Archive for May, 2009

Two Short Poems for Your Indulgence

May 30, 2009

Out there!  From in here!

You may recall that I am much taken by the short lyric forms of poetry in English.  And I have from time to time shared some of my favorites with you.  Here are two that have crossed my eyes and mind as I reviewed a fat folder of documents titled “Poet’s Corner.”  It encloses a mish-mosh or potpourri of short lyrics of all manner, the majority of which perhaps are diverse examples of the sonnet.

The second poem presented below is not a sonnet.  But it is a heartfelt, even rending, expression of feeling from a freshman student in a class late in my career at what is now UNC-Pembroke.  (I don’t now recall Clint’s last name, nor have I been in touch with him since he dropped out of my class.)  First the sonnet, by distinguished American poet Mona Van Duyn  (d. 12/04/2004):


From a new peony,

my last  anthem,

a squirrel in glee

broke the budded stem.

I thought, where is joy

without fresh bloom,

that old heart’s ploy

to mask the tomb?

Then a volunteer

stalk from sour

bird-drop this year

burst in frantic flower.

The world’s perverse,

but it could be worse.    (1990)

And now a page I’ve kept in this file for something like 15 years.

Dr. Rundus,

Your patience with me has been more than gracious.  I wish I could tell you I had been sick or injured or by the bed of a dying friend as not to disappoint you.  I have, instead, been going through a yearly ritual in which something seeks to shut me down.  It takes away my desire to function.  I have not been successful in combatting it this year.  It renders me to the point where I care for nothing and have no ambition.  I am now fighting it.   So, basically, I do not have an excuse, not a valid one.  I sat on a bench, unwilling to move.  All I have to show for it is this:


He did not live long

three months or so,

give or take a week.

We buried him behind a grove of pine trees.

Before we threw in the last shovel of dirt

our backs bore the chill of his demise,

and parting geese formed letters in the skies.

And in memories we praised his touch

which warmed our backs and inasmuch

as we could love we loved him for what he was.

He did not live long.


Dear Clint:

I am pleased (in a perverse kind of way perhaps!) to discover that I am not alone in suffering from SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder).   For most it comes in midwinter;  for you and me, in the fall.  I have coped with SAD more successfully in recent years–and so too will you.  (I took Xanax a couple of these seasons, not recently.)  You have composed a wonderful poem. I am photocopying this page.  Your poem needs a wider hearing!     RJR

Well, I guess here is that “wider hearing.”



Mark Twain and Astronomy: A Message

May 30, 2009

Earlier today I wrote a letter to Johnny Horne, the resident astronomy expert on the “Observer” and an excellent photographer.  The letter made reference to Mr. Horne’s recent essay, in which he commented on Mark Twain’s interest in astronomy.

I decided to share  this letter with you also. It follows:

Subject: Mark Twain and Astronomy

Date: May 30, 2009 1:47 PM

Dear Johnny Horne,

I meant to write earlier while the topic was fresher in my mind and while I still had your very recent column on astronomy before me.

I don’t know a whole lot about Mark Twain’s fascination with astronomy, but your pointing this out reminded me of a black and white “filmography” of the famous American author that I probably saw in my local small town Blue Rapids, Kansas, theater when I was about ten years old.

As was quite common in that era of movie-making, much was made of patriotic and virtuous themes and plots. I was struck by the movie’s hyping the cosmic implications of the great author’s life and career as it related to the appearance of Halley’s Comet the year of Twain’s (Samuel Langhorne Clemens’) birth in 1835 and its appearance again in the year of his death in 1910.

All this led me to wonder if Twain’s awareness of this coincidence (at least in relation to his year of birth) was a primary factor in his interest in astronomy.

As a grace note, I also recalled Walt Whitman’s great lyric poem, a reverie titled “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.”

Best wishes,

Raymond Rundus


Latin Redux: A Dickinson College Professor Speaks Out

May 21, 2009

This Op-Ed piece from a recent issue of “The New York Times” (credit to cousin “Champaign Bob Rundus) offers some quite pointed advice about the usage of Latin on college campuses, particularly on diplomas. . . .

What think you?


A Degree in English

Paula Scher and Lisa Kitschenberg


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Published: May 14, 2009

Carlisle, Pa.

