Friday, December 31, 2010

Today's Word: psychopomp

psychopomp: A guide for the souls of the dead on their journey to the afterworld. From the Greek psyche, meaning "soul" or "breath," and pompos, meaning "conductor." Many different cultures have many different psychopomps, including Anubis, the Valkyrie, Hermes, birds, bees, and even werewolves.

Psychopomp is more than just a good word to know; it's an awesome word. It'd be a great name for a horrible band, for an alternative magazine, or for a mythology-based novel. It's also a great 10-letter Scrabble word, if someone gives you psycho, pomp, or chop.

Psychopomp is a word that's just dripping with awesomesauce.

(Big hat tip to Kee Malesky and her book All Facts Considered for alerting me to one of my new favorite words.)

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Three Word Wednesday: The Midnight Cowboy

Today's words: buckle, evade, and wedge

The Midnight Cowboy

Even in a subway car crowded with freaks, he stood out. His wide-brimmed hat tilted low hid his eyes, but not his scruffy, manly chin. The dust on his brown leather vest wasn't the grime of the New York City subway but the hard-earned grit of the Texas countryside. His large belt buckle gleamed like a marquee above the bulge in his tight blue jeans. On the floor, the pointed toes of his black boots tapped in time to some hymn from the trail circling in his mind.

He sat like a midnight cowboy on the packed subway car, wedged between a latex-covered, androgynous goth and a midget woman (who might have been a man) with a two-foot high, bright-blue beehive hairdo that would have flattened against the roof of the subway car if he or she were a normal-sized person. In any other city, one would guess that it was Halloween, but here in NYC, this was just another Friday night.

The midnight cowboy seemed comfortable among these intentional misfits -- too comfortable for someone seemingly so far from where he belonged. I was missing some part of his story, some part that the clothes and dust and demeanor didn't tell, and it irked me.

If only I could see his eyes, I thought, I might see what lay behind them. Lust? Fear? Anger? Pain? If only I could glance into his eyes, perhaps then I could figure out what made this cowboy stand out among the others, what made him more different. Unique.

The rumbling subway train slowed with a squeal and then stopped. The cowboy stood as the doors slid open. I eyed the brim of his hat expectantly, waiting for it to move aside and show me the truth in his eyes. But he evaded my scrutiny, as if somehow he knew I was watching, waiting, studying.

He stepped from the train car to the platform and the doors slid closed. The train lurched forward, and through the windows, I watched him move toward the stairs, where he would climb to the mad city above and disappear into the night.

Today's Word (and Feeling): saturnine

saturnine: Saturnine has a number of useful meanings.
  1. The (chronologically) first meaning is "of or about the Roman god Saturn, the god of agriculture and the equivalent of the Greek god Cronus."
  2. Then someone named a big, pretty planet Saturn, so saturnine came also to mean (astronomically) "of or about the planet Saturn" and (astrologically) "born under the influence of Saturn."
  3. Alchemists thought that the planet Saturn was very cold, and they also observed that lead was very cold, so they used one to name the other. Here I find some variation in my sources, which say that the alchemical name for lead was saturnia, saturnus, or plain old saturn, so saturnine also means "of or about lead" and, more recently, "having lead poisoning."
  4. But perhaps the most widely used meaning of saturnine today is "cheerless, dull, morose, or sluggish" -- the opposite of mercurial, a word which has undergone the same types of etymological metamorphoses. I assume there is some link between the idea of lead being physically heavy and cold and some people being emotionally heavy and cold, which is exactly how I feel today -- as well as being physically cold. (I'm looking forward to the return of sunshine and temperatures above freezing any day now.)

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

It's Michael's Arts & Crafts, Not Michael's Spelling & Grammar

epic fail photos - Spellcheck FAIL

The saddest part about this is that the misspellings don't make it as confusing as wording itself. In short, correcting the spelling does little to mend this sign.

The (spelling-adjusted) sentence reads, "Michael's accepts cash or debit only when purchasing gift cards of any kind." The first and most horrible mistake is the placement of only, leading, on first read, to the phrase "only when purchasing gift cards." The corollary of this statement might be that unless you're buying gift cards, you have to use a credit card or check.

The only in this sentence is supposed to narrow the focus to "gift cards." What they mean to say is that "Michael's accepts only cash or debit when purchasing gift cards."

Which leads to the other problem with this sentence: Michael's isn't purchasing gift cards -- it's selling them. If they don't want to actually address the reader personally with you, then they should consider talking about "the purchase of gift cards" (or something similar) instead.

Here are a few ways this sign could have been written better:
  • Michael's can accept only cash and debit cards for the purchase of any kind of gift card. We cannot accept personal checks or credit cards for the purchase of gift cards. (Maintaining the original structure as much as possible.)
  • To purchase a gift card, you must use either cash or a debit card. Michael's cannot accept a credit card or personal check for the purchase of gift cards. (This, to me, is the clearest.)
  • No credit cards or checks for gift cards. Cash or debit only. (The KISS principle in action.)
  • Nobody wants a gift card from Michael's for Christmas. Try a bookstore, toy store, or electronics store instead. Better yet, just put some money in an envelope. (The truth.)
My last gripe: What are they thanking us for at the end? The standard (and only slightly less annoying) closer for a sign like this is "We apologize for any inconvenience."

Whoever created this sign was either a) in a horrible hurry; b) not a native English-speaker; or c) a subversive employee trying to embarrass his or her employer. Or all three.

It's true that anyone reading this sign can interpret its intended meaning -- even without the spelling corrections. But not without reading it twice.

Three Word Wednesday: Merlin the Historian

Today's words are educate, object, and silence.

The poetry just didn't want to seem to come today. Instead, these words inspired the beginning of a story. Maybe someday I'll write the rest of it:
  Inside the antique store, Merlin moved from object to object, holding it, stroking it, scrutinizing it, even smelling it, hoping to glean some new piece of information. In this tedious way he hoped to educate himself bit by bit about the stories of past loves and catastrophes that each piece held in silence, some sliver of insight or intuition to illuminate the tales of those long gone.
  He came finally to a locket, a silver heart dangling from a thin and tarnished chain. The tiny hinge squeaked like an tiny mouse as he opened it and peered inside. There, two faces — one strange, one familiar — peered back out at him in black and white: a man and a woman embracing. The man was totally foreign to Merlin, but something about the woman . . . the slant of the nose, the arch of the eyebrows, the curve of the chin. . .
 He stared and squinted until his eyes crossed, then raised his head from the trinket. Across the room, the same face stared back at him from an antique mirror.
 His eyes wide, his heart pounding, he looked again at the open locket holding a couple in eternal embrace.
 Could it be? Could this be his mother, who had died on the delivery table on his birth day? And could this man holding her so tenderly be his father?
 Merlin paid the antiques dealer and pocketed the locket. After decades of digging up and dragging out the stories of strangers that history had forgotten, Merlin had finally stumbled upon the story of a lifetime. Of his lifetime. Of his life.

Friday, December 17, 2010

What I Did on Thursday -- A Poem

Shopping in the Snow

The trucks come early, clearing snowy streets,
Creating mountains brown and white and high.
The storefront lights hum on as traffic beats
The sun, which in an hour will crack the sky.
I wake and greet the morning warm and slow
For soon I'll be out shopping in the snow.

I wish my gloves were warmer than they are
As I scrape ice from off my Nissan's glass.
A broom removes white inches from the car.
I check the engine's tank is full of gas.
My frozen cheeks have now begun to glow
As I prepare for shopping in the snow.

With coffee downed and car warmed up I back
Into the lane. I slip and slide about
Until I find a drier, well-worn track.
The traffic will be slow I have no doubt.
How tiring this long day will be, I know --
Another bundled shopper in the snow.

I have my children's wishlists in my coat
(For all their wants I can't afford to pay),
And I will do my best with what they wrote
To see their happy faces Christmas day.
I know that soon my cash will start to flow
Like blood from wounds out in this virgin snow.

I'm hitting shops and crossing off my list
Each item that will be a Christmas treat.
And even though there are things that I've missed,
In early afternoon I call defeat.
I journey home with bags of gifts in tow.
So ends my day of shopping in the snow.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Three Word Wednesay: Haunting Dreams

This week's words are judge, nightfall, and safety.

When nightfall comes, the ghouls awake —
They do not judge, they do not take.
They journey out into the night
To play their tricks, to give a fright,
To sneak into the children's heads —
The boys and girls all warm in beds.
They do not haunt to hear high screams;
They bring old wisdom into dreams.

When nighttime shifts from black to gray,
The ghosts begin to drift away.
When daybreak comes, you'll hear no sound;
They're back to safety, underground.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Today's Word: facinorous

facinorous: Exceedingly wicked, superbly atrocious, undeniably sinful.

A devilishly delightful word to drop in conversations about the current state of the federal government. The alliteration and sibilance of the phrase "the facinorous Senator's senseless fillibuster" just rolls of the tongue.

