Brigid Daull Brockway is technically a writer

Brigid Daull Brockway is technically a writer

A blog about words, wordplay, and etymology, with slightly more than occasional political rants.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

OK, so it's 1989. All of the X-Men are dead, except they're not dead, they're just living the in the Australian Outback. Wolverine, Storm, Rogue, and Colossus are there, but the rest of the team is kinda b-roll. There's Psylocke, a boring frumpy English chick; Dazzler, the I-kid-you-not disco superhero, and some other equally pointless characters. There's some business with an aborigine dude who teleports them places, a teenager who was living at the mall and now hides in their basement, and then some robot clone of Storm dies and then...

Yeah. At this point (and not before, somehow), the audience starts to suffer what refers to as Arc Fatigue, meaning they got really sick of this story arc and wanted it to go away now. This happens every now and then - the writers paint themselves into a corner, the fans are complaining loudly from their folks' basements, and things are looking bleak.

This is no problem in the world of comics, all they've got to do is invoke the Reboot. Comic books get special dispensation to use this tool - they come up with an absurd plot device - in this case some giant chrystal gateway thing - that levels the playing field. Reboot happens, and Dazzler the disco superhero moves to another planet, Storm's not dead anymore, and Psylocke is inexplicably Asian and slutty.

And somehow this was better than the dead X-Men in the Outback arc. Ah comics.

Recemtly, this has been going on with movies - the Batman movie franchise rebooted with mad success. We went from the unberably campy mess of Batman and Robin, to the new, dark Batman, which actually got an Oscar nod (albeit with the help of a drug overdose). Star Trek recently rebooted with some success. Lost, IMO, played the reboot card one too many times.

Wouldn't it be awesome if we could just reboot our lives at will? What would you reboot if you could?

Gives new meaning to "blond bombshell"

Once upon a time, I got skinny. Then I got Brigid-sized again. But Skinny Brigid got to do something Regular Brigid never did - buy an attractive bathing suit. So there I am, in a changing room, wearing a $70 bikini and balancing my checkbook in my head. If I skipped some meals and switched to generic cigarettes, I figured... Anyway, it was kind of embarrassing going back to the store an hour later and give "I came to my senses" as the reason.
I always figured the look was popularized there, or something like that. Not the case, according to Seems that back in Paris in 1946, people used atomic and other words related to nuclear energy to mean good or cool. Like the bomb, I guess. Anyhow, the US conducted a bunch of devastating nuclear tests on the Bikini atoll. Four days later, and figuring there's nothing hotter than a totally irradiated island, Louis Reard unveiled his new tiny two-piece bathing suit (he wasn't the first guy to make a bikini, by the way, just the first one to make money with it).
The article goes on to talk a bunch more about the evolution of the bikini, and it's really interesting. However, researching this, I found the story of the Bikini atoll much more interesting, not to mention much more depressing.
First of all, the dictionary tells me that an atoll is a ring-like island made of coral with a big lagoon in the center. And all this time I was thinking that Bikini atoll was just the name of the island. At any rate, according to, this atoll is part of the Marshall islands. The US wrested control of the Marshal islands from the Japanese late in WWII, and that's when things went all to hell. After the war, the US, in its grand tradition of displacing indigenous peoples and destroying their stuff, asked the folks of Bikini to move to another island for a little while while the US blew stuff up. Believing the US's claims that the tests would end wars and make the world a better place, the folks of Bikini picked up and moved to another island. The other island wasn't as inhabitable as Bikini and the people soon began to starve. 
Today, Bikini is kind of an atomic wasteland, and the folks of Bikini are scattered to the winds. There's hope that the mess can be cleaned up and the island made inhabitable again, but I don't think anybody's holding their breath.
Well, there you have it; you learn something new - and utterly depressing - every day. So the bitsy bathing suits the skinny ladies get to wear are glibly named after something kind of appalling. I think I'll start calling them two-pieces

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Domo arigato

Watching some old Twilight Zone episodes, I noticed people pronouncing robot so that it sounded more like robit. How odd, I thought. Obviously, the emphasis should be on the bot part, because bot is so... robot-ey. Robot is such a science-y word, it seems like it should be pronounced in, like, a technology-ish way. Right? The reason it seems a scienc-y word to me, I guess, that it's been around, been a technology-ish term, since I was born.
I'd never thought before then where the term came from, although I think I'd assumed it was an acronym for something long ago forgotten, like so many tech terms are. Nope. Robot comes from the the Czech word robotnik, which means slave. How weird is that? Calling a machine a slave is distinctly un-technology-ish. And no company would certainly purport to build and sell slaves nowadays. Not so PR friendly. 
Just think, though. That iDog you bought your kid for Christmas and have been regretting purchasing it ever since? That thing's your kid's slave. Roomba? Your slave. And Hal the evil robot from 2001, A Space Odysey? Nothing more evil than a futuristic Spartacus. Think of that next time you kick your kid's Roboraptor under the couch.
I wonder if robot sounds so science-y because it sounds sonicky, to use Blount's word again? Or do you suppose that if robots had first been called fauna, fauna would now sound science-y?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Literary Errata

