Words for Nerds

Required Reading

I am always baffled by articles suggesting ways parents can encourage their children to read more: Designate a family reading period and set a timer. Enroll in library summer reading programs. Have them tell you about what they read. Read the same books you want them to read and then discuss them.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. I think encouraging children to read is wonderful. If more people spent more time reading more books, the world would be a better place. Especially for authors and optometrists. But in my family, the challenge wasn’t to get children to read, it was to get them to stop reading long enough to do other stuff like chores and homework and practicing the piano.

So it isn’t the goal of encouraging reading that I don’t understand; just the strategies. Continue reading

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Double-check your Language

In the car with three small children, headed for Storybook Island on a sunny afternoon, I had a moment of grandmotherly concern. “I need to stop and double-check that we have sunscreen,” I told the kids as I pulled over. I looked in the bag; the sunscreen was there; I resumed driving.

After a thoughtful pause, the not-quite-four-year-old piped up from the back seat. “Aren’t you going to double-check?”

“I did,” I told her. “I looked, and I found the sunscreen.”

“But doesn’t ‘double-check’ mean you look twice?”

Well, duh. Of course it does. Or at least it should, if you pay literal attention to the word instead of the way we use it. I didn’t really double-check; I only single-checked. It takes a clever grandchild (no bragging involved, of course) to notice that.

Which leads a reasonably clever grandmother to start thinking about some of the other words we use without paying much attention to their literal meaning.

Such as: Continue reading

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Write This Way

We were traveling, so I almost missed it. Yesterday, January 23, was National Handwriting Day. Given the current trend away from teaching cursive writing in schools, it would be easy to assume this is a new observance, started by concerned calligraphers, Palmer Method purists, and letter-writing grandparents who are afraid their grandkids won’t be able to read anything sent to them except the numbers on their birthday checks.

Nope. National Handwriting Day has been around since 1977. It is observed, not by accident, on the birthday of John Hancock. (You remember him, right? He’s the Founding Father whose elegant, oversized signature is front and center on the Declaration of Independence. Unfortunately, the story that he said something like, “King George will be able to read that without his spectacles” turns out not to be true. But his name is still used as a synonym for “signature”—as in “Put your John Hancock right here on this line.”)

Appropriately, then, I wrote the first draft of this post with a pen, on the wide-lined notebook paper that I stock up on every fall during back-to-school sales. I can’t say I did so in honor of John Hancock or National Handwriting Day. Nor as some sort of statement in favor of cursive writing. I just prefer to write that way.

Continue reading

Categories: Odds and Ends, Remembering When, Words for Nerds | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

Billboards I Would Rather Never See

“I think that I shall never see a billboard lovely as a tree.
Perhaps, unless the billboards fall, I’ll never see a tree at all.”
Ogden Nash

While I agree with my favorite poet on the relative esthetic merits of billboards and trees, I must point out that Mr. Nash never drove across western South Dakota on I-90. You do see many more billboards than trees there, not because the former are so plentiful but because the latter are so scarce. As a result, anyone making this drive regularly—even someone who appreciates the sweeping beauty of the prairies as much as I do—can’t help but develop a certain appreciation for billboards. By now I’m practically an expert on the finer points of billboard advertising. Such as:

For heaven’s sake, use a readable font in colors that contrast with the background.

Those signs printed on fabric-like vinyl and attached to a frame (technically, I suppose, they aren’t “billboards”) are probably much cheaper and easier to create than old-fashioned painted signs on boards. But western South Dakota may not be the ideal environment for them. Your brilliant advertising message is hard to read when it’s streaming in wind-shredded tatters from the bottom of the sign.

Entertaining humor is a great marketing tool. Just ask the people at Reptile Gardens and Wall Drug.

Tacky humor, however, is just, well, tacky. Two cases in point:

A relatively new restaurant in Rapid City has several new signs. As a frequent traveler, I appreciate the variation in the scenery, especially since the “Q” in the restaurant’s name is handy for the alphabet game. But I wince every time I pass their sign that announces, “We’re like a cult with better Kool-Aid.”

