Monday, December 31, 2012

Parvum Opus 396: WOOT

One last Parvum Opus before the year ends. I haven’t written one since July, but I haven’t been totally slack (see the end notes). Today we return to the usual sources of linguistic despair, eyebrow twitching, and smirks: Dave daBee is alert as always and shoots a lot of material my way, most often via Facebook now rather than e-mail. Let’s start with his finds. There are a lot but they were collected over half a year.


*      My wife has the most creative ways of unwittingly abusing the English language. Tonight she (earnestly) referred to "the Israeli peacefire."
Brilliant. Depending on your political slant, there’s more than one way to read that.

*      A cartoon about the Grammar PolicePeople, unless we maintain vigilance, the errorists will win.

*      Found headline: Meet Mars Rover’s MIT alumni team, brain in a dish
Where else would you put it? A pathologist friend of Dave’s said brains go in buckets.

*      Dave linked to a story about Ada Lovelace, Byron’s daughter, of all things and people, who was an early computer genius, called “the enchantress of numbers”. These “ess” female endings are now usually considered offensive, and Dave objected to my use of “programmeress” but I was just riffing off “enchantress”.

*      This is a little outside PO’s scope, but I include it to tip the hat to Dave daBee, who is also E-Patient Dave deBronkart, engaged in a great work to improve medical information access for patients all over the world. Being a tech guy too, he has tracked the rate/instances of web traffic for these terms, or “e-patient memes”:
·   “e-patient”
·   “patient empowerment”
·   “patient engagement”
·   “participatory medicine”
If you run across any of them, you will know Dave is probably lurking. He calls this “state of the meme.” His response to the uptick in instances of these terms and their searches is “Woot!” (I don’t think he means the web site of that name.)


One of my most satisfying discoveries this year was finding out from Bill Roberts what “looking strike” means. Sometime in the 1980s I taught English composition to Army sergeants at Fort Carson, Colorado, where we had a discussion about the new uniforms (BDUs, battle dress uniforms; now ACUs, Army Combat Uniforms) as a set-up for an essay topic (compare and contrast). The old Army uniforms were solid olive drab, as you may recall, and I believe were all cotton. The new ones were camo colors and made of special material, they told me, that couldn’t be seen by night-vision equipment, or something like that. So they were better uniforms for military purposes, although I believe the guys said they were hot. And you were not supposed to starch or press them because that compromised the special properties of the fabric. One soldier said he preferred the old ones because he liked to get his uniforms tailored and have them laundered, starched, and pressed with sharp creases, because he liked “looking strike,” at least that’s what I thought he said. And no, it’s not “looking striking” or anything like that. Recently the phrase came to mind again so I asked about it on Facebook, figuring there had to be some soldiers on my list who’d heard it. But I must have misheard the pronunciation. From “The return of STRAC”, sent to me by Bill Roberts:

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, writing about garrison life in the Strategic Army Corps (STRAC) in the early 1960s, said the acronym became Army slang for a well-organized, well turned-out soldier, but that style ended up overrunning substance.

Thanks, Bill. That’s one more neural pathway smoothed out.


Another linguistic puzzle was the short-lived* Ebonics fad. In Anne Coulter’s book Mugged (p. 9), she writes:

Even what is risibly called Ebonics—black dialect—can be traced back to the British highlanders, who used such words and phrases as “I be,” “You be,” “ax” (ask), “acrost” (across), “do” (door), “dat” (that). As [Thomas] Sowell says, “No such words came from Africa.”

I expect black English dialect is a mix of influences, but here she and Sowell are really talking about pronunciation and grammar, not words as such. However, the “I be” etc. formulation is notably preserved in a poem by English poet George Wither (1588–1667):

  If she be not so to me

    What care I how kind she be?

*Remember, it’s a long “i” in “lived”.


A little history on the origins of the emoticon; prototypes were invented for actual type as far back as the 19th century, but Scott Fahlman in 1982 invented emoticons as we know them. And I proposed, on Facebook, a thumbs-down icon since Facebook refuses to provide one:

Doing a study  what works as a thumbs-down sign:






Karen Hickerson suggested  ¿"", but using the upside-down Spanish question mark is too much of a hassle unless you have a Spanish keyboard, or create a macro to access that symbol.

Chris Stephens offered his rendition of a finger up — n[]nn —  but that wouldn’t suit my conversations. I can induce enough hostility with plain speech.


I put this phrase in my notes with no elaboration, but I’m pretty sure that I meant the special grammar used to talk to cats (OK, and dogs too). If I say “Was it a good kitty?” (or bad kitty), I am not using the past tense. It’s the subjunctive. And when I say “Was him a good kitty?”, “him” is a special form of the nominative, or subjective case, used with the kitty subjunctive.


