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