Thursday, September 19, 2013

An idiot by any other name

Slang is language that takes off its coat, spits on its hands, and goes to work.
Carl Sandburg

As the poet Carl Sandburg suggested, slang is the language of the common man, the working man, the man in the street or however you wish to describe ordinary folks. English teachers, college professors and professional people may use slang, but most of it seems to originate out in the street, and especially in schools, playgrounds and wherever young people hang out. It also originates in bars and pubs, as my Sept. 6 post (He's cherry merry) illustrates.

Just as there seem to be an incredible number of slang terms to describe those who are intoxicated, so there are many used to describe fools and idiots. I recently came across an impressive list in Stuart Berg Flexner's 1982 book Listening to America. Here are just a few samples from that list, which covers about seven unusually large pages:

addlebrain, in use since 1674

beetlebrained, 1604

birdbrain, 1943

blockhead, 1549

cabbagehead, 1682

chowderhead, 1819

clown, 1563

dimwit, 1922

dodo, 1628

dope, 1896

fathead, 1842

featherbrain, 1839

goof, 1570

hockey puck, 1970s

jelly bean, 1915

lamebrain, 1934

lunkhead, 1852

muttonhead, 1804

nincompoop, 1676 (originally spelled niconpoop)

ninny, 1593

nitwit, 1926

numskull, 1724

out to lunch, 1950s

playing with half a deck, late 1960s

retard, 1976

scatterbrain, 1790

simple, 1220

slow, 880

yahoo, 1726

Chances are you are surprised at how old some of these slang terms are. The list illustrates how someone in each generation manages to come up with a new way to call somebody else else an idiot.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The secret of English

Mixture is a secret of the English island.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, English Traits

English has never been a pure language. Few languages are, but because England has had so many invaders over the centuries and because the English have conquered, or at least visited, so many other countries, the language now includes words borrowed from more than 350 other languages.

The three major sources for English words have been Anglo-Saxon (the Angles were a Germanic people from which England got its name), Latin (the Romans controlled England from 43 to 409 A.D.) and French (the Normans conquered England in 1066). A fourth major source of words was Norse because of the Viking invasion of 793. The Vikings left behind the pronouns they and their, as well as such words as window, rake and scare.

Henry Hitchings notes in The Secret Life of Words (2008) that Anglo-Saxon, Latin and French are responsible for many of the rich array of synonyms in the English language. "The Anglo-Saxon word is typically a neutral one; the French word connotes sophistication; and the Latin or Greek word, learnt from a written text rather than from human contact, is comparatively abstract and conveys a more scientific notion," Hitchings writes. He offers as examples the verbs rise, mount and ascend (Anglo-Saxon, French and Latin respectively) and go, depart and exit. Other examples are fire, flame and conflagration and holy, sacred and consecrated.

Various people have, from time to time, attempted to artificially restore purity to our language, such as by emphasizing Anglo-Saxon words over the French versions. "The standard argument," says Hitchings, "has always been that Anglo-Saxon words are pure and French ones artificial, barbarous and infused with the dark scent of depravity."

Many people prefer purebred dogs, yet mutts tend to be healthier and, ideally, combine the strengths of different breeds. Its much the same with languages. Purity is not always a virtue.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Thomas Jefferson's books

Without his books, Thomas Jefferson would not have been Thomas Jefferson.
Bill Bryson, At Home

In colonial America, it didn't take much to build an impressive personal library. And until Benjamin Franklin started the first subscription library in 1731, there wasn't any other kind. John Harvard had 400 books when he died, a number "considered so colossal that they named Harvard College after him," Bill Bryon reports. When Thomas Jefferson, living in rural Virginia, began accumulating a thousand books every decade or so, people noticed. Like most of us who love our books, Jefferson was protective of them. Visitors were allowed to look over his library only if he himself accompanied them.

Yet after the British burned the new nation's library during the War of 1812, Jefferson offered to sell his entire library as a replacement. It amounted to 6,487 books, for which he received $23,900. The librarians were unimpressed with many of his books, which covered such topics as cooking, wine making and art that they weren't interested in. Others were in foreign languages or were of an "immoral and irreligious nature."

