Friday, July 30, 2010

Parvum Opus 374: Death and Syntaxes

Dulce, utile, et decorum est pro patria scribere



From Sharyn McCrumb’s newsletter:

One term in Gaelic for deer is: "the cattle of the elves," and I am charmed by that.

Me too. Also, McCrumb was happy to report that she made it into the OED:

Oxford English Dictionary 3, s.v.
"Life": A full, interesting, and productive existence; a worthwhile, meaningful, or fulfilling lifestyle. Usu. in contexts implying a lack of this. … 1988 S. MCCRUMB Bimbos of Death Sun v. 59 What's the matter with you, pinhead? Don't you have a life?

I recommend Bimbos of the Death Sun, by the way. Don’t know why it hasn’t been made into a movie yet.


Said Herb Hickman:

I think possibly Shakespeare morality could be based on suckupage. He would not have savaged Richard III so, had that not been the politically correct thang in his day.

Not so much suckupage as trying to avoid being hung, drawn, and quartered for offending the queen or being obviously Catholic.

Moreover, the original of that other quote was from Mad Magazine in the fifties,

"Breathes there a man with metabolism so low, he has not envied Dimaggio?"

Dimaggio was not only a great ball player, he was married to Marilyn Monroe for a while.

Bill Roberts added regarding the “Breathes there a man” series:

Similar items abound. Unfortunately, many depend upon a base of knowledge that is becoming far less common. My favorite is based on, “Of all sad words of tongue or pen,/ The saddest are, ‘It might have been.’ ”

The version I prefer is,

“Of all sad words of tongue or pen,

“The saddest are,

“For external use only. Cannot be made non-poisonous.”

This leaves the average American of the 21st century wondering what the h*** I’m talking about.

What he’s talking about is the poem “Maud Muller” by John Greenleaf Whittier. And maybe rubbing alcohol.


Anne deBronkart wrote about the new –age suffix:

You have, once again, struck a nerve here. You remind me of my middle school-media-center days, when I was fortunate enough to know some delightful youngsters who loved playing with words. Three or four of them were so smitten by the game that they'd come to me before home room with things they'd thought up overnight, like negative words that have no positive form. Have you ever known anyone who was [in]ept, [dis]gruntled, [non]plussed, [un]couth... These same kids enjoyed switching initial consonants between adjacent words (Som Tawyer and Camuel Slemens are okay, but don't try it with Huckleberry Finn), or even initial paragraphs (Hail the Kinquering Congs).

And I have a wonderful granddaughter who stocks her car with snackage before she starts her 2-hr. trip back to college (Shenandoah, in Winchester VA).

I’ve heard “snackage”, maybe from my nephew, and expect some marketer to come up with a new product by that name.


Dave deBronkart referred me to a blog about the word “dilemma” being spelled, and presumably pronounced, “dilemna” (dilemNa). That spelling does not turn up in, usually a pretty good source with a decent etymology. If you do a Google search, you’ll find some uses of “dilemna” and discussion of the spelling , but I’ve never heard or read that form. The blogger thinks it may be a regional spelling, which is plausible. I would not use it. Any OED help out there?


Remember Dave’s book, Laugh, Sing, and Eat Like a Pig: Fred wondered if the last comma in that series affects the meaning, that is, does the comma make it mean, or not mean, laugh like a pig, sing like a pig, and eat like a pig. In this case, I happen to know that Dave sings in barbershop quartets so he doesn’t sing like a pig, and doesn’t laugh like a pig. Eating like a pig remains. Sometimes the modifying phrase can be repeated for emphasis or for clarification. Check out these lyrics by Bob Dylan (“Just Like a Woman”:

She takes just like a woman, yes she does

She makes love just like a woman, yes she does

And she aches just like a woman

But she breaks just like a little girl.

“She takes, makes love, and aches just like a woman.” In this case the modifier applies to all three elements of the series. But the comma or lack of it after the next-to-last series item has no grammatical effect either way.

Bad Bulwer-Lytton

Jan Gregg-Kelm referred me to the 2010 Bulwer-Lytton contest, the bad writing contest inspired by “It was a dark and stormy night”, which I don’t think is such a bad sentence (after all, some nights are darker than others), but I never read any further in Bulwer-Lytton; maybe he gets worse. Anyway, recent B-W winners seem to depend too much on strained and absurd metaphors and awkward, rambling sentence structure, rather than something the average, sincere, bad writer would produce. However, I do like this year’s detective fiction winner:

She walked into my office wearing a body that would make a man write bad checks, but in this paperless age you would first have to obtain her ABA Routing Transit Number and Account Number and then disable your own Overdraft Protection in order to do so.

If it ended at the first comma, it would work.

Garrison Keillor is deft and adept at detective pulpage in his Guy Noir character, as in this example which eerily echoes (or more likely is echoed by) the Bulwer-Lytton winner:

She was tall and dark and so beautiful you wanted to just give her all your money right way and skip the preliminaries.

Bad Syntax = Bad Manners

From Judith Martin’s Miss Manners etiquette column:

Dear Miss Manners:

My girlfriend of many years had her best friend of many years' husband's mother die.

This sentence is bad in so many ways. You might say colloquially, “My friend had her car break down on her” and we would know she did not cause the breakdown, though most often to have something done means to cause it to be done for you. I can’t think of any occasion for saying anyone had anyone die, except for people who hire contract killers. Don’t say it and don’t do it.

This writer composed a complicated and idiotic sentence out of laziness. A slight improvement would be:

The mother of the husband of the best friend for many years of my long-time girlfriend died.

And even that’s a bad sentence. Better to break it up into short sentences, and to omit the irrelevant bit about the length of friendships, or even about the relationships. Is it any surprise that the question of etiquette involved wearing flip-flops to the funeral?

My Mistake

Bruce asked:

Mixing the singular with the plural is common now. Has the rule changed?
Note this recent line in PO.

“When we were fighting the Indians, we got Indian giver, meaning SOMEONE
who takes back what THEY'VE given.”

I think it was probably politically correct in the early years of the
feminist movement. "They" is less offensive than the grammatically correct
"he" and less cumbersome than "she or he."

No, the rule hasn’t changed. I was just careless. It’s pretty common to see the mixing of singular and plural that way because the PC phrasing is so often strained: “someone who takes back what he or she has given” is just clumsy; “people who take back what they’ve given” isn’t accurate in referring to the singular “Indian giver”.


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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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