raised by a pack of patent attorneys. No one, as far as I know, has died from this virus. In any case, I’ve developed a remarkably effective cure, which I’ll administer throughout this handbook. Meanwhile…
If you want to start writing better right now, take these simple steps:
- Decide how you want to serve your audience.
- Decide what you want to say. You can make an outline if you want, although it might actually be a delay tactic that will sabotage your progress.
- Have fun writing your first draft. Play with the language. Use interesting words and colorful phrases. Do NOT edit as you go. Just write what you want to say.
- Start reading the work of writers you admire. You don’t need to study it; just read a lot of it. Their style will rub off on you with no effort on your part.
Every person born into the world represents something new, something that never existed before, something original and unique…. If there had been someone like her in the world, there would have been no need for her to be born. —Martin Buber as quoted in Narrative Means for Sober Ends, by Jon Diamond, p.78
Martin Buber (1878-1965) was a prominent twentieth-century philosopher, religious thinker, political activist and educator. Born in Austria, he spent most of his life in Germany and Israel, writing in German and Hebrew. He is best known for his 1923 book, Ich und Du (I and Thou), which distinguishes between Thou and I modes of existence…. Buber characterizes Thou relations as dialogical and I relations as monological. In his 1929 essay “Dialogue,” Buber explains that monologue is not just a turning away from the other but also a turning back on oneself…. To perceive the other as an it is to take them as a classified and hence predictable and manipulable object that exists only as a part of one’s own experiences. In contrast, in an I relation both participants exist as polarities of relation, whose center lies in the between. —Source: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
 “In an atmosphere of suspicion… we may … become unduly cautious in our communication.” J. William Pfeiffer, Conditions That Hinder Effective Communication, 1998; http://home.snu.edu/~jsmith/library/body/v06.pdf, accessed July 28, 2012
 Studies consistently show that “human happiness has large and positive… effects on productivity. Positive emotions appear to invigorate human beings.”
 It’s said that writing and editing are antagonistic processes using different parts of the brain. Whether or not that’s true, stopping to analyze your output interrupts the creative flow. Write now, edit later.
P.S. What’s So Bad About Buzzwords?
Call it jargon, corporate-speak, academese, buzzword blitz—by any name, it’s lazy at the very least… it’s usually discourteous… and, at worst, it’s verbal bullying.
All moves are treacherous and require Divine Assistance
I moved recently. I don’t know anyone who likes to move, especially during the winter. It’s just a thing you do that isn’t fun, like a root canal. You throw all your stuff in boxes with varying degrees of care, depending on how fragile it is and how much time you have.* Then you schlep all the boxes and furniture and family members to the new place. You put the stuff away, maybe you find a half-eaten peanut-butter-and-banana sandwich in a box marked LINEN CLOSET, and for a couple of months you can’t find the salad forks. That’s about it… at least, that’s how it used to be.
* TIP: For the best bargains on the planet, stalk someone who has to move in a hurry. During one rushed long-distance move, I arrived at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix with two suitcases, both significantly over the weight limit. I had three minutes to dispose of twenty-five pounds of clothing. Crouched by the luggage scale, I handed out shoes, sweaters, and outerwear like party favors, including two pairs of Levi’s faded to perfection and an alpaca coat from Neiman Marcus. Two middle-aged women emptied out their own suitcases, stuffed half of the contents into a nearby trash can, and snatched up my jeans, shirts, and boots before they hit the floor.
My recent move felt different from the get-go. The minute I started packing, this vague uneasiness came over me, like when you’re at work and you’re going to have company for dinner, you’ve already bought the food and made the salad, everything’s under control, but it feels as if you’ve forgotten something and you can’t imagine what—and then you get home and discover that your cats ate the five pounds of salmon fillets you set out on the clothes hamper. That kind of uneasiness.
Moving is always stressful. I expected some stress, but I figured I’d relax a little when I could see progress—you know, an empty room except for a nice, neat pile of boxes. Instead, the more I packed the more anxious I got. And when I reached a certain point in the packing—the point where furniture had to be dismantled and cast-iron cookware had to be boxed up—I looked around and didn’t see anyone, and I said, “Where’s the guy?” I said it out loud: “Where’s the guy?”
That’s a big, ugly lie. I didn’t say it out loud. I didn’t even think it. If I had understood the problem—There’s no guy—early on, I would have rented one for three months. But I didn’t, because there were two factors I had overlooked:
Factor 1: I’m not a guy. I’m independent and healthy and reasonably fit, but if that were the same as being a guy, we wouldn’t need hinges on toilet seats.
Factor 2: I’m older than I was the last time I moved. Most of my friends, male and female, no longer have all their own components. They’re part human, part Erector Set. They probably injured the components that had to be replaced the last time they moved.
