Archive for March, 2009

Approxinymania Redux

March 31, 2009

Those who have been reading this blog (all three of you) for a while will recall that one of my pet peeves as a scholar of the English language as well as a devoted reader of newspapers, newsmagazines, and so on,  is the uncorrected confusion of what I have come to call  “approxinyms,”  words of similar sounds (exact-sounding ones are usually termed “homonyms”) or spellings,  such as “hare” for “hair.”

Just when it appeared that the “Observer” had entered a quiet, peaceful stretch of water, suddenly three more such of “these” made their presence known and blew our kayaks badly off course.  I am going to cite all three and give you a choice of words to select.  I want you to select the word that actually appeared in print:

(1)  From the “Home Front” column on March 19:  “I heard on the radio that [sites, sights] such as Facebook are ruled by the 40- and 50-something-year-olds looking to reconnect–I feel so hip and with it.”

(2) From a report of March 21 on a speech given by a former  CEO of BB&T:  “BB&T was guided by its core [principals, principles], he said.”

(3)  From a letter by a Missouri reader to “Dear Abby”also in the March 21 issue (topic is use of safety belts for young children):   “I’m afraid their mother will get into an accident, and one of the children will be [severally, severely] injured or die.”

First to report and have all correct answers will get to choose the venue for the next “Blogger Breakfast.”



Eulogy: The Spoken “Last Words”

March 28, 2009

Most of us postpone or suppress any notions we may have about what might be said about us (perhaps in public, perhaps in private,  maybe even mutely) after our inevitable deaths.

The topic for today is “eulogy,”  which literally, deriving from the Greek language, means “praise” or perhaps more precisely, “word of praise.”  It is commonly used to identify a speech given after a person’s passing in praise and memory of that person’s life.

To begin on the light side,  here is an anecdote someone passed on to me many years ago:

Three men had gone to the wake of a close friend of theirs and, after a couple of rounds, began to speculate about what they would like said over their remains at their funeral service.  The first man said,  “Well, I like to believe that I made our society better because of my work in science and engineering,  making easier and more efficient our lives.  I hope something along that line would convey my legacy.  What about you, Ted?  What would you like to have said over your casket at your final service?”    “Well,”  Ted answered,  “I would like to be thought of as a benefactor to my community and to my family,   that through my means, my time, and my efforts I made life easier and more enjoyable for many people who had less than I.  Well, and what about you, Joe?  What would you like to said about you over your casket?”  Joe:  “He’s still breathing!”

Some of the best-known epitaphs graven on the stones that may be erected in cemeteries in our memories come from Latin: “Requiescat in Pace” (“Rest in Peace” in English,  often shortened to “R.I.P.”)   “Ave atque vale”  (“Hail and Farewell”) and “In Memoriam.”   Alfred, Lord Tennyson, writing under the latter title in 1850, wrote perhaps the most extensive and comprehensive eulogy in English (British andAmerican)  literature ,  a tribute to his friend,  Arthur Henry Hallam.  It is one of my favorite long poems in all of literature.

We probably no longer as speakers and writers have the patience to compose and deliver lengthy eulogies. Nor would those attending expect or welcome such.  Yet, it may still be worth reading and recalling, in our time of losses, and in times when we reflect upon our own lives, the most memorable and powerful of such tributes.

John Lithgow,  a well-known and accomplished actor and a poet himself,  has recently published a collection of his favorite poems.  He spoke to Bill Moyers on the latter’s PBS program last January 2 (Thanks, Bob Rundus, for the tip on this) about having read a part of a Shakespeare play at his father’s funeral:  “I actually read it at my father’s memorial service.  It’s my favorite.  It’s one of my favorite pieces of Shakespeare.  I mean,  it’s a sustained poem.  It’s actually, some call it a song, from ‘Cymbeline,’  and it’s Shakespeare’s great eulogy.  It’s called ‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun.'”  [RJR: It is done by several characters in the play, but I’ve left out those identifications.]

Here is the entire piece as it appears in the Complete Pelican Shakespeare:

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun

Nor the furious winter’s rages;

Thou, thy worldly task has done,

Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages.

Golden lads and girls must

As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

Fear no more the frown o’ the great;

Thou art past the tyrant’s stroke:

Care no more to clothe and eat;

To thee, the reed is as the oak.

