Category Archives: Language

Ask The Language Lady

The journalist Dave Barry once wrote a weekly humor column for the Miami Herald.  Periodically he would do a column called “Ask Mr. Language Person”.  In these columns, he would answer alleged questions from readers (who I’m quite sure were totally fictitious).  For the purposes of this post, I’m slightly co-opting Dave’s title of Mr. Language Person, but all my examples are real.

First, from an ad seen on email: “Annette Funicello dies from symptoms of multiple sclerosis”.  Is that right?  Does a person die of the symptoms of a disease, or does one die of the disease?  Perhaps one always dies from the symptoms of a disease, since if a disease had no symptoms, you couldn’t die of it, could you?  The Language Lady confesses to being mystified about this one, and any help is welcome.

Most Grammar Nazis have particular pet peeves, such as the misuse of  the words “their”, “there”, and “they’re”.  Generally, The Language Lady (henceforth known as LL) just cringes and moves on, and has no particular abuse she singles out as being more or less acceptable.  Also, with auto-correct and auto-complete on cell phones and computers, even the most scrupulous Grammar Nazi can fall prey to misspelling and usage errors.  Correcting people who make mistakes is misplaced when it might not even have been the fault of the user, takes too much energy, and besides, it’s rude.

That said, LL corrected someone on Facebook in the last week or so.  In LL’s defense, here is the backstory.  A Facebook friend of a friend type of friend (as opposed to someone you actually know, who is also your friend on Facebook) took one of those quizzes, called something like “How Well Do You Actually Speak English?” and aced it.  In a comment, she remarked that she was especially proud of knowing when to use “who” versus “whom”.  LL was highly amused, since she already knew this person has it totally backwards.  In common speech, it actually would be very rare to use “whom”.

Last week, on a post by LL, this person misused “whom” and LL corrected her.  Was LL just in a particularly snarky mood that day?  It wasn’t the misuse that got on LL’s nerves, it was the bragging and being wrong.  LL forgets the content of that particular comment, but subsequently this person posted a photo of a crying child with the caption “This is my niece ‘Janie’, whom didn’t want her picture taken”.  (LL left well enough alone, having already been rude once.)

The end result is that this person is no longer speaking to LL, and here is the difference between this person and LL.  LL would much prefer to be corrected, rather than continuing to make a damn fool of herself repeatedly.

But this is the one that takes the cake:  also seen on Facebook, a post with the caption “Shameful.  Baby birds are ground up alive to make Hellmann’s mayonnaise”.  It’s accompanied by a drawing of baby chicks being forced into an open jar of Hellmann’s, with blood dripping from the mouth of the jar.  What this SAYS is that baby birds are an ingredient in Hellmann’s mayo.  Right?

What they MEANT is that an ingredient in mayonnaise is egg.  In an egg-producing operation, male chicks are useless, because well, they can’t lay eggs.  (Of course, a few must have escaped, since without male chickens, there would be no baby chicks, male  or female.)  Actually, of course, you have to keep some male chickens around, because hens get old and eventually stop laying eggs, so you have to have males to make new female chickens.  But for the most part, males are destroyed at birth.

In this case, The Language Lady learned something.  Not that ground-up male chicks are used in mayonnaise, but that it’s possible to sex baby chicks at birth.  Large operations use chick sexers.  (Q: “Hello, what do you do for a living?” A. “I’m a chick sexer for Hellmann’s.”)

In closing, The Language Lady would like to thank her readers, without whom she might be reduced to chick sexing, while slowly dying of the symptoms of bird flu.

Translating From the Scottish

(A subcategory of Reading With Fakename.)

I’ve recently finished all five novels by a Scottish crime writer named Craig Robertson, who is from Glasgow. Just to start with, that makes him a Glaswegian. What??? Shouldn’t that be Glasgowan?

There’s a saying, attributed to various Brits, that the British and the Americans are two peoples divided by a common language. The closest actual quote is from Oscar Wilde, who said, “We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language”.

Reading British writers, you get used to certain common terms, such as the fact that the trunk of a car is called a boot and the hood is called a bonnet. A multi-level parking structure is called a car park, not a garage. A garage is a place you go to get your car repaired. And so on.