Facinorous, in some spelling, would also be a great last name for a novel's evil antagonist. "Dr. Facinerris stroked his Van Dyke beard maniacally while his henchmen herded the rabbits toward the cliff."

Monday, December 6, 2010

Eggcorns Through Time: Shamefaced

shamefaced: Showing modesty or shame.

This common word that has a fairly obvious meaning is, according to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, an example of an eggcorn that has established itself in the English language over the centuries.

First of all, an eggcorn, if you don't know, is the substitution of a word that sounds similar to the actual word in a well-worn phrase. The hallmark of a true eggcorn, though, is that the new "version" of the phrase makes a certain sense. For example, "for all intensive purposes," "a mute point," "mixmash," and of course "eggcorn." (For more info, check out the Eggcorn Database.)

Good editors make sure that such eggcorns don't make it into print. But the Internet is rife with inexperienced writers publishing unedited (and largely unfiltered) text that includes bad grammar, misspellings, eggcorns, and all.

Because the Internet has turned everyone into "writers," we might be fooled into believing that eggcorns are a recent development. Not so, says my dictionary. According to M-W Collegiate Dictionary, Deluxe Edition, shamefaced comes from Old English scamfæst, or held fast by shame. A similar word, stedefæst, gives us the word steadfast. By all accounts, then, shamefaced should by shamefast.

According to the lexicographers, "Around the middle of the 16th century the alteration to shamefaced began to appear in print, and since then the folk etymology has been firmly established." (p. 1686) So well-established that most of us would do a double-take if we saw the word shamefast, which is acceptable.

To the wordies out there looking for a challenge: Can you find an eggcorn that predates shamefaced? (English only, please.)

Note that I am not arguing that we should stop saying and writing shamefaced. I firmly believe that etymology doesn't define a word, and it is a sorry argument for how a word should be used. Etymology tells you where a word comes from and not what it means, in the same way that one's family tree tells where a person came from but not who that person is.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Today's Word: lambdacism

lambdacism: The substitution of an L sound for another sound, or of another sound for L -- especially the R sound. Lambdacisms have often been used intentionally in off-color jokes involving people from eastern Asia.

We've probably all heard Engrish and flied lice, and who can forget the restaurant scene in A Christmas Story where the employees gather together and sing, "Deck the harrs with berrs of horry, fa ra ra ra raah, ra rah rah rah." Those are lambdacisms.

And, of course, there's Mr. Yunioshi, played by Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's.
I've looked all over for an online video that actually has Mr. Yunioshi's dialogue in it as an illustration of (overtly racist) lambdacisms, but couldn't find one. Anyone know of a source (a legal one) that I could link to here?

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

English, in Plain English -- or at Least in Oxford English

Lexicographers professional and amateur as well as lexicophiles might find this of interest. The folks at the Oxford English Dictionary have opened up their online dictionary to the public. I doubt that this will be the permanent state of things; the OED is surely trying to attract more subscribers with such a tease.

At any rate, here is the entry for the word English, which I wager is a bit longer than you expect. Check it out while you still can.

Logophilius Gets Videolicious

Here's a fun way to waste time: Come up with a kooky monologue or dialogue and then go to and turn it into a kookier animated movie. Here's one I threw together that I call "Grammatical Surgery":

(You laughed, right? I didn't think so.)

This was interesting to create because the characters didn't always pronounce the words the way I wanted them to be pronounced, so I had to tweak the "script" a bit to make it more phonetic. For example, the last word of the script was originally "semicolon," which the animation program wanted to rhyme with the Ashton Kutcher reference Demi-ballin'. I changed it to "semi coal in," and the results still aren't optimal.

The program has no frame of reference for syllable accents, either. But it's still loads of fun.

Next, I'm going to see what music I can make with the program...

Monday, November 29, 2010

Today's Word: casus belli

casus belli: Literally translated from the Latin as "an occurrence (or case) of war," casus belli is an event that starts a war or that is used as an excuse to start a war. Some famous examples: the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, WMDs in Iraq, and Simon Cowell's gruffness.

Casus belli appears to be both singular and plural, but only as it applies to a single war with multiple causes.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

On Thanksgiving Day

I don't always know what's going to come out when I start writing. I sat down thinking that I would write a sonnet about Thanksgiving. After several starts and stops, the following poem flowed out.

The odd thing about it is that I had a pretty good Thanksgiving this year. I spent time with family, played games, watched movies, got some work done, and rested.

Thanksgiving, though, is just the start of "the holiday season," which brings with it its own morass of complications, expectations, and disappointments. Surviving the frying pan of Thanksgiving just puts you into the fire of Christmastime. I hope that, sometime in the near future, I'll be able to look forward to this time of year with hope and excitement and happiness and love, and poems like this won't bubble to the surface.

But not this year.

 On Thanksgiving Day

He used to have a family, and on
Thanksgiving Day they would have such a feast.
But now his family is grown and gone:
His daughters married off and moved out east;
His brother, lost to diabetic ills;
His wife long gone — a cancer took her 'way.
He looks up from a pile of doctor bills;
The sun is setting on Thanksgiving Day.

She sits and watches TV by the hour,
Pretending that the actors know her name.
She used to be the lovely, blooming flower
Who all the young boys tried to woo and tame,
But past is passed, and now she is alone.
And though she says she likes it just this way,
A single tear reflects on her cheekbone
The sun that sets on this Thanksgiving Day.

He did so well in school that he just knew
Success was in his future — it was fate.
But as the economic turmoil grew
He worried that he graduated late.
The jobs, they said, would come with the degree,
But now collectors come, and he can't pay.
Defeated, he's decided he won't see
The sun that sets on this Thanksgiving Day.

If you got to spend Thanksgiving with just one person you love, be thankful.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Today's word: hadal

hadal: Referring to the part of the ocean below 6000 meters, or approximately 3.73 miles.

Hadal (rhymes with cradle) is an adjectival form of the word Hades, which makes a certain amount of sense, though I never would have thought of using the word in such an oceanographic way.

That 6000-meter line marks the beginning of the hadalpelagic zone, the deepest parts of the ocean. Pelagic means about or occurring in the open sea, so hadalpelagic isn't much more descriptive than just hadal.

For reference and for fun, here are the "layers" of Earth's oceans:
Epipelagic: 0–200 meters
Mesopelagic: 200–1000 meters
Bathypelagic: 1000–2000 meters
Abyssapelagic: 2000–6000 meters
Hadalpelagic: deeper than 6000 meters

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Three Word Wednesay: Marie Goes to the Carnival

It's three-word Wednesday. This week's words: clutch, delight, happy.

Marie's Carnival Prize

She clutch'd her prize like it was trying to flee,
Delight upon her young and rosy cheeks.
She never thought the carnival would be
So wonderful. The giants, dwarves, and freaks
Were so inviting when they let her in
To find some warmth inside their canvas tent.
They smiled their crookéd smiles, let her win
Their silly games, and wouldn't take a cent.
"You are our guest, Marie!" the giant said.
"We do not want your money, just your heart."
So happy then she felt, so cherishéd.
At sunrise, though, she knew she must depart —
Took her prize and left to find her fam'ly and the rest,
Trying not to rub the itchy scar upon her chest.

I've been reading about Ray Bradbury's short stories. Does it show?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Craigslist Missed Connections, a Sonnet

It's three-word Wednesday time. This week's words: gesture, immediate, treasure

Craigslist Missed Connections, a Sonnet

Your beauty — like the subtle minute hand
That, stared upon, ne'er seems to move a dime
Yet still ticks down the natural demands
Of change, the passage of eternal time —
Defies corruption's hand. I scrutinized
Your face for some defect that showed your age:
Your eyes that sparkled; lips that mesmerized;
A perfect jawline from da Vinci's page;
Your hair, in satin gestures, found its way
Past cheekbones high, as only satin can.
You simply must have been born yesterday
As God's immediate reward to man.

I treasure that I've seen you. All the same,
I'm sorry that I never asked your name.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Joy (and Pain) of Writing

I've wanted to be a writer ever since I picked up my first Kurt Vonnegut novel sometime in the late eighties. (It was probably Cat's Cradle.) Since then, I've put together a few things, been published in a couple magazines, populated this blog, and published some original essays professionally online. But I've never really put in the writing time necessary to really call myself a "writer."

I enjoy writing, and I have enjoyed writing: the sense of accomplishment, the pride of creating something that didn't before exist. But it has always been a small, passing joy, like winning a soccer game or getting a bingo in Scrabble. And I think it's because that joy of writing was so fleeting that it hasn't really instilled in me that drive to really be a writer.

This year (thanks to Twitter), I discovered NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. I've really started putting in the time writing down one of the stories that has been floating around in my mind for probably a decade. And tonight, something unexpected and wonderful happened.

I felt like a writer.

In the past, my writings have dwelled mainly in the realm of essays and poems. This stab at NaNoWriMo is my first real attempt at character development. Tonight, one character (Maria) asked another character (Billy) a simple question: "Who is your favorite artist?" While crafting Billy's answer, I felt what I can only imagine is the emotion that other writers feel that compels them to write, to keep at it, pushing out chapter after chapter and story after story, even if they never get published.

