Category Archives: diction

Amuna Go Now

glass-cup-with-water

According to Treehugger.com, “Fasting can be a preventative and therapeutic approach against obesity and metabolic disorders.” This is probably good news for people who find it possible to abstain from eating for hours or days on end. It’s bad news for those of us who dislike the word preventative used as an adjective. Fastidious users of the English language prefer preventive.

It’s a bit surprising when people add unnecessary syllables to common words, as in orientate and cohabitate. Orient and cohabit are better choices and require less effort to say or write, and we commonly slip into language shortcuts without even giving it a thought.

For a while I thought it was just me, but I’ve noticed that many, if not most, English-speakers are lazy about diction. I may WRITE a sentence such as the following:

I am going to walk to the pharmacy

…but when I SAY it, it comes out like this:

Amuna walk to the pharmacy.

Probably, at some point in the evolution of the shorter form, I said

I’m gonna walk to the pharmacy

…but “I’m gonna” collapsed into “Amuna” —during my forties, I suspect, at about the same time my arches collapsed. Pure laziness.

Preventive, orient, and cohabit don’t represent phonological laziness, however. They’re neater, cleaner, and more nearly “correct.”

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Don’t Let It Rankle

bird preening

The other day I heard a sports journalist make a case on the radio for paying salaries to student athletes. He admitted that the issue is controversial and it might “rankle people’s feathers.”

I’m not sure what it would look like to “rankle” someone’s feathers. In fact, I don’t do well imagining people with feathers at all, unless they’re nine feet tall, bright yellow, and birdlike.

The idiom this journalist was reaching for, I believe, was “ruffling feathers.” Birds, evidently, don’t like to have their feathers tousled. Some species spend a great deal of time preening, perhaps for the purpose of attracting members of the opposite sex. If something or someone interferes with the birds’ careful grooming, they become understandably cross. Human beings, likewise, resent others’ attempts to disarrange things—their plans, their ideas, their preconceptions, and their feathers, I suppose, if they are wearing any. So, yes, paying salaries to student athletes would certainly ruffle a lot of metaphorical feathers.

Feathers can be ruffled but they can’t be rankled. This is due in part to the fact that rankle is an intransitive verb; it doesn’t take an object. If something doesn’t sit well with me, it rankles. It doesn’t rankle me. It doesn’t rankle anybody else. It just rankles. Period.

“To rankle” is to cause annoyance or unease. Let’s say you get caught jaywalking and you’re assessed a $25 fine. You admit you broke the law; you grit your teeth and pay the fine; but still… it rankles.

Rankle comes to us through Middle English from an Old French word that meant “festering sore,” from an even older Latin word—draco, meaning “serpent.” So I suggest that, if something rankles in your universe, you do whatever is necessary to get it out of your system before it festers and turns venomous. Herpetophobics everywhere will thank you.

Let’s Hear It for ‘Ain’t’

MARK_TWAIN(1883)_p366_-_AIN'T_THAT_SO,_THOMPSON

From Life on the Mississippi, by Mark Twain, 1883

To a question on Quora about the “difference between ‘I am’ and ‘am I,’ I submitted this answer:

Inflections in a language are changes within words that indicate attributes such as tense, case, number, gender, and so forth. For example, the English-language suffix -ed to show past tense is an inflection.

English uses few inflections compared with, say, German, which is said to be “highly inflected.” Instead, English relies upon word order. The statement “I do play the trombone” has a meaning quite different from the question “Do I play the trombone?”

Thus, “I’m” (or “I am”) is understood in English to begin a statement, whereas “Am I” usually introduces a question. Interestingly, you will rarely hear English-speakers say “Am I not?” Someone arriving tardily to a meeting will rush into the room, panting, “I’m late, aren’t I?” It’s ungrammatical, strictly speaking, but the logical contraction “amn’t” does not exist in English. “Aren’t I” is acceptable in virtually every context.

What I did not say, because it wasn’t germane to the question, is that the much-maligned word ain’t could slip neatly into the first-person-singular negative interrogative form of the verb to be. I would go so far as to say that “ain’t I” is better, grammatically speaking, than “aren’t I.”

When I was learning the language, ain’t was the grammatical scarlet A. It scorched the air like a cussword in a deacons’ meeting. A person who said “ain’t” was not only linguistically inept but also considered intellectually backward and socially inferior, one of the great unwashed, fortunate to have shoes and clean underwear, probably living in a rusted-out trailer, three kids to a room. Ain’t is probably the most stigmatized word in the English language.