CONGRATULATIONS. You are graduating this month with a Baccalaureatus Scientiae in Compertis ad Salutem Pertinentibus Administrandis. It sounds impressive, but what does it have to do with your degree in health information management? Almost no one knows, and that’s why the Latin diploma needs to go.

Latin is a beautiful language and a relief from the incessant novelty and informality of the modern age. But when it’s used on diplomas, the effect is to obfuscate, not edify; its function is to overawe, not delight. The goal of education is the creation and transmission of knowledge — not the creation and transmission of prestige. Why, then, celebrate that education with a document that prizes grandiosity over communication?

A disclosure: Diploma Latin has caused me some personal pain and humiliation. I am in charge of adjusting the complicated Latin dates on the diplomas at the college where I teach, a project I’ve always taken pride in.

Last year, I was asked to update the text, and I made a mistake; the details are almost too painful to recall. An extra keystroke of mine changed “anno” into “annno.” This went unnoticed — because most people couldn’t read the Latin anyway — until the diplomas had been printed and distributed. Later, some people did catch the mistake, including one of my best students, who assumed that a king’s ransom in tuition guaranteed her a proofread diploma. The college had to spend $4,000 to print new diplomas.

So, yes, I am scarred. But even before the recent unpleasantness, I had my doubts about the wisdom of using the language of Livy for this particular purpose.

I know that getting rid of the Latin diploma will not be easy. While most colleges and universities now issue English diplomas, some prominent holdouts — including Yale, Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania — still use Latin. Many students and alumni cherish the tradition. In 1961, when Harvard switched to English diplomas, about 4,000 students protested in the “diploma riots,” and criticized the new documents as “Y.M.C.A. certificates.”

We Latinists have also been resistant to change. Like most keepers of arcane knowledge, we savor our rare moments of prominence.

I say this from personal experience: Once, the hardened leader of the local SWAT team asked me for a Latin version of his team’s credo, “The strength of the wolf is in the pack, the strength of the pack is in the wolf.” I told him: “Robur gregi in lupo, robur lupo in grege.” He thanked me and then said the nine most comforting words a SWAT team leader could say to anyone: “Let me know if you ever need a favor.”

Admittedly, this pales in comparison to the fame gained by the Columbia University Latin scholar who had the high honor of translating for the press the tattoo of the woman at the center of the Eliot Spitzer scandal from “Tutela valui” to “I use protection.”

This all sounds very exciting, but these stories of linguistic derring-do obscure the fact that Latin diplomas have outlived their usefulness.

Originally, diplomas were letters of introduction given to travelers by the Roman government. For centuries, Latin served as a convenient common language among educated people around the world. This is no longer the case. Graduates don’t pull diplomas out of their glove boxes, and fraud is resolved by checking college records. But diplomas are still supposed to convey information, and Latin diplomas fail to fulfill that function. When one Dickinson College alumna recently applied to work at a public school, she had a photocopied version of her Latin diploma returned as foreign and illegible.

I’ve heard some argue that Latin is on diplomas because it’s beautiful and the language of Virgil and Cicero. The sad fact, though, is that diploma Latin is a far cry from Cicero’s Latin.

Roman writers composed some of the world’s most thrilling verse and were masters of historiography, oratory and philosophy. But diploma Latin is some of the most depressing and long-winded legalese you can find. Hiding behind the lovely calligraphy are maddening syntax and appalling neologisms. How do you say the name of every college town in Latin? You shouldn’t have to.

(Nor should you have to struggle to read the text in the illustration that accompanies this piece, so let me help you out. It says: “I can’t understand this either.”)

As a college professor, I try to tell my students that education is more than a status symbol. Its purpose is the development of the mind and social usefulness through the clear communication of information and ideas. Why contradict that with the very piece of paper that is meant to represent the work they’ve done? A college education is something to be proud of, but its prestige should lie in its content, not its form.

I love Latin, but when the last American diploma is finally converted to English I will say, “Ita vero.” Right on.

Christopher Francese, an associate professor of classical studies at Dickinson College, is the author of “Ancient Rome in So Many Words.”

Can We Eliminate “Offensive” Language?

May 17, 2009

From time to time efforts burgeon forth to eliminate or at least suppress from speech and/or print words and phrases that are usually labelled in contemporary dictionaries as “vulgar slang” or “offensive usage.”

