Are you a Wingnut—that is, a person who still enjoys watching and discussing episodes of the TV show The West Wing more than a decade after the program went off the air? Do you know what the characters are going to say before they say it? Do you have entire conversations committed to memory? Have you ever asked, “What’s next, Mrs. Landingham?” for no particular reason? Did you view the film The American President multiple times so as to spot similarities with The West Wing in plot, script, and casting?
If so, you’re a little bit loopy—and I’m your lawyer. No, wait! Ainsley Hayes (played by Emily Procter) is your lawyer. I, on the other hand, am your grammar and pronunciation critic.
It’s been many years since I owned a television set, but once I discovered Netflix I quickly found my way to more than 150 West Wing episodes spanning seven seasons from 1999 to 2007. The series is so intelligent, witty, and well paced—particularly the first four seasons, before Aaron Sorkin and Tommy Schlamme left the show—it practically ruined me for other televised entertainment.
But I was ready to move on. Enough is enough, I thought. I tried to watch House of Cards—Netflix seemed to think I’d enjoy it—but House of Cards was too dark and took itself too seriously. The characters were amoral and scheming, and I didn’t care if they lived, died, or ate each other’s digestive organs for breakfast, much less gained positions of power and influence. I had the same reaction to Mad Men.
I had just settled in to watch the BBC’s Planet Earth when I learned of a new podcast, The West Wing Weekly. Podcast hosts Hrishikesh Hirway (Hrishi) and Joshua Malina (Josh, who played Will Bailey on The West Wing) were funny and charming, and they were going to devote an entire hour, once a week, to the discussion of a single West Wing episode. What could I do but go along?
When examining a program minutely, naturally you’re going to pick it to pieces. You’re going to recall your favorite moments, rave about the acting, and criticize the ways in which the TV show isn’t like Real Life. That’s what you do. “That could never have happened,” you think, forgetting for a moment that The West Wing isn’t a documentary. Hrishi once observed that, after Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (played by Bradley Whitford) was shot and rushed to the hospital, he was removed from the ambulance head first, whereas an actual gunshot victim would come out feet first since the oxygen and other lifesaving equipment are kept toward the front of the vehicle.
PRESIDENT BARTLET: I like your sass.
C. J. You’ve got a very nice sass yourself… sir.
The argument starts when Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) compliments Ainsley Hayes (Emily Procter) on her appearance—“Hayes, you could make a good dog break his leash”—offending office temp Celia Walton (Alanna Ubach), who upbraids Sam for what she considers a sexist remark. Also present are Charlie Young (Dulé Hill) and Ginger (Kim Webster). Ainsley—appealed to when she returns to the room—says flatly, “He’s not a sexist.” Celia presses the point.
CELIA: If you’re willing to let your sexuality diminish your power.
AINSLEY: I’m sorry?
CELIA: I said, I’m surprised you’re willing to let your sexuality diminish your power.
AINSLEY: I don’t even know what that means.
CELIA: I think you do.
AINSLEY: And I think you think I’m made out of candy glass, Celia. If somebody says something that offends you, tell them. But all women don’t have to think alike.
CELIA: I didn’t say they did. And when someone said something that offended me, I did say so.
AINSLEY: I like it when the guys tease me. It’s an inadvertent show of respect I’m on the team, and I don’t mind it when it gets sexual. And you know what? I like sex.
AINSLEY: I don’t think whatever sexuality I may have diminishes my power. I think it enhances it.
CELIA: And what kind of feminism do you call that?
AINSLEY: My kind.
GINGER: It’s called lipstick feminism. I call it stiletto feminism.
AINSLEY: You’re not in enough trouble already?
SAM: I suppose I am.
CELIA: Isn’t the point that Sam wouldn’t have been able to find another way to be chummy with a woman who wasn’t sexually appealing?
AINSLEY: He would be able to. But that isn’t the point. The point is that sexual revolution tends to get in the way of actual revolution. Nonsense issues distract attention away from real ones. Pay equity, child care, honest-to-God sexual harassment. And in this case, a speech in front of the U. N. General Assembly. So… stop trying to take the fun out of my day. With that, I’m going to get a cupcake.
WHY WE DON’T LIKE MANDY
Mandy Hampton (Moira Kelly) lasts only one season as a White House media-relations consultant. Hard to believe, as she tells us early on how young and cute she is, despite having earned a bachelor’s degree in art history, a master’s degree in communications, and a Ph.D. in political science.
