Tag Archives: Words

A Crowded Language

Today’s guest post comes from Clyde.

We speak, by far, the language with the most words in it. The Germans manage to converse precisely, thank you, with something like a fourth or a fifth of our lexicon.

We have lots of words we do not use, and a few I could do without. Ampallung has now become an English word, but we could do without that word in all languages. (I was going to provide a link to an explanation of this, but everyone I found is too graphic.) It is a piercing through the penis. Everyone say “Ewwww.”

Some words we do not give their full and proper due. Coprolite, meaning a fossilized turd, is a word of which we could make much greater use. Start naming, to yourself only please, all the people you have known who are living coprolites.

But I still think some words are missing. We need a word for:

  1. That stuff, ragged, messing stuff, that is left when you tear a page out a spiral notebook. It is the bane of teachers. I required kids to cut off the ragged edge of such pages before they turned them in and to be careful not to drop that stuff, ragged, messing stuff around the room. I always wanted a word for it. I called it froo-froo, but that’s a stolen word. I used to hold contests to name that stuff, ragged, messing stuff. It never worked. My turkey-drawing contests worked but not that one.
  2. That stuff, stupid, cliched, never-dying stuff that gets sent to you over and over again in emails. Or at least between women. I have only rarely received such stuff, stupid, cliched, never-dying stuff from a male friend. My wife gets 4-5 a week, and everyone sending to her knows she does not like them and that I throw them all out before she opens her mail every 4-6 weeks.
  3. A tree standing alone isolated from other trees. Why, you are asking, do we need that word? I am not sure. I have just always wanted it. Any tree standing alone draws my eye, evokes some response from me.

Here are some solitary trees, uncharacteristically clumped together:

It is trees all alone in a field which have a power over me. I used to watch for the half dozen of them in the too-often-repeated drive from the Cities to Two Harbors. The only famous one of those is now gone, cut down by vandals, the Two Harbors Honking Tree, which was actually in Larsmont. This picture is by one of my very favorite students.

(We could use a word to describe the soul of the person who cut it down.)

Apparently in the right circumstance, I am not alone in being drawn to solitary trees. I have drawn many such trees. And my grand-daughter has my obsession. She draws this picture over and over again.

Share your ideas for words that should be added to or removed from the English language.

Dark Spot

Electricity is great. I’m officially spoiled!

Thanks to electricity we can stay up late and read after dark and go out to eat when we really should be in bed after a long day of exhausting manual labor.

I admit I’m hooked on this frantic, juiced existence.

But there had to be something more pure and truthful about an age when customers pushed open the store doors by hand and signs didn’t light up. For one thing, pre-electricity shopkeepers were spared the worry that a simple burned out connection would fundamentally change their message.

Or you can have it done MEDIUM well.
Or you can have it done MEDIUM well.

Maybe the old days were better.

A neon sign represents an everlasting commitment. Once you emblazon your name across the night sky, you have to be sure it remains fully and coherently lit. Otherwise a dignified title like Trail Baboon could become something perplexing, like ail boo .

When has a sign seemed inadvertently funny?

Talking Animals

Why do we have the Internet?
So we can know that somewhere there is a goat who takes its language cues from chickens.

But surely there is more to this than a simple story about an impressionistic young ungulate being raised by an exotic, feathered family – learning to scratch, peck, cluck, and lay an egg like his brothers and sisters. After all, it’s not all about the environment where you grow. Goats are around people all the time and yet they don’t mimic us.

At least not when they know we can hear them.

But communication does occur, with or without words.

Still, it might be nice to have an extended conversation in English.

If you could get an interview with only one animal, which one would you choose?

Deadline Pressure

Seeing with considerable satisfaction the way a ticking clock got the deadbeats in the US Congress to finally pass a piece of (imperfect) legislation, I commissioned Schuyler Tyler Wyler, America’s Rhyming Poet Laureate, to write a few lines about the value of time limits.

And of course I told him I needed to have something in hand no later than 20 minutes after the challenge was issued. If he couldn’t deliver, he should just forget it, I said, knowing full well that STW never passes up a commission.

His secret? He becomes a lot less picky as the time grows short.

Many lines will man diminish,
casting shadows o’er his heart.
Like a line emblazoned “finish”
set too far from one marked “start.”

Lengthy lines can form for tickets
Timberlines sit near the tree
Don’t cross lines set up by pickets.
Don’t cross lines prefaced by “fe”.

One line always worth preserving
though he’ll never, ever ask you,
every guy thinks he’s deserving.
it’s the one that follows “mascu”.

An exciting line is “chorus”.
An archaic one is “clothes”.
Lines called “border” can be porous.
Lines with water can get froze.

There are many lines that plague us:
Lines for greeting at a wedding.
And the kind they make in Vegas.
Not for marriage, but for betting.