My favorite site for reading about people dumber and angrier than me is Not Always Right (along with its companion site Not Always Working), as in, the customer is not; true stories of unsatisfactory commercial encounters. One story began, “We are a small hotel in an even smaller town.” Perhaps some physicist could explain this to me.


You’ve heard, and maybe read, “Cast thy bread upon the waters, for after many days you will find it again.” That’s the King James Bible version. The Geneva Bible translates this as “Lay thy bread upon wet faces.” If I were you I wouldn’t spend too much time meditating upon this scripture from the Geneva Bible.


This and that from here and there:

*      Miles makes plans for he and Lou. (TV menu)
            Obvious point: You wouldn’t say “Miles makes plans for he.”

*      I’m a sophomore English teacher.  As a part of the curriculum, all sophomores must complete one MLA style research paper in their second semester. We’ve just gone through all the basics and we were finally able to begin writing. Please note that this is my “Pre-AP” class, which is the highest level of sophomore English.
            Student:  Do we have to use well grammar?
            Obvious point: Um, as opposed to ill grammar?

*      My boyfriend, a friend of his, and myself were out to eat….
            Obvious point: You wouldn’t say “Myself was out to eat.”


Instead of resolutions I’m making a to-do list, which includes a new music CD by bluesman Sonny Robertson, a book of short stories by Ray Vincent, whose book of poetry (see below) I published earlier, and a few other projects that may or may not be completed this year. I’ll be in touch.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Parvum Opus 395: Plundering the Depths

Dulce, utile, et decorum est pro patria scribere


It’s been months since I wrote a Parvum Opus, partly because I’ve been especially busy, with more students than usual, and I also got five books into print. Although today is a holiday and I’ve taken the day off from energy drinks, I was prodded into writing another PO today, on the Fourth of July, by two things.

One, Dave DaBee sent me a New York Times article about a young man’s journey away from semicolons and back again. I have my own semicolon story. On my first editing job, as assistant editor at the University of Tulsa publications office, my boss, the editor, said semicolons essentially don’t exist. Her theory was that we do not use semicolons when we speak. But I thought then as now that you might as well say periods and colons don’t exist, nor hyphens nor en dashes and em dashes. I know full well that I feel a difference between a comma and a semicolon when I speak. That woman also didn’t like “over” with numbers, as in “It’s over 100 degrees today” or “It costs over $500”; she said “over” didn’t make sense. But this common idiomatic preposition meaning “more than” is not confusing to anyone.

Later I had another editor who objected to sentences starting with “There is / are ...”. For example, I had to change sentences such as “There are objections to semicolons” to “Objections to semicolons exist”.

Another editor objected to “per” and insisted on the English “a”, as in “Corn is $1 a dozen today”.

To be fair, they were good editors and I learned from all of them. I just didn’t always agree with them. But editors have their quirks, and writers and proofreaders and assistant editors have to accommodate them.

The second PO trigger is that since CreateSpace, the online publishing service I’m using for my books, introduced European distribution, I have actually sold a copy of Parvum Opus Volume I in Europe; don’t know where or to whom; could it be someone on this mailing list? Anyway, thanx and a tip of the Revolutionary tricorne.

If for no other reason, I shouldn’t have neglected PO for so long because I received more good contributions from Mike Sykes, and here they are, in blue.

·         Why does télécharger mean download? Of course to the English ear it sounds like you’re recharging something.

True. But the answer to your question is that, in French, charger is the word for 'load'.

·         Every once in a while there’s a flap about changing English spelling to a phonetic system. But whose English pronunciation are you going to attempt to reproduce? The Queen of England or Bostonian John Kennedy? A Southern belle or an Irishman?

Aye, there's the rub. What makes the problem even worse is that pronunciation also varies over time. I believe someone has shown that aforesaid queen's pronunciation has changed since she came to the throne. Not to mention the Great Vowel Shift.
            I once attended a performance of Julius Caesar presented as it would have been in the Bard's day, and it was quite difficult to follow.
An extra thanks to Mike for mentioning the Great Vowel Shift.
·         Re his discussion of Starbucks’ names for coffee sizes, read this story from Not Always Right and get back to me: How to Show-Up a Show-Off. Quote: “She probably looked at you, assumed you were a man, and was therefore completely confused by your non-fat non-sugar orange mocha chip frappuccino order. Real men drink real coffee.” Real men drink it straight. OK, I’m willing to concede that real men sometimes like sweet drinks.
I'm not.


We should start collecting the crazy autocorrect spellings that pop up on not so smart phones. This story is from, by Randy Cassingham.

