Saturday, October 3, 2009

Parvum Opus 341 ~ Thematic Elements

Dulce, utile, et decorum est pro patria scribere.



William Safire died on Sunday, September 27. He wrote for The New York Times for many years on politics and language. I’ve referred to his work from time to time, and just before he died I landed on a recent column called “Phantonym” which was his coinage for a word that appears to mean something other than it actually does, thus tripping up the innocent.

A common example is the confusion of uninterested with disinterested. Logically they could mean the same thing, but historically they don’t, and we need both meanings. Uninterested = not caring, having no curiosity or desire for something: “She is uninterested in reading that book.” Disinterested = impartial, gaining no personal benefit: “The judge is invested in the plaintiff company therefore he must recuse himself because he is not a disinterested party in the case.”

In 2005 Safire wrote a dozen rules for reading a political column, three of the main points being:

· Beware when the writer uses a quote from the opposite political side to make a case.

· Ignore insider jargon.

· Consider the source, and whenever you see the word “respected” in front of a name, narrow your eyes.

These are legitimate rhetorical devices, but they are devices and as such should not distract you from the facts or the logic. From the truth, in other words.

Sorry to see Safire depart the scene.

The Not So Dark Ages

Maeve Maddox explains the Dark Ages in Daily Writing Tips: First, we mustn’t confuse the Middle Ages with the period from about the fifth through tenth centuries, between the breakdown of the Roman Empire and the establishment of more stable European governments. Also, it’s a mistake to think that all learning and civilization were “dark” for centuries. A lot was going on then. Maddox says,

Historians don’t use the term “Dark Ages” anymore. It was a term invented by the Italian poet Petrarch in the 1330s to convey his feeling that the culture of ancient Greece and Rome had been superior to everything that succeeded it.

If historians aren’t using the term, we shouldn’t either, even if we’re not going to study history.

Flim Flam

John McC wants to know why flammable and inflammable mean the same thing. I found a little bit of useless history about the words online — words introduced into the language, words declining in use — but the important thing is that they both mean able to burst into flame. Since no one is likely to mistake the meaning of flammable, that’s what you usually see painted on the sides of containers carrying hazardous materials. Inflammable could be confused with non-flammable, which no one uses. It’s a safety issue.

The prefixes non and in can both mean “not” (though they can also mean nine and inside or into, respectively), so they’ve been used interchangeably at. But sometimes we end up with one or the other possible form, or in this case both, just because.

In other forms of the word, we find that an inflammation is not a fire but “the complex biological response of vascular tissues to harmful stimuli”. Inflammatory words may incite to riot or at least to more inflammatory words. It seems that in no other formation does inflam- suggest “not firey” as inflammable seems to.

If flamenco dancing reminds us of flame

Would inflamenco dancing be tepid and tame?

Crimes by Any Other Name

The notorious Roman Polanski is back after fleeing 30 years ago to avoid major jail time for raping a 13-year-old girl. Some Hollywood types don’t think what he did was so bad. (You can look up the details for yourself). Harvey Weinstein referred to the “so-called” crime. It is not a “so-called crime”*, it was and is an actual crime. Weinstein apparently doesn’t want it to be a crime. Whoopi Goldberg said “it wasn’t ‘rape’ rape”, apparently because she doesn’t recognize statutory rape and/or Polanski’s variant on the physical crime.

Elsewhere on the legal front, Brian David Mitchell, the kidnapper of Elizabeth Smart, is the object of legal discussion about his “competency” to stand trial or be responsible for his actions. I never understood the rationale behind this defensive ploy. Mitchell was competent enough (1) to get what he wanted and (2) to try to evade capture. In a sense you could say that any violent, sadistic criminal is mentally unwell, but then what?

*When you add quotation marks to “so-called” does it mean “so-called so-called”?

Let’s Go to the Movies Safely

Movie ratings are getting more confusing. I don’t mean the PG, PG-13, R, but the growing list of qualifiers:

scary images


some violence


strong graphic violence

bloody violence


adult language

profanity (but not blasphemy)

brief drug use

drug use



brief sexual content (!)


mild sensuality


sexual assault

mature themes (losing a job?)

brief disturbing images

But the one that puzzles me is for a PG movie (The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry) and a PG-13 movie (The Time Traveler’s Wife): “thematic elements”. I haven’t seen either one but they both seem to have carried over in theaters longer than some other movies, so they’re popular. If any of you have seen either movie, please share with us what “thematic elements” in them require cautions. Sperry seems to have a religious theme, specifically Christian, so perhaps that’s what the reviewer is warning potential viewers about. Time Traveler is sci fi so any religious stuff could be ascribed to fantasy.

The Stream of Literary Consciousness

I ran across a quotation from Samuel Johnson in Word Watch (Stephen Cox, Liberty Magazine, October 2009, pp. 10-11), which I recognized as the original of a paraphrase I remembered reading in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women:

Here’s Johnson on Lord Chesterfield’s too little-too late patronage (1755):

Is not a patron, my lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and, when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help? The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labours, had it been early, had been kind; but it has been delayed till I am indifferent, and cannot enjoy it: till I am solitary, and cannot impart it; till I am known, and do not want it.

Here’s Alcott, through the character of Jo March, on being a writing spinster (1868):

An old maid — that’s what I’m to be. A literary spinster, with a pen for a spouse, a family of stories for children and twenty years hence a morsel of fame, perhaps; when, like poor Johnson, I’m old and can’t enjoy it — solitary, and can’t share it, independent, and don’t need it.

This kind of literary borrowing is not plagiarism because Alcott the writer would assume her readers would be familiar with her own literary heroes, and would appreciate the allusion. And of course she mentioned his name. (By the way, some early feminist literary theorists thought that this style of sentence, the periodic sentence, might be an attribute of male writing, whereas a “female sentence” would just flow on. I don’t think so, even though Jo was a tomboy.)

Practically my only real contribution to scholarly publication was recognizing something that Jane Austen borrowed from Shakespeare when she described a character as “half mulatto, chilly and tender”. But it doesn’t mean what you might think, that the mulatto girl from the tropics was suffering in England’s climate. I happened to be taking a Shakespeare class that year and remembered this from All’s Well That Ends Well:

I am for the house with the narrow gate, which I take to be too little for pomp to enter. Some that humble themselves may; but the many will be too chill and tender, and they’ll be for the flow’ry way that leads to the broad gate and the great fire.

Thus a chill and tender character is one that treads the primrose path to hell. Austen would have assumed her readers knew Shakespeare.

My Week in

Moore explains where dictatorships come from

Friday, October 2nd, 2009

A review of Michael Moore's new movie Capitalism: A Love Story (rated R for strong language) by New York Times...

Health care reform is about corruption and control

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009

Although this aspect of the health care proposal is attached to Senator Max Baucus's name, it won't float without...

Mr. America is off to Denmark with Oprah

Monday, September 28th, 2009

Here he comes, Mr. America…! After winning the coveted Mr. America crown, the charming Barack Obama, who...

Divert health care resources

Sunday, September 27th, 2009

A TV pundit laments the lives lost annually because people couldn't get adequate medical care on time. These would...



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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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