  • Shakespeare did not write in Old English. Old English, as I've mentioned before, is a whole 'nother language. The alphabets are even slightly different. Old English - 400ish to 1100ish. Middle English, 1100ish-1500ish. Modern English - 1500ish until now. Shakespeare - late 1500s to early 1600s. So early modern English, but modern English.
  • Les Miserables was not set during the French Revolution. The climactic battle with the barricades and the musical crescendos was a day-long student rebellion against the monarchy; the rebellion failed. Students were battling for the rights of the poor and oppressed, spurred at least in part, by the belief that a cholera outbreak was the result of the government poisoning wells. 
  • In Kafka's The Metamorphosis, the main character does not turn into a cockroach, as many of the translations claim, but an Ungeziefer, a non-specific word for vermin. (two Blount references in one day!). Also, Kalfka's Metamorphosis was not an allegory for the human condition or the dehumanization of the newly emerging middle class. It's a story about a guy who turns into a bug.
  • Twilight is not literature. It's an abomination. 
  • I believe, in my heart that Gotham City was based on Cleveland, not New York. But I have absolutely nothing to back me up here. Think about it though. The Cleveland of 1939 was a once great city full of soaring architecture and lavish mansions, now fallen into poverty and disrepair, crime-ridden and desperate. Of course that could describe any city in 1939. But check out this stock photo of Cleveland's Transportation Bridge. How Gotham is that? 

Tsk, tsk, you scoffing scammer

In his book Alphabet Juice, Roy Blount Jr. coins(?) the word sonicky, which refers to words that sound like what they mean. In his words, "I mean the quality of a word that doesn't imitate a sound, but does somehow sensuously evoke the essence of the word." A word like greasy might be an example of sonicky, or, according to him, mumble and muffle.
I would imagine that others might contend that the words came first, the fact that they sound right is because we know their meaning.
I read somewhere that the reason people with Tourette Syndrome swear isn't so much because they're swearing, but because we naturally enjoy and gravitate toward words with a hard "k" sound. Which I could buy, because boy, do I love words that end in the hard "k" sound. One word in particular.
So I noticed something recently. I was thinking about the word skeptic, and why it has a negative connotation. Maybe I'll do a longer entry on it later. Skepticism, my skepticism, is only about wanting evidence - a skeptic doesn't scoff, a skeptic is simply a person who, if you offer to sell her some new-fangled snake oil, is going to demand some scientific evidence that it's effective. To me that's not any kind of scorn, we just don't like to be scammed by sketchy scum.
Other "sk" words - scold, scald, sketchy, scat, skids, skid row, skimp, tsk. And those are only words that start with the sk sound.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

What's in a name?

Have you noticed in recent years that nobody diets anymore? We adopt a habit of healthy eating, or embrace a new lifestyle or commit to wellness. Is this fooling anybody? I'm here to tell you, I don't care what Weight Watchers calls it or Curves calls it or Alton Brown calls it, I'm on a diet. I mean, technically, we're all on diet, since a diet is the sum of the things one eats - if I lived on ice cream and candy bars, I'd be on a diet of ice cream and candy bars. Do you suppose there's an ice cream and candy bars diet plan, 'cause that'd be awesome? My point is, it doesn't matter what I call my diet, when I'm hungry, I'm hungry. When I want ice cream, I want ice cream. I'm not going to want ice cream less if I call it a lifestyle instead of a diet. Interestingly, the term diet once referred not just to food, but meant chosen way of life, according to the Online Etymology dictionary. A diet's not all that different from a lifestyle after all.
I do have to say, kids, regardless of what Alton Brown chooses to call the thing that made him lose 50 pounds, it's awesome. The weight is coming off slowly, but it's coming off, and I'm eating a lot of tasty stuff. It's a diet, but it's an easy one. So there's my plug for the day.
So here's another thing. You notice how it's become socially acceptable to bash fat people as long as you explain that being fat is unhealthy? Like that annoying twit who berates fat people on all the talk shows; it's not that I'm not grateful to have a bunch of skinny folks suddenly concerned for my health, but I got this. A barb by any other name cuts as deep. 
Most people are surprised to learn that I'm considered obese, medically. My body mass index puts me just over the obesity line. Here's something interesting about the concept of body mass index, or BMI. It's not really a medical concept at all. According to the Penn and Teller show, Bullshit, BMI was a concept developed by some sociologist some years back for demographic purposes. An individual's BMI doesn't mean much at all, medically. Arnold Schwarzenegger, by BMI, is probably morbidly obese. George Clooney is obese, along with Russel Crowe, and Brad Pitt is overweight, according to this scale. 
There are a few health risks that an obese person experiences independent of diet, but the relationship between obesity and heart disease, for instance, or diabetes, isn't entirely causal, it's the diet that's the problem. This means that even though the Wii Fit scolds me for being obese every time I step on the pad, my cholesterol is perfect, my blood pressure is perfect, my blood sugar is perfect, and so on. The main reason I'm fat isn't that I eat unhealthy foods - well, not anymore. It's because I eat healthy foods like a lumberjack. A skinny dude who eats fried chicken every day may not look less healthy than I, but trust me. All signs suggest that my arteries are superhighways. Fried chicken guy, notsomuch. 
OK, so this has gone from talking about words to ranting. Perhaps I'm cranky because my lifestyle won't allow me the cookies I want.

