Friday, February 29, 2008

Parvum Opus 267 ~ Nuancy


Number 267



Thanks to Jes M. for this:

Once again, The Washington Post has published the winning submissions to its yearly neologisms, in which readers are asked to supply alternate meanings for common words. The winners are:

1. Coffee (n.), the person upon whom one coughs.
2. Flabbergasted (adj.), appalled over how much weight you have gained.
3. Abdicate (v.), to give up all hope of ever having a flat stomach.
4. Esplanade (v.), to attempt an explanation while drunk.
5. Willy-nilly (adj.), impotent.
6. Negligent (adj.), describes a condition in which you absentmindedly answer the door in your nightgown.
7. Lymph (v.), to walk with a lisp.
8. Gargoyle (n.), olive-flavored mouthwash.
9. Flatulence (n.) emergency vehicle that picks you up after you are run over by a steamroller.
10. Balderdash (n.), a rapidly receding hairline.
11. Testicle (n.), a humorous question on an exam.
12. Rectitude (n.), the formal, dignified bearing adopted by proctologists.
13. Pokemon (n), a Rastafarian proctologist.
14. Frisbeetarianism (n.), The belief that, when you die, your Soul flies up onto the roof and gets stuck there.
15. Circumvent (n.), an opening in the front of boxer shorts worn by Jewish men.


I was thinking that there must be a lot of people who use the word "windfall" without knowing its literal meaning: fruit blown onto the ground, that is, something you don't have to work for. "Low-hanging fruit" is clearer but the meaning isn't quite the same, it doesn't have the sense of an unexpected gift. There are lots of idioms that grew out of experience and farm life and old technology that are unfamiliar to us now.

And how about this one: Since the UK is now giving welfare payouts to Muslims with more than one wife (though they haven't yet legalized polygamous marriages performed in-country), will one's "better half" change to better third, or fourth, or fifth, and so on. Thanx and a tip of the PO hat to Mark Steyn for that one. Steyn also called John Kerry a "nuancy boy". I do not believe, however, that he thinks Kerry is truly a nuanced thinker. I doubt if he thinks Kerry is homosexual either, as in British slang, "nancy boy". He probably meant Kerry isn't completely straightforward. One of the things I like about Steyn is the way he pronounces Obama and tacos: Obama rhymes with Alabama, and tacos sounds like tackos.

By the way, I have a French student who has an automatic antipathy to all religion, which he considers "old" and therefore useless and obsolete thinking (though he's attracted to old American Indian traditional life and customs). Since he's a chef, I've brought to class newspaper columns by The Amish Cook, Lovina Eicher, and explained who the Amish are, but he's kind of hostile about them. He objects to their withdrawal from modern life and compared them with radical Muslims. The Amish, of course, don't try to convert or kill people. But my student likes Lovina's name because it sounds like "love" so maybe he'll soften up toward the Amish, from Lovina's recipes and stories of Amish family life. The Amish were one of those groups who came to America to escape religious persecution in Europe.


From a TV bio: "On the screen, my father, Gary Cooper, was often a man of little words." Here's a situation where you really mustn't confuse little (for measurables) with few (for countables). Cooper was known as a taciturn character in movies but "little words" sounds like his words were, well, small, and also unimportant, rather than not very many.


From Mike Sykes:

I once had a boss whom I constantly itched to correct for "between you and I", you may recall that the bard himself once slipped up in The Merchant of Venice.

Yes, I think we discussed that in PO a couple of years back when the Al Pacino movie came out.

"Myself" is a difficult one; reflexive it may be, and while I tend to agree with you I've seen examples by plenty of people who might be expected to take care with their English use it where not strictly appropriate. Actually Fowler (as usual!) puts it about right, i.e. agrees with us.