Reading something by a Scottish writer adds a whole other level of separation. I’ve read all five of these books on Kindle. One of the things I like best about Kindle is that you can highlight passages you want to return to. And it has a built-in dictionary, so if you highlight only one word, it will bring up the definition. I absolutely adore this feature. While reading a book, you don’t have stop and interrupt your train of thought by going to the dictionary or online to look up an unfamiliar word; it’s right there at your fingertips. You don’t have to write it down to look up later, by which time you will have forgotten the context it was used in.

Except. The built-in dictionary is the Oxford American Dictionary. I’m sure you can see the problem here. If the dictionary doesn’t know the word, it pops up with a message, “No definition found”. I see that a lot. So I’m going to give you just a few “No definition found” words from Robertson’s 4th novel and let you try your hand at them. In the next paragraph, I’ll tell you the definition (because you can find the definitions online).

Gallus. (He uses this one a lot.)

There are other turns of phrase, such as this one: “Where were you, Stevo?” Answer: “I don’t know. I was drunk. I was out my face.” In another case, detectives wanted to know the answer to something, not from the outset or the get-go, but from the off.

And now our definitions:
Gallus. Gallus is a term for a rooster. In Scottish usage, it means daring, confident, cheeky…in other words, cocksure.
Carnaptious. Bad-tempered, quarrelsome, snappy. This one I could have guessed from its similarity to “fractious”.
Lairy. Behaving in a loud, excited manner.
Blootered. This is probably the easiest one to guess. It means very drunk. Obviously related to the American “blotto”.

Thanks to Craig Robertson for this trip down Vocabulary Lane. As for a quick review, his first book (“Random”) is excellent, as is his last book (“The Last Refuge”). The ones in between are decent. The first four books take place in Glasgow; “The Last Refuge” takes place in the Faroe Islands, making it a fascinating virtual journey into a part of the world few people venture into (or want to). Speaking of definitions, it’s pretty much the definition of “desolate”.

Reading With Fakename: John Le Carre

Presently I’m reading the latest book (published this year) by Le Carre, titled “A Delicate Truth”. No offense intended, but I thought John Le Carre was dead. But he isn’t. He’s 82 and still writing, and writing well. How marvelous is that?
A little about the book: The story is about an “incident” that takes place on the Isle of Gibraltar, which is a British territory, much to the annoyance of Spain. There is a very hush-hush mission to capture a “high-value target” (read: terrorist) who is on the island to purchase weapons from an arms dealer who is a British informant. The mission goes horribly wrong, although some of the participants don’t learn this for years.
In some ways the book is as suspenseful as anything else Le Carre ever wrote. And while it may seem dated now, “The Spy Who Came In From The Cold” should be on every list of the top 100 books ever written. The problem is, this book suffers from poor editing. It shifts from one person talking to another person talking or from back then to right now, with no warning. It should be a new chapter, or at the very least, a little division like ****** at the bottom of a line. So you often find yourself having to go back two pages to catch where the direction changed. Very annoying.
One of the other challenges, although I find it kind of charming, is the language. It’s British English, which I don’t speak very well, although I’m getting better at it. A bonnet, you say? Isn’t that something you wear on your head? No? In keeping with that, there is the British “habit” I guess…I don’t know how else to describe it…of asking a question at the end of a statement. I specifically noted this passage, which I swear I am repeating word for word, to illustrate this “habit”.
Referring to a retired diplomat: “He’d got as high as they’d let him go, mind you. Reached his ceiling, hadn’t he?–as far as they were concerned. Nobody’s going to give him the top billet, not after what happened in Hamburg, are they? You’d never know when it was coming home to roost–well, would you?”
I wonder if this happens because Britain is too close to France. French syntax is of course all backward as far as English speakers are concerned, but it seems to have a way of rubbing off. Prime example: Cajun and Creole speech in Louisiana. Say you’d like to make a statement: “I’d like some French fries”. How you speak it is a question. “I could have some French fries?” (My unspoken response was always, Well, you could, but you’d have to ask for them.) Or you really want to emphasize a statement. You don’t say “I really don’t like French fries”. You say, “I don’t like French fries, me”. We now know for a fact that it is you personally who doesn’t like French fries.
None of this takes away from Le Carre’s grasp of his subject matter or his ability to tell a story. And without saying so outright, he asks moral questions. Where do you draw the line between secrecy and accountability? Between good intentions and the bad results of those intentions?
It’s a very timely story. Arabic terrorists. Edward Snowden. I’m almost finished, and at the moment, I’m fearing for the survival of both the main characters. We shall see.

