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Are you smarter than a fourth-grader?

Posted by Jan Freeman September 30, 2008 03:18 PM

Today's "Curtis" has me utterly baffled. Why is it a good thing Coach Otlowski wasn't hired to teach English, aside from his general abusiveness? The only thing nonstandard in his speech is "chubbery," which seems like a reasonable enough coinage as a noun for collective chubbiness -- and more appropriate than "flab" for a bunch of kids.

Am I missing something?

UPDATE 10/5: Well, on Wednesday, "Curtis" made another stab at some bad English, when Coach said "It's them video games and textin' and iPods what's dunnit!"

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage -- and if you're reading this you want to own MWDEU -- says of demonstrative them:

It has been in use for about four centuries, and has still not reached respectability. In writing, then, you can expect to find it in the same places you would find words of similar status: In reported speech, in fictitious speech (especially of little-educated characters), and, especially in the 20th century, in the familiar usage of educated people when they are being humorous.

And of what used as a relative pronoun ("what's dunnit"):

As a relative pronoun, what is quite old, apparently having been introduced into Old English on analogy with some uses of quod in Latin. . . . Our present evidence shows that relative what survives in the United States primarily in Midland and Southern speech areas and is used chiefly by the little educated. It was once in frequent use by dialect humorists.

As for dunnit, it's what is often called "eye dialect" -- it looks nonstandard, but the pronunciation it represents is the one we all use. It wouldn't sound odd to Curtis and his classmates.

The Ridger's suggestion -- that Curtis is glad this bully isn't teaching English, a class where he's vulnerable -- strikes me as too subtle, especially given the (lack of) development of the theme since Tuesday. But we'll see where it goes.

So long, summer

Posted by Jan Freeman September 22, 2008 07:39 PM

Another deadline missed: As of 11:44 this morning, it's officially autumn. I meant to squeeze in a few more summer blog items, but unlike Arlo, I''m too late; my summer reading roundup, part 2, will now be a fall book report.

Still, the inexorable calendar is no reason not to share some of the Words I Noticed on My Summer Vacation.

No Bicycles No Walkers: When I saw this sign above a state highway in Ohio, warning of a construction zone ahead, the picture that popped up for me was a line of elderly shoppers forced to push their walkers around the block on a detour. A blink later, I realized it meant "no pedestrians." I was led astray, I suppose, by the mismatch of terms: If the sign read "No Bicyclists No Walkers" it would have been clear it meant people, not mechanical devices. And besides, who ever heard of a bureaucrat choosing a normal word like "walkers" when he could have used "pedestrians" or "foot traffic"? That's what I call misleading.

Bunglehouse Blue: Every paint maker's fandeck includes some bizarre color names, but even in a world of Leisure Time, Taupe Trivia, and Eccentricity, Sherwin-Williams's Bunglehouse Blue leaped out at me. Choosing a paint is tough enough -- why tempt fate with something labeled a "bungle"?

But it turns out bunglehouse has a charming history: It comes from the Roycroft settlement in East Aurora, N.Y., a late-19th-century hotbed of Arts & Crafts design. The original bunglehouse, a converted chicken coop/blacksmith shop, now a museum, served as a studio for the artist Alexis Fournier. According to American Bungalow magazine, "Fournier named this idyllic but somewhat haphazard little building the 'bungle-house,' because, he said, 'it didn't deserve to be called a bungalow.'"

So paint in peace, bungle or no. Or if your home renovation is up to date, try the paint name game: I scored 7 out of 10, so I'm a Paint Color God. (In theory only: The unused gallons in the basement tell a different story.)

Give it to the Goodwill: This summer I heard my mom say "the Goodwill," which I couldn't remember hearing before in her (and my former) neck of the woods. "Give it to Goodwill," we said, or "Give it to charity." But of course it was "Give it to the Salvation Army."

"The Goodwill" is a minority option, but it doesn't seem to be a regionalism, like Southern Californians' calling highways "the 405" and "the 10." "The Goodwill" shows up all over the nation. Could be the influence of "the Salvation Army," "the dump," "the rummage sale." Could be that the specific use ("Let's stop at the Goodwill store") is influencing the generic use, or that the two versions are used in different situations. Or is it a generational thing? Readers, tell us what you say: Goodwill or the Goodwill?