Tucked behind a velvet curtain
sultry lines designed for “chat”.
In a hospital for certain
please avoid a line that’s “flat”.

One line makes all writers tremble
just one line gets in their head.
Makes their noggins disassemble.
That’s a line that’s clearly “dead”.

For a deadline makes them humble.
Whether genius or a jerk.
It’s the deadline makes them crumble.
Sets them free to do their work.

When have you been assisted by an inflexible deadline?

Idea People

Today’s post, for the second day in a row, comes from Dealmaker and Promoter Spin Williams, who is constantly in residence at The Meeting That Never Ends.


What a fine group of Idea Generators you are!

I saw lots of promising notions in response to my post about Wright Brothers Day yesterday, but two stood out because they are both complimentary AND mutually exclusive, which is NOT an easy thing to do!

First, Jim of Clark’s Grove came along with this:

Screen shot 2012-12-17 at 7.08.58 PM

And a little while later, Anna followed with this:

Screen shot 2012-12-17 at 7.08.40 PM

In these two inspired comments, you see the future writ out so we can know it in advance. Because I believe that science will develop an amazingly adept lie detector. Why? It must! The world demands it!

In fact, a recent study by the Government Office Of Falsehoods, Balderdash And Lying (G.O.O.F.B.A.L.) found that untruths are so pervasive and influential in our public and private lives, fully 68.2% of everything anyone hears in the course of a normal lifetime is entirely made up. A person who could reliably identify these fibs would literally hold the key to our shared destiny!

And yes, I totally made up that agency and the statistic. You could tell, I’m sure. But not all falsehoods are so easy to spot!

Jim’s idea – creating an infallible “Lie-dentifyer” would be a boon to all the world! And it would spark a frenzy of research and development aimed at creating Anna’s idea – an equally infallible Story Generator.

Finally, we would have a completely fib-based economy. That’s bound to be an improvement. True, we’d have no clearer fix on the truth, but all our wars would be words-only!

I can’t wait!

Your far-sighted pal,

I’m not sure we don’t already have the fib-based economy Spin talks about.

But let’s assume that down in your basement workshop you found a way to develop the can’t-miss lie detector Jim suggested, or the totally believable story generator Anna envisioned. Would you keep it to yourself for personal use only, or share it with the world? And why?

Happy Dozens Day!

We are in a pivotal time for humankind – the era of paranoid obsession over the numbers that appear on our calendar.

Oh, wait a minute. That’s every era.

So far, the way the numbers roll up in the date line on your checks has had nothing to do with the fate of the planet or the civilization, but we can’t help but notice when the lineup appears portentous. In nine days the frenzy will peak with the arrival of the utterly meaningless 12-21-12.

I find today more interesting anyway – more orderly and beautiful somehow.

The challenge for 12-12-12 is to write a twelve line poem with twelve syllables in each line. And you get 12 bonus points if it rhymes!

There’s nothing to keep you from telling your cousins.
The month, year and day for today are all dozens.
But why would you make it a point to be geeky?
They already think that you’re thoroughly freaky.

These digits don’t indicate anything scary.
You shouldn’t be frightened, perplexed or be wary.
Each day is a day that arrives unencumbered.
It’s people that name them and make them all numbered.

While the ones and the twos might seem key to our plot
What our calendar calls today signifies squat.
When setting the time of our big closing rally
The mind of the cosmos won’t look to our tally.

Not feeling poetical? Tell us how (or if) you’ll observe Dozens Day!

Do the Right (or the Wrong) Thing!

Today’s post comes from the Honorable Loomis Beechly, representing Minnesota’s fabled 9th district – all the water surface area in the state.

Greetings, Valued Constituents and Miscellaneous Voters,

My apologies for this message directed at a mass audience on what is a day of personal choice. I want to urge you … YOU, specifically … to go to the polls and vote your conscience today, especially if you live in the 9th district and your conscience is telling you to vote for ME.

If you’d rather vote for someone else, of course you have every right to do that, although I will feel a knife-like jab of intense physical pain if you put your “X” in someone else’s box. But don’t let that influence your decision.

The choice is yours to make.
Even if you do it wrong and ruin EVERYTHING.

But whatever you do about voting today, please don’t skip it and become a Civically Derelict American. Those who have tossed away their franchise in an expression of political ennui are the most heartbreaking and miserable of creatures. Why? They have squandered their most valuable possession, and will have no right to complain for the next four years.

Think about that. Four years without complaining? I don’t know anyone who can live that way!

You may believe that your vote doesn’t matter, but remember this – two major parties and a bunch of insanely rich people have just spent one billion dollars trying to influence what you will do today.

