Category Archives: Words

It seems ‘weed’ has become sort of… iconic

Once, this one was quite popular…

As y’all know, I’m rather word-obsessed. I’ve been meaning for some time to write a Top Five list on Overused Words. No. 1 would be “iconic.” Trouble is, I can’t think of any other words sufficiently overused to deserve a place with that one. It would take all five spots. It’s especially a problem in news headlines. About one out of 10 times it’s used appropriately. The rest of the time, not especially. But whether proper or not, it’s used way too much.

But today, I’m going to speak briefly about “weed.” It’s been quite some time since I’ve heard anyone under the age of 50 call marijuana anything else — unless they’re trying to sound prim and proper, in which case they might say, “cannabis.” (We generally stuck with that during the aforementioned campaign, as less provocative to those opposed.)

Bud made me think of this (again), when he wrote in a comment on the last post, “Waaaaaay past time to legalize pot for whatever the reason.” Poor old codger, throwing such terms around…

If I remember correctly, that one — which had been around a long time — started becoming a bit passe by the latter 1960s. I think that happened sometime before Granny told the cops she was going to “smoke some crawdads… but first I need a little pot!” That was Oct 4, 1967:

Once a prime-time network sitcom was using the term in jokes, “pot” was obviously not, well, countercultural. Cool people were more likely to be using something else from the following list:

  • Alice B. Toklas
  • Bud
  • Cabbage
  • Catnip
  • Crazy weed
  • Da kine
  • Doobie
  • Dope
  • Ganja
  • Grass
  • Herb
  • Joint
  • Loco weed
  • Magic dragon
  • Mary Jane
  • Maui-wowie
  • Oregano
  • Reefer
  • Sinsemilla
  • Smoke
  • Spliff
  • Stash
  • Tea
  • Whacky tabacky
  • Weed

There were many, many more — here’s one larger list, which I worked from — but I just thought I’d go with a few of the more familiar ones on the list. (Or, in the case of Alice B. Toklas, one that I thought was creative, but not all that commonly used.) Some, of course, weren’t used so much for the substance as the delivery system (“joint”). Some were used ironically to make fun of old-timers (“reefer”). And some were meant to apply just to specific varieties (sinsemilla). But all were used, if I recall correctly.

By the ’70s — which is when most people caught up with the ’60s — the number of terms dropped way, way down. Most of the time, people just said “dope.” Or, if they wanted to make sure it didn’t appear on a sitcom, they said “shit.” Usually in the context of “good shit.” I suspect too many people were stoned at this point to be verbally inventive.

Of course, the stuff is much stronger now than it was then, and maybe that’s why those who indulge don’t try to diversify. They don’t even come up with a new term, but stick with the tried and true, somewhat pedestrian, old “weed.” They don’t even try to shock the little old ladies with words like “dope” or “shit.” Maybe they realize the little old ladies used to call it that. I dunno…

Sure, you hear other words here and there, even from younger folks. But my observation still stands. “Weed” has become, you know… iconic

I miss the whited sepulchers

Of course, ol’ St, Jerome would be unhappy that we’re not using his Latin version…

You know, I appreciate the efforts of various people to make Holy Scripture accessible to modern people. I do; it’s a noble motivation.

But sometimes it just leaves me flat, and I regret the poetry that has been lost.

Here is the opening of today’s Gospel reading, in the Catholic Church’s official New American Bible:

Jesus said,
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites.
You are like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside,
but inside are full of dead men’s bones and every kind of filth.
Even so, on the outside you appear righteous,
but inside you are filled with hypocrisy and evildoing….

I’m not trying to make any theological point, much less a political one. In fact, as I suggested above, I suppose the correct theological point is to make the Word more accessible.

But it does bother me a little to imagine future generations missing out on the old wording. It survived to be a secular cliche because it had a certain power to it. You call somebody a “whited sepulcher,” and most people with even a modicum of cultural education will get it.

So for fun, and to gratify the esthetic part of the soul, here’s the old King James version (you know, the Protestant version):

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.

Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity…

Meanwhile, I’ll sit here and worry about the editors of the next edition of the NAB deciding to ditch “Woe to you…” because it “sounds like Yoda or something…”

I mean, they already got rid of the “unto”…

 

Good for the South Carolina DOT!

Yeah, it’s kind of backlit, but I decided last night to stop waiting for perfect conditions to take the picture…

I am running behind on this. I should have shouted out the good news when I first saw this two or three weeks back — but I wanted a picture, and it was always raining or too dark or there was somebody behind me so I couldn’t just stop the car on the road (which lacks good places to pull over.)

Finally, I got a decent picture yesterday, and I want to praise the DOT for fixing the problem.

As for the problem, I told you about it back in March. It was a sign placed along the road where part of the massive project to fix Malfunction Junction has begun. (And before Bud jumps in to say that’s not the name of the project, here’s the name: Carolina Crossroads Project.)

The sign said… well, look back at the picture. It was along the access road on the east side of I-26, right across from the Lexington Medical Center campus.

And here was my concern, aside from being an obsessive word guy. As glad as I am that DOT decided not to destroy my neighborhood to build this thing, we will still be inconvenienced by the project for years, and we’re all aware that it costs an astronomical amount of money. So my point was, it kind of undermines our confidence in the project when day after day, we see a big dayglo-orange sign with huge black letters that tell us, over and over, that the road-construction experts managing this thing don’t know how to spell “CONSTRUCTION.”

Not a good look, you see. And it was a fairly easy thing to fix, within the context of such a huge project — DOT’s biggest ever, I believe.

And now, finally, they’ve fixed it. And I appreciate it. I don’t know who “they” are in this case (Bud, did you give them a heads-up?), but I wouldn’t flatter myself by assuming I had anything to do with it. Surely, plenty of other people saw this and said something. In any case, the folks in charge did the right thing.

No, it’s not a huge thing. But it got a little bigger, for me, every day that they didn’t fix it. So now that they have, I feel better about the whole thing, for now…

NYT needs to expand its English vocabulary a bit

At the beginning of the Wordle craze I found it mildly irritating to see social media references to what people were encountering on the game on a given day. I was all like, “Keep your diversions to yourselves, people!”

That was before I tried the game myself, and became addicted. I’m now on a 94-day streak, but I must confess to having cheated one day back in the low 60s.

I didn’t mean to cheat — or at least, not to the extent that I did. I wasn’t actually looking for the answer. I was going to spend a turn on a throwaway word, just to try out certain letters that might be helpful in getting me toward the answer. But I couldn’t think of one. So I searched for five-letter words with this or that letter in a certain position, and it gave me a list, and my eye scanned the list, and landed on a word that was obviously the answer. And it was.

So really, I’m only on about a 30-day streak. The app just doesn’t know it.

Now I have confessed to the world, and you need not assign me any penance; I assure you I have beaten myself up thoroughly over it.

But I am here today not to speak of my own sins, but to condemn The New York Times, which owns and operates Wordle, for its trespasses. Not particularly grievous sins, but sins nonetheless.

Actually, this list I’m about to share is only partly from Wordle. I’ve also gotten hooked on the NYT’s Spelling Bee, an even greater time waster. And since you end up entering far more words playing that game, most of the words on this list are now from that.

The problem is, I keep entering perfectly good, long-established English words, and they get rejected as “Not in word list.”

Well, I don’t know where they’re getting their “word list,” but the source is obviously not the OED or any other major English dictionary. Here are words that one of these games has recently rejected:

 

  • luff — Oh, don’t ask me what it precisely means, but it’s something sailors used to do with sails. As in, “Luff and touch her!” It also has a noun form.
  • bole — A tree trunk.
  • dibble — Have you never planted a garden?
  • midden — This is a refuse heap.
  • mort — A note played on a hunting horn when a deer is killed.
  • potto — It’s a primate, and to my knowledge, it’s the only word for this species in the English language. OK, I looked it up, and some call it a “softly-softly.” I’m not making this up.
  • nappy — Means a number of things, from being fuzzy to something babies wear.
  • cavitate — Obviously, no one at the NYT has ever read The Hunt for Red October. Probably don’t know what a Crazy Ivan is, either.
  • motte — It’s the hilly part of a fortress, as in “motte and bailey.”
  • clew — To repeat myself: Don’t ask me what it precisely means, but it’s something sailors used to do with sails. As in, “Clew up, mate!” (I’m not trying to be creative here. I’m trying to sound like a foremast jack, not a poet.) It also has a noun form.
  • whinge — Surely you’ve seen this. It’s another form of the word “whine.”
  • coney — Don’t the NYT folk have any alternative ways of saying “bunny?”
  • conn — Again, go read The Hunt for Red October. Or just about any books that involve maneuvering ships on the sea.
  • trull — Don’t call a lady this, because it has a rather specific meaning, and not many would consider it a compliment.
  • wold — I’ll just quote the dictionary: “a usually upland area of open country.”
  • limey — Mind you, this one isn’t a British term. It’s a term Americans use to describe Brits.
  • telly — OK, definitely from across the pond. But we all understand it, don’t we? Just today, Spelling Bee refused it.

