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  • January 24th, 2020

WORD(S) FOR THE DAY

By Joel M. Vance

 

As one who has dabbled in the English language for going on 70 years, I occasionally find myself puzzled by questions, not to mention nagging irritation over the use and/or misuse of words, both published and spoken. I realize that I run the risk of being labeled a grammar Nazi, not to mention setting myself up for being sharp shot by those who are bugged by having their grammatical shortcomings pointed out by a smartass, otherwise known as me.

 

I was trying to take a nap the radio on low volume when a guest on a talk show, who just happened to be a former poet laureate of the nation, used the word “argumentative” and my linguistic and grammatical antennae bristled. Do we need the “at” in the middle of that word? How about a simple “argumentive”? I have long been bugged by those who say they do “preventative” maintenance on something. But then that’s me— I’m too lazy to look it up in my tattered Miriam’s dictionary from college days to find out which, if either, is correct.

 

After all, I spent many years believing that the word “gazebo” instead of being pronounced “gah-zee-bow”was pronounced “Gazebo” as if a damsel were gawking at her beau and I once confused  the family doctor by confusing a “diuretic” with something that causes diarrhea. He didn’t know whether to prescribe Kaopectate or give me a motorman’s friend to pee in.

 

Back in the latter stages of grammar school, kids were terrorized by the necessity of diagramming sentences. I don’t know if that exercise exists today, but I am certain that lingering trauma in my subconscious produces a visible shudder of revulsion at the very thought of dissecting a simple sentence as if it were a defunct frog in a biology lab.

 

As best I remember, trying desperately not to, you took a simple declarative sentence and broke it down into subject, predicate, modifiers, and other stuff that I’ve forgotten, by drawing lines as if you were outlining the bracket of a basketball tournament.

 

The result was an assortment of hashmarks that looked like the back of a galley slave whipped by the first mate of a pirate ship for having questioned the orders of the evil ship captain, possibly by using incorrect grammar.

 

Most of what I know about grammar and punctuation, has been learned through osmosis— reading until my eyes turned bloodshot and writing until my mind was the same. When I was in high school I had access to my parents’ antique Underwood typewriter, a manual contrivance as distanced from today’s computer keyboard as a model T Ford would be from a Lamborghini. On this rickety anachronism I wrote a novel, the plot and voice of which I swiped from the, for the times, bawdy writing of Thorne Smith—an alcoholic fiction writer from the Roaring Twenties whose most notable character was Cosmo Topper.

 

One of my pet peeves language wise is the use of the word “wise” adjectivally. There’s nothing wise about it— it is just stupid wise. After many years of trial and error (mostly error) I have finally solved the mystery of the difference between “it’s” and “its.” But I suspect I am in the minority.

 

And I confess that I’ve never quite figured out the whys and wherefores of who and whom. Where would Dr. Seuss be if he had written “Horton Hears a Whom”? Or who would go to listen to a rock band titled “The Whom”? And I would never have watched the old television show Kojak where tough guy Telly Savalas menacingly rumbled  “who loves ya, baby?” “Whom loves ya, baby?” I think not.

 

 I have no right to criticize those who mangle basic English. In common with, I suspect, the vast majority of English-speaking people, I misuse “lay” and “lie” with regularity. I know that you lay a book down before you go to lie down for a nap— inanimate objects take lay while animate ones get the lie verb. (I resisted, mightily, the urge to say “the book got laid, before the person did.”)  What’s more, the Ink Spots song tells us that “it’s a sin to tell a lie.” Is it a sin to confuse “lay” and “lie”? Common usage has pretty much eliminated the distinction between the two and I, for one, am willing to bend to the will of the majority.

 

More confusion with lay/lie. You can lie while standing up, but theoretically you should lie down, not lay down before your nap. So many words spelled the same have totally different meanings. You can lead a horse to water, but unless it is the jumping frog of Calaveras County, you shouldn’t fill it with lead. And you can lie either standing or prone—Donald Trump does it all time.

 

Of all the confusions of the English language—and there are many— the one that perhaps bugs me, as an old artilleryman, more than any other is the misuse of the branch of the military once known for riding horses. The folks who climbed the Biblical mountain, likely were riding camels when they ascended Calvary. The folks who messed around with the wrong Indians at the foot of the Big Horn Mountains in Montana were horse-mounted cavalry.

 

 

 General Custer made his big mistake saying to his troops “I couldn’t care less about how many Indians are over the hill.” Instead of saying what far too many people incorrectly say “I could care less,” he was grammatically correct and fatally wrong. Possibly he also said “all’s I want to do is whup up on some Indians.” I hear it all the time (often, dammit not “all the time”) — people adding an “s” to the word “all”.