Billy hadn't really considered who his favorite artist was until Maria had asked. He realized that he had always enjoyed leafing through the sketchbooks of Leonardo da Vinci and Albrecht Durer. Maria brought up the Mona Lisa, and Billy said that he never really got much out of the Mona Lisa. That he much more preferred to examine the artists' sketches that led up to the finished work.

(In first-draft form:)

"What I really like about the sketches is that they're both art and works-in-progress. Like, when you look at the Mona Lisa, you know that it's done. It'll never be anything but the Mona Lisa. But those sketches -- the pen and pencil drawings -- show the artist working partway through both the artistic and technical aspects of a composition, but they aren't finished yet. They're on the page, but they aren't fully formed. What starts as a sketch of a woman could be a gypsy dancing, or a queen, or a witch. They could be --"
   "They could be anything," Maria finished.
   "Right! Exactly! They could be --" he stopped then. His eyes lit up and he smiled, saying -- more to himself than to Maria -- "They could be anything."

And that was when I felt it. It was like fatherhood: I was guiding this boy whom I had created through a simple path of self-discovery. I was proud. Not only had I watched this surrogate "son" grow as a person, I had made it happen. And beyond that, I had created the perfect symbol for what this character would be like: more interested in the process and challenge of creation than the finished product.

And it was also sad, because I had also foreshadowed Billy's fate. I had identified him with -- and as -- a sketch instead of a finished piece. I had made him, and would make him, an unfinished painting.

It was like fatherhood. It was like love.

And now I have to get back to it. because I'm terribly behind on my NaNoWriMo word count.

Monday, November 1, 2010

NaNoWriMo: National Novel Writing Month

November is national novel-writing month, and I am starting to get caught up in Part contest, part cheering section, NaNoWriMo challenges you to write an entire 50,000-word novel by the end of November. Sign up on the site and get pep talks, link up with other writers, and post your own novel-writing progress. To those who finish, fame and prizes -- and most importantly, a completed novel -- await.

NaNoWriMo began in San Francisco in 1999 with only 21 writers. It has grown every year since. Last year, NaNoWrimo had 119,301 adult participants from around the world, 21,683 of whom made it to the finish line. And this year will likely break those records.

So if you don't see quite as many posts from me this month, it's because I'm busy writing the marathon novel. If you've always wanted to write a novel but never had, I suggest you click on over to NaNoWriMo and sign up now. It might be just the kick in the pants you need to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard).

And if you want to see how I'm doing over there, my username is 4ndyman, and you can find me here: Day one is done: 1,268 words down, 48,732 to go!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Three Word Wednesday: Bulls in a China Shop

fragile, rampant, tremor

It's just going to be a limerick today. Either that, or I waste more time writing a really depressing sonnet. I don't need that right now. Seriously, I started a sonnet and got as far as "Am I so fragile that this week alone / Will break my spirit?..." and decided it was a good idea to change course. Here's the course I took:

The bulls running rampant won't stop
Causing tremors -- they jump and they hop.
Though they seem pretty agile
These things are quite fragile:
Two toddlers in this china shop.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Storm Before the Calm, a Sonnet

This morning's storm seemed to be in a big hurry to get to Ohio, so it didn't last horribly long. But still, to people who don't like storms (I'm not one of them), this must have been a tense time.

Beneath a gray and dark'ning autumn sky
The Midwest tempest blows an angry rain
As chirping squirrels scramble to stay dry
And flailing branches wave in silent pain.

The warning sirens sound tornado's call,
And people scurry down like frightened mice
To safety — so they hope — from this great squall,
Heeding television's scant advice.

They cower there with worry and in fear,
Just hoping for the twister to abate.
In deaf'ning darkness — wind is all they hear —
They sit and wait. And wait. And wait. And wait.

Thoughts of sunny days prove little balm,
Surviving through the storm before the calm.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Today's Word: mammock

mammock: No, Lady Gaga, a mammock is not a "meat hammock." As a noun, a mammock is bit, shred, or scrap of something. As a verb, to mammock means to shred or tear to shreds. (I'm feeling a bit mammocked myself right now.)

I have no idea where the word came from, but I'm in good company: Webster's New World has a big question mark where the word's derivation ought to go. Still, it's a wonderfully useful word.

In "Of Reformation in England," (1641) John Milton railed against the current state of the Church with this:
...the table of communion, now become a table of separation, stands like an exalted platform upon the brow of the quire, fortified with bulwark and barricado, to keep off the profane touch of the laics, whilst the obscene and surfeited priest scruples not to paw and mammock the sacramental bread, as familiarly as his tavern biscuit.

Which just goes to show that I need to read more Milton.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Three Word Wednesday: Tony Noland and Robert Schuller

effect, immense, shimmer

Last week, @TonyNoland -- one of the Twitterers I follow -- commented about some people taking Three Word Wednesday too seriously and spending too much time on it. He only ever threw together a quick limerick that used the three words.

I off-handedly tweeted that this week, in his honor, my Three Word Wednesday submission would be a limerick about him. And I'm true to my word. (Did I let the fact that I've never actually met Tony Noland hold me back? Of course not. He seems like a level-headed enough gentleman not to get too upset -- or to sue me for libel -- for the following limerick.)

Though he shimmers with Twitter renown,
Tony's pate's not adorned with a crown.
It's a diff'rent effect
Makes him stand half-erect:
His immense head is weighing him down.

If you're on Twitter and you like writing, you could do worse than following Tony.

But this week's words were too well-aligned with something in the news, so here's my "real" Three Word Wednesday submission:

Crimson Tithe, or, Orange County Whoppers

The Rev'rend Robert Schuller hoped to get
A congregation that was so immense
That his cathedral'd never go in debt
(That's in a secular financial sense).
His crystal church, a shimm'ring bit of heaven,
God's California home and shining tower,
Is now reduced to filing Chap. Eleven
And limiting broadcasts of "Hour of Power."
But I say good, 'cause somewhere in this plan
The Christian purpose of a church grew cold.
A church is glorifying only man,
When tithing only pays for glass and gold.
Th'effect? Will we still find a church inside?
Or will we soon find "God's Great Waterslide"?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Today's Word: galligaskins

galligaskins: Originally loose-fitting breeches worn in the 16th and 17th century, but now applied humorously to any loose-fitting breeches. Jodhpurs (the pants, not the boots) are galligaskins.

I considered going back into MC Hammer's repertoire to see whether he ever managed to work galligaskins into a rap, but then I remembered that I had some old chalkboards that needed fingernails scraped across them.

Monday, October 18, 2010

An Ode to Monday

You could bring clear and warming light,
Or gray skies chilling to the bone,
Or brightest moon or cloudy night --
It matters not how you atone.
Surprising treasures you could mete,
A thousand coffers quickly fill,
Promotions, raises, checks, and yet
The people loathe and scorn you still.
Some time off work -- a holiday --
May be your act of last resort.
But though we rest the day away
You always seem to come up short.
I know you try, but 'tis your luck
That you, oh Monday, simply suck.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Miso Hateful Today

On of my favorite combining forms for English words is miso-, indicating hatred of some sort. The form is great for describing people by what they don't like instead of what they do and gives us the wonderful words misogamy (hatred of marriage, from -gamy, referring to marriage or sexual union), misogyny (hatred of women), misology (hatred of debate or reason, which children normally -- but not always -- grow out of), and misoneism (hatred of change or innovation, from neo- for new).

(There's a Rush Limbaugh joke in there somewhere.)

If miso- comes before a vowel, then the o is dropped, and we get misandry and misanthropy (hatred of man and of mankind, respectively).

Although miso- and mis- are similar and serve similar uses, don't get them mixed up. Miso- comes from Greek and indicates hatred; mis- comes from Old English and Old French and indicates either wrongness or a negation. Misinterpretation, for example, uses the mis- form, not miso-, and indicates a wrong or bad interpretation, not the overall hatred of interpretation (although a word like that would be useful for describing religious fundamentalism).

On final warning: If you hate soup (I'm with you there), telling a waitress at a Japanese restaurant "miso-soup" won't get your point across; she'll just end up bringing you bowl of warm, salty, brown broth with bits of green onions in it.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A Halloween Sonnet

I mentioned in a recent post that I've taken to writing sonnets in my spare moments. Here's another, timely one:

The dusky shadows lengthen and then fade
As evening brings a silver-crescent light.
The witches strut their ev'ning promenade
That signals to world the start of night.
The ghosts from long-forgotten graves arise
As hounds of heaven howl unto the moon.
Then, as the werewolves' wailing slowly dies,
A band of bogies plays a dancing tune.
Behind the grins of vampires: naught but glee
As skeletons mazurka by the wall,
The ogres polka dance, and ghouls bourée
In this, the joyous graveyard creatures' ball.
So do not fear the creatures you find dancing in the glen.
The monsters drifting through the night that you should fear are men.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Three Word Wednesday: To Priests Who Abuse Their Power

I was so busy that I missed last week's Three Word Wednesday. :(

This week's words are absolve, hiss, and ridicule. There is no comedy in this week's submission.

