Friday, January 9, 2009

Parvum Opus 309 ~ Away With Words

A Way With Words

Like you need more stuff to fool with on the Web. Never the less, this one looks like fun although I haven’t yet had much time to spend on it: A Way With Words, a public radio program about language with sound files, text, comments. (Not to be confused with “Away With Words”.)

Unfortunate Words

A friend says the Post Office is “excessing” his position, which means he may or may not retire early. I haven’t heard this particular euphemism before, nor have I heard “excess” verbed. Why not stick with eliminating the position, which is at least grammatical? And yet one might prefer to be thought of as an excess rather than part of the process of elimination. There is such a thing as a glorious excess; it is a luxury.

Movies That Start With P

!!! The Prestige: Although “prestige” makes a good title for a movie about rival magicians, the term actually is part of a trilogy of terms, the three main steps of a magic trick: step one is the pledge, or set-up; step two is the turn, when an object disappears, for instance; step three is the prestige, when the object reappears or perhaps changes form. From Latin roots, of course, and related to prestidigitation, the illusion of fingers. Therefore, prestige in the sense of status is also a sort of illusion or delusion. (Interesting side note: David Bowie plays Nicola Tesla.)

!!! Perfume: Another period piece, this movie is about a man with an abnormal sensitivity to smell, who becomes a serial killer of beautiful young women who smell good. In the extra commentary added in the DVD, someone (not sure if it was producer Bernd Eichinger or director Tom Tykwer) said the movie is not good or evil, it is amoral, not unmoral, it is beyond moral standards. He (Eichinger or Tykwer) apparently thinks he is beyond moral standards, but in fact the purely selfish murder of innocent humans for the sake of satisfying a desire is by most moral standards in the world immoral, despite the fact that the murderer invents the world’s greatest perfume which leads to a large-scale though temporary orgy. Or is it beyond moral standards because the man had an unhappy childhood? What do you have to do to be considered immoral?

State of Education Report

!!! The UK Telegraph has an article about why poor teaching causes children to loathe books. Novelist Susan Hill gets e-mails from students who can’t understand her books, and moreover rudely and abusively ask her to write their papers for them, which is a different category of problem.

Other People’s Book Reviews

!!! The December 22, 2008 Weekly Standard reviews A Great Idea at the Time by Alex Beam, about the Great Books project of the 1940s and ‘50s. It sneers a bit at the plan to publish and promote the reading of a core curriculum of selected great books. The subtitle is “Furrowing the American middlebrow” but I say better a middlebrow than no brow at all. The same issue of the magazine reviews Racing Odysseus by Roger H. Martin, a college president who took a sabbatical for one year at St. John’s College in Annapolis, where the entire program consists of discussion of these Great Books. The reviewer seems torn between thinking Martin’s a fool for trying to recapture his youth and acknowledging that there’s something to be said for the life of the mind.

!!! Also in the 12/22/08 Weekly Standard, Joseph Bottum writes that many popular Christmas carols with odd grammar aren’t actually archaic. Some songs written in the 19th century were intentionally trying to sound archaic or “traditional”. Example: In “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” Bottum explains the grammar, supposed and real, of that title, and discusses “the which” in the line, after the baby Jesus was laid in a manger, “the which his Mother Mary did nothing take in scorn.” To me the odd phrase is “did nothing take in scorn”, not because of the grammar but because there’s no reason to think Mary was scorning anything. Bottum was asked to write his own “old sounding” Christmas carol and says it’s not as easy as it seems. (Carol correction: Somehow last week I inserted the wrong link to one version of Good King Wenceslas.)

!!! In the 12/29/08 National Review, John Derbyshire writes about H. L. Mencken’s contempt for politicians and love for language, and quotes an obituary poem by Auden about Yeats:

Time that is intolerant

Of the brave and innocent

...Worships language and forgives

Everyone by whom it lives.

This strikes me as being rather cynical, or perhaps bitter; it’s hard to believe it was meant as praise of the poet Yeats. It suits Mencken better.

Conversational Piece

According to a TV show, one thing you might like to buy is a floating alligator head with eyes that light up. You can put it in your swimming pool or garden to repel vermin, and it’s a “conversational piece” according to the perky hostess. What kind of conversation might you have with a life-size imitation of an alligator head (to borrow a phrase from Lorelei Lee in the Anita Loos book Gentlemen Prefer Blondes)? Scary.

Dear Prudence

You may recognize the origin of name of this advice column in an old Beatles song. A recent letter begins:

I am a college professor and administrator who often makes a great deal of appointments with students, staff, faculty, and people interviewing for new positions.

I don’t know what this professor’s subject is, but how could any college professor say “a great deal of appointments” instead of “a great many appointments”?

Here’s another, less obvious point of grammar: “I am a college professor and administrator who often makes....” Should it be “make”? “I am one ... who makes” sounds right. But the predicate nominative is plural: “professor and administrator who make”? Of course only the one person makes appointments, regardless of whether he works in two capacities. “I” is singular, first person: “I make.” Does “who” refer back to “I” or to “professor and administrator”? Should it take a singular or plural verb? What if it were just “I am a professor”? Then the third person singular verb, makes, would be obviously correct. “Who” can be singular or plural (I am a person who makes appointments; we are people who make appointments). Of course the professor is speaking as a single person, in this case, the third person, “who”.


We’ve discussed bad words here before, and the difference between profanity and obscenity. William Safire in “Bleeping Expletives” goes further and explains profanities, expletives, vulgarisms, obscenities, execrations, epithets, and imprecations. What’s your preference?

Silk Purse

The Winter Silks catalog helpfully explained that "you can't make a silk purse from a sow’s ear” “may be derived from the French word sousier, a cloth coin holder used by peasants. Therefore, you can’t make something as fine as a silk purse from a tattered sousier.” Maybe you can’t in France, but it has been done in the USA, at MIT, where else.

Peaceful Transfer of Meme

I’ve mentioned the Bush meme before, that body of true and false ideas automatically associated with the name George W. Bush. It seems a new Obama mini-meme is in the making among America-bashers around the world, replacing or standing beside the Obamessiah meme. It remains to be seen whether thrills will continue to run up and down our own journalists’ legs, and for how long.

Tech Tip

You can convert your cassette tapes (and other media) to digital files and then transfer them to CDs by downloading the free program, Audacity. Get the right audio cable and you’re ready to save all those deteriorating tapes. Audacity is pretty easy to use. Then you can use something like RealPlayer to burn the files to CD.


Read The Wish Book, a novella by Rhonda Keith, free online.

New interview with bluesman Sonny Robertson.


Trivium pursuit ~ rhetoric, grammar, and logic, or reading, writing, and reckoning: Parvum Opus discusses language, education, journalism, culture, and more. Parvum Opus by Rhonda Keith is a publication of KeithOps / Opus Publishing Services. Editorial input provided by Fred Stephens. Rhonda Keith is a long-time writer, editor, and English teacher. Back issues from December 2002 may be found at Feel free to e-mail me with comments or queries. The PO mailing list is private, never given or sold to anyone else. If you don't want to receive Parvum Opus, please e-mail, and I'll take you off the mailing list. Copyright Rhonda Keith 2008. Parvum Opus or part of it may be reproduced only with permission, but you may forward the entire newsletter as long as the copyright remains.

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