Tuesday, August 17, 2010

That Reminds Me...

In his Chandleresque novel, “Gun With Occasional Music,” Jonathan Lethem’s protagonist says, “I don’t possess an eidetic (photographic) memory, but I had a picture of her knees – and the creamy inches of skin above them – burned into my consciousness from the brief flash as I walked in.”

We all know how the senses can bring back memories. Sniff an aroma in the air, and you’re in a time warp. I grew up about a mile from the Silvercup factory in Long Island City. To this day the smell of freshly baked white bread… I can feel it now, sticking to the roof of my mouth like peanut butter! So the strains of a melody, or the look of sawdust on a floor, can unlock memories that are associated with these sensory experiences.

But earlier this year, while enrolled in a six-week memoir-writing workshop, I found that words triggered memories for me too. E.g., the word lanky in a NYT review describing a dancer, brought me back in front of my high school track coach, who used the word to explain why, low to the ground as I am, I could never be a great cross-country runner. I remembered the feeling as though it were yesterday, and was able to write about how I proved him wrong. Similarly, the word bungalow, which I hadn’t heard in a long time, served as a flashlight in the dark cave of my memory. Happily remembered stories from childhood summers at my grandfather’s bungalow in Rocky Point came back to me. What words trigger memories for you?

Just for fun, I imagined, from a list in Simon Hertnon’s wonderful “Endangered Words” (Skyhorse, 2009), a few that might aid famous people. Mark Twain who said, “ Do not put off till tomorrow what can be put off till day-after-tomorrow…” might like perendinate, which means precisely that, whereas procrastinate, technically refers to a delay only until tomorrow. They are, however, used synonymously. Chavish (the mingled din of many birds) might bring back memories for Tippi Hedren, the star of Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” In the movie, she was driven daffy by the sound of it.

Noah’s adventures might be instantly recalled on his hearing the word pluviose (rainy). Hertnon selected it because he liked its potential poetic and figurative use, e.g., pluviose tears. He suggests it has a superlative connotation as well, which lends to its appeal. And he feels that offing (at a distance from the shore) “is a little gem worth rescuing.” It is used mostly in the idiom, “in the offing,” to mean nearby, in the sense of time or distance; e.g., “a waiter hovered in the offing.” I had fun picturing those Caribe Indians looking out to sea saying, “Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria… lifestyle change in the offing!”

Finally, if she heard the word sicko (slang, 1975, meaning deranged), Virginia Woolf might remember the day she wrote a 181-word opening sentence to her essay, “On Being Ill.” Some critics feel it is the most perfect sentence ever written.
I’ll quote it here sometime so no one accuses me of running on.

Monday, August 9, 2010


Referring to Emily Dickinson in a recent NY Times article, Holland Carter wrote, “The one power (she) trusted was the power of language, which she loved. … By her own account she experienced an acute physical reaction to words, a euphoric shock.”

How would she react, I wonder, to recent developments? I’m thinking of the legions of word lovers one hundred and fifty years later writing and reading columns like this one … and Blogs like Mark Peters’ “Wordlustitude” where he recently posted his word- of-the-day, “nanoblahblah” defined as “a tiny bit of nonsense” i.e., “small talk.” Cited usage: “If your pillow talk is limited to nanoblahblah, your partner may not be around for long!”

It may sound silly, but it’s very clever. Nano- from ancient Greek, nanos/dwarf, and blah/silly chatter, which entered our dictionaries in 1918, are combined by a self-styled lexicographer who, in his contemporary way, is every bit as smitten by the look and sound of words as Emily was. (Had Mark been in Amherst in the late 1850’s, they might have been soul mates!)

Nano- was also chosen in 1959 to combine with the 14th century second to define a newly conceived time unit, one billionth of a second.

John Ciardi, in the Foreword to his brilliant “Browser’s Dictionary,” writes, “Linnaeus would have done better to call us Homo loquens, ‘speaking man.’ For though our racial sapience remains in doubt, our loquacity is beyond question … Man is the animal that uses language.”

He continues, “Lewis Thomas in his ‘Lives of a Cell’ describes the nonstop and precision labor of an anthill, … asks if there is any similar ceaseless activity of humankind, and answers that … it is the endless making, multiplying, and changing of language.”

John Tierney in his May 18 NYT column, “Doomsayers Beware, A Bright Future Beckons,” writes, “Progress this century could be impeded by politics, wars, plagues or climate change, but Dr. Ridley argues (in his new book, “The Rational Optimist”) that, as usual, the “apocoholics” are overstating the risks and underestimating innovative responses.” … a fun play on the words, apocalypse and alcoholic, creating “those addicted to apocalypse theories” … a new word that could catch on.