A good many of these are found where diverse cultures mingle and sometimes clash, as in, say,  the United States of America.

I have written quite a while back about the efforts to eliminate the “N-word” by referring to it as the “N-word.”  This is an exercise in semantic mumbo-jumbo,  perhaps, but socially necessary in order to get along with (remember the eloquent plea from Rodney King:  “Can’t we just get along?”) the most significant “minority” group in our culture and social history.

Even national and regional Scrabble events (according to a recent article by Judith Thurman) prohibit the use of vulgar slang terms (even though these may be found in contemporary dictionaries) and, as well, such racially or culturally-directed terms like “jew” (as a verb), “wop,” and,  of course, the  the word to which the “N-word” refers (my editors have always consistently edited out of my blog comments the “actual word”).

Lately there has been quite  a bit of semantic noise raised about a word commonly used to refer to those who have often been described as “mentally retarded.”  “Retard” is often referred to now as the “R-word.”  The Special Olympics organization has taken up the cudgels to get this word excised from the vocabulary of American English speakers and writers.  A letter to the Editor from Jo-Etta R. Simmons of Fayetteville on April 17 made a strong plea for the word to be banished or at least limited in its usage.

I don’t know whether such a campaign, no matter how well-intentioned, can completely succeed.  Some people who use such language are not intentionally trying to hurt those the word or terms refers;  they just “don’t know any better.” And so we may be able to educate them.

But since some users of these negative, derogatory terms may be deliberately cruel, the task seems unlikely to ever completely succeed.  And I myself feel that using a favorable label sarcastically (“Well, aren’t you the big genius!”) may actually be more harmful than the more straightforward term.

Many of us of a certain age may recall, for example, when “moron” and “idiot” were both considered accurate labels that described specific characteristics of stages of “mental retardation.”  Over-usage of these terms in an offensive mannertook care of that.

I must confess that I have used creative labels of my own to characterize the lame behavior of my own children in times past.  (But not “lame brain,”  I believe.)

Those I particularly became fond of were “Dumbelinda” and “Doppelina,”  both of which, I now recognize, appear to be feminist labels.  (Sorry about that, Tory.)   Walt Disney was not abashed, however,  to name his heroic young elephant “Dumbo.”

A clever writer can, of course, get away with using similar “tags” for his characters. (See John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress,” for example.)  One of the classics in contemporary fiction (well, “contemporary” to me) is a character in Joseph Heller’s great WWII comic novel  “Catch-22.”  This, of course, is “Lieutenant Scheisskopf.”


Roger Cohen on American vs. English

May 13, 2009

You ought to be interested in reading this Op-Ed piece from the “Old Gray Lady” (i.e., “The New York Times”).

It is a fine (quite, brilliant) illustration of the adage that “England and America are two countries separated by the same language.”

Came my way via my Champaign Cousin Bob.  Yes, he’s a bit loony too.  Fascinated by loos, among other things.


04-30 Of Loos and Language.doc

Am I Another “Nattering Nabob of Negativity”?

May 7, 2009

Thanks, Spiro Agnew and likely William Safire for help on my title.

Been reflecting on what Iowa had recently done, what Massachussets and others have done before that, and what Maine and others are contemplating as regards both  private, and also often very public, “nuptials.”

Are you familiar with the syllogism?  It was a teaching and learning device used by Socrates in his dialogues and still has the value of being able to clarify one’s thinking.

If a syllogism is constructed properly; that is, that it passes tests for both truth and validity, then there is no escaping the conclusion that is drawn from the premises.

See if you can test out this syllogism’s factual accuracy as well as validity.  (1) If you agree with the major premise(s) and the minor premise(s) and (2) if the premises have factual accuracy, then you must also agree with the statement found in the conclusion.  Let’s try out an example now:

Major Premise:  No man can be a wife, and no woman can be a husband.                                                                          Minor Premise:  Charlie is a man and Rosie is a woman. Therefore:  Charlie cannot marry a man, and Rosie cannot marry a woman.

(One can concede, of course, that a wedding is not necessarily a marriage,  nor is what has sometimes come to be called a “civil union.”)