Note that each is linked to its dictionary definition.

OK, admittedly a lot of these words are British, and quite a few are nautical. But they are long-established words with definite meanings in English, and should never be rejected. They should be perfectly legitimate by the rules of the games. They’re not proper nouns or anything.

Yeah, I think there’s some sort of mechanism for appealing, or at least reporting, such errata (oh, and notice I haven’t included any words such as “errata,” accepting them as still pretty firmly identified as Latin — my list is purely English). But I couldn’t find it this morning, and I thought I’d just go ahead and complain here.

I left one word off my list. I had originally saved “droog,” but decided that being a Nadsat word disqualified it. But mind you, Nadsat was invented by an English writer. And I, for one, prefer it to Tolkien’s Elvish…

Coinherence

Detail from the Book of Kells.

I have another another word to try to learn about more deeply, the way I did more than 30 years ago with “subsidiarity,” before driving my friends nuts over it.

It’s “coinherence.” I learned it today — or began learning it today — from Bishop Barron‘s reflection on the Gospel reading of 3/31/23:

Friends, in today’s Gospel, Jesus declares, “The Father is in me and I am in the Father.”

Charles Williams stated that the master idea of Christianity is “coinherence,” mutual indwelling. If you want to see this idea concretely displayed, look to the pages of the Book of Kells, that masterpiece of early Christian illumination. Lines interwoven, designs turning in and around on each other, plays of plants, animals, planets, human beings, angels, and saints. The Germans call it Ineinander (one in the other).

How do we identify ourselves? Almost exclusively through the naming of relationships: we are sons, brothers, daughters, mothers, fathers, members of organizations, members of the Church, etc. We might want to be alone, but no one and nothing is finally an island. Coinherence is indeed the name of the game, at all levels of reality.

And God—the ultimate reality—is a family of coinherent relations, each marked by the capacity for self-emptying. Though Father and Son are really distinct, they are utterly implicated in each other by a mutual act of love.

The impossibly good news is that Jesus and the Father have invited us to enter fully into their divine coinherence. The love between the Father and the Son—which is called “the Holy Spirit”—can be participated in.

I suspect that there’s a simpler way to say it, just as I keep saying the Church should go back to “one in being with the Father” in the Nicene Creed, rather than the new phrase adopted in 2011 — “consubstantial with the Father” — which, as much as I love and respect Latin-derived terms, was not a good move.

But while there may be better words for getting the concept across, there’s nothing simple about the idea itself. I really need to understand it better.

But it appeals to me greatly so far, “at all levels of reality” as the bishop says, for a wide variety of reasons, including:

  • I believe salvation (if even that is the right term, given the way so many use it), is achieved with and through others. It’s not about the I; it’s about the we. (Which is another problem with the new version of the Creed). It’s why there’s a Church. It’s why there are families. It’s why there is such a thing as love.
  • I believe in communitarianism, and most assuredly not libertarianism.
  • I love John Donne’s most famous work, to which the bishop alludes.
  • One of my favorite clichés is, “We’re all in this together.” I mean, if we must have clichés, and apparently we must.
  • It’s a big reason I’m Catholic.
  • It’s why I’ve confused so many people when they ask why I’m Catholic, and I refer them to the last sentence of Joyce’s masterpiece “The Dead.” But read the rest of it first. If it’s still not clear, and I admit it may not be, I’ll try to explain further. Maybe I’ll work in “coinherence.”
  • It’s why, back in my newsroom days, I used to talk about my dream of someday putting out a newspaper that is just one story that has everything that happened in it. Because it’s all connected, and there’s something deeply artificial about presenting the news as separate stories with different headlines. Of course, it might take a year — or at least a week — to write such a “daily” newspaper, but it would be worth it, if the laws of space and time could be suspended.

Now I realize that, except for the Donne reference, the bishop didn’t say exactly any of those things, and I may be mistaking the meaning of coinherence entirely. But it made me think of all those things, and I like thinking about those things.

And I’m just getting started with trying to understand it…

This does not inspire confidence, people!

As y’all may have noticed that I haven’t had any bad words to say lately about SC DOT’s ginormous, biggest-ever, construction project, which they call — hang on, I’ve got to go look that up, because nobody but DOT calls it that — the Carolina Crossroads Project.

It’s what everyone else calls “the project to fix Malfunction Junction.”

To resume, I haven’t had anything bad to say about it, even as it’s finally gotten visibly under way, because they decided back in 2017 not to run it through my house. I thought that was nice of them. But mainly, I’ve lost interest, so that’s why I seem to have held back.

But I’ve got to show you the sign that I pass pretty much every day on my way to visit my mother.

This does not inspire confidence.

And if you don’t see what’s wrong, look again. It’s been there, spelled like that, for at least a month or two. Does DOT have hundreds of other signs like that, or is this one unique? I hope it’s unique, although I’m not sure how that would happen, unless they make them by hand in a shack back behind DOT HQ.

And maybe it doesn’t bother normal people. Normal people’s brains probably automatically fix the spelling as they read it, and they don’t notice, and they go on with their lives. But it certainly bothers those of us who have been editors for so many decades…

See? It’s still like that.

 

First Five Poems that Come to Mind

I like ol’ Edgar Allan, and I don’t care who knows it!

I was going to say Top Five, but that’s not accurate. More like the first five I could think of that I actually like.

I was recently interviewing a lady who writes poetry, and to have something to ask — since I’m not a person who thinks a great deal about poetry (which you will be able to tell from this list) — I asked who her favorite poets were. She named Robert Frost and several people I’ve never heard of.

That got me to thinking, well, what would mine be? And since evaluating a writer’s entire body of work is too much effort, I changed it to fave poems. And I’m pretty sure these five had come into my mind before the phone conversation ended.

None were by Frost. I mean, he’s good and all — I guess. I only know that one that everybody knows, and it’s fine. No, I mean those two that everybody knows. OK, those three. But none of those came to mind right away.

Here are the ones that did. Since one of them isn’t technically a poem, if I think of another to make up for it, I’ll give you six:

  1. Annabel Lee — At some point in my life, I learned that some people who are snobby about poetry (you know, English majors) look down upon Poe’s verse. As a fan since I was a little kid of his Gothic horror stories, I feel I must stick up for him. But I think “The Raven” is too obvious, don’t you? Barry would sneer at me if I picked that.
  2. Ballad of the Goodly Fere — I first read this in my college days at my uncle’s house, thumbing through an anthology he had. I was drawn to it because I had run across a lot of mentions of Ezra Pound in reading about Hemingway and such, but had never read anything by him. And I loved it. Mind you, this was at the time that “Jesus Christ Superstar” came out, and the Messiah tended to be depicted as a sort of wimpy hippy, so I appreciated the contrast of depicting him as a stronger, more working-class sort. I also enjoyed the dialect. Of course, it’s still the only thing I’ve read by Pound. We don’t tend to run into — or seek out, for that matter — a lot of stuff written by writers who are infamous for their fascist leanings. Or at least I don’t — there too much else to read. It’s still a good poem.
  3. La Belle Dame Sans Merci — Just to stick in one of the Romantics. I mention it not just because I have an avid interest in the Matter of Britain, and this has to do with a knight. It’s because, well, it inspired the worst nightmare of my life. This was also in my college days, and the shocking state of mind the dream produced caused me to get up, leave my dorm room and go sit on the floor in the well-lit hall until I could shake the spell. Fortunately, I got better. I can’t tell you the content of the dream. It was more of a vague horror, related to what the knight felt when “I awoke and found me here, On the cold hill’s side.” I’ve never been a partaker of hallucinogens, but it was like Aldous Huxley on mescaline, when he looked upon an ordinary chair and saw it as the Last Judgment. It was a moment of existential horror that defies easy rational description– little to do with knights.
  4. No Man is an Island — OK, this is the one that isn’t actually a poem, although it’s frequently quoted as one, since John Donne is the only famous metaphysical poet., and you often see it presented as a poem. And that’s not the title. It’s a part of Meditation XVII, which is in turn a part of a prose work called “Devotions upon Emergent Occasions.” My supposed title quotes the most famous line, or second most, if you count the one Hemingway turned into a novel title as leading the list. Anyway, if we count it as a poem, it’s definitely one of my favorites. Because, you know, it’s way communitarian.
  5. The Second Coming — Since Donne’s most famous work isn’t a poem, this may be my favorite — thereby confirming your impression that my taste in poetry is stunningly unoriginal and mainstream (although I tried to throw you there with Ezra Pound). It’s a contest as to which is more often quoted or paraphrased — this or the Donne thing. Hemingway went with that, and Joan Didion went with the Yeats. Well, a lot of people fall back on the Yeats these days. Maybe because it was written 104 years ago, but nothing written since goes as directly to the heart of what’s happening now in politics and society than “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” or perhaps even better, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.”