Say That Again?

Greetings, WordPress friends!  It’s been three weeks since I posted here and my excuse is, I’ve been sick.  I’d tell you why, but I don’t know.  It’s something gastrointestinal, and I’m about to embark on the rounds of visits to specialists and no telling what kind of evil procedures.  So, more later. 

Meanwhile, I have of course been reading up a storm and watching a lot of National Geographic on TV, so I have all sorts of fodder for Reading with Fakename and Fakename’s Animal Planet.  This is more generic than that, it’s about language. 

Not for the first time, I’ve been musing about how provincial we in the U.S. must seem, since the majority of us speak only one language–English–and our ability to do that adequately is often in doubt.  An increasing percentage of the U.S. population, however, is Hispanic, and they are generally bilingual.  Not always, though. Maybe 40 years ago, the “English first” movement held sway and Hispanic children were not allowed to speak their native language in school.  This led to some awkward situations, where children were fully “assimilated” in school, but couldn’t understand a word being said to them at home.  We had already done that to native Americans, so we’d had plenty of practice. 

I’d say that almost nothing is more soul-killing than taking away a person’s language. 

That said, there is good reason for immigrants to learn English.  It’s the language of business, of aviation, and in many cases, of science (unless you count Latin).  It’s hard to thrive in a country where you don’t speak the prevalent language.  You end up being confined in sort of language ghettos, and surviving on menial jobs that don’t require much public interaction.   You miss a lot–jokes, pop culture references, etc. 

I only speak one language–English, with the aforementioned caveat about whether my English is adequate or not.  It isn’t that I didn’t try.  I took French in high school.  I wanted to take Latin, because all my friends were, but my mother flatly refused to allow me.  She thought playing the piano and speaking French were the epitome of culture.  Ergo, I took French. 

When I graduated from college, I went to Paris.  I brushed up on my French beforehand.  I bought a copy of Albert Camus “The Stranger” in French.  I packed an English/French dictionary.  The first time I tried to use my French was in a shop dedicated to selling chickens (I think there’s a name for that…) and the shopkeeper did a dramatic eye roll and immediately began speaking English to me.  I later learned that in the countryside, the French are more appreciative of your feeble attempts to speak their language, and are glad that you’re trying–but not in Paris.  Those people are hard-core. 

In college, I took German.  Much easier.  So my next attempt at speaking a foreign language in another country was in the former Yugoslavia.  My friend Art and I were driving endlessly somewhere in the Balkan mountains, lost, starving, and running out of gas.  We picked up a hitchhiker–the first human being we’d seen in ages–and he understood my pidgin German.  With a big smile, he directed us to a town called Mitrovica, where we dropped him off at the gas station and he melted into space after pointing out a restaurant nearby. 

After getting gas, we repaired to the restaurant where there were a lot of Muslim men concealing themselves behind newspapers, and the only sound was from the overhead ceiling fans.  We were not served, or acknowledged.  Dense as we were, a feeling of unease set in and we hightailed it out of Mitrovica and the whole of Yugoslavia.  It turns out, in the hierarchy of human need, gas is more important than food. 

I later learned two things.  First, the reason our hitchhiker understood German was that after WWII, the Germans virtually kidnapped and enslaved people from the Balkans in order to rebuild Germany.  They spoke German, and hated Germans with a blinding passion.  Second, we were in one of the most dangerous parts of the world without knowing it.  Today, Mitrovica is part of Kosovo. 

Art and I learned one very important lesson.  Wherever we went, we said, “We’re Americans”.  I’m not sure how well that would work today. 

