Friday, December 28, 2012

Talking funny

In England the Royal Mail delivers the post. In the United States the Postal Service delivers the mail. That's just one of hundreds, probably thousands, of examples of how Americans speak the same language as their cousins across the sea, but speak it very differently. Americans, of course, think the Brits talk funny, while the British think it is the Yanks who talk funny.

These two major versions of the English language (Australians and others have their own) have been in competition with each other almost from the time the original 13 colonies were established. Bill Bryson notes in his book The Mother Tongue that Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) criticized American usage of words like glee, jeopardy, smolder and antagonize. What Johnson failed to realize is that these words had actually originated in England but had, by the 18th century, fallen out of favor there, while Americans retained them.

There are a number of other words and phrases coined in England that the English forgot but Americans remembered and that the British then thought sounded funny. Among those listed by Bryson are hog, mayhem, magnetic, chore, skillet, homespun, deck of cards (the English call it a pack of cards), progress (as a verb), platter (a large dish) and fall (as a synonym for autumn. Thanks to American books and movies, the British are now reclaiming some of these words as their own, as well as picking up a number of actual Americanisms.

Meanwhile, the British have contributed words to American vocabularies: miniskirt, radar, gadget, weekend and even smog. Americans might think they are the ones who invented these.

Books, movies, television, music and, of course, travel help Brits and Yanks understand one another, but the English spoken on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean remain very different.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

My Reading Life

Several years ago I found the following meme on a book blog, and I have been filling in the blanks at the end of each year since then. The challenge is to answer each question using only the title of one of the books you read during the year. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but it is usually fun. Here goes the 2012 edition:

Describe yourself: The Man Who Made Lists (The Soloist and Stan Without Ollie might also work.)

How do you feel: Fool

Describe where you currently live: The Land Beyond the River

If you could go anywhere, where would you go: The Lost World

Your favorite form of transportation: Step by Step

Your best friend: Enter Jeeves

You and your friends are: Introverts in the Church

What's the weather like where you are: Waiting

What is the best advice you could give: Loving

Thought for the day: I Love It When You Talk Retro

How you would like to die: Fatal Remedies

Your soul's present condition: A Thread of Grace

Some of these answers even come close to being true. The answer to the question about the weather makes more sense than it might appear. We, in fact, are waiting for the snowstorm to pass by so we can head to Florida for the rest of the winter.

By the way, the title for this post is also the title of another book I read this year.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Keeping the old carols fresh

We hear Christmas carols and other Christmas music just once a year. Even so I am usually tired of these songs long before Christmas Eve arrives. How many times can one hear, let alone sing, "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing"?

I have found, however, that the old carols remain fresher longer when I focus less on the tunes and more on the lyrics. Many of these carols are actually very well written, full of ideas that a person can find fresh and exciting each Advent season.

"O Little Town of Bethlehem," written by Philips Brooks in 1868, is especially well written. Lines like "The hopes and fears of all the years/Are met in thee tonight" and "Be born in us today" can give any Christian something to meditate about right up until Christmas Eve and beyond.

"Angels, from the Realms of Glory" isn't really a hymn about angels, it turns out. It is a hymn about praise. The first stanza calls on the angels to worship. Subsequent stanzas invite the shepherds, the magi and all of creation, not just human beings, to do the same.

"It Came Upon the Midnight Clear" expresses a similar idea in its last lines, "And the whole world give back the song/Which now the angels sing." In "Joy to the World!" we find, "While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains/Repeat the sounding joy." And lines in "Silent Night" read "With the angels let us sing, Alleluia to our King."

Hymns, in general, I believe, are meant to be studied, not just sung on Sunday mornings. If studying them pays no rewards, then singing them seems pointless, however nice the tunes. Pop songs can be full of empty words and get away with it. Not so hymns. They must contains ideas worth thinking about. And ideas, I find, are less likely than tunes to become tiresome.

Friday, December 21, 2012

A clash of cultures

Clashing cultures often make good stories, and Eric Flint's 1632 may describe the ultimate culture clash. A small area surrounding Grantsville, W.Va., (a fictional town modeled after Mannington along U.S. 250) gets suddenly transported back to 17th century Germany. How this happens, Flint doesn't even attempt to explain. His West Virginians simply describe it as the Ring of Fire and go on with their lives, albeit in what is now a strange and decidedly unfriendly environment.

What the people of Grantsville have going for them is late-20th century technology and good old American know-how, plus a strong commitment to American values. They, in fact, are determined to establish a new country called the United States right there in the middle of Germany, never mind that they have but one state, and that a very small one. What they have going against them, besides their small numbers, are several warring armies, plus a little thing known as the Spanish Inquisition.

The battles, described by Flint in great detail, are mostly one-sided, thanks to American weaponry, plus a bouncy 18-year-old former cheerleader who turns into a deadly sniper who rarely misses her target.

Like in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, most of the main characters pair off and get married by the end of the novel. Unlike in Gilbert and Sullivan, most of the women are pregnant by their wedding day.

Part fantasy, part science fiction, part historical novel, 1632 is an exciting and very readable book, even if not fully satisfying. Numerous sequels by Flint and other authors have kept the saga going since 1632 was published in 2000.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Stan's road to Ollie

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, almost certainly the best comedy team ever in movies, appear so right together that it is a little hard to imagine one on the screen without the other, or even one of them living off-screen without the other. Yet pairing the two of them actually took several years and a lot of movies, in some of which they both appeared, before it dawned on anybody that Stan and Ollie would make a great comedy team.

Ted Okuda and James L. Neibaur explore this long road to cinema success in their new book Stan Without Ollie: The Stan Laurel Solo Films, 1917-1927 (McFarland & Company). As a solo performer, Laurel was liked, but not loved, by audiences. As an inventor of gags he was among the best in Hollywood at that time, but his performances fell short of the mark set by Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. He was good, but not great.

Okuda and Neibaur dissect each film Laurel made, or at least each one that still exists. They explain what's good and what's not so good about each movie. They repeat some of their points endlessly, but saying something different about each of dozens of films must be as difficult as making each of those films original and funny. But just as Laurel did make some quality solo comedies, so Okuda and Neibaur do make some excellent points.

Among these is to explain the influence Mae Dahlberg had on his career. She is often credited with suggesting the young Vaudeville comedian change his name to Stan Laurel, and she changed her own name to Mae Laurel, even though she and Laurel were never married. After the name change, however, her influence on his career became mostly negative. Women, then as now, needed looks and/or talent to succeed in movies, and Mae Laurel had neither. What she did have was her connection with Stan, who managed to get her parts, sometimes major parts, in a number of his early films. Directors hated working with her, however, and she eventually even became a threat to his career until Laurel managed to separate himself from her.

Okuda and Neibaur also have much to say about James Finlayson, who was featured in many of Laurel's solo movies, as well as in a number of Laurel and Hardy films. There was even a brief attempt to form a Laurel and Finlayson comedy team, but that didn't work. Finlayson was always better as the comic villain.

