Friday, June 29, 2007

Delicious Slip of the Tongue

Peter Sagal*, host of NPR's "Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me," was interviewing filmmaker Michael Moore, when he mentioned Moore's first hit documentary, "Roger and Me." But, speaking hurriedly, he left out the "and," instead saying to Moore in very direct terms:

"Roger me."

(* I don't mean to pick on Peter. I love Peter. It's just that I listen to podcasts of his show while I exercise, which is why I ended up catching two Sagal slips in a short period of time.)

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Linguistic Fraud at My Local Cafe

I'm angry at apple wood smoked bacon.

Now I know what you're about to say: "Gee, June. That's perfectly sane."

But before you reach for a tranquilizer gun and a large net, just hear me out.

Apple wood smoked bacon is lately everywhere I want to be. It's in the quiche at the fru-fru little café where I sometimes sit and work, it's in the club sandwich at the other fru-fru café where I sometimes go to write, and it's in the BLT at the slightly less fru-fru café where I sometimes work. What's more, it's usually a headliner in any dish in which it's served, getting top billing in the list of ingredients and often in the name of the dish.

Yet I'm here today to say that I believe the increasing popularity of apple wood smoked bacon is a piece of linguistic fraud designed to pass off greasy pork as a crisp and fresh gourmet delight.

Think about the words: apple wood smoked bacon. (I prefer to spell and punctuate it applewood-smoked bacon, but that form doesn't seem to show up as often.)

What's the first sensory association that comes to mind? If you're like me, your ear picks up mainly on the first word, "apple," and stops there. You think crisp, sweet, healthy, fresh. But in fact what you're ordering is about as un-apple-like as you can get.

Here's how far removed this foodstuff is from its alpha word, apple.

* It's not apple. It's bacon.
* It's not apple-flavored. It's smoked (smoke-flavored).
* It's not smoked with apples. It's smoked with wood.
* What kind of wood? Apple wood.

What the hell is apple wood/applewood? I' m still not sure, but I bet it tastes a lot more like wood than like apples. And I can confirm that its smoke, when engulfing a side of pork, retains for its finished product about as much apple flavor as the steak from a cow that once grazed in a field a half mile from an apple orchard.

And that's why I'm angry at apple wood smoked bacon.

Next week: Why drawn butter is useless when dealing with crabgrass.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Words I'm Looking Up (One in an occasional series on words I'm looking up)


When I was a kid, I heard that gelatin was made out of hooves. Cow hooves, I presumed. And, later in life, The Simpsons' Mr. Burns confirmed this belief. But when I looked up "gelatin" recently in Webster's New World, I didn't like what I saw:

the tasteless, odorless, brittle mixture of proteins extracted by boiling skin,
bones, horns, etc.; also, a similar vegetable substance: gelatin dissolves in
hot water, forming a jellylike substance when cool, and is used in the
preparation of various foods, medicine capsules, photographic film, etc.

So I kept looking. Next stop, the online Columbia Encyclopedia, where I finally found confirmation of this piece of disturbing trivia from my childhood.

gelatin ... foodstuff obtained from connective tissue (found in hoofs,
bones, tendons, ligaments, and cartilage) of vertebrate animals by the action of
boiling water or dilute acid. It is largely composed of denatured collagen, a
protein particularly rich in the amino acids proline and

So now, with one question neatly answered, I find myself grappling another: Why did Columbia write it "hoofs" instead of "hooves"? The answer I found by going back to my first reference, Webster's, which says that both "hoofs" and "hooves" are acceptable as the plural of "hoof," but it prefers "hoofs." (Who knew?)

Of course, all these answers led me to what may be the most important question of all: Who was the first person to say, "Mmmm. Boiling skin, bones, and hooves! I bet that would be delicious with fruit cocktail!"

Friday, June 22, 2007

Words I'm Looking Up (First in an occasional series about words I'm looking up.)