One billion dollars! This is the most money anybody will ever spend doing anything related to you. Seriously. So stay relevant. Stay focused. Hold your nose, get out and vote, and then go home and take a bath if you feel sullied.

But don’t be like Hamlet, who was an undecided voter right up to the end because he couldn’t concentrate on anything for more than two seconds.

Don’t believe me? Who could forget his famous Polling Place soliloquy?

To vote, or not to vote. I’m still an equestrian!
The weather is colder than a frozen scupper
that wheels barrows of contagious portions
and gendarmes against a tree of bubbles.
And through composting, befriends them.
or by proposing, spend them: a guy, asleep
No more; and not a peep, of our lost weekend!
The smart fakes, and the cow’s unnatural socks.
They flash that hairdo! ‘Tis a constipation
without to be wished. a guy’d die to sleep,
and sleep, purchase a Dream; Sigh. There’s the tub!

Yes, like I said. Take a hot bath and wash it off you.

I wish I understood Shakespeare. It’s mostly gibberish to me, pretty much in the same way politics is nonsense to a lot of ordinary people. But not understanding what is going on doesn’t keep me from seeing a Shakespeare play every now and then. So go out and vote, even if it leaves you feeling like poor Hamlet – all weird and iffy inside, but also like you’ve sort of done the right thing.

Your Congressmen (maybe)
Loomis Beechly.

Hmmm. I’m afraid one of his aides has allowed Congressman Beechly to drink and write the constituent newsletter at the same time – not a good combination.

When have you regretted a vote?

Pratfalls, Punchlines, and Pacts

Today’s guest post comes from Clyde.

I recently stumbled across a little-known Thurber cartoon. I haven’t seen it almost 50 years.

The cartoon shows a distinctly Thurberian man wearing a bowlerhat and a startled look as he half reclines on a chaise lounge, as so many Thurber people do. Seated next to him is a young woman with hanging hair and and enraptured look saying “Have you fordotten our ittle suicide pact?”

I had an English course in college in which the instructor took us off into analysis of comedy, which, as he well knew, is a futile question. It is almost impossible to explain what makes us laugh, why things are funny. I presented this cartoon as an example of inexplicable humor. I do not know why I like this joke so much. The problem in the class was that the instructor did not think it was funny, nor did many of my classmates. Several people, in those touchy 1960’s, thought it was sexist.

We soon discovered that there was wide range of taste in humor in the class. Also, we got into that fuzzy region of trying to separate wit from comedy, from humor, from burlesque, from bombast, from camp, from satire, etc. We arrived at no real answers, but, oh, my, what a good class that was.

Isaac Asimov wrote a short story called “Jokester” (in Earth is Room Enough,1957) in which a scientist tries to find out where jokes come from, how they start. He discovers that they are implanted in human society by a superior alien race which is using them to study human psychology. Think about that a minute, just how much comedy does show about us. In Asimov’s story the moment the scientist discovers this truth, the aliens remove all the jokes and human life becomes bleak.

When I directed plays I was quite good at inventing humorous business, especially for a melodrama done in the Two Harbors band shell, the first of many we did in the mid 1980’s. I took a basic Samuel French-published melodrama and localized it. Instead of the heroine saying “He deserted me in the wicked city,” she said, “He left me in the wicked city of Superior.” You may have to be from the Duluth area to get that. We even did a drawn out version of the Groucho Marx “walk this way” joke that was very funny.

We made lots of fun of Duluth. “I had to go to Duluth . . . once” [Long deep sighs of sympathy from the whole cast, including those not on stage who stepped out to sigh and some plants in the audience who arose to sigh. We even once did it with all in perfect unison.]

One joke we could never make work. The line from the hero was “I am going to go way out west.” We wanted to add to that. “I am going to go way out west to ________.” We could come up with nothing funny. We tried Clover Valley (east of Duluth), Floodwood, Brainerd, Fargo, and several others. We had him point east or say “Bayfield.” There must be a joke there, but we could not find it.

My own favorite was having the heroine cry great sobs at the front of the stage while begging sympathy from all the women for the evil the villain had done to her. She then wrung out water from a sopping wet handkerchief she was oh so carefully handling while daubing her eyes.

As you can tell I like broad dumb humor. “Airplane” is one of my favorite movies. And I do like wit, the wry turn of phrase or events, as well as offbeat oddball humor, such as Thurber cartoons. I do not like physical humor or humor based on someone’s embarrassment or jokes that belittle, which is why I gave up network television 30 years ago. I must reluctantly admit that I do not find many of the classic pieces of comedy funny: Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy (just get the damn piano up the stairs, would you?), Abbot and Costello, W. C. Fields.

Now your turn. I’ve let you into the dark places of my psyche.

What makes you laugh? What does not make you laugh?