Your righteousness is ridiculed.
The damage you have done
Has scarred a boy's entire life,
His innocence undone.

You think you have immunity,
A sacerdotal pact
That shields you from all consequence
Of any evil act.

But victims now are hissing and
The masses wish you ill.
The Church may have absolved you, but
The people never will.

The Smashing Pumpkins Sonnet

Recently, my doodling has waned, and I've taken to writing sonnets (or bits of them) in empty moments. Last night, over a fast food dinner, I started writing one sonnet and then ended up with this one inspired by the music I had been listening to in the car, The Smashing Pumpkins' Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. It's rather dark.
My work is done; I'm driving home again.
The highway hums beneath my lonely car
As speakers sing of Billy Corgan's pain
And rage. If God is empty, then we are
Alone together in a universe
Of randomness, connections made ad hoc,
Attractions biological, and worse:
The meaninglessness of the ticking clock.
If God is empty, do we have a soul?
Or do we live and die and rise and set
Like planets always spinning, with no goal.
Is this the best that life can ever get?

They often say the truth can set you free,
But sometimes I wish truth would leave me be.

Not exactly the most romantic subject matter for a sonnet, but I was feeling a little depressed at the time. I did, however, start another sonnet about how love grows in the head (from reason and logic) instead of from the heart. Perhaps that will show up on this blog soon.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

What Not to Do with Extra Quotation Marks

A Horrible Punctuation Fail from FailBlog

No witty comments from me here. I'm simply dumbstruck, as well as dumbstricken.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Today's Word: synaloepha

synaloepha or synalepha: The reduction of two adjacent vowel syllables into a single syllable. You see it often enough in sonnets and other poetic forms that follow a specific rhythmic pattern, as in Shakespeare's 124th sonnet:

If my dear love were but the child of state,
It might for Fortune's bastard be unfather'd,
As subject to Time's love or to Time's hate,
Weeds among weeds, or flowers with flowers gather'd.
No, it was builded far from accident;
It suffers not in smiling pomp, nor falls
Under the blow of thralled discontent,
Whereto th' inviting time our fashion calls:
It fears not policy, that heretic,
Which works on leases of short-number'd hours,
But all alone stands hugely politic,
That it nor grows with heat, nor drowns with showers.
  To this I witness call the fools of time,
  Which die for goodness, who have lived for crime.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Today's word: acierate

acierate: To turn into steel.

I supposed acieration is in common use in smelting circles, but it probably doesn't get much play among laypeople. In fact, I found acierate in Webster's New World Dictionary, but it's absent from Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, negating the zombify advantage that I thought MW had over WNW.

I wonder, though, if (and how many times) some form of acierate has appeared in an X-Men comic in a description of Colossus, the Russian weightlifter who can turn his flesh into "organic steel."

Monday, October 4, 2010

Vocabulary Missed

This would be funnier if it weren't the vocabulary missed list that my son brought home. Can you find the three errors?

A typo I could live with. A stray, unexpected capitalization is iffy. But to have a word misspelled on a spelling list is just too much.

I contacted the teacher and found out that she had asked one of her parent helpers to type up the list, but then hadn't checked the work.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Three Word Wednesday: Final Jeopardy

It's Three Word Wednesday! This week's words: engulf, imminent, and tamper

Your Fifteen Minutes of Flame Are Over

I had imagined laughing with satisfaction while our house was engulfed in flame, but I couldn't get the gasoline to light. Someone must have tampered with the gas cans while I was prying the diamond out of Susan's engagement ring. As I threw match after lighted match at damp curtains, I realized that after everything I had been through — after a high-speed, headlong drive into a tree, after slicing off two of my own fingers, and after pouring boiling acid on my own face — my failure to win Jeff Probst's new reality show Insurance Fraud was imminent.

[Wait. Did I actually manage to insert some social commentary into these random writings? I hate when that happens.

And I love it, too.]

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Today's Word: rhabdomancy

rhabdomancy: Fortune-telling by rods or wands.

You might recognize the link to magical power that -mancy brings to the word from necromancy or William O. Gibson's Neuromancer. There's also oneiromancy (divination through dreams), hydromancy (divination by water), and a whole mess of others.

Rhabdo- was a new root for me, usually indicating, in some way, "rods." For example, a rhabdovirus is a rod- or bullet-shaped virus, and a rhabdom (a good Scrabble word) is a rod-like internal structure of an arthropod's eye.

I don't think it counts as rhabdomancy if you predict that someone is in danger of being attacked and then immediately start hitting him with a stick. Predictions about Rod Stewart also aren't necessarily rhabdomancy.

Rod Blagojevich could have use a good rhabdomancer.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Today's Word: ochlocracy (And I Go Political)

It isn't often anymore that I stumble upon a word that I don't already know or can't figure out the meaning of. When it does happen, though, it is cause for a small, personal celebration. This happened to me on Tuesday, when I was wasting lots of time doing intensive research in the blogosphere and happened upon this fun little word:

ochlocracy: Mob rule; rule by the masses. Ochlocracy, the evil twin of democracy, gives absolute power to the fickle majority -- Wikipedia notes that it is a pejorative term for majoritarianism -- neglecting the rights of the minority and ignoring appeals to logic, reasoning, precedent, and the letter of the law.

Unfortunately, I can't remember where I saw the word, or even whether it was used seriously or sarcastically in reference to the Obama administration. If anyone out there who tweets in the same circles as I can recall  the appearance of this word in a recent post, please let me know and I'll add a link here. (Also, if you can think of another word that uses the "ochlo" word base, let me know that, too. I'm drawing a blank.)

Ochlocracy is ultimately a corruption of democracy through fear, intimidation, and misinformation. The masses, in general, are sheep. Somewhere, a shepherd is silently guiding them toward his or her own purposes.

I see the Tea Party as an attempt to remake American democracy into an ochlocracy. Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and their ilk use fear (building a mosque near ground zero will invite more terrorist attacks; letting gay people marry will make your marriage meaningless), misinformation (where was our president born?), patriotism (ever hear Mrs. Palin use the phrase "Real America"?), and intimidation (like Ted Nugent's implication that people who support universal healthcare should be shot) to rile their base in opposition to anything even remotely linked to President Obama.

How do they do it? By convincing their people that the "lame-stream media" -- that is, everything except Fox News -- is distorting the truth. By convincing them that they can't believe anything they hear on TV, read online or in a newspaper, or hear from people who have devoted their lives to truth (e.g., scientists and researchers) except for what the Party tells you is true.

The Tea Party is creating a mob of intentionally ill-informed voters who have been conditioned to deny any statements that run counter to the Tea Party's platform, regardless of reason, proof, and logic.

Certainly, there will be great overlap between a true ochlocracy and a kakistocracy. Especially if the Tea Party is involved.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Three Word Wednesday: Glue with Attitude?

Today's three words are gait, nudge, and ripen.

The Apple of My Ire, or, When a Long Face Becomes a Big Head

The talking horse spoke loud and clear:
"These apples will not do.
The Granny Smiths are much too green,
The Galas hard to chew.

The Red Delicious? All are bruised;
The Fuji are too small.
The Braeburns need to ripen some —
Return them to my stall.

The bitter MacIntosh is out.
The Ortleys hurt my throat.
The Sturmer Pippin aren't quite there.
I don't like Rusty Coat."

"You spoiled horse!" I told the mare,
"I've had enough of you!
So you're a talking horse — so what?! —
I'll sell you off for glue!"

She nudged my ear and gently whined,
"I know you never would,"
But from her change in gait I knew
She wondered if I could.

She took an Ortley from the pile
And, though it made her wince,
She chewed it up and smiled and I
Have had no problems since.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Today's Word: astroturfing

Every football fan and marching band geek knows that astroturf is that fake-grass green stuff that covers football fields both inside and out. But recently (I believe within the last decade, though I'm not positive of that), astroturf has taken on new life (and has been verbed), and it's something you should consider during these election times.

astroturf: The creation of a false impression that an orchestrated campaign actually grew from a spontaneous outpouring of the public. It's called astroturfing because it's a false grassroots campaign. Astroturfing is by definition is dishonest; so dishonest that the Public Relations Society of America strictly prohibits it.

Astroturfing can be used both commercially and politically.

Political Astroturfing

The government of China has, for quite a while, been paying some of its citizens per comment to visit online forums, blogs, and bulletin boards and leave comments that put China in a favorable light.

Closer to home, accusations of astroturfing have been flung from both sides of the aisle. One such accusation involves the "Al Gore's Penguin Army" video, a video that looks like an amateur spoof of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. When a link to that video appeared as the top paid search result for "Al Gore," someone looked closer. The video was apparently created by DCI Group, a public relations lobbying firm whose clients included General Motors and Exxon Mobile.

