Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Parvum Opus 391: Near Language Experience

Dulce, utile, et decorum est pro patria scribere

Then and Now, There and Here
Re-reading Agatha Christie, I ran across this Postern of Fate (1973).

If I’d been a nice ordinary child of nowadays I wouldn’t have learned to read so easily when I was young. Children nowadays who are four, or five, or six, don’t seem to be able to read and quite a lot of them don’t seem to be able to read when they get to ten or eleven. I can’t think why it was so easy for all of us. We could all read…. I don’t mean we could all spell very well, but we could read anything we wanted to . I don’t know how we learnt. Asking people, I suppose. Things about posters and Carter’s Little Liver Pills. We used to read all about them in the fields when trains got near London. It was very exciting.

            She was writing about England, of course.
            Postern of Fate is not one of Christie’s best. In 1973 she was 83 years old. Her style became too discursive for a tight mystery, though she hadn’t totally lost her ability to plot. But her observation indicates that most children can learn when they’re expected to, and if they want to, and if vocabulary, for instance, is not purposely dumbed down. Of course reading might be more exciting for someone who’s not drowned in TV all the time.
            More recently, circulating the web is an eighth grade exam from a school in Salina, Kansas, much more difficult than what students face today. The myth-busting web site Snopes does not say it’s not a real exam (Snopes also adds a teacher’s exam from Zanesville, Ohio, in the 1870s) but that, uh…. Well, you read it. Snopes doesn’t argue the authenticity of the exams; my guess is that the Snopes writers are defending their own educations, which were undoubtedly less rigorous than those of the 19th century.
            Once again I refer you to the McGuffey Readers, which my parents might well have used when they attended one-room schools back in the mountains. Compare with today’s elementary school readers. You can find the McGuffey texts online. Here’s an example of a reading lesson from the primer, the book before Book One.

One day Nat and I sat on the high hill by the sea, where the tall lighthouse stands. We could look far out, and could see the ships at sea. As we sat there, we saw a man near by, with some sheep and lambs. The man had a pipe in his mouth. He sat with us, and let the sheep eat the grass. What fun it is to see lambs play! It made us laugh to see them. The man said that once, when the sheep and lambs were out in the snow, an old wolf took one of the lambs, and ran off with it. I think that men should watch their sheep, so that a wolf can not catch them.

The sentences are longer than six words and some of the words are longer than six letters. Today, of course, books would have few rural settings, and no one would be allowed to smoke a pipe. Probably a wolf would not be allowed to steal a lamb either. (Note, by the way, the archaic spacing of “near by” and “can not”, which now are spelled as one word.)

Dave DaBee Still Busy
We (the editorial “we” consisting of me and Fred) had the pleasure of lunching with Dave DaBee last week. Dave is a goldmine of information. Do check out his web page to learn about his trip from near death to his intercontinental talks on beating cancer by using the Internet.
            He also sent a great New York Times article on spelling.

Near-Language Experiences
In an advice column:  “A small child who couldn't have been more than 7 years old had a near-drowning experience at the pool.” Is this like a near-death experience? Why wouldn’t the writer say the child almost drowned? He also had a survival experience, since he’s alive. “Experience” is one of those words like “area” and “field” that are used to increase word count and add a vague sense of importance to plain speaking.
            And somewhere I read about “the estimable Herman Cain”. Mr. Cain is to be esteemed, but the idiomatic expression is either “esteemed” (respected) or “inestimable” (his worth is too high to be evaluated). “Estimable” or “inestimable” has to do with estimation, with rating, rather than esteeming. If the writer was thinking about esteem, he should have written “the esteemed Herman Cain”. You could argue a case for “estimable” but it won’t fly.      
            Perhaps some writers fear using clichés so much that as soon as they recognize a familiar expression, they feel they have to twist it into unfamiliarity to be original. But you have to know what and when to twist.

Grammar Nazis
Did I tell you already about Grammar Nazis, caught on YouTube? Brilliant. Sic semper tyrannis!

Littachur Nazis
Tom Simon told me about this one. The URL says it all: School board removes Sherlock Holmes novel as derogatory to Mormons. The fact is that Mormons were polygamists. Do we have to erase history to be respectful? Other people are polygamists today. So you can’t disapprove, and you can’t even mention anything that anyone might disapprove of.

More than once recently I’ve heard or read “misnomer” used incorrectly. It literally, and obviously, means “wrong name” but people use it to refer to a mistaken idea. I didn’t note specific examples but you get the idea.

Lived Again
Someone on CNN pronounced “short-lived” correctly. I’ve written about this in the past – PO 29 in 2003, to be exact, and I will reproduce my note in its entirety:

"Lived" in "short-lived" or "long-lived" is usually pronounced as the past-tense verb ("he lived") but I think it ought to rhyme with "jived". My reasoning (and there are others who agree) is this: Someone or something that is short-lived has a short life; I think the phrase came from the word "life" and took the same path as wife-wive-wives ~ "I have come to wive it wealthily in Padua" (The Taming of the Shrew). In other words, it comes from the noun, not the verb, like calling a person short-sighted, not short-seen.

The CNN line was: “The Pony Express was short-lived.” The reporter said “lived” to rhyme with “jived”.

Eternal Proofreading Plagues
I listened to much of the book Misquoting Jesus on my recent road trip, which was not so much about theology as about copying manuscripts in the old days. Mistakes were made, either through carelessness, or because the scribe wanted to change text he didn’t agree with. In one case, a scribe was copying a double column of text about the “begats” but read across instead of down, leading to God being the son of somebody or other. I was amused to learn of these verses, Revelation 22:18-19:

18. For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book:

19. And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.

In other words, to hell with sloppy editors, proofreaders, and typesetters.

Publishing/Music Shakedown
I recently discovered that CafePress discontinued its CD printing service, thus the autobiographical CD of Sonny Robertson that I produced isn’t available right now. I will find another producer soon. Sonny, by the way, will be performing in England at the Shakedown Blues event on September 24.