Monday, June 21, 2010

I'm working in this store, right? This kid walks in, wants to buy a tobacco product, so I card him. He doesn't have an ID, he say, because he's just gotten out of prison. But he could prove he's 18, he says, because he has a tattoo. Across his narrow chest is a giant swastika, nipples to navel. As I escorted him briskly out the door, I briefly wondered whether I was violating his First Amendment right to free expression, but couldn't bring myself to care.
Of course, I wasn't violating his rights, because he was in my store (well, my boss's store, but he had my back). I could kick somebody out for saying they like kittens, and the only person I have to answer to is my boss.
Which is why people who create goading Facebook groups like "F*ck the Troops" as "experiments in free speech" don't have a leg to stand on. Facebook doesn't have an obligation to give idiots a platform from which to be idiots. In fact, any private entity can compel anybody to shut up as long as that anybody is in the entity's yard, so to speak.
In fact, when you think about it, it's not exactly as easy to speak freely as I always thought. We don't have free speech on anybody else's property, which makes picketing pretty tricky out here in the land of a thousand strip malls. Kids can't say whatever they want to in schools, the FCC limits free speech on the airwaves, and some kinds of speech in the workplace can get you fired or sued or both.
If you want to say something damning about somebody else, you'd better have evidence that this damning thing is true should you end up in court. It's illegal to lie in court or in a lot of other places. There's no specific law preventing you from mouthing off to a police officer, but I wouldn't suggest trying it. Then there's the elastic clause of prurience, a nebulous concept that local governments define as they go... at one time, according to my pal Bill Bryson, the Bronx Jeer (or the act of blowing raspberries, if you prefer) was considered so prurient that it couldn't be done on the radio.
You can't get a big group of people exercising free speech together in a public place without a parade permit. Oprah Winfrey got sued just for saying she was afraid to eat meat because of mad cow (Oprah ultimately won the court battle, but the fact that the lawsuit made it to court is pretty crazy). Judges can issue gag orders to folks involved with court cases - remember when Jay Leno wasn't allowed to tell Micheal Jackson jokes?
If you want to swear on a CD, you get a Tipper Sticker, and unless you're willing to change the content of some songs and movies, Wal-Mart can refuse to sell your stuff.

There are excellent, excellent reasons for a lot of these limitations. Big groups of people protesting stuff can turn into mobs in the blink of an eye. Businesses have a business to run and employees to keep happy, and ex-cons with giant swastika tattoos are bad for business, or so I hear. Prurience laws keep pornography out of the hands of minors, letting people lie in court defeats the purpose of the justice system, and Wal-Mart has a legitimate need to sanitize things for their customers' protection... I guess. But one doesn't usually think of free speech as being so limited a concept. Or I never did.

Here's some more work from the fabulous Andrew Line

Sunday, June 20, 2010

To tell the truth

I have to confess that despite the fact that I loved studying English, and despite the fact that I did work pretty hard in school, I was not a very well-read English major when I first graduated from college. I knew I should read the stacks of books assigned for classes, but I was so very gifted in the art of BS that it seemed a shame to just waste that talent. I read most of the assignments, I think, but I also managed to ace tests by reading dust jackets and back covers; sometimes I didn't even do that. 
Then I got lonely. To be more specific, I got a job traveling about the Midwest, teaching reading and study skills seminars at colleges. For the two years after graduation, I spent seven months out of the year living out of hotels for two weeks at a time, sometimes close enough to home for visits, but usually not. Sometimes I went a month or two without seeing anybody I knew. 
Like a travelling salesman tossing playing cards into a hat, I started reading. And reading. And since I was teaching kids to read super-fast, that meant I was reading super-fast. I got through the first five Harry Potters in something like a week. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arther's Court survived half of a weekend. Sometimes I'd go to the bookstore and read an entire book in one sitting to save the cost of buying it. 
Then one day, I found an old copy of Jane Eyre lying in a classroom where I was teaching. I hated Jane Eyre in high school and college. I thought. I vaguely remembered reading a chapter or two for some class and ditching the book, probably in favor of video games. But at the end of the day, I found myself driving to the Books-a-Million, an hour down the road, to get my own copy. It was the craziest thing. Reading Jane Eyre was almost nothing like torture. I didn't lose my will to live even a little. I mean, don't get me wrong, I still didn't like it by any stretch of the imagination, but it was, as one of my college professors once put it, "a big bowl of lima beans." Not tasty, but worth it. 
This sent me on a quest to track down and read all the books I'd blown off in high school and college. That was a long list, but I took care of most of it in a semester. This found me, at 24 years old, calling friends to tell them, "Holy crap, To Kill a Mockingbird is totally good!"
It's a slender waif of a book, short and simple enough for a child, yet rich enough for a grown-up to get something new from it each time they read it. 
Which makes me wonder, what in the hell happened to Harper Lee. The woman publishes a couple of stories, writes one of the best books, if not the best book, of the 20th century, and then that's it. She publishes a couple of essays, graciously accepts some honors and awards, but mostly just disappears. How does something like that come to pass, that someone with such incredible truth tells all of the truth she's got to tell and then stops speaking? It happens, of course. Lewis Carrol doesn't write any other novels after the Alice books, Rita Mae Brown, whom I've mentioned before, wrote the amazing Rubyfruit Jungle, but since has only written novels about cats who solve mysteries. JD Salinger's list of novels is on the skimpy side. 
Yet we've got Sue Grafton and Janet Evanovich and John Grisham who just keep spitting them out. You might point out that alphabet mysteries and contrived courtroom dramas take far less effort, but if you think that, you've probably never tried to write one. I recently read Dead Until Dark, one of the books on which the show True Blood was based. I think I wrote better in high school. Yet I've tried, a hundred times, to sit down and crap out a romance novel or a mystery just to see if I could and never gotten past a few chapters. I'm sure writing one of the greatest works of American literature takes a lot out of you, but it's hard to imagine it takes everything.
Not that I'm criticizing Lee in any way, or saying it would be easy for her to write anything. I'm not saying it's impossible she's just said all she needed to say. It's just funny, is all.
At any rate, 