The scepter, learning, physic, must

All follow this and come to dust.

Fear no more the lightning flash

Nor th’all dreaded thunder-stone;

Fear not slander, censure rash;

Thou hast finish’d joy and moan.

All lovers young, all lovers must

Consign to thee, and come to dust.

No exorciser harm thee

Ghost unlaid forbear thee;

Nothing ill come near thee.

Quiet consummation have,

And renowned be thy grave.

To be asked to prepare and present a eulogy is a great honor and a greater responsibility.  What is said after one’s death is not for the dead person but for the living–family, friends, neighbors, colleagues–who must carry on:  without her or him.

Comments and contributions about other eulogies welcome.


Had Any “Serendipity” Lately?

March 26, 2009

Here’s an illustration of what the coined word (in 1754, by Horace Walpole of England) “serendipity” means, and this incident just happened on Tuesday,  the day before yesterday!

I had run across, via my constant “decluttering” efforts, earlier that same day an E-mail  from June 2004 I had sent to Mary Kinney of the “Fayetteville Observer” (assistant  to Editorial Page Editor Tim White at that time) which dealt with the topic of the origin of the word “serendipity.”  Then as I read later that evening the “Doonesbury” cartoon by Garry Trudeau (which appears on the editorial pages of the newspaper),  there was an illustration of that unusual but useful word.

A young man (Leo) who was brain damaged in the Gulf War is talking to his mother and (I think) a counselor and he is trying to tell them, slowly and with great difficulty that “Loo . . . knows Alex!”  And that he is a family friend.  Then Leo tries to explain several times by saying “Pure Ser. . . Ser . . . Ser . . . ” and finally with a rush says,  “Ser-endipity!  His brother says, “Good work, Bud. But it’s not a word.”  And his mother advises, “Try again, honey.”  Great irony, of course, that the brain-damaged one knows more that his audience.

The ironic humor of this scene depends,  of course, on our knowing that “serendipity” is a word that means something like “an unexpected and fortuitous happening” or perhaps a “happy coincidence.”  As I wrote to Mary Kinney (I love Mary’s sense of humor and admire her fortitude),

“Don’t know whether you believe in serendipity.  But, as it so happens, truly,  I had just gone into my inbox for the second time in a couple of hours with my only intention being to send you a message.  And, lo and behold,  you make it very easy for me by sending me your message to “Reply to” (the only new message in my mailbox).

“I have recently been reading a review of a book by Robert K. Merton and Elinor Barber, titled ‘The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity:  A Study in Sociological Semantics and the Sociology of Science.’   The word in question traces back to its use in 1754 by Horace Walpole [best known perhaps for his Gothic Romance,  ‘The Castle of Otranto’], who mentions a ‘silly fairy tale’ he had once read,  titled ‘The Three Princes of Serendip’ (‘Serendip’ is an ancient name for Ceylon, which is now Sri Lanka).  The princes have a habit of discovering pleasant scenes and adventures they were not looking for.  Merton’s and Barber’s book has as its thesis the premise that scientists often make discoveries of more importance that what it is they are actually looking for.  The  gist of the principle behind the term is found in a statement by Louis Pasteur:  ‘Chance favors the prepared mind.'”

And so it also happens that in my “Sandspur” column this week I have told of a significant “serendipity” from my own life’s history. . . .   Maybe you all have at least one similar chapter in your life’s story.  If so, we would be pleased to hear about it.


Got Room for a Few Commas?

March 23, 2009

Lynne Truss,  the well-known British stickler and curmudgeon,  was doubtless much more offended by misuses/abuses of the apostrophe (frequently correcting such gaffes in public places) than by similar problems in using or overusing the comma.

The title of her best-selling book, however,  illustrates the problem that misused commas can create. The cover depicts a small panda holding a revolver over her title,  “Eats, Shoots, & Leaves.”  The problem here,  obviously, is in the overuse of the comma.  Clarity would have been achieved with this sequence “Eats Shoots & Leaves.”  Here there is only one verb (“eats”) with compound direct objects (“shoots” and “leaves”).   The description is clear about the animal’s foraging habits.