Lost In Space

It’s a shame that we lost Neil Armstrong over the weekend, but I’m grateful that he was the one chosen to be the first to set foot on the moon. Imagine if, instead of the quiet, private Armstrong, a shameless braggart like Donald Trump had been first off the LEM. There’d have been no tranquility at Tranquility Base. Or should I say Trump Crater?

But Trump wouldn’t have had the patience to do the necessary training, nor the calm judgement to properly command that mission – “Aldrin, you’re fired! I mean, help us blast off here and get back to Earth, but then … you’re fired!” And of course the famous first quote would have been quite different.

“That’s one small step for man, but one giant leap for me, Donald Trump! No one else can ever be the first man on the moon. I Win! I’ll buy and sell hotels and casinos and make and lose fortunes, but this, I will own forever, and you’ll never stop hearing me talk about it!”

Neil Armstrong’s self portrait on the Moon, 1969.
Image courtesy of NASA

But then the statement we heard from Neil Armstrong was not exactly what he meant to say. Of all the gloves, nuts and bolts and bits of debris and flotsam that Americans have left in space in the course of our efforts to reach the moon, the particular item that interests me most is Neil Armstrong’s dropped “a”. When he stepped off the LEM an on to the moon’s dusty surface, people all around the world heard him say “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Later, Armstrong would insist that he actually said “That’s one small step for A man, one giant leap for mankind.” He acknowledged when listening to recordings made of his first moments on the moon that he didn’t hear the “a”, but confirmed that he said it. Or at least that he intended to say it.

I believe him, because adding an “a” before “man” is the only way his historic statement can make sense. Without it, he and mankind are essentially the same. And it suits this humble fellow that he would want to make a point of it – he is simply A man taking a step. The lasting achievement belongs to everyone.

Analysts have suggested the technology of the time may not have been good enough to capture a sound (35 milliseconds!) as brief as that singular “a”, but I prefer to believe that Armstrong’s indefinite article bounced off Earth’s invisible humility filter, and it is still drifting in space.

On a clear night you can still see it up there, tumbling.

Vowel fly, vowel high,
first vowel stuck in the sky.

Armstrongs ‘A’- his noble try
to let us know he’s just a guy

When have you had a crucial part of an important message lost in transmission?

What’s the Harm in Monikers?

Names are in the news again.


You really can’t fault the organizers of the campaign to banish the uttering of mass-murder suspect James Holmes’ name. If it turns out that he is, in fact, guilty, they want to keep him from becoming famous for committing an unforgivable crime. Shunning is certainly a painful and effective punishment – excruciating even for the most anti-social and maladjusted among us. And if one could truly be left without an identity and so completely erased as to have never existed, that would be profound. But you know how we humans are. We’re always going to slap a title on things, even if it’s “That Thing Without A Name.”

I question the wisdom of turning our backs on evil – it’s much better to remember it and, if possible, tell stories about how it got that way. For my money, the name “James Holmes” is rather ordinary and already quite close to invisible. Sorry for the offense to all the James’s and Holmes’s out there. It would be a mercy to them if the name’s connection with this horror was covered over forever.


A flashy name can be a marketing tool. Chad Ochocinco is a football player who used to be known as Chad Johnson, but he changed it to be a Latin echo of the number he wore on his uniform – “85”. He was pretty good as Johnson, but more flamboyant and memorable as Ochocinco. He played better as Johnson, got more press as Ochocinco, and was traded to the Miami Dolphins. Chad just got married and his new wife, Evelyn Lozada, let it be known she did not want to become an Ochocinco. So much for the show biz name – he’s going back to Johnson. “Chad Lozada” sounds nice, though. What would be wrong with that?

Mr. Leader

Over in London, Mitt Romney learned how difficult it is to be perfect when everyone is watching every move and examining each word. The British press is aggressive to begin with. They pounced on poor Mitt repeatedly. In one gaffe, the expected Republican nominee gave the head of Britain’s Labour Party by the wrong honorific. The Wall Street Journal says:

Unfortunately, as Mr. Romney was seeking to get back on track, Mr. Romney incorrectly called Mr. Miliband, the leader of the Labour Party, “Mr. Leader.” This is not what he is called, as the local media was quick to point out.

Britain is so overloaded with titled people, it would be difficult for a visitor to keep track. I credit Romney with a good guess under pressure. Why not “Mr. Leader”? I don’t know how the British Labour Party chief is supposed to be addressed. His party is not the one running the government, so would “Your irrelevance” be appropriate? And what about the Brits addressing Romney? That can’t be easy. What do you call the presumptive presidential nominee (but not yet) of the party out of power in the executive branch but very much calling the shots in the legislative branch. “Mr. Squarejaw Pricey Pants”?

Clearly, names are frustrating, provocative and exhausting.

But a good one will take you far.

What honorific would you attach to spice up your name?