Eventually Oliver Hardy began appearing in Stan Laurel movies, often playing the butler or the heavy or whatever. They made several films together before they were actually teamed together. The rest is movie history, but there are other books that tell that story.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Choosing the right pronoun

Among the many difficulties I had with high school Latin was trying to accept the notion that some words are masculine, while others are feminine. Why should captivus (prisoner) be masculine, while casa (house) is feminine? It made no sense to me.

In English we retain some of Latin's gender suffixes in names (Julius, masculine; Julia, feminine, for example), but thankfully, most English words are neither masculine nor feminine, and when speaking or writing, we need not worry about gender. That is, until we get to pronouns.

When you begin a sentence like this, "If someone is looking for a new car ...," what personal pronoun should you use to finish the sentence? When I was in school, I, like everyone else, was taught to use the masculine pronoun: "If someone is looking for a new car, he should ..." Thanks to the women's movement, this is now widely perceived as sexist, as if it implies that only men look for new cars. Today most people would say, "If someone is looking for a new car, they should ...," never mind that it uses a plural pronoun to refer to a singular noun. I've heard women, when clearly referring to an unspecified man, use the word they, as if any use of a masculine pronoun, even when talking about men, is sexist.

Some writers, as if trying to right past wrongs, always opt for a feminine pronoun: "If someone is looking for a new car, she should ..." When I come across this, I always want to look back at the previous sentences to discover what woman is being referred to. Usually there isn't one. The writer wants to avoid the appearance of sexist language and so become blatantly sexist.

Other writers, trying to be more evenhanded, alternate between he and she or him and her. This can really get confusing. My respect for a writer always goes downhill quickly whenever I see such flip-flopping.

For myself, I have three guidelines I try to follow, and I would recommend them to others:

1. Whenever possible, rewrite sentences to avoid having to use either a masculine or feminine pronoun. This can be done easily in most instances. Example: "Anyone looking for a new car should ..."

2. The phrase "he or she' can quickly become burdensome for both writer and reader if it is overdone, but sometimes it is simply the best option available. Don't be afraid to use it sparingly.

3. As a last resort, just use the masculine pronoun and be done with it. A little harmless sexism is better than either confusion or bad grammar, if you ask me.

Friday, December 14, 2012

The poet in all of us

"We all write poems," John Fowles says in The French Lieutenant's Woman, "it is simply the poets are the ones who write in words."

That says to me that we all have feelings. We all experience beauty. We all think sometimes about life and death and love.

A good poem is one that expresses a thought or a feeling or an experience that readers recognise and identify with. Good poets, even good prose writers, can do that in a few lines. Most of the rest of us can't.

I hold Robert Frost's poem The Road Not Taken dear to my heart, not because it is necessarily such a great poem, but because it expresses something I often think about. Where would I be and what would I be doing and, even, who would I be married to if I had taken some road other than the one I chose. I may write this poem, frequently in fact, but as John Fowles would put it, Frost is the one who so ably put it in words.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Ill or sick?

I count more than a dozen websites that discuss the difference between the words ill and sick. Let's add one more, although I was under the impression there is no difference, except that ill may seem slightly more polite or formal than sick to many of us.

In the United States the two words do mean the same thing, although one word may be used more than the other in certain contexts. Nobody says, "I took an ill day," for example. To some, ill suggests a more serious malady than sick. (We may speak of a "terminal illness" but probably not a "terminal sickness.") In Great Britain, however, there is more difference between the two words. To the British, the word sick suggests nausea. Sick is even used as a synonym for vomit, as in, "There is sick on the floor."

Bill Bryson, who lived in England for a number of years, says in his book Mother Tongue that the British often say ill in instances where Americans would say injured.

The reason English has so many words that mean essentially the same thing is that the language has gained words from so many different sources, and many of these duplicate existing words. In this case, sick is a Saxon word, while ill, with Scandinavian origins, was brought to England by the Normans. The Normans influenced nobles in England more than peasants, which may explain why the word ill still sounds a bit more refined than sick to our ears.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Waiting in restaurants

"There are three kinds of waitresses," Garry Shandling used to say, "the good, the bad ... and the kind I always get." In her memoir Waiting: The True Confessions of a Waitress, Debra Ginsberg suggests there are actually just two kinds: those who accept that this is their life and just get on with making a living (you can usually find these at Bob Evans and most family restaurants) and those who wait on customers while they wait for their real lives to begin (the kind you are more likely to find at Applebees, Cheddars and similar restaurants).

For two decades, Ginsberg was a waitress of the second kind. Her whole family was in the restaurant business, and so, beginning as a teenager, she worked in her father's restaurants and various others, mostly in Oregon and California. She believed her true calling was to become a writer, but she wrote very little and after her son was born and she became a single mother, she wrote nothing at all. Serving drinks and dinners to other people paid the bills.

Eventually she realized that waiting tables provided all the material she needed for her to end her other wait and start writing. The resultant book, published in 2000, provides fascinating reading for anyone who either serves food in a restaurant or eats it. She tells some interesting and often hilarious stories, reveals what goes on behind the scenes (who knew a restaurant could be such a sexual hothouse?) and even critiques several movies, such as Five Easy Pieces and As Good as It Gets, that have waitresses as important characters.

Ginsberg has since written two more memoirs and a novel, but writing is a tough way to make a living and she realizes that at some point she may be forced to go back to waiting ... and waiting.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Cummings before concerts

Last night before a stirring Christmas performance by Apollo's Fire, I finished reading E.E. Cummings' little book of poems 1x1 yet again. I like the poems, and because the book fits neatly into a jacket pocket, I often take it with me to read while waiting for a concert to start and during intermissions. I have read the book at least three times, and because I generally read each poem two or three times each time through, you could say I have read the book at least six times. I began again at the beginning before the concert was over.

Cummings is not easy going, which explains why each poem needs to be read more than once. Lines like this are commonplace in his work:

        were in(give
give)bud when to me
made for by love
love said did
o no yes

Many times I haven't a clue what Cumming is saying. Other times I simply don't care. I love the poems simply for their word play, their infectious joy, their humor. Spring, as in the above lines, is a frequent topic in these poems. So is love. One times one equals one, and many of these poems speak of two people in live becoming one. Poetry about spring, especially in December, and  love, at any time of year, are always welcome.

Here are some of my favorite lines from three of his poems:

death,as men call him,ends what they call men
_ but beauty is more now than dying's when

so world is a leaf so tree is a bough
(and birds sing sweeter
than books
tell how)
so here is away and so your is a my
(with a down
around again fly)
forever was never till now

love is a deeper season
than reason;
my sweet one
(and april's where we're)

Reading E.E. Cummings must be a little bit like digging for gold. It's hard work, but the nuggets one finds are worth the effort.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Lewis-Tolkien friendship

Much has been made of the fact that J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were close friends who spent time in each other's company every week for a number of years. Yet this friendship soured somewhat during the last few years of Lewis's life (Lewis died in 1963, 10 years before Tolkien's death). They remained friends and continued to see each other frequently, yet the closeness was gone, replaced by a certain tension. Why?

There may have been several reasons why these men, both prominent Oxford dons who wrote fantasy literature, drifted apart. Here are those identified by Humphrey Carpenter in his book The Inklings:

1. Tolkien was a Roman Catholic, Lewis a member of the Church of England. Tolkien began to suspect, rightly or wrongly, that the Belfast-born Lewis retained some of the Northern Ireland prejudices that Protestants often had for Catholics.