Astroturfing in Business

Have you ever heard of Working Families for Wal-Mart? Originally billed as a grassroots organization to combat all the negativity that was (rightly) being thrown at Wal-Mart, it was soon discovered that the Wal-Mart corporation itself was bankrolling the group, and blogs written for the group were created not by Wal-Mart employees and their families but by employees of a PR firm hired by Wal-Mart. Working Families for Wal-Mart has since disappeared.

On the opposite side, The Daily Show recently revealed some astroturfing on the anti-Wal-Mart side when Aasif Mandvi found that people picketing Wal-Mart in protest over low wages and the lack of benefits were actually hired hands who -- you guessed it -- were making minimum wage and got no benefits. That's not just astroturfing, that's irony.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Working Stiffed
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Tea Party
My point is this: In politics and commerce alike, what you see might not necessarily be what is actually happening. Don't rely on what others say is right or is popular: you have to make the decision for yourself. Snake oil salesman haven't been completely relegated to the past.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Today's Word: quinquennium

quinquennium: A practically useless word referring to a period of five years. There are twenty quinquennia (or, if you're boring, quinquenniums) in a centennial.

Few things are worth celebrating after only five years. Only three come to mind at the moment: surviving cancer, staying sober, and being divorced. I've never had cancer, and I'm not a huge fan of staying sober, and I still have another year and a half before the quinquennial of my divorce. Doesn't mean I can't start celebrating now, though, does it?

Is there something you celebrate after only five years?

Friday, September 17, 2010

Pagliacci dall'Inferno

A little flash fiction for a Friday morn. When I started writing it, it was supposed to be kind of funny — about a kid who truly believes that clowns are evil demons. But then it turned dark, and then darker still.
It wasn't that Arnold was afraid of clowns, at least not anymore. He knew they were evil, but he also knew that he was no longer young enough to be their main target, so he wasn't afraid of them. Clowns preyed upon the very young, the impressionable, the innocent, and he would be starting high school in the fall. He was old enough to know not to accept their drug-laced candies and balloon shapes. Old enough to know their true intent.

Albert alone knew what evil lurked behind those brightly colored clothes, those false cosmetic faces, and he would stand for it no longer. If no one else would do anything about this evil menace, it was up to him.

He slipped the revolver back into the front pocket of his hooded sweatshirt. Before him, silent on the dark pavement, was a costumed fiend who would never again lure a child into the darkness to be tortured, violated, and ultimately ritualistically eaten by a coven of paint-faced devils.

Albert turned toward home. He would return the revolver to the cigar box in his parents' closet tomorrow, after the circus left town. Until then, he would remain vigilant, scrutinizing every shadow, every hiding place, watching for both evil, fake-faced fiends and the only devils on Earth that were still more vile — the most maleficent abominations to walk the Earth: chihuahuas.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

A Limerick Called "Limericks"

A lim'rick's an odd little sort
Of fictional action report:
It gives you the facts
Of words and of acts,
But you won't want to use one in court.

When no one around you can sing
'Bout the joys that a poem can bring,
And a haiku's too terse,
But you still need a verse,
Then a lim'rick might be just the thing.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Three Word Wednesday: A Naughty Sonnet

This Wednesday's words are demure, volatile, and offend.

The Dominatrix, or, Watch Out! She's a Man(eater)!

Demure she's not; she gives them strong commands
With confidence and purpose in her voice.
She never asks, she takes men by the hands
And tells them what to do &mdash they have no choice.
And they obey, entrancéd by her eyes
Of sparkling blue — a heav'nly angel's gaze,
Like placid lakes reflecting wondrous skies.
Their focus never wavers, never strays,
No matter that the orders from her lips
(So hotly red, so volatile) offend.
They follow only paths laid by her hips,
And follow them until the very end.
Her beauty seizes men like no one's can;
You'd never guess she used to be a man.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A Twitter Limerick

Sent four consecutive tweets this morning with this limerick of more than 140 characters:

Though I try not to be very cloying
With the rhymes that I'm sometimes employing,
I won't be too shocked
To find that I'm blocked
When my tweets become too damned annoying.

Inasmuch as limericks need titles, this one needs a title. Any ideas*?

* If you suggest "Twimerick," that pain you feel in your back and stomach later this afternoon will be from the rusty pins I've shoved into your voodoo doll.

Today's Word: galaxy

galaxy: The base of galaxy is derived from gala, Greek for "milk." Hence galactorrhea, the spontaneous flow of milk from one's jubblies. Of course, we're more accustomed to seeing lacto- as a "milky" prefix. Notice that galacto- is just one syllable larger than lacto-; that isn't a coincidence. The Latin lacto- comes from the Greek.

According the Merriam-Webster's great Collegiate Dictionary, the earliest known use of galaxy comes from Chaucer sometime before 1385 in a poem called The House of Fame:

Se yonder, loo, the Galaxie,
Which men clepeth the Milky Wey,
For hit is whit.
(See yonder, lo, the galaxy
Which men call the Milky Way
For it is white.)

Clearly, then, the name Milky Way was common at least in England at this time. Galaxy wasn't used as a generic term for other massive star systems until the 19th century.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Today's Word: Abderian laughter

Abderian laughter: Foolish laughter at things one does not understand. For some reason, the inhabitants of ancient Abdera (in Thrace, Greece) were considered simple-headed, rustic idiots who laughed at and derided things they did not understand.

Pre-Socratic philosopher Democritus, known as the Laughing Philosopher (presumably because he laughed at man's foolishness) was from Abdera. He is considered by some to be the father of modern science because he, along with his teacher Leucippus, developed an atomic theory of matter that was, as they say, way ahead of its time. Other thinkers of his time were probably more liable to laugh at his theories than him at theirs.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

PortmanteauRing -- a Merger

A while back, I started another blog called PortmanteauRing (aka Amidala's foot jewelry), where I had thought I would regularly collect examples of portmanteau words. It started off okay, but I just don't have the time and energy to keep up with it. So I have imported all the posts (51) from PortmanteauRing to here and given them the tag portmanteau.

I'm sure I'll still highlight more portmanteau words in the future, but they'll all be here instead.

And if you aren't sure what a portmanteau word is, start reading here.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Get 'em While They're Young

I don't want to seem cruel, even if I am. This is a little something I found at the local 4-H fair a few weeks back:
We have to get them while they're young, people! This isn't simply a spelling matter, either; it's a matter of pride in doing your work well. It's a matter of teaching children that they should try to do things the right way and not just be "good enough." Reach for perfection even though you know you'll never achieve it. And, by Jove, look your projects over one last time before you turn them in!

Of course, experience counts for something. We learn from our mistakes, and this is the type of mistake that some (not me!) would describe using the execrable phrase "teachable moment."

I hope someone in this child's family teases this boy just a little bit about '"Untied Methodist." It won't take much for it to sink in permanently, and this child will never make this mistake again.

(In the same way that I will never again misspell gardener, the word that landed me in second place in my fifth-grade spelling bee. Alas, Lloyd Suh, you will always hold a dark place in my memory!)

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

My First Three-Word Wednesday

Revenge Is a Dish Best Served Undercooked

The feast that I threw at the villa
Like a charm became quite the thrillah.
All my enemies there
Had the chicken — cooked rare
And robust with the sweet salmonella.

What Is Three-Word Wednesday?

There are all sorts of blogs and Twitter feeds out there that will give writers a daily writing prompt. This is a prompt of a different sort. Every Wednesday at Three Word Wednesday, ThomG posts three words. Writers write something using the words. It's that simple.

As you can see from this limerick, this Wednesday's words are feast, charm, and robust.

As the site itself notes, "Three Word Wednesday gives writers, poets and those who journal a mid-week jolt of creativity."

It also isn't bad link bait.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

zucchetto vs. yarmulke

A zucchetto (also called a pileolus) is a skull cap worn by clergy in the Roman Catholic church (and a few other denominations). The different colors of zucchetti (or zucchettos) indicate a clergyman's level in the church hierarchy. I wish I could take credit for this little illustrative number:
Zucchetto in Italian means "little gourd," like a small pumpkin, and indeed it does look like someone lopped off the top of a pumpkin and used it as a hat.

This is similar to the Jewish yarmulke, or kippah, which apparently can withstand more creativity and individualism.

I took a closer look because I was interested in the differences. It turns out that zucchetti are created specifically from eight panels that are sewn together, making it somewhat octahedral. (They're also a little larger than yarmulkes.) As you can see from the images above and below, there are much fewer restrictions on how you put a yarmulke together and what you can put on it.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Today's Word: badinage

badinage: What many on Twitter attempt, but few succeed in: playful repartee, witty banter.

From Charles Dickens's Pickwick Papers:

Mr. Bob Sawyer was seated, not in the dickey, but on the roof of the chaise, with his legs as far asunder as they would conveniently go, wearing Mr. Samuel Weller's hat on one side of his head, and bearing, in one hand, a most enormous sandwich, while, in the other, he supported a goodly-sized case-bottle, to both of which he applied himself with intense relish, varying the monotony of the occupation by an occasional howl, or the interchange of some lively badinage with any passing stranger.