Friday, June 18, 2010


  • Christopher Robin said that he wasn't fond of the Winne the Poo books because he couldn't remember which things actually happened to him, and which his dad made up. I'm going to go out on a limb and say the ones with the talking stuffed animals aren't real.
  • The reason old-timey pubs had names like The Prancing Pony and The Sleeping Dragon is that most people were illiterate. They knew the name of the pub based on the picture that was painted on the sign.
  • Ancient Latin doesn't have punctuation, nor spaces between the words.
  • In the bible, Christ calls God Abba. Abba is not the word for father, it's the word for daddy. Similarly, amen didn't mean simply yes, it meant God says this and this is so
  • In the Lord of the Rings books, all of the words spoken by or about hobbits are of anglo-saxon origin. Tolkien selected these words to convey a sense of earthiness and simplicity.
  • I once had a pet mouse who jumped a mile if you made a word that started with the p sound.
  • Mark Twain once went to a phrenologist who knew that he was Mark Twain. The phrenologist told him that he was clever, humorous, and gifted. He then went to a phrenologist who didn't know who he was, and the phrenologist told him he was humorless.
  • Sappho was actually bisexual. Her work contains many love poems written to men. Of course, Elton John's work contains many love songs written about women, so what do I know?
  • The word for mom in almost every language begins with an m. This is largely because the m sound is one of the first sounds babies are able to make. Similarly, I once learned in a speech therapy class that babies start making the g sound when they're tiny, way before they learn any words at all. Later, however, they lose the ability to make the g sound, and don't regain it for several months. Or something like that.
  • The part of our brain that tells us what's socially appropriate is the frontal lobe. When you do something stupid, then smack your forehead, you're actually spanking the part of your brain that should have told you not to do that stupid thing.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

No post tonight, dear

Sorting through and retouching a thousand wedding pics takes longer than you'd think.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Stay classy, Ohio

I used to be a bit of a brawler, sometimes literally. I've mellowed with age and therapy, and discovered that apathy is generally the best revenge. I recently found myself between the cross-hairs of a drama queen (interesting, there's no such thing as a drama king, even though men are just as capable self-centered hysteria), and though it's always better not to feed the troll, I was sorely tempted. In my head, I kept telling myself "OK girl, just stay classy."
Later, it occurred to me to wonder where I'd come up with classy. I'd never, ever thought myself classy before. In many ways, I'm the direct opposite of classy - I swear like a drunken longshoreman with Tourette's, I lick my plate in public, and I laughed so hard at Talladega Nights that I almost puked. In fact, I'm more likely to take classy as an insult than a complement. 
And actually, I think it better to embrace classlessness. Spell-check recognizes classlessness as a word, by the way. Class, in this sense hearkens to that ugly notion that some people are inherently better than others based on birth. It's an old, ugly dogma that's far older than Calvinism, but it's Calvinism that's lodged it so deeply in the collective dogma.
The term classy, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, comes to us from an ancient, ancient ancestor of the English language, in which kele meant to shout. In a process that I can't say I totally follow, the word evolved into the Latin classis, which meant originally call to arms. Classis, came to mean category, which has something to do with the people of Rome under arms, which doesn't so much seem like a logical leap to me, but what do I know? I've got no class. Online Etymology Dictionary tells me that class doesn't start referring to social status until the 1700s, which is a lot more recently than I would have thought. 
About a dozen jobs ago, I taught SAT prep classes.  Once, I told my class that I'd learned that the square footage of a person's house was a pretty good predictor of SAT success. The more square feet, the higher the score. One of my students sneered, "Well that makes sense. Of course rich people are smarter. If poor people were smarter, they wouldn't be poor." This from a kid who's parents were spending 1500 bucks to buy him a higher SAT score.
I guess that a belief that certain people are naturally inferior, and therefore less deserving of success, makes it easier to bask in one's wealth while people starve to death. Still, I'd think that people who are so smart would know how asinine that  notion is.