Factor 2 became obvious when I started scouting around for help. No one was ever home. They were all at their postsurgery doctor visits or physical-therapy appointments, except for the snowbirds—early retirees still luxuriating in their winter homes in Scottsdale.
Regarding Factor 1, I’ve known for quite some time that I wasn’t a guy, I just didn’t see it as a problem. “Well, it’s just moving,” I told myself. “I’ve moved dozens of times. I can do this myself.”
There’s always been a guy around when I moved: my dad, husband, domestic partner, “special friend,” or, strapping full-grown son. This time, there was no such person available. My full-grown son, who lived next door, was not, at the moment, strapping. He was of no use at all, in fact, having suffered a compound fracture about two weeks earlier. I’m not sure how he managed it, but the timing, from his point of view, was perfect.
As much as I hate to admit it, I’ve always taken the male contribution to the moving process for granted. Frankly, I thought of guys as a necessary evil when (and only when) it came to moving, and I wasn’t all that sure about the “necessary” part.
I don’t like to clump people into categories and then generalize about them. Men are as different from each other as they are from crabgrass or great blue herons. They come in all sizes, shapes, and colors; they run the gamut of intelligence, sensitivity, athleticism, hirsuteness, fashion sense, dental hygiene, and likability. There are men whose company I invariably enjoy, others I can tolerate for a couple of hours, and a few I’d cheerfully poison after five minutes in the same zip code.
But if you disguised a man as a woman and sent him into a household-moving situation, he’d give himself away in about twelve seconds. That’s because, in my experience, all men—regardless of race, sexual orientation, or nationality; no matter how kind, soft-spoken, and mild-mannered they are in everyday life—undergo an instantaneous and terrifying transformation when they are moving, helping you move, or just dropping by for a beer and watching other people help you move. They
- curse loudly, nastily, and often
- curse loudly, nastily, and often, at you
- insist, no matter what you’re doing, that you should be doing something else
- insist, no matter how you’re doing something, that you’re doing it wrong
- send you to Home Depot to buy the three-quarter-inch grommets you should have known they’d need and should have bought three weeks ago
- send you back to Home Depot because they shouldn’t have had to tell you that only navy-blue grommets will work for your grommet-requiring object, whatever that might be
- always, inevitably, without fail, put the largest, heaviest piece of furniture directly in front of the only electrical outlet in the room
Honesty compels me to add that farting—publicly, deafeningly, and often—becomes de rigueur when a man puts on his moving hat. Oh, yes; baseball caps are also de rigueur.
I used to advise every woman not to even consider marrying or cohabiting with a man until she has a chance to observe his decorum during a move. She might actually have to vacate her house or apartment, buy or lease another one, and put him in charge of the move, just as a test—a lot of trouble, you say, but very likely worth it. Moving magnifies little flaws that otherwise might go undetected practically forever, like the Pithovirus sibericum pathogen that lay dormant in the Siberian permafrost for thirty thousand years before some French scientists started poking around in the tundra. Once they warmed it up and examined it under a microscope, they discovered that it was as lethal as ever if not more so, and they couldn’t just shove it back under the permafrost and forget they ever found it.
My current thinking, however, is that you should treasure your spouse for all his good qualities and then, when it’s time to move, have someone stand in for you. Your proxy doesn’t need to look like you. Just make sure that all the men involved in your move see you wearing a red jacket in the morning, then give your stand-in the red jacket and go treat yourself to a day at the spa. Your boyfriend or spouse and his cronies—-half-blinded by sweat, testosterone, and beer—won’t miss you as long as they can find a red jacket to curse at and boss around.
It doesn’t matter if you’re five-foot-two and you’re three-fourths Comanche, your stand-in could be John Madden in short shorts and you’d still get away with it, as long as he wore the red jacket. Just be sure to get back home, relieve your stand-in, and retrieve your jacket before your guy’s buddies take off. Without witnesses, he might decide to apologize—unless he’s still annoyed about the grommets or he doesn’t remember the abuse he dished out. (John Madden won’t forget it, though.)
So men aren’t at their best on moving day. So what? I have never been more sure of anything—not even that I have two eyes and two feet and a supernumerary nipple on my left breast (but we’ll let that be our little secret, okay?)—than that I needed a man to help me move. Why was that, exactly?
Well, most men are taller, stronger, and more coordinated than I am. For that matter, the same could be said of most women. But in a moving situation, a tall, strong, physically fit woman can’t take the place of a guy. There are three reasons for this:
First, women are too busy. When it’s time to move, a guy won’t show up late and out of breath, glance at his smart phone, and say, “I can only stay till 1:17. I have a meeting downtown at 1:25, and I can’t be even a minute late because I’m giving birth at 2:30 and Aaron has a swim meet tonight in Guadalajara.”