Really? Never mind the minor detail of whether the nice people from Kraft Foods are okay with the use of their trademarked brand name on someone else’s billboard. I realize that, since the 1978 Jonestown tragedy, “drinking the Kool-Aid” has become a particularly tasteless way to describe someone’s blind adherence to an idea. But I wonder whether the marketing person who came up with the line for this billboard really knew where it came from. “Hey, let’s link our restaurant to a deranged cult leader named Jim Jones who led a murder-suicide of over 900 of his followers. What a great way to inspire people to come in for a pleasant meal!”

Then there’s the brewery/restaurant whose marketing people, apparently inspired by the old Burma Shave signs from the 1930’s and 40’s, have put up billboards with line-by-line limericks. However, I’m not sure the modern ones quite compare with the classics. Here’s one of the originals:

“If harmony
is what
you crave,
then get
a tuba
Burma Shave.”

Now here is the brewery’s attempt:

“There once was a farmer named Leer
Who owned a cow who gave beer.
Reds, stouts and others
Poured out of her udders . . .”

And the last line’s too tacky to quote here.

I’ll just say that it involves potty humor of a type to make five-year-olds giggle and adults with any taste at all cringe. And as if tacky and tasteless aren’t enough, the last word of the fourth line (I so wish I were making this up, but I’m not) is spelled “utters.”

Next time I drive across I-90, I really need to take along a good audio book and keep my eyes on the road.

Categories: Odds and Ends, Travel, Words for Nerds | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

Last Straws In the Bottom of the Barrel

Sometimes, in search of brilliant and entertaining ideas—or even just adequate and mildly readable ideas—it doesn’t matter how diligently I scrape the bottom of that barrel. There’s just not much there but a couple of fragments of rust and an old paper clip.

Or maybe I should say a few grains of flour and a couple of weevils. I assume the expression “scraping the bottom of the barrel” comes from the days when all sorts of food staples were stored and shipped in barrels, and if you were scraping the bottom you’d better hope the freight wagons would get in soon so you could replenish your supplies.

It’s an idiom best used carefully, though. I remember years ago, moving from one small South Dakota town to another, my then-husband and I were having a hard time finding a house to rent. In August, sleeping in a tent in a campground at the city park was temporarily doable (I remember watching Richard Nixon’s resignation speech on someone’s TV set there), but as a long-term housing solution it lacked appeal. We had gone from searching for a house to searching for a short-term rental apartment that would do until we found a house.

Desperation is sometimes a spur to creativity, and one day it occurred to us that the historic old hotel at one end of the main street might have apartments. We stopped in to ask. The man at the registration desk, who was on the older side of middle aged and obviously the manager if not the owner, was friendly enough in a dignified and formal way. I told him we were having a terrible time finding a place to rent and in checking at the hotel we were scraping the bottom of the barrel.

Not a good idiom to use. He informed us stiffly that the hotel was “hardly the bottom of the barrel.” I scrambled to explain that I wasn’t referring to the quality of their rooms but to what we assumed to be the small likelihood that they would have apartments to rent.

Not surprisingly, they didn’t have any. Not, after I had put his back up and ruffled his feathers, that he would necessarily have told us if they had.

He wouldn’t have gotten his knickers in a twist, forcing me to backpedal and eat my words, if I hadn’t used the wrong idiom for the occasion. What I meant wasn’t “scraping the bottom of the barrel” but “grasping at straws.”

Even in today’s world, where the only exposure most of us have to a barrel is hearing news reports about the price of oil, and we have only the vaguest idea of the actual size of a barrel of crude oil, it’s easy enough to make sense of “scraping the bottom of the barrel.” But what about “grasping at straws?” We use it to mean using anything we can find, even when it’s clearly irrelevant or inadequate, but where does it come from?

