Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Holy guacamole!

As a college student in the mid-1960s, I shared an apartment with three other guys. The four of us had relatively few things in common, except that twice a week we would gather around our TV and watch "Batman" together. It was always good fun.

I am not at all sure that the brooding Batman of the recent films is an improvement on the old television series that starred Adam West. A grown man who drives around in a Batmobile while dressed as a bat is, after all, rather silly behavior, much better suited to a campy comedy than a serious action movie.

Lately I have been watching those "Batman" episodes again and reliving not just the program but, in a sense, my college days.

Each "Batman" episode followed a predictable pattern. There was always a special guest villain who would commit some outlandish crime, and Batman would by summoned on the Batphone by the police commissioner. Superman may have changed into his costume in a phone booth, but Batman and Robin would change into theirs while sliding down their Batpoles - a much neater trick, if you ask me. Villains would always be caught by the end of the second episode each week, but they were never held in custody for long, apparently, because they would always be back within a few weeks to attempt another dastardly crime.

At least once per episode, Robin would coin a new expression of surprise or discovery appropriate for whatever was happening in the show at that time. Here are a few I've heard lately: holy guacamole, holy mush, holy Hamlet, holy deposit slip, holy flight plan, holy Audubon, holy crackup, holy ghostwriter, holy miracles, holy Luther Burbank, holy alter ego, holy voltage, holy sedatives, holy haberdashery, holy popcorn, holy lodestone, holy flypaper, holy memory bank, holy hoodwink, holy multitudes, holy jellymolds and holy holocaust.

And always there would be at least one fist fight per installment, with comic-book exclamations after each solid blow. These included Kapow, Boff, Zap, Sock, Whamm, Eeyou, Zowie, Thunk, Ooooff, Zwap, Whack, Crunch, Zlopp, Urkkk, Klonk, Touche, Zlonk, Whap, Clunk and Sock!

It must have been a lot of fun writing those "Batman" episodes back in the '60s.

Monday, July 23, 2012

What shouldn't you end a sentence with?

I can still remember the caption of a cartoon I saw when I was a teenager. I think the cartoon was in Scholastic magazine or some other publication distributed to students. It showed a mother about to read a bedtime story to her son in his upstairs room. The boy says, "Why did you bring that book that I don't want to be read to out of up for?"

The cartoon nicely satirized something our English teachers had been trying to teach us: Never end a sentence with a preposition. The little boy managed to end his sentence with several prepositions, yet he could be understood perfectly. Is there a way he could have said what he wanted to say that would have been both more proper and more clear?

Many writers take pains to avoid leaving prepositions at the ends of their sentences. Sometimes the result is an improvement. Sometimes not.

In his 1990 book The Mother Tongue, Bill Bryson argues that this rule of grammar, like so many others, is arbitrary and foolish. He says the rule's origins go back to 1762 when an amateur grammarian named Robert Lowth suggested that a sentence simply sounded better when it didn't end with a preposition. Later grammarians turned Lowth's suggestion into a rule. "In a remarkable outburst of literal-mindedness, nineteenth-century academics took it as read that the very name pre-position meant it must come before something -- anything," Bryson writes.

Bryson finds rules against split infinitives, the word hopefully and the phrase "different than" equally silly, more a product of conditioning and prejudice than reason.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

It was a doozy

In a book review several years ago I described a new book by a local author as being "a doozy." A reader, obviously unfamiliar with that bit of slang, called me to complain. He took the word to be a slam against the book, and he thought I should be more supportive of a local author. I had to explain that the word was actually highly complimentary. I even read the definition of the word from my dictionary to prove it.
I had grown up with the word doozy and it never occurred to me that anyone else might not know what it meant. But, in fact, there are scores of slang terms for excellence, and it is unlikely that any of us is familiar with all of them.

The book "Slang Down the Ages" by Jonathon Green devotes a dozen pages to slang words meaning excellence. The book was published in England, so many of the terms are more familiar there than on this side of the Atlantic. Here are some of the words Green mentions:

rum (This is believed to be related to Rome, not the alcoholic beverage.)
wicked, nasty, bad, vicious, mean (Our youth seem to favor negative words to express positive opinions.)
bang up
pink or in the pink
the cheese
yummy or scrummy
that's the ticket
just the hammer (This is believed to be related to the auction house, not the workshop.)
number one or numero uno
great shakes
hunky dory
neat, keen, peachy-keen
fab, groovy
socko, boffo
bodacious, hellacious

Green mentions a lot more slang words meaning, more or less, the same thing, but somehow he misses doozy. Apparently he never heard of it either.