... a variant possessive formation such as "the Smith children" (rather than "the Smiths'

Surely one always refers to children as, e.g., "the Marshall girls and the Sykes boys, ..." (not to mention The History Boys). My wife is one of the Cooke sisters, even though none of their names is now Cooke.
And we oldies remember the Marshall plan, and there are Rhodes scholarships. But no rules, surely, only practices, sometimes I suspect based on nothing more than euphony: consider the Victorian era vs the Roosevelt era.
Which calls to mind the various ways in which we form adjectives from names: Dickensian, Shavian, Pinteresque, Mancunian, Liverpudlian, Oxonian, Glaswegian, Florentine. While some others are impossible, e.g. Ashby-de-la-Zouch (about which there seems to be some difference of opinion between the Town Council and tourist boards on the one hand and both Royal Mail and Ordnance Survey on the other, as to whether or not it should be hyphenated, while Google Earth doesn't even capitalize the 'Z').

You can't top Liverpudlian. But however did Glaswegian come from Glasgow? Or does it?

(By the way, here's a pretty good discussion of adjective strings, the avoidance of, in Professional Writing Style.)


Go to Dilbert on 2/25/08 and 2/26 for a mini-mini-series about a guy being slapped with a suit. Literally. His own actual suit off his body.


You say diviss-ive, I say di-visive. Or at least some people say divissive, as from division; I say di-visive, as from divide. The sound clip on has di-visive (long i) but gives both pronunciations in the spelled-out pronunciation guide, as well as an alternative Z sound for the S, which would sound funny to me.

By the way, I saw a publication called "Alternatives for Seniors". I thought it meant there's an alternative to being a senior. But the only alternative is being dead. No, it was merely a compendium of various retirement facilities and services for old people. A list of things to choose from is not the same as alternatives. A complete list is an alternative to nothing at all. A menu is not a list of "alternatives" to something else. Think of "alternate" or "substitute" when you use "alternative", and then maybe you won't use it.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Parvum Opus 266 ~ Giving Grammar Its Due


Number 266



First of all, it's RICH Lederer. So sorry. I should remember that, as Rich is so much more a Rich than the other nickname. Also, Rich sent his disquisition on the -gry riddle. He suggests counting the angels on the head of a pin instead of wasting your time on the -gry perplex, but I suggest reading his article.


Dave DaBee wrote: "My goodness, look what's at the top of the Times Most Emailed list: "Celebrating the Semicolon in a Most Unlikely Location." Leave it to Noam Chomsky to use the semicolon story to take a wholly unrelated political jab.

Dave's blog also linked to an interesting article about misleading statistics by Stephen Jay Gould. You remember Mark Twain's remark that there are lies, damned lies, and statistics.


Just a reminder that it's incorrect -- though I wouldn't say ungrammatical -- to put yourself first as the subject of a sentence when there's another subject, as in: "I and my wife went to New York" instead of "My wife and I went to New York." Maybe it's just impolite. And never, never think that the objective case should be the nominative just because the first person comes second, that is, "The folks visited my wife and I." Neither do you substitute the reflexive: "The folks visited my wife and myself." But, I've never run across a rule for who goes first in the objective case. It seems OK to say, "The folks visited me and my wife." But maybe it's not OK or even impolite. Is there a rule?


  • "They accorded themselves as we would wish them to." (Referring to the US Naval ships meeting Iranian threats.) Should have been "conducted themselves", or possibly the speaker had a vague memory of "acquitted themselves".
  • "It's very simplistic in design." "Simplistic" does not mean "simple", it means unrealistically simple or oversimplified. This is another case of straining for extra refinement in language by using the longer word, which in this case is the wrong word.
  • "Chimerism is a very unresearched phenomenon." Compare "very little researched" or possibly "under-researched". Do researchers themselves ever use this clunky construction?
  • "Heart-rendering" (from the president of the Illinois university where a shooter killed several people). Should be "heart-rending" (tearing), unless you're talking about meat processing.
  • "Congraduations". And it was not for a graduation. Could be a cute greeting card, though.
  • The clue for "propaganda" in a crossword puzzle book was "misinformation". Propaganda is not necessarily misinformation. Related to "propagate", it more or less means public relations.
  • "Took home well more than minimum wage." We can say "well over minimum wage" or "considerably more than".