No one is sure why this is so, as, indeed, ain’t was standard for centuries among cultured speakers in literature, particularly in Britain. “For most of its history, ain’t was acceptable across many social and regional contexts. Throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, ain’t and its predecessors were part of normal usage for both educated and uneducated English speakers, and was found in the correspondence and fiction of, among others, Jonathan Swift, Lord Byron, Henry Fielding, and George Eliot.” (Wikipedia)

Logically, we might as well say, “I amn’t.” It would be consistent with the second and third persons, as in, “You aren’t,” and “he isn’t.” But the issue doesn’t arise in the declarative form because we contract I with am and say, “I’m not.” Only in the interrogative do we come up against the lack of a contraction that makes grammatical sense, and so, rather than say, “I’m late, am I not?” which is just too, too prissy for us plainspoken Americans, we blurt, “I’m late, aren’t I?”

And we’ll keep on committing this same solecism, as long as the grass is green and the skies are blue, because, thankfully, language is not math and there are quirky inconsistencies at every turn. Are there not? And would we truly have it any other way?

My E-Bike and I

electric bicycle

Item for your to-do list:

—Buy an electric bike.

They’re not cheap, and you can’t buy an old, beat-up–but–serviceable one at a flea market. You’ll probably have to spend well over $500 for a new e-bike (mine was $700 on Amazon), but an excellent bicycle without the power assist can cost much more. If you’re going to buy a high-dollar bike you might as well get one that will let you sail up hills with ease and panache.

I love my e-bike. It’s my primary transportation, so I use it to run errands, to go to church, to visit friends…. People who aren’t aware it’s an electric bike are awestruck when they see a 70-year-old cyclist take steep hills without breaking a sweat. At least I imagine that’s what they’re gaping at. Maybe it’s my dorky fuschia bike helmet, but I prefer to think it’s my astounding athleticism.

‘Twas not ever thus. When I first got the contraption last fall, I kept falling off. Early in the day, when there weren’t many people about, I’d take it across the street, where there’s a giant parking lot, and I’d practice, and practice, and practice… and fall off. My knees kept hitting the handlebars and knocking me off the bike onto the ground. I tried raising and lowering the seat, but it didn’t seem to matter. After three weeks, my legs were covered with scrapes and bruises, and I wasn’t getting any better.

One November morning I took a harder-than-usual spill. Flummoxed and discouraged, wondering if I was ever going to get the hang of it, I sat on the hard, cold concrete next to the bike for five minutes or so, trying not to weep. A few kindly motorists stopped and asked if I needed help. “Thanks, I’m fine,” I sniffled, but it was a lie. The truth was, I was running out of weather suitable for bike-riding, and I wasn’t any closer to success than when I’d taken my first turn around the lot. Besides, the e-bike had been a gift from a friend concerned about my sedentary, solitary lifestyle. Bad enough that I had a $700 bike I couldn’t use. How could I tell my generous benefactor that his thoughtful contribution to my mental health was battering my body and annihilating my self-esteem?

At last I took a deep breath, stood up, and hauled my 57-pound bike to an upright position for the eighth or ninth time that morning. Right away I noticed that something was different. The controls weren’t where they’d been before I splatted. Instead of the power controller being on the right and the gear-shift knob on the left, their positions were reversed.

In a flash, I understood. The entire front assembly—the wheel, the handlebars, the brake levers—had turned 180 degrees when the bike hit the ground. Suddenly, magically, everything was in the correct position. I’d been riding the bike with the front part turned the wrong way ‘round. No wonder my knees had been hitting the handlebars and knocking me ass-over-teakettle.

I laughed out loud. I might have done a happy dance. Then I hopped on the bike and rode home. I haven’t fallen off since that morning. Problem solved.

Why hadn’t I figured it out earlier? Because I’ve never had a bike that would allow the front wheel and handlebars to be reversed in such a way. On all my old bikes, you could turn the apparatus only so far—maybe 120 degrees—before it would bump into the frame and refuse to turn farther. Besides, the handlebars were always bent or curved inward toward the rider on the older bikes. On my e-bike, the handlebars stick straight out to the sides. There’s nothing that screams “front!”

I’m still far from being an expert rider. I’m leery of busy streets, none of which have bike lanes. I don’t know how to use the gears to best advantage, and if I’m riding up a steep hill and I have to stop for some reason, it’s hard to get going again. I had one such experience on the way to a doctor appointment, and I ended up turning around and going home. But with every excursion I grow more adept. It’s the end of April; I have an entire summer to build my strength and confidence, and to find bargains on stuff like thermal underwear and goggles so that I can ride year-round, as long as the roads aren’t slick or snow-covered.