2. Lewis loved and enthusiastically praised The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, which Tolkien read to the Inklings chapter by chapter as he was writing them, but Tolkien didn't think much of the Narnia books, and said so.

3. Tolkien was not nearly as enthusiastic about Charles Williams as Lewis was. "We saw less and less of one another after he came under the dominant influence of Charles Williams," Tolkien wrote in 1964.

4. As a Catholic, Tolkien did not approve when Lewis, late in life, married a divorced woman, the American writer Joy Davidman Gresham. Further, the way Lewis constantly spoke about Joy rankled Tolkien and other Inklings because Lewis had always discouraged any talk about wives or domestic matters while he was single. Later Tolkien came to appreciate Joy more when his own wife happened to be hospitalized at the same time as Joy and the two women got to know and like each other.

For all the strain that developed in their relationship, Lewis and Tolkien continued to have strong feelings for one another. After Lewis died, Tolkien wrote in a letter to a member of his family, "But we owed each a great debt to the other, and that tie, with the deep affection that it begot, remained. He was a great man of whom the cold-blooded official obituaries have only scraped the surface." Had the circumstances been reversed, no doubt C.S. Lewis would have said something similar about his friend J.R.R. Tolkien.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Spelling ache

The English language has all kinds of spelling oddities that make it all the more amazing that mere children can do so well in national spelling bees. Most of us can live our entire lives still unsure whether it should be compelling or compeling, concieve or conceive. Why, for example, do we have four, fourteen and forty? Why not fourty?

"Usually in English we strive to preserve the old spelling, at almost any cost to logicality," Bill Bryson writes in The Mother Tongue. He illustrates this with the word ache, which until the time of Shakespeare was pronounced aitch, but only when it was a noun. When used as a verb, it was pronounced ake and spelled the same way. So there were actually two different words spelled differently, pronounced differently and meaning two slightly different things.

In time they were combined into a single word for use both as a noun and a verb, but against all logic, English adopted the verb pronunciation and the noun spelling

Friday, November 30, 2012

Worthy of Graham Greene

I must be a sucker for novels with the names of other authors in their titles. Just this week I bought a copy of Cleaning Nabokov's House by Leslie Daniels. A few weeks ago I finished The Last Dickens by Matthew Pearl. Also on my shelves I have The Poe Shadow by the same author and, among other books, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress and The Crimes of Charlotte Bronte. Now I have read Gloria Emerson's 2000 novel Loving Graham Greene.

Emerson, a New York Times war correspondent, wrote just the one novel before her death in 2004, but it is a small gem. The story tells of Molly Benson, an idealistic American woman with more money than sense. Novelist Graham Greene has recently died as the story opens, and Molly is still in mourning. She loves his books and once met the great writer. She imagines he was a close friend, although she is beginning to realize his letters to her were merely polite responses to her letters to him, nothing more. In any event, she wants to make some grand gesture in Greene's memory, and she decides to use her money to try to free imprisoned writers in Algeria.

Algeria is a dangerous place at this time, especially to foreigners, but Molly decides she must go there herself, as she imagines Graham Greene would have done. With her are her friend Bertie, another middle-aged woman, and Toby, an overweight younger man, who is invited along only because Molly's husband, busy making a film in Japan, thinks two women shouldn't travel alone to a Muslim country.

There is a scene where the group visits an Algerian hospital and Molly learns about their desperate shortage of supplies because of lack of funds. Yet she doesn't even consider donating any of her money to this cause. She prefers schemes more grand and symbolic, however impractical they may be. She believes her plan, which involves carrying a lot of American money in her shoes and handing it out to anyone who might conceivably be of help, is more worthy of Graham Greene.

Emerson's novel is alternately funny and sad. Just about every sentence is a masterpiece. The novel, at any rate, is worthy of Graham Greene.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Titles worth the price of the books

Such books as Scouts in Bondage and Bizarre Books celebrate the outrageous titles and unintentionally hilarious titles given to books over the years, titles like Book of Blank Maps with Instructions and Draw In Your Stool.

Leafing through the latest catalog from Edward R. Hamilton Bookseller I find that plenty of books with odd titles are still being published. Here are some of the gems I discovered:

The Wisdom of Psychopaths

How Long Can a Fly Fly?

The Little Black Book of Mafia Wisdom

The Trouble With Being Born

Will You Be My Valenswine?

Absinthe & Flamethrowers

Detectives Don't Wear Seatbelts

How to Poo at Work

How to Sharpen Pencils

Slow Death by Rubber Duck

Some of the books might be worth owning just for the pleasure of seeing your guests' faces when they spot these titles on your coffee table.

Monday, November 26, 2012

I choose clerihews

A clerihew is a light four-line verse with an AABB rhyme pattern that is usually about someone named in the poem. It is named for the man who created and popularized the verse form, British novelist E.C. Bentley, author of Trent's Last Case, among other books. Bentley's full name was Eric Clerihew Bentley. Bentley wrote at least one clerihew about himself:

Edmund Clerihew Bentley
Worked swiftly if not gently,
Tracking murderers down by a hidden clew
In whodunit and clerihew.

Among his most famous verses is this one:

Sir Christopher Wren
Said, "I am going to dine with some men.
If anyone calls
Say I am designing St. Paul's."

Jim Bernhard offers a number of his own clerihews in his book Words Gone Wild. Here are two I particularly enjoy:

A crotchety satirist was Evelyn Waugh
And a dauntless a man as you ever saw.
It's surprising that his best work all
Came after his Decline and Fall.

Bing Crosby
Said, "No matter what his flaws be,
For me it's no prob
To do another picture with Bob."

While reading Humphrey Carpenter's book The Inklings, about the friendship of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams and others, I learned that Tolkien also enjoyed tinkering with clerihews, often with other members of the group as his targets. Here is one of Tolkien's contributions:

The sales of Charles Williams
Leapt up by millions,
When a reviewer surmised
He was only Lewis disguised.

In the mid-1990s, The Atlantic ran a contest to see who could write the best clerihews about people in the news. Among them is the shortest clerihew I have come across:

(To compare)
Makes more money
Than Sonny.

Another winner was this:

Mia and Woody
Debated not would he
Make love to the kiddie
But did he.

Do a search for clerihews to find a lot more on The Atlantic web site.

Friday, November 23, 2012

The king's heart of darkness

Transporting Africans to work as slaves in the American South and elsewhere was bad enough, but turning them into slaves in their own native land may have been even worse. Slave owners in Georgia or Mississippi at least had an incentive to keep their slaves alive and healthy because it cost money to replace them. When colonialists in Africa needed more workers, however, they just went out and captured them - or captured women and children to force men to work until they dropped from exhaustion.

Adam Hochschild's 1998 book King Leopold's Ghost tells how this worked in the Congo, although other colonies had similar atrocities. When Leopold became king of Belgium in 1865, he envied those other European countries that had colonies. Belgium didn't have one, and he was determined to get one.

Through trickery and the expenditure of relatively little money, Leopold soon claimed ownership of the vast Congo. It wasn't actually Belgium's colony. It was his own, and all revenue from the colony went into his own pocket, even though he used the Belgian army to enforce his will there. He never visited the Congo himself.