Why is it that those who write about linguistic gaffes and goofs relish punning titles for their books?  In my possession at the moment are two such tomes:  “Lapsing Into a Comma,” by Bill Walsh (2000) ; and “Comma Sutra” by Laurie Rozakis, 2005).  Guess you will catch the puns in each instance.

Were you to buy one of these,  I would strongly recommend Mr. Walsh’s.  The author is a veteran journalist who has manned the Copy Desk and Business Desk of the “Washington Post” for a number of years.  His is a comprehensive, well-written,  easily readable, and enjoyable book.  Laurie Rozakis,  Ph.D., is a contemporary academic type with an adolescent bent for vulgar or tasteless turns that turn me off.  But maybe I am not part of the audience she is seeking to reach.  Furthermore,   however,  after having read twenty or thirty pages, I had already zeroed in on at least five omissions or misplacements of basic information about English grammar and usage.

Now back to some further comments on the uses of the comma.  It is a very handy device for lightening up your prose and for clarifying structural moves within the sentence.  Here is an exercise that both Ms. Truss and I find helpful in introducting the power of punctuation to sway and emphasize.  How would, I used to advise my students, would a “male chauvinist pig” punctuate the following string of words?  Conversely, and to use a “Rushism,”  how would a “femiNazi” punctuate it so much differently?

woman without her man is nothing

I can’t let this posting go without some mention of the fondness that “New Yorker” founding editor Harold Ross had for the placing of commas,  advising them to be added so often that he became a pest to the writers.  E. B. White (arguably the writer and advisor who did the most to shape and form this iconic magazine) said at one point,  “Commas in ‘The New Yorker’ fell with the precision of knives in a circus act, outlining the victim.”  And it may have been White also who sent Ross a Christmas card,  with the contents composed entirely of commas,  which Ross was advised to use as he pleased.

Look forward to hearing from you.


Behold the Lowly Apostrophe

March 23, 2009

    Going back through some of my files lately (a process I seem to lurch through in the early part of each year as I vow to “declutter” more and more of my ample hoard of “stuff”), I came across an E-mail to Sarah Vanderclute, who served on the “Community Advisory Board” of the Observer with me).  Sarah had just accepted a position as the spokesperson for Cumberland County government when I wrote this June 12, 2004, message:

“I much enjoyed your essay in yesterday’s paper for several reasons, of which I will mention only two.  Your mentioning of Lynne Truss’s ‘Eats, Shoots, & Leaves’ only made me wish more avidly that my order for it from (along with Tapper’s ‘Guy Goes Into a Bar’) will soon arrive.  It [Truss’s book] remains at # 2 on the ‘New York Times’ best seller list for non-fiction, an amazing fact in itself. . . .

“My ‘Usage’ file does have a number of items related to the use of the apostrophe, which Truss (and others, not including me totally) consider a punctuation mark.  I do recall that sometime in the early 1980s I took a call from the manager of J.C. Penney’s in Lumberton.  He was curious as to how to properly spell Boys Jeans for a sales ad.  So that took us into some conversation about when,  and when not, to use the apostrophe.”

Now, Faithful Blog Readers and Eager Learners, what would you have recommended to that store manager?


I am posting again, post haste, this time on the uses and abuses of the lowly comma. . . .  Check it out.

Would “McNeill” By Any Other Name . . . ?

March 19, 2009

 Dear Blog Readers–

This recent exchange with a former (well, maybe “former” with students = “forever”) student of mine may raise a quite sensitive topic: that of the practice of naming in the African-American culture.

Such a discussion is considered by linguists to be a subdivision of the field that is commonly called “onomastics, ” the science of names and naming.

Our cultural history in relation to names extends as far back as the Book of Genesis in the Bible where, we may recall Adam named the woman made out of his rib “Eve.”  And he was also charged by God (was he not?)  with naming all of the creations of God that were in the Garden of Eden.

One linguist has pointed out that the naming task is especially critical to our higher thinking skills,  for only then are we able to distinguish clearly between the “Me” and the “Not-Me.”   However,  the practice of naming everything around us may result in the fixation of feeling/thinking that the name is the same as that to which it refers.  When the referent and the name are regarded as identical,  superstitions, fetishes, and taboos may cloud our thinking.