After that, Jefferson set about building a new library with the money he got from his old one, while the Library of Congress used his books as the start of what was to become the largest library in the world, now including more than 115 million books, many of them about such topics as cooking, wine making and art.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The perfect bookstore in my mind

We dream of the perfect bookstore. We search far and wide to find it. When we blow into a new town, we scour the cityscape for something somewhere that lives up to our notion of proper bookselling. But the only place we find it is in our dreams.
Tom Raabe, Biblioholism

Several weeks ago I imagined my ideal restaurant. (See The perfect restaurant in my mind, July 22). Today I want to do the same thing with bookstores. As Tom Raabe observes, there is no such thing as a perfect bookstore. And even if a shop did fit all of my other criteria, they still probably wouldn't always have a copy of the book I'm looking for. Not even Amazon can do that. But we can dream, can't we? Here are the qualities of my dream bookstore.

Books, books, books: I go to a bookstore to see books, and lots of them. I like to discover books I didn't even know existed. I really don't mind if a bookstore also sells magazines, greeting cards, DVDs, board games, coffee, donuts and other stuff as long as it is clear to anyone who walks through the front door that it is primarily a bookstore. I hate having to walk to the back of a store to actually find any books because the front half is devoted to displaying other items. I recognize that most stores depend on the sale of more profitable goods to stay in business, but I want them to at least pretend to be a bookstore.

The worst bookstore I can recall was the one at Grove City College back in the early 1990s when my son was a student there. They sold everything but books. If you wanted a Grove City sweatshirt or a Grove City mug, that was the place to go. But if you wanted to buy any book other than a textbook at the beginning of the term, you were out of luck.

Yesterday I visited Half Price Books in Columbus near the Ohio State campus. They've done some remodeling since my last visit, and now most of their books are in the back of the store. When you walk through the front door, all you see is DVDs, CDs and electronic games. To be sure, the back room with the books is much larger than the front part of the store, but I still want to see books when I walk through the door.

Both order and chaos: On my last visit to a Barnes and Noble store, I noticed a half dozen nonfiction books on a table supposedly devoted to notable paperback fiction. That offended me, for some reason. Don't Barnes and Noble employees know the difference between fiction and nonfiction? Maybe they don't, because this sort of thing happens all the time. If books are going to be organized in a store, I want them to be organized properly. I want authors on the fiction shelves to be in alphabetical order, and I want nonfiction books to be shelved under the proper categories.

At the same time, not all books necessarily have to be organized. I love sale tables where you are likely to find just about anything. There's a used bookstore in Akron that is much too small for all its stock. There are stacks of books everywhere that they haven't been able to find shelf space for. I don't know what the fire marshals think about all these books blocking aisles throughout the store, but I love it.

Something old, something new: My ideal bookstore sells both new books and used books. Haslam's in St. Petersburg is like this. About half of their books are new or remaindered. The other half are used. You can find just about anything in Haslam's. When I'm in Florida, I would rather go there than to the beach.

Bargains. Maybe it's a good thing books aren't as cheap as we wish they were. My house would look even more like that Akron bookstore than it does already. Even so, I like a bargain, and I hate to pay full price for anything. I bought eight books in Columbus yesterday for about $50. All the books were either used or remaindered. They would have cost several times that amount had I paid full price for them when they were first published. Even when I do buy new books, I expect a discount.

A place to get lost in: I mean this both literally and figuratively. One of the Columbus bookstores I visited yesterday was the Book Loft in German Village. This place has a maze of 30-some rooms on several levels, some the size of your living room, others the size of your hall closet. Different music plays in each room. (They also sell the music.) There are many dead-ends and constant twists and turns. You just have to wander until you find the only exit. I also wonder what the fire marshals think about this bookstore. A visit here is like a visit to Powell's in Portland, Ore., but on a much smaller scale.

Whether I can get physically lost or not, I enjoy a bookstore where I can lose track of time, where my mind can roam and my imagination can soar. I want a place where I can waste a whole afternoon, sort of a fantasyland for bibliophiles. Visiting a bookstore should be like going on an adventure, like taking part in a treasure hunt.

There are a lot of great bookstores in this world, but the perfect one still exists only in my mind.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Infamous cookies and war heroes

What Americans are being is famous or infamous (there's no longer a distinction) or fabulous or centered or self-actualized or spiritual or eco-conscious or, frequently, real fat.
P.J. O'Rourke, Don't Vote

Infertile means something very different than fertile. Inedible doesn't mean what edible means. Ineligible is just the opposite of eligible. So I have no idea how flammable and inflammable came to mean the same thing, leading to confusion, and sometimes fires when someone sees a notice that something is INFLAMMABLE and then lights up a cigarette.