Anyway, if we were ranking, and you counted the Donne piece as poetry, those last two would be my top choices. Stories about knights and ladies are all very well, but I like words to express ideas.

You’ll note they’re all pretty short poems. I love to read book-length prose works about the Matter of Britain, but don’t go expecting me to read a poem that long, Lord Tennyson. I still haven’t read The Iliad, for instance, and not just because I have no Greek. Poetry is too much work to read on and on.

Maybe I’ve been trained by pop songs. With Emily Dickinson, of course, it was hymns, and I think she was onto something.

Genealogy alert! So was my ancestor Thomas Wyatt the elder. He introduced to English a nice, short, disciplined form called the sonnet. Within a generation, William Shakespeare was making a name for himself with that form. I’m not really into sonnets (I prefer Will’s plays), but I respect the limits. Fourteen lines, baby, and that’s it. You’re done!

For that matter, I also enjoy haiku. And limericks

Yeats, rendered by another artist I like, Sargent…

Stop dropping hammers before someone gets hurt!

I’m still debating with myself about unsubscribing from all these fund-raising emails I’ve been getting from Democrats ever since I was in James’ campaign. That would cut my email burden about in half. But then, I wouldn’t get the chance to make fun of them.

Two things continue to strike me about them:

  1. They’re so stupid. Or rather, they assume the recipient is so stupid.
  2. They are amazingly lacking in originality. You get the same painfully hackneyed clichés over and over, sometimes multiple times in the same day.

Oh, and before you Democrats get all huffy, I’m sure the Republican fund-raisers are at least as as dumb and repetitive — probably far more so in these days of enslavement to Trumpism — but I have no way of knowing, because they don’t send me any. Which shows they have at least a smidgeon of smarts.

So I mock the ones I have.

There are several basic formulas for these things, and two types seem contradictory. There’s the poor-pitiful-us-please-send-us-money ones, which start with such headlines as “This is not the message I had hoped to send today.” Then there’s the ones that brag about how Democrats are mercilessly beating up on the opposition.

The idea with all of them is to stir emotions — any emotions, apparently — because they’ve learned that makes people give money. Or at least, the consultants say they’ve learned that. Personally, I wonder. Wouldn’t it be cool if occasionally an idea crept into these appeals? Even I might give if I got one like that.

Anyway, in recent days I saved a few of the “look how we’re beating up on them” variety, mainly because of the astounding literary monotony of them. All of these pictured in this post came in in a nine-day period — and I probably failed to save some of them.

You’ve seen the one above. Here are a couple more:

Now at this point, you might be saying, “Well, women — even that Republican one we like — just can’t handle tools, the poor things!” But hush your mouth, you sexist pig — male Democrats are apparently just as clumsy:

I’ve been known to repeat myself — everyone needs an editor, and I don’t have one here on the blog — but even if I were in a coma, I don’t think I would do something like this. I mean, think about it — that same headline is going out over and over to the same people! Does anyone actually truly think that’s a good idea?…

In EASTERN Pennsylvania, we said ‘youse’

Maybe yinz would like to hear about the tattoos…

I got a fund-raising email from that John Fetterman guy. All I know about him is that he’s quirky. Today, in one of her periodic, wide-ranging chats with Bret Stephens, Gail Collins said “Fetterman is overly colorful for my taste, constantly showing up in shorts for public events and bragging about his tattoos.”

Based on this email I got from Fetterman, she’s right:

Omg, Brad.

Now that I’m *officially* the Democratic nominee in Pennsylvania’s Senate race, I wanted to send yinz a quick note to introduce myself + then ask you to split a $10 donation between my campaign and the Democratic National Committee. 🙏

When people first meet me, they usually notice two things: My height (I’m 6’9”!) and my tattoos. On my left arm, I have “15104”.

That’s the ZIP code for Braddock, Pennsylvania — my home and the community where I was honored to serve as Mayor for 13 years…

See that? Gail was right. It only took him 59 words to get to his tattoos. I guess he does that to try to distract people from staring at his silly chin spinach.

But that’s not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about his assumption that I (as a person he wrongly thinks will send him money) will understand what “yinz” means.

Wondering whether it was one of those new, invented things like “LatinX,” I looked it up. Turns out that, according to Wikipedia, “Yinz (see History and usage below for other spellings) is a second-person plural pronoun used mainly in Western Pennsylvania English, most prominently in Pittsburgh, but it is also found throughout the cultural region known as Appalachia, located within the geographical region of the Appalachians….”

Huh. Odd. In Eastern Pennsylvania, we said “youse.” Which was understandable, in the sense that the meaning could be easily inferred. When I was in the second-grade there (OK, technically I was across the river from Philly and therefore in New Jersey, but they also did this in Philly), I learned that one of the best ways to keep from getting into more than one fight a day was to say “youse” or “youse guys” whenever a normal, reasonable person would say “y’all.”

So I guess I now know how Pennsylvanians from up in the hills talk. So I’m now smarter. But I’m still not going to give him any money…

Was the rest of Steinbeck’s writing that good?

Our friend Bryan retweeted this the other day, with a very brief comment: “Dude could write.”

Yes, he could, I thought as I read it. And then I thought of something else: Was any of his other, more familiar, writing this good? Or was he even better than usual when trying to be ingratiating to Marilyn Monroe?

First, I admit that I haven’t read a whole lot of Steinbeck. I hate to admit that, seeing he was, as Wikipedia asserts, “a giant of American letters.” I never quite finished his masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath.

The only two books of his I know I’ve read all the way through are Of Mice and Men (more than once, I think) and the somewhat less celebrated The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights. So, you know, I’m not even qualified to draft a Steinbeck Top Five List.

Those were good books (even though, let’s face it, Mice and Men was a downer). But did it have passages that grabbed you as insistently as this does: “He has his foot in the door of puberty, but that is only one of his problems. You are the other.” (And you know he’s not exaggerating, because this is, you know, Marilyn Monroe.)

Poor kid. It would be a rough obsession to have, being that age at that point in her career. I was only 8 when she died, so the effect was different.

Anyway, yeah, I know, I need to finish Grapes of Wrath. I truly feel obligated to do so, sort of the way I feel about Moby Dick. But the thing is, I’m already fully convinced of its greatness, and it’s import as a slice of American life at a critical moment in a critical place. But come on, despite all these years of not letting myself see the movie until I’d read the book, I already know how it ends. And not to give anything away, but it’s kind of a bummer, too.

I’ll try. But I might finish Moby Dick first. I know that has some pretty engaging writing in it

Oh, one last thing: Given what he says in the first graf, do you think the nephew actually exists? I dunno. Great writers can be mysterious…

Here’s the kid’s other problem. Assuming he existed…

OK, I’m completely on board with ‘Kyiv’ now…

The least we can do is include both his Ys.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Yeah, it’s been awhile. I’ve been busy with various things — great stuff like having grandchildren stay with us while their parents were on a trip, less-great stuff like seeing doctors about post-COVID stuff (I’ve got another such appointment in the morning). And one of the things that happens when it’s been awhile is that I won’t let myself do quick, easy posts, thinking that I should come back with something big. Which is stupid. Anyway, here’s something semi-quick-and-easy.

When I saw this column this morning (at least, it was “this morning” when I started this piece a couple of days ago now), I jumped on it right away. It was my kind of thing — a story that actually explains why the names of things, and places, and people change. It was headlined, “Kyiv vs. Kiev, Zelensky vs. Zelenskyy, and the immense meaning of ‘the’.

I appreciated it, although I sort of wish it hadn’t stopped with “the Ukraine” or “Zelensky” or “Kiev.” Those, by the way, are the names that are now out. I mean, I certainly knew about “the Ukraine,” and sort of understood why there was no “the” any more, although I’d be hard-pressed to explain it.

