Category Archives: vocabulary

Hyphenatic

TypewriterGirl-Vintage-GraphicsFairy1

Eloquence is the power to translate a truth into language perfectly intelligible to the person to whom you speak. —Ralph Waldo Emerson

Forty years ago, I signed on as a part-time editorial assistant at the University of Arizona. The mother of three, I preferred short workdays and made a little money on the side writing poems, stories, and essays. Literary journals usually paid in copies, but I won contests now and then, earning as much as a hundred dollars for a sonnet or story. Still, even with my husband’s income as a country-club golf pro, money was tight, so when I was offered a full-time-editor job, I jumped on it.

At the U of A, I was responsible for production of the general catalog. I spent about half my time processing new academic programs and trimming the fat from hundreds of bloated course descriptions that landed in my IN box—unofficial carbon copies followed weeks later by the “originals.” The process gobbled up paper and time, requiring arbitrary and redundant levels of approval befitting the secession of four or five states from the union. The truth is, nobody ever read the stuff before it reached my desk, arriving in pristine condition except for assorted stamps and signatures… no bite marks, no sign of having been stapled, mutilated, or spindled.

I tried and failed to eliminate the carbon-copy component of the process. The carbons were supposed to hurry things along, on the assumption that we could do the editing and data entry while waiting for the official approvals. Our doing so, however, only brought battalions of outraged department heads and deans to our office, miffed that we were undercutting their authority… even though most of the documents dealt with minor changes to course descriptions, not counting a protracted debate over the heady issue of ground water versus groundwater, with the “ground water” proponents arguing for consistency with the parallel phrase surface water.

The work could have been tedious, especially in certain abstruse disciplines where a hot topic might involve “Backus normal form and metalanguages of metalinguistic formulas.”  Even basic proofreading can be troublesome when you’re not familiar with a subject’s quirky vocabulary. Sometimes I suspected that it was all a joke and “Backus Normal Form” was an overcoat outlet for Big & Tall Men.

On the other hand, a few of the biggest bigwigs in U of A administration were committed to Catalog Excellence. These men (there being no female V.I.P.s at that time) weren’t satisfied with mere accuracy, clarity, and consistency. They wanted the catalog to sing. Every program description should flow with lyrical prose. Ours should be the King Lear of university catalogs, elegant throughout in style and tone. Until you’ve tried it, you can’t know how difficult it is to apply the same degree of authenticity and cadence to courses on (a) Emily Dickinson, (b) Materials Science of Art and Archaeological Objects, and (c) the Honeybee.

Eventually I mastered the art of creating small literary masterpieces, lucid yet scholarly-sounding enough to satisfy sensitive egos, out of academic raw material, whether it came to me dry and sparse and bullet-pointed or lavishly embellished with strings of modifiers derived from French and Latin. A stem or leaf that you and I might describe as “green” was rendered “verdant” in course-descriptionese. My colleague Mary Lindley or I promptly made it green again. If anyone complained, we could always cite the inflated cost of printers’ ink.

Mary was cheerful, capable, dependable, and ludicrously overqualified. She and I ended up rewriting most of the course descriptions and offending half of the faculty, who tended to express themselves like this:

History of the English Language (3) I II The student will be required to present evidence of a mastery of knowledge and understanding of the introduction, expansion, progression, transformation, and, where relevant, decline of English-identified sounds, English inflections, and English vocabulary. The time period studied by the student will encompass the era of the earliest identification of a meta-dialect which was spontaneously organizing itself into a distinctive language group, through the intervening iterations of the language, until the present day. The student will be responsible for full and complete comprehension of the influence of cultural, sociological, and historical events and conditions upon the evolution of the language in its original regions and specific locales as well as in its export to English-controlled colonies and other areas of influence.

Dash it all!

I’m not proud of the person I became during my four years as catalog Nazi. My predecessor had marked up the documents with a discreet blue pencil. I, on the other hand, acquired Big Red, the William Howard Taft of markers. I wielded it with glee, drunk with power (or high on marker fumes), eager to find innocuous typos, sentence fragments, pronouns with dubious antecedents, and call attention to them with obscene circles and accusatory arrows, praying that someone would invent sticky tape with flashing red lights. Sirens would have been helpful, too. I’d forgotten the purpose of language—to communicate, solecisms be damned.

Over time I learned to pick my battles on the principle that sometimes it’s better to be happy than right. Meanwhile, my work was useful not only in humiliating the most pompous assistant professors but also in taming runaway clauses. To my credit, I was almost always right—tediously so.