Badinage is one of my personal favorite pastimes, and I have my moments. Not enough of them, but they're there.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Changing the F Word

I would get so much more done in my life if I didn't have Comedy Central piped in to my boob tube: The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, Tosh.0, the weekend stand-up, the return of Futurama. But of all Comedy Central's offering, my number-one guilty pleasure (there's only one, I promise!) has to be South Park.

As juvenile and toilet-related as that show gets, there are times when it just shines in a way that no other show can.

The rerun* that I saw last night was one of those moments. And it was word-related, so it fits right in to this blog!

The episode was called "The F Word", but it wasn't about the F-word, it was about the word fag.

A loud and obnoxious gang of Harley riders repeatedly spread their noise pollution around town. The South Park boys — and everyone else their age — start referring to those bikers as fags. Through faulty logic, the gang then decides that they ought to be even louder.

TSPB launch a scheme, painting "Fags Get Out" in red spray paint a few places in town. When the boys are brought before the school's principal, they have to explain that they weren't using fag to refer to homosexuals, but to loud, obnoxious Harley riders.

Here, they offer some great arguments, and the South Park writers offer some great wordplay, as well as a skewed view of how language changes:
Councilman 1: How is it that you think that referring to gay people as 'fags' in today's world is acceptable?
Kyle: "Because we're not referring to gay people. You can be gay and not be a fag.
Stan: Yeah. A lot of fags aren't gay.
Councilman 2: I happen to be gay, boys. Do you think I'm a fag?
Stan: Do you ride a big, loud Harley and go up and down the street ruining everyone's nice time?
Councilman 2: No.
Stan: Then you're not a fag.
Councilman 1: So what if a guy is gay and rides a Harley?
Cartman: Then he's a gay fag. Is this really this hard?
Stan: I don't know.
Kenny: Thith ith futhink rithiculouth.
Stan: All right, look. You're driving in your car, okay, and you're waiting to make a left at a traffic signal. The light turns yellow, should be your turn to go, but the traffic coming at you just keeps coming. And even when the light turns red, a guy in a BMW runs the red light so you can't make your left turn. What goes through your mind?
Otherwise silent councilman at the far end of the table: ...fag.
Stan: Right! But you're not thinking, 'Oh, he's a homosexual.' You're thinking, 'Oh, he's an inconsiderate douchebag, like a Harley rider.
Councilman 1: This...this is making insanely good sense to me.
Councilwoman: All right. How about this. What would you call a straight man who doesn't own a Harley but likes them and might buy one someday.
Cartman: You call him bike curious.
(This last line floored me.)

With the help of the local gay advocacy group, South Park's mayor passes a city ordinance to officially change the meaning of the word fag to refer to obnoxious Harley riders. A national politician then goes on air saying that, because dictionaries don't contain South Park's new definition of fag, using it is still harmful to the gay community.

The only solution? Convince the dictionary people to change the definition. In this case, "the dictionary people" refers to Emmanuel Lewis (who, to my surprise, really is still alive), the dictionary's head editor, who arrives with a small entourage to hear arguments for the definition change. But before the arguments can commence, the angry Harley gang rolls back into town to kick some ass, proving beyond a doubt that they really are a bunch of fags.

(A favorite shot: Emmanuel Lewis being dragged by a chain behind a Harley, shouting "You obdurate beasts!")

They're eventually run out of town by shotgun-wielding homosexuals, some of whom have been toting "Gays Against Fags" signs.

If you've only ever thought that South Park was a sophomoric, potty-mouthed mass of nincompoopery, this episode is a good example of how it can be a witty, smart, thought-provoking, potty-mouthed mass of nincompoopery.

After your kids go to bed, click the link above and watch the episode.

And try not to wake them up with your laughter.

* I realize that this episode is from last season. I didn't have cable last season, and I likely won't have cable next season after my introductory rate runs out in mid-January. Which, I guess, means I either have to watch as much South Park as I can in the next four months or fork over the dough to buy 13 seasons worth of South Park DVDs. Probably both.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

A Failed Attempt at Using Twitter for Customer Service

Businesses everywhere are tapping into Twitter, and all of them are trying to figure out how to do it. The idea of using Twitter for customer service is really starting to catch on, and in some cases is actually working. But I recently triggered a tweet that’s a shining example of how not to use Twitter for business.

The tweet in question could be a combination of lack of forethought and someone not paying attention. That’s probably the best-case scenario. The worst-case scenario: That this Twitter communication follows the company’s social media guidelines exactly.

On July 19, @shanselman tweeted this:

I don't get angry on Customer Service calls. I've never yelled. But I'm so frustrated with "Frontier Communications" I could smack someone.

I had never heard of Frontier Communications, but I thought it was an odd name for a phone company, much less an ISP (which, from some of shanselman’s other tweets that day, I think this is). Consider the American frontier — and how people communicated when we had one. So, being the smart aleck that I am, I tweeted this:

@shanselman Doesn't "Frontier Communications" refer to the telegraph? Talk about a slow internet connection!

It’s easy to see how someone could skim over this tweet and think that I was actually complaining about their Internet speed (like so many people on Twitter). But I was just trying to be funny. Like I said, I had never heard of Frontier Communications before.

Nonetheless, this tweet appeared not long after from @FrontierCorp:

@4ndymanFD I do apologize. Please contact 877-462-8188(repair ), 877-462-1105(billing)or 877-462-0488(FIOS)for assistance.

This tweet was sent out too soon, with too little consideration, to the wrong person. I was not one of the customers they needed to reach out to. (Not to mention the underutilization of the spacebar in the tweet itself.)

But imagine that I was. What does this response do? It uses Twitter to try to get me on the phone. It tries to direct my service off of Twitter, a public forum, and into a private phone call. It doesn’t show a willingness to help me find a solution to my problem; it shows an eagerness to get problems out of the public eye. Out of sight, out of mind.

This isn’t using Twitter as a customer service tool, it’s using Twitter as a half-hearted attempt to redirect customers to the response mechanisms that Frontier Communications is used to.

A better response would be to ask me, on Twitter, what my problem was. That is, after all, the first step to fixing the problem, and that would start the conversation.

Businesses: Adding a new technology to your customer service operations requires that you adjust your customer service operations to accommodate that technology. Twitter isn’t a phone call, and it isn’t e-mail. If you’re treating it like it is, you aren’t going to be successful at it.

Sorry, Frontier Communications: You get an F. You do not move on to Social Media 102.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Today's Word: callipygian

callipygian: Having shapely buttocks; bootylicious. e.g.,

Viveca A. Fox
It seems rather strange that such a word exists (and I hope that isn't because of my own ignorance). With the exception of the face and the breast area (which can be described as busty, buxom, curvaceous, etc.), what other body parts have their own, single-word descriptors like this? Is there a word for "having strong hands"? For "having sharp shoulder blades"? For "having a deliciously kissable neck" [there oughta be!]?

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe there are dictionary-worthy words describing different parts of one's body, and there's just a hole in my vocabulary. I trust my readers to set me right.

Nail Pattern Baldness

Being a Cenobite isn't all swimming pools, movie stars, and buckets of blood. While the unsuspecting curious suffer eternal pain at his hands, Pinhead is suffering from Nail Pattern Baldness.

(Is this too far to go for a silly pun? I don't care.)

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Regimen that Twitter Built?

I'm not a morning person. I never have been, and I never will be, in spite of the fact that my mornings start before 6:30 a.m., when my boys arrive and we kill time for an hour and 45 minutes until it's time to go to school.

And that's what we've done with that time: killed it. But no more.

I know that, if I really want to be able to call myself a writer, I need to write. (Yes, I just heard you say "duh!") I can't count the number of times I've told myself that, starting tomorrow, I'm going to start spending at least some of every morning writing.

So here, now, I'm going to make it official: Starting tomorrow, I'm going to start spending at least some of every morning writing. I will get more written, expand my blog, flesh out my story ideas, and improve my writing and my (mental) health overall.

Why the official announcement? Why now? In short, Twitter. I won't go so far as to say that Twitter changed my life, but it has strengthened my resolve. And here's how:

Since I've been on Twitter, I've connected with dozens of writers and editors, both known and obscure. (You're probably one of them!) I've followed their progress and foibles and joyous days and scraggly mornings and even rejection letters. I've also started reading blogs about writing well, teaching composition, editing messes, and the business of putting pen to paper and fingers to keyboard. And I've enjoyed it.

While I was browsing tweets and posting my own today, I realized two things in quick succession: First, because of Twitter, the blogosphere, and the Internet itself, I have found the world that I want to be a part of. Second, I realized that I'm already, to a small extent, part of that world.

Writing is by necessity is a lonely pastime, but it doesn't mean I'm on my own while I do it. At least, not anymore. I've found my peeps. Technically, they're all strangers to me because I haven't met a one of them in person. But still, they're my peeps. They're my peeps because I know I can share with them and not be judged (unless I ask them to), because I can ask them for help and get a response, and because I can give them my opinions and they will be read and considered.