The ultimate truth in the two premises can be found in the story of Creation, in the Book of Genesis.  That means, however, that you must believe that the Book of Genesis is the “Word of God.”  “In the beginning was the Word, and . . . .”   If you do not accept those premises, then you are still dead meat if the laws of the United States continue to be made and interpreted by Godfearing men, such as the majority of those whom we call the “Founders.”


Why Avoid the Forms of Irregular Verbs?

May 5, 2009

I’ve written on this subject before, even spending some time discussing a quite recent book, the subject of which was, believe it or not, the irregular verb.

“Regular” verbs of course behave in phonologically and structurally similar fashion, and any verb in the several classes of these has many siblings.   Start with “learn/learned/learned” and see how many more English verbs you can cite that have the same pattern.  Verbs that belong to the other two main classes of regular verbs are different primarily in phonology (which is apparent also in the spelling of some of the forms).   The principal parts of the verbs “dread” (or “start”) and “sleep” (or “keep”) would offer starts to two other classes.

One reason one might give for appreciating Esperanto over English or other established languages is that there are, as I recall, no irregular verbs.

And that is why I would be somewhat concerned about giving up English for this invented language:  I have a sort of “crush” on “irregular verbs” because they add the spice of change and even a kind of “color” to our shared language.

This is why I would admonish the editors of our local newspaper (in which this blog also appears)  to give up their casual shrugging of shoulders in the face of a campaign to keep irregular English verb forms alive.

For one thing, at this time of reduction of page sizes and shrinking of some features of the newspaper,  using an irregular verb form could save some space, quite a bit of it perhaps over a year’s time!  Inflections are money, no?

I grate my teeth every time I see (and this often seems to be a daily thing) the past tense “pleaded ” used when an accused is brought before the judge or the court.  Why not “pled” instead?  All contemporary dictionaries sanction its use.

And just now, on April 29, in the “InBrief” column, this sentence appeared:  “Although Duke turned into the path of the Acura,  a witness reported that Hillen speeded up in an effort to get through the traffic signal at the intersection.”  Mercy sakes alive, can’t we speed up the report by using “sped” (both are sanctioned in the dictionary) instead of the laborious and somewhat juvenile-sounding  “speeded.”  For goodness sake,  we don’t write and we shouldn’t say “bleeded,”  should we?  Webster, then and now,  says “Nay!” And indeed so say I.


Memorable Language Usages: UNCP Commencement

May 3, 2009

Last Saturday morning (May 2) I traveled to Pembroke for the Spring Commencement exercises.  This was the first such event to be held at the Irwin Belk Athletic Complex,  which is composed primarily of the Grace P. Johnson Stadium and the Bob Caton Fieldhouse with footnotes like the Dick Taylor Track and Field area and other amenities.

As Chair of the Retired Faculty (is “whipper-in” too strong?) I helped my predecessor, Dr. James B Ebert,  lead in the several hundred faculty members.

I was duly impressed by the entire scope of this important day’s event.  I want to share with you some of my impressions about the ways in which variations on the English language make themselves heard via a powerful temporary speaker system. . . .

Readers of this blog, already sentient and well-read human beings of a certain age, will of course already know about the word “Commencement.”  It probably seems in its application to an event celebrating the graduation of some 607 students to be a misnomer, as these persons seem to believe they are all ending, rather than beginning, a stage in their education.  Yet it is the right word, for it truly marks the beginning of the rest of the lives of all these successful scholars, who will build their professions and careers upon the foundation which they, for the time being, have completed.

Interesting too in this event were the uses of the Latin language to describe the highest achievements of some of these graduates  All labels in the levels of recognition here end in “laude,”  which is conventionally a two-syllable word and thus not to be pronounced the same as “loud.” (We did hear that several times.)  Graduating “Cum Laude” (that is, “With Honors”) at UNCP equates to a cumulative grade point average between 3.40 and 3.69 (a bevy of fifty students achieved that goal). Graduating “Magna Cum Laude” (“With High Honors”) equates to a cumulative GPA of 3.70 to 3.84 (only seven graduates reached this lofty goal.  Finally there is also the distinction of graduating “Summa Cum Laude” (With Highest Honors”) for those with a GPA of 3.85 to 4.0 (six remarkable students reached this goal).