I was particularly obsessed with the correct placement of hyphens, en dashes, em dashes, and commas. I could and did cite chapter and verse from no fewer than four authoritative style manuals.

Early on, I had identified two types of hyphen abusers: PAG (point-and-guess) and EOW (every other word). When writing anything at all, PAG-type abusers have an inner monologue like a broken record: “Must be ’bout time for another hyphen. Must be ’bout time for another hyphen. Must be ’bout time…,” although people who are clueless about hyphens usually call them “dashes.”

(For you youngsters: Once upon a time, “broken record” was a metaphor for saying the same thing over and over. Vinyl records, when chipped or scratched, often snagged the phonograph needle, causing a little section of the record to repeat, and repeat, and repeat, until someone lifted the needle arm and advanced it past the scratch, often creating another scratch in the process.)

Very special education

Once I accidentally renamed a special-education course via the substitution of a D for an F, so that the course title became “Reading and Study Skills for the Dead.” Mary, who was proofreading my document, laughed so violently that she concussed. A week later, fully recovered, she resumed proofing with the same course, and I thought she was going to require medical attention again, but she calmed down, and the two of us contemplated “overlooking” the mistake, reasoning that as typos go it was pretty cute and might improve employee morale.

Instead we decided to be grownups. It was a matter of catalog integrity. Besides, the special-education folks wouldn’t have been amused. Some of the newer faculty were already insecure in their academic stature and became noisily defensive if they suspected they were being made fun of.

For the most part, though, I wielded Big Red with a heavy hand. It didn’t make me any friends, but I had the consolation of feeling superior to people who made gobs more money than I did.

The new rules

I no longer believe that “bad writing” breaks the rules of grammar and syntax. Bad writing disturbs the peace. Its opposite is eloquence, which—according to Ralph Waldo Emerson—”is the power to translate a truth into language perfectly intelligible to the person to whom you speak.”

Written materials produced by organizations are too often not intelligible. The “truth” they purport to convey gets lost in a jumble of jargon and a labyrinth of verbosity. I have come to see these shortcomings as going beyond communication failures. They reflect self-importance, intimidation, even outright hostility. I can fix spelling; I can’t fix a snarky attitude… but I hope I can prove that it damages your writing.

Expressions that confuse and distance readers have infiltrated business, professional, and academic writing so thoroughly that plain writing can seem gaunt and awkward. Even the humblest message has a chip on its shoulder, as illustrated by this classified ad placed by a large medical center in search of a building mechanic:

Position description: Under general supervision, the Building Mechanic II position exists to maintain and address the air quality needs of our customer base as it pertains to air filtration and preventative maintenance of major and minor air handling and building mechanical systems. Our customer base includes but is not limited to patients, visitors, staff, researchers, administrators, and coworkers. Areas of responsibility include all building mechanical systems (AHU’s, pumps, exhaust fans, med gas, etc.). Building Mechanic I responsibilities are inclusive to this position. Position is dedicated to achieving excellence through the accomplishment of the medical center’s mission/goals & objectives especially as they relate to customer service. Refer to Required Education and Experience. Refer to Preferred Education and Experience.

The medical-center maintenance managers are  looking for someone who can maintain air-handling equipment. Why don’t they just say so? Because “Wanted: Someone to maintain air-handling equipment” sounds flat and unimpressive. But bare-bones writing is easily mended when writers learn to replace obfuscation with grace and courtesy.

Social intelligence

Over time, this ad and its brothers, sisters, cousins, and sundry other relatives online, in print, and in broadcast media got under my skin and wouldn’t crawl back out and skitter away. I sensed that I was dealing with something more malevolent than sloppy writing.

After years of research and reading weighty, lifeless prose, I began preparing a revised edition of my 2007 business-writer’s manual emphasizing clarity versus jargon in writing and public speaking. My research indicated that the biggest problem in what I refer to as “communication with a public audience” (any form of public speaking, business writing, journalism, and so forth) goes beyond lack of clarity to subtle hostility, an almost feral show of power, with ramifications at every level and in every sector of society.

My new book addresses writing as a form of personal interaction to which the principles of “social intelligence” (as set forth in Daniel Goleman’s excellent book by that title) should apply, as well as the ideals in Martin Buber’s 1923 book I and Thou. A key principle in social intelligence is to increase the number of people you categorize as “us” and decrease the number you regard as “them.”

