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?