A little apropos of nothing… If maturity means disillusionment, acceptance, a “realistic” outlook, or modest expectations, then we are prepubescent. Even so, we’ve made some progress in the past few years. Facts are facts. We no longer leap to the defense of erstwhile idols Simpson (O.J., not Jessica), Cosby, and Gibson. We’ve stopped believing that, in this life at least, we will time-travel to King Arthur’s Court, flatten our stomach, or remove Internet Explorer from our computer once and for all.
We deserve nothing
When we meet a self-proclaimed feminist—we have no idea why this happens—we feel as if we’ve done something wrong and look around to see if anybody noticed… as if we were the one who installed the glass ceiling so you couldn’t get the promotion you so richly deserved and we made it difficult if not impossible for you to be elected president… and, as we are writing this in September 2016, we would advise you, private citizen H. Clinton, against claiming any merit whatever in the result of the November 8 election. You will win, but it will not be a victory, any more than if you had competed against a species of invasive but nondescript dryland shrub. It will not be a tribute to you, or a testimony to the dogged determination of the American woman, or even the inexorable result of human evolution. An outcome in your favor will mean nothing more than that the citizens of our great nation chose you over Cheez-Its. Remember this when you’re drafting your acceptance speech.
The feminists we like and respect are outnumbered by those who make us want to cut and run, or to curl our lip if we thought we could pull it off. Has it escaped your notice that some of the most vociferous protesters are often women bemoaning the paucity of female directors of high-budget Hollywood films—women, it must be said, who have individually made more money in a single day’s work than we have made since the Eisenhower administration? Is it any wonder that we lack sympathy for such celebrities, when once upon a time they defined career success as being cast as the younger of the two women in a Dove-cleansing-bar commercial?
This is not to say that women, as a category, have no legitimate grievances. But golly, if it’s not one thing it’s twenty. We must be very careful when claiming rights. If we got what we deserved—any of us, male or female, infant or octogenarian—we’d all be living in daub-and-wattle huts competing with rodents for wedges of moldy cheese.
We have a memory of a Saturday afternoon when we were not yet thirty, waking from a brief nap and lying very still because a ray of sun illuminating a few strands of hair that had fallen across our eyes had made a tiny miracle of rainbow, and we had never seen anything so beautiful, not in any mountain meadow or marble palace, not even at our favorite scenic outlook, a knoll in the wooded bluffs above a bend in the Missouri River. Our small, personal rainbow should have served as a reminder to wash our hair, since it was almost certainly a layer of oil that had dispersed the sunlight so gloriously. But at the time we could only be grateful for color and light and stillness, and the feeling has never entirely gone away.
And by the way, what’s with the suffix –ist, a half-second’s sibilance that makes you a monster or a devotee? If you’re a sexist, racist, or ageist, you’re to be deplored. If you’re a narcissist or hedonist, you’re self-absorbed. Botanists, philologists, and philatelists are specialists. But if you call yourself a feminist, then you are… what? An admirer of or champion for women? Nothing wrong with that. We’d still rather be a cowgirl.
The suffix –ist … is a word-forming element meaning “one who does or makes,” also used to indicate adherence to a certain doctrine or custom, from French -iste and directly from Latin -ista (source also of Spanish, Portuguese, wetalian -ista), from Greek agent-noun ending -istes, which is from -is-, ending of the stem of verbs in -izein, + agential suffix -tes. —dictionary.com
Solecisms by the dozen
So this evening we went to hear the novelist Geraldine Brooks talk about writing books. Her voice skritched, as one’s voice might when it is put to overuse on a lecture tour, but she was articulate and funny and we minded only a little that she is considered a “women’s author” and that among the thousand people in the audience there were maybe four men. We settled into our seat, anticipating a pleasant and informative ninety minutes—not that we deserved to enjoy ourself, or deserved not to, but we did indeed expect to be happily entertained, and we guess it’s fair to say that we got what we deserved.