First the colony produced large quantities of ivory, but the real wealth came from rubber. Rubber plants grew wild in the Congo. It just required someone to find those plants and harvest them. That arduous task was given to African workers, who were each given large quotas to fill if they valued their lives. Thousands upon thousands died, either from overwork or from murder.

For most of his life, ironically, King Leopold enjoyed a reputation for fighting against slavery. What he actually opposed was Arab slavery. He certainly had no objection to enslaving Africans himself, and he continued this brutal policy for decades. Mostly this was done in secret, although gradually over the years the secret began to leak out. Joseph Conrad wrote about it in his novel Heart of Darkness, missionaries told gruesome stories and a few journalists and crusaders worked hard to tell the truth to the world.

Yet even today, especially in Belgium, little is known about this sorry episode in history, although Hochschild's book has done much since 1998 to get the word out.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

How towns are named

It is apparently an old English custom, when naming a new town, to make it very clear to everyone that it is, in fact, a town. Thus, many town names were given a suffix to announce that the new town was a town.

There was an Old English word burh, which meant "place." This became a popular suffix found today in a variety of forms: Edinburgh, Gainsborough, Middlesbrough and Canterbury.

This custom carried over to the New World. Within a short drive of where I live in Ohio, one can find Olivesburg, Rowsburg, New Pittsburg and Centerburg, among other burgs.

An even more popular suffix, at least in the United States, is ville. Near my home there is a Bellville, Pulaskiville, Chesterville, Jeromesville, Perrysville, Celeryville, Leesville, Lakeville, Hayesville, Widowville, Mohicanville, Nashville and Loudonville.

Other communities have a town or ton suffix. Of these I find Fredericktown, Ankenytown, Pagetown, Honeytown, Lexington and Ridgeton.

Other towns like to call themselves a city, whether or not they actually are one. But then, a lot of the villes are not large to be even called villages either. Settlements are named when they have but a handful of people, and their chosen names may reflect wishful thinking, as much as anything.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Organization man

Peter Mark Roget (1779-1869) is so identified with his famous thesaurus, still in print more than 150 years after his death, that it would not be surprising if one found his name as a synonym for thesaurus in a thesaurus. "Roget has become a generic term for any book that supplies synonyms and antonyms," one editor has said.

One thesaurus in my possession, the 1975 edition of the Reader's Digest Family Word Finder, does, in fact, include Roget's name in its entry for the word thesaurus. It incorrectly gives Roget credit for the "basic concept" of the thesaurus. In fact, Roget's thesaurus was not the first. At least one book of synonyms goes back to the early 18th century, or about 150 years before Roget published his own.

In The Man Who Made Lists, his 2008 biography of Roget, Joshua Kendall tells that Roget, a physician and scientist, had one of these earlier books with him when, as a young man, he was giving a lecture on anatomy. "But scholars currently face a major difficulty," he started to say before adding, "No, that's not quite it." Then he consulted his synonym book and found "obstacle, embarrassment, rub, restraint, emergency, exigency, pinch, quandary and lurch." He decided that obstacle was the word he wanted, and he then restated his sentence.

Roget began work on his own thesaurus early in his life but didn't finish it until he was retired and looking for something else to do. His main interest was not words so much as order and organization. He had a compulsion to organize things, whether it was plant life, diseases or books. Kendall tells that Roget once hired a governess for his children primarily on the basis of her classification skills. She was a budding botanist, and Roget liked the way she thought, never mind her ability with children.

What was unique about Roget's thesaurus was not that it was a book of synonyms but that it was organized in an original way. He came up with nearly 1,000 concepts into which all the words in the English language could be divided. To find the right word, one first needed to determine the right concept. This proved a bit cumbersome for most people, so later editions retained the concepts - there are now 990 of them - but placed words in alphabetical order so synonyms would be easier to find.

One wonders if Roget would approve of the modern Roget's Thesaurus if he could inspect a copy. Would it satisfy or offend his own sense of order?

Friday, November 16, 2012

More underlinings

Unless we are or will one day be famous, which isn't very likely, our books are devalued when we mark in them, either by underlining passages or writing notes. The used-book trade prefers that books be kept in pristine condition. Yet those marks we make in our own books may actually increase their value to us. They can remind us, years later, what we once found important in those books. They are reminders of who we were and what we were thinking at that earlier time. We can even recall the gist of a book simply by rereading what we underlined or what we wrote in the margins.

Lately I have been doing a lot of this. Several days ago I posted some passages about children and parenting that I underlined in books read back in the 1970s and 1980s. Here are a few more underlinings from books about economics, religion, literature and other topics read during the same period:

"If we are, as I would want to reason, obliged in conscience sometimes to tell white lies, as we often call them, then in conscience we might be obliged sometimes to engage in white thefts and white fornications and white killings and white breaking of promises and the like." - Joseph Fletcher in Situation Ethics (1972)

"When I read a book that is intended (presumably) for the general public and find that I can make neither head nor tail out of it, it never occurs to me that this is because I am lacking in intelligence. Rather, I reach the calmly assured opinion that the author is either a poor writer, a confused writer, or, more likely, both." - Isaac Asimov in The Left Hand of the Electron (1972)

"Someday there will be learned theses on The Use of the Ashtray in J.D. Salinger's Stories; no other writer has made so much of Americans lighting up, reaching for the ashtray, setting up the ashtray with one hand while with the other they reach for a ringing telephone." - Alfred Kazin in Salinger (1962)

"There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal." - C.S. Lewis in The Weight of Glory (1949)

"A faith that can find no significant meaning in art and laughter, in the tragic as well as in the hilariously comic, is a faith that will find no joy in life itself." - Robert L. Short in The Gospel According to Peanuts (1965)

"The strength of a man's virtue must not be measured by his efforts, but by his ordinary life." - Pascal's Pensees (17th century)

"Propaganda thus serves more to justify ourselves than to convince others; and the more reason we have to feel guilty, the more fervent our propaganda." - Eric Hoffer in The True Believer (1951)

"Most social revolutions promise a reign of the saints. Most promise a new type of moral man. And most intend to produce this higher type of morality through the coercive power of the state. This is precisely the impulse in the human heart which democratic capitalism finds to be the most productive of evil." - Michael Novak in The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (1982)

"The fact that the greatest advance made in woman's progress toward political equality came hard on the heels of a devastating World War was not accidental. ... Western women, in that sense, were the real winners of the century's great world wars." - Amaury deRiencourt in Sex and Power in History (1974)

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

When rhymes don't rhyme

Words are easy like the wind;
Faithful friends are hard to find.

That couplet from one of William Shakespeare's sonnets jars me a little bit because it doesn't quite rhyme. Many poets employ what I consider to be weak rhymes -- words like wind and find -- that are close, but not quite direct hits. Such near misses are considered quite acceptable in poetry, especially now in an age when most poetry has no rhymes at all.

I shouldn't complain. I once rhymed affliction with affection, but that was in light verse. I hold Ogden Nash to a different standard than William Shakespeare.