DAMN YOU, AUTOCORRECT! A student at a technical college sent a text message: "Gunna be at west hall today." West Hall is a combination middle and high school in Gainesville, Georgia. There were two problems with the message: he sent it to the wrong number, and his phone auto-corrected the spelling of the first word — to "gunman". The alarmed recipient called police, who advised the school to go into lockdown to deal with the apparent threat. Once the message was tracked down to the sender and it became apparent that it was all a mistake, the lockdown was lifted. (RC/Gainesville Times) ... And to anyone who can type on a phone without ever making a mistake, we say this: You're a better man than I am, Gunman Din.

What would have happened if the student had used the typical spelling “gonna”? On my Android, I got “gunman” for gunna, though “gunna” was listed as a choice, but got “gonna” for gonna.

An ad for heating and air conditioning systems:

            An HVAC system comforts rooms…

No, it doesn’t. You can comfort people but you make rooms comfortable. I don’t know if the ad writer just wanted to abbreviate the sentence and thought all similar words are equivalents, or if he consciously wanted to get potential customers into a thumb-sucking mood.


Heard on the radio: “Plundered new depths of cynicism” instead of “plumbed new depths of cynicism”. “Plumb” comes from a root meaning “lead”, like the lead weight you use on a plumb bob, a hanging weight for determining verticality. We use plumb weights on fishing line too, to take the hook down. Maybe that’s why the speaker or writer confused it with plunder, which perhaps he interpreted as digging down into something for treasure, in addition to the visual similarity of the words. However, a few more seconds of thought might have suggested that cynicism is not a treasure trove from which to steal gems.


I came across the word “chav” when I was watching the series “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding”, not to be confused with “My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding”, wherein “chav” does not pertain. You can find amusing definitions for “chav” in UrbanDictionary, all of the definitions written in a supercilious tone, not by chavs themselves, who perhaps are illiterate. In the course of looking up this word, I ran across this in Wikipedia:

One former Police Officer who worked at the City of London Police as a Special Constable in 2004 and later another Force as a paid full time officer in the United Kingdom [14] published a book in 2010 entitled 'Stab Proof Scarecrows' that stated Chav was an abbreviation for 'Council Housed and Violent',[15] however this is a backronym.

So, backronym, something like a back formation.

The Urban Dictionary definitions of chav seemed unnecessarily dehumanizing of these kids, until I remember that people can be dehumanized and decivilized; at some point, they choose to become so. We think people must choose the highest when they see it, but sometimes they don’t. This is why we need missionaries.


The latest book I published is a new edition of poems by my late friend, Ray Vincent. I’d published my small collection of his work 20 years ago, 10 years after he died, and this spring suddenly decided to republish them in a better edition. I expanded my intro, and gathered a few memories of Ray from three of his friends. In the course of tracking down people, I got in touch with Ray’s sister, who was publishing her larger collection of Ray’s poems for the first time, by chance at exactly the same time I was working on my book. We met in Akron a few weeks ago. Some of the poems appear in both books but most do not. My book is The Prisoner of Magic City: A Book of Pottery. Karen Vincent’s book isWhat Made Him Sing: Poetry 1964-1980. (Note that the typo on the Amazon page, “Poerty”, was not her mistake. But “Pottery” on my cover is intentional.) Both books are available on Amazon; mine is also at CreateSpace. What Made Him Sing also has its own web page.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Parvum Opus 394: Toujours Arriere

As you know, the French Language Academy tries to keep the French language under control, and somewhat stable. They want to avoid importing too many words from other languages (like “le jazz”). When entirely new terms enter the world, such as technical words, translation cannot always be direct. Probably most languages simply imported and adapted the terms from their home of origin, but the French like to frenchify them if possible.
            There are numerous French/English computer dictionaries online, but the flash card site lets you click through and make a little game of looking at the words.

·         They did borrow surf directly: surfer (the infinitive verb). To imitate the English history of this computer term, you’d have to know the French word for the ocean surf, then know or invent a verb for riding the waves on a board, then use that verb as a computer term. Maybe “surfing” was already been entrenched in the French language but it’s definitely Surfin’ USA.
·          I like navigateur (Web surfer) and it reminds me of the old Navigator search engine, which I liked for its neat little graphic.
·         Why does télécharger mean download? Of course to the English ear it sounds like you’re recharging something.
·         A scroll bar is une barre de defilement, which I can’t help reading as something like a chastity belt. I invented a fake translation for the family motto of the Douglas branch of my ancestry: Jamais arriere (Never behind), which I “translated” as “I may be an ass” because it applied more accurately to one or more of my relatives. (OK, and maybe me too.) Why this Scottish clan has a French motto I don’t know.