Abe Lincoln, cool cat?

Posted by Jan Freeman September 21, 2008 10:01 AM

It would be so cool if Abe Lincoln had been the first person to use cool to mean something like, you know, cool. That seems to be what William Safire, my wordie counterpart at the New York Times, is suggesting in today's column.

"Earliest use I can find in an ironic context -- meaning 'really something' -- is in the political speech" Lincoln gave on Feb. 27, 1860, says Safire:

The visitor from Illinois took on those who were threatening secession if an anti-slavery Republican were elected: "In that supposed event, you say, you will destroy the Union; and then, you say, the great crime of having destroyed it will be upon us! That is cool. A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear and mutters through his teeth, 'Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you, and then you will be a murderer!' "

But in the tradition of Honest Abe, I have to record a dissent. Lincoln's "That is cool" means something more specific than "that's really something"; today he might say "What chutzpah!" His highwayman analogy, in fact, is very like the classic example of chutzpah, the guy who kills his parents and then pleads for mercy on the grounds that he's an orphan.

But this sense of cool was not Lincoln's invention, nor even unusual. The 1852 edition of Noah Webster's dictionary has it: "3. Not hasty; deliberate; as, a cool falsehood or deception. Hence, 4. Impudent in a high degree, as when speaking of some trick, pretension, &c., we say 'that is cool.' "

Thanks to Google Books, it's easy to find the usage in 19th-century works. In Evelyn Benson's "Ashcombe Churchyard" (1862), for example, a man rebukes his sister for referring to a trouser pocket. "Upon my word," said George, "that is cool! let me never hear you dare to mention that part of a gentleman's dress, Lucy."

And the online Oxford English Dictionary, which just this month published an updated entry for cool, dates this use of the word -- "deliberately audacious or impudent in making a proposal, demand, or assumption" -- to 1723.

Lincoln's cool may well have led, decades later, to our modern cool -- so long-lived it's now labeled "colloquial" instead of "slang." But our cool isn't clearly attested till 1918, when the OED lists "*a cool kid" as one way of "expressing admiration for another's cleverness or cunning." Lincoln's cool may have been effective speechifying, but it was no novelty to his audience.

Update 2:30 p.m.: Mr. Verb has questions about "cool" too, and about some of the column's other assertions.

The photo of Lincoln, from the Slave Heritage Resource Center, is labeled as dating from the 1860 Cooper Union appearance where Lincoln said "That is cool."

Dissing 'disconnect'

Posted by Jan Freeman September 15, 2008 01:42 PM

Carrie and friends were surprised by L.A.'s scenes -- and sounds.

Marc McGarry e-mails to ask about a noun that seems all wrong: "Lots of people speak these days about 'a disconnect' between this and that. … What's wrong with 'disconnection'?"

Nothing is wrong with disconnection, the noun of the 18th and 19th centuries -- except maybe that it's a little bit long. But the 20th-century noun, disconnect, seems to have arisen separately from telephone company usage -- or so the OED's early citations suggest.

The first sense is "an act or instance of disconnecting; a break of (esp. electrical or telephone) connection." The evidence:

1951 N.Y. Times 22 Dec. 15/1 They were not liable when local law enforcement agencies provided information upon which a disconnect order was based. 1958 Los Angeles Times 19 Aug. B4/2 Now if someone would only invent a telephone that would sift out unwanted calls with a disconnect on the first ring. 1987 E. H. J. PALLETT Aircraft Electr. Syst. (ed. 3) ii. 40 When a disconnect has taken place, the indicator button is released from magnetic attraction.
Then there's sense 2, "a complete lack of understanding, agreement, or consistency; a discrepancy":
1983 N.Y. Times 17 June B6/5 There is a total, absolute disconnect between the Administration and the Congress as to what the armed forces are to do. 1993 Coloradoan (Fort Collins) 16 Jan. A8/5 Experts on the presidency routinely talk about there being a ‘disconnect’ or ‘disengagement’ between what candidates promise on the campaign trail and what they say and do once they are elected. 2002 Business Week 5 Aug. 54/1 In a disturbing disconnect, Stanley Furniture Co ... has seen furniture sales slide even as the housing industry has continued to boom.

