Category Archives: Language & Grammar

Thurber’s Writings & Drawings


James ThurberBooks of James Thurber‘s cartoons and writing were always on the shelves at my grandparents’ home, as well as on my parents’ bookshelves. I read them, as I did everything else on those shelves, when I was quite young.

I still remember his odd, eccentric cartoons with their primitive lines but sharp and bizarre wit, although I can’t recall much if any what stories I read of his back then (and I am looking forward to reading today what I haven’t read since I was in my early teens).

Yet despite my fuzzy memory for literature of my past, I still recall the enjoyment of doing so at my grandparents’ home during the Sunday dinner; a house full of family; uncles, aunts and cousins bustling about. Me sitting in a stuffed chair reading while the adults fussed in the kitchen and drank wine, and the younger kids played on the living room floor. The books were worn, hardcovers well-thumbed and a little yellowed. Some had tattered dust jackets, others none. I loved their feel and their smell.

There were other titles I recall, too from that era: Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan, Boys’ Own Annual, Don Marquis (Archy & Mehitabel), Beano comic collections (sent over every Christmas by my English grandparents), encyclopedia volumes, The ABC & XYZ of Beekeeping, a big family bible, some pre-war books on engineering and mechanics. I eagerly read them all.

That redolent warmth of family get-togethers; the shared, noisy space and the pleasures of reading and playing, followed by a homemade meal and then crowding around the TV to watch Ed Sullivan – it all came back to me when I recently found a collection of Thurber’s works in a local used book store – mint condition, too!

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The Responsibility of Free Speech


The stages of argumentIn January, 2015, Marie Snyder, on her blog, A Puff of Absurdity, raised the question of how free should speech be. I share her concerns about the apparent limitlessness of our rights: our right to free speech is not matched to any inherent responsibilities, civic or moral, to behave in a mature manner, nor does it require anyone to speak the truth. And we are not taught in our educational system either the basics of argument (in the classical sense), rhetoric or even manners and civility.

I don’t always agree with her positions (although I did like her take on Montaigne), but this one I agree wholeheartedly with:

People say some truly cruel things, and I’m not convinced we should have a right to be publicly malicious.

Many people feel they have that right. And they willingly and eagerly trespass well beyond basic civility into libel and slander – often telling outright lies (as we know from the local blogosphere) and engaging in vulgar insults and name calling.

Snyder is also concerned about the venomous nature of those attacks and the very personal nature of some of the comments, well outside the forum for civic debate. Those attacks erode the credibility of the attacker, but they also fuel an online hatefest as others pile into the virtual mosh pit to contribute their venom to the mob frenzy.

As the newspaper’s editor, I always believed that a politician’s stand, speeches, votes and ideologies are open territory for criticism. And that criticism should be fair, any claims based on documented facts, and disagreement always made respectfully and civilly. It should never descend into a personal, ad hominem attack. And to resort to vulgarity and name calling is the lowest of the low in the ladder of civic engagement. Snyder writes:

Venting and criticizing are two different things with a different purpose and, as such, deserve a different forum. Venting is what we do with a close friend listening privately; it has no place in a public debate. This distinction is all the more important when openly criticizing people in positions of power further down the line – like MPs that you’re likely to see in your grocery story, or local journalists, or even teachers who didn’t sign up to be in the public eye in the same way politicians and journalists do. With open access to an online forum seen by millions, it has become far more important to teach argumentation skills at a young age, and to offer reminders everywhere. But if we can’t teach people to stop venting in public places, to actually control their own outrage like a theoretical grown-up might do, then I think (big breath) we need to have some legislation in place to prevent or punish this action.

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Happy Talk


A recent study proved an old notion – the Pollyanna Hypothesis - that there is a “universal human tendency to ‘look on and talk about the bright side of life'” according to a team of scientists at the University of Vermont. The story was reported on Science Daily recently. Reading through newspapers, magazines, websites, music lyrics and movie titles in ten languages, the researchers concluded that “probably all human language skews toward the use of happy words.”

That struck me as counter-intuitive. Maybe it’s just my own experience with local media and bloggers, but I would have thought they’d find more negativity, especially in media and social media. I sure have.

Maybe it’s just a regionalized thing, and what happens here doesn’t reflect trends happening in the rest of the country and the world. Maybe everywhere else, media are more positive, more objective and happier (insert snort of derision here – a quick scan of headline pages from traditional/national media and media accumulators like Drudge also shows a lot of negativity…).

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The Ampersand, Etc.