I mean there’s no particular rule I know of that explains why it is that people who live in Lebanon or Crimea or wherever feel a loss of sovereignty and self-determination when there’s a the, but I get the connotation. “The” means you’re not a country (unless you’re the United States, but we have kind of a weird country name anyway — although I love it). It suggests you’re just a region in another country, owned by somebody else. It doesn’t say it; it just suggests it.

But since this all happened recently enough (although you kids won’t think so), I understand that we dropped the “the” when the Soviet Union went kablooey, as a way of embracing Ukraine as a separate country. And there are important reasons right now for remembering that.

I was less clear on Kyiv. In fact, since I don’t do broadcast news much (not even NPR, lately), I’m not entirely sure how I’m supposed to say it to distinguish it from the more familiar “Kiev.” But this piece makes the why very clear: “Kyiv is the appropriate transliteration of the Ukrainian name of the country’s capital, whereas Kiev is the name of the city in Russian.” OK, I’m on board. I’ll do my best to say “Kyiv,” and pronounce it correctly. And if I write it the wrong way here, y’all call me on it.

How about whether the name of the Ukrainian president is “Zelensky” or “Zelenskyy.” Well, even though the latter looks like a typo, that’s the Ukrainian way. The single y is more Russian. So Zelenskyy it is, I suppose.

Even though I’m sure it would make my head hurt to have it explained more fully how we get such a fine distinction in English when, you know, we don’t do Cyrillic. I’m just not going to ask.

But sometimes I do wonder about such things. Which brings up the one that’s driven me nuts for decades, mainly because no one has ever given me a good reason that I can remember. And that’s why I said above that I wish Benjamin Dreyer, the copy editor who wrote the above piece, had gone beyond place names particular to Ukraine. (Although I know why he didn’t, because I understand the concept of a “news peg.”)

I mean the mystery of how “Peking” became “Beijing.” Even though I’ve read explanations a number of times over the years, I have to confess I don’t get it yet. I mean, all “Peking” was trying to do is represent phonetically what it sounds like when people who speak a language that doesn’t use anything like those letters say the name of their capital city. So why would it change, and change so dramatically?

So, before I wrote this, I went and read the Wikipedia article on it, and sort of understood what happened — as well as anyone who does not speak Mandarin can understand both the language, and the ins and outs of Red China’s efforts to control how it is spoken and represented.

Which brings me to why I’ve always been creeped out by the very idea of the names of things being changed for political reasons — even reasons that seem quite benign to me. So it is that I fully understand why “Mount McKinley,” which I had learned as a kid was the highest peak in the United States, had disappeared, and “Denali” had appeared in its place. But it still worries me a little.

I think it’s because I read Orwell’s 1984 at such a young age — and then reread it repeatedly over my lifetime, appreciating it more and more each time (sort of the way I do with “His Girl Friday,” only without the laughs). For those of you who have not spent your time that way, one of the most horrifying and indelible ideas is the diminution of the English language to the point where people are unable to even think in ways that would free them from that oppressive dystopia.

It’s not exactly the same thing, but I’ve always thought of it when I’ve considered such things as the Soviets renaming St. Petersburg (or, briefly, Petrograd) “Leningrad.” And it causes me to look at any such change with suspicion.

So, it takes a bit of self-persuasion to accept such changes as “Ukraine” without the “the,” and “Kyiv.” But I do.

But as for “Beijing,” well, in looking it up, I ran across this anecdote that was very, very Orwellian to my mind:

In the English, “Peking” was the preferred and dominant form through the 1970s. Beginning in 1979, the Chinese government encouraged replacement of the Wade-Giles romanisation system for written Chinese with the pinyin romanisation system. The New York Times adopted “Beijing” in 1986, with all major US media soon following. Elsewhere in the Anglosphere, the BBC switched in 1990. The Times of London used “Peking” until 1997, “when, according to The Irish Times, its correspondent in China was summoned to the Foreign Ministry [of the People’s Republic of China] and told co-operation would be withdrawn if the Times didn’t stop using ‘Peking’. It surrendered.”

I don’t know exactly why this is so important to the folks who run the former “Peking,” but an anecdote like that bothers me a lot…

Why didn’t I become an etymologist? Or a philologist?

I ask myself that often. And whenever I do, I realize that had I become one or the other, I might better understand the difference between the two fields. Ah, well. We’re only allowed so much time in this life.

Back in the earliest days of my newspaper career, I would look out upon alternative paths, and think how much I would have loved to direct movies. But of course, to do that, I would have had to immerse myself entirely into that, just as I did with newspaper work, in order to rise to the very top of that profession. I’d have had to give up everything else. And it’s probably just as well I didn’t go Hollywood to that extent.

(Later, in the ’80s, I switched to wanting to direct music videos. I loved that medium, wedding two popular art forms I loved so much, and making them one. But again, just as well I didn’t, even though it would have been fun.)

But the fascination with words has always been there. The original meanings of particular words, the relationships between different languages that you can see in them, and the ways they have developed over the ages, reflecting the expanse of human experience through history. We’re a species made to verbalize, and it fascinates me to see how we have chosen to shape words over time, and how the words have shaped us.

Anyway, this hit me this morning, when I responded to a Tweet from @dick_nixon, one of my fave feeds:

Of course, as soon as I’d posted my reply, I started obsessing about one of the words I had used.

“Venerable.”

I used it sort of semi-ironically, deliberately avoiding “old” and using a more respectful term in keeping with the tone of that feed, which very convincingly pretends that the Philadelphia-area playwright who writes it is actually Nixon himself, writing about the present day, except when he posts as Ron Ziegler (always signed with “RZ”) and models the respectful way that the former president would like us to speak to him. (You have to be a fan of the feed to fully appreciate these nuances.)

But then, thinking harder about the word than I usually do, I got to thinking how remarkably similar the word is to the less savory “venereal.” And I realized they must both arise from the original, whom you see so famously depicted below by Botticelli:

The link wasn’t immediately evident from my initial Googling. “Venerable” took me to “venerate.” That took me to “From Latin venerātus, perfect passive participle of veneror (worship, reverence).”

Of course, at this point 2,000 years of Christianity makes it momentarily hard to see the connection between these concepts, but you eventually get there. Wiktionary mentions the goddess with regard to venerari, but Miriam-Webster spells it out a bit more clearly going straight from “venerate:”

Venerate comes from the Latin root venerārī, which has the various meanings of “to solicit the good will of,” “to worship,” “to pay homage to,” and “to hold in awe.”  That root is related to Venus, which, as a proper noun, is the name of the Roman goddess of love and beauty.

And there she is. While we don’t often make the direct connection theologically or linguistically to “venerating” the goddess of love, unless we worship her from Madison Avenue (or Hollywood), it’s certainly something deeply rooted within us. Reminds me of how I used to think occasionally that I’d be comfortable as a member of a fertility cult, and then realized I do belong to a fertility cult: I’m Catholic. Which is, in way, comforting.

It tells us an awful lot about human beings and what makes us tick — and of how we need to be aware of ourselves and channel our tendencies on positive, constructive paths. But that’s a complicated subject I won’t get into right now.

I love this about words in much the way I love genealogy. Sure, it’s fun to figure out one is directly descended from Henry II — as many of you are, just as every one of you who are or European descent is descended from Charlemagne. Which is not a cause for putting on airs, but to stand in awe at the way all this works through time with — as you go backwards — family trees first spreading out, then folding back in upon themselves as the human population gets smaller. I learn about one of these famous connections, read about him or her on Wikipedia, then start branching out from there to learn more about that period in history and what was happening all around that figure, and how it fits into the complex web of human experience from the evolution of homo sapiens to our present, confused day.

You can do that with words, too. Which is why it would have been fun to be an etymologist or philologist or what have you. Of course, it’s probably good that I didn’t, because it would have caused an introvert like me to fold inward even more severely into abstraction. At least journalism forced me to get out and interact with people — while still indulging my love of words.

Speaking of words, let’s close with some lyrics:

Her name is Aphrodite
And she rides a crimson shell
And you know you cannot leave her
For you touched the distant sands
With tales of brave Ulysses
How his naked ears were tortured
By the sirens sweetly singing

I don’t think there was ever a fully-developed official video made of that, my favorite Cream song. It would be fun to make one. I wonder where I would start…

As Billy Kwan asked, ‘What then must we do?’