Michelle Obama said that today is the first time in her adult life she's been really proud of her country. I'd say her vision has been blinkered. Of course she's younger than I am so she doesn't remember the huge and fairly rapid changes in civil rights for black people and women's rights that happened in the '50s, '60s, and '70s. But even today I can think of a lot of things to be proud of, not just the fact that a black man has a good shot at being president. Apparently Michelle Obama is not proud of Condoleeza Rice, Colin Powell, etc. And what about Oprah? She immediately said that she didn't mean what everyone thought she meant after she said it at least twice. Even if, as she quickly backtracked, she meant only American political life, there's already been a lot of "change". But also within her adult life, here are just a few things to appreciate:

  • The other night one of my Chinese students asked me if making jokes about the president is allowed here. It's not only allowed, it's practically a requirement for some people.
  • This is the country that millions of people risk their lives to get into illegally.
  • What's considered poverty here is wealth in many parts of the world. How many "poor" people have food, shelter, clothing, a car, bottled water along with clean, safe tap water, too much entertainment, and all kinds of electronic gadgets? These would have meant comfort and even luxury in my grandparents' era.
  • The best army in the world is now all volunteer.
  • We have possibly the best free library system in the world.
  • It may not have been Al Gore, but someone or many someones in this country created the Internet.
  • We can be proud that it's possible to take our freedoms for granted. But we shouldn't be proud of taking them for granted.


Regarding Down vs. Down's Syndrome: Mike Sykes noted other examples of this kind of variant: Alzheimer's disease, Alzheimer disease, Alzheimer's; Parkinson's disease. And:

Outside the realm of medical matters, I notice the Wikipedia entry on Planck's constant is consistently inconsistent, or perhaps, to be more charitable, one might say even-handed. It refers also to Dirac's constant. In contrast, while the article on Maxwell's equations is consistently apostrophised, that on the Maxwell relations is almost wholly unapostrophised.
I thought perhaps Newton's laws might have survived this (to me) strange practice, but googling for "the newton laws" produced nearly 1000 hits (though Google doesn't search only for the exact quoted string*) against 260,000 for "newton's laws".

There are also physical phenomena that I have never known to be apostrophised, such as the Heaviside and Appleton layers, the Humboldt current. But it's surprising what google turns up.
I wonder how the differences originated.

I browsed around in Wikipedia under apostrophe, genitive, and possessive (including the Saxon possessive!) but didn't find anything specifically applicable, though I remember reading somewhere, sometime about a variant possessive formation such as "the Smith children" (rather than "the Smiths' children"), but I don't remember what it's called.

(*Doesn't Google look for the exact search string if it's between quotation marks?)


A couple of people sent me advice about correcting the technical problems in formatting PO in e-mail. I've started out with something simpler this time, composing PO within Gmail instead of cutting and pasting from Word, which is what I did for a long time (and in Yahoo mail before that), but something changed and it wasn't me. I think this might work.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Parvum Opus 265 ~ PO of Pallor


Number 265



Bill R. sent a cartoon about a trick riddle that you’ve probably heard before, quizzing you about words that end in -gry. Here’s a link to the cartoon. (I won’t try to e-mail it because some readers might have images blocked by their spam filters.) The punchline is great: “Communicating badly and then acting smug when you’re misunderstood is not cleverness.”


Zounds! by Mark Dunn about interjections, “zounds” being an old variant of “His wounds” (or “God’s wounds”). Dunn says it’s from “Christ’s wounds” but that might have become “soonds”, wouldn’t it, because of the ess sound.

Under “honest injun” he suggests that the potential for ethnic offense might come from this spelling of “Indian” (rather than from assuming Indians are dishonest, though it could mean they’re honest, couldn’t it?). So why is the normal looseness and elision of American pronunciation more offensive than the very careful pronunciation of every letter? The “dia” spelling can become a J sound, as happened permanently with Cajun (from Arcadian). Of course we know what happened with the loose Southern and British pronunciation of Negro, but I doubt if every such usage was always intended to be malicious.

The entry for “hello” says that we might be saying “Ahoy!” when we answer the phone today if Alexander Graham Bell had had his way, and it was actually used for a while in the world’s first telephone exchange in New Haven, Connecticut. Feel free to try it out.