By the way, mine is a pedal-assist model. That means the motor won’t kick in unless I pedal. There are three power levels, so I can choose how much work I want to do and how much I want to rely on the motor. It’s up to me how much exercise I get.

If you’re thinking of getting a second car, consider an e-bike instead. It’s kinder to the environment, it’s a practical form of exercise, and it’s a whole lot of fun. Look for one that’s not as heavy as mine. If I had a 25-pound e-bike, I could probably lug it up the stairs into my apartment. Not happening with one that’s over half my body weight.

A tiny grammar lesson

Some grammar-and-style experts advise against ending a sentence with a preposition. Surely you’ve heard the famous comment (mistakenly attributed to Winston Churchill), “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.”

I’m reminded of the joke about the guy who asked his friend, “Where do you want to have lunch at?” The friend replied, “Don’t end a sentence with a preposition.” Guy Number One said, “Okay. Where do you want to have lunch at, a**hole?”

The same experts don’t like to begin a paragraph with the word I. In fact, they’d rather you not start too many sentences with I. Well, I agree that a series of sentences starting with I can be tiresome. But if you’re writing about yourself, your experiences, or your opinions, it’s natural to begin sentences with I. Sometimes you can easily rearrange a sentence, inserting an introductory clause or phrase as I did a number of times in this essay. Sometimes you can’t.

I wouldn’t worry about it.

Talking Vegetables

steppes

I’ve been helping my Russian friend, Alexis, with her English-language practice… or, more to the point, I’ve been increasingly aware of how much she enjoys learning new vocabulary and of how little she really knows. She’s a lot of fun, all the more because her English is so hit-or-miss. She was cooking something on one of the stoves when I walked into the kitchen. I asked, and she told me, there were “vegetables” in the pan, which indeed there were… asparagus, specifically, plus liver. When I said “asparagus,” she checked the package and read out loud, slowly and carefully, “Asparagus Speaks.” Great hilarity was enjoyed by Alexis, me, and Penny, who came in just in time to hear about the chatty edible.

After Alexis and I had conversed for about ten minutes, I wrote down the “key words” for our little session: liver, carrots, asparagus, vegetables, corn, peas, beans, and chocolate. Alexis loves chocolate. AND I spoke my first sentence in the Russian language to a Russian person: “Krasivaya bluzka” (“I like your shirt”). I’m guessing that bluzka is etymologically related to “blouse.”

Aside from vegetables and liver, Alexis favors shrimp and a type of fish that makes me wonder if there’s a Black Sea equivalent to West Virginia roadkill. Alexis enhances the flavor and aroma of organ meats and shellfish by thawing them—on the table that most of us sit at to eat normal food—for, I’ve gotta say, a lunar month. I don’t think that the gentle reminder I contemplate delivering—“Alexis, you’re not on The Steppes any more”—would convey both our deep affection for Alexis and our profound aversion to her dietary and culinary quirks. Surely there are entire species of microbes who think it’s the Rapture.

Meanwhile, once or twice a month Penny takes two buses to a specific Walmart that is the only place in a ten-mile radius that carries a particular brand of bacon she favors, and though the aroma of bacon frying is normally quite tantalizing, the combined odors of Walmart’s Select Sacrificial Pork Components and Alexis’s Smelt Putrefaction Surprise, colliding in midair like a couple of supercells over the Alkali Lake Toxic Waste Dump Site, have explosive properties that certainly could be harnessed to aid the U.N. or the Little Sisters of the Poor, in a location far, far away from our octogenarian kitchen, whose exhaust fans are under orders to tactically overheat if Alexis so much as plugs in the can opener….

A Tiny Diction Lesson

Supercell: a thunderstorm characterized by the presence of a mesocyclone: a deep, persistently rotating updraft. For this reason, these storms are sometimes referred to as rotating thunderstorms. Of the four classifications of thunderstorms (supercell, squall line, multi-cell, and single-cell), supercells are the overall least common and have the potential to be the most severe. —Wikipedia

Steppe: a large area of flat unforested grassland in southeastern Europe or Siberia