As P.J. O'Rourke observes, famous and infamous, once very different things, have also come a long way toward becoming synonyms. There's a website ( that discusses "the infamous Jacques Torres Chocolate Chip Cookies" in very favorable terms. (I'm not even sure that famous would have been the right word, since I've never heard of these cookies.) A statue of British war hero Sir Barnes Wallis, inventor of the bouncing bomb, carries a plaque saying that his efforts toward winning the war were infamous. In everyday conversation, one hears one word about as much as another, both apparently meaning the same thing.

In fact, they mean something very different. George Washington was famous. Benedict Arnold was infamous. Winston Churchill was famous. Adolf Hitler was infamous. John F. Kennedy was famous. Lee Harvey Oswald was infamous. Infamous means what notorious means. The word implies a bad reputation, not a good one. When President Roosevelt said Dec. 7, 1941, would be "a date which will live in infamy," he didn't mean there would be parties and parades to celebrate the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

The dictionary definition of infamous requires the user of the word to make a value judgment. One has to decide whether someone is famous or infamous. One person might describe George W. Bush as famous, another as infamous. The same with Lady Gaga or Charlie Sheen. It is a word that wise people use sparingly, and never when talking about cookies.

Monday, September 9, 2013

How should we count martyrs?

How one defines a word can sometimes make a big difference. It can also make a difference how one interprets that definition.

The September issue of Christianity Today contains a short article by Sarah Eekhoff Zyistra about a controversy in Christian circles over the word martyr. A group called Jubilee Campaign issued a report that Christian martyrs numbered approximately 7,000 last year, including nearly 1,000 in Nigeria alone, where Muslims have been actively persecuting Christians. Another group, Open Door, says there were 1,200 Christian martyrs in the world in 2012. Then the Vatican put the number at closer to 100,000.

The difference seems to have less to do with how many people were killed last year than with how many of those who were killed qualify as martyrs.The Oxford American Dictionary I have before me gives three definitions for the word: 1) a person who suffers death rather than give up religious faith. 2) one who undergoes death or great suffering in support of a belief or cause or principles. 3) one who suffers greatly. Each succeeding definition adds significantly to the number of people who qualify as martyrs. The third definition makes most of us a martyr at one time or another in our lives.

The Christian church has historically followed the first of these definitions, or something close to it. This definition suggests that death, for a martyr, is a matter of choice. Martyrs are those who would rather die than denounce their beliefs. Someone who dies when terrorists bomb a church is not necessarily a martyr, by this understanding of the term.

The word itself comes from the Greek word martus, meaning witness. This, too, has historically been a part of the Christian understanding of martyr. A martyr is someone slain while actively witnessing for the faith. This limits even more the number of those who can be considered martyrs.

So why does it matter? Isn't one person's death as much a loss as another's? Nik Ripken, a global strategist with the Southern Baptist Convention International Mission Board, is quoted in the Christianity Today article as saying that counting too many Christian deaths as martyrdoms ta
kes away from the deaths of those who actually were actively witnessing to the faith. "That reduces (their) story," he said.

Yet Todd Johnson, director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, argues that a strict definition of the term "limits the scope of the problem." Obviously 100,000 deaths suggests a much bigger problem than 1,200 deaths.

It's an interesting question. As someone who values words, I tend to side more with Ripken on this. The word martyr should be more than just a synonym for victim.

Not every soldier who dies in combat is a hero. Not every black person killed by a white person is the victim of a hate crime. Not every Christian killed by a Muslim is a martyr.

Friday, September 6, 2013

He's cherry merry

Writing in The Adventures of English, Melvyn Bragg says that before the Revolution, Benjamin Franklin compiled a list of 229 slang expressions meaning "he was drumk." Bragg doesn't list them all, but he lists quite a number of them. Here's my own still shorter list:

He's casting up his accounts

He sees the bears

He's cherry merry

He's half way to Concord

He's spoke with his friend

He's dizzy as a goose

He sees two moons

He's going to Jerusalem

He clips the King's English

He's got the Indian vapors

He's out of the way

He's oil'd

Of these, only the last is likely to be heard today. The Thesaurus of Slang, published in 1988, lists "well oiled" among the hundreds of slang terms in use at that time. Among others are tight, tipsy, bombed, stewed, stiff, stinko, plastered, hammered, wasted, looped, high, blotto, juiced, stoned, tanked, potted, fried, smashed, polluted, zonked, loaded, lubricated, mellow, paralyzed, petrified, pickled, wall-eyed, plonked, giddy, seeing double (which is a bit like seeing two moons), owled, plowed, dipsy, off the wagon, blasted, boggled, lathered, etc.