Of particular concern to me are memes that slide into public consciousness due to the prevalence of “sweeping generalizations” and the abandonment of other journalism standards. But rather than wagging a finger at communicators and invoking their “responsibility,” I suggest that the public interest and their own would be better served by an inoculation of truth and clarity, which might also allay the antagonism and polarity between groups who disagree so violently that they’ve given up even trying to reach consensus.

Grammarwise, you’re safe with me

This book will not scold you about grammar, syntax, pronunciation, spelling, and so forth. This book might gently suggest—if, say, the word adventuresome is part of your vocabulary—that “careful speakers or writers prefer adventurous or venturesome.” This book will whisper such admonitions so as to convey sensitivity to your inalienable right to use adventuresome just for a lark or, alternatively, having given the matter a great deal of consideration and possibly prayer and contemplation, to be a whimsical, spontaneous, devil-may-care sort of speaker or writer… indeed, to be flat-out wrong if that’s what you want and it’s been one of those days and you might just drink a glass of strong ale and begin spewing double negatives in clauses containing the word ain’t and even do something shocking with fricatives if you can recall what they are and isn’t it something to do with Flanders, or are you thinking of frangibles or Frigidaire? …because I now view other people’s writing and public speaking as methods of communicating—not as canvases where I can show off my own writing-and-editing virtuosity—and I evaluate writing according to how well it communicates rather than by its adherence to the old rules of writing that I once took such pains to learn.

Welcome to the new rules of writing:

  1. honesty
  2. purpose
  3. respect
  4. clarity
  5. enjoyment

How may I serve you?

To be continued….


decsystem-10-Joe-Mabel

Mary and I entered catalog data on CRT terminals connected with a computer like this DECsystem 10. Since the entire University of Arizona shared time on the computer, during busy weeks such as registration we arrived at work before 7 a.m. to avoid horrific login queues.

The DEC 10’s original processor, the KA10, had a maximum main memory capacity of 256 kilowords, equivalent to 1152 kilobytes. Today’s Galaxy C8 phone has memory capacity expandable to 256 gigabytes—more than 220,000 times greater than the KA10’s.

Photo: Joe Mabel


From Annagrammatica’s Little Book of Practical Writing

 

 

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Pop Quiz

Private_SNAFU

Which of the following abbreviations are acronyms?

  1. BBC
  2. CIA
  3. FBI
  4. inc.
  5. LASER
  6. NASA
  7. OPEC
  8. radar
  9. RAM
  10. scuba
  11. snafu
  12. USA

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

  1. An initialism for British Broadcasting Corporation
  2. An initialism for Central Intelligence Agency
  3. An initialism for Federal Bureau of Investigation
  4. An abbreviation for Incorporated
  5. An acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation
  6. An acronym for National Aeronautics and Space Administration
  7. An acronym for Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries
  8. An acronym for Radio Direction and Ranging
  9. An acronym for Random-Access Memory
  10. An acronym for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus
  11. An acronym for Situation Normal—All F***ed Up
  12. 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.

 

What Would You Do?

yiddish alphabet

A Yiddish-Laced Conundrum

I am not Jewish and, unlike some of my childhood friends, I never had Yiddish-speaking grandparents, but I am charmed and delighted by the Yiddish language, which was “used by Jews in central and eastern Europe before the Holocaust. It was originally a German dialect with words from Hebrew and several modern languages and is today spoken mainly in the U.S., Israel, and Russia.” (Wikipedia)

Having come across a short Yiddish glossary, I am offering an admittedly clumsy attempt to integrate Yiddish terms into an English narrative. Please feel free to correct my usage and, even more important, suggest a solution to the problem of Bubbe, Zayde, Shirley, Judith, Norman, and a marriage that promises little happiness and a great deal of unwelcome drama.

Shirley couldn’t stop kvelling. Her Judith was engaged to be married, and the intended groom wasn’t just a mensch, he was an endocrinologist. Shirley wasn’t altogether sure what an endocrinologist did, but it was enough to be able to say, “My son-in-law, the doctor.”

Unfortunately for Shirley, her parents—Judith’s beloved Bubbe and Zayde—were more clear-eyed and less sanguine about the marriage. Young Norman was—in a word—a putz. That much was plain five minutes after meeting him. The first time he spent a weekend with Judith’s family, he sent Judith out to schlep the luggage while he sat on his tuches at the kitchen table and began to nosh. He kvetched at Judith as she busied herself about the kitchen, punctuating his conversation with remarks such as, “Before we go anywhere, you’ve got to change out of that shmatte.” When he’d eaten his fill, he got up and wandered the room, picking up Shirley’s prized tchotchkes one by one and scowling at them with distaste. “Schlock,” he muttered under his breath, just loud enough for Bubbe and Zayde to hear him.