AmpersandAmong my many iPad apps is a simple one called ‘Ampersands.’ All it does is display, in large format, numerous ampersands from different typefaces. A brief introduction tells the viewer it was the designer’s intent to show how the character had become art in it its own right. It accomplished that to some degree, but it is also limited; showcasing only a very small handful of ampersands out of tens of thousands, all simply shown alone on the screen. And it does it without explanation why that particular character was chosen.

Beautiful, but the limitation in numbers makes it somewhat frustrating. The author’s choices are good, but there are others I would argue are even better. That’s because type is, like any art form, deeply personal. What strikes me as elegant others might see as ungainly. What I really want is a lot more examples – as well as some explanation, history – and to see each set in type, in context so we can appreciate its beauty better.

Robert Bringhurst, that maven of typographical design, is almost dismissive of the ampersand, saying simply,

Often the italic font is equipped with an ampersand that is less repressed than its roman counterpart. Since the ampersand is more often used in display work than in ordinary text, the more creative versions are often the more useful.
(The Elements of Typographic Style, 2001, ver 2.4, p.78)

Well, that’s all true, but it doesn’t explain why the italic form is often more decorative or why type designers have chosen that particular character to become so playful and free. Or how it is used in display, and why such use continues to delight and amuse us. And the history is well worth knowing; it’s almost a subversive tale how a simple Latin word, ‘et’ grew into the curlicue character shown above.

Keith Houston, in his delightful book, Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographic Marks (Norton, 2013), dedicates a whole chapter to the ampersand: 18 pages of information and examples about a character I suspect few really give much thought to when using it. I am now better educated in ampersand-ish.

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Words, Your Brain and Sex


Naked readingOne of the reasons I’m a dedicated librocubularist* can be found in a story on IFL Science that is headlined, “Learning New Words Activates The Same Brain Regions As Sex And Drugs.” It opens:

While it doesn’t get much better than sex and drugs for many out there, new research has found that simply learning a new word can spark up the same reward circuits in the brain that are activated during pleasurable activities such as these. No wonder there are so many bookworms and scrabble addicts out there.

So nothing like a good, brisk read through the Compact English to get in the mood, eh? Get all purfled from the effort of learning new words. While you groak your snoutfair mate and suggest she festinate her reading while she tells you to be testudineous while she deliciates her words…

The actual article this story draws from doesn’t exactly say that learning new words is the same as sex or drugs. What it says is that learning them lights up the regions of the brain that kicks into play when it wants to reward you. At least it works on people who were being studied under MRIs, not necessary those in libraries or bookstores. Don’t go ecstasiated over it, yet.

It does the same thing for gambling, although I have to admit for this unrepentant mumpsimus, my own reward-centre connection for learning kicks a much more powerful punch than that for gambling. It’s a burden I bajulate well, though.

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On the hustings


Hustings meeting
I’ve been going door-to-door for the past few weeks in my campaign for re-election. Stumping on the hustings, as it’s called in Canada. Or at least that’s how I’ve always heard it used.

Hustings is an odd, old word, an anachronism that survives, seemingly, only in the world of politics. It comes from the days when England was a series of small kingdoms suffering frequent invasions by the Danes and Vikings. A few of the old Germanic and Norse words have managed to survive in our language, reminder of those distant, violent days.

The first known use, Wikipedia says, in a charter dated 1032 CE. But it probably was in oral use long before that document.

Husting derives from an Old Norse word, “hús” which meant ‘house. ’ It combines with “thing ” to make “hústhing,” which meant a ‘household assembly held by a leader.’ The meeting of the men who were in the household of a noble or royal leader. They would be the noble’s ‘cabinet’ or advisors.

Husting later came to mean more generically any assembly or parliament. In Old English, as the Online Etymology Dictionary tells us, it meant ‘meeting, court’ or ‘tribunal.’

The word appears in Middle English – the language of Chaucer – referring to the highest court of the City of London. From there is begins an odd transformation to mean the platform where the Lord Mayor and aldermen presided. By the early 18th century, it meant any temporary platform on which parliamentary candidates were nominated. And by 1719, it came to mean generally a platform for political speeches.

That evolved into an even more general sense of the election process itself. In England, it still refers to a meeting or an assembly where all candidates are present. Or, as Wikipedia says, “a combination of a debate, speeches or questions from the electors.” You can “go to the hustings” or “attend the hustings” as a member of the audience, or as a politician (Word Wizard notes) you can “hit the hustings” or “take to the hustings.”

I’ve often heard it said candidates are “on the hustings” when on the campaign trail, going door-to-door. This isn’t exactly the sense meant by the term, but calling it “stumping” is equally incorrect if we’re to be true to the etymology (see below).

