Archive for February, 2009

Going ‘Postal” in Hope Mills

February 23, 2009

Two quibbles this evening about usage/abusage of the English language:

(1)  Went to the Hope Mills Post Office late this morning to send a couple of cards to my in-laws in Germany (“Oma” fell this morning and is in the hospital) and to acquire some stamps. . . .   Postal Clerk:  Would you need anything else?   Me:  “Yes, I’d also like to have 40 ‘Forever’  stamps.”  PC:  “Sorry, we don’t have any right now.” Giggling followed.   Moral:  “Forever” is not always “always.”

(2) I read in the local daily this morning that Sean Penn won the Oscar for “Best Actor” for his role as Harvey Milk in “Milk.”  As part of his acceptance speech,  Penn proclaimed, “We’ve got to have equal rights for everyone.”  A noble idea, certainly, but perhaps needful of some scrutiny and interpretation.  What think you about what Penn said? (He won the Oscar for portraying a gay, esteemed, popular, and rising San Francisco City Councilman who was murdered by a political rival.)

Please provide some comments/opinions.



An Approxinym Sprouts in the “Sunflower State”

February 23, 2009

I blush to admit that my native state of Kansas is too often in the news for displays of radical conservative or evangelical nonsense: such as the splinter church in Topeka that sends out its faithful ones to protest at military funerals,  believing that God was responsible for the deaths in Iraq or Afghanistan,  asserting that American soldiers are being punished for the rampant homosexuality in these United States.  The Kansas lawmakers have also brought forward legislation to prevent the teaching of evolution (without also presenting the alternate gospel of creationism) in the public schools of Kansas (shades of the Scopes Trial in Dayton,  TN, in the 1920s).

The latest evidence of somebody’s (or maybe a bunch of somebodies) being asleep at the wheel of the Kansas “deciders” came in an AP story last week.   If you read it, it had to do with a standardized test question that had been used in the high schools and was printed and used for a year or so until a 17-year-old student pointed out that the word “omission” had been used in one item instead of “emission.”

I think it unfortunate that the entire problem was not published.  But I suspect it had to do with garbling of a  phenomenon in physics rather than with a mistake in presenting a term commonly used to describe a night-time male sexual experience . . . .

Anybody out there have more detailed information?


A Punny Story + A Bonus

February 18, 2009


I’m afraid I am starting or maybe continuing an alarming trend here.  Anyway,  have you heard this one?

Seems as if the specialized doctors at a medical facility were having a difficult time treating severe cases of constipation.  One of their number had heard of a “witch doctor” type of healer who lived and practiced his skills in the rain forests of South America.

So, after having volunteered to go investigate, he brought the native healer back to the hospital complex, along with a supply of ferns that the healer used for his medicine.  The other doctors were of course skeptical about the situation until their colleague said,  “With these fronds, who needs enemas?”

Kind of reminds me of a story that Congressman Charlie Rose told many years ago at a gathering in Pembroke.  Mr. Rose said that a preacher was getting concerned that his sermons were becoming stale and predictable, and so he decided on a new, exciting endeavor.

“Fellow believers,”  he addressed the congregants the next Sunday,  “I am going to try a new tactic to liven up the Sunday sermon and make it more interesting.  I want each of you, as you leave the sanctuary, to put in the box by the door a topic you would like to see addressed in one of my sermons.  And I promise to pull from the box each of the next ten Sundays one of the topics to preach upon that day.”

Excited and enthusiastic, and having a much larger crowd than usual, the preacher, at the appropriate time the following Sunday,  brought forth the box and with much fanfare reached in and pulled out one of the topics.  He opened it up and read it aloud:  “Constipation.”

The preacher looked concerned and baffled and asked for a minute of quiet meditation.  Then, smiling, he opened his Bible to a passage in the Old Testament and read,  “And Moses took two tablets and went up into the hills alone.”

Hey,  don’t blame me.  I didn’t make up any of this!


Semantic Ambiguity and Meaning

February 13, 2009

      I trust that your day today on this Friday the 13th is going well and that tomorrow, a more promising day, will be enriched by love, both getting and giving. . . .

In today’s “blog” posting,  I thought it appropriate to deal with a topic the achievement of one kind of which is often met with groans or other expressions of dismay.

Since “semantic ambiguity” is often the consequence of an accidental use of the English language,  maybe groans are an appropriate response.  However,  there are many of us who relish such a happenstance and even perhaps go deliberately out of the way to create semantic ambiguity in the way of a “pun” or a play on words.

Here are a couple of results of accidental ambiguity, caused by users perhaps who were not as fully literate (in orthography or culture) as might be desired:

(1)  Seen over a number of years on a sign on a highway near Gaffney, SC,  advertising a roadside motel:  “Quite Comfortable Rooms.”  And so we either laugh with relief that it wasn’t our mistake after all,  or,  alternatively,  we might sneer a bit derisively because we weren’t the poor boob of a sign painter who committed this faux pas.  (Wouldn’t we rather sleep in really comfortable rooms, quiet ones even?)

(2)  In announcing upcoming auditions for a play by a famed Norwegian author,  a flyer was sent out a number of years ago urging aspiring actors to come at a specified time and place to try out for a role in

“A Doll’s House”
by Henry Gibson

This was a situation,  I suppose, where the ear was less reliable than the eye might have been.