Second, and equally important, a guy who isn’t Tim Gunn or your daughter won’t critique your wardrobe before packing it. He won’t pick up your favorite linen jumpsuit, holding it as if it might be infested with flesh-eating microbes, wrinkle his nose, and say, “You’re taking this? It’s so dated. It makes you look old.” And there’s this pleading look in her eyes that says, “Mom, please don’t ever wear this, not even in the Himalayas; you might run into someone I know.”
Third, guys’ brains are wired to understand the logistics of moving. They can come in, look around for a few minutes, and tell you how many cubic feet of truck space you’ll need. When your eyes glaze over, a guy will—after heaving a sequence of sighs that go on as long as it takes to let you know how put-upon he’s feeling—condescend to translate the cubic footage into the truck sizes advertised online (15-foot, 21-foot, 90-liter, etc.).
Presented with the truck’s dimensions in linear feet, I’m perfectly capable of figuring out, without a calculator, how many cubic feet it will hold, but if I made a small mathematical error, like putting the decimal point in the wrong place, and I came up with a figure such as
342.286 million cubic feet
…I’d do a little victory dance and call to reserve the truck; whereas guys just know, using the same arcane mathematical skill that enables them to keep track of batting averages and RBI’s and lifetime All Star Game appearances for baseball legends such as Stan Musial and Willie Mays, that 342 million cubic feet would hold Wembley Arena and the Staples Center.
You’ll definitely need a guy if you’re driving a moving truck halfway across the country. Guys not only understand that the truck has to be balanced, they can tell when it’s not balanced, and they know what you should put in that space above the cab and over the wheel wells, and they know how to tie everything down so that, once you’re under way, your ski poles won’t slip loose and go shooting out the back of the truck and impale the driver of the car behind you. I don’t own any ski poles and I only moved six blocks. Just saying.
When it comes to packing and unpacking—except for your wardrobe, as previously alluded to—I’m not sure there’s a gender advantage either way. My ex-fiancé, whom I’ll call “Riley” because that’s what I called him for the eight years we were together and it’s become a habit, was the consummate packer. Whether we were going away for a weekend or moving out of the Palace of a Thousand and One Nights, he packed everything with the same deft care and innate competence you see in a mother when she’s swaddling her day-old infant. He folds clothes in tidy stacks that look like they just came from one of your swankier department stores. My clothes look like they were folded by a person wearing a baseball glove on each hand.
Alas. For this move, I had no Riley, no Dad, no son, no “special friend.” I had no on-call guy, just several kindhearted friends and in-laws in various stages of spinal disk degeneration. With one day left and nothing packed except underwear and spoons, it became necessary to do the unthinkable—pay strangers to help me move. Guys you know will move your stuff for beer, even if you own three grand pianos and an eight-foot anaconda. Strangers want cash.
I found four college students (two of each gender) who would accept five hundred dollars to take my furniture and packed boxes and throw what wasn’t packed into piles in their pickup truck, drive to the new place and unload everything without regard for logical placement—pressure cooker in bathroom, bottle of bleach on velvet love seat next to bag of onions—and return for the next jumble of piles and lampshades and boxes filled with stuff you’d never move if you’d taken the time to sort, like four-foot stacks of margarine tubs and dried-up shoe polish. They must have made forty-five trips inasmuch as unpacked stuff takes up a lot more room than tidy boxes. I can’t say that even today, more than four months after I was supposed to have all my stuff cleaned out of the basement apartment (and the adjacent boiler room), I actually have all my stuff cleaned out of the basement apartment (and the adjacent boiler room). At some randomly selected point I just decided to be done moving. Nor do I have the possessions that are here, in my new apartment, neatly arranged in their proper places. There are not enough proper places for all my possessions. For all I know, the college students shattered my mother’s priceless Limoges tea set and helped themselves to selected items from my hopelessly unstylish wardrobe.
But it’s summer now, and I’m on the second floor (instead of in the basement apartment adjacent to the boiler room), and I have large mullioned windows in abundance (instead of four small windows mostly obscured by a sloppy trim-painting job), and I even have transoms and lots of old oak. I will never move again, not even if the landlord doubles my rent and forces me to house a pair of pit bulls and a leaky container of plutonium… unless, of course, someone fitting my Guy profile happens along and he wants to marry me and move me into his exquisitely restored Victorian farmhouse. Okay, I’ll say. But I’ll still get the stand-in and make myself scarce until the last half-jar of pickle relish is safely tucked away in the refrigerator.
A final bit of advice if you’re considering a move: Don’t do it, I don’t care if you’ve had two sets of triplets since you moved in to your current place. But if you absolutely have to move, even if it’s just a lamp and it’s going only as far as the next room—start praying immediately. All moves are treacherous and require Divine Assistance in addition to at least one guy and the red decoy jacket. Before you buy one, if you’re in the vicinity, you might scan the baggage check-in area at Sky Harbor Airport.