Shirley considered herself a baleboste, but she was determined to view Norman as mishpocheh, so she overlooked his shlekht manirn and inquired brightly, “More kasha varnishkes, Norman?”

“A bissel,” he replied, and proceeded to eat the entire contents of a two-quart casserole dish without interrupting his monologue, schmoozing on everything from the smallness of the kitchen to the largeness of Judith’s tush. “My adorable klutz,” he said, patting her bottom. “We’ve got to get you a gym membership, darling,” adding, with insolent chutzpah, “although flab seems to run in the family. A bit of a shande, no?”

“Oy vey,” whispered Bubbe to Zayde. “The man is meshuggeneh. Gornisht helfn.” If Shirley heard her mother, she made no sign of it. “Dessert, Norman?” she inquired politely.

Zayde seemed ready to plotz. Bubbe, recognizing the signs, took her husband by the arm and gave him a gentle shove into the front room. “The man is insufferable,” he said, his voice shaking with emotion. “Our granddaughter is marrying a shmendrik.”

“It could be worse,” said his wife. “He could be a shagetz, like Arthur Mitchell.” Arthur was Judith’s previous fiancé, and the entire family had been united against the match—even though Arthur was something of an endearing shlemiel. But Bubbe wasn’t altogether sure that Judith’s marrying a Lutheran auto mechanic who had truly loved her would indeed be as disastrous as wedding a boorish, narcissistic Jewish doctor who seemed to love nothing more than the sound of his own voice.

Just then, out of the corner of her eye, Bubbe caught sight of Judith, her face blotched and tear-streaked, slipping out of the kitchen toward the staircase. Norman was apparently oblivious to the tsuris, as he was engaged in earnest conversation about the tachlis of purchasing a house—something he evidently believed would be an appropriate wedding gift from Judith’s parents to their only daughter and her groom.

“Oh, dear, Papa,” Bubbe said to her husband. “This can’t go on. You, my love, are a yiddisher kop. Whatever shall we do?”

The Great Traveling Textile Swamp

clothes

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

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

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

Tiny diction lesson

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

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

Consider Me Discriminating

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

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

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

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

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

A Tiny Diction Lesson

Purposefully and purposely are not synonymous.

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

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

 

Big-Money Blogging

Giovanni_Domenico_Tiepolo_-_The_Minuet_-_Google_Art_Project

The MinuetGiovanni Domenico Tiepolo, 1756

There’s a 28-year-old woman who makes more money in a year than I’ve made in my entire life. I learned about her on YouTube. She brings in over a hundred thousand dollars a week blogging and freelance-writing about personal finance. She and her husband travel the country in their mega-motorhome. I want her life. So why don’t I have it?

(a) I have a blog.

(b) I can write.

(c) Everything I know about personal finance can be summarized in five words: “Don’t do what I do.”

I’ve got (a) and (b) working for me, but (c) is a deal-breaker. And I might have to revisit (b). Yes, I can write, but I don’t talk the talk of the blog-reading public. I’m not 28 years old. I’m twice 28 years old plus quite a few more years. I speak Baby-Boomer English in a Millennial world.

The dude who profiled this woman on YouTube—we’ll call them “Joe” and “Daphne”—described her success by saying that “she’s crushing it.” That’s Millennial-speak for “she’s doing well.”

I googled “Millennial-speak” to get an idea of just how hip I’m not. According to one of the articles my search turned up…

  • If I’m in a bad mood, Millennially-speaking, I’m “salty.”
  • If I want something—anything—a lot, I’m “thirsty.”
  • If I’m rude to someone online, I’m a “troll.”
  • If my lifestyle is ho-hum, it’s “basic.”
  • If I need to leave in a hurry, I have to “bounce.”

Back in the day, salty referred to salinity, thirsty meant “in need of hydration,” a troll was a gnome who lived under a bridge (or a human who looked like a gnome who lived under a bridge), basic was synonymous with “fundamental,” and bouncing was something you did on a bed. And this accounts for only five out of dozens, maybe hundreds of words I’m using wrong. But if I tried to adopt Joe and Daphne’s vocabulary, I’d sound like an idiot. Besides, I’ve never been hip, not even when hipness was hip. The only dance I ever mastered was the minuet. When I try to high-five someone, I miss their hand and lurch into a wall.