I’ve never seen this actor elsewhere; on The West Wing, at least, she’s shrill, abrasive, and self-absorbed. The writers don’t give her lines that are likely to endear her to audiences, but her delivery is alternately scolding and just short of hysterical. Here she is in repartee with Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) and C. J. Cregg (Allison Janney):
MANDY: Are you listening to me?
MANDY: What was the last thing I said?
TOBY: The last thing you said was, “Are you listening to me?”
MANDY: You guys are idiots, did you know that?
C. J.: In our own defense, we actually do know that.
MANDY: Would you tell him that signing the bill and, thus, swallowing the bitter pill of strip mining would not foreclose a PR approach that would trumpet banking reforms while at the same time excoriating the special-interest strip-mining scam which, by the way, is what I am happy to call it? Tell him that.
C. J.: Toby, Mandy wants you to recommend to the president that we do it her way.
TOBY: Did you understand what she said?
C. J.: No, but she seemed pretty confident.
West Wing First Daughter Zoey Bartlet (Elisabeth Moss) reminds her father that she “graduated high school.” White House Communications Director Toby Ziegler mentions that he “graduated college.” Zoey and Toby, both of whom are bright and well educated, surely meant to say “graduated from high school [or college]” but were, we suppose, distracted by a flying insect of some sort.
You can’t “graduate college” any more than you can “go college” or “arrive college.” In this instance, the verb “to graduate” is acting as an intransitive verb, and intransitive verbs cannot take on an object. —writersdigest.com Sept. 14, 2010
Podcast cohost Hrishikesh Hirway is an accomplished musician and composer who comes across as brilliant, poised, and so likable that it made me a little sad to hear him mispronounce homage as oh-MAZH.
The Cambridge Dictionary gives the U.S. pronunciation of homage as HOM-ij, while the New York Times has this to say (nytimes.com, Nov. 5, 2010):
As with other leading American dictionaries, Webster’s New World currently recognizes two equally accepted pronunciations of the word: either HOM-ij or OM-ij. Since the pronunciation with “h” is listed first, that would favor “a homage” over “an homage.”
Refrain from saying oh-MAZH unless you are French and you cannot help yourself.
Numerous West Wing characters have been known to drop their H’s. To drop or not to drop—that is the question, as it pertains to the initial H in an English word. A pronounced H is said with a burst of sound, as in house, history, and high. People who would never say “an HIS-tor-y of Rome” may yet be heard to omit the H sound in a phrase such as “an ‘is-TOR-i-cal account.”
It is commonly noted in literature from late Victorian times to the early 20th century that some lower-class people consistently drop h in words that should have it, while adding h to words that should not have it. An example from the musical My Fair Lady is, “In ‘Artford, ‘Ereford, and ‘Ampshire, ‘urricanes ‘ardly hever ‘appen.” —Wikipedia
Don’t try to formulate a rule about this; it’s complicated, depending in part on how words entered the English language and what happened after they got here. It’s more a matter of custom than logic. For herb, the British pronounce the initial H—HERB. American-English–speakers say the older version, ERB, though to kill weeds they buy HERB-i-cide.
Eli Attie, a onetime West Wing writer and consultant, is a regular guest on The West Wing Weekly podcast. During one of his guest spots, he says short-LIVED with a short I, as in GIVE. Actually, the I in -lived should be long, as in HIVE.
C. J. pronounces this word PEW-litz-er. Josh and Hrishi discuss the matter at some length on a podcast episode. Hrishi reveals that the correct pronunciation is “PULL-it-sir,” and to make double-darn sure he telephones the Pulitzer offices to see how callers are greeted. If C. J. didn’t know better, someone else should have, wouldn’t you think—at least one of the other members of the West Wing cast and crew. Sigh.
Practically everybody on The West Wing says podium when they mean lectern or rostrum. You stand ON a podium and BEHIND a lectern, people. I have written (superbly) on this very topic; please see https://writingqueen.wordpress.com/2016/07/22/podium-vs-lectern/.
To err is human, but if you don’t want to compound your error, do not pronounce ERR like “AIR.” It should rhyme with FUR. It was Toby Ziegler who committed this solecism on The West Wing, and I still haven’t quite gotten over it.
A podium is something you stand on
THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE NEVER STOPS EVOLVING. Since I’ve learned to accept change as an inevitable and even beautiful quality of our language, I’ve become more flexible, less rigid, and more adventurous about choosing and arranging words on a page. Right. When pigs fly and hell freezes over. I hate change. If it were up to me, the Dodgers would still be in Brooklyn.