There are online references to a verbal form too: to hust, although I’ve never encountered it in Canada. The singular form of the noun – husting – seems to have vanished while the plural form survives.

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Some Latin Quotes to Ponder


Pinterest (fake Latin quote)Here are some translations from Latin quotations I took from a few books of mine, notably The Anchor Book of Latin Quotations, compiled by Norbert Guterman (Anchor-Doubleday, New York, 1966 and reprinted 1990) and Cave Canem: A Miscellany of Latin Words & Phrases, by Lorna Robinson (Walker & Co., New York, 2008).

Some of these have resonance in today’s politics, even local politics. Others have resonance in events, issues and thoughts about the world. Some are simply words that have resonance to me and my own choices in life.

Terence:

People who are unsuccessful are all somehow inclined to be suspicious: they are prompt to take offence. Because of their poverty, they are always sure you are slighting them. Omnes quibus res sunt minus seondae, magis sunt nescio quo modo suspiciosi: ad contumeliam omnia accipunt magis: propter suam inpotentiam se semper credunt ludier.
From Adelphoe, 605.

Who do those words make you think of? The people who post angry messages on social media just to get a response? People perennially suspicious of the intent and motives of others? Bitter bloggers?

But as Appius Claudius Caecus wrote, “Quisque faber suae fortunae:” each is the architect of his own fortune. We can each choose to be positive, or we can choose to be negative, and from those choices our fortunes and futures spring. I choose the positive.

Accius:

One must always be on one’s guard: there are many snares for the good. Vigilandum est semper: multae insidiae sunt bonis.
From Atreus

Words that our incumbent members of council – and indeed all candidates for council – should heed. No matter how much good you think you do, someone will always find fault. They set snares for you, blame you for failing, even as you do good. Someone will always attempt to make your best efforts seem bad. Someone will always belittle and denigrate what you sincerely believed was in the best interests of all.

Rise above it. As Horace wrote in Carmina, “Aequam memento rebus in arduis servare mentem:” Remember when life’s path is steep to keep your mind even.

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Abusing quotation marks


What goes through your mind when you see words in a paragraph or a sentence surrounded by quotation marks? Like that sign in the image on your left? That they are words excerpted from conversations or written content? Or that they are special; peculiar words, or perhaps used ironically, sarcastically or in jest?

Take these examples from the “Blog” of Unnecessary Quotation Marks:

  • “Chicken” pot pies $5.99
  • Please open the door “slowly”
  • “Push” the last channel button.
  • No “Free” refills

It makes you wonder, doesn’t it? What is in the pie that isn’t “chicken” but we’ll pretend it is? Try reading them aloud and putting air quotes around those words. Ah, now you get it. “Slowly” means open the door really quickly, right?

Words in quotation marks tell the reader not to take them seriously or literally. They’re telling you that what’s between the quotation marks isn’t what’s in the pie. That you really need to pull the button not push it as was sarcastically suggested. They usually mean the opposite of the word within the quote marks.

As Distractify notes, quotation marks around words make people suspicious. That sign that says Professional “Massage” makes people go nudge-nudge, wink-wink. One that just reads Professional Massage doesn’t raise an eyebrow. I’ll eat fresh sushi, but stay far away when it’s advertised as “fresh” sushi.

So what about the sign that offers “Beer” for sale? Is that “beer” just coloured water? Pop? Or a vodka cooler? And you have to ask how used that “new” underwear really is before you buy it. Those quote marks just beg you to ask questions.

BuzzfeedMis-using quotation marks for emphasis is a fairly common form of grammatical abuse. The irony deepens when abusers don’t realize others treat the words in quotation marks as sarcastic or ironic. But the readers will see it thus and treat the content rather differently than intended. As in meaning something opposite to what is implied by the words themselves. Like that professional “massage” – nudge, nudge…

Buzzfeed offers more examples of quotation mark abuse. You may laugh at most – except the one selling guns as tools of “freedom” which is a bit scary, given the crazy gun culture in the USA. And that “sushi” – you have to ask yourself what it really is. Would you eat it?

Similarly, the Huffpost gives this example of abused quotation marks. “Quality” installations suggests the opposite and hard-boiled “eggs” – Nudge-nudge, wink-wink – are really potatoes….

And as you might expect, there’s even a Facebook page where you can list your latest examples of “unnecessary” quotation marks. Like this one…

Facebook image
These are not the confidential files you are looking for…. nyuck, nycuk, nyuck…

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