Monday, June 14, 2010

I'm not a role model, but I play one on TV

I should preface this by saying that there's nothing wrong with not knowing words. There are lots of words I don't know, and I will shamelessly raise my hand in board meetings when the treasurer uses a word I don't know (like savings account, for instance). I figure it's dumber to sit there not knowing what's going on than to ask. Not my point here.
Apparently there's some sort of basketball championship thing going on, or was, or something. I know this because NPR, being too Intellectual and Important to just cover the finals, did a story on Kobe Bryant's demeanor during press conferences. Apparently, he's kind of a douche. In the sound clips they played, he sure does seem to be going out of his way to be unpleasant. 
Then they played a clip of a reporter asking Kobe why he was sometimes "so surly." Kobe said, "I don't know what that word means," in a tone so hostile and disdainful that it seemed as though he were offended that someone dared to use a big word in his presence. I mean obviously, if you ask a surly athlete a surly question you're going to get a surly answer. But something in his tone really bugged me. He spoke in a tone, or at least it seemed to me that he spoke in a tone, that reminded me of when I was teaching, the tone children use when trying to prove to each other that they're not smart. You know the tone, the one that sneeringly implies that anyone who dares to actually learn is just a defective loser.
What bothers me is not that Bryant didn't know what "surly" meant. I don't know what a turnaround jumper is, because it's not my job to know what that means, just as knowing what surly means isn't his job. It was the way he seemed to me to be almost proud of the fact that he didn't know the word. I mean, obviously, Kobe's a terrible role model in general, but it bothers me that there are grown-up out there reinforcing the notion that knowledge makes you lame.
Or maybe I totally misread his tone. It's just that I loathe seeing kids jockey to be less intelligent than each other. I hate that kids who want to learn are ridiculed for doing so. Or maybe I'm just being a Sam the Eagle, insisting that things have "socially redeeming value."

This duck creature is as surly as he looks. When I tried to feed him, he knocked the food out of my hand, screamed at me, then bit me. When I ran away, he ate the food. Surly, I say. 

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Monks, part 2

When you're working with people with developmental disabilities, it's easy to forget there's a grown, or partially grown person inside there. It's tempting to interact with people with severe intellectual disabilities as if they're babies or small children; in fact, you'd be surprised at the number of people in the world who refer to all people with mental retardation as "kids," regardless of their ages.
But the thing is, our brains are really big, and they do lots of things. And so if somebody's brain won't let her make words, or follow directions, or pick up a fork, it's easy to think their brain just doesn't work, in general. However, the parts of the brain that control speech and motor skills are just a tiny portion. People with autism who learn to speak later in life often speak of hearing and comprehending everything that went on around them, but not being able to process and react. 
There was this lady. She was amazing. She spoke only a few words and did so rarely. She was visually impaired, used a wheelchair and didn't have a lot of motor control, so it was easy to forget that she was... in there, I guess. Every now and then, she'd just start crying, out of the blue. Then one day we noticed it wasn't out of the blue. She would cry if someone else was sad. If you were venting to a coworker about a relationship ending, or someone dying, she cried. Sometimes, she just cried because she could tell you were sad.
There was a young man who didn't know any words at all, and certainly didn't appear have the cognitive ability to comprehend death. One of the children who lived in the facility died. This young man found the staff person who had been closest to the girl who died and followed her around all day and petted her on the back, as if to comfort her.
There was this little bitty girl who moved in when she was just a little thing. She screamed a lot, kind of drove me crazy. Didn't talk or interact, didn't smile when you sang to her, didn't play on the playground, it felt like there was no getting through to her. Then one day she just climbs up into my lap and starts playing with my hands. And after a while, I realize she's making my hands do patty-cake. She even made my hand "mark it with a B."

This is Amanda Biggs, a woman with autism who tells the story better than I do.

This is Sondheim, who does not have autism, as far as I know.

Saturday, June 12, 2010


Some years ago, I worked at a home for children and teens with developmental disabilities. The young men and women who lived at our facility faced severe limitations: some had wheelchairs, some needed one-on-one help to eat. Most needed one-on-one help to dress themselves, bathe, use the restroom, do art projects, and so on. Most of the people with whom I worked knew only a couple of words or signs, if any.
One thing I always found odd is how many of the kids knew how to say certain words, but never said them when they needed to. For instance, a great many of the people knew a word or a sign that told someone they needed to use the bathroom, but a great many didn't. It's not easy making sure people are dry all the time, nor easy to keep up with the flow, so to speak, when seven kids forget how to use the word "pee" at the same time. So sometimes a young man or woman would end up in an uncomfortable puddle of wet, sticky pee for a while. So you'd think they'd learn, right?
Thing is, making words isn't as easy as it sounds. While it's perfectly easy for me to say the word "pee," (it's only one letter, after all) there are actually quite a few rather tricky steps involved. First, my brain has to tell me it's time to pee. Then my brain needs to tell me "If I pee right now, I will be wet and sticky and uncomfortable." Then it needs to tell me, "I can avoid being sticky and uncomfortable if I go to a bathroom." Then it has to tell me "If I say the correct word, someone will take me to the bathroom." Next it needs to remember that the word I have to say is "pee." Next, I have to use my throat to make a sound. Then I've got to put the sound in my mouth, then I've got to push my lips together and then pop them out, and then push the sound out. Problem was, a lot of the time, the the mental and physical effort required to complete these steps might take somebody's attention away from other things, like holding one's bladder.
There were a couple of kids, though, who were physically and mentally able to use much bigger words, but just... didn't. For some reason. There was one young man, for instance, who could speak in complete sentences, but only spoke at all once or twice a week. Like every now and then, he'd up and say "Coca Cola." So you'd run and get him and everybody else some pop to show him that "When I say words, I get the things I want or need." But then he wouldn't say Coca Cola again for a month. Once, he and I were roughhousing and he said "Get off me!" As you can imagine, when a man who hasn't spoken to you in a month says "get off me," you're going to listen. But he never said "Get off me," when a nurse was giving him a shot, or when he was fighting with one of his roommates, or when I was trying to drag him out of bed in the morning. Once, the day after a nurse accidentally jabbed him with a nail clipper, he informed me, "They cut me." If he could create a novel sentence like that, why couldn't he say "My head hurts," or "I'm hungry"?
As a side note, in my experience, if a person with a disability knows one word, it is a swear word. I'm not lying to you, I worked with a dude for seriously five years, and the first time he ever speaks in my presence, after FIVE years, he says "Aww, shit." And you could tell by the look on his face that he knew exactly what he was saying. What the hell? And this is why I'm not allowed to have kids of my own, I laughed my ass off. My rule was always that if you're just learning how to speak, I'm never going to tell you not to talk, even if you're swearing like a sailor. 