In the reading department, I’m on a kick of reading Kate Atkinson. I first read her latest novel “Life After Life” and just finished “Started Early, Took My Dog” (the title of which is from a poem by Emily Dickinson).  Kate is either British or Scottish, but that wouldn’t matter much would it?  There are so many references I don’t get (British TV shows) and words, just for example, the parts of a motor vehicle.  (See?  In the U.S., we don’t say “motor vehicle” anyway.)  There are boots and bonnets and car parks, lorries and trams.  There are mysterious foods (which are probably something like “peanut butter”). 

So you just have to limp along, divided by a common language.  Atkinson is so brilliant, it’s worth it.  In “Started Early…” there is an aging actress in the early stages of dementia, and Atkinson’s description of it is heartbreaking.  “Tilly” keeps losing words.  She wants a cup of tea, but can’t remember the name of the thing you boil the water in.  Is it a…kitten? 

Language is who we are. 

An Ode to Post-It Notes…and Greenies

A few words about book-reading.  To an extent, the Kindle has spoiled me.  You can highlight passages to remember for later, and in fact, you can write notes to yourself–which I don’t do, so I’m not even sure how that works.  So now I will reveal my method for remembering passages from library books.  It’s considered very bad form to dog-ear pages, or underline, or highlight in a library book.   Although I have gotten library books where people have, in pencil, corrected mis-prints by adding an insertion mark and the missing word, or crossing out unnecessary letters.  Every time I see this, I think, this person must have been an English teacher!  I’m pretty particular about words and language myself, but I am not that obsessive.

So my secret is–Post-It Notes. How did we ever live before Post-It Notes?  I consider them one of the finest achievements of mankind.  Forget the airplane and cell phones and the Internet.  Post-Its rank right up there with Greenies Pill Pockets.  These are yummy little dog and cat snacks with a hole in the middle.  They are very soft, so you can insert a pill into the hole, close it up, and feed it to the dog or cat without losing your hand.  Since my dog Troughton has to have thyroid pills twice a day, and since he’s a Doberman, I just can’t overemphasize how Greenies have changed my life.  And anyone who has ever tried to give a pill to a cat will grasp this even more.

There are a bunch of jokes out there about how to give a cat a bath, or how to give it a pill.  Most of them start with, “First, put on a suit of armor”.

You can get some cat antibiotics which come in liquid form.  I once had to give a cat liquid Ampicillin,and he loved it.  It was cherry-flavored. But every time before we got to the point of him loving it, I would have to hold him down and force his mouth open.  That was the Not Fun part.

But back to Post-Its.  What I do is put a Post-It on that first blank page just behind the front cover (there’s a name for that page, but…)  Then I write down page numbers on it when something in the book I really want to remember really jumps out at me.

This is not a foolproof system. One thing that happens is that I read a lot at my picnic table in the back yard, weather permitting.  Something will really stand out–a quote or a description, usually–and I won’t have a pen.  The other thing that happens is that after finishing the book, I’ll go back to one of those pages and not be able to find what I thought was so fascinating there.

I have to laugh at myself and my failures of memory.  On the other hand, when I think back, my memory is far more detailed now than when I was younger. In those days, while I read just as much,  many more issues and priorities intruded. Primarily what I will politely refer to as, hormonal issues.

So the book I just finished, “The Lost City of Z”–about which I intend to post more–was a two Post-It Note book.  The book was very rich.

Gay Marriage…or Not

Last week was a milestone (or not) in the issue. For the umpty-gajillionth time, a judge–or in this case, a panel of three judges of the 9th District Court of Appeals–has said that banning gay marriage is discriminatory, at least in California, thus killing the passage of Proposition 8.  Prop 8, aka the “Protection of Marriage Act” defines marriage as existing only between a man and a woman.  And that always works out so well.

Prop 8 passed by 52% to 48%, which is in itself confusing.  It’s like a double negative.  In other words, 52% of voters were for the ban.