Me, I experienced a disconnect over disconnect back in 2000, when an episode of "Sex and the City" set in Los Angeles showed Carrie hearing the word for the first time. "Disconnect?" she asked wonderingly. Even in a series with few pretensions to plausibility, I didn't buy the notion that a New York writer would be learning this word only in 2000, and from a Los Angeles hustler at that. See that first citation, dated 1951? That's the New York Times, deploying disconnect seven years ahead of the L.A. Times. Would it take a Carrie Bradshaw 49 years to catch up with it? I don't think so.

The semicolon: not dead yet

Posted by Jan Freeman September 14, 2008 03:29 PM

Thanks to Arts & Letters Daily, which picked up last month's Word column about semicolons, I heard from semicolon fans around the world -- sending me back for another round on the topic in today's column.

Even there I didn't have space for all the good semicolon comments from readers, so here are some of the highlights:

* Meredith Rose e-mailed from Australia: "Loved your piece ‘Sex and the Semicolon’ and couldn’t resist emailing to tell you of an Australian writer, Xavier Herbert ("Poor Fellow My Country," among other novels), who so hated the semicolon he sawed the key off his typewriter. Guess that meant he didn’t use colons either."

Actually, Herbert is quoted in Sean Monahan's 2003 biography, "A Long and Winding Road," saying "Why use a Semicolon (which is an ugly thing) when you can use a Colon, which has symmetry?" So the tale is probably apocryphal, though entertaining.

* Terry Teachout, drama critic for the Wall Street Journal, sent along a link to his post on the semicolon -- in Orwell's prose and his own -- from Emerson College's ArtsJournal.

* B.G. Thorpe mentioned an appreciation of the Bembo typeface used in the text with "the first ever printed semi-colons," in Aldus Manutius's "De Aetna," 1495. "How can anyone know that that is true?" asked Thorpe.

No one can, of course -- they mean it's the earliest extant printed semicolon; there might have been earlier semicolons that failed to survive. But Aldus gets the credit generally: In Slate, Paul Collins wrote that ancient Greeks used the semicolon as a question mark, and "after classical scholar and master printer Aldus Manutius revived it in a 1494 font set, semicolons slowly spread across Europe."

Lynne Truss also credited Aldus with the semicolon in "Eats, Shoots & Leaves," and so does the National Library of Scotland, which has Aldus works in its rare books collection, and probably knows whereof it speaks.

* Jesse Jones was inspired by the semicolon column "to re-read the clever short story 'The Creative Impulse' by Somerset Maugham, which pointedly has a density of semicolons."

I haven't read the story, but I found this tantalizing excerpt, which introduces Mrs. Albert Forrester as a writer who "in a flash of inspiration ... had discovered the comic possibilities of the semi-colon":

She was able to place it in such a way that if you were a person of culture with a keen sense of humour, you did not exactly laugh through a horse-collar, but you giggled delightedly. … [W]hatever else you might say about Mrs Albert Forrester you were bound to admit that she was able to get every ounce of humour out of the semi-colon and no one else could get within a mile of her.

* Finally, both Marc McGarry and Peter Ash wrote to remind me that "Wit," the 1999 play by Margaret Edson, makes much of the importance of punctuation in Donne's "Death Be Not Proud." A teacher tells the protagonist that the end of the poem should read,

And death shall be no more,
Death thou shalt die.

A semicolon after "more" is too much, says the professor: "Nothing but a breath -- a comma -- separates life from life everlasting."

So if you can't go admire Emerson's semicolon in Concord to mark National Punctuation Day, you might watch the film version of "Wit," starring Emma Thompson, instead. Or maybe you, like me, are ready for a little vacation from the semicolon.

Where in the world was Robert Novak?

Posted by Jan Freeman September 10, 2008 01:28 PM

"Near Cape Cod" -- does that sound normal to you, or a little bit weird? The question has been bugging me since late July, when the news broke that syndicated columnist Robert Novak had been diagnosed with a brain tumor.