Friday, June 11, 2010

Crap on my desk

I'm a hip and happening girl, and today I was thinking to myself, "What's the most exciting thing to write about?" and then it came to me. The Office. Not the TV show, I hate that noise. No, I mean, let's talk about work words. Are you all a-tingle?

Office: Comes from the Latin officium for duty or task.
My dad, being a deacon in the Catholic church, has to pray the Office (or read the office, or say the office or something like that). This is not the same as watching The Office, but I bet it's equally entertaining. At any rate, Office in that sense is short for Divinum Officium, or "divine duty."
Desk: Comes from discus, as in the thing you throw, which also referred to a plate or platter. The meaning has drifted quite a bit there. Desk job first shows up in 1964, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. I wonder what they called it before that. Pencil pushers, perhaps, as tells me that term shows up in the 1880s. 
Oddly, according to, desk jockey actually predates desk job by a couple of decades. 
I always used to dream of having a job that involved a desk. Having my very own desk, I thought, would mean I'd finally arrived. Well, I'm here. Having a desk is cool and all, but I wouldn't mind not being chained to it. Grass is always greener over the septic tank. 
Computer: aka, the thing I spend more time staring at than I do at anything else, even when not forced to. Shows up in the 1600s as "person who computers," shows up in the 1800s for "machine that computes" (did they have machines that computed back then?). A calculator, literally speaking, is a computer. As is an abacus. 
Finally, my favorite, pen and pencil. What's neat about these words is that they don't come from the same root at all. Totally unrelated words. Like how koala bears aren't koalas. Kinda. Pen comes from the Latin penna, for feather. I wonder if it's related to penne. Great. Now I want pasta.
Pencil finds its way to us by way of the French word pincel, for a brush used for writing stuff, which is what folks used for writing stuff before pencils existed. Pencil's great, great, great, great grandfather is the Latin word penis, which meant tail or penis. Your pencil's a penis, yo. 

Did it just get really boring in here, or is it me?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Not with a Bang but a Whimper

In the movie Music and Lyrics, which I totally liked, two characters are debating the literary merits of songwriting. Drew Barrymore's character, an uber-educated English major, argues that writing pop songs is selling out. Hugh Grant's character (a waggish and charming Brit - a big stretch for the actor) is a washed-up 80s pop star. In a speech which I won't do justice to, he says that songwriting is real and important, that it impacts the lives of so many more people than literature, and besides, the greatest works of literature can't evoke the same feeling as "I've got sunshine on a cloudy day." I don't have the quote quite right, but every Blockbuster in the country has my picture up behind the counter.
I have burst into tears, more than once, when Bruce sings "Together, Wendy we can live with the sadness/I love you with all the madness in my soul." Never once has one of Shakespeare's sonnets moved me to tears. The first time I read TS Eliot's "The Hollow Men," I got shivers from my scalp to my toes. But "Tiny Dancer" stops me dead in my tracks every time I hear it and I have to stop and listen, though I've heard it at least a thousand or two times in my life. And while it's true that I read East of Eden at least once a year, I could listen to Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" every day for the rest of my life and it would still quicken my pulse every time.
Interesting, that. Then again, when I feel the surging swell in my chest that I get every time I hear the Saint Crispin's monologue from Henry V, I know that I am feeling the same swell that groundlings, kings, actors, and English majors have been feeling for four hundred years. 

Photo courtesy of the great Andrew Tobias Line

And maybe one of the best examples of writing in the English language.

And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by, 
From this day to the ending of the world, 
But we in it shall be remembered- 
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; 
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me 
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile, 
This day shall gentle his condition; 
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed 
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here, 
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks 
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Cabbages and Kings

In college, the newspaper columnist and author Regina Brett came to talk to one of my writing classes. Of course, somebody asked why she'd become a writer, and she said that she decided she wanted to be a writer when she was  little kid and read "Harriet the Spy."
That was kind of crazy, because I decided I wanted to be a writer when I was a little kid and read "Harriet the Spy." I finished that book, and the next day I ran to Norwood Drug to buy a speckled composition book just like Harriet had. Now Harriet had a spying route she'd do every day. She climbed onto roofs and spied on people through their skylights, hung around out back of the grocery store, even climbed in some lady's dumbwaiter. I was too chicken to do much spying, plus I didn't even know anyone who had a dumbwaiter. But I wrote. And that has made all the difference.