 

Speaking of superfluous words I just read it in a book by one of my favorite authors. Two people “met up” in a social encounter. Unless, perhaps, they met on top of Mount Calvary, they probably met on the level or just, more accurately, “met.”  And my favorite author just stumbled again by referring to a “consensus of opinion.” Too much information—“consensus” is correct.

 

Furthermore, he said apropos of nothing, what is the difference between “further” and “farther”? You wouldn’t say “farther more, apropos of nothing.” And you wouldn’t sing “further along, we will know all about it.” According to the experts, “farther” refers to physical distance—for example something is farther than something else, while “further” refers to “figurative and non physical distances.” (I.e. or, if you prefer, e.g. and isn’t this getting confusing and farther, er, further from the truth.) The hell with it.

 

Geographically, you can get to “Laugh-e-ette” in Louisiana (not “Loff-e-ette” Louisiana, by way of the “Appa-latch-ian” Mountains (not “Appa-lay-chian”) mountains. Probably always best to ask the people who live there how they pronounce their homeplace. Back during World War II when there was some sensitivity about long-standing place names the town of “Ber-Lynn” became Burl-in and Japan became”Jay-pan”.

 

Down along the southern border of the United States is a group of people whose grammatical status is, to me, confused. Their actual status is abused, maltreated, bullied, misunderstood, and wrongfully reviled by the political right wing. But, grammatically, are they immigrants or emigrants? I think technically, they are emigrants, those who seek to enter the United States from somewhere else. It’s my possibly confused understanding that they are not immigrants until they actually enter the United States and so far Donnie Trump and his evil minions have done their worst to prevent that from happening. Everyone in this country, dating back to the dawn of mankind, is an emigrant, an arrival from somewhere else. My distant forebears emigrated from France more than a thousand years ago as immigrants to what became the British Isles, from whence they subsequently emigrated to what would become the United States…. as immigrants. Subsequently, they journeyed from Virginia to Missouri’s territory, thus becoming migrants. Confusing, ain’t it?

 

Over the centuries no group has altered English more than poets.  For example, suppose Clement Moore had written “’twas the night ere Christmas….” Say what? And what does “’twas”mean? But if he had said “it was the night before Christmas….” It wouldn’t scan and almost certainly would not be around to be recited every holiday season. Poets are free to wrestle the English language to the mat in order to bring music to words, not words to music.

 

I know ‘twas is a contraction of it was, and a useful word in poetry. For example, Charles Dodgson (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll) used the word to great effect to begin a verse warning of the dangers posed by a mythical monster named the Jabberwocky. His nonsensical caution sounds to me frighteningly like the garbled ravings of a certain politician of today at one of his political rallies preaching nonsense to his devoted deplorables.

                                “Twas brillig and the slithy toves/

                                Did gyre and gimble in the wabe.

                                All mimsy were the borogoves/

                                And the mome raths outgrabe.”

 

Our present day presidential Jabberwocky is especially frightening because he has his finger on the nuclear (not nucular) button. Others of my grammatical gremlins. Want a couple more? How about “realatore” instead of “realtor” and “jewelery” instead of “jewelry”?

 

Although some of the finest stories I cherish are, indeed, mini novels poetically set as lyrics to memorable tunes. I am a great fan of story songs—those musical pieces that encapsulate a mood or a story in a few words. “So set ‘em up, Joe/I’ve got a story that you oughta know….” So lamented Frank Sinatra in his memorable story song “Make it one for my baby/and one more for the road.”

 

Speaking of lost souls pouring out their sad stories in barrooms, how about June Christy opting for “something cool” in the song of the same name.  The Misty Miss Christy, in a story song about a faded and jaded lady tells us about the downward spiral of this careworn beauty who “once went to Paris in the fall” but now is stuck in a bar a long way from home, coyly accepting a cigarette and “something cool” from a stranger whom we have no trouble imagining is a guy looking for a cheap hookup.

 

Sometimes it’s not pathos that characterizes a story song, but the sheer cleverness of the lyrics. In “Glowworm” the Mills Brothers tell a lightning bug to “turn on the AC and the DC.” And “swim through the sea of night, little swimmer/thou aeronautical boll weevil.” Absolutely magical use of words. The incomparable Peggy Lee characterizes the romance of John Smith and Pocahontas (no, Donny, the historical Indian maiden, not your arch enemy): “sun lights up the daytime/moon lights up the night. I light up when you call my name/’cause I know you’re gonna treat me right.”

 

But the very same Peggy Lee went from the feverish heights of passion to the pit of desolation in what has to be the most despairing story song of all time: “Is That All There Is?”  “And when that final moment comes and I’m breathing my last breath/I’ll be saying to myself…. is that all there is?”

 

But as for me I won’t be saying “I couldn’t care less.” And I hope I say it grammatically correct.  When I check out alls I want to do is get it right.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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