So I feel like now is a great time for a writing resolution. If I can maintain just three weeks of a daily writing regimen, I can establish the habit and keep at it. And you can help: Every comment on or about this blog, regardless of what it says, is encouragement. It means someone is not only reading what I've written but giving it some thought.

To all my writing and editing tweeps: Thank you.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Word Subtleties: corporal vs. corporeal

First, corporal: 1) The lowest rank for a non-commissioned officer; 2) of the body; 3) a linen cloth placed at the center of the altar onto which the Eucharist is placed. Definitions 2 and 3 come to us from the Latin corpus, the body. (The Eucharist, of course, is considered the body of Christ.) Definition 1, the military rank, has a different etymology: it's linked to caput, the head, and more recently comes from the French caporal. A corporal leads (i.e., is at the head of) a corps (a body of troops).

Thus, corporal punishment, a hot-button topic when I was in school, is punishment inflicted directly to the body, e.g., spanking.

Second, corporeal: 1) Bodily, as opposed to spiritual; 2) able to be perceived by the senses, tangible.

A couple of sources indicate that corporal used to be employed in the second sense of corporeal, but that use is largely obsolete.

Setting aside military rankings, both corporal and corporeal have to do with the body, but there are subtle differences in their usage. Corporal refers to a human body of flesh and bone, as opposed to psychological or emotional. Corporeal is distinguished from spiritual and refers to a body in more abstract terms. It's often used to assign body-ness to something that doesn't usually have a body. Ghosts, shadows, and columns of smoke (especially when controlled by trickster demons) can be described as corporeal, but they certainly aren't corporal because they don't have flesh-and-bone bodies.

There are, of course, gray areas. Images of the human body have been described as both corporal and corporeal. And there is certainly an argument over what to call it when the Greek gods take human form on Earth to meddle in our business -- in one sense they are corporal forms because they are flesh-and-bone human bodies, but in another sense they are corporeal forms because they are they have a physical as opposed to a spiritual presence.

In cases like this, the decision is up to the author. Regardless of which word you choose to use, someone will disagree with you. The best you can hope for is to keep your copy editor happy by choosing one and sticking with it.

So, extending one of my examples, what would corporeal punishment look like?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Today's Word: breve

breve: In music, the breve has the longest value of any note. It's twice as long as a whole note. Because it's so long, you don't see it very often. It won't fit into most single measures, but occasionally a piece is written in a 4/2 time signature (each measure is four half notes long), and a breve fills the entire measure.

The other note values -- the quarter note, eighth note, and so on -- think the breve is a selfish, gluttonous dick. The breve is so fat, in fact, that it takes four note stems to keep it from spilling out an completely obliterating the measure!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Today's word: pandybat

pandybat: An instrument of corporal punishment -- noted in various places as being either a reinforced strap, a cane, or some type of over-designed paddle -- used to flog unruly students on the palms of their hands.

This is another new one for me from James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

Stephen closed his eyes and held out in the air his trembling hand with the palm upwards. He felt the prefect of studies touch it for a moment at the fingers to straighten it and then the swish of the sleeve of the soutane as the pandybat was lifted to strike. A hot burning stinging tingling blow like the loud crack of a broken stick made his trembling hand crumple together like a leaf in the fire: and at the sound and the pain scalding tears were driven into his eyes.

From some of the other text in the book, it seems that, in more severe cases, the pandybat was used on a boy's bare bottom. I don't have any personal experience either way.

Pandybat doesn't appear in my dictionary (hopefully, its use in education has become so obsolete that the word is no longer needed), but pandy, defined as the striking of the palm of the hand as punishment, does.

Does anyone out there have any first-hand stories of being pandied? What's the worse punishment you ever received in school?

Monday, August 9, 2010

Today’s Word: Soutane, and the Last 24 Hours in Reverse

soutane: A long, close-fitting robe often worn by anglican and Roman Catholic clergy; also called a cassock. I saw soutane for the first time when I began reading James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man during dinner Monday evening. It’s there about a page-and-a-half in:

Then at the door of the castle the rector had shaken hands with his father and mother, his soutane fluttering in the breeze, and the car had driven off with his father and mother in it.

This sentence is a good example of the problem with ambiguous antecedents. If you’ve never read Portrait, you probably came away with the wrong meaning. This should help:

Then at the door of the castle the rector had shaken hands with his [Stephen’s] father and mother, his [the rector’s] soutane fluttering in the breeze, and the car had driven off with his [Stephen’s] father and mother in it.

I hadn’t originally planned to read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but when I stopped at the library on the way home, they didn’t have a copy of the book I planned to read, Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth, which I told my mother I would read soon.

The reason I needed a new book to read is because I finished Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book Sunday night. There are few books that begin with a grisly triple murder that I would recommend for fourth- to eighth-grade kids, but this is one of them. If you have a tween who is just getting into werewolves, vampires, and ghosts (that is to say, a kid who doesn’t know what to read now that the Harry Potter series has finished), get them to start reading The Graveyard Book, and then the rest of Neil Gaiman’s repertoire.

Like he did with American Gods and Anansi Boys, Neil Gaiman gives a new, interesting, and human twist to the mythologies we think we know in The Graveyard Book. The story revolves around a child who is raised from toddlerhood by the inhabitants of an ancient cemetery after the rest of his family are eliminated during the aforementioned grisly triple murder. The boy, who is given the name Nobody Owens, grows up among the dead and learns what the dead have to teach him. Eventually, though, Nobody will have to deal with the world outside the cemetery.

As far as settings go, this is a really interesting place to start a story. Few authors could pull it off, but Neil Gaiman is definitely one of those authors. Definitely worth the read (but still not as good as American Gods).

Friday, July 30, 2010

Today's Word: deluge

deluge: The sudden appearance of a large amount of (literally) water or (metaphorically) other substance that one could literally or figuratively drown in, as in this true statement: "Over the last two weeks, the deluge of projects vying for my time has left me little opportunity to blog." Capitalized, Deluge refers the biblical Great Flood made famous by that fundamentalist rock band Noah & the Arkonauts.

Not to be confused with . . .

de luge: De vinter spoort vit de feet firsten on de sleddie und zoomen en swoopen doon de eecy treench. (from Scooter's English-to-Swedish Chef Dictionary*)

Answer me this: How do you pronounce deluge? Is it a DAY-loojh, a duh-LOOJH, a duh-LOO-gee, or something else?

* As far as I know, this book doesn't really exist. If it did, though, I'd want one on my bookshelf. At work.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Today's Word: internecine

internecine: Marked by slaughter, especially mutually destructive slaughter; battle within a group.

According to the interesting word history in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Deluxe Edition, the "mutually destructive" sense of internecine came about because Samuel Johnson misinterpreted the word's etymology when he put together his dictionary. Inter- usually indicates "between" (e.g., intermural, interstate, interlibrary loan). In this case, though, inter- indicated the completion of an action.

To quote directly: "In Latin, the verb necare meant 'to kill' and the verb internecare meant 'to kill without exception, to massacre.'" (p. 964)

Johnson, though, put "to kill" together with "between" and came up with mutually destructive violence.  His definition was preferred, though, by many. These days, internecine is more often used hyperbolically, meaning a pitched (though often bloodless) battle between two factions of a single group.

The clash of Tea Party Republicans and rational Republicans might be seen as an internecine battle, for example.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Today's Word: parallelepiped

parallelepiped: (pronounce the last -ed as a separate syllable) A three-dimensional shape made up of six parallelograms lying in three pairs of planes. Imagine taking a regular, six-sided die and pulling it from opposite corners. The result would look something like this:

This is a parallelepiped.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Today's Word: flibbertigibbet

flibbertigibbet: A silly, flaky, or daft person; a chowderhead; Larry the Cable Guy

I had always assumed the flibbertigibbet was a relatively new coinage, but Merriam-Webster's Collegiate traces it back to a 15th-century Middle English word (flepergebet). A little more research shows that, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Flibbertigibbet was used as a fictional name.

According to Google Books, one 1789 publication called Political Adoration, or, An Address to the Devil, is attributed to "the foul fiend Flibbertigibbet." Flibbertigibbet also appears in Sir Walter Scott's The Waverly Novels as the nickname for one Dickie Sludge. I don't know which is the worse name to have.

Here's an excerpt:

I was a fool to mention the doctor's kind intentions towards my mansion before that limb of mischief Flibbertigibbet — I might have guessed he would long to put so rare a frolic into execution.

On a side note, M-W Collegiate also lists the adjective form flibbertigibbety, which is even more fun to say!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


spectaculavaganza = spectacular + extravaganza

Spotted in the wild here: "Last night, during the one-hour LeBron James Spectaculavaganza on ESPN, James was shown video of his jersey being burned by Cleveland fans . . ."

There's also a proofreading error in the picture's caption, if they haven't fixed it yet. See if you can find it.

Today's Word: prehensile

prehensile: Adapted or designed with the ability to grasp things, especially by wrapping or folding around the object.

