Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Parvum Opus 355: Bebeing English

Dulce, utile, et decorum est pro patria scribere



You knew Ogden Nash! Can I touch you?

Anne DeBronkart wrote about the pelican limerick*:

Oh my God — for well over a half century I've attributed that gem to Ogden Nash, believing it was one of many observations about animals and a companion piece to Nash's "The Turtle":

"The turtle lives twixt plated decks

Which practically conceal its sex.

I think it clever of the turtle

In such a fix, to be so fertile."

Ogden Nash was a friend and contemporary of my father's, both growing up (as I did, sort of) in Rye, N.Y. He was the first (and only) poet I ever met, and probably had a greater influence on my sense of humor that I might choose to acknowledge. I apologize to Mr. Merritt, and applaud his ability to write in the style of Ogden Nash! —

It wasn't exactly a best-buddy sort of thing between us he and my father occasionally got schnockered** together at "The Club" or at our house (less often my stepmother disapproved of drinking unless she was invited...) and we had practically everything he ever published, but in spite of the fact that I thought he was the funniest man alive and adored him, it was mostly from afar.

I am so excited to learn that Anne DaBee actually met the great Ogden Nash. His were some of the bits of humorous verse I memorized as a young lass, including the turtle quatrain. Anne continued:

Strangely enough, my interest in (and fondness for) humorists didn't serve me well in school, where I was strongly encouraged to read other authors' work, and was firmly told more than once that the pun was the lowest form of humor. I still believe that a GOOD pun requires better than average intelligence to both create and understand, but I guess I'm still in the minority. Oh well as one verbally-challenged politician said in a campaign speech many years ago, "Things will remain the same until they change." That's right up there with another one's "Difficult decisions are never easy to make." Both were elected to office...

I agree about good puns. Actually, any sort of humor in literature is seldom given the same respect as drama, romance, or tragedy, though it may cover the same subjects, just as intelligently or more so. Even humorous mystery novelists are less respected than the others, as I once heard Joan Hess complain. (I met Hess at a writer’s conference and later walked her through an AOL chat room I’d set up for Sisters in Crime, its first online presence, I believe.)

When I was in school I loved humor writers too, but they were seldom in the syllabus. I often hid a library book behind my textbook in some classes, and the humorists were dangerous because I’d be snickering in history class or something and trying to hide it, and besides that, I really didn’t know any other kids with the same sense of literary humor. Dorkorama. Nerdinator. So Nash, Don Marquis, S. J. Perelman, and other funny guys (along with Nancy Drew) got me through my teens, God rest them. (Rich Lederer wasn’t extant as a writer till later in my life.)

* I first typed “limberick” which ought to be a word. Limericks do limber you up.

** I first heard “schnockered” from a college BF who got drunk a lot.

As for knowing famous poets, here’s Robert Browning’s comment:


Ah, did you once see Shelley plain,
And did he stop and speak to you,
And did you speak to him again?
How strange it seems and new!

But you were living before that,
And also you are living after;
And the memory I started at—
My starting moves your laughter!

I crossed a moor with a name of its own
And a certain use in the world, no doubt,
Yet a hand's-breadth of it shines alone
'Mid the blank miles round about.

For there I picked upon the heather
And there I put inside my breast
A moulted feather, an eagle-feather!
Well, I forget the rest.

“Mr. Fix It”

A rare instance of someone who understands the misuse of quotation marks. “Mr. Fix It” drives a kluged-up truck. To fully appreciate this bit of punctuation, look at the picture of the truck then think of MR. FIX IT without quotation marks. Then try these:

“Mr.” Fix It (handyman in drag?)

Mr. “Fix” it (like our recent computer repairman)

Mr. Fix “It” (something will get fixed but maybe not what you planned)

Overheard, Overheard in New York, New York

Cashier with cookbook: It's got a table of continents so you can see what's in it!
Department Store, 225th St

Coworker: UPS didn't have the tracking information at first, but then they found it... Good thing, because I was about to blow a casket.

Fordham University

Bebeing English

From former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey (does he have a first name?):

“Too often in recent years the call for a rational debate on mass migration has degenerated into name-calling and charges of racism,” Carey bemoaned in his newspaper op-ed.

“Bemoaned” is always a transitive verb, as far as I know. Carey can bemoan name-calling, name-calling being the object of the transitive verb. Or he can just moan.

Prefixes that changed meaning instead of grammatic tense were always attached to the word they modified.” So says the everything2.com web site, which looks interesting and peculiar, if you have time for everything2. (I haven’t had time for everything1 or even everything yet.) In this case, however, “be” does not change the meaning of “moan” or the tense, but does change it from intransitive to transitive, which is not tense, that is, not about time.

In Wikipedia, the prefix “be” is explained to indicate:

equipped with, covered with, beset with (pejorative or facetious)

EXAMPLES: bedeviled, becalm, bedazzle, bewitch

But the Wiki entry confusingly defines adjectives while mixing verbs and adjectives as examples. We don’t use devil as a verb anymore, except with boiled eggs, but to bedevil is familiar as a verb as bedeviled is as an adjective. We don’t use witch much as a verb either. Maybe deviling and witching are less in our consciousness. But we still know the feeling, thus bedevil and bewitch. In becalm and bedazzle, “be” seems to be an intensifier. In none of these four examples does the meaning seem to be changed pejoratively or facetiously. You can’t say bedevil and bewitch are pejorative compared to their root words. Bewitching is even complimentary.

Is it still possible to prefix “be” to a word where it hasn’t been done before? How about … weed. I am going to weed the garden. If I said “I beweeded” the garden”, would it mean I really cleaned out the weeds, or I added weeds? “The garden was beweeded.” Sounds weedy to me. But the verb “weed” is a little dicey anyway. If I seed the garden, I plant seeds. If I weed the garden, I remove weeds. Beseeded, beweeded, let’s call the whole thing off. BUT … The garden is beseeded with morning glories. The garden is beweeded with bindweed.


Anent the imperfection of crossword puzzle magazines, this letter from a puzzled reader appeared in the March 2010 Dell Official Variety Puzzles:

Anacrostics are among the features that I like best, yet P’s definition – “Disconcerted” for THREW – in number 7 from March 2009 is beyond reason.”

Editor’s reply: “If a sports upset disconcerted you, it would have thrown you too, right?”

The guy who wrote the letter is probably slapping his head over this one, but these tricky definitions are part of the game. They’re also the reason you can’t rely on a thesaurus for interesting variations in your vocabulary. But this is not the same as my complaint about defining “neutrality” as “peace” which is a philosophical or political assumption and not a definition.


Last week I meant that John McCarthy recommended The Anthologist (not George).

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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. 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 2010. 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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