Saturday, September 26, 2009

Parvum Opus 340 ~ Blue Silk Stockings

Dulce, utile, et decorum est pro patria scribere.


We Keep On Trying

Karl Popper wrote, “It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood.”

Using three negatives as in that sentence is one way to be misunderstood, but it makes his point better than:

· It is impossible to always be understood.

· It is always possible to be misunderstood.

· You cannot always be understood.

Here are more everyday examples of the possibilities of misunderstanding:

1. Listen to “Pancho and Lefty” by Townes Van Zandt; also performed by Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan, with lyrics on this web site. I also like the video with Willie and Merle Haggard. Listen, read, watch, and see what you think of these two interpretations on the Van Zandt link (note that the first two lines should read “Living on the road my friend / Was gonna keep you free and clean” instead of “Is gonna keep you free and clean”):

In this beautifully written and subtly intertwined narrative, Lefty sells out Pancho to the Federales to get the money to go back to Cleveland. "He only did what had to do." The Federales lie about the old days, Pancho is dead, and Lefty wastes away: "The desert's quiet and Cleveland's cold." The brilliance is that the three sides never meet; their interaction is entirely inferred.

Pancho was a bandit that got killed. His brother, Lefty avenged his brother's death and now he is spending the rest of his days runnning from the law.

The first comment is better written, spelled, and punctuated, showing that the writer reads more and may be a better literary interpreter. However, I don’t know what he means by the three sides never meeting since the Federales definitely met with somebody. On the other hand, there’s evidence in the lyrics that Lefty sold out Pancho and is remorseful in Cleveland.

2. John McC, a mathematician, wrote vis a vis my question about the necessity of the ebola virus:

I believe the Ebola virus, and all viri, are not considered to be "living" and thus not a species, they are pieces of genetic material, which can replicate parasitically. The human Ebola virus is more like humans than it is like other viri.

I guess this means we need to define “living”. You go first. Anyway, does the Ebola become human-like when it eats us or do we become Ebolic? Do we become like cows when we eat a steak?

On my speculating on the necessity of good, bad, and ugly viruses in general, Mike Sykes wrote:

I've always felt that way about the lesser spotted owl or the greater crested newt. But I'm sure you've realised you've raised a number of not necessarily related questions. I seem to remember that the case for keeping the smallpox virus is based on its potential usefulness in developing vaccines for viruses yet to appear. Of course, nations have developed (illegal) chemical weapons in case they need them for retaliation — this is a tricky area. Plant diversity is valued for the possible discovery of useful compounds such as taxol.

3. On the windmills, Dave DaBee wrote:

Windmills kill a lot of bats, too. It's the cause of a whole wind farm near the Cape being blocked for years.

I’d always thought it was the NIMBY factor (not in my backyard). Fred works in a huge glass building that kills birds. They think they’re flying into more sky, then they smack against the glass. Should we accept windmills as we do glass buildings and roadkill? Maybe, if windmills were more efficient.

4. Herb H. isn’t giving up on “necker knob”:

The term "bluenose" applied not to just anyone who used the term, but those who gave the spinner the name "necker knob" out of choice ("spinner" is a LOT easier to say) as a pejorative against anyone who might drive with one arm around his girl. Even in the 1950s, "necker knob" was a bizarre term and "necking" a fairly bizarre word — I for one never understood what the neck had to do with anything.

I rather expected the term "bluenose" to be recognized as one used a lot by H. L. Mencken. Who, I believe, used a definition of someone haunted by the pervasive fear that somehow somewhere someone might be having fun.

Of course we have or used to have “blue laws” such as those that prohibited the sale of alcohol on Sundays. “Bluestockings” were educated women who accused of wearing ugly blue wool stockings instead of black silk. Risque comedians use “blue material”.

Anyway, even though I knew not of necker knobs, I did know of necking, which wasn’t bizarre where I lived. It meant making out above the neck, the carnal Mason-Dixon line. As Jesse Winchester wrote, “Me, I want to live with my feet in Dixie / And my head in the cool blue North.” (Does “making out” need to be explained?) Fred noted that alliteration was part of the charm of “necker knob” even though “spinner” is one syllable shorter.

5. On NPR, someone said that people on the right have been trying to present the recently late Ted Kennedy as “unappealing”. “Unappealing” is someone who doesn’t trim his nose hair. Leaving a woman to die demands a stronger word. Or have I misunderstood something again?

Trewly Pair

David Rogerson wrote from England that “trews is very much a Scottish word and means trouser (pants to you) made in Tartan” thus answering Anne DaBee’s query. She wrote, “After all, one MUST have an answer to the perennial question "What do they wear under the kilts?"

And Dave DaBee wrote, “My impression is that ‘pants’ in England (to this day) refers to undies. The Brits I know talk about trousers.”

Mike Sykes from England once more helpfully sent these two Oxford English Dictionary entries and confirmed Dave on pants/trousers:

OED: I heard an American student at Cambridge University telling some English friends how he climbed over a locked gate…and tore his pants, and one of them asked in confusion, ‘But how could you tear your pants without tearing your trousers?'


OED: 1996 Woman's Day (Sydney) 10 June 37/2 (caption) This ever-popular boot style works very well under long-line skirts, boot-legged jeans and pants.

Mike then remarked:

I know what boot-legged means (nothing to do with illicit liquo(u)r), but there's evidently a distinction between jeans and pants that eludes me.

Jeans are pants but pants aren’t always jeans. Jeans are denim pants. Blue jeans. And when I wrote “Once more into the breach” about britches, Mike said “Surely you jest!” Well, yeah. But don’t call me Shirley.

New-Fire Words

Rich Lederer sent “A Man of New-Fire Words” from his book The Miracle of Language, about Shakespeare’s words. (It’s too long to include here but you should be able to find it in Google Books. Better yet, buy the entire book.) Lederer wrote, “Of the 20,138 basewords that Shakespeare employs in his plays, sonnets, and other poems, his is the first known use of over 1,700 of them.” Lederer also said that in some cases these words were first seen in print in Shakespeare’s work, but he did use an enormous vocabulary and was endlessly inventive.

In class today I explained to a student that although he constructed a word correctly — “I was cutting the bread uncarefully” — for whatever reason, the word we actually have is “carelessly”. So many possible English constructions haven’t stuck for some reason. But Shakespeare’s coinages often so precisely express an idea that they’ve lasted for centuries. However, what is brilliant in Shakespeare can become trite in the wrong hands.

“That love affair was the be-all and end-all for the once stony-hearted girl who was no longer fancy-free; though her towering passion made her a laughing-stock, she was tongue-tied yet hot-blooded and green-eyed with jealousy. It was a foregone conclusion that she would go off half-cocked someday.” — If you’ve read this more in sorrow than in anger, you know Shakespeare.

That stack of familiar phrases assembled from Rich Lederer’s article looks like a writing handbook for a bad romance novel.

My This Week

Clarification: I’ve been writing for for a few weeks. This is where I’m putting most of my political commentary, which should reduce the PO irritation factor.

Shrink bills to match Congressmen's capacity to read them

Thursday, September 24th, 2009

The health care bill and protests thereto have pushed off the front pages the nationalization of large auto...

The politics of church reform

Sunday, September 20th, 2009

Sister Louise Akers and volunteer religion teacher Carol Egner have been prohibited from teaching in Cincinnati...



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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; 2009 issues are 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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