The speakers were often clever in their uses of memorable phrasing: intended perhaps both to keep listeners attentive and to provide graduates some lifelong advice.

The Chair of the Faculty Senate,  Dr. Anthony Curtis, amused the crowd by his extensive use of cliches to point up what may now lie ahead for these graduates.  His point was that, in times of confusion or stress, one may need to fall back, take things with a grain of salt, rest upon his or her laurels for a time, don’t put the cart before the horse, and perhaps use a comfortable cliche in order to find some solace.

The recipient of an Honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters, Ms. Mary Ann Elliott,  suggested that the graduates find strength and support in the three Fs:  Faith, Family, and Friends.

The Commencement Address, given by United States Congressman, The Honorable Mike McIntyre (whose wife is a UNCP Alumna),  focussed (the Congressman admitted to pilfering here from his first UNCP Commencement Address ten years earlier) 0n the need to “Reject, Inject, and Project.”

It was indeed a memorable and inspiring occasion, especially of course for the graduates and their friends and family members.  I was pleased to at least be able to give and then get a hug from our next-door neighbor in Cypress Lakes, Carol Boyd, who, in spite of much adversity, including the passing of her son Graham, was able to complete her Bachelor of Science Degree in Biology in four-and-a-half years. She also gained distinction by being chosen as one of UNCP’s representatives in “Who’s Who Among Students in American Colleges and Universities.”

I wrote a column about Carol’s quest in education for “The Sandspur” quite a well back.  Now she may be able to reach her dream of finding work where she will be able to monitor and care for that most awesome of ocean citizenry,  THE SHARK!


Don’t Say “NO!” to Esperanto

May 3, 2009

Grrrrrr!  A couple of evenings ago, I sat down to copy the second communication to me (April 19) by Mr. Stephen Thompson,  of the Northwestern United Kingdom (his first response is one of the “Comments” in the “On to Z!”  thread).  I copied and pasted his entire communication (including two links to other sites he provided) and then added some comments of my own. Twice I hit the key for “Submit Comment” and twice the whole assemblage disappeared. (This second comment never appeared on the Website, only in my “Inbox” via

Melissa Garcia, who manages the WordPress functions of the “Observer” Blogs, may be able to explain and perhaps “detox” the problem . . . .

I shall mention here a few of the observations and expectations that Mr. Thompson shared.  But first a bit of background:  Latin is commonly regarded as the first, historically, of international or universal languages,  accompanying as it did the global spread of the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance eras.  At times other languages have become dominant in certain areas, as French did as the “language of diplomacy”  and with English today as the language of global commerce (universally used by air traffic controllers, for example).   Hundreds of attempts have been made to construct and get adopted a universal language.  The most popular of these is “Esperanto,”  which was invented and promulgated by a Polist linguist, Ludwig L. Zamenhof(f), who, as Mr. Thompson points out, was born 150 years ago this month.  Sidebar: I find it interest that Mr. Zamenhof chose as the name of his language a word closely related to the “Romance” language (Spanish, French, Portuguese)  words meaning “to hope” or “to hope for.”

Esperanto is less closely related to English in part because it is an inflected and not a syntactic language; that is, the functions of the “form words” (nouns, verbs, pronouns, adverbs, and adjectives) are disclosed by the changes in forms of the stem word and not by  the sequencing  (word order) of these words. As the “euro” increasingly becomes accepted and adopted as an international currency in the Western World, one wonders if “Esperanto” might yet follow as the chosen universal language.

Now to return to Mr. Thompson’s April 19 message . . . .

He answered my query about the possible existence of an “Esperanto Culture” by saying that there were some half-dozen Esperanto speakers in his rural community.  He does also usually attend the annual British Congress of Esperanto and once a week presents to his local Primary School a part of a project titled “Springboard to Languages,”  which, he writes, “uses Esperanto to raise language awareness in young children as preparation for further study of foreign languages.  My school is one of five piloting the project. (Details at”

Mr. Thompson also indicates that he has several foreign visitors each year who are interested in his work.  Should you be interested in learning more, go to the “Pasporta Servo,”  a directory of contacts in some eighty countries who will provide hospitality to Esperanto speakers.  For information on this go to

Good to hear from Mr. Thompson.  Perhaps other “Esperantists” from abroad will contribute some more to this thread!