Thomas Dalrymple called the “present archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams” a cross between Goldilocks and Neville Chamberlain. Note “present” and note the lower-case “archbishop” (although that may be a matter of British stylistic usage). Dalrymple sees vague language and sloppy thinking in Williams’ lecture before the Royal Courts of Justice. Williams is a clever fellow without doubt. But it is not possible to accept two conflicting laws. For instance, a man in Dallas recently killed his two teenage daughters for behaving like normal American girls. He has disappeared, probably protected by fellow Muslims here or abroad. What he did is acceptable in many Muslim countries ~ “honor killings”. According to Western law, there is no such thing. Furthermore, this is not the Western idea of honor, which is honor within oneself, not from someone else’s behavior. Why should we accept this “communal standard” in the name of tolerance? Dalrymple wrote, “There is only one word for a society in which such discourse can pass for intellectual subtlety and sophistication, and lead to career advancement: decadent.”

Regarding the re-naming of you-know-what terrorism, Mike Sykes wrote:

The term "anti-Muslim terrorists" seems to me absurd, in that we don't usually use "anti" in that sense (do we?): they're not opposing Islam, rather they're arguably contravening Islamic teaching. It would be more accurate to call it counter-productive terrorism. If only there was an organisation we could refer to from which we could derive a more convenient word than Al-Qaedaists. The IRA were much more considerate in that respect.

Yes, the problem is that we don’t have just one terrorist organization or just one country to refer to. The only unifying theme is, in fact, Islam, and, in fact, very likely Koranic teaching, even if all Muslims are not performing these acts. Someone recently said that we’ve just stepped into an ancient Islamic civil war. True enough, Sunnis and Shiites have been killing each other for centuries, but they like to expand their field when possible. It’s in the book.


A couple of smart blogs about PC names from Minding the Campus:

The bit about "Asian" being useless is hilarious as well as true because it is precisely the PC crowd who foisted that useless word on the rest of us. "Oriental" as the man-in-the-streets catch-all for Chinese/Japanese/Korean fell into disfavor. Same for the traditionally technically correct "Mongoloid".* It was the PC idiots who decided to lump these peoples in with the Indo-Europeans of "southwest Asia" (i.e. the ME) and India. "Asian" is even more of a useless stretch than monolithic "African", which as we all know is usually shorthand for "sub-Saharan African", IOW "black".

Thus part of my complaint about “African-American” ~ it always means black, not Arab or Egyptian or South American Boer or whatever.

I quibble with commenter Orlando Ray's statement that "Americans of European decent* cannot be diverse, unless they are gay." Being gay is not enough to render you diverse if you are of European decent. Volunteering legal services to a Gay and Lesbian (oops, Lesbian and Gay) organization in the early 1990's, I was required to attend a diversity training session where the facilitator, a black woman, basically berated the group of volunteer lawyers for being almost entirely male and white. But one can fight fire. At another Lesbian and Gay lawyers' meeting addressed by city council candidates, a white Lesbian and a gay Hispanic who relentlessly referred to persons of pallor as "Anglos", I was able to do an AZZA. "As a person of Irish decent, I am deeply offended by your referring to me as an Anglo." We are all victims here.

*He may be decent but he meant descent. Let us remember that “diverse” ONLY means “different”. By the way, why did the writer have to reverse “gay and lesbian”? Is it ladies first? Love the AZZA: “As a this or that” ~ almost always followed by a proclamation of offense.


Someone pointed out that we must distinguish between health care and health insurance. Maybe 15% of Americans don’t have health insurance. This doesn’t mean they don’t have health care. When I had a lot of medical tests a couple of years ago, without insurance, the billing administrator at the hospital told me, “Don’t tell anyone I said so, but if you were an illegal immigrant you wouldn’t get a bill.” I got all the care I needed, maybe more, plus the bills. Rarely is anyone turned away from urgent care because of money. The best suggestion I ever heard about health care came from a Canadian physician (I’m not sure but it may be Dr. David Gratzer), who isn’t a fan of the Canadian system. He recommended that we buy insurance only for major medical expenses, which would make insurance pretty cheap. Ordinary medical expenses should be paid out of pocket. Makes sense to me.