Perhaps I and others judge earlier poets too harshly, however. Bill Bryson writes in his book Mother Tongue that the way we pronounce many words has changed considerably over the centuries. "We know from Shakespeare's rhymes that knees, grease, grass, and grace all rhymed (at least more or less) and that clean rhymed with lane," he writes. At one time, he says, serve rhymed with carve and convert rhymed with depart.

"As late as the fourth decade of the eighteenth century," he writes, "Alexander Pope was rhyming obey with tea, ear with repair, give with believe, join with devine (cq), and many others that jar modern ears. William Cowper, who died in 1800, was still able to rhyme way with sea. July was widely pronounced 'Julie' until about the same time."

Some pronunciations have changed more in the United States than in England. In the U.S., for example, clerk rhymes with work. In England it rhymes with lark. Thus, rhymes by British poets may not sound as satisfying to American ears as do rhymes by American poets, and vice versa in Great Britain.

So those of us who expect rhymes to actually rhyme perhaps need to give poets, especially long-dead poets, a little break.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Begining at the end

The most notable thing about The Night Watch, a 2006 novel by Sarah Waters, is the way the plot moves back in time, starting in 1947 postwar London, then moving back to 1944 and finally to 1941. This device wouldn't work in most novels, which we want to start at the beginning of the story and work toward the end, but it works here, where the most dramatic events have already happened when the story opens.

The plot follows the stories of several intersecting characters whose lives are relatively settled in 1947, but there are suggestions of past trauma. Rather than using flashbacks, as most novelists would do, Waters just moves the story backward until we learn the answers to the key questions. How did Vivian get entangled in a deadend romance with Reggie, a married man? Why did her brother Duncan, a seemingly harmless young man, serve a prison sentence? How did Kay, Helen and Julia get involved in a lesbian love triangle?

There are some novels that you finish, then want to start reading again at the beginning to see what you missed. The Night Watch is one of them.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Language and lingo in the Burmese war

George MacDonald Fraser, author of Quartered Safe Out Here (see my Nov. 5 post), writes beautiful English, which is why his books have been so popular for so many years. Even as a very young soldier in Burma near the end of World War II, his mastery of the language probably had a lot to do with his battlefield promotion over older, more experienced men. So for the most part, Fraser's book makes easy and entertaining reading. Yet there are still three language-related problems for readers.

1. Military lingo. Most groups of people have their own lingo that, to some extent, separates them from outsiders, and the British soldiers fighting in Burma were no exception. Fraser introduces us to a number of terms used by those soldiers. A mucker, for example, was what a man called his immediate comrade. To stand stag meant to have guard duty.

2. Hindustani words. More problematic are the many native words that the soldiers adopted during their time in Burma. Porridge became burgoo. Tea was chah. An embankment was called a bund. Fraser has a footnote whenever these words are introduced, and a glossary at the end helps if you forget one or can't tell what it means from the context.

3. Scottish dialect. Most difficult of all is understanding what these soldiers, most of them from the Cumberland region, are saying to one another. Fraser may have trouble, after more than half a century, remembering all the details of what he did in Burma, but he somehow remembers entire conversations that go on like this:

"Awreet - Ah'll oondoo it for thee meself'. Then we'll baith git a drink - oot o' thy bottle!"

"Ye miserable sod, w' at difference does it mek w'ee's bottle we soop frae?"

"That's w'at Ah'm saying'! W'at fer should we use my bottle 'stead o'thine? Y'are always on the scroonge, you! Guzzlin' big-bellied git!"

In small doses, especially if read aloud, these conversations can be understandable and amusing, but Fraser continues them sometimes for a page or more at a time, and it is tempting to skip over them entirely.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The sound of clocks

Our movie discussion group met in a lovely home last month to watch Shadowlands, the 1994 film that stars Anthony Hopkins as C.S. Lewis and Debra Winger as Joy Davidman Gresham. There were a couple of charming old clocks in the room, and periodically during the movie these clocks would let loose with a series of cuckoos, bells and chimes. We all had to strain to hear what Jack (Lewis) and Joy were saying.

Why do old clocks make so much noise? In fact, it was their noise that was their reason for existing in the first place.

Early clocks were not very accurate, not nearly as reliable as a sundial, at least on a sunny day. But sundials could not tell monks when it was time to get up to pray or workers when it was time to go home. Mechanical clocks, with their cuckoos, bells and chimes, could. The earliest clocks didn't even have dials. You couldn't tell by just looking at them what time it was. You had to wait for them to sound.

In several languages, clocks got their names from the bells they rang. In Dutch, the word for bell is klok, in Danish it is klokke, in Swedish klocka and Norwegian klokka. The English borrowed this idea and came up with clock, even though English speakers call a bell something different.

Today we may not enjoy the sound of clocks while we're watching movies or trying to sleep, but a few centuries ago that noise had the ring of modern technology and was welcomed.

Monday, November 5, 2012

An old man remembers the war

I don't know why George MacDonald Fraser waited until 2007 to publish his memoir of his experiences as a young British soldier in Burma toward the end of World War II, Quartered Safe Out Here. He was probably much too busy writing his Flashman novels and other books. But if the passage of more than half a century made his memory a bit foggy about some of the details, it did give him the advantage of perspective, and many of the best passages in the book were made possible by the perspective of an old man in the 21st century looking back at what it was like being a soldier in the 1940s.

There is, for example, his commentary on what British soldiers were fighting for and what they weren't fighting for: "They did not fight for a Britain that would be dishonestly railroaded into Europe against the people's will; they did not fight for a Britain where successive governments, by their weakness and folly, would encourage crime and violence on an unprecedented scale ...

"No, that is not what they fought for - but being realists they accept what they cannot alter, and reserve their protests for the noise pollution of modern music in their pubs."

Later he writes about the morality of dropping A-bombs on two Japanese cities to end the war, a question, he says, that never occurred to soldiers in the field. He considers the possibility that he could have been one of the many Allied soldiers who would certainly have been killed if those bombs hadn't been dropped and the fact that, in that case, his children and grandchildren would never have been born. "And that," he writes, "I'm afraid, is where all discussion of pros and cons evaporates and becomes meaningless, because for those nine lives I would pull the plug on the whole Japanese nation and never even blink. And so, I dare suggest, would you. And if you wouldn't you may be nearer to the divine than I am but you sure as hell aren't fit to be parents or grandparents."

In truth, Fraser really didn't see that much action in the war. The major battles happened elsewhere. Yet his memoir, due to his writing skill and a lifetime of thinking about those events, make it excellent reading.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Names for newspapers

I can think of just a handful of newspapers that have started during my lifetime - USA Today being the most prominent among them. But there have been many newspapers that have ceased publication during that time and others that have merged. At one time, of course, even relatively small towns had two or more newspapers, and the competition was fierce.

For the most part, the names of these many newspapers did not show much originality. Most of them were called either the Times, the Journal, the Gazette, the Press, the Tribune, the Chronicle, the Bulletin, the Herald, the Sun, the Gazette, the News, the Courier or the Star. After mergers, the names were usually combined. The surviving newspaper in the town where I live is the Times-Gazette. The newspaper I worked on for more than 40 years is the News Journal, one of numerous News Journals across the United States.