The strange thing about prehensile is that it isn't obvious, at first glance, how the common prefix pre- fits into the etymology and meaning of the word. As it turns out, a second glance doesn't help either. According to Webster's New World, it comes from a combination of pre- plus the "unverified form" of the Indo-European ghend. (The word get has the same ancestor.)

Perhaps a wandering linguist or lexicographer can explain what is meant by "unverified form." Or maybe someday I'll peruse the guide at the beginning of the dictionary and discover some clues there.

Just remember that prehensile is related to apprehend and its ilk and you'll have no problems.

Incidentally, I have watched exactly one episode of the Dean Cain version of Ripley's Believe It or Not — I was an avid fan of the Jack Palance version back in the day — and that one episode highlighted a man with basically a giraffe tongue. Seriously, the guy could lick his own eyebrow! His long tongue was very nearly prehensile. It was disgusting, but I was transfixed.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

centrifugal vs. centripetal

centrifugal: Moving away from a center of rotation.
centripetal: Moving toward a center of rotation.

Remember that a centrifuge is a machine that separates liquid compounds, such as blood, by spinning them. The heavier elements of the compound move away from the center, separating from the lighter elements (in the case of blood, it separates into hemoglobin and plasma). Most carnival rides that involve spinning rely on centrifugal force to keep you from falling off the ride.

I cannot think of a single thing that uses centripetal force. According to Webster's New World Dictionary, centripetal is used in botany to describe certain flower clusters that develop inward instead of outward. Perhaps that is how you can remember the difference, by linking flower petals with centripetal.

Can you think of a common example of centripetal force? Meanwhile, I'm going to enjoy the rush of centrifugal force on the teacup ride.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Feed: A Premature Evaluation

Last night, while I was shopping for birthday gifts for my elder son, I found Border's big display of "required school reading," presumably pulled together from reading lists of actual local high school English classes. I recognized most of the titles, but a new one stood out for me: M.T. Anderson's Feed.

Considering that it shared shelf space with the likes of To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, The Giver and others; and considering that it had a silver "National Book Award Finalist" medal on the cover (and it seems to have won a few literary awards Out West); and considering that the back-cover synopsis sounded like the story was from my favorite literary genre, dystopian fiction; and considering that it was only $8.00 for a trade paperback, I went ahead and bought it.

I don't buy books for myself as often as I used to. I must be out of practice, because the one thing I did not do that I certainly should have done was read a bit of the actual text before I made my purchase decision. Because, ten minutes later, while waiting for my sushi to arrive, I pulled out my new book and found this:

We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.

We went on a Friday, because there was shit-all to do at home. It was the beginning of spring break. Everything at home was boring. Link Arkwater was like, "I'm so null," and Marty was all, "I'm null too, unit," but I mean we were all pretty null, because for the last like hour we'd been playing with three uninsulated wires that were coming out of the wall. We were trying to ride shocks off them. So Marty told us that there was this fun place for lo-grav on the moon. Lo-grav can be kind of stupid, but this was supposed to be good. It was called the Ricochet Lounge. We thought we'd go for a few days with some of the girls and stay at a hotel there and go dancing.

Before I get into the teen-speak language, I want to point out a couple other things. First, you'll notice that Anderson is creating a new slang vocabulary, a la A Clockwork Orange. Null here basically means "bored." Unit is the word for "man," and the characters in this novel use unit as teenagers today use the word man; it isn't always used to refer to a male human, as in "Give it a chance, unit." (Women, or at least teenage women, are referred to as unettes. This type of wordplay I like.)

I have nothing against creating a new language as part of a story's setting, but in a story like this, it seems somehow more unoriginal than in A Clockwork Orange, Dune, or The Lord of the Rings, for reasons I discuss at the end of this post.

Second is the sentence structure and word choice. The first four sentences are short, opinionated, self-centered, and unnecessarily vulgar. They immediately brought to mind The Catcher in the Rye. And indeed, you don't have to look too far to find similarities between Holden Caulfield and Titus, the main character and narrator of Feed. It also irks me a bit that the names Link Arkwater (from Feed) and Ward Stradlater (from Catcher in the Rye) have the same rhythm and cadence, not to mention the same final letters.

Perhaps that's a drawback of being well-read: It's too easy to find fragments of the classics in new works. As I read Feed and other new fiction, I'm always seeing bits of other well-known books instead of the author's own writing. In Feed, for example, I keep seeing the aforementioned The Catcher in the Rye and A Clockwork Orange, as well as Yevgeny Zamiatin's We and the sexual parts of 1984. Granted, I'm not even halfway through yet, so I could be surprised later on.

But back to the subject I postponed earlier: the writing style. As an editor, I find this book difficult to read without cringing. Take a look at that fifth sentence again: "Link Arkwater was like, 'I'm so null,' and Marty was all, 'I'm null too, unit,' but I mean we were all pretty null, because for the last like hour we'd been playing with three uninsulated wires that were coming out of the wall. We were trying to ride shocks off them." This sentence (a) is a run-on; (b) uses the "teen-speak" that I can barely stand to listen to, much less read; (c) uses the filler like.

If this sentence is any indication of the language of the entire novel, as it is turning out to be, then I am in for a long, rough ride if I am to finish reading it.

I am amazed that this was featured on a list of required reading. Presumably, some English teacher somewhere is teaching this book in class. It must be difficult to teach kids how to write well when you have them reading stuff like Feed because it breaks so many of the "rules" that you're trying to teach them. What are teenagers supposed to believe when you tell them, on the one hand, not to write in run-ons, not to use the fillers that you use in speech (except in dialogue), and not to simply write the way you speak, and then, on the other hand, have them read an award-nominated book that breaks those rules? How important could those "rules" be if one can become a successful writer while breaking them?

As an adult, editor, and avid reader, I understand style, and how writing like this can suit the story better than "standard English." But teenagers — many of whom already hate English class and are always on the lookout for justification of that hatred — haven't yet developed a sense of critical literary analysis. It takes experience and introspection.

And I still haven't concluded myself that the writing style in Feed is an improvement and not a detriment.

A few dozen pages in, and I'm leaning toward the vulgar teen-speak as being detrimental, or at least badly done. It's obvious that Anderson has thought about the language that his characters would use in this future time, but I don't think he gave it enough thought. He has created a new vocabulary, but he hasn't considered the other natural changes that language would have gone through during the time it took for his new language to take hold.

Take the filler like, for instance. I don't believe* that teenagers 40 years ago used like to mean said. That, I believe*, arose during the 1970s. It was used throughout the 1980s even more than it is today. Would teenagers 40 years from now still be using it in this way? I don't think so.* Same goes with "...and Marty was all..." to indicate a person's spoken reply. Even the use of pretty as an intensifier here is questionable. (To Anderson's favor, though, he does also use the new word meg, as in mega-, as an intensifier elsewhere in the book.)

This mixture of today's teen-speak with Anderson's futuristic vocabulary is, I think, why his new vocabulary falls short. It's different, but still rudimentarily employed; it isn't whole-hog realistically futuristic. If it's possible for science fiction to be anachronistic, this book's language manages it.

Still, I'm not yet halfway through reading this book. These are just my first impressions*, and maybe I'm rushing to judgment. Maybe Anderson is setting up a satire of youth's failure to recognize its own naivete. I hope to be surprised by what I find in later pages. I am dedicated to finishing this book, though, if only so that my $8 doesn't go to waste.

* As always, though, I could be wrong.

[Update 8/16 -- quite a while after actually finishing the novel: My early impressions still generally hold. The language is, above all, unnecessarily vulgar, especially considering the target audience, as if the author has something to prove by raising the "fuck" count of the text.

Although the novel has some merit, it falls short of the insightful, meritorious story that it could have been. Anderson created some situations that could have been meant as red herrings, or could have been meant as signs of mental and technological collapse, but came off (at least to me) as being dropped plot threads.

In particular, the female lead, Violet, is positive that someone from outside tried to hack into her feed one night, and the automated customer service is no help at all. when I got to that point in the story, I was ready for the intrigue to really take off, to discover secret lives and hidden truths, to find that the anti-establishment fight was more active than people really thought. But that situation lives in a single chapter and is substantially never mentioned again.

Anderson instead takes active outside forces (forces of truth, perhaps?) out of the equation and reverts to the detrimental effects of passive acceptance of social definitions of normality. Which, I grant you, isn't necessarily a bad issue to tackle in a novel like this.

On the whole, though, this novel left me wanting more. In a world marked by extreme superficiality, the characters were sufficiently two-dimensional, but the setting as a whole could have benefited from more development and depth. This was indeed a story of man vs. society, but the underdevelopment of the story's setting made "society" too monolithic, too static.

Be warned, too, that the conclusion is bleak. I'm not going to make an qualitative judgments about that, though. On alternate days, I think that it is realistically bleak, and therefore more truthful than any alternative, and pessimistically bleak, and therefore lacking that thing that makes good literature great: the ability to teach us how to be better humans.]