I suppose it could describe skinny cows or goats out in a field during a very dry year, munching at stalks of straw because there isn’t any real grass left to eat. Or a hungry donkey or horse reaching for the last few bits of hay in an empty manger. But that isn’t quite the same as “grasping.” And, of course, grasping at straws is not the same as the last straw, that final small bit of weight that broke the back of the poor overloaded camel.

When one is grasping at the straw in the bottom of the barrel, there’s just one thing left to do. Look it up. According to the idioms section of The Free Dictionary, “grasping at straws” comes from the image of a person in danger of drowning who clutches at flimsy reeds in a futile attempt to stay above water.

Now there’s a happy and inspiring idiom for you. Because if you are going under for the second or third time, grasping at some frail reed gives you only a slim chance. Will it be enough to save you? Fat chance of that.

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Special offers! Coupons! Preferred Shopper Rewards!

This time of year, retailers use every marketing tool they can think of to lure shoppers into their stores and persuade them to spend more. Given the volume of sales this month generates, it must work, too.

Actually, in the interests of full disclosure, I have to say that I am one of the shoppers who happily takes the lure. I take advantage of coupons, discounts, and sales whenever possible, including Christmas shopping. I always hope my loved ones never have to return any gifts I buy them, because I would be embarrassed to have them discover how little I actually spent.

But one sales technique confuses me. BOGO.

I don’t know whether to call it textspeak, an acronym, or a catchphrase, but it’s an abbreviated way of saying that, if you buy one thing you can get a second one at a discount: half price, maybe, or even free.

There’s just one problem. BOGO, read literally as an acronym, just means “Buy one, get one.”

Um—isn’t that what’s supposed to happen? If I buy a blouse, say, I expect to get a blouse. I’ve paid for it, after all; I’d better walk out of the store with it in my hot little hand.

BOGO really ought to be BOGOF, for “Buy one, get one free.” Except, of course, that the second one isn’t always free.

BOGOC, maybe? For “Buy one, get one cheap?” Oh, no; that would never do. Marketing people may love to use words like “sale” and “discount” and “value” and maybe even “bargain,” but they hate to use the word “cheap.” No store wants that connotation of “this shoddy piece of junk will fall apart the first time you use it.”

BOGOFL? “Buy one, get one for less?” Accurate, perhaps, but too long and not catchy enough.

Never mind; I give up. This must be why all those clever advertising copywriters settled for BOGO.

I still reserve the right to roll my eyes when I see it. But if you happen to be behind me in the checkout line, don’t worry; I’ll be nice. At least until I get the discount on my second item.

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Being Pleased By Small Things

“Little things please small minds.” That line, spoken in the weary tone of someone forced to deal with annoying and inferior beings, was one of the ways my high school algebra teacher reacted to adolescent acting-up. Since this man soon left teaching in favor of selling insurance, maybe he eventually figured out that sneering at “small minds” wasn’t an effective disciplinary tool.

Besides, he was wrong. As someone who is often pleased by small things, I prefer to see this quality as a sign of a large mind—the mind of someone who is present in the moment, noticing and appreciating the details that can sprinkle enjoyment across an ordinary day. Or maybe it’s just a sign of a quirky mind. That works, too.

At any rate, here are a few of the small things that have pleased me lately:

1. Folding down the back seats in my new Honda CR-V for the first time. The process is such a little piece of tidy engineering. One pull on a strap pops the seat cushion up against the back of the front seat. One pull on another strap simultaneously tips the headrest forward and releases the seat back, and when this is pushed flat the headrest tucks itself neatly into a space just its size against the seat cushion. Quick and easy, and Bob’s your uncle.

2. Spending several—well, maybe a few more than several—enjoyable minutes browsing the Internet trying to find the origins of the phrase “Bob’s your uncle.” It’s British, but no one seems to know where it came from or what it means. Those of you who also wonder about things like this can check out a couple of the possibilities here.

3. Being careful, as usual, not to make eye contact with one of our resident cottontails when I passed it in the front yard on my way out to get the newspaper. They seem to think they are invisible if we don’t look directly at them, so out of courtesy we try not to disillusion them.