Yet a few early publishers managed to come up with unique names for their publications. Here are a few of them:

The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)
The Free Press (Detroit)
The Daily Breeze (Torrance, Calif.)
The Truth (Elkhart, Ind.)
The Repository (Canton, Ohio)
The Blade (Toledo)
The Vindicator (Youngstown)
The Town Talk (Alexandria, La.)
The Times-Picayune (New Orleans)

Ohio seems to have more than its share of newspapers with original names. Some of the names - notably the Plain Dealer, Free Press, Vindicator and Truth - suggest a philosophy behind the mere publication of the daily news.

Long may these and other newspapers prosper.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A literary thriller

What if Charles Dickens actually did write the ending of his unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood? And what if that piece of fiction was based on fact and somebody didn't want that truth revealed? Matthew Pearl takes these "what ifs" and a few others and creates his own exciting blend of truth and imagination in his 2009 novel The Last Dickens.

When Charles Dickens dies in 1870, he leaves his last novel only half-finished. Because the first six monthly installments have already been printed, his readers are eager to learn how the story ends. James Osgood, his American publisher, sets off to England to find, if not an actual manuscript, then at least clues to what Dickens intended. It soon becomes apparent that somebody much more ruthless is trying to beat him to it.

Dickens himself appears in an extended flashback about his 1867 visit to America. We are given a glimpse at the kind of superstar Dickens was in his day. This American tour, which some people believe may have exhausted the author to the point that it contributed to his early death, turns out to play a key role in the resolution of Pearl's plot.

Many of Pearl's characters, including Osgood himself, were real people, and many of the events described really happened. All this helps give Pearl's inventions the ring of truth.

For those of us who enjoy mysteries and thrillers in the literary world (such as The Book of Air and Shadows and The Bookman's Wake),  The Last Dickens is among the best.

Monday, October 29, 2012

East-west speech

In newspaper stories, one finds the phrases "he said" and "she said" in almost every paragraph. That's because objective journalism requires that virtually everything be attributed to someone. Putting a "he said" or "she said" in so many sentences can be difficult for beginning reporters, not because they have a problem with attribution but because they have a problem with using the same words all the time. They want to write "he replied" or "she explained."

The word said is favored in journalism because it is simple, short and objective. Other than that, reporters are encouraged to find different words that mean the same thing. If a building is called an auditorium in one sentence, it will be called a facility in the next. I don't know if it is a human trait, a cultural trait or just the fact that in English we have so many synonyms and so many slang expressions, but most of us don't like to repeat ourselves. We seem to enjoy finding new ways to say the same thing.

While watching televised football games recently, I have heard announcers use the following words and phrases:

down field




between the tackles

strait line

inside the numbers

In each case, they meant virtually the same thing: running straight ahead toward the goal line. Yet you rarely hear an announcer actually say "straight ahead."

In football, running the ball north-south is considered a good thing, but in our speech and writing we tend to favor going east-west, avoiding straight-ahead words like "he said" and "she said."

Friday, October 26, 2012

In a pig's eye

In the room where I write this there is a pig-shaped hat with wings that flap when one pulls on the chin strap, a pig that plays music when one bumps its nose, a flute in the shape of a pig and various other pig images. I acquired none of these for myself. They are all the result, over a period of years, of a foolish comment made to my wife that I rather like pigs.

In fact, I do rather like pigs. Growing up in a rural environment, pigs were my favorites among the farm animals. They were amusing to watch and always seemed a bit more intelligent than the other animals. Also, as a long-time diabetic, I survived for many years thanks to insulin derived from pigs. Pigs, you might say, saved my life, so I am not going to ban them, or at least their images, from my den.

From common words and phrases involving pigs, it is apparent that not everyone through history has shared my attitude toward pigs. Pearls before swine. You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. Piggishness. Hogwash. Hog-wild. A pig in a poke. Pigheaded. Sweat like a pig. High on the hog. Pig out. Pig Latin. Pig pen (when used to refer to a messy room, such as my den). None of these is at all flattering to our pig friends. Many people, obviously don't like pigs for anything other than pork chops and bacon, and people of some religious faiths don't even like them for that.

Pigs are responsible for some more flattering English words, even if their connection to the words is not so obvious. as Katherine Barber explains in her book Six Words You Never Knew Had Something to Do with Pigs. The six words are these:

porcelain - Derived from an Italian word for a female pig.

screw - From a Latin word for a female pig.

soil - Perhaps not so flattering to pigs, after all. The word refers to the mud in which little pigs like to play.

porpoise - Pig fish.

root - Digging around, as pigs are known to do.

swain - This word started out as swineherd and now refers to a male lover.

Pigs, it seems, have given us much more than pork chops and bacon - and insulin. They have bestowed on us a richer language.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A thirst for books

A week ago in Columbus, I arrived early enough for the talk by author Susan Orlean that I had time to read several pages of her new book about Rin Tin Tin and to converse with a young Chinese woman who sat next to me. This being a literary occasion, our conversation naturally turned to books.

Leanne mentioned, as a way of explaining her intense interest in books, that for most of her years of education in China, her schools had no libraries. Children, in fact, were not encouraged to read anything but their textbooks, which they were required to memorize. I asked her if she could still recite her textbooks, and she said she could.

She had textbooks for geography, politics and history, among other subjects. Instruction in politics began in the first grade and continued throughout her years of schooling in China, she said.

Now she seemed to be trying to make up for lost time. She showed me a long list of books on her cell phone that she wants to read. Among them I recall seeing Moby-Dick. She said she had read most of Susan Orlean's books, and she carried a copy of The Orchid Thief she intended to ask Orlean to sign.

Depriving children of books does not seem like a good way to encourage them to read, but it seemed to work that way with Leanne.

Monday, October 22, 2012

A question of integrity

A few years ago, while shopping for books in Canada, I found a Susan Howatch paperback called A Question of Integrity. I own a number of Howatch novels but had never heard of this one, so I grabbed it up. I wondered at the time and I have wondered many times since why this particular novel isn't available in the United States when her other novels are. The book I bought was a British imprint, but I have never gotten around to reading it.

Recently I discovered I had owned an American edition of the novel all this time, also unread. The American edition is titled The Wonder Worker. So I spent about $14 dollars for a paperback I already owned because the American edition had a different title than the original British edition.

Giving books different titles when they are published in different countries is a long-established practice in the publishing industry. Sometimes this makes sense, as when different languages are involved or when titles mean something very different in one country than they do in another. The English spoken in the U.S. isn't really that different from the English spoken in Great Britain, however. I'm not sure why the American publisher (Knopf) thought The Wonder Worker was a better title than A Question of Integrity (Warner Books). One title seems as good as the other.

Several Agatha Christie mysteries got new titles when they were reprinted in the United States. Hickory, Dickory, Dock became Hickory Dickory Death. The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side became The Mirror Crack'd. Murder Is Easy became Easy to Kill. Murder on the Orient Express became Murder in the Calais Coach. They Do It with Mirrors became Murder with Mirrors. Sparkling Cyanide became Remembered Death. Destination Unknown became So Many Steps to Death. 4:50 from Paddington became What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw.

