Which of the following abbreviations are acronyms?
Clue: Seven of the abbreviations are acronyms, four are initialisms, and one is just a plain old abbreviation. To be classified as an acronym, a word—usually made up of the initial letters of a sequence of words—must be pronounceable, as in UNICEF (United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund). If the letters are said individually, as in DOJ (Department of Justice), the word is an initialism.
Answers: 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11
- An initialism for British Broadcasting Corporation
- An initialism for Central Intelligence Agency
- An initialism for Federal Bureau of Investigation
- An abbreviation for Incorporated
- An acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation
- An acronym for National Aeronautics and Space Administration
- An acronym for Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries
- An acronym for Radio Direction and Ranging
- An acronym for Random-Access Memory
- An acronym for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus
- An acronym for Situation Normal—All F***ed Up
- An initialism for United States of America
NOTE: If you like number 11—snafu, said to have been coined by GI’s during World War II—you’ll love fubar (F***ed Up Beyond All Recognition), tarfu (Totally and Royally F***ed Up), and the like.
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.
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?
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.
Do you need an editor? A proofreader?
You tell me.
- Do you spell sleight of hand correctly?
- Do you properly use an en dash rather than a hyphen in phrases such as “pre–World War II”?
- Do you know when to set off an explanatory phrase with commas (as in “Claude Monet, the celebrated French Impressionist, was born in 1840”) and when not to (as in “Celebrated French Impressionist Claude Monet was born in 1840”)?
- Do you know whether to insert quotation marks before or after semicolons?
- Do you know what’s wrong with the sentence “I only had chicken for dinner”?
- Do you know the difference between a podium and a lectern?
- Are you aware that if you have two sisters and one of them is named Susie you can refer to her as your “sister Susie” and no comma is needed, but if you have only one sister she’s your “sister, Susie”?
Do you even care?
Hardly anybody does, but there are self-confessed nerds in this world who care far too much. They lurk like trolls under bridges, waiting for a misplaced modifier or a sentence fragment to clump along so they can leap out of the gloom and exclaim, “Gotcha!” They are a miserable lot because they can hardly listen to a commercial without cringing, what with spokespersons’ announcing a sale on “select merchandise only” and “a savings of 50 percent.”
These nerds are called “proofreaders,” and their focus is on spelling, punctuation, typographical errors, and other mechanical problems with a manuscript. A good editor can do all that and more. His or her higher calling is to improve the style, tone, flow, and vocabulary of the piece. Editors also look for “fake facts” and inconsistent diction. They assess whether the work is appropriate for its intended audience, and they edit accordingly.
Even editors need editors. Serious writers put a lot of work into their manuscripts, and when they finish them, they don’t like people messing with them. They become wedded to every word, and an editor’s intrusion feels like betrayal. I speak from experience. I get cross with my spellchecker when it suggests a change, even when it’s right and I’m wrong—which is rare, but it happens.
A lot of writing goes on in this world, and most of it probably does well enough. Who really cares, or even notices, if someone mistakenly uses a hyphen instead of an en dash? I’d venture to say that en dash and em dash aren’t in the general public’s vocabulary. And that’s fine. They’re tools of the proofreader’s and editor’s trade. In fact, some editor probably made them up so that she’d have a reason to say, “You need an editor!”
So who does need an editor? You do, if you’re writing something…
- that’s going to be widely read
- that represents your company or organization
- that you hope to have published
- that for whatever reason needs to be perfect.
Your memoir, your annual report, your article on packrat middens, your speech to the alumni association—these are endeavors worth paying an editor to correct and polish.
P.S. One thing an editor probably can’t help you with is pronunciation, so if you’re giving a speech, read it to someone else first. Taking that step would have saved my good friend Tom McDonald from a lot of embarrassment. It was his job to introduce an emeritus professor to a large gathering of faculty and students at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Tom was a smart guy—top of his class—but he pronounced emeritus as if it rhymed with hepatitis. I had to be the one to tell him. I still blush when I think of it.
Who uses the word shall these days? In American English, at least, many of us say will or should, have to, ought to, or need to when our ancestors would have used shall:
- AS A COMMAND: You shall pick up your toys and put them away.
- FOR SIMPLE FUTURITY: When shall we expect you?
- TO EXPRESS AN INTENTION: We shall have to prepare for the storm.
- TO EXPRESS A STRONG ASSERTION: We shall survive.
- IN CERTAIN QUESTIONS: Shall we have chicken or fish?
Shall is still formally used in laws and rules:
- No one shall enter these premises between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.
Do you think that shall is archaic? To modern ears it might sound stuffy or old-fashioned… yet, though we’re not aware of it, some of us use shall quite often, though in an abbreviated form, pronouncing it like “sh’l” or omitting the L-sound altogether:
- Where sh’l we go for lunch?
- What sh’ we have for dinner?
Shall in its full form survives even in colloquial speech in suggestions such as
- Shall we go?
- Shall we dance?
Traditionally, in the future tense, shall was used in the first person, will in the second and third persons:
- SINGULAR: I shall, you will, he/she/it will
- PLURAL: We shall, you will, they will
I suspect, though I have no solid evidence, that British speakers of English use shall more frequently than Americans.
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.
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.