All I ask for now is that you read the exchanges between Jessie M. and me and offer any suggestions that will help to cast light on the subject(s) raised so that we may better understand and deal with it/them.

Many thanks,  Jessie, for your contributions.

RJR (Keep in mind that these exchanges progress from most to least recent.  So you may want to begin at the end and move to the top!)

Dear Jessie M.

Sometimes, as I observed a while as if Shakespeare had me in mind (except for the name, which I have changed) when he penned this quotation from Julius Caesar:  “Yon Rundus has a lean and hungry look;  He thinks too much:  such men are dangerous.”

It would be difficult for some of us to feel comfortable dealing with this topic.  Nonetheless, we do know that many African-Americans or blacks have changed their names as one kind of act that frees them from an unpleasant past perhaps.  The outstanding examples would probably be in sports:   Cassius Marcellus {two “Roman” names, interestingly] Clay becomes Muhammad Ali; Lew Alcindor become Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and so on.  But perhaps “Malcolm X” set the stage.  [Later: he was once known on the street and in the ‘hood as “Detroit Red.”  And he became educated by studying in prison a dictionary from front to back.]         I will  paste and copy this exchange into my blog and see what those collective and individual minds think about this tendency (or perhaps “issue”).
Thanks again for your interest and contributions!

P.S. What prompted my thinking about the names beginning with “Mc” that African-Americans or blacks have in their heritage was a presentation I attended in UNCP’s Library yesterday morning by Dr. Shelby Stephenson, whom you perhaps know and may have studied under.  Dr. Stephenson’s most recent book–and his most challenging, I think–is entitled “Family Matters: Homage to July, The Slave Girl.”  The historical event that prompted his interest was the actual buying by his great-great-grandfather George Stephenson of a  ten-year-old slave girl in Harnett County in 1850.
At that time, I believe, most slaves did not have a surname (an exception might be Alex Haley’s “Kunta Kinte,” which was the Gambian name, I believe, of the central figure of interest in his search for his African ancestors in his marvelous book “Roots”).  Did Reconstruction bring about the greater use of surnames for emancipated blacks?  I ask out of ignorance, not because I have a credible answer.

—–Original Message—–
From: jessie mcneill
Sent: Mar 18, 2009 10:58 PM
To: raymond rundus
Subject: Re: [Getting a Better Grip on Reading and Writing] Comment:

v\:* {behavior:url (#default#vml);} v\:* { BEHAVIOR: url (#default#vml) }

Dr. Rundus,

Thanks for responding.

I, too, have wondered about the girding of the loins. Each time I hear it I get a different picture of what one is doing.

I think the “Mc” name would be a very interesting subject  for the bloggers. There have been many discussions on the name in my presence, but I have never heard of one who had thought about changing his name.

When I read your email, I posed the question to my sister(McLean),a friend (McAllister) a neighbor (McGrady). None of them could remember anyone in the family who did not love that name and would never think of changing it. They thought it would be an interesting subject to blog.

When I worked in Hoke County, for many years  I was the only African American McNeill on the staff. There were several white McNeills. We all pretended that we were related and the children believed us for years. I thought it was so funny.

I am going to ask this question to my book club members.

What am I doing to spread my knowledge and skills? I work part-time as an  AIG consultant with the Cumberland County Schools.

I do not get bonuses as the real AIG folk do.

 ——-Original Message——-

From: raymond rundus

Date: 03/18/09 18:15:20


Subject: Re: [Getting a Better Grip on Reading and Writing] Comment:


You are very kind–and overly generous–in your comments. But what did said did warm the cockles of my heart,  wherever and whatever they are.  I also sometimes wonder about the Biblical reference “gird your loins.”  I’ve never been certain either about what and where my “loins”  are.  Any relation to the “tenderloin” part of a pig or a steer?

What are you doing now to spread your knowledge and skills?

Best regards,


P.S.  Were you a student that was very interested in the contemporary “Romance Novel”?  It so happens (sometimes coincidences seem too much so to just be accidental) that I was thinking just this morning of a class (not yours: I believe it was a sophomore-level class) in which I had several African-American or “black” students whose names began with “Mc,”  such as yours.  It caused me to wonder whether, if I were black and had such a name, if I would want to change it as it probably harks back to slavery days and the taking on of the last name of “Massa,” the owner of slaves. I was planning to introduce that topic to my “blog” readers,  but I am concerned that it may be, for some, too sensitive a topic to see addressed that widely.  What do you think?