Some of these changes may have been improvements, such as Hickory Dickory Death. Some were disasters, such as Murder in the Calais Coach. Most of them were just unnecessarily different, but still confusing to Agatha Christie fans.

I'm sure titles are changed in hope of selling more books, not to mislead readers into buying books they already own. Even so, unnecessary title changes seem unfair, not just to readers, but also to authors and to the books themselves. A book should have one title, not many titles. It's a question of integrity.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Rin Tin Tin story

Were you a Rin Tin Tin kid or a Lassie kid? Writer Susan Orlean, whom I met in Columbus Wednesday night, says that if you grew up during the 1950s you were probably either one or the other. Both dogs had popular television series running during that decade. Viewers, whether young or old, tended to favor one dog or the other. I, like Orlean, was a Rin Tin Tin kid. My wife, who just loves dogs, liked them both, although she admits she watched Lassie more often.

Orlean, in Columbus on a book tour to promote Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, says the same kids who took positions on Rin Tin Tin vs. Lassie were later divided on the Beatles or Rolling Stones question. Today we're divided on which Medicare supplement is best.

The essential difference between the two dogs, she said in her Thurber House speech at the Columbus Museum of Art, is that Rin Tin Tin was a real dog who became a movie star and then, decades later, a TV star, while Lassie was a fictional dog who was played on screen by various actor dogs. Her book tells the story of Rin Tin Tin and his descendants who took his name after his death in 1932. It is also the story of Lee Duncan, who found a litter of German shepherd puppies on a battlefield in France in 1918 and took the one he named Rin Tin Tin to Hollywood. The dog made 28 silent movies for Warner Brothers until at the end of the silent era his movie contract was canceled because "dogs can't talk." The later television series proved Rin Tin Tin could be a star even with sound.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Worth underlining

I would no sooner underline a passage in a book I am reading than I would dog-ear a page to mark my place. At least that's how I am now, a stickler for keeping books in pristine condition. Leafing through some books I read back in the 1970s and '80s recently, I was surprised to find that I underlined quite a bit back in those days.

All this underscoring makes these books less valuable for resale than they might otherwise have been, but it certainly does make it easier to find the good parts in these old books, or at least the parts I thought were good when I read them. Here are some passages I underlined, all of them having something to do with children:

"(P)arenthood requires that Daddy and Mama have the ability to place the child's well-being ahead of their own. And this is less feasible within the presently fashionable context of meaningful relationships and self-indulgence." - Daddy's Girl, Mama's Boy by Dr. James J. Rue and Louise Shanahan (1978)

"Must a divorce always be traumatic for children? The answer is probably yes." - Children Without Childhood by Marie Winn (1983)

"Nature programs the child to do two things from ages one to seven: structure a knowledge of the world exactly as it is, on the one hand, and play with that world in ways that it is not, on the other." - Magical Child by Joseph Chilton Pearce (1977)

"A school is not a home. A school teacher is not a parent. Parents have six years to prepare and motivate a child. If parents fail, the child usually does, and so does the school." - Teaching as a Conserving Activity by Neil Postman (1979)

"So some element of stress may be, on balance, useful to a child. It may help him prepare for environments more challenging than the family." - Optimism: The Biology of Hope by Lionel Tiger (1979)

"It's easy for parents to be seduced by the apparently well-intentioned surrogate on the screen and the quiet, smiling child in front of it, but every moment a little child spends alone in front of a television set robs him of an opportunity to play." - In Defense of the Family by Rita Kramer (1983)

"The key point you should impress upon your child is that a normal person has weaknesses and faults but that these do not have to affect his overall happiness or competence as a human being." - Father Power by Henry Biller and Dennis Meredith (1974)

My son was born in 1972, so I'm sure I read these books and underlined these passages with him in mind. I certainly don't need these books any longer and I was tempted to get rid of at least some of them, but those underscored lines make the books harder to part with. And with all that underlining, who would want to buy them?

Monday, October 15, 2012

Good, clean fun

In The Inklings, a fascinating 1978 book about C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and some of their friends, Humphrey Carpenter quotes Lewis describing his frequent evenings spent with Tolkien: "Sometimes we talk English School politics; sometimes we criticize one another's poems; other days we drift into theology or 'the state of the nation'; rarely we fly no higher than bawdy or puns."

Two things interest me about Lewis's use of the word bawdy.
First, he used it as a noun, not an adjective. I checked The Oxford English Dictionary, which includes an obscure usage of the word as a verb, meaning to make dirty or filthy or to defile. There is no mention of the word as a noun.

Second, the word alone, whether adjective or noun, to describe the activities of Lewis and Tolkien is somewhat surprising. Bawdy conversation - The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word as meaning lewd, obscene or unchaste - is not how most people would picture an evening involving these two scholarly and deeply religious men.

Yet according to Carpenter, the word bawdy did not mean to Lewis what it means to us today - or to The Oxford English Dictionary. Carpenter says Lewis "meant not obscene stories but rather old-fashioned barrack-room jokes and songs and puns." Lewis himself wrote that bawdy "must have nothing cruel about it. It must not approach anything near the pornographic. Within these limits I think it is a good and wholesome genre."

Lewis's use of the word may actually be closer to its original meaning. It comes from the Old French word baud, meaning merry. There is an English word, baude, now obscure, which means bold, lively or gay.

To Lewis and Tolkien, bawdy apparently just meant good, clean fun.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Valuable assets

Assets is the plural of asset, right? Well, yes, but that was not always the case.

Assets us one of the many English words that came from the French language after the Norman conquest of England in 1066. The French word was asez or asetz, meaning "enough." It was a legal term that meant, in effect, that a deceased person left behind enough property to bother dispersing to survivors according to the terms of a will, if any. The modern French word is assez, which like the earlier words is singular.

The English spelled it assets, which was also considered singular. In English, it looked plural, however, so naturally people began thinking of it as plural, using it with plural verbs. And then somebody created a new singular word - asset. Thus, a wooden chair left behind by a dead man was an asset, while his bed and chair were assets.

Today we speak also about the assets of living people - their intelligence, sense of humor, sweet smile, etc. - but the word continues to be used in estate law as it has for hundreds of years.

And that's about enough. One of the assets of this blog is brevity.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Eateries, diners and buffets

Debra Ginsberg's Waiting: The True Confessions of a Waitress  (2000) is an amusing and, for those of us often found sitting at a table waiting for our meals, informative book. The title alone makes us conscious of the different meanings of the word waiting.

I was particularly interested in Ginsberg's discussion of another word: eatery. She writes, "Any restaurant that feels the need to instruct patrons that they are actually supposed to eat there is a little frightening. Eatery also implies that the restaurant has absolutely no idea what category their menu falls into. (Come and eat here - we don't know what we're doing, but we know you're supposed to put it in you face. Hey, it's an eatery, right?)"