When one puns,  of course, the motive of deliberate ambiguity is paramount.  We expect our listeners (puns usually don’t come off as well in print or written form) to understand and appreciate the display of a clever wit that the punner wishes to have recognized.   Here are a couple of my favorites that you probably already have heard:

(1)  The patient comes into the doctor’s examination to complain about some troubling dreams that keep him awake.   Doctor:  “It will help if you can describe these dreams.”   Patient:   “Well, last night I dreamt I was a tepee.  The night before I dreamt I was a wigwam.”   Doctor:  “You are too tense.”  (If you have to explain a pun,  it loses its impact.)

(2)  A three-legged dog comes into a saloon.  It acts up by barking at the patrons,  cornering timid ones, and threatening to bite.  The Sheriff is called.  He manages to corner the dog, and asks,  “What is the matter with you?  Why are you causing such a ruckus?”  Dog:  “I’m looking for the guy who shot my paw.”

‘Nuff said.  Comments and better stories welcome!  I will post another entry soon about some other interesting  situations where “semantic ambiguity” may affect the integrity of meaning and thus may call for redaction–or maybe even sedation.


A Quartet of Quandaries

February 9, 2009

        The following are just recent examples of bloopers or boners in English usage found in several contexts.  One “hobby” that has kept me from greater mischief over the past several decades has been to collect and classify such boners or inadvertent linguistic “booboos.” 

        Not too long after I retired from UNCP at the end of 1996,  I spent considerable time reviewing and classifying the collection I had already had into 25 typed pages and 14 categories.  Since then, I have added to the general collection but have not reclassified.  Before not too long, I may get up enough gumption (now there’s a good American word) to provide a “first edition” online in this blog.

In the meantime, let us consider these four examples taken from the “Observer” or from UNCP E-messages with the last few days. 

Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to identify what you think is “wrong” with the locution,  why you think it is “wrong,” and what you would do, without major surgery,  to improve upon it.  Or you could just decide to study your navel or go on to more satisfying chores.

(1)  A “bread-and-butter” note from the UNCP Director of the Center for Leadership & Service thanking those who helped support a recent project:  “The UNCP . . . Campus Advisory Board and the Center for Leadership and Service (CLS) sends out a hardy ‘Thank  you’ to all students, faculty, and staff who came out and supported the . . . (Fun) Raiser. . . .”

(2)  In an AP story by Ben Feller February 4 about an activity involving the “First Family”:  “They ended up at a Washington public school, greeted by children who could care less about the collapse of a Cabinet secretary nomination.”

 (3)  As part of an ongoing concern about plagiarism in UNCP classrooms,  from a UNCP Professor:  “. . . many of the studies on students point to them knowingly fail[ing] to cite.”  [I made one correction to what I had jotted down, feeling that maybe I had misquoted.  There is still at least one other concern.]

(4)  From the Sports section of Sunday’s newspaper. It concerned a report on promising offensive players who ended up transferring and playing on Division II football teams. This one is about a University of Virginia recruit, Kevin McCabe:  “The man who’s touchdown pass led Virginia to the only overtime victory in school history back in 2007, went from No. 1 to No. 3 on the Cavalier depth chart just one game later that season.”

Have fun!


A Tad More About the Sentence

February 6, 2009

I am planning a posting on a “Quartet of Quandaries,” a succesor to, obviously, “A Couple of Conundrums,”  which got some useful, interesting–though no passionate–responses.  Before I get into that, however, a couple of advance notes:

(1) To write really powerfully, I believe the composer has to be passionate in his uses of language:  about his subject matter, about the direction or the understanding he wants his reader(s) to take as a consequence of what he or she has written.

 I don’t know how many of you read Meredith Mitchell’s witness,  titled “Jesus understands all our struggles,” in the “Worship & Praise” section of this week’s “Sandspur,” but it was/is a most powerful testimony of this lady’s faith.  Note the “hook” at the beginning:  “They smell.”  Note the variety of sentence lengths, the strong pacing.  Note the concrete language.  I’ve never read better in John Bunyan or any other Christian apologist. (The penultimate paragraph is simple, terrifically strong with emotion, overpowering as a testament to Ms. Mitchell’s faith.)

(2) George Crumpler is reading Joseph Mitchell’s (likely no relation to Meredith) first book, a collection of stories written for three newspapers in the nine years from Mitchell’s arrival in Manhattan in late 1929 to his moving to “The New Yorker” in 1938.  Read well the essay that introduces these stories. It is also titled “My Ears Are Bent.”  Mitchell’s passion for life, for writing down the stories he was told by remarkable men, a couple of women, and one prepubescent child,  are, because of that passion and that empathy, likely to be immortal,  much as with the writing of his idol, his inspiration,  James Joyce. 

Here is a description of the Hudson River near the beginning of  one of Joseph Mitchell’s later stories,  “The Rivermen,”  from “The Bottom of the Harbor,” a collection of his greatest stories:   “[The river] is exciting to me on weekdays, when it is crowded with ocean craft, harbor craft, and river craft,  but it is the river itself that draws me, and not the shipping, and I guess I like it best on Sundays,  when there are lulls that sometimes last as long as half an hour, during which, all the way from the Battery to the George Washington Bridge, nothing moves upon it, not even a ferry, not even a tug, and it becomes as hushed and dark and secret and remote and unreal as a river in a dream.” Mitchell’s sentence here moves in synchronization with the river itself,  its eleven commas linking phrases in the same rhythm as the river moves:  slowly, but relentlessly, apparently aimlessly, but purposefully:  a double metaphor for both the ceaseless passing of time and the eternal constancy in its never-ceasing motion.  In short,  Wowsers!