Imagine you're building a hotel/casino in Vegas with a beachy, tropical paradise theme. You'd probably want to name it something beachy and/or tropical paradisey, right? You'd eschew names like "Anchorage Bay," "Greenland Bay," and "Newark Bay" for something practically synonymous with sipping mai tais. Lahaina, Montego, Cancun, Miami, Bora Bora. As someone who spends most of her time daydreaming about sunny vacation spots, I've heard of a lot of them. But "Mandalay"? Where the heck is that and how lame am I that I have to look it up?

Enter my shameful confusion about the naming of the Vegas hotel "Mandalay Bay," where I just spent four fun-filled days and nights splashing in fake waves on a fake beach.

Well, my embarrassing ignorance ends now, with this entry from Webster's New World College Dictionary:

Mandalay: city in central Myanmar, on the Irrawaddy River: pop.

Myanmar? As in, "We used to be known as Burma but now we're best known for brutal repression and human rights abuses"?

Yeah, that's a party all right.

A little more research shows that Mandalay is the second-largest city in the nation and was the last Burmese capital before Britain pulled a Columbus and claimed the whole country as its own.

I remain baffled as to why the builders chose this as a theme for their sun-and-fun hotel/casino. But I can take a guess at their logic: "Hey, if people are dumb enough to think a city on a river in a repressive regime sounds like a good beach vacation spot, maybe they'll be dumb enough to drop $60 playing three-card poker."

And in my case, they would be right.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Strunk, Whited Out (First in an occasional series on what White did to Strunk)

As I wrote for my upcoming "A Word, Please" column:

To read the back cover of Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style," you'd think it was God's gift to the English-speaking world -- "excellent," "timeless," "delightful," "… should be the daily companion of anyone who writes for a living and, for that matter, anyone who writes at all."

That's a lot of sunshine blowing around. But something about the beloved nature of this little book has always sat funny with me.

For one thing, most other style reference books get updated from time to time. But "The Elements of Style's" status as a "classic" means no one dare touch it (except maybe to add pictures) -- even when its prescriptions become ridiculously out of date.

But there was something else that bothered me about this "beloved" little book that I was never able to put my finger on until I scored a copy of the original "Elements of Style" by Cornell professor William Strunk, Jr., long before his student E.B. White landed the job of revising it.

Consider this entry in the original "Elements of Style"

Headings. Leave a blank line, or its equivalent in space, after the title or
heading of a manuscript. On succeeding pages, if using ruled paper, begin on the
first line.

Ruled paper?

Now, I had always known that "The Elements of Style" was born of a college classroom. But it never really occurred to me what a fraud was perpetrated on the reading public when White "revised" the thing. Basically, his task was to take a book written for a small and specific group of students and make it marketable to you and me. Sure, this happened because the original "Elements of Style" had already found an audience outside Strunk's classroom. It sort of caught on like wildfire. But White nonetheless pulled a fast one on us when he tried to make Strunk's student instructions required reading for everyone who might ever hold a pen.

For example, before Strunk's passage above, White inserted:

"If the manuscript is to be submitted for publication …"

Then he nixed that reference to "ruled paper," knowing full well that newspaper editors, resume writers and business-correspondence writers who were the book's new target market don't use ruled paper.

But Strunk never meant "The Elements of Style" to be a book of iron-clad rules for you and me:

"This book … aims to lighten the task of instructor and student by concentrating attention … on a few essentials."
Yes, "The Elements of Style" contains some great wisdom, mixed in with some old-fashioned silliness. But unless you're a Cornell student stuck in a time warp, don't consider it an ultimate authority.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Smart People Flubbing It (First in an occasional series of grammar-savvy people flubbing their grammar)

Peter Sagal, host of the NPR show "Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me" demonstrated that even the whom-wise can flub "whom." On a recent show, he asked a contestant:

Unlike the rest of his fellow soldiers, (Oregon National Guard Private Duncan Schneider) has a slight disadvantage because his company's first sergeant is whom?
Peter clearly gets the basics of how to use "whom." But like most people, he's thrown off when a predicate nominative comes into the mix.