Improbable Research reported on a paper published by Hubert Devonish in Jamaican patois (and in English). Example paragraph:

“In plentii konchrii, di piipl-dem no taakin di seem langgwij an no fiil se dem iz seem neeshan. So, dem wa in chaaj a di setop in di konchrii doz chrai mek di piipl-dem get fiilinz fo neeshan.”

“In many countries, the populations do not speak the same language and, therefore, do not feel they belong in the same nation. In these circumstances, those who run the state apparatus often try to create a shared national consciousness.”

            As you see, the patois spelling indicates pronunciation (the grammar is different from standard English also).
            While we can understand it, this sample shows why standardized English spelling is important. Every once in a while there’s a flap about changing English spelling to a phonetic system. But whose English pronunciation are you going to attempt to reproduce? The Queen of England or Bostonian John Kennedy? A Southern belle or an Irishman?

Of course I care about correct pronunciation, but the rules don’t apply to people’s names, as Miss Manners knows:

Dear Miss Manners,
            I am a multilingual person who has lived in four continents, only recently back in the United States. In the U.S., I frequently meet first-generation Americans who mispronounce their own names.
            As someone who can speak the relevant languages and thus know how to say the names properly, do I refer to these persons as their names should be said? Or do I defer to the majority, and distort the names as they do?
            Does etiquette explain what is helpful and what is obnoxious in this instance?

            My answer, which agrees with Miss Manners’:  A name is personal. Pronounce it (and spell it) as you wish. People in other countries will pronounce English names as they wish, or as they can.

Here’s an old column from Dave Barry’s “Ask Mr. Language Person” that I don’t think I’ve linked yet.
                Re his discussion of Starbucks’ names for coffee sizes, read this story from Not Always Right and get back to me: How to Show-Up a Show-Off. Quote:

“She probably looked at you, assumed you were a man, and was therefore completely confused by your non-fat non-sugar orange mocha chip frappuccino order. Real men drink real coffee.”

            OK, I’m willing to concede that real men sometimes like sweet drinks, but wouldn’t it be a good idea for Starbucks to rename some of its drinks in the interest of preserving their dignity? Possible male drink:  non-fat could be stripped (sexy); non-sugar could be hard (as in hard cider, though it’s not alcoholic); orange could be sinensis (scientific); mocha chip could be cacao stone (scientific + tough); frappuccino could be whip (tough like Zorro). So:

            Give me a stripped, hard, sinensis, cacao stone whip.

Definitely more manly. Although nothing is more manly than a cuppa Joe. I’d like to see a coffee shop that just sells coffee. For a buck.
            Oh, and the sizes. As you know, a Starbucks small is Tall (uh-huh), medium is Grande (hmph), large is Venti (huh?). They have their reasons, but after years and years of going to Starbucks I still have to stop and think, just like I have to stop and think about the multiplication tables above the 6-times.

Heard in a commercial for stockings or something:  “They always make your legs look flattering.”
                My legs haven’t flattered me or even appeared to do so lately. Of course I don’t flatter them much either.
            Surely any ad has a script and a bit of lead time even if it’s a live production. Wouldn’t anyone write, or automatically say, “They always make your legs look good” or long or whatever? Or, “They always flatter your legs.” I’m hoping this is just a brief moment of synapse failure. Otherwise it’s a level of illiteracy too low to countenance in someone who makes a living writing or reading ads.

I see this kind of construction fairly often:

            Look at the above comments.

I can’t say absolutely that it is incorrect, but it definitely sounds wrong. gives various usages for “above” preposition, adverb but not adjective. If you say “Look at the comments above” is it an adjective, which ordinarily precedes the noun in English, or an adverb modifying “look”? It certainly is not a preposition in this case.
            It could be an elliptical adjective (“Look at the comments that are above”), but I’m voting for adverb, similar to “Look at the comments over there”.
            “Look at the comments above” sounds right. Same goes for “below”. Does anybody ever say or write, “Look at the below comments”?

·         In A Fisherman's Language is an autobiography by Captain James Arruda Henry, who didn’t learn to read until he was in his 90s. (Kindle only.)

·         Life Is So Good by George Dawson is another book by a man who didn’t learn to read till he was almost 100. (Kindle and print.)

I’ve been working all winter at putting my Kindle books (and other) into paperback format. So far:       

The Gritty Bits is a collection of my political commentary as the Cincinnati Independent Enquirer. A bit indigestible but cleansing. Articles.

The Wish Book is fantasy-suspense-romance featuring the old Sears Roebuck catalogues. Novella.

The Man from Scratch is a medical sci-fi crime thriller. Novel.

Parvum Opus I is a collection of the first year of Parvum Opus columns. Articles.

Audio Book on Amazon
When Sonny Gets Blue is the first volume of bluesman Sonny Robertson’s autobiography. Audio book.