But what was interesting to me was that I saw a story about it on CBS News this week.  They interviewed one of the supporters of the ban (See?  There we go again.)  He said, “We aren’t trying to deny gay people any rights.  We just don’t want them to call it marriage”.  Or something to that effect.  And I just wanted to scream, like I have for years, What do you care?  Do you hear yourself?  You are drawing a line in the sand over a WORD.  ONE word.

Ah, but hold on there for a minute.  Then they interviewed an opponent (you know, someone who was against the For people.)  She’s a gay woman who got married during the short window of time when it was legal.  She said, in essence, that marriage is important because it has such emotional significance.  And I wanted to say, Do you hear yourself?  You are…well, never mind.  Re-read the end of the previous paragraph.

But that, of course, is the answer:  it has emotional significance on both sides.

I don’t know enough about the provisions in states where “civil unions” but not “marriage” is permitted to know whether or not you really do have all the same rights as if you’re married.  Somehow I doubt it, but if it’s really true, we are back to that ONE WORD.

In the end, marriage is really a legal contract, which if you boil it down to its essence is about property and inheritance.  It’s also good for (theoretically) determining which offspring are yours, if you’re a man, and for breeding a) farm workers and b) soldiers who have to be on your side.  We imbue it with emotional significance, particularly in the West.

Here are two examples:  a history of the British monarchy.  Osama bin Laden.  None of them got married for “love”.  That’s a new thing, relatively speaking.

The origins of marriage are a hot topic in anthropology.  But humans and societies have changed.  I’d say the majority of people today who marry do so for “love”, even if they are driven in some cases by motivations they don’t fully understand, and which may be biological in nature.

Today, the next step in California’s legal battle is an appeal to the Supreme Court.  Which both sides were itching for anyway, no matter who won or lost.  And it’s about time.  It’s time for the Supreme Court to step up to the plate…although they may not.  They’ve refused to hear similar cases in the past.

I hope they do, so we can start on the beginning of the end of arguing over one word.

I Am SOOO Annoyed

I’ve mentioned that every Saturday, Fakesister and I do the New York Times crossword puzzle together online.  We do them every other day on our own.  Access to the NY Times website is free, as is access to the daily puzzle.  But for the ability to do puzzles together, or to access the so-called “Second Sunday Puzzle”, you have to subscribe to Premium Crosswords, which is $39.95 per year.  Well worth it, in my opinion. 

The reason we do Saturdays together is, well, first of all, it’s a convenient time to get together, but primarily it’s because Saturday is the hardest.  The puzzles start with the easiest on Monday, then progressively become harder until Saturday.  Sunday is kind of in a category all its own.   It’s medium hard, but longer than any other daily puzzle.  It also always has a theme, which today was “Flag Day”.

The puzzles often have “tricks” to them, the most common being what Fakesister calls a “housing shortage”.  (Maybe the Times calls it that too.)  For example…the clue for 1 Down in today’s puzzle is “1959 #1 hit for the Fleetwoods”.  Three letters.  The answer is, Mr. Blue–where blue is all in the final square.   So the answer is MRB.  I got that one.  The 2 down clue, also 3 letters is “‘The Trumpet of the Swan author”, who turns out to be EB White, or EBW.  3 down is “Bushed”, which I also got–it’s tired, or TIR. 

The problem arises when you get to 22 across.  What you get is BWRSBEANCOBAIN.  Which makes absolutely no sense.  And I even knew what her name really is. 

Now we skip to 90 across, for which the clue is “Country with a blue, white, and red flag”.  The answer is France.  And now, jumping back to 22 across, if you replace the BWR with the country whose flag is that color, you get FRANCESBEANCOBAIN.  So the answer to “Buy real estate” is ACQUGWO (green, white, orange), or in other words, ACQUIRELAND.

How do I know this?  Because I gave up and visited the Crossword blog, called Wordplay.  With one exception, all 22 of the commenters remarked on what a brilliant puzzle this was.  Well yes, it was brilliant, but so is astrophysics.  We like our puzzles to be hard, but doable.  We hate the ones that leave you feeling dumb as dirt. 

So I was moved to leave my own comment on Wordplay, which as you might guess was, “I am SOOO annoyed!”