Her comments seem a bit extreme to me. I associate the term with restaurants that have a full menu and offer good food and lots of it. And why do menus have to fall into categories anyway? I've seen Chinese restaurants that serve Italian pasta and hot dogs. I don't see the problem, but Ginsberg does remind me that what restaurants choose to call themselves can create certain associations, both positive and negative, in the minds of potential patrons. For example:

bistro - To me, this word suggests a small, out-of-the way place that serves Yuppie Chow and not much else. I usually avoid bistros, even though I know my bias is often, if not usually, wrong.

cafe - I think of a small restaurant that specializes in coffee and tea, but serves donuts and small sandwiches in addition to those beverages. Again, I am probably wrong as often as I am right.

diner - A dictionary defines a diner as "an inexpensive restaurant with a long counter and booths, shaped like or built from a railroad car." If you want a quick, cheap, basic meal, a diner is the place to go.

grill - The word suggests steaks, eggs and other kinds of foods prepared on a grill. We most often see the word in the phrase "bar and grill," which would seem to indicate where their priorities lie. I am more likely to stop at a place that calls itself a "grill and bar."

bar, tavern - We usually associate these words with drinking establishments, although many of them serve excellent meals. In fact, one of the best restaurants in my area is a tavern. My wife and I go there on special occasions. Most of the time, however, we don't even think about bars and taverns when we are looking for a place to eat.

pub - When I toured Great Britain and Ireland in 2005, I noticed there were Chinese restaurants, Italian restaurants, Thai restaurants, etc., but no Irish, Scottish, Welsh or English restaurants. If you wanted local cooking, you went to a pub. There seem to be more pubs in the U.S. than there used to be, and the food in these places is usually pretty good.

deli - This word says sandwiches to me.

buffet - Some people associate the word with obese people and anyone who can't get enough to eat at restaurants where they have to order off a menu. Yet buffet restaurants and cafeterias are also popular with senior citizens, for whatever reason. Many people, I'm convinced, prefer Chinese buffets because they like Chinese food but don't know how to order what they want off a menu. I believe that's why there are relatively few sit-down Asian restaurants. I like buffets because, as a diabetic, I can design my plate to fit my diet, taking less meat and potatoes and more fruits and vegetables than one can get at most restaurants. The challenge is to stop eating when I know I've had enough.

If I were starting my own restaurant, I think I would just call it a restaurant to avoid the negative associations so many people have with eateries, diners, buffets, etc.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Language or literature?

J.R.R. Tolkien, remembered today mainly for writing The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, was for many years a professor of English language and literature at Oxford. As such, according to Humphrey Carpenter in his book The Inklings, he was an active participant in the debate over whether the department's emphasis should be placed on language or literature.

Tolkien came down on the language side of the argument, but he wasn't talking about teaching modern grammar usage. Rather, he wanted to teach ancient and medieval English, early Anglo-Saxon, so students could read the only kinds of literature he thought an English department should teach, those books and stories from the distant past that he loved so well.

C.S. Lewis, also a member of the Oxford faculty at the time, took another side in the quarrel. He loved modern English literature, by which he meant literature written after the time of Chaucer. "For him (Lewis) the great works of post-Chaucerian literature had, after all, been a source of joy since boyhood," Carpenter writes. "Spenser was a particular favorite with him. He knew comparatively little Anglo-Saxon literature ... So the notion that the earliest part of the course was of special importance - or, as Tolkien put it, that 'the language is the real thing' - seemed an exaggeration."

In time, Tolkien and Lewis compromised and became close friends. Lewis, in fact, later credited Tolkien with being one of the influences that led to his conversion to Christianity.

No doubt their debate over what exactly should be taught in English classes has been repeated in English departments everywhere. Even in high school, as I recall from way back in the early '60s, there seemed to be some tension between teaching good writing and reading good books. Which benefited students most? How much time should be spent on each? Term papers and book reviews were a good way to compromise the two objectives.

By the time I was in college, most of us were assumed to have learned basic spelling and grammar, and the focus was placed on literature. But which literature? I took a class on contemporary fiction, which, thinking back, could have been controversial with some faculty members in the English department. Why, someone may have asked, should we teach them Catch-22 and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest when these are novels students are likely to read on their own? Would it not be better to teach literature they would be less likely to read voluntarily.

If some professors did make that argument, they may have been right. I had, in fact, already read One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by the time I took the course, and I probably would have read Catch-22 on my own eventually. Meanwhile, I have not dipped into Beowulf since we touched on it in high school.

Yet teaching more contemporary literature serves the purpose of making students aware that great books are still being written today and that English, as a scholarly subject, is not something that ended a century or more ago. The body of work worth study is ever growing.

With each passing year, I would think English departments would have more to argue about.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Enough Outlander for now

I enjoyed Outlander enough that I was eager to read the second book in Diana Gabaldon's time-travel romantic adventure series, Dragonfly in Amber. Now I'm not so sure I want to go on to tackle Voyager, the next novel in this popular series.

Not that Dragonfly is a bad book. It is quite engrossing in spots, and the ending is particularly interesting, but there are also long dead spots where Gabaldon seems to be more interested in writing a long book (947 pages in paperback) than a good one.

For those unfamiliar with the series, it is about Claire Randall, a 20th century English woman who gets transported back to 18th century Scotland, where she meets and marries a warrior named Jamie Fraser and has many exciting adventures. In Dragonfly, she is compelled to return to her 20th century husband, whom she loves, just not as much as she loves Jamie. Now, 20 years later, she tries to tell her daughter, Brianna, about her real father.

Gabaldon is an imaginative and skilled writer, but there is a sentence near the end of Dragonfly in Amber that I reread several times and still couldn't figure out. It reads: "The air reeked of stale cigarettes and insufficiently taken-out garbage." It's the "insufficiently taken-out garbage" that confuses me. Does the author mean there is a faint smell of garbage because most, but not all, of it was taken out? Then why the word reeked? Does she mean someone failed to take out the garbage at all? Then why the word insufficiently? Does she mean just that the garbage hasn't been taken out lately? Then why not say so?

I know it's stupid to get hung up on one small sentence in a 947-page novel, but I see it as garbage that was insufficiently taken out.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Promised Land

Nearly 40 years after reading Jesse Stuart's 1973 novel The Land Beyond the River the first time, I read it again recently. The story tells of a very large and very poor Kentucky family that views Ohio as the Promised Land and crosses the Ohio River to find prosperity. The Perkins family does find a better life in Ohio. Poppie finds work on a farm. Mommie keeps having babies until she's had 15, 14 of them living. The youngsters, including Pedike, our narrator, are polite and hard-working. Most of them are unusually good students.
Adversity comes in the form of a snake bite that puts Poppie out of work and forces him to accept welfare. With his large family, he is eligible for a lot of food stamps. The Perkins soon have so much food they have to purchase several hound dogs to help them eat it all. They discover that government support offers a better life than hard work, and although Poppie is eager to get back to work, he must do it secretly and get paid in cash so the authorities won't find out.

Dependency on the government may seem to put the family on Easy Street, but it also leads to negative consequences. Family members quarrel among themselves and with other relatives. They stop attending church services. The once proud family begins to feel shame.

"Free money which we couldn't spend, free food, all of which we couldn't eat but had to feed to our hounds, was making our family soft," Pedike writes. "We were falling apart as Poppie thought we would do."

The novel, Stuart's last, feels dated in some ways, yet it also reads like a commentary on the 2012 presidential campaign. At what point does government helping people become government hurting people? That was a good question back in 1973, and it's still a good question.