I've heard other people credit Harriet with their own decision to become writers, including Winona Ryder's character in Mr. Deeds. Louise Fitzhugh was just writing a children's book, like she'd been doing for years and would do for many years more. If Fitzhugh's little bit of kids' fiction had such a profound influence on New York Times bestselling authors like Brett, and wannabe bloggers like me, how far and deep do the breezes from her butterfly sneezes go? How far do mine? Yours? 
So I'm curious, faithful readers. What book has had the most profound impact on your life?

Sunday, June 6, 2010

And then she started writing cat mysteries

Once I had a 10-year-old student try to get a rise out of me by asking what "Tantric" meant. I told him that the term referred to a religious or spiritual practice followed in parts of Asia. He pointed and laughed and said "You're lying. Tantric is sex."
Ah. Leave it to Americans to turn somebody's religion into pornography.
At Ursuline, we had to read the book "Rubyfruit Jungle" by Rita Mae Brown. The main character is a lesbian, and if there were any graphic sex scenes, I don't remember them. When the time came to discuss the book in class, one of the girls raises her hand and says, "This book was the nastiest thing I've ever read." Sister Mary Dennis looks up from her notes and replies "Well then, you're obviously not very well-read."
It's interesting how people want to shield themselves from learning about things they want to condemn. As if even letting a thought get into your head is a sin. Then again, I felt sick with myself the whole time I was reading "The Purpose Driven Life," so I guess there's that.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Back in the box with you!

In his book "Jesus, Interrupted," Bart D. Ehrman writes of going off to seminary, where he learns, much to his dismay, that the Bible does contain mistakes and inconsistencies. He says that intense study of the Bible make it impossible to ignore the inconsistencies. The mistakes and inconsistency aren't damning, he says, and they don't "prove the Bible wrong," but they're there. Actually, I do remember going to school, repeating the things my dad was learning in seminary, and getting in trouble.
Anyway, Ehrman remarks on the fact that in seminary, students "...are taught critical approaches to Scripture, they learn about the discrepancies and contradictions, they discover all sorts of historical errors and mistakes... yet when they enter church ministry, they appear to put it back on the shelf." How weird to know that most ministers know these things, yet don't tell. 
Writing is sort of the same way. You go through school, you learn crazy arbitrary rules about prepositions, you learn a million adverbs and adjectives, you learn the five paragraph essay and the eleven sentence paragraph, and all of a sudden you show up in Advanced Expository Writing and Sister Cynthia says, "oh by the way, those rules you learned are dumb and arbitrary. There's no reason you should have to follow them." Professors are ordering you to strip out all the fancy adjectives and adverbs you've been cramming in to papers for so long, and Bam! Five paragraph essays are crap." But then, you go back into the world. The sweet collegiate freedom to dangle prepositions in the wind is gone, and no English major is going to use words like "ain't" and "gonna" in a cover letter. If she wants a job, that is.
And that's what makes me laugh about all the books on English language and usage that I read. All the authors decry the old rules, while never daring to break the rules themselves. Do you suppose these guys use leet in intra-office e-mails? Or tell their students they ain't gonna graduate? 
If the rules are so stupid, why do we keep following them?

Friday, June 4, 2010

Kanzi and Novel Sentences

I mean, it's cool and all, but if the ape's so smart, why's it taking nonsensical orders from some lady in a metal mask? If this were truly a smart ape, she would throw the TV at the metal face lady and run.

Geek Chic

Before I post this, I should point out that I realize Joseph Campbell wrote all about this stuff, and he's somewhere in the middle of the giant pile of books I haven't gotten around to yet. I'm sure his observations are much more astute than mine, but his don't come in convenient blog form.
For me, it was comic books. I vaguely remember a time before I could rattle off the names, powers, and favorite colors of all the mutants in the Marvel universe, but only vaguely. The X-Men leaped into my life one day 20 years ago, and they haven't left since.
I was an awkward, lonely kid. I kind of lived inside out - like all the ugly things that other people could hide were on display for every kid I ever met. It was partly that I was smart (though never as smart as I thought I was), partly because I was creative, but mostly because I had no social skills. I found myself at the bottom of the social ladder at school, and I never quite figured out how to claw myself out. The X-Men were like me, I thought - rejected by a society that feared and hated them for being different, for being special. I remember hitting puberty and feeling a tiny bit pissed that I didn't develop some cool power that would open up the world for me. 
I was an ugly duckling, and I clung desperately to the hope that there was a flock of swans just around the corner.
When you think about it, the things geeks tend to like are stories with the same message. Luke Skywalker never fit in on the farm because he was born to walk in the stars. Harry Potter was unkempt, unloved, and unable to change his station until his fairy godfather showed up in the form of a simple-minded fat dude. Frodo and Bilbo really wanted to hang out in the Shire like all the other hobbits, but they were destined for something bigger.
My mom never liked the story of the ugly duckling because, she said, sometimes ugly ducklings are just funny looking ducks. Meaning some folks aren't ever going to be graceful or elegant or find that their long-lost family has been waiting just around the corner. Some people just have to bloom where they're planted, she said. And she was right. There was no X-Mansion for me, and I still live my life inside-out, still unable to hide all the ugly other people conceal so well. And while it would be totally awesome to have claws and a Danger Room and Gambit for a boyfriend, I ain't doing so bad, considering.
So why do I still love comics? What is it that has me drooling like a fanboy over glossy covers and really, really badly made movies? In the words of the great sage Raspberry Tart of Strawberry Shortcake fame, "Aren't we a little old for these things, dearie?"
Well, we are and we aren't. You know how you've got a bunch of Facebook friends you haven't seen in decades and may never see again, yet you keep them around because it's a comfort to know that they exist? Well, the X-Men have been there for me through broken hearts and crippling depression and birthday party snubs. And while they're pretty silly on the surface, they've been kind of substantive as well. Back in 1963, when the X-Men premiered, Professor X was at least partly modeled after Martin Luther King, Jr. at a time when the jury, in the minds of a lot of folks, was still out on civil rights, Stan Lee and the gang were a little brave in writing that allegory. Would have been a little braver to introduce a black character less than a decade later (Storm doesn't show up until 75), but still. In 1991, the writers of Alpha Flight were a little brave to introduce a gay character years before Rosanne sparked massive controversy for kissing another chick. A more recent title had the X-Men rescuing a bunch of mutants from a prison that was almost surely modeled after Git Mo. Maybe they get away from this because most grown-ups would never deign to read a comic.
So sure, I'm getting a bit old for thrilling to clever catch phrases like "It's cloberin' time," but I'm not too old to identify with a bunch of ugly ducklings.