Weekly Musings: Sunday Edition

On Friday there was an article in the paper by Paul Flemming, whom I’ve previously mentioned.  He’s the state editor for Gannett’s Florida newspapers and  Friday’s article was a series of tongue-in-cheek political definitions a la Ambrose Bierce (” A Conservative is a statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.”)  Flemming’s article was entitled Be sure to right-size the transparency.  The whole article is worth a read and full of laughs; here’s one small sample:  “TAXES, n.  An expletive not to be uttered during an election year.  Alternately the cause of or cure for all evils, depending on party affiliation and what it’s called.  See Surcharges, User Fees, Quacks Like a Duck and other euphemisms.” 

Speaking of evil, yesterday’s New York Times acrostic was especially so.  Actually that would be today’s acrostic, but if you subscribe to the puzzles online, you get to do the special Sunday puzzle a day early.  So the final clue (8 letters) was “chrysotile or crocidolite”.  Like, is that a noun or an adverb?  Crocidolite sounded to me like it should have something to do with crocodiles, while the “–olite” ending sounded like a rock or a mineral.  Well, technically, I guess rocks ARE minerals.  So I tried in vain to think of some sort of scaly mineral.  Mica?  Shale?  Too short.  I’ll reveal the answer at the end of this post, in case you want to drive yourself crazy for a while trying to guess.  Geologists and chemists are prohibited from guessing, by the way, as are all employees of the Fakename Blog. 

Continuing the evil theme, is it just me and my sister who wake up every single morning of the world with a song in our brains that we CANNOT GET RID OF?  Actually, Fakesister has come up with a system:  she says if she sings it all the way through to the end then it goes away.  That doesn’t work for me, perhaps because I never know all of the song–only the most annoying and repetitive parts of it.  I’ve tried to replace the song with a more acceptable one, but that doesn’t work either because the uninvited demon song keeps breaking through my defenses.  The only thing that works is when something external intrudes to replace it.  Normally this means getting in my car and turning on NPR.  It might not be so bad if it weren’t for the fact that the song is invariably one I hate.  It could be a song I heard recently, or some TV jingle from 30 years ago.  Today’s song, for example, is John Denver’s “I’m Sorry”, for which Davis Whiteman is 100% responsible.  I won’t be able to forgive him until I start being unable to get “I’d like to teach the world to sing…” out of my head.  Oh NOOOO!  What have I just done to myself? 

And speaking of definitions, Comcast sent me an email informing me that my “free” virus protection by McAfee would be expiring in May and I would have to download Norton, which I could do at any time.  In addition to superior virus protection, it would speed up my browsing experience.  Comcast apparently gets its definitions from George Orwell…or possibly from Ambrose Bierce. 

Finally, on Friday as I was getting ready to leave work, I couldn’t find my keys.  This happens so frequently that one employee suggested I buy them a leash.  Usually though, I can find them.  On Friday they never turned up after a 45-minute search of every surface, every drawer, every file cabinet, and the entire floor.  They weren’t in the refrigerator or the microwave either.  (It’s a good thing I looked there, though; I was wondering what had happened to my cell phone.)  I looked in the car.  Someone else did too.  I was dispirited beyond belief.  I have an extra car key, but not an extra house key, so I could drive somewhere, but then what?  I have a window I’ve left unlocked in the bedroom, but it’s been so long since I’ve opened it I was afraid it would be stuck. 

At last I remembered that my friend Judith has a key, from when she used to pet-sit for me before she got so sick.  I was about a mile from the office when the blasted keys slithered out from under the driver’s side seat of the car.  I was so relieved to see them that I resisted the urge to kill them for putting me through that anxiety. 

In closing, the answer is:  asbestos.

Reading With Fakename: Pretentious Reviews

I’m presently on page 65 of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses.  I’ve wanted to read it for some time, mainly to see what the big deal was–why it warranted the issue of a fatwa against him by the Ayatollah Khomeini.  It turns out that the issuance of a fatwa is not really the same as putting a bounty on someone’s head.  It’s more like a religious opinion that the person is engaging in some practice that is deemed to be harmful or antagonistic to the principles of Islam.  It’s still easy to see how some Muslims might view eliminating such a person as a way to give them an edge in Heaven.  Perhaps earn you an extra virgin.   