4. Watching my just-turning-two granddaughter discover that the front wheels on a push bike were too wide to fit between the coffee table and the couch, and then watching her get it into the space anyway—by turning it around and backing in with the aplomb of an experienced trucker parking at a truck stop.

5. Being amused by an eccentric carrot from the farmers market, which was short and fat at the top, narrowed into a pencil-sized curl for a couple of inches where it must have grown around an obstacle, and then expanded again at the tip. It resembled an acrobat in a very tight corset.

6. Over breakfast at a restaurant in western British Columbia, browsing through a brochure about the mining communities at Crowsnest Pass and realizing that “Colliery Tipple” would be a wonderful name for a very dark ale. (A tipple, by the way, as I learned from my geologist companion, is a structure at a mine where the extracted ore is loaded to be hauled away.)

7. Noticing a beautiful iridescent beetle, gleaming in the sun like a purple opal no bigger than my little fingernail, while we were out walking one morning.

8. And finally, I was especially pleased by one last small thing. While we were squatting in the middle of the street appreciating the beetle, the pickup that came past slowed way down and went around us instead of squashing us like, well, a bug.

Categories: Living Consciously, Odds and Ends, Travel, Words for Nerds | Tags: , , , , | 3 Comments

The Naming of Names

With all the bad publicity about the name of the team, it astonishes me that the Washington Redskins haven’t changed their name yet. Maybe the problem is trying to find a new name that won’t be received even more negatively than the old one. The Washington Politicians? The Washington Congress? Not likely to get high approval ratings.  The Washington Gridlock has a nice ring to it, though. There’s a hint of power and manliness about the Washington Filibusters. Or, if they want something ominous, meant to strike fear into the hearts of opposing teams, how about the Washington Big Brothers?

It isn’t just sports teams. For several decades now, states and other governmental bodies have been working on changing place names that are offensive, historically inaccurate, or modern overlays of much older names. From McKinley to Denali National Park. From Custer Battlefield to Little Big Horn Battlefield National Monument.

But then there are other names that, oddly enough, no one seems to have a problem with. Like the Grand Tetons. There’s a name that would have been changed long ago if it were in English instead of French. Just try naming some mountains the “big breasts” today and see how far that gets you.

On second thought, though, maybe there’s another option, one that sports teams are already using. It’s based on the theory that, if you pay enough for the privilege, you can have your name on almost anything.

Instead of renaming, maybe the National Park Service should be looking at an untapped funding source—selling naming rights in the Grand Tetons National Park. “Maidenform Trail.” “Underwire Gulch.” “Lingerie Lake.” “Victoria’s Secret Uplift.” Since limited budgets are always a problem for national parks, there are possibilities here for a lot of support.

Then there are names that are certainly not offensive or inappropriate; they’re just boring. Like the Rocky Mountains. Really? Isn’t that a little obvious? Is it truly the best designation for some of the most spectacular scenery on the North American continent? If the person or persons who came up with that had been in charge, our maps would be full of designations like the Flat Plains, the Sandy Desert, or the Wet River.

Somebody should do something about that. They should look into options for something more dramatic. More descriptive. More exciting.

Like, say, the Black Hills.

Um. Well. Never mind.

Categories: Just For Fun, Words for Nerds | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Why Can’t You Wear a Clo?

I don’t remember this myself, but it has been told to me by an unimpeachable source, my mother. When I was a toddler, I figured out all by myself the proper term for an individual item of clothing. Since the plural was “clothes,” then with reasoning that must have seemed very logical to me, I decided the singular had to be “clo.”

Actually, it still seems logical to me. If you think about it, that was rather sophisticated grammar for a two-year-old. I’ve long since learned to have fun with the oddities of the English language, but I feel sorry for any innocent child just beginning to cope with its unpredictable and occasionally bizarre structure.