The Great Traveling Textile Swamp

clothes

It was born in 1965 and multiplied at an
alarming rate, displaying its fertility so
unapologetically my ultra-modest mother
always blushed ferociously whenever someone
raised the subject. Someone always did within a
minute, maybe two, of opening the door and
coming in. It isn’t easy to ignore a rapidly
expanding wardrobe as it creeps across the
floor, however stealthy it deceives itself it’s
being, for the rate at which it grew did not
allow it to remain within the stationary limits of
a closet and whatever room it had invaded.
Even the entire second story couldn’t long
contain the clothing-and-accessory collection’s
escalation, which outpaced the conversations
we engaged in with respect to where to house
it, how restrain it, whether to inflame it, whom
to blame, and what, in general, to do about it—
conversations that became, eventually, the
same; and in the end we always had to find a
bigger house and move immediately into it, a
temporary fix that kept a lid on things for ten or
twenty minutes, what with advertising in the
classifieds and on the Internet, and then of
course the shipping, which consisted of the
actual transporting of apparel no one
happened to be wearing—early on, at any rate,
before the desperation phase, when things got
ugly and you had to Super-Glue your shirts and
pants and stuff onto your epidermis. (Note:
Extremely Dangerous. Do Not Attempt.)

On a muggy late-September night the cousins
went around the bend; insanity set in, some
kind of mania, authorities would later say. The
dénouement began when Cousin Dougie
drugged me with a few carafes of cabernet,
and then, while I was sleeping, all the relatives—
admittedly at wits’ end, all of them, with family
visits having gotten virtually impossible and,
when they happened, separated by a decade
at the very least—this band of renegade
relations knocked me out and packed me up
and shipped me, in a state of catalepsis, to a
famous nudist island supervised by lunatics, a
crazy South Pacific paradise of sorts.

Until a cure is found for my obscure disorder
(Insubordinate Apparel Syndrome, known
informally as Wardrobe Fever), I’m allowed to
travel on a visa for a week each winter—
luggage limited to slippers, skivvies, and
pajamas, plus a parka, scarf, and toothbrush.
Here’s a list of gifts I get for Christmas: coffee
and a pair of socks. Although it doesn’t sound
like much, it isn’t—well, except the coffee.
I receive, however, vast amounts of happiness,
enough to last millennia, because, when all is
said and done, the truth is: All you need is love,
caffeine, and underpants (and in a pinch, mere
love will do).

Tiny diction lesson

The entire second story: In British English, story gains an E and becomes storey. The ground floor is called “the ground floor,” the next one up is “the first floor” or “the first storey,” and the next one up after that—which would be the third story in an American building—is “the second storey” in Britain. Got it?

Catalepsis: Catalepsy. A physical condition characterized by a loss of sensation, muscular rigidity, flxity of posture, and often by a loss of contact with surroundings. —thefreedictionary.com

Consider Me Discriminating

tarantulaPictured above is Terence—not that we got friendly enough to exchange names; he just looked like a Terence. He sneaked up on me at about 10 p.m. as I was walking purposefully toward my truck after an evening with Eli and Tracy. The Arizona midsummer temperature hovered in the mid-nineties, making me a bit annoyed that I’d parked more than four hundred feet away. Since Eli and Tracy live in the middle of the desert, I had my Maglite switched on.

Suddenly my world, already quite dark, went darker. Terence’s bulk blocked out the moon and the stars—a total eclipse of everything. The Maglite flickered, but it put out enough light for me to see that Terence wasn’t One of Us.

“I don’t recognize that guy,” I remember thinking, “but I don’t think he’s paying rent here,” and I wondered if it were legal under open-housing statutes to discriminate on the basis of supernumerary appendages. I hoped so. Judge me if you will, but when it comes to near neighbors I draw the line at seven legs per resident with no more than three segments per leg.

The house was closer than the truck, but hotfooting it to the truck seemed the wiser choice—although it was more reflex than choice that got me behind the wheel in 2.43 seconds, give or take. I gulped in a few gallons of air, supplying my brain with enough oxygen for it to calculate that Terence could dispatch the truck as far as New Mexico with a single swipe of a forward leg. When I turned the key, the truck’s engine caught on the first attempt. I pushed the pedal to the floor and didn’t stop until I felt safe.

I passed the “Casa Grande City Limits” sign and thought I’d probably look for a job and buy a house there right after I got done being treated for heat exhaustion and acute arachnophobia. If I learned nothing else that night, I think at last I understood why anyone would ever want to live in Casa Grande.

A Tiny Diction Lesson

Purposefully and purposely are not synonymous.

Purposely means “on purpose,” “intentionally”: “She purposely tripped her classmate as he walked toward the chalkboard.”

Purposefully means “in a way that shows confidence or determination”: “Bashful as she was, she managed to stride purposefully across the stage.”