3:10 TO YUMA

Movie comparison: Recently I watched both the old (1957) and the new (2007) versions of the western 3:10 to Yuma. Warning: This contains spoilers for both movies. Both were good movies, but much of the plot was changed. Can you guess what would be changed in 50 years? That is, what of significance, never mind the color and the expensive effects in the new movie. Both have a charming villain who exhibits a trace of humanity despite being a cold-blooded murderer. Both have a honest rancher who takes on the dangerous job of escorting the criminal to a train bound for prison, because the rancher is desperate for money; he is willing to risk his life for his family. But added in the new movie: the faithful wife is angry at her husband for not being more forceful in the face of drought and greedy neighbors; their older teenage son is typical of modern sons in that he is contemptuous of his father for not being more forceful and successful; the rancher’s game leg was incurred when he was running away from a fight during the Civil War. And finally, though he behaves heroically, in the end he gets killed. Is this necessarily more “real” than the softer humanity of 1957? In the old movie, the rancher perseveres and survives. Virtue prevailed. Were the audiences of 1957 ~ not long out of World War II, where right prevailed ~ less realistic about life than the new director and writer, who were born in the 1960s, and unlikely to have been to war?


||| Dick Lederer of wrote: Just to be helpful, it's "Down Syndrome," not "Downs Syndrome." I’m sure I’ve made this mistake before in PO. Why can’t I remember it? It is named after Dr. John Langdon Down, which would justify the Down’s form, and Wikipedia says the British form is Down’s, but for some reason Down Syndrome is correct in the U.S.. Some of you may remember when the disorder was called Mongolism*, because the people who have it have almond-shapes eyes.

||| I wrote who’s when I should have written whose last week.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Parvum Opus 264 ~The Uncommon Reader


Number 264



The PO is a day late because one has what one’s doctor called the crud. Not pneumonia, not quite bronchitis, but definitely lung crud. Meanwhile, one has just read The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett, an entertaining little fiction (120 pages) in which Queen Elizabeth suddenly discovers the pleasures of reading books, to everyone’s consternation, becoming so enamored of reading that she decides to abdicate. In the book, she always refers to herself as “one” instead of “I”. One expected royalty to use the editorial “we”, which creates an anonymous, distant authority; but one is pretty remote and authoritative too. One wonders if she actually speaks that way. She also observes that in her time, Buckingham Palace staff went from Servants to Personnel to Human Resources. If anyone ought to be able to have servants, it should be a queen.

If I were the Queen, I would do something about the Archbishop of Canterbury. He says England must accept at least some aspects of sharia law. Why does he think he can, or want to, wipe out centuries of English Common Law? I’d haul him off to the Tower of London. Apparently England now gives welfare benefits to people with multiple wives, and polygamy is of course illegal for non-Muslims.

Meanwhile around the world, Jihadists recently used women with Downs Syndrome as “suicide” bombers. Moderate Muslims all over the world offered moments of silent protest. Days, actually.

What else happened this week on the language scene:

Mark Steyn wrote:

My favorite headline of the year so far comes from The Daily Mail in Britain: "Government Renames Islamic Terrorism As 'Anti-Islamic Activity' To Woo Muslims."

Well, it is, of course. But why “woo”? I think the wooing is on the wrong foot here.

Regarding Steyn’s legal troubles, here’s a brief Canadian TV panel discussion on freedom of speech, which surprisingly is not a given in Canada’s constitution. And check out

Meanwhile back at the ranch:

Last week, Mohammed Khan, the imam of the Islamic Center of Des Moines, led the opening prayer in the Iowa legislature at the request of Iowa State Representative Ako Abdul-Samad, a former Iowa school board member who has worked as a counselor in the Iowa prison system, and has questionable associations with Islamic extremists. In his four-minute prayer before the Iowa legislative session, Khan made a plea for “victory over those who disbelieve” and “protection from the Great Satan.”

In case you aren’t quite sure, “those who disbelieve” are all non-Muslims, and “the Great Satan” is the United States. Let’s see, wasn’t there an Iowa primary recently?