Billy Kwan, making a point…

I was listening at Mass on Sunday — I really was, to the best of my ability. But until I went back and read the Gospel reading again, and some commentary on it, I missed something that should have grabbed my attention right away. Here’s the relevant first half of the reading:

Lk 3:10-18

The crowds asked John the Baptist,
“What should we do?”
He said to them in reply,
“Whoever has two cloaks
should share with the person who has none.
And whoever has food should do likewise.”
Even tax collectors came to be baptized and they said to him,
“Teacher, what should we do?”
He answered them,
“Stop collecting more than what is prescribed.”
Soldiers also asked him,
“And what is it that we should do?”
He told them,
“Do not practice extortion,
do not falsely accuse anyone,
and be satisfied with your wages….”

Hours later, it hit me: That’s the passage Billy Kwan loved so much!

That memory is from a movie I loved so much, and have always thought should get more attention than it does: “The Year of Living Dangerously.”

There are so many reasons for that. Among them:

  • I’m not a huge Mel Gibson fan, but I think this was his best.
  • He played a journalist, and a large part of the conflict is his struggling to handle certain moral questions raised by obsession with getting the story, no matter what. It’s an actual moral question that journalism raises, different from the irrelevant things most critics of media raise.
  • Sigourney Weaver.
  • The fact that it’s set in the Third World, at the same time that I was living in a very different part of that world, also as a Western outsider. There’s something in the atmosphere of it that seems very right and accurate.
  • Various esthetic considerations, from the cinematography to the music.
  • The amazing fact that this was Linda Hunt’s greatest role, and she was portraying a man. Not to make any sort of latter-day Identity Politics point, but because she could, and she did a fantastic job.
  • Billy’s question, which pervades the film.

Anyway, I just thought I’d share that. Here’s the scene in which Billy shares this question of ultimate import to him — and to us all, if we’re as good as Billy. I always remember it the way he says it, “What then must we do?” And in our Scripture reading the “then” is left out, which is probably what caused me to fail to recognize it right away (also, it’s “should” instead of “must,” but that wouldn’t have thrown me off if the “then” had been there — a matter of rhythm). I just realized a few moments ago that he said it that way because he was citing the title of Tolstoy’s book, which he mentions in the scene…

This week’s Tweet about ‘Latinx’

Frequently on this blog, you see me take a stand in defense of the English language — such as with my regular rants about the verbification of such perfectly-good nouns as “impact.”

Earlier this week, I took a moment to stick up for Spanish. Since I see that it attracted some attention (1,083 impressions), I thought I’d share it here — although you gringos may not be very interested.

Here was the Tweet:

I almost didn’t post that, because I didn’t want to start an argument on Twitter, and I suspect (but have no data to support the assertion) that people who actually use and like “Latinx” would easily make a Top Five list of People Most Likely to Get Offended.

I only posted it because, well, it was in a headline in The New Yorker. And come on, people, if you can’t trust The New Yorker to respect language — especially English, but other languages as well — then you can’t trust anybody. All is lost.

Anyway, it provoked no argument, which was a relief. In fact, it even picked up a few likes — including from folks who are not on the rightward side of any culture wars over language or gender or ethnicity or such.

Of course, being opposed to “Latinx” should be a pretty noncontroversial position, given that only about a fourth of U.S. Hispanics have even heard of the term, and only 3 percent use it. Or at least, that was the case last year. And personally, I haven’t noticed much movement toward wider acceptance since then.

So, back to where I started: Why on Earth would The New Yorker use it, and not ironically? You’ve got me…

Carville indulges in redundancy

It’s the wokeness, stupid!

James Carville should be more careful with words. Quoting from a Maureen Dowd column:

There’s some truth in what James Carville told Judy Woodruff: “What went wrong is this stupid wokeness. Don’t just look at Virginia and New Jersey. Look at Long Island, look at Buffalo, look at Minneapolis, even look at Seattle, Wash. I mean, this defund the police lunacy, this take Abraham Lincoln’s name off of schools.”

What he says is entirely true (not just “some”), but “wokeness” doesn’t need to be modified with “stupid,” seeing as it is already that. You don’t say “woke” if you’re talking about wisdom. Of course, Carville has a known affinity for the word, “stupid.”

I prefer what Abigail Spanberger said, quoted immediately after that in the same column:

There’s also some truth in what Representative Abigail Spanberger, a moderate Virginia Democrat in a tough re-election battle, told The Times’s Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns about the president: “Nobody elected him to be F.D.R., they elected him to be normal and stop the chaos.”…

Again, she is completely right, not just “some,” Maureen.

Of course, I generally agree with Rep. Spanberger. I agree less often with Carville, but when he’s right, he’s right. Even if he indulges in the use of unnecessary words…

Rep. Spanberger, stumping for that guy who lost.

Freedom as another word

It’s hugely important, but is freedom THE word that sums it all up?

Editor’s note: Y’all, this was supposed to post last night and somehow it did not. Don’t know what happened. So here it is. I’m not going to read through it yeah again to make sure there are no “today” that should be “the other day.” Just, you know, here it is…

Yeah, I know that headline is not the lyric. But while I wanted to suggest it, I didn’t want to say exactly what Kristofferson did: that freedom is “just another word.” The thing is, it’s not just another word. It’s a pretty important word — one of the most important ones we have in our culture.

But in terms of the way we use it, I’m not sure it’s always the right word. And that’s what I want to talk about.

It’s something I think about a lot, mostly when I hear someone try to sum up what America’s all about — particularly when describing what our soldiers have fought for in this conflict or that one — and they just say that one word, and I wonder, “Is that really the right word in this instance?”

But I’m bringing it up today because of a podcast I listened to while walking a couple of days back. Actually, I read about it first, and it read like it would be a good examination of my point. I read:

Maggie Nelson is a poet, critic and cultural theorist whose work includes the award-winning 2016 book “The Argonauts.” Her newest work, “On Freedom,” pierces right into the heart of America’s founding idea: What if there’s no such thing as freedom, at least not freedom as a state of enduring liberation?

And more than that: What if we don’t want to be free? Perhaps that’s the great lie in the American dream: We’re taught to want freedom, but many of us recoil from its touch….

Nelson describes herself as a “disobedient thinker,” someone who enjoys looking at “the difficulty of difficult things,” and this conversation bears that out. We talk about when and whether freedom is hard to bear, the difference between a state of liberation and the daily practice of freedom, the hard conversations sexual liberation demands, what it means to live in koans, my problems with “The Giving Tree,” Nelson’s disagreements with the left, the difficulty of maintaining your own experience of art in an age when the entire internet wants to tell you how to feel about everything, and more.

OK, those are not exactly the things that I was thinking, but it sounded like a conversation that might go where I wanted it to.

It didn’t. In fact, some of it got pretty silly. Sometimes the conversation sounded sort of like possibly my favorite scene from “Love and Death”:

SONJA: Perception is irrational. It implies imminence. But judgment of any system of phenomena exists in any rational, metaphysical or epistemological contradiction to an abstracted empirical concept such as being, or to be, or to occur in the thing itself, or of the thing itself.

BORIS: Yeah, I’ve said that many times….

And now that I go back and read the description again after listening, I realize I should have seen that.

So let me start my own conversation about what American mean when they say “freedom,” and whether it’s the right word.

But first, three words from the French Revolution: Liberté, égalité, fraternité. Of course, freedom comes first, but it is implied that at the very least, these are equally worthy goals for a civilization. But are they?

If you’re on the right in America — or at least the more libertarian neighborhoods of the right — you will insist vehemently that liberté is what it’s all about, and the one main thing we need. Freedom, baby.

If you’re on the more woke, Bernie and AOC portions of the left, then the main thing is égalité, and we need to spend all our political energies fighting to overcome the billionayuhs and make everybody equal in every way, whether they want to be or not.

But when I look around and think about what we most need in our society, that quality that’s most painfully absent from our country, I tend to focus on the third word. We need to get along, more than anything else. Brotherhood is what we should and must pursue, or this whole experiment is over. What sort of label should be slapped on that kind of thinking? Communitarian, I suppose. Or Catholic, maybe, taking it beyond the here and now. That’s what the pope would say, and in fact did say last year in Fratelli Tutti.

But that’s not to dismiss the importance of liberty in the sense of having a liberal form of government, or the critical principle of equality before the law. But here’s the thing: We have those things in generous plenty. Our nation’s history is basically a story of ensuring and broadening the guarantees of such things. What we’re hurting for is something our system doesn’t even legally mandate, fraternité.

But that’s not my point here today. That is in fact my second digression, counting the one about the podcast. My third, if you count “Me and Bobby McGee.” If I didn’t have all the room in the world — say, if this were print — I’d be showing more discipline. Eventually. My columns in the paper would initially be written more or less this way, but when I got serious about getting the paper out, I’d ditch everything above, and the published column would start right about here, after the warming-up exercises….