She gave a concise, amusing account of her journalism career and the horrors, dangers, conquests, and rejoicings she experienced on five continents. She turned to fiction as a way of lending her voice to women who lived in times and places that denied them self-expression. It was as Ms. Brooks was relating the experience of one such woman—a character in her third or fourth novel—that the fall from grace occurred, with, we would almost say (were literal precision not essential here), an audible thud. The woman was, Ms. Brooks said—these were her exact words—waxing eloquently.
If you are not a well-known author or a serious student of the English language, you may be excused for not grasping the enormity of the phrase waxing eloquently. My mother detested polishing our hardwood floors—something virtually required of all middle-class women of her generation—and she could be quite eloquent on the subject, to the point where my father felt the need to close the door to prevent her eloquence from alarming her young children.
But Geraldine Brooks’s character was not engaged in polishing the floors, the furniture, or the family car.
Often, people who speak of waxing eloquently have heard the phrase “wax eloquent” and mentally added –ly because verbs are modified by adverbs, right? But in this case, wax is what is sometimes called a linking verb, which means that the verb is joining two things that are more or less equal:
My word is my bond. Word = Bond
The song was an anthem. Song = Anthem
The sun appears unusually bright. Sun = Bright
You look nice today. You (that is, your appearance) = Nice
The night was becoming stormy. Night = Stormy
Uncle Steve is feeling poorly. Steve = Poorly. Not all modifiers ending in –ly are adverbs. Poorly, wily, owly—all adjectives.
The speaker waxed eloquent. Speaker = Eloquent
A modifier used with a linking verb is not an adverb describing a verb, it’s an adjective describing the subject.
Wax means grow or become when we’re talking about the moon. A waxing moon is “growing,” getting plumper every night until it’s full. After that, it starts to narrow, or wane. Likewise, when a speaker “waxes eloquent,” he or she is gradually becoming more and more articulate.
Writers know this. It’s taught in How Not to Write Stupid 101, where they also learn to not say “Hopefully, it won’t rain” or “The year is comprised of four seasons.” So at first we thought that our speaker was making a little joke. But she had been funny and clever to that point, and “waxing eloquently” fell short as humor. She didn’t deliver it jokily, and no one laughed. It’s hard to believe that she doesn’t know the idiom or that no one has ever pointed out her error, but that seems to be the case.
In any event, she plummeted in our esteem. That’s on us. Why should one mistake sink her past redemption? And who are we—writer of little note and less fortune, probably committing solecisms daily by the dozen—to judge a famous, rich, and talented novelist for flawed diction, when Shakespeare can write, with impunity, “This was the most unkindest cut of all”?
Woman of mystery wannabe
We are not proud of it, but after ten minutes we gave in to our pique and slipped out of the lecture. Feeling peevish, and peckish (certainly not peckishly) as well, we walked downtown, hoping to find a coffee shop still open at 8:30. We’d almost given up after eight blocks, having passed but one open establishment—a steak house—and the venerable King Fong, closed for renovation.
But we were in luck. We found not just a coffee shop but a Jamaican coffee shop, owned and operated by a Jamaican individual who had a charming manner—eager to please but not obsequious—and whose very speech was song. We wanted to adore his coffee; if only goodwill could have infused the éclair with moistness. No matter. It was the sort of place we would have loved dress up for—in floppy hat and flowing skirt—to waltz into, a bit mysteriously, as if we had an assignation, but perhaps not… to bide a wee and read the Christian Science Monitor, make longhand notes in a lovely parchment journal about our fellow javaphiles… and why, indeed should we not? As Kurt Vonnegut confides in Mother Night, “You are what you pretend to be.”
 An editor of a respected business journal warns against starting sentences with “I”—not the letter but rather the word. Evidently it smacks of narcissism. We are testing an alternative herein.
 We might adopt that as our campaign slogan when we run for public office: Mary Campbell, Committing Solecisms Daily by the Dozen, for president. Some will vote for us; others will wonder how a self-confessed grammar predator expects to garner a single vote. (We just broke another compositional rule: No footnote numbers midsentence.)