The predicate nominative is the grammatical reason people say "This is she" instead of "This is her."

The predicate nominative is:

noun or pronoun + to be + noun or pronoun (that's the same person or thing as the first noun or pronoun)

The rule is that the second noun is in the nominative (subject) not objective case. In other words, "she" instead of "her" in "This is she."

So, paring down Peter's sentence, we find the predicate nominative:

The first sergeant + is + ______.

That's why there's no reason to use the object "whom." Peter should have used the subject case, "who," saying, "His company's first sergeant is who?"

What's the moral of this story? NOBODY'S grammar is 100% bullet-proof. So don't let that insecure, "Oh, no. I should know it all and I don't" voice make you feel overwhelmed.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Blogging: So it's come to this.

People keep telling me I should blog. The first few to tell me this got slapped. But then I looked up the word "blog" and, well, let's just say shame on me.

I've resisted blogging because (typical writer's whine) I haven't known what to say. Sure, I could model mine after the "Be an expert in your field and offer brilliant insights not found anywhere else" blogs. I'd love to do that. But in my case that would be akin to Woody Allen blogging about fatherhood. Serious credential problems.

I could also model mine on the "OMG did u SEE american idle last night?!?!?!?" blogs. But I'm far too old to start huffing paint thinner (again).

So, for lack of something to say that's interesting and neither incriminating nor actionable, I've been mum. But then it occurred to me, "Hey! My readers have interesting stuff to say! Why not pilfer that?"

The people who read my newspaper columns and my book sometimes drop me a line to ask questions or share insights or rants. These notes are often interesting and highly educational. And when they're not, they're even more fun. (For example, I'm already anticipating one attacking the first sentence of this paragraph for saying that mulitple people drop me "a" line. Let me nip that in the bud: I don't have a good reason other than "people drop me lines" sounds ridiculous.)

Then a funny thing happened on my way to blatant exploitation of my readers: I realized I really could blog about other stuff -- everything from grammar to my cat Tibor to my cat Maddie to my cat Smudge or even my cat Susie! (I'm renaissance-y like that.) The whole blogging world is my oyster. So to kick us off, here's an e-mail I got recently from a reader, followed by my reply. I look forward to hearing you tell me I'm an idiot.

June: I often see big headlines in sale papers proclaiming "SAVE 50% OFF". Or even worse, sometimes it's "SAVE 50% OFF ON EVERYTHING IN THE STORE". This doesn't seem right. Would it be more correct to simply say either "SAVE 50%" or "50% OFF"? Just one of those little things that bugs me. Thanks for your
attention. -- M.D.

* * * *

Hi, M.D. Thanks for the note.

You wrote, "... wouldn't it be more correct to simply say ..." And therein you've touched on the real issue.

Would it be BETTER to opt for your wording? Absolutely. But correctness is a lot more elusive. For one thing, there's the question of idiom - which renders even ungrammatical constructions grammatical. Preposition issues often fall into this category.

From "The Careful Writer": "Is it dissimilar 'from' or dissimilar to'? Is it enjoin 'to,' 'from,' 'against,' or what? The proper preposition is a matter of idiom, and idioms, if they do not come 'naturally' must be either learned or looked up."

Add to that the fact that, there really is no place to look most stuff like this up. And even if there was, it would likely be some expert's best guess and not anything that qualifies as an official determination of "right" or "wrong."

Welcome to my nightmare.

For my money, "save 50% off" sounds acceptable. "Save 50% off on ..." well, that's pretty goofy -- goofy enough that I might venture to say it really is wrong. But it's possible I could be wrong. So I tread with caution.

Either way, these advertisers' choice of words could definitely be better.

Hope that big mess is at least partly as helpful as it is messy.

- June


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