In this country, in this culture, freedom is a very important concept, to be sure. It’s something our way of life can’t do without.

Unfortunately, the word is often used to excuse an abandonment of adult responsibility that might make a child in the Terrible Twos blush. It’s used to defend hating government — which means hating the system that enables us to live together as a civilization, to dwell together in the hundreds of millions without randomly killing each other. It means hating the thing that makes rights — freedoms — possible. (Here we could have a big philosophical argument — and we may — over whether the Bill of Rights were necessary. Some opposed them on the grounds that rights are natural, God-given, and that to spell them out would be to limit them. I don’t think so. And if you think such things exist in a state of nature, you need to study the record of our species more closely. In fact, have any of you read Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari? I’m still reading it, but when I’m done I’m going to write a post or two about it. There’s some nonsense in it — some of it insulting, if you’re, you know, a Homo sapiens — but a lot of interesting stuff as well.)

Often, another word meant to appeal to our sense of the importance of freedom — choice — is used in our politics to defend ideas that would be a tough sell on their own. Hence abortion is sold as “choice.” So is the execrable practice of diverting public money away from public education. So yeah, go ahead and call me “anti-choice,” since you’re going to do that anyway. I certainly am against “choice” when you’re using it to mean, “I get to do any damned thing I choose to do, and I have no responsibility to anyone else concerned whatsoever.” But since I suspect relatively few of you would agree with me on both those points, I’ll just move on…

But not without saying that “freedom” gets used in exactly the same way — such as to defend otherwise indefensible things such as banning mandates on masks or vaccines. Yeah, it’s stupid and horrible, but it’s about freedom, so…

Beyond that, though, is freedom what we’re all about, in the sense of being a one-word answer that completely does the job? I don’t think it does. It expresses a lot of what we’re about, but it sort of cries out for elaboration, if you’re going to truly understand the country and what makes it what Madeleine Albright and I would call the indispensable nation, or — to use a term many of my friends hate — if you’re to explain what makes us exceptional. We can argue all day about that word, too. But my point is, when people pick a word to express that exceptionalism, they tend to fall back on “freedom.” Which I don’t think gets the job done. (And of course, a lot of you who are offended by “exceptionalism” think people who believe in it are idiots who want to oversimplify anyway, but that’s another side argument.)

Let’s look at our history, starting with the Revolution. Of course, as long as I’m being picky about words, in my mind, “revolution” has always been a bit of a misnomer. Compared to real revolutions like the French or the Russian, it’s pretty tame stuff. It wasn’t about the peasants rising up to overthrow the brutal overlords (or however those folks saw their elites). Basically, the guys who were already running these colonies wanted to be left alone to run them, and didn’t like the way London — the Crown or Parliament or whomever you want to blame the most — was interfering.

If you want to go by the best-known oversimplification of the time, it was more about representation than freedom. (And no, my libertarian friends, it wasn’t “no taxation.” It was “No taxation without representation.”) You can say they wanted to be free of the king. But if I recall correctly (and I confess that in college I studied the period right after the Revolution far more closely than that just before), they had very much liked being British subjects, but they felt like they were starting to lose some of the benefits of that status. Hence the fight for independence.

Let’s move to 1861. In the great scheme of things, that was certainly about freedom. But interestingly, most of the soldiers were fighting not for freedom for themselves, but for the freedom of other people who weren’t even allowed to take up arms until late in the process. Also, I’m not sure how many of those fighting — or supporting the fighting on the homefront — would have said that’s what they were fighting for. But certainly “freedom” played a huge role in the memes of the day, and with more justice than during other periods of our history.

In later conflicts, we saw that pattern repeated. Often, Americans fought and bled and died for freedom — but as often as not (in fact, probably more often than not) it was for other people’s freedom. Which is one of the most exceptional things about us.

Take WWII. When the Japanese attacked, were they trying to take over the United States and repeal not only the Bill of Rights, but the Constitution? Or were they just trying to grab as much of the western Pacific Rim and its resources as they could, and correctly saw us as an obstacle to that? And the Germans were certainly taking the freedoms of Europeans, but at what point was there ever a real possibility of their marching into Washington or New York? Had Hitler won the war, I think the U.S. would have existed in a less free world, and that would have put huge strains on our own system. (Like the Cold War, only much worse.) But was it really about our freedom?

This brings us to Afghanistan. If you’re an Afghan woman, you bet it was about freedom, and you can rely on someone like me to use that reason a lot in explaining why we needed to be there. And I’m not trying to mislead you: I’m a big believer in using our strength to help oppressed people everywhere, when possible and practicable. You may have noticed that.

But is that why we were there? No. The Taliban had allowed their country to be used as a safe base for, well, the Base, and that presented a shockingly demonstrated physical threat to the United States — the kind of threat to which an oppressive country would likely have responded more or less as strongly as a “free” one.

Mind you, I’m not saying “freedom” is a bad word for what we’re about. I’m just saying we’re about so much more.

It’s kind of like “democracy.” People use that much the way they use “freedom.” But if I thought “democracy” summed up what our system is all about, I’d be slightly alarmed. I’m not a fan of direct democracy. I think having a system in which we all voted online on yes or no questions regarding major policy issues would be utterly insane. What we have is something more accurately described as “representative democracy” (to bring up that concept that seemed so important at the time of our revolution) or, in a Madisonian sense, a republic. And thank God for that.

This bothers those who smell “elitism” when they hear things like that. Well, their noses aren’t working right. I don’t believe for a moment that people who are elected to make decisions are by definition wiser, or in any other way better, than those who elect them (although I certainly respect them more than people who say they “hate politicians”). It’s about the process more than the people. If you just grab people at random off the street, and send them to Washington to study issues and engage in debate with people of various views, you will get better laws than if you simply ask those people on the street to state their uninformed, gut preference on a complex issue (which is why I’ve always hated “man-in-the-street” interviews — they make me embarrassed for the human race).

This is why I am so dismayed by Trumpism, and the extreme partisanship that was ruining our politics before Trumpism. When you go out of your way to elect people who are so aggressively idiotic that they will not engage in debate in good faith, the system cannot possibly work, no matter how “free” we say we are. (I’m stopping myself here from returning to another tangent, about the “freedom” to refuse vaccines and not wear masks, thereby killing thousands of your neighbors and destroying our economy. If you use “freedom” that way, you are definitely on the wrong track.)

Bottom line, I’m an American, and I cherish my freedom. It is worth fighting for and dying for, and I am profoundly grateful for everyone who has ever done that. Which anyone who has followed what I write knows. The least the rest of us can do is speak up in favor of it.

But does the word by itself sum up what I love about my country? No. You have to use other words as well, carefully and thoughtfully. And you have to insist that when people say “freedom,” they use it correctly and respectfully. Or else you’re missing what our country is about.

Speaking of words, I’m going to stop at 2,464…

What is a ‘friend?’

Damon and Pythias exemplified the Pythagorean ideal of friendship.

Remember Jim Harrison’s trial three years ago, which ended up with the former legislative leader being convicted on public corruption-related charges and sentenced to prison?

I was a prosecution witness in that case. I’d have written about it at the time — after it was over, anyway — but it happened right smack in the middle of the campaign when I was James Smith’s communications director. I didn’t have time for blogging or anything else. It was very hard to take the day off to go to the courthouse and testify.

It was the only time I have ever made an appearance in court. I used to cover trials, but I didn’t participate in them. It was a very weird and uncomfortable experience. I was called by David Pascoe, who wanted me to testify about this blog post from 2006. It was about an endorsement interview from when Harrison was running for re-election, and Pascoe was interested in a quote from Harrison near the end of it.

I was not the world’s smoothest witness. At one point, I think when defense attorney Hunter Limbaugh was cross-examining me, he was asking me a series of yes-or-no questions and I thought I was responding, when the judge interrupted to say something like, “Let the record show that the witness is shaking his head to indicate ‘no’…”

Very embarrassed, I muttered something like, “I’m sorry, your honor,” and resolved to use my words thenceforth.

My testimony was brief, but featured another awkward moment. I think it was Pascoe who asked whether I considered Harrison to be a “friend.” I was at a loss. I was thinking — and worse, saying — things like, Well, I dunno, I guess he’s alright; we have dealings from time to time and I suppose I get along with him OK in those interactions.

The attorney cut me off to clarify: “Have you ever had each other over to your homes for dinner?”