But I don’t have time to go into all that…this is about the pomposity of critics. 

As alert readers will recall, back in February I did a review of Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence, which I enjoyed greatly.  Now that I’m reading The Satanic Verses I realize that Rushdie is something of a one-trick pony.  The two novels share that blend of the magical/fantastical/surreal/stream-of-consciousness/dream-like prose with the mundane, earthy, gritty real world, or what poses for gritty for Rushdie.  Yawn. 

And yet…behold some of the reviews on the back cover of my library copy of The Satanic Verses

“Salman Rushdie is a storyteller of prodigious powers, able to conjure up whole geographies, casualties, climates, creatures, customs, out of thin air.” (The New York Times Book Review)

“An exhilarating, populous, loquacious, sometimes hilarious, extraordinary novel.  A roller-coaster ride over a vast landscape of the imagination.” (The Guardian)

“A novel of metamorphoses, hauntings, memories, hallucinations, revelations, advertising jingles, and jokes.  Rushdie has the power of description, and we succumb.”  (The Times of London)

I am put in mind of art critics who read meaning into abstract art.  Even better, the fable of the blind men describing an elephant.

Ms. Language Person Discusses Language Abuse

First, a disclaimer:  Fakename does not claim to be an expert in this field, and is all too aware that she is guilty of some of the same abuses she is about to make fun of.  (Or would that be, “of which she is about to make fun”?)  The difference is, that when you do it, it’s funny, and when Fakename does it, it isn’t, and certainly should never be mentioned in polite company.

Before we begin, Fakename will commit her first faux pas by switching from third person to first person, because that third person thing is really hard to maintain.  It’s ever so much easier to type “I” than it is to type “Fakename”.

Now then, I said that when you do it, it’s funny–but not always.  Sometimes I laugh, and sometimes I gnash my teeth.  I mean, let’s take George W. Bush, always my favorite source of language abuse.  I mean, come on, the guy went to Yale and can’t say “nu’-clee-ar”?  Every time he mangled that word I felt those chills you get when somebody scrapes their fingernails down a blackboard.  For now we will call this particular form of language abuse “mispronunciation”.

It turns out that linguists, having not much else to do, have come up with all sorts of words to describe language abuse.  Not having much else to do, I love linguists.  There is, for example “malapropism” and “neologism”, but there are many more words to describe words.  Turning once again to GWB, my favorite quote from him involves the word “misunderestimating”.  I mean, you know just what he means, don’t you?  Technically speaking, I think this might be a “portmanteau”, a combination of the words “misunderstanding” and “underestimating”.  A successful portmanteau, like a successful neologism, will come into common usage.  My guess is that “misunderestimating” will not fall into that category. 

I actually first became fascinated with language in the 7th grade, when our entire English class was devoted to grammar.  Everyone but me hated it.  I loved its orderliness.  And I loved that only when you know the rules can you successfully violate them.  It’s like using a salad fork.  It’s fine to say, the hell with the salad fork, I’m using the dinner fork for my salad, as long as you’re doing it voluntarily.  Not knowing what the salad fork is for, or where it should be placed, is uncouth.  Rejecting it when you do know is perfectly acceptable, and is a sign of intelligent rebellion.  Damn.  I have a sudden urge to use an inappropriate semi-colon. 

I next became enamored with language as an anthropology student in college, where differences in language set cultures apart–from the Inuit with their 50 or so different words for snow, to the tribe in Africa with only two words for plants: edible or inedible. 

And now, just as I thought I’d left linguism and salad forks behind, there is NPR, specifically “Fresh Air” and real life linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, whose first book was “Going Nucular”.  In that book, he speculates that GWB said “nucular” on purpose, believing that most people pronounced it that way, so he did too–thereby making himself seem more accessible to the imaginary “common man”.  Oh what nonsense.  The easiest explanation (see: Occam”s Razor) is that GWB really is stupid.