Friday, January 30, 2009

Parvum Opus 310 ~ Back in Business

I’m back in business. Fred bought a new PC (though someone did throw in his two bits for a Mac), and the notebook straightened itself out with new batteries in the mouse.

Prix Fixe

Anne DaBee, doughty mother of Dave DaBee, wrote:

On New Year's Eve I went, with several family members, to an early dinner at a restaurant that's trying very hard to be upscale, for instance calling itself a Grille. We had a fairly decent meal in spite of the chef's attempt to "improve" everything with fancy sauces ~ the filet tasted like something else that had marinated too long in cough syrup, as did the lamb chops and the sauteed spinach. The worst offense, however, (at least to my mind) was the restaurant's term for their fixed price dinners, in bold print at the top of the menu insert card advertising them. As you and I know, the correct spelling sounds like some sort of male corrective surgery, "prix fixe". Their version was "pre-fix", which made me giggle. The members of my immediate family (daughter and granddaughters) got the joke and giggled with me; son-in-law (a writer!) and his mother didn't. Sigh.

The menu writer could have done worse and ended up with something that looked like an ad for the surgical procedure as performed back in the kitchen. As for grille, it looks like all you have to do to go upscale is add a Frenchy sort of E to a word, and Joe’s Bar and Grill becomes Joseph’s Grille. This Frenchification has old roots in English. Louisa May Alcott mentioned a mid-nineteenth century fad for Frenchifying the spelling of girls’ names: Mary changed her name to Marie, which is a real French name, but Alcott noted that some names like Polly would look silly as Pollie. This was and still is usually a trick for female names, although you do see some Willies and Johnnies. The English Y ending looks more masculine somehow.

Brass Monkey

I thought we’d discussed brass monkeys before in PO, but I can’t find it so maybe it was an e-mail exchange with one of you. David Rogerson sent this item about the expression “freeze the balls off a brass monkey” which doesn’t mean what you think.

It was necessary to keep a good supply of cannon balls near the cannon on old war ships. But how to prevent them from rolling about the deck was the problem. The best storage method devised was to stack them as a square based pyramid, with one ball on top, resting on four, resting on nine, which rested on sixteen. Thus, a supply of 30 cannon balls could be stacked in a small area right next to the cannon. There was only one problem ~ how to prevent the bottom layer from sliding/rolling from under the others.

The solution was a metal plate with 16 round indentations, called, for reasons unknown, a Monkey. But if this plate were made of iron, the iron balls would quickly rust to it. The solution to the rusting problem was to make them of brass ~ hence, "Brass Monkeys".

Few landlubbers realize that brass contracts much more and much faster than iron when chilled. Consequently, when the temperature dropped too far, the brass indentations would shrink so much that the iron cannon balls would come right off the monkey.

Thus, it was quite literally, cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.

It has been that cold where I live for the last couple of weeks. Outside the window the forsythia branches are glittering with ice and piled with snow. Yesterday I cleaned off the car ~ two inches of powder covered by half an inch of ice covered by four more inches of powder.

Sykes Clocks In

Mike Sykes wrote about Auden’s poem on Yeats:

Time that is intolerant

Of the brave and innocent

...Worships language and forgives

Everyone by whom it lives.

Mike wrote:

You have no idea how long it took me to figure out what that means. Even now I'm not convinced I'm right in understanding it as saying that time worships language and forgives everyone who lives by it. If so, I'm surprised you let the grammar pass without comment.

It seemed to me that in the poem the brave and innocent are held above those who merely live by language and who may have no actual virtues, but are inclined or even determined to be remembered.

I’m not always demanding about grammar in poetry; I assume the last line seems confusing? “It” (language) lives by poets. But the antecedent of “it” isn’t very clear. Could it be Time? Or perhaps Mike thinks the personified “Time” ought to be followed by “who” instead of “that”.

At the inauguration Yale professor Elizabeth Alexander read her poetry, which Stefan Kanfer calls worthy of The Stuffed Owl. I was glad to be reminded of this book, which I’ve owned at least a couple of times. This collection of bad poetry was published in 1930 so you have to go elsewhere for more modern fare. Does Alexander qualify? Let’s look at one example:

Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built brick by brick the glittering edifices they would keep clean and work inside of.