—–Original Message—–

>From: Jessie McNeill <>

>Sent: Mar 18, 2009 3:41 PM


>Subject: [Getting a Better Grip on Reading and Writing] Comment: “Yes!  The “Golden Trashery of Ogden Nashery””


>New comment on your post #42 “Yes!  The “Golden Trashery of Ogden Nashery””

>Author : Jessie McNeill (IP: ,


>Dr. RJR,

>I do enjoy your literary expressions. I was in one some of your graduate classes at Pembroke when the graduate program in English began. I enjoyed your classes so much and we still talk about your interest and knowledge of our language.


>You can see all comments on this post here:




Hints on Pronunciation for Foreigners

March 18, 2009

As these states in the United States of America become, via immigration and other factors, more “salad bowls” than  “melting pots,”  we become more and more aware of the difficulties our native tongue presents to those who come from other cultures and who may have command only of their native language:  the language of their parents and more remote ancestors.

In 1965 this poem appeared in the “London Sunday Times” and was attributed to an author who was identified only by his initials: “T.S.W.” Try reading through this poem aloud, and it will make you appreciate,  and perhaps be more considerate of,  those immigrants or refugees who appear to be murdering our language:

Hints on Pronunciation for Foreigners

I take it you alread know

Of tough and bough and cough

and dough?

Others may stumble but not you,

On hiccough, thorough, laugh, and through.

Well done!  And now you wish,


To learn of less familiar traps?

Beware of heard, a dreadful word

That looks like beard and sounds like bird,

And dead:  it’s said like bed, not


For goodness’ sake don’t call it


Watch out for meat and great and threat.

(They rhyme with suite and

straight and debt.)

A moth is not a moth in mother

Nor both in bother, broth in


And here is not a match for there

Nor dear and fear for bear and pear,

And then there’s dose and rose

and lose–

Just look them up–and goose

and choose,

And cork and work and card and


And font and front and word and


And do and go and thwart and


Come, come, I’ve hardly made a


A dreadful language? Man alive.

I’d mastered it when I was five.

That was fun, or was it not? (Call me friend but not a fiend.)


Are You Culturally Literate?

March 18, 2009

Some twenty years and more ago, while I was still at my post at a local university teaching a variety of “English”  courses to a variety of students pursuing a variety of interests,  I began to be intrigued by what I felt was a need for them to become well-versed in what was beginning to be called “cultural literacy.”

A book by philosopher Allen Bloom, appearing in print about the same time and which drew an inordinate amount of attention and controversy, was titled “The Closing of the American Mind.”  It appeared, via its primary thesis and the accompanying anecdotal and accumulated evidence, to underscore the growing awareness that mere literacy, the ability to read and write, was not adequate to be considered a fully literate person.

It was E. D. Hirsch, Jr.’s book “Cultural Literacy” which gave this movement a central thrust and continuing dominant present, even until today.  Hirsch, of The University of Virginia, soon developed “What Literate Americans Know:  A Preliminary List” into a series of of dictionaries and eventually a entire series of public and private school curricula based on the premise that sound cultural literacy should be a transcendent goal of education, at least through the twelfth grade.  Two fellow University of Virginia professors (Joseph E. Kett and James Trefil) collaborated with him on the Dictionary projects.

The Second Edition of the comprehensive “Dictionary of Cultural Literacy,” published in 1993, already had expanded into a volume of 619 pages.  Many contributors had submitted additional entries following the publication of the first edition.  A series of dictionaries for age groups of children were developed and published under the general title,  “What Your ____________ Should Know.”

Here is the list of entries I rather quickly made that I felt ought to be added that were not in Hirsch’s the “Preliminary List.”  How would you fare in your ability to recognize and identify these topics?  Take a few minutes at least to browse through the list.  (I eventually made up a test of cultural literacy which was intended to offer a raw assessment and evaluation of the cultural literacy of high school students, perhaps at the end of the junior year. I developed a complete proposal for federal grant funding, but it unfortunately was not funded.)  OK> Here you go!