I watched another YouTube video on making big bucks through freelance writing. A very hip Millennial chick I’ll call “Tawny” made it clear that I shouldn’t settle for earning an effing ten cents a word writing for an effing content mill—a website that churns out online articles. That’s another thing that differentiates me from Millennials: their comfort level with the F-word.

Understand, I’m perfectly capable of spewing F-words in emergencies, and I’ve been heard to say, “Eff YOU,” when I’m, well, salty and someone pushes my buttons, but if I were marketing professional services on a YouTube video, I wouldn’t use the F-word unless it related directly to the type of service I was promoting. If you get my drift.

So good luck, Joe, Daphne, and Tawny. You’re safe from me… at least until I figure out a way to make money blogging about stress incontinence or involuntary public farting. Meanwhile, chicks and dudes, I gotta bounce. See you later, alligator.

Shall We Say ‘Shall’?

medieval-dancers

Shall we dance?

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.

Sources

Eating My Words

I’m Changing My Name to Baba Ghanoush

If eggplant were the only food product available on the planet, I’d starve to death. It’s one of three or four comestibles I gag on. I can’t even tolerate the odor.

It’s a pity, because it deprives me of a reason to say baba ghanoush. What a wonderful phrase! It trips off the tongue like a small shower of pebbles falling on sand… baba ghanoush, of which the chief ingredient is eggplant. You also toss in some tahini—another pretty little word, much sweeter to say than its definition, which is “sesame-seed paste.”

Almost as much fun to pronounce as baba ghanoush are falafel and chickpeas—the former being composed of the latter along with onion, garlic, and a little flour. Sadly, I never met a chickpea I could swallow. As you might surmise, I don’t spend much time at west-Asian or eastern-European restaurants.

If my food-and-beverage choices were based entirely on vocabulary rather than flavor, I’d enjoy a preprandial Manhattan, or, possibly, an Old Fashioned. Whether or not approved by sommeliers, I’d order a glass of Moscato to drink with my baba ghanoush, my falafel, and other delectables.

Did you know that there is a word for continuing to eat when you’re full because the food is so good? That word, from the country (not the state) of Georgia, is shemomedjamo, translated as “I accidentally ate the whole thing,” according to wordnik.com. That same source gives us the German word kummerspeck—literally “grief bacon,” referring to “the excess weight gained from emotion-related overeating.” If I had the time, I would befriend recent divorcees solely for the opportunity to say, “Poor Brenda. Bless her heart, she’s put on thirty pounds of kummerspeck since Humphrey went off with Cruella. Too many sessions of shemomedjamo, I’m thinking.”

Here’s a small word with a large and complex meaning, having nothing to do with food but leaving one musing about the circumstances under which the need for such a word arose: It’s tingo, from the Pascuense language of Easter Island, and it means “to borrow objects from a friend’s house, one by one, until there’s nothing left” (bbc.co.uk, ”Tingo, nakkele and other wonders”).

Questions pop up like crocuses in April: Is this a common occurrence on Easter Island? Does the borrowing occur surreptitiously or in the open, and doesn’t the borrowee notice that his or her possessions are melting away? Are Easter Islanders too polite to ask for the return of their vegetable peelers, their hiking boots, and their beds? It boggles the mind.

Back to food…. My favorite forms of bonne bouche (Americans pronounce this French phrase “bun boosh” when they want a fancy way to say “tasty morsel”) are not, alas, euphonious. Fudge is a case in point. The word is as unlovely as the candy is delicious, especially when homemade, with real butter—and how about that for a word? Margarine is nicer to say but butter is better in all the ways that count.

Our Night Out

woman-in-hatA little apropos of nothing… If maturity means disillusionment, acceptance, a “realistic” outlook, or modest expectations, then we are prepubescent.[1] 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.

panorama-simpson-gibson-cosby

Simpson, Gibson, and Cosby undisgraced

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.

lewis-and-clark-scenic-byway

The Missouri River separates Nebraska and Iowa at the Lewis and Clark Scenic Byway

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.

woman-waxing

To wax or not to wax—that is the question. Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer….

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[2]—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”?

kingfong

Chris Machian, Omaha World-Herald

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.[3] 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[4]… and why, indeed should we not? As Kurt Vonnegut confides in Mother Night, “You are what you pretend to be.”

joan-hickson-miss-marple

Mysterious lady in hat

[1] 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.

[2] 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.)

[3] 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.

[4] http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Javaphile

Athwartships and Holy Foreskins

An Athwartships Sort of Day

circumcision-of-christIT’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.

emelye-in-the-garden-from-boccaccios-il-teseida

Lady fingers

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….*

st-bridgetNone 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.