Thursday, September 13, 2007

A Call For General Victory


Number 243

September 13, 2007



Bill R. sent a link to a card designed for a copywriter’s birthday that defines the eternal war between design and editorial staff. In counterpoint, don’t miss the video about designers (from a design company), which pretty much covers the intellectual, professional, and ethical bandwidth of a couple of art directors I worked with in the past.


We’ve passed another 9/11 with six years of no major attacks in the United States. I’m reminded of an old bit by Garrison Keillor, an ad recommending the purchase of a condor for the office: he said the knowledge that a giant bird of prey is directly overhead focuses the mind wonderfully. Continuing on this note, I recently ran across a Noel Coward song from WWII that I’d never heard: “Don’t Let’s Be Beastly to the Germans” which I think has fresh relevance today. I sent the link to Mike S., who wrote:

Well I'd certainly heard it before, but it was a long, long time ago. Strange bloke Noël Coward, wrote some very witty stuff, though perhaps not quite as witty as Oscar and quite a few of his quotes have survived with a lot of younger people being unaware where they came from (e.g. "Very flat, Norfolk!", from Private Lives). .... He's probably better known for Mad Dogs and Englishmen, and The Stately Homes of England.

Other songs you could regard as propaganda as [well as] humour were the absurd We're Going to Hang Out Our Washing on the Siegfried Line, which was popular before the BEF had to beat a hasty retreat in 1940, and the maudlin There'll be Bluebirds Over the White Cliffs of Dover.

(Ah, but have you heard it played on banjos?)

“Very flat, Norfolk!” hasn’t survived on this side. But thankfully we have YouTube to preserve many of these bits of history.

Mike also said about boot sales:

It's actually turned into an idea I wouldn't recommend. There are areas, sometimes pub car parks, sometimes farmers' fields, where fly-by-night vendors gather to offer for sale goods of dubious provenance (forged, pirated or stolen).

No doubt because they’re selling out of a car. Your traditional yard, porch, or garage sale doesn’t allow for a quick getaway.

And he explained RAS:

The term RAS syndrome refers to the use of one of the words that make up an initialism or acronym as well as the abbreviation itself, thus in effect repeating that word. It stands for "Redundant Acronym Syndrome syndrome," and is itself a humorous example of a redundant acronym. Technically, this redundancy is a form of rhetorical tautology, and in many cases a pleonasm.

Finally, just this afternoon Mike wrote:

Shortly after the announcement of the death of Pavarotti, the BBC transmitted a lengthy and somewhat tedious program about his "last tour". During this, one of those interviewed said that Pavarotti's voice made his "hair stand on edge". The guy in question sounded like a New York/Italian (shades of Sopranos?), but he was speaking fluent enough.

Well, you know that very straight hair is round under the microscope, while curlier hair is flattish. Perhaps the speaker has curly hair, with edges. Nevertheless, how can it stand on edge unless it’s lying flat on the head? I’m trying to picture it, which the speaker obviously was not.


Harry H. wrote:

Listening to Judge Joe Brown a few weeks ago, I heard him appear to coin a word which I'd never heard before. In referring to the children of the defendant, he called them "thugletts."

As the thuglett is bent, so shall it grow. I expect to see thuglett wear in the stores soon.

A CALL FOR GENERAL VICTORY bought an ad in the New York Times that called General Petraeus “General Betray Us.” Commentators have commentated that some news writers or editors are starting to spell Osama bin Laden with a U ~ Usama ~ to reduce associations with Barack Obama. There have been too many jokes and puns on the name Bush to count. This is an easy game, one we learned in grade school. No matter what your name, kids can and will make up a rhyme or a joke about it to humiliate you. Someone remarked last night that if the general were named General Pictory, the obvious connection would be ignored.


Something I should have figured out, but learned from Bryan Garner's Usage Tip of the Day.

"Helpmeet," now archaic, was the original form, yet folk etymology changed the spelling to "-mate," which is now the prevalent form.... “Helpmeet" is a compound "absurdly formed" (as the OED puts it) from the two words "help" and "meet" in Genesis, "an help meet for him" (Genesis 2:18, 20), in which "meet" is really an adjective meaning "suitable." Some writers still use "helpmeet" ~ e.g.: "Naturally, I am a loyal and patient helpmeet whose only reward is a smile on the lips of my beloved ~ a smile, and ceaseless extravagant praise." Jon Carroll, "Movie at Our House," S.F. Chron., 3 Sept. 1996, at D8. But "meet" was widely misunderstood as "mate.” "Helpmate" means "a companion or helper," and it need not refer to a spouse.

Garner’s quotation of the day, which I omit here, led me to look up “shamefaced,” which used to be “shamefast” from shame + fast meaning fixed (as in fasten, stand fast, etc.).


The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker is a book that I would love to read if it weren’t so long. I may have to keep renewing it at the library indefinitely. I have dipped into Chapter 12, “The Language Mavens”, which discusses prescriptive (do this) and descriptive (you’re doing this) grammar. (Pinker calls those who study language and propose descriptive rules scientists.) Certainly, prescriptive mavens make mistakes or are unreasonably rigid, while descriptive mavens seem to want to build a Tower of Babel. Descriptive studies of language as it is spoken are interesting and revealing, but if we had no standardization at all, we couldn’t understand each other. We would also lose touch with our history.


Why do certain gay men sound so identifiably gay? I was talking to a friend about someone we both know slightly, a man I’ve met and she’s spoken to on the phone, and we both had immediately assumed he was gay. This friend has a brother who is gay, but who does not sound “gay”, she tells me. Though she is German, she was able to identify this particular speech characteristic in English. Where do these speech patterns come from? They are surely learned, though not all gay men do it. Some people think it’s because the male child begins to imitate his mother’s speech, but yet ... to me it doesn’t quite sound like a woman speaking. And why don’t lesbians sound, well, like “lesbians”? In any case, it is learned, and it must be learned intentionally, perhaps for the purpose of identification. A few years ago I hired a young neighbor to help me move, and he talked nonstop all day; he talked a lot more than he worked, in fact. He sounded to me like a gay man, but he said he wasn’t gay (nobody asked him), and he would like to have a cool girlfriend, like Britney Spears. (I suppose he’s changed his mind about that by now.) Anyway, when we got to my older son’s house, where I was storing things in the basement, the young man instantly changed the way he spoke. He sounded more like an average man of his age. I think he even brought up sports. No doubt he was intimidated by my large, traditionally masculine son. He reminded me of a black woman I worked with years ago in Tuskegee, Alabama, who could switch from sounding southern/black to northern or midwestern/white. She had lived in New York City before. This natural bilingualism is why some people become good actors.

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