Change is sometimes necessary, even beneficial. I get that. Pantyhose had to go. Lard in the cupboard, lead in the gasoline… I don’t miss them. But the English language is, for the most part, nontoxic and fat-free, so let’s not mess with it more than we have to.
There must be a better way to write respectfully than this:
Someone’s at the door. I wonder what they want.
Someone’s at the door. I wonder what he or she wants.
The latter is “correct,” but neither is going to win a prize for dialogue. No one talks like that, just as no one answers the question “Who’s there?” by saying—correctly—“It is I.” We can be forgiven for colloquial speech that breaks the rules… until it descends into grunts and snarls. I’ve been embarrased by my own mumbles lately during the half-block stroll to the grocery store. I usually pass other pedestrians, and one of us says something on the order of
“How ya’ doin’?”
Understanding that this isn’t a request for an organ-by-organ medical status report, I used to answer…
I’m doing well, thanks. How are you?
…but lately what comes out of my mouth sounds more like this:
Doin’ gud. H’boucherself?
Speaking is work…
…a highly complex motor task that involves approximately 100 orofacial, laryngeal, pharyngeal, and respiratory muscles… [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Speech_science]
and we sometimes take short cuts. Over time, our sloppy speech becomes formalized in the language. What’s a contraction, after all, except sanctioned laziness? It’s easier to say “didn’t” than “did not,” and even easier to say “di’n’t,” dropping that second pesky plosive altogether.
This is nothing new. The word lord, for example, comes from the Old English hlāfweard with a meaning similar to “breadwinner.” I learned this from Kevin Stroud on his excellent History of English Podcast (mandatory listening for anyone who’s interested in English-language and British history). Kevin explains how our language evolves to reflect the way we actually speak. A word’s journey from its earliest appearance—quite possibly among the ancient Indo-European people long before there was an alphabet—to its current spelling, pronunciation, and usage, can be a fascinating tale. When you know the word’s story, you don’t like to see it misused.
Consider, for example, the beleaguered podium. If ever a word deserved mercy, surely podium is that word. It’s expected to do not only its own job—that is, to be the word associated with a low platform of the type shown in Fig. B (above right)—but also the job of another word, which was assigned hundreds of years ago to objects such as that shown in Fig. A (above left); and that word is lectern.
- A podium is a platform upon which a speaker stands.
- A lectern is the tall desk or stand, usually with a slanted top, that holds the speaker’s books, notes, sermons, and so forth.
- You stand on a podium and behind a lectern.
As a rule, using the wrong word interferes with communication, but that’s not the case here. If I ask, say, the Scratchnsniff triplets to come on stage by summoning them “to the podium,” and there is no podium—only a lectern like the one shown in Fig. A— the siblings will cope. They won’t get lost or wander around looking for the podium that wasn’t where it was supposed to be. Why? Like 58.17 percent of the English-speaking population, they think that podium and lectern are synonymous.
I stand by podium for a different reason—its etymology. Podium is related to the Greek word pous “foot.” Octopus has the same root. Did you know that the plural of octopus is octopodes (if you are Greek)? Pous evolved from the Proto-Indo-European root ped– “foot” c. 2000-4000 BCE.
Thus, podium has something like five or six thousand years of history to its credit, as summarized below:
The Life & Times of Podium
- Starts out as ped- with the Indo-Europeans, c. 2000-4000 BCE.
- Evolves as pous among the Greeks, arty souls who refined it as podion, meaning “foot of a vase.”
- Borrowed into Latin, where the Romans fiddled with it and came up with podium “raised platform.”
- Word and meaning arrived intact in English, late 17th or early 18th century—not the typical way for Latin words to enter the language. Most of our Latin vocabulary came through the French language after the Norman French invaded England in 1066. The army—led by the Duke of Normandy (soon to be King William I of England)—mopped the floor with weary English foot soldiers at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. In the aftermath, Normans and their families arrived in great waves, bringing their culture, their customs, and their language. Obviously, podium wasn’t part of the initial onslaught.
What, precisely, do a podium and a foot have in common? I guess I had assumed, without giving it much thought, that the podium got its name because people stand on it. You know, with their feet. No; that’s not it at all—though it can be a useful memory trick. The “foot” in this equation isn’t a human foot but an architectural or artistic one, as illustrated in the photo labeled “foot of a vase” below. As the Romans apparently saw it, a podium was analogous to the foot of a vase (Greek podion).