Bill Clinton is still getting trashed for comparing Obama’s campaign to Jesse Jackson’s failed campaign some years ago, because this implies that Obama is running merely as a blackchurchblack “values” and who’s magazine lauded Louis Farrakhan. Also, Obama’s wife said in a speech that he was faced with the threat of being shot every time he goes to a gas station, which somehow she made a racial issue, though that’s no more true of him than it is of any politician or indeed any of us. Depending on the neighborhood. Further, Obama introduced race into a speech he made after last year’s massacre at Virginia Tech. After decrying the violence, he compared the shootings to the “violence” of Don Imus making an insulting racial joke on radio. I’m not buying him as a “uniter”. Read Shelby Steele’s new book about him, A Bound Man (only 134 pages). (In her review of this book, a Dr. Helen Smith blogged, oddly: “Obama ~ and quite a few sexual minorities ~ have a problem.” How many sexual minorities are there? I guess I lost count.) candidate. People on both sides of the campaign are shocked, shocked. I guess it would have been more tactful to compare him to some other failed Democratic candidate. However, primary voting reports say that Obama carries most black voters (although of course many whites are voting for him also). Are they voting for him solely on the issues? It’s questionable. For one thing, Obama’s views are almost identical to Hillary’s (except he has an even more liberal voting record). For another, even if he doesn’t bring up race, he doesn’t have to; he belongs to a that’s all about

Lest you think I’m only picking on Dems, I noted the flap between McCain and Romney, when McCain intentionally confused “timetable” (for leaving Iraq) with “benchmarks” (which aren’t locked into a timetable), but the story didn’t stick with me. I find the race issue more colorful, if you will. Though I was taking an interested look at Obama when he first appeared on the scene, that post-massacre speech turned me right off.

If you want to keep track of campaign lies, check out It looks like a pretty even-handed site. And, read Silly Talk by Walter Williams, a diatribe on political dishonesty, plus sloppy speech habits in general.


John Leo in City Journal:

“In order to enhance diversity, it was necessary to suppress it,” Walter Olson writes at,

Those who forget the past tense are doomed to sound silly

||| 20-ish guy to friends: Talk about sweat ~ I never swat so much in my life! (From Overheard in New York.)

||| Supermarket cashier: I was actually valedictorian in high school, and I wore four-inch heels to graduation. And surprise, surprise ~ I falled. (From Overheard in New York.)

||| Guy to friend: If the Yankees win the first two, it'll be a swept. (From Overheard in New York.)

Counterfeit coinages

||| Paint department clerk to customer: Do you want interior or outerior? (From Overheard in New York.)

||| Bimbette: Oh my god, I was dramatized! I couldn't even look at him. (From Overheard in New York.)

||| Dennis Miller made up an almost real word, “recompensation”, compounded of recompense and compensation, which are very close in definition, but usually aren’t used interchangeably. You can be compensated for work, while you might receive recompense for an injury sustained on the job.

||| Super Bowl commentary: “It all comes down to the differentio of pass completions [between Eli Manning and Tom Brady].” This sounds like an almost Shakespearean coinage combining difference or differential and ratio.

best name of the superbowl

Plaxico Burress.


||| What American accent do you have? Take a short quiz to identify it. I have a Midland accent (which is also known as the Ohio River Valley accent), what we consider neutral in the U.S. To test the quiz, I retook it trying on the best Boston or East Coast accent I could manage, and sure enough it identified the accent as Northeastern.

||| The Phrase Finder is pretty good source of the origin of over 1,200 English expressions, including lists of phrases that originated in the Bible or in Shakespeare.


Dave DaBee’s Blog had an interesting quote from Eric Hoffer:

In a time of drastic change it is the learners who survive, while the 'learned' find themselves fully equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.

Of course I think much important learning is timeless, but Dave is thinking of the latest medical knowledge that saved his life.


Reader Ezra Sykes reminds us that he’s still training for the Boston Marathon, to raise money for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (MSPCC). So far, he’s raised more than $3,200 of his $5,000 goal, and offers his CD Juvenile by Design as a thank-you gift. Go to to make a contribution. Or make your check out to "MSPCC" and send it to him at 44 Nonantum Street, Brighton, MA 02135.


It has been noted that the date on last week’s PO was wrong. I have a code to automatically insert the current date, but all by itself, when I wasn’t looking, it went wrong. Since the whole point of an automatic field code is not to have to think about it, I guess it has to go.