Each generation seems to add its own slang to the list. The hippies of the 1960s added the phrase spaced out, which referred to the influence of drugs but could also apply to intoxication from alcohol. The phrase was a reflection of that time, when exploration of space was on everyone's mind.

More recently, hip hoppers, also referring to drug use, gave us based out, blisted, bonged, buzzed, chopped, cracked out, dancin' with the devil, ripped and a number of other expressions, according to Tom Dalzell in Flappers 2 Rappers. Of these, dancin' with the devil at least sounds like it could have been heard and understood in Ben Franklin's time.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The power of music

Violinist Eugene Drucker, a member of the Emerson String Quartet, shows himself to also be a gifted writer in his 2007 novel The Savior. In an imaginative story set during the closing days of World War II, a young German violinist named Gottfried Keller, who somehow has managed to avoid being forced into the army and sent to the front, entertains wounded soldiers in military hospitals. He hates it and so, in fact, do most of the soldiers compelled to listen to classical music.

Then one day Keller is given an even more disagreeable order. He is sent to a Nazi labor camp to play for Jewish prisoners who have been worked nearly to the point of death. The camp's kommandant, supposedly in the name of science, wants to see whether Keller's music, performed over a series of days, can restore hope and meaning to the lives of these people.

Keller soon begins to wonder whether he, too, has become a prisoner in the camp. He wonders whether those in power have found out about his relationships with two Jews before the war, a man who was a close friend and a woman he planned to marry. Will these few prisoners he plays for be spared? Or will they be killed and he along with them?

Just as the novel begins to seem predictable, Drucker throws in some surprises. How does the power of music manifest itself in the story? Who is "the savior" of the title? Discovering the answers to these questions makes for a rewarding reading experience.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Necessary songs

From that time on she sang Christmas carols, '"Happy Birthday to You," the school fight song, "America the Beautiful," "Blowing in the Wind," and all other necessary songs, in full voice; when asked to join in on a chorus or clap hands to a beat, she joined in and clapped hands; she marched down aisles, recited the Girl Scout creed, saluted flags, said grace, wore name tags, repeated solemn oaths and shook hands with the total stranger to her right. And not once in thirty years did she fail to find such an occasion hateful and freshly humiliating.
Jincy Willett, Jenny

I'm with Jenny, the title character in one of the stories in Jincy Willett's excellent 1987 collection Jenny & the Jaws of Life. I, too, cringe and try to hide when compelled to sing what she terms "necessary songs," those songs that everybody knows and everybody sings and most people don't seem to mind. I do mind, however, and even though Jenny is a fictional character, I am still glad I am not alone in feeling the way I do toward some of the songs and rituals mentioned in the story.

I attended a birthday party yesterday and, as usual, I faded into the background when it came time to sing "Happy Birthday." Of all the necessary songs, this is the worst. It's so mindless, so repetitive. It's not quite so bad when it's my own birthday and I don't have to pretend to sing along. I wish it were within my power just to change the song a little bit, perhaps altering the second line so it went:

Happy birthday to you.
May good luck follow you.
Happy birthday dear __
Happy birthday to you.

I'm sure I'd still hate the song, but possibly not to the degree I do now.

I enjoy Christmas music, but I try to avoid the most familiar carols when I can, listening instead to songs that are a bit more obscure. On most public occasions, however, it can be impossible to escape the necessary carols that everybody knows. Necessary secular Christmas songs like "Jingle Bells" and "Winter Wonderland" are even worse.

Not all rituals make me uncomfortable. I don't mind the national anthem, although it seems silly to sing it at baseball games. I find some pageantry and ceremony quite moving. I tend to cry at parades. I can live with wearing name tags, saying grace and shaking hands. I don't even mind wishing you a happy birthday. Just please don't ask me to sing it.