Got an extra podium? Maybe you should take out an ad: Podiums for sale. You could use podia instead, but trust me, people will smirk when your back is turned. Me, I’m a Nebraska girl. I don’t say celli or concerti or podia or gymnasia, I don’t eat raw fish, and I buy my jewelry on eBay.
Where do you stand?
Unlike podium, the word lectern—which originally meant a reading desk in a medieval church—came into Middle English “through channels,” you might say, if you don’t mind perpetrating a vicious pun that relies on a clumsy reference to the English Channel , which separates France and England. In any case, lectern came through Old French letrun, from medieval Latin lectrum, from legere “to read.”
Now, if you can remember that we read at a lectern and stand on a podium, my work here is done.
Is lectern lost forever?
I was a fan of Allison Janney in the role of C. J. Cregg on NBC television’s The West Wing. She was spectacular, and I’m sure she didn’t mean to stomp on my heart every time she spoke of the “podium” in the White House press-briefing room, night after night, week after week, for seven agonizing years. As White House press secretary, C. J. spent a great deal of time at, behind, beside, or otherwise in the aura of the miscalled “podium.”
During 155 episodes in seven seasons, certainly hundreds of people, if not thousands, had to have noticed the solecism: There’s a lectern on your television screen for all the world to see, and a star of the show is calling it a podium. No doubt many viewers contacted the show. But the lectern remained a “podium” throughout the program’s run, and that means one of two things:
(a) Nobody in the real White House ever referred to the thing as a lectern, or
(b) lectern is yesterday’s soggy Rice Krispies. It’s been written out of The West Wing and drop-kicked out of our lives. If it were a lame horse it would be taken out and shot, and We the Righteous are going to have to suck it up… unless…
Hey! You guys wouldn’t want to join me in putting our collective foot down and making a stand for standing on (not at or behind) a podium, would you? Because if you would, send me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) for a list of public officials and prominent educators to contact, starting with the Secretary-General of the United Nations. The man conducts his entire life behind a lectern.
Okay, maybe it’s not a global hot button, but the podium | lectern controversy isn’t just about little me with a bug in my brassiere. The experts and scholars are unanimous in their assent: A lectern isn’t a podium and it’s not okay to call it one. Here’s a heartening comment from a Toastmaster, followed by another from an authority on public speaking:
A podium is a platform upon which a speaker stands while speaking. If that sounds like a stage, you are correct. It is like a stage. A podium can have a lectern on it, [as]… can a stage. You could have a lectern on a podium on a stage. A speaker stands on a podium. —Message Masters Toastmasters
Many people confuse the words lectern, podium, rostrum, and dais. A lectern is the slant-topped high desk that you as the speaker stand behind and use when reading your presentation notes. It can be placed in the middle of the stage or off to one side. To remember lectern, think lecture.
A podium is a raised platform on which a speaker stands during a presentation. To remember podium think podiatrist – which is a foot doctor. You will want to use a podium, especially if you are short or there are more than three rows of chairs, to ensure everyone in the back of the room can see you. Standing on a platform will also dramatically increase your vocal projection. A rostrum or dais is a larger platform or stage on which a head table might be placed during a formal dinner.
More voices for the good and the true
The Daily Chronicle, “Never again confuse lectern for a podium”
Mannerofspeaking.org, “Podium vs. Lectern”
Dailywritingtips.com, “Podium vs. Lectern”
…and here’s the megasite for all things presentation-related:
Does it really matter?
No and yes. If it were only a matter of clarity, using podium instead of lectern might actually be the better choice. If you ask for a podium, you’ll probably get a lectern. If you ask for a lectern, you’ll probably get a blank stare.
From the Daily Chronicle story cited above…
Just before a speaking engagement at a hotel several years ago, Mose asked a hotel staff member for a lectern, describing its intended use: to hold notes for the presentation. “You mean a podium?” the young man asked. “No, a lectern,” Mose insisted, though he should have known better. The man came back a few minutes later with a lectern, which he continued to refer to as a “podium.”
I won’t give up, but I’m not optimistic. When the White House falls, can the entire free world be far behind? Maybe I’ll reach out to the Lectern people, see if they’re interested in a combination fundraiser | podium/lectern-awareness event: Pennies for Podiums… in the U. K., maybe Pounds for Podiums and, um, Lbs. for Lecterns? Meanwhile, if you’re looking for me, I shouldn’t be hard to spot; I’ll be (sigh) the Last Man Standing.
July 23, 2016