Several sources, including the AP and the New York Times, reported that Novak had been taken ill while he was on a family vacation "near Cape Cod."

That phrase struck me as unusual, at least for New Englanders. What's "near Cape Cod"? Maybe, if you were telling someone from Burbank or Mumbai where Buzzards Bay was, you might say "near Cape Cod." But in common usage, vacation spots are generally on the Cape or off the Cape, not "near the Cape."

So where was Novak? In a column about his illness published Sunday, he explained:

My wife, Geraldine, and I left Washington on Saturday to spend the weekend with our daughter, Zelda, and her husband, Christopher Caldwell, and their children at their summer house at Manchester-by-the-Sea, Mass.

Near Cape Cod? No. Near Cape Ann, northeast of Boston? Yes. Part of Cape Ann, even, according to the Chamber of Commerce, which lists Manchester, Essex, Gloucester, and Rockport as the Cape's four towns.

And where did the mixup come from? The earliest reports with "near Cape Cod" quote a statement at the website of the Chicago Sun-Times, Novak's home newspaper, that's no longer available, but that seems to credit the information to Novak's assistant, Kathleen Connolly.

Did Connolly name the wrong Cape, or did someone else goof writing down her quote? I'm trying to track down the origin of the error, though it may prove impossible. But I feel better knowing that "near Cape Cod" really was just as fishy as it smelled when I first encountered it.

Me, myself, and her

Posted by Jan Freeman September 7, 2008 11:24 AM

IMG_2380-JAN-EDITED.jpgAs I mention in today's Word column, I met the other Jan Freeman, the poet and publisher from Ashfield, Mass., last week, after learning that she, like me, had fans -- relatives, even! -- who didn't know we were two different people.

There's no particular reason one's name-sharer should share any other traits, of course, but when two women have come from elsewhere and settled in Massachusetts for careers in publishing, it's also no surprise when they do have things in common. We arrived at the DeCordova Museum, our meeting place, in our respective Subarus; we drank diet Cokes and agreed that a milkshake -- the real kind, with ice cream -- is the the appropriate treat for anyone still numb from a dental procedure (don't ask). We confessed to literary or otherwise clever names for dogs past and present.


That's the prosaic Jan (me) in the top photo, and the poetic Jan in the one to the left.

The other Jan -- who, of course, thinks of me as "the other Jan" -- grew up near Philadelphia, lived in Ohio and New York City, and came here in the '90s to found Paris Press, which has published prose and poetry by Muriel Rukeyser, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, and others.

I've known of the other Jan's existence since 2000, when a Globe colleague handed me a copy of "Simon Says," her second book of poems, with what looked like my byline on the cover. But I hadn't suspected she was fielding so many Word questions till this summer, when my own cousin asked about "my" poetry reading in Hartford, and I decided to investigate.

So for the record, here we are, in not especially flattering snapshots (another point on which we agree). And here too, as a memory aid for our confused friends and relations, are a few lines from the poetic Jan. (And that's definitely not me.)

A Winter's Story

Once a bear found a yellow window
and she sat beside the window during the day
She watched the dogs eat breakfast and clean their paws
She watched a lady wash dishes and eat a piece of bread covered with jam
Once a bear slept through winter and dreamed of a yellow window
No one woke the bear
Snow covered her den
Night and day were the same for the bear
Once a woman lit a fire
and imagined that the flames were cities,
people ran from door to door leaving gifts and love letters
Sometimes they ate bread and jam and watched the fire
Once two dogs slept during the day and cleaned their paws
at the same time in the late morning and early evening
They ate spaghetti for special occasions
and slept side by side
Once the sky was the sky
and no one spoke to the meadow
The maples waved through loneliness
The hilltop was a flag signaling seasons changing
Some birds slept in the maples some slept in the birch
Some were loyal, some were fickle
Once an orange fish noticed a bear admiring herself in the pond's reflection
Once a bear grabbed an orange fish under water
She stuffed it in her mouth
Better than jam and bread, she said
The dogs saw the bear and ran to the hilltop
The lady watched the dogs run and followed them with a long gun
The maples and birch swayed happily
The dogs and the lady stood beside them
and watched the bear swallow the orange fish
No one thought about the yellow window
They all ran around outside
and then the snow fell like feathers onto the ground.