The pic is what's left of my old comic book store, the place where I feel like I spent half my youth.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

A plague by any other name

When health officials began to notice a rash of rare diseases like pneumocystis pneumonia and Kaposi's Sarcoma killing healthy gay men, they named the disorder GRID - Gay Related Immune Disorder. When children, hemophiliacs, and people who had had blood transfusions began to get sick, they weren't diagnosed with GRID because GRID only happened to gay people.
I wonder, if it hadn't been named GRID, if doctors had connected the dots sooner, if the disease had infected another group as quickly as gay men, how much more effort and money would have been put into finding a treatment. As Randy Shilts puts it in his book And the Band Played On, in 1985, the AIDS epidemic killing rampantly, "the CDC... stopped money from being spent on AIDS education when conservatives in the White House worried that the government should not be in the business of telling homosexuals how to have sodomy."
In 1992, I was in 7th grade, and noticed that our Health text books were all published in 1984. I found out many years later that it was because more recent text books included information on STDs and safe sex. Catholic school.
I wonder what would have happened had it been named Infant Related Immune Deficiency.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Univocalic Verse

It isn't right

I sing with him
I sin within his skin
I will sit, if winding winds wish in kind
I will, with him, climb wild in dim night
It isn't right.
In his dim within, in his thin wisps
Will I wish his whims.

Wait for it, it'll come to you.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Twas brillig and the slithy toves...

Some storytellers, being bereft of other hobbies, I guess, invent languages for their characters to speak. Tolkien, on the other hand, created characters to speak the languages he'd written - two forms of elvish, two fully articulated languages, he just made them up. You know, just because. 
Languages like Klingon and Vulcan from Star Trek are invented languages, yet aren't quite well-developed as Tolkien's - they have a vocabulary, but no grammar or inflection. This is similar to the language Esperanto, one that was created in the 1880s, in the hope (and, in fact, the word Esperanto means one who hopes in Esparanto) that people from different countries could use to communicate with each other. It was a good idea that, like the Sacajawea dollar, never really took off. It's out there in circulation and used by some, but mostly people stash it in their drawers to give to children on their birthdays. "Here honey, a brand new gold language!"
Still other storytellers create semi-languages - languages that contain both English words and made-up words, and I love it when they seep into our own language; I like to do my best to help them along. A few of my favorites:

  • Cromulent: One of a surprising number of terms that The Simpsons has coined, meaning acceptable or appropriate. It comes from an episode in which someone comments that the word "enbiggens" in the Springfield town motto isn't a real word. Another character replies "Enbiggens is a perfectly cromulent word." Awesome, awesome word.
  • Doubleplus: 1984, meaning something like "very, very." It's a nice, juicy word. I like the totalitarian nature of Orwell's Newspeak; it is completely devoid of creativity, because creativity has become a crime.1984, in many ways, was a novel about the tyranny of efficiency.
  • Karass: From Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, meaning a group of people whose lives are interrelated, often without their knowing, because they together must serve a common purpose. As I write this, the idea reminds me a great deal of the characters on Lost.
  • Horrorshow: From A Clockwork Orange, meaning good, maybe similar to the slang meaning for epic nowadays. The word does an amazing job of reflecting the culture the novel creates - it's like when you're watching Dead Alive, and the dude shreds his mother with a lawnmower, and you point and laugh because it's freaking epic. I guess with horror movies, the audience are the clockwork oranges - we see things that should make us sick, but we laugh instead. Perhaps that's where it starts?
  • Ka: Stephen King, meaning fate. Comes from the Dark Tower series, but shows up elsewhere. I love the term te ka from Hearts in Atlantis, which means "fate friend." Like soulmate, only without the romantic implication. We don't have a word for te ka in our language, which makes this an especially cromulent word.
Then there's Lewis Carroll, who doesn't translate a lot of his words within the text of his books. I was disappointed when I learned the meaning of brillig. He said that it referred to the time of day when dinner's about to be prepared,  the time when one starts broiling (in case you weren't sure if he was English). What a boring definition for such a smashing word. I imagined it to mean a hot, noxious sweltering time just before a violent storm. My definition = so much better.