And I said something like (check the court record if you want the exact words), “Well, no.” Meanwhile, I was thinking, Is THAT what it means to be a friend? I guess I don’t have any, because I almost never have anybody over…

Another, shorter, anecdote: Recently, someone I’d known for several years stopped communicating with me, and I became concerned because the last couple of times I had talked with him, he hadn’t seemed himself. I reached out by email to ask if he was doing OK, and at some point wrote that I was just asking “as a friend.” He responded that he was fine, but that we were not friends. Which surprised me. I mean, applying the Pascoe principle, he had actually been to my house once.

So I was confused. About that, and a lot of things having to do with this “friend” concept. I mean, maybe he was right.

Lately — well, for the last 19 months, I guess — I have repeatedly read stories by and about people who are just desperate to get back out there and hang with their friends. Sure, a lot of these are unmarried people who don’t have kids, and they’re still dwelling in a sort of high-school social dynamic — like the main characters of “Seinfeld” — but not all of them are. And it’s also probably an introvert/extravert thing. But still, I wonder. I think I have friends. I’m not sure, but I think I do. But while I haven’t seen them since before the pandemic, I’m happy if I don’t see them for another year or two. It’ll be nice when I do see them, but I can wait. No problem.

Which brings me to the question I’m asking this evening: What makes someone a “friend?”

There have been all sorts of models for explaining that over the millennia. For instance, we can go by the Pythagorean model, but really, I don’t find it completely satisfactory. I mean, wouldn’t Damon have been even nobler if Pythias had not been his best bud? I dunno. I had never heard of Pythagorean friendship until just the other day, so let’s move on to something I know about. Which I’m increasingly convinced is a fairly small universe of things.

Do I even have friends? I have people I see regularly (or did, before March 2020) and whose company I enjoy. But aren’t they really mainly, I don’t know, work colleagues?

I had some people over to the house in 2016 when Burl, my high school friend, came to visit. I haven’t even for a moment thought of having people over since then. It’s just not something I do. (So if you, dear reader, think that we are friends — and perhaps we are — but wonder why you haven’t been invited, that’s why.) I am blessed with a big family, and just having parties at our house on people’s birthdays pretty much fills the social calendar. And while that’s certainly not enough for me with grandchildren — I don’t ever feel like I see them enough — it doesn’t leave me looking for unrelated people to interact with. I’m not going to make like Gatsby.

I’m pretty sure I had friends, as most would define the word, when I was a kid. I was really tight with Tony Wessler when we were in the 5th and 6th grades down in Ecuador. Tony and I connected several years back on Facebook, so we are still “friends” by that medium’s definition. In fact, Tony wrote to me on my birthday Sunday to say, “HB, Brad.” I wrote back to him to say, “Thanks, Tony!” So we’re all caught up now, I guess.

When I lived in New Orleans in 7th and 9th grades, my best bud was Tim Moorman, who lived across the street. We were both Karr Cougars. We had a lot of fun there. On weekends, several of us regularly spent the night at his house. In the summers his dad, a Navy chaplain, used to drive us up to Pontchartrain to the amusement park fairly frequently. A few years later, when I was in college I think, I spoke on the phone once with Chaplain Moorman, and he told me Tim was in the Navy, or at the Naval Academy, or something like that. Haven’t heard a word since.

My wife went to a private Catholic girl’s school, and graduated with a class of 37. I know about half of them, and several years back, my wife went down to the beach for a few days with a bunch of the ones to whom she’s closest. Meanwhile, in the 47 years since we’ve been married, my wife has met two people I graduated with, out of a class of 600. One of them was Burl, and I shared with you the awful news that he died a couple of years back. The other one disappeared after the last time we saw him, back in the mid-’70s. So basically, attending my 50th class reunion this year — if there was one — never entered my mind.

Maybe it’s a guy thing. Most of the people who I hear going on and on about friends, and making friends and maintaining friendships, and talking for hours with a bestie without even any beer being involved, are women. But then, there are all those “buddy movies” featuring guys. Weren’t Pancho and the Cisco Kid friends? Butch and Sundance? Maybe it’s that we have friends, but we absolutely don’t talk about it. And if I’ve broken the Guy Code by wondering aloud about it, blame on my having gotten desocialized by COVID.

But it’s probably just me. Maybe it’s being an extreme introvert. Maybe it’s that God has blessed me with a wonderful, big family, and they fill my life. Even though I only know a tiny percentage of the 8,916 on my Ancestry tree (the ones from, say, the 13th century are strangers to me, I must confess), the ones I do know and love pretty much fill up that part of me that needs to interact with people.

Also, it could have something to do with being a Navy brat. The longest I ever lived in one place growing up was two years, four and a half months. That was in Ecuador, where I knew Tony. Friends sort of came and went, like guest stars on a sitcom. Except that unlike Ernest T. Bass, they didn’t make return appearances.

But excuses aside, sometimes I wonder, Does this make me a bad person? I don’t know. Do you ever wonder the same thing?

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about it the last couple of days because on my walks — I’m trying to get my walking going again — I’ve been listening to podcasts (as I’ve mentioned, I’m kind of sick of listening to newscasts), and I’ve gotten into an “Invisibilia” series on friendship.

One of them was about a friendship an American woman formed with a Romanian woman in the early ’80s when she was there doing some kind of anthropological work or something. After they got to be besties, the woman confessed to the American that she had been informing on her to the secret police. After the Wall fell, the American requested and received that agency’s files on her — there were boxes and boxes of them — and discovered her friend’s informing went far beyond what she’d thought. There were recriminations back and forth between them, but they remained friends.

The second one told the story of a couple of women (yeah, again, it’s usually women who get deeply into this friendship thing, or at least are willing to talk about it) who became nuns in the early ’60s. Both of them were sociable types who had a terrible time dealing with the convents’ rules that forbade them to form particular friendships with individuals, because they were supposed to love all people equally. (More of a Christian thing than a Pythagorean thing. Like what I said about Damon — wouldn’t it have been nobler if he had offered to take the place of just anyone, not just his best friend? I refer you to the story of the Good Samaritan, as a contrast.)

Very interesting stuff, but all kind of outside my experience, I’m afraid.

Anyway, it’s kind of an important term, and it feels strange to have so much trouble grasping it at my age. I thought I had a grip on it in kindergarten, but it’s just gotten more and more slippery as time has gone by.

I’d be interested to learn how y’all define the term…

Let’s talk about ‘sex work.’ Or rather, let’s not…

No, that’s not just a cheap bid to attract readers who think there will be pictures…

Lately I’ve been gathering threads for a thus-far ill-defined post I want to write. It would be a Top Five post (maybe). It’s about words I’ve heard too much lately, and that need to be sent somewhere (very far away, in some cases) for R&R. But sometimes it’s phrases. And sometimes the words (or phrases) should never have been coined. Other times they’re perfectly fine words (or, as I say, phrases) that have simply been overused — or misused — recently.

Anyway, while I’ve been diddling trying to figure out how to define the post, someone went ahead an wrote an op-ed for The New York Times addressing a term that should never have been conceived, and which is also terribly overused. As soon as I saw it, I thought, Yes! That needs to go on the list! But while we wait for me to get around to it, let’s look at this…

The headline is “OnlyFans Is Not a Safe Platform for ‘Sex Work.’ It’s a Pimp.” Well, I don’t know what “OnlyFans” is, beyond some recent headlines about it. What interested me was that “Sex Work” was in quotes, and that drew me in, and I was not disappointed. An excerpt:

We are living in the world pornography has made. For more than three decades, researchers have documented that it desensitizes consumers to violence and spreads rape myths and other lies about women’s sexuality. In doing so, it normalizes itself, becoming ever more pervasive, intrusive and dangerous, surrounding us ever more intimately, grooming the culture so that it becomes hard even to recognize its harms.

One measure of this success is the media’s increasing insistence on referring to people used in prostitution and pornography as “sex workers.” What is being done to them is neither sex, in the sense of intimacy and mutuality, nor work, in the sense of productivity and dignity. Survivors of prostitution consider it “serial rape,” so they regard the term “sex work” as gaslighting. “When the ‘job’ of prostitution is exposed, any similarity to legitimate work is shattered,” write two survivors, Evelina Giobbe and Vednita Carter. “Put simply, whether you’re a ‘high-class’ call girl or a street walkin’ ho, when you’re on a ‘date’ you gotta get on your knees or lay on your back and let that man use your body any way he wants to. That’s what he pays for. Pretending prostitution is a job like any other job would be laughable if it weren’t so serious.”

“Sex work” implies that prostituted people really want to do what they have virtually no choice in doing. That their poverty, homelessness, prior sexual abuse as children, subjection to racism, exclusion from gainful occupations or unequal pay plays no role. That they are who the pornography says they are, valuable only for use in it….