Plurals alone are confusing enough. Put one cat with another cat and you have two cats. (Well, after a couple of months you might have eight or nine cats, but that’s a different subject. We’re dealing with English here, not sex education.) Yet put one mouse with another mouse and you don’t have two mouses, you have two mice. Where’s the logic in that? Any bright little kid is going to figure out that the simplest solution is just to let the cats eat one of the mouses—er, mice—and then you don’t have to worry about it.

And then there are tenses. Their migraine-inducing irregularities have to make them the most aptly named component of English grammar. We walk today and we walked yesterday, but we eat today and we ate yesterday. Even more confusing, our feet run today while they ran yesterday, but so did our noses.

Lately I’ve been spending time with several toddler grandkids who are just developing their own versions of spoken English. I’m impressed with their grasp of what would, in a logical linguistic world, be correct grammar. They are amazing at figuring out how grammar works. Alas, if only English actually worked that well.

By the way, despite over-simplified reports in the news about a decade ago, researchers have not identified a “grammar gene” that’s responsible for this learning. If you want to know more, here’s a link to a related post from the Language Log website. (Warning: Click with caution. Exposure to this site may result in hours of time loss for dedicated word nerds.)

Back to the logic, or lack thereof, in English grammar, I have a question. Why don’t we have a singular word like “clo” to go with the plural “clothes?” Every now and then we need a word for “one piece of clothing not specifically identified as, say, a shirt or sock.” “Cloth” doesn’t work, being just the raw material for clothes.

True, we have “garment.” But somehow it just doesn’t feel like an everyday word. It has a slightly old-fashioned air. You might discreetly describe a Victorian petticoat as a “garment,” but the word doesn’t quite fit a tee-shirt from Walmart. We could use another word, one that’s less formal than “garment” but still more descriptive than the all-purpose “thing.”

“Clo” might just be that word. As in: “Put the clothes in the washer one clo at a time.” Or, “My closet might look full, but I don’t have a clo to wear!”

Maybe, all those years ago, my two-year-old self was onto something.

Categories: Words for Nerds | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

Crossing Words

An important anniversary is almost here—the celebration of an event that brings joy and satisfaction to millions of people.

Christmas? Oh, yeah, that’s coming soon, too. But before it arrives, those of us who love to play with words have another occasion to observe. Saturday, December 21, is the 100th birthday of something that has meant even more to American breakfast tables than the toaster.

It’s the centennial of the American crossword puzzle.

The first simple crosswords appeared in England during the last few decades of the 1800’s. A journalist from Liverpool named Arthur Wynne published what he called a “word-cross” puzzle in the New York World on December 21, 1913. That was just the beginning. Other newspapers began printing the puzzles, and by the 1920’s, crossword puzzles had become a fad. They were the cat’s meow, the berries, the bee’s knees. Some local trains even put dictionaries in their club cars to accommodate crossword-solving commuters.

Not everyone considered this a good thing. The New York Public Library’s report for 1921 huffed that “the puzzle ‘fans’ swarm to the dictionaries and encyclopedias so as to drive away readers and students who need these books in their daily work, can there be any doubt of the Library’s duty to protect its legitimate readers?”

In 1924, The New York Times complained that puzzles were a “sinful waste” and that solvers “get nothing out of it except a primitive form of mental exercise . . . .” The newspaper itself didn’t start publishing crosswords until 1942. With an irony that word-lovers have to appreciate, the puzzles in The New York Times are now regarded as the gold standard for challenging crosswords.

If you want to learn more about the history of the crossword puzzle, you can browse here. Even better, here’s a link from Parade magazine where you can print a copy of Wynne’s first puzzle and solve it in his honor. (Note: It’s not as easy as it looks.)

And this weekend, as you enjoy your newspaper, take a second to lift your coffee cup in honor of Arthur Wynne. If you know that a dagger can be called a “snee,” that a black cuckoo is an “ani,” and that a pasture is a “lea,” it’s probably due to him. If you have ever called yourself a “cruciverbalist,” it’s because of Mr. Wynne.

And if you regularly exchange cross words with your sweetheart over the breakfast table, you now know who to bla—thank.

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