 Paragraphs are not to be commenced with But, according to the same editor. Goodness me! The number of words with which it is permissible to begin paragraphs has shrunk to 171,476. We should establish a committee to advocate for the preservation of freedom with regard to paragraph-starters.
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.
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.
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
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
I THINK I’LL WONDERFUL
If you use the free phone service Google Voice and your callers leave voice mail, Google transcribes the messages. Evidently Google believes that the transcripts are less than perfect (see next paragraph), but I wouldn’t change a thing. You’ll agree with me, I’m sure, after you read the three examples below.
Google would like your help in making voicemail transcriptions better. With your permission, our automated systems will remove your account information from your voicemail messages and analyze them to improve our language models.
Have a happy anyway
TRANSCRIPT 1. Hi darling little girl we did. I just noticed, your maths it and Ralph. We need to visit. That’s All I can tell you And now, whenever marry Mike, phone When you are, only death. 4. And sometimes I can’t here 2. What it so Boy. We may have to make an appointment. Just, is that anyway. I’m glad you’re safe. This is and home you redo the worried me, this time anyway. I love you much and You know your always in my prayer file There, anyway Happy weekend and You know, Jeff, try me again And I’ll try you have that. Love you much. Hi Mary.
TRANSCRIPT 2. Issue resolved. Thank you for the birthday wishes. I’ve got to see why this issue. I remember you might work for there you have a yesterday and the potential client of ours so curious to see if you are, but I don’t heard it right. I mean, but I can’t find it. Because of that you if you call me back so So if you have any chance. Later.
TRANSCRIPT 3. Hi Sweetheart, Happy Easter, gosh i get you in passage and you’re supposed to inflate Enya. I left gosh. I’ll get you another book don’t journal. You know we had a separate but. I just or slightly ec all and in in the park. I would anyway. We’re gonna go tonight and you You know, have 5 I think I’ll wonderful. Sermon, and all. All the things that we need to do about the Resurrection, anyway. I don’t know what you’re doing tomorrow. But. I hope. It’s. If you have a happy anyway….
WRONG, WRONGER, WRONGEST
Many of us studied English grammar and usage in the black-and-white school of language-learning favored by the textbooks and teachers of my childhood. To say ain’t, for example, as in “I ain’t got time,” was just plain wrong, only slightly more benign than shoplifting. “He don’t have no lunch” and “me and her already ate” were equally undesirable.
Experience has taught me that a wise and compassionate response to “he don’t have no lunch” might be to give the guy something to eat rather than to correct the speaker’s way of speaking. Assuming that the fellow is indeed lacking a midday meal, “He don’t have no lunch” describes the situation clearly and succinctly.
Further (about which see below), If you set yourself up as an authority on any aspect of the English language, fastidious and vigilant defenders of the opposing point of view will rise up to prove you wrong, throwing nasty clots of evidence like yellow snowballs in your face.
Ford’s “Go Further” slogan irritates purists who insist that further and farther aren’t synonymous. Further, they argue, means “in addition” as an adjective and “advance” as a verb (“He used the stolen money to further his aims”). Farther is defined as “at or to a greater distance.” In any case, that ship has sailed. The horse is out of the barn. Further and farther are in practice interchangeable and likely to stay that way.
The same is true for nauseous as a synonym for nauseated. This, to my way of thinking, is a bit unfortunate, in that nauseous, with the meaning “causing nausea or disgust,” was a yeomanly alternative to nauseating. In that sense, to say “I feel nauseous” would be to declare oneself repulsive. Again… horse, barn.
However nauseous is defined, the preferred pronunciation (according to some authorities) is NAW-see-us rather than NAW-shus. I suspect that this preference is sailing away on the same ship as long-LIVED (rhyming with the second syllable of arrived), now usually heard with a short I, like the I in gift.
Twice in the past year I have heard authors during radio interviews mispronounce enveloped, saying EN-vuh-loped — as in “the travelers were EN-vuh-loped in a dense fog” — rather than en-VEL-upt. In each case, until the solecism occurred, I found the writer interesting and credible. Afterward — post-solecism, if you will — I switched stations. Even the most forgiving commentators on language draw the line somewhere.