ABC News reported recently on “narco-terrorists” operating around the border areas between the US and Mexico. While it’s not yet in the dictionary, we know exactly what it means, thanks to the words-savvy person who joined two ideas.

Ross Douthat in a recent NYT column, “Europe’s Minaret Moment” used the word “dhimmitude,” coined in Lebanon in 1982 to mean “producing a state of servility to an Islamic majority.” It’s derived from an old Arabic word dhimma/Islamic Sharia or laws. Douthat writes,
“… envisioning a Muslim-majority ‘Eurabia,’ … the most likely scenario for Europe isn’t dhimmitude; it’s a long period of tension, punctuated by spasms of violence, that makes the continent a more unpleasant place without fundamentally transforming it.”

In this age of globalization and flash-fast transportation of goods and ideas, our words will come from all over the planet, marrying up, shot-gun style, with words from different cultures to define new concepts.

I’m euphoric!

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Fun with Redundancy

A recent NYT Arts headline, “Once More, Revisiting A Queen Yet Again” is a playful double-redundancy, amplified to open a Janet Maslin review of yet-another-book-about-Anne Boleyn. Seeing it, I decided to write a piece on “redundancy” which would trace my arc from a grade school nun’s dictum,
“it’s unnecessary, so don’t use one ever!” to my current libertine attitude, “if it’s fun, use one!” with stops along the way where I realized that my favorite food, tuna fish, was a redundancy, and, at one point, that I was in the euphemistically termed “redundancy business”, counseling laid-off employees.

I hear redundancies all day long, “My son is wearing an earring in his ear.” (and oxymoronic replies, “Thank God, he’s not wearing it in his tongue.”), and read them in serious literature, like this from Sandra Steingraber in January’s The SUN, “The house sparrow is a biblical species. It originated in the Middle East and is now ubiquitous all over the world.”

Wrapping one’s arms around Google results for “redundancy” is like trying to embrace a giant octopus! Basically, “redundant” means superfluous. It’s been forever associated with language, meaning unnecessarily wordy, as in “audible to the ear.” Indeed, its synonyms: “tautology” comes from Greek, tauto- (same), -logy (word), and “pleonasm” means using more than enough language in speaking or writing.

But over the centuries the word has proven to have great elasticity. Not only writers, but engineers, chemists, logicians, and, as per above, Human Resources professionals, have stretched its meaning and applied it to anything that duplicates something else. Now that redundancy applies to concepts rather than strictly to words, now that it is used to convey any superfluity or duplication, we see it used more and more. It’s a great example of “living language,” of “etymology in action.”

And it’s very fashionable. Eager writers use “a bit redundant” and I ponder whether that’s the linguistic equivalent of “a little pregnant!” In one sitting with the morning papers recently, I read the comic strip, “Shoe”: a character is given the school assignment to write a sentence that illustrates a redundancy and he types, “There was a full moon over the nudist colony,” and an article by A. O. Scott: “… Meryl Streep’s 16th Oscar nomination … seemed both richly merited and a bit redundant.” In these cases, the word is stretched to the sense of, “it goes without saying.”

Unintended redundancies are common when we use acronyms. How often have you heard or seen: please RSVP (“please” is redundant as ‘s’il vous plait’ means ‘please’), and ATM machine (“machine” is redundant as the M stands for it)? PIN number is another familiar one.

Most important, I think, is to be so familiar with redundancies that you recognize one when you see or hear it, and that when you use one, you are fully aware you are doing so. They can be great fun … used well to make a point or to make your listener laugh. Consider this redundant bit of reportage attributed to a radio announcer, “The robbery was committed by a pair of identical twins. Both are said to be aged about twenty.” Intentional or not, it’s a brilliant and subtle example of the form.

To sum up, I want to say, “My nun could have had more fun.” And I don’t believe that’s an oxymoron!

Four Letters

The phrase, “four-letter words” has become almost synonymous with so-called “dirty” words. We’re going to change that trend right here, right now, by discussing a few of my favorites.

Amok is a fun-to-say word. I overuse it to describe anything “messy and scattered.” Although it should be reserved to describe the result of a murderous frenzy, I wouldn’t get to use it as often as I’m wont if I had such reservation. It’s a rare import from Malay, amoq.

Wont/habit is another I like because I have to consciously round my mouth so it doesn’t sound like “want,” but not so much that it sounds like “won’t.”