Andrews, Julie               Apres moi, le deluge                               Baby M.                         “The Band Played On” (book title)       Bauhaus                           behind the 8-ball                                  blackmail                         Boccaccio,  Giovanni                              Capote, Truman              carpe diem                                            Crane, Stephen                Dreiser, Theodore                                Durant, Will and Ariel     Fonda, Henry > Jane >                        gobbledygook                   golden parachute                                  Hammerstein, Oscar      Heloise and Abelard                              Hitchcock, Alfred            influence peddling                                 Irvin, Sam                       Jacobite                                                   Jones, Tom                      Kronkite, Walter                                    let them eat cake             monkey business                                  Murrow, Edward R.        North, Oliver                                         ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny                                                Paolo and Francesca        “The Pardoner’s Tale”                       Petrarch                            Ptolemaic Universe                              “Remembrance of Things Past” (title)                                         Serling, Rod                       Sondheim, Stephen                             Spielberg, Stephen           Steffens,  Lincoln                                Ubi sunt                             unicameral legislature                          vive le roi                                              Von Trapp family             Weltanschauung                                  white elephant                  Whitehead, Alfred North                    Wife of Bath                       Wille zur Macht                                   Wolfe, Thomas                   Wolfe,  Tom

Were I to make up such a list today,  I would remove several pretty ephemeral items (those that pass rather quickly) and  add a few others.

So, how did you do, and what do you think about “cultural literacy” as a primary goal of education,  whether taught by others or learned on your own (via reading, conversation, attending movies, and watching TV,  going to church, etc.)?


Whaddya Know About E.A. Poe?

March 14, 2009

As you may well be aware (because of what has already appeared, or may this year yet appear,  in the news and in major essays and books),  this year marks the bicentennial birthday year of three men whose impact on culture, society, and civilization have all been so distinctive and far-reaching that today, in 2009, they are truly iconic figures.

(A “by the way” comment, which you may ignore at your leisure:  this is also the sesquicentennial  of the year 1859. At one time many years ago, I became rather fascinated by all that was being published that year in Western literature as well as the significant events taking place or about to happen.  In fact, I toyed with the idea [before more rational thought occurred] of doing my doctoral dissertation on that year, with the working title “That Wonderful Year: 1859.” One of the men named below is particularly linked to that year.)

The three men to whom I am referring are Charles Darwin, Abraham Lincoln, and Edgar Allan Poe.

I would ask you blog readers out there to focus on Mr. Poe, as he is a distinctive and significant figure in our American literature as well as to a considerable extent significant to “World Literature.”  One question you might consider replying to:  What, in spite of his profligate and short life, do we find of lasting value in Poe’s writing?  *You don’t need to mention that an NFL football team has a connection to him.



More Sentences About the Sentence

March 14, 2009

It is not by accident that our recently-inaugurated President, Barack Obama,  is such a powerful orator,  on the lines of a Ronald Reagan,  a Franklin D. Roosevelt,  a Theodore Roosevelt, perhaps even an Abraham Lincoln, the latter being the American President whom Mr. Obama obviously most admires.

I heard or read a comment recently that Mr. Obama’s strength as an orator lies in the structure, the rhythm, and the sense conveyed via his declarative sentences.

In the March 16 issue of “Time,”  the musician Neko Case offers  short observations about five of her recent readings or viewings.  A writer she much admires is Annie Dillard (whose earlier book,  “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” is often praised for both its style and its marvelous descriptions of the natural world).  Case says this about Dillard’s “The Living”:  “The way she constructs a sentence is so beautiful and simple.  She doesn’t write like a man or a woman.  That’s a kind of balance that’s totally sublime.”


Here’s now a writer and also probably an editor that need some help.  Why is this sentence (it appeared in the “what we’re hearing” column a couple of days ago)  such a shoddy representative of the English declarative sentence, and what would you do to improve it–without any substantive changes?  The observation is about the actress Lucy’s Liu’s talents as an artist:  “The New York Post reports the ‘Charlie’s Angel’ star painted an acrylic portrait of two people kissing under the pseudonym Yu Ling.”

No prizes, but I will pay attention to your comments.