Friendship Song

Empathy sympathy empathy kiss
empathy hold sympathy kiss
sympathy sympathy empathy hold
empathy hold kiss hold
sympathy kiss sympathy kiss
sympathy kiss empathy hold
empathy hold kiss hold
empathy sympathy kiss hold
hold kiss empathy hold
kiss hold sympathy kiss
kiss kiss kiss kiss
sympathy empathy kiss hold

Return of the living dead

Posted by Jan Freeman September 6, 2008 04:34 PM

Oh, no -- it's back! Jonathan Yardley, the Washington Post's book critic, has favored readers with a back-to-school appreciation of Strunk and White's unkillable usage manual, "The Elements of Style":

For half a century "The Elements of Style" has been my constant companion. ... It is that to this day, and if someone wants to toss it in the box with me when I go six feet under, that would be fine; it might actually assure my passage through the Pearly Gates, since Saint Peter no doubt is a gentleman of impeccable grammatical taste.

But Yardley, who calls himself a Strunkaholic, credits the wrong author with some of the rules he finds so helpful. The 1959 book (and later editions) is packed with midcentury fetishes that E.B. White subscribed to, but that Strunk -- already deceased when White took on the expansion of Strunk's "little book," published in 1918 --- had not.

Yardley notes, for instance, that Strunkaholics mustn't confuse which and that. Strunk, however, did not follow this rule: He uses the restrictive which that White theoretically opposes. For instance, Strunk says:

Thanking you in advance. This sounds as if the writer meant, "It will not be worth my while to write to you again." Simply write, "Thanking you," and if the favor which you have requested is granted, write a letter of acknowledgment.

But wait, there's more: Even E.B. White used restrictive which (or perhaps left out a comma?) on the first page of "Stuart Little," as Geoffrey Pullum noted at Language Log: ''Mrs. Little ... weighed him on a small scale which was really meant for weighing letters."

And if Strunk believed that none must take a singular verb -- a "rule" unknown for most of the history of English -- I can't find him saying so in the little book. Usage tastes changed between Strunk's heyday and White's, just as they have changed since 1959.

As I wrote a few years ago, the book has a lot of silly or half-explained "rules" and a little advice about writing that's fine if you're already a good enough writer to apply it.

But treating "Elements" as a bible of good usage is literally laughable. Read through the chapter on "Words and Expressions Commonly Misused": If you can get past the entry for "Clever" with a straight face, you've got too much self-control for your own good.

Still more tats (and tattoos too)

Posted by Jan Freeman September 1, 2008 01:28 PM

tweety.jpgSeveral readers of this week's Word column have asked if "tit for tat" plays a role here -- either in the history of tats as an abbreviation for tattoos or in my (mild) aversion to the word tats.

Says one faithful reader (after apologizing preemptively): "I couldn't help but think that the origin of 'tit for tat' must have been a strip show catering to tattooed sailors."

But tit for tat is a different story entirely (except for irrepressible punsters and giggly middle-schoolers). It's an alteration of "tip for tap," a less gory version of "an eye for an eye," and has no more connection to tattoos than Tweety Bird's "I tawt I taw a puddy tat."

Tat, however, has a number of obscure senses besides those I mentioned in the column. The OED lists it, with an 1840 citation, as an abbreviation for a different tattoo, a pony native to India. Another tat, of about the same vintage, means "rag" -- origin uncertain, but it could be related to Old English tættec, also "rag." A tat is also a tangle of hair. And tats or tatts can mean loaded dice (1688) or, in Australian slang, teeth (1919).

Then there's the military tattoo, a drumbeat or bugle call signaling troops to return to quarters. That one began as tap-too in the 17th century, from the Dutch taptoe in same sense. Who'd have thought English had adopted tattoo three times, in three senses, from three different languages?

Tat's all for now!

Rules and realities of English usage from Boston Globe Ideas columnist Jan Freeman.
Jan Freeman, a former Boston Globe editor, has been writing the weekly column “The Word” since 1997. E-mail her at freeman@globe.com.

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