Acai (ah-sigh-EE) is the new “global super fruit” exported from the Amazon since 2000 in response to “the anti-oxidant craze and rain-forest chic,” according to the NYT. It’s the high-energy fruit of a species of palm tree (coconuts are from another) and a long time staple of the Brazilian diet, getting more expensive for the locals as demand increases. Look for it in your smoothie shop or cosmetics counter. It’s a high-energy word too: has both a cedilla under the “c” making it sound like “s” and an accent on the “i.”

Although a cedilla (written with a cedilla under the “c”!) turns me on, I really go nuts over an umlaut, those two little dots used over “a, o, and u,” and pronounced with pursed lips. Uber is a perfect umlaut-word, adopted from German and currently very fashionable in English, to mean very,very/over the top. The expression, uber chic (oober sheek) is a terrific four-letter word meeting of German and French in English. It could only happen in our glorious language!

I like doff (dahff) because it tickles me that it and its antonym partner, don, are contracted forms of “do off” and “do on” but somehow escaped ending up as “d’off” and “d’on”. They are used mostly with clothing items. I remember how men used to doff or lift their hats as they greeted someone with a “How do you do?” Now, I think doff every time I see a man in a restaurant wearing a cap. I want to scream, “doff it.”

Words ending in “j” are uncommon, so hadj, meaning religious pilgrimage, especially of a Muslim to Mecca, jumps onto my list. Since 9/11, as we learn more about Muslim culture, we are becoming familiar with many more Arabic words, e.g., jihad.

Four-letter words beginning with “i” are relatively few; my short list includes idyl, imam, impi, iwis and iglu. But iris is my favorite as Iris was the Greek Goddess of the Rainbow. It’s no wonder our eyes, and that wonderful genus of Spring flowers with its variety of colors, took her name.

And finally, my “f” word … I like fret. It has three distinct meanings, and so is a good representative of polysemous words.

I could go on and on. But why don’t you pick up where I’ve left off? Go through a letter’s worth of pages in the dictionary, and notice a few four-letter words that strike you as those mentioned here do me. Better yet, get hold of the Scrabble Dictionary which categorizes all words by length. You’ll be amazed at how many interesting four-letter words you’ve never heard.


Ernest Hemingway once said, “All my life I’ve looked at words as though I were seeing them for the first time.” We readily nod our heads in agreement … sounds good. Yet most of us treat familiar words all too casually. It does not occur to us, for example, to look up “right” or “humor” or “mimic,” because we know what they mean. We go to the dictionary mostly when we come across a word whose meaning we can’t begin to guess. And we miss some great lexical adventures.

That Hemingway quote made me aware of this tendency in myself. Determined to fight it, I created an acronym, BAWDY! for the fridge door, where all wisdom resides. Become A Word Detective, You! it reminds me constantly. And my dictionary and I began to keep steady company.

Out of the blue, a familiar word like “robot” would seem worth looking up, and prove itself to be an etymological gem. I got in the habit of snooping around familiar words to see what lurked in their backgrounds. I wrote a poem about it: (please read aloud)

Familiar Words

Have you ever said, or read,

a word you’ve heard a million times,

but now, somehow,

you stop on a dime and mime

the sound around in your mouth?

You grab the D book and look it up,

and the beauty of its def or duty

comes through to you

for the first time and you say, “Hey,”

“this is really, truly interesting!”

Recently, I shared this with my “Crazy About Words” class and randomly selected “amuse” for the group to investigate further.

We noted its earliest recorded use in Middle French in the late 15th century, amuser, (“a,” to cause + “muser” to ponder.) Later it was used in the sense of divert from serious business, but with a negative connotation. By the 18th century it had come into English more in the sense of to entertain.

We were surprised to see it in “The Student’s Dictionary” which our class distributes to each of 250 Third Graders every Fall, defined as “to cause to smile.” And we Googled it to find that its hottest use for the past fifteen years or so is in the phrase amuse-bouche, (literally, to amuse the mouth), a bite-sized hors d’oeuvre served to restaurant patrons as a greeting from the chef de cuisine.

But our best find came when we looked up “muse” and found that it derived from the Greek Muses, nine goddesses begat by Zeus and Mnemosyne, Goddess of Memory, who were the inspirations for the arts, poetry, music, dance, literature, history and astronomy. These were the diversions, the entertainment of the ancients.

The word comes down to us through the ages, its meaning evolving with the culture, and now used in a much expanded sense of diversion. The Muse-Goddesses might frown on our wax museums and amusement parks but they are the ultimate culprits.

We word-crazy people had indeed become word detectives.