Saturday, April 25, 2009

Parvum Opus 322 ~ A Few Choice Words


Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day pointed out that methodology means the study of methods. It should not be used as a substitute for method. Since few people talk about the study of methods, this may be a lost cause, but in general you can’t go wrong by going for the simpler word.

This, That, and the Other

>>> In a recent news story a reporter called something “heart-rendering” which suggests something that happens at a meat-processing plant (should be “rending” though that’s not much more delicate); and something else was “legally actionable”, a rare instance of “actionable” being used correctly. So he or she was one for one. (A year ago “heart-rendering” cropped up in a different news story and I wrote about it in PO. Somebody didn’t get the memo.)

>>> Advertisement: “There are both men and women t-shirts.” Now that would be a bargain at twice the price; unfortunately they meant “men’s and women’s t-shirts”. This is one case where you cannot use a noun as an adjective (as in “dog collar”).

>>> I’ve heard “man up” a couple of times lately, as in “I manned up”. It sounds like it might mean to gather a crew, but it actually means to act like a man as opposed to a child.

>>> Ad for fancy padded toilet seat: “designed for comfort and creativity”. OK, I get the comfort. But just because the lid has a little floral design on it, that doesn’t make it designed for creativity. That would require at least some sort of small electrical shock delivered to the backs of the thighs.

>>> We’ve all heard “in the clink” meaning in jail. When I read “in the Clink” (capital C ) in a book by Germaine Greer, I looked it up and found that the Clink was a notorious English prison from the 12th to the 18th century. It sounds like jail, though, doesn’t it: you can hear the clinking and clanking of steel bars and keys.

>>> Message from a doctor’s office: “This is to remind you that an exclusive appointment has been reserved for you at…” As compared to the non-exclusive, group appointments?

Mr. Language Person

Check out this treat from Dave Barry, a Mr. Language Person column vintage 2004.

Tea Party

I avoided listening to most news stories about the recent Tea Parties, especially after I heard actress Janeane Garofolo say, “Let’s be honest, it’s all about people hating a black man.” Let’s do be honest, some of the protesters voted for Obama. It’s their money they’re worried about, among other things.

I can report directly that I know two people who went to the Cincinnati event and they are quite sensible and conscientious people, principled and civil in all respects. Second-hand reporting: a YouTube singer I like called Bear Wa11ace (note two numeral ones instead of two Ls in his name) joined the Tea Party where he lives in California and reported on it on YouTube, and he seems like a reasonable person: blues singer and surfer, what more could you want?

I haven’t worked as a journalist per se though from time to time I’ve written on varied subjects for papers and magazines. I did not take journalism classes in school. A lot of current journalists seem have the kind of training and mindset I observed when I worked at a large university in the publications department, where I took a phone call from a journalism student who asked suspiciously what we (the communications/PR department) would do if the university needed money. He made it sound like a gotcha question, as if it would be a shameful development that the news office would try to obfuscate with misleading press releases. I explained that the communications office and the fund-raising office of universities are always one and the same, and they’re always trolling for money for both general and specific expenses. Then there was the young girl reporter who wrote in the school paper (same school) that her trip to London disappointed her; she’d expected great fanfare and tickertape parades (though not for herself, I suppose). A British reader pointed out that tickertape parades are a New York phenomenon. You might say that these students were, after all, young, but even the ones who are permanently bone ignorant are often more enamored of themselves as reporters than they are of the truth, which they think they know before they see the news they’re reporting on.

A Few Choice Words

Language changes constantly so the effort to grasp and pin down a word as it’s changing can seem like a pointless academic exercise. Nevertheless, if we want to attach any coherence to our ideas, we have to agree on most meanings mid-stream. Take the word “choice”. It has a fairly simple meaning: you get to pick one thing out of a group of things. Contained in it are the ideas of “more than one” and “freedom”.

The word has also become attached to a political idea, that of abortion. Pro-choice means in favor of legal abortion. In this context the basic meaning of “choice” (multiplicity and freedom) seems to be eroding. Some think that Obama will push for laws to prevent doctors from choosing to follow their own moral convictions. That is, doctors or Catholic hospitals to whom abortion is wrong will not be free to refuse to perform that procedure (as we now call an operation or an abortion). Catholic hospitals could shut down.

If this law is enacted, the word “choice” will have lost its meaning, and this isn’t just about language drift. There are plenty of people who don’t really believe in choice — or diversity, which word features in similar imbroglios — and will bully anyone who doesn’t agree with them. You might even call this a state-imposed religious belief.

This seems to be a good spot for this from John Locke (thanks to Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day):

"Men take the words they find in use among their neighbors, and that they may not seem ignorant what they stand for, use them confidently without much troubling their heads about a certain fixed meaning . . . it being all one to draw these men out of their mistakes, who have no settled notions, as to dispossess a Vagrant of his habitation, who has no settled abode. This I guess to be so; and every one may observe in himself or others whether it be so or not." John Locke (as quoted in I.A. Richards, Principles of Literary Criticism 223 (1925)).

And another quote by a modern thinker, economist Walter E. Williams:

“In addition to an abhorrence of democracy, and the recognition that government posed the gravest threat to liberty, our founders harbored a deep distrust and suspicion of Congress. This suspicion and distrust is exemplified by the phraseology used throughout the Constitution, particularly our Bill of Rights, containing phrases such as Congress shall not: abridge, infringe, deny, disparage or violate.”

These words all indicate that the rights already exist, the government does not give them to us, thus the language in the Bill of Rights is about Congress not being able to infringe, etc., on them; the Bill of Rights does not list rights that Congress gives us.

Make a Tree

Modern art can engage our interest visually, but if modern artists were creating the world, not only couldn't they make a flowering tree, they probably wouldn't if they could, because it's not only beautiful, it's too pretty. A writer named Mark Gauvreau Judge makes this clear in Modern Art Masterpiece.

Prettiness is an artistic sin. I’ve had to explain to my Chinese student the distinction between the two; he is very astute in detecting shades of meaning. Looking at his vacation photos, I remarked that his wife is beautiful, and he said, “Maybe she is beautiful, but she is not pretty.”


I’m publishing for the Kindle digital reader with Amazon and now also on for download to computer and for printing. I mistakenly thought that the Kindle books could be downloaded to computer but they can’t. So now these titles are available in both locations. Search for Rhonda Keith on Kindle store and

* A Walk Around Stonehaven is a travel article on my trip to Scotland last fall, with photos.

* The Wish Book, a novella, is fantasy-suspense-romance featuring the old Sears Roebuck catalogues.

* Carl Kriegbaum Sleeps with the Corn is a short story about a young gambler who finds himself upright in a cornfield in Kansas with his feet encased in a tub of concrete; how would you get out of a spot like that?

* Still Ridge is a short story about a young woman who moves from Boston to Appalachia and finds there are two kinds of moonshine, the good kind and the kind that can kill you.

* Whither Spooning? asks whether synchronized spooning can be admitted to the 2010 Winter Olympics.


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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