Yes, absolutely.

After that, the piece goes on to discuss the thing in which I’m not interested, OnlyFans, but along the way it makes some good points about pornography and, of course, the absurd euphemism “sex work.”

As with so many fashionable neologisms, we can do without that term because the English language already has a perfectly serviceable word: “prostitution.”

Yes, I know what my libertarian friends will say. And I’m familiar with the views expressed by this movement. (It takes a lot of attitudes to make a world, and some are induced by something akin to Stockholm Syndrome. By the way, in keeping with my mania for genealogy, I even have a distant cousin who famously underwent such a process.) And perhaps I’ll be harrumphed at by “sex-positive feminists.” But in general, I’m curious what the rest of you will say…

prostitution copy

By the way, looking for an image that did not titillate, the NYT went with this. Determined to outdo them, I went with the above, from a link in the op-ed. So I win…

My first ad ever in Spanglish, I think

spanglish

I sometimes see ads in Spanish, probably the result of some small signal I’ve sent out to the cloud — such as the fact that I follow the Pope’s Spanish Twitter feed (after all, it’s his native language) as well as his English one, or something like that. They come and they go.

But this was the first ad I’ve noticed in Spanglish. It came up when I clicked on the wrong thing on my Spotify app, or something. I don’t know why it popped up.

Anyway, after I click on the link offering it en españolthe ad looks more normal (except that, weirdly, the logo is still in Spanglish: “MÁS QUE A MONTH”). But that page offers a link to “English,” and I click it and find myself back on the Spanglish page. It once again says things such as “It’s building forward juntos,” and “Meet the creadores.”

I prefer it to be one way or the other. I don’t care which very much. It’s just that I’m a bit of a purist when it comes to languages. Gimme real Spanish, or real English…

in Spanish

 

 

The word I couldn’t remember for days

I had no trouble remembering "Acme," although I initially thought of "Ajax." Don't know why...

I had no trouble remembering “Acme,” although I initially thought of “Ajax.” Don’t know why…

I’m embarrassed to confess this weakness. After all, words are my thing. Something I’m good at. I’m not much of a basketball player or a musician, and for that matter there are plenty of wordsmiths who put me in the shade, who utterly dazzle. And not just Shakespeare or Twain, although I find it hard to believe they were merely human.

But years and decades and more of everyday use have shown I’m better at words than, I don’t know, 90-plus percent of the population. However badly this blog post is written, I know that is generally the case. It’s been tested too many times.

It’s not much, but it’s something. And it bothers me to be losing it to any degree. So I hesitate to share the fact, but I’ve got this journalistic urge to document this thing frankly, so…

Anyway, it’s a thing I hate to see slip away at all. I’ve noticed my writing isn’t all that great since the stroke, especially on “fatigue” days (hence my self-conscious apology above for this post), but that’s a subtle, subjective thing that comes and goes. Not too worried about it, yet.

Not being able to think of a particular word is more definite. Feels more like a landmark — look what you’ve come to, dummy.

Usually, it’s not so bad. For instance, a couple of weeks ago, I was talking with someone at ADCO about a press release I was putting together, and I couldn’t think of the word the folks at ADCO use for that blurb at the end telling about the company. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the structure of press releases, but at the end you’ll have a line that says, “About Acme Corporation,” and it will be followed by a paragraph of basic stuff you’d want the recipient to know about the company but didn’t mention in the main body of the release. (Like, “Acme is a worldwide leader in producing a stunningly diverse assortment of products that are not normally associated with killing or capturing roadrunners, but can be used for that purpose.”)

I thought of it as a “footer,” which is more of a newspaper word, one applied to those italic things at the end of a story that say things like, Staff writers Joe Blow and Susie Q also contributed to this report.

I confessed my problem, using the word “footer” to explain, and after a second Lora said, “boilerplate?”

YES! Boilerplate. Why was that hard?

Anyway, I’ve had a number of “boilerplate” moments lately. And I think they’re because of the stroke, but I don’t know that.

And occasionally, they’re way simpler, far less esoteric. For instance… there was this theme music to a movie that I had heard a couple of times recently, and something on the radio reminded me of it — something extremely repetitive, I suppose — and I wanted to mention to my wife that it had recently occurred to me that this song was the MOST mindlessly repetitive in human history.

And for a second I couldn’t think of the name of the song, which didn’t bother me. What got me was that I couldn’t think of the name of the movie. And this was bad not just because it’s an EXTREMELY popular movie that is currently back in the news, or because I’m kind of a movie buff. It’s because I knew the words were extremely simple. I knew exactly what they referred to, since they combine to form the nickname of a real-life institution that looms large in naval culture — at least, in a certain part of the Navy. (Not the part I grew up in, thank goodness — more Bob Amundson’s part.) I could remember scenes in which the name was used in dialogue in the movie, and how important it was to those scenes. I could see the captain telling the two heroes that he was sending them there, even though he didn’t want to…

Yes, I was trying to think of “Top Gun” (and that maddening song, “Danger Zone.” Really. Go read the lyrics, all the way through. Listen to the last half of it.). It came to me within, I suppose, a minute. But it was an excessively long minute.

A minute, however, is better than several days.

Twice this morning, I tried to think of a word that I’ve been trying to retrieve for, I don’t know, two or three days. I didn’t especially need it. It wasn’t important to anything I wanted to say. But it really bugged me that I couldn’t think of it.

At one point today, I was responding to a comment in which someone described his post-stroke symptoms, and it motivated me to mention how fortunate I was that most of mine had gone away. I no longer have a problem looking down. Of course, I still have this fatigue thing. And there’s the forgetting-words thing. And then I tried to trick myself by just going ahead and typing the word I’d been having trouble with… and it didn’t work. I had to admit, “Like… dang. There’s a word I haven’t been able to think of for days, and I thought if I just snuck up on it, it would come. It didn’t…”

At that point, I went out to my wife who was reading on the deck. I told her I couldn’t remember this word. It wasn’t something common like “top gun,” but it was common enough in political speech that I should have no trouble with it. Or at least it had been, within our lifetimes.

I said it was a word feminists had popularized in the ’70s — a time when we were both in college, and then I was starting my career as a journalist, and this word was huge back then. It had been colored by that use to the point that people started using it only in that sense, rather than in a broader way.

The word referred to being too loyal, or attached to, some group to which one belonged. To one’s country, or something else with which one identifies. It was about thinking too highly of that identity, and having a tendency to look down upon people who didn’t share it.

I said it had come to be sort of synonymous with “sexist” because of the way it was used in that period. People might use it this way: They might say, “(blank) pig” instead of “sexist pig.”

I also said, erroneously, that I thought it was very close to some other, far more common, word, only being different by a letter or two. (There were two other things I was thinking but didn’t share with her. I thought it was from French, which was more or less correct. I was also thinking it started with a J, which was wrong. I kept straining to see the word, and I was seeing something that looked kind of like “jeune.” I don’t speak French, but I knew that meant “young.” I also knew it wasn’t the word, but I erroneously thought it was close. Maybe I was reaching for “jejune,” but I don’t know why because I’ve never used that one.)

My wife couldn’t think of it, either. I went back in, still trying to come up with it. I had thought about Googling for it, but I knew that would be tricky. Finally, I Googled “word that people use to mean sexist.” The first link I got was a page that offered offered 25 synonyms including “bigoted,” “discriminatory,” “dogmatic” (dogmatic? really?), “intolerant” “intransigent,” “one-sided,” “opinionated,” “racist,” “xenophobic”…

Completely useless. I’ve always wondered why some people find a thesaurus helpful. I never have. But then, I usually use fairly common words, and I think of them myself (I’ve always sort of thought that if I couldn’t, they were too obscure to use)…

I scrolled down on the page, though, and saw a separate list of words associated with “bigot,” and there the stupid word was: chauvinist.

YES! No J, but definitely French! And definitely the word I’d been looking for.

I went and told my wife. She objected that it wasn’t used to mean “sexist,” and that the common usage she remembered was quite correct: Back in the ’70s, a lot of people said “male chauvinist.”

Yes, I agreed, that was correct, because it explained the type of chauvinism being described. But I’m sure that during that period, chauvinism got to be so tied up with the male variety in a lot of people’s heads that it became common to use it for “sexist.” And when I tried to proved it by Googling “chauvinist pig” and telling it to leave out “male,” I got 284,000 responses. Millions would be better, but I think it backs up my memory.

Which is good. Because a memory that can’t remember “chauvinist” is a memory worth worrying about, if you value words.

 

 

I could be wrong about that, of course, but I’m not wrong about “top gun”…