My objection to this is not that she ended the sentence with a preposition, but that bricks usually don’t glitter, and the ones who build glittering edifices usually don’t clean them or work inside them. However, it suits Obama’s own declamatory style.

As for the tech tip about transferring tapes to CDs, Mike said regarding figuring out how to use Audacity:

… I suffer from the suck-it-and-see syndrome as a result of many years of trying to find my way around cryptic help and tutorial facilities, so it's a case of "when all else fails, read the manual" (I remember when software came with manuals ~ I still have one for MS-DOS 5.0 - 1991, almost a collector's item).

I haven’t heard “suck-it-and-see” before; British, you know. It makes me think of a kid picking up a piece of candy off the ground and trying it out (among other things). The alliteration works and it has a good meter. I’d give it a nine.

Lesser Off

“Do those lesser off work less than wealthy?”

The local paper attached this heading to a letter to the editor. I have to assume a newspaper person wrote it since the phrase didn’t appear in the letter. We can say “well off” and “better off” and “worse off” but not “lesser off”. “Lesser” is not the counterpart of “better”. The writer somehow couldn’t bring herself or himself to say “worse off” or anything really clear like “poorer” or “less wealthy” and perhaps felt (thought doesn’t enter into it) that “lesser off” sounded, well, nicer, and ended up with that grotesque line.

TV Tray Snacks

I saved these just for you off the T and V:

!!! “…There’s a level of uncomfortability…” I don’t remember where I heard that, but wouldn’t you think the speaker might have stopped (also erroneously) at “uncomfort”? Is there an ability to be uncomfortable?

!!! In a report on the terrific crash-landing of a jet in the Hudson, reporting no deaths but some injuries: “…in one case, [there were] a few broken legs.” I’ve never seen more than two at a time and few has to be at least three. What do you think ~ insurance scam? Munchausen’s Syndrome? Rabid lawyer?

If You Were a Font, What Font Would You Be?

If you like little personality quizzes, here’s one that not only gives you a personality but tells you what type font goes best with it. And it’s PBS sponsored.

I ran across a spelling test too, and did not get 100%. I’m a pretty good speller but I have to look up words that end in ant/ent and ance/ence and a few others.

Wyeth Dyeth

Andrew Wyeth died on January 16, 2009, at the age of 91. I link to this particular blog post mentioning his death only because the writer used the past tense instead of the barbarous “Wyeth dies” as appeared on nearly all the other news reports.


It suddenly occurred to me that as far as I know, American Indians did not invent or use the wheel. Searching online, I found that writers are so anxious not to denigrate Indian cultures that they’ve come up with a raft of rationales for this omission, obviously feeling that in this case different isn’t obviously just as good ~ Indians didn’t need wheels; they invented wheels but only for things like the Aztec calendar, not for transportation (but a circle is not the same as a wheel); they rolled things on logs (but, no disks with axles); they had the wrong animals for hauling things with wheels (but pulling a travois was no problem); the terrain was wrong (although there’s an enormous variety of terrain in America).

In any case, considering that the wheel is used not only for transportation but also in many tools and machinery, the lack of a wheel is a serious inhibition to many kinds of development. That matters only if you value technological development, of course. You may argue that it is unnecessary or even destructive, but nevertheless, the wheel made possible all sorts of things, including two of my favorites, cars and computers.

While I was cruising around looking for something more enlightening about this bit of non-history, it also occurred to me that any words in Indian languages meaning wheel would have to be recent additions, but I didn’t get too far there. However, you can find some online translators and dictionaries, for example this one for the Ojibwa.


There was a bad link to a story I put online (Word document), but I’ve fixed it. The Wish Book is a light fantasy involving old Sears catalogues and shopping, a clandestine burial and a murder trial, and mystery and romance.



Read The Wish Book, a novella by Rhonda Keith, free to read online or download as a Word file.

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 2009. 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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