Get My Drift?

28 Jan


imageThe folks who conduct national polls are in hog heaven now that the election campaigns are in full swing. Typically, pollsters ask persons to rate candidates in theoretical head-to-head competitions: Clinton v Trump, Trump v Rubio, Rubio v Sanders. Responses to questions like that can be reported in easy-to-compare numbers: 54% of older male voters prefer Rubio to Sanders; 68% of college-educated women prefer Sanders to Clinton; 92% of morons like Trump better than anyone.

Then there are the more nebulous questions put to voters, questions intended to measure the way people feel about social, economic, and political trends. Unlike measures of possible election outcomes, people’s feelings about issues can’t be so easily quantified, so respondents must actually think for a moment and choose from among alternative adjectives: anxious, unsure, optimistic, and so on.

I was on my way to work the other morning when I heard NPR’s Dave Mattingly report that a majority of Americans feel uneasy about the direction the country is headed. I got to thinking about the question–the direction the country is headed — and wondered just what people have in mind when they respond to it. The question seems to ask voters to imagine some future condition or situation that they will find to be better or worse than how things are now. What scenarios do they envision, I wondered. What combination of national developments do they foresee in their minds’ eye?

For the country is, most certainly, going someplace. The North American continent sits atop several tectonic plates, immense slabs of the earth’s crust that float on beds of molten lava. All land masses do. These plates are always moving relative to each other. Their jostlings and collisions are what cause earthquakes. A million years ago the continental surface of the earth looked quite different from the way it looks today, and certainly a million years from now it will look different, too. So, in a very literal sense, the country is going someplace.

It would be refreshing, I thought, to hear people respond to the literal meaning of the question, “How do you feel about the direction the country is headed?”
“I think we’re headed too much toward the northeast.”
“I’m afraid we’re going to bump into Greenland.”
“If we drift any further south, it’ll squeeze the Rio Grande shut and all those Mexicans will be able to just walk into Texas.”

But then, as that last theoretical response illustrates, too many voters have no more understanding of continental drift than they do of basic geography. To them, anyone who lives south of the United States is a Mexican. (I know people who actually talk that way. They say things like, “Let’s make America great again,” as if all of America stops at the Mexican border and everything south of that is an undesirable piece of real estate.)

I wish it weren’t so. I wish most of the electorate actually knew what plate tectonics and continental drift are. I wish their education hadn’t stalled somewhere around fourth grade and that they were able to grasp concepts beyond what can be stated in a simple declarative sentence. I wish they appreciated nuances of thought and were able to see beyond the nearest shopping mall. If they did, I might feel better about the direction the country is headed.


Move it on Over

12 Mar

Drivers merging into traffic from an on-ramp can be divided into two categories: those who attempt to merge as soon as the on-ramp lane joins the highway, and those who drive all the way to the end of the on-ramp lane before merging.

I used to be one of the former, and it BURNED ME UP when someone whizzed past me, after I had merged, and got into traffic four cars ahead of me. I’d steam. I’d fume. Who do they think they are? Do they think they’re too good to wait in line like everyone else?

Then my wife taught me better. Rationally, she explained, it makes no sense to merge before you get to the end of the lane. Efficiency in traffic movement is simply a matter of the ratio of cars to available driving space. Every time someone merges early, several hundred feet of driving space go unused. On the other hand, if everyone drove all the way to the end of the lane before merging, the ratio of cars to available driving space would decrease, and traffic would flow more quickly.

I don’t want you to get the wrong idea about my wife. She drives all the way to the end of the lane not because it’s more efficient; she does it because she doesn’t like to wait. For the same reason, she habitually drives in the left lane, speeds-up when someone tries to pass her, and ignores carpool lane restrictions when she can get away with it. She was ticketed once for being the sole occupant of her car in a carpool lane; she paid a $250 fine. She figured it averaged out to about 25 cents for every time she’d driven in the carpool lane illegally.

Which seems almost reasonable, except that reason has little to do with the way she–and most of us–drive. We don’t drive 10 or 15 miles-per-hour above the speed limit so we can get where we’re going faster. At 65 mph on a 100 mile trip, we’d get there a whopping 17 minutes faster than if we drove at the posted speed limit of 55 mph. We drive that way because all of us, like my wife, hate to feel like we’re being left behind, like we’re wasting time, like we’re moving in slow motion. I don’t know that those feelings are caused by the fast pace of modern life, but they certainly are intensified by it. When I learned to drive, 60 mph was about as fast as anyone dared to go on an Interstate highway. Today at 60 mph you’d better be in the far right line; you’d be better-off yet if you got off the highway altogether.

Just to bring things back to the notion of traffic flow efficiency, the Federal Highway Administration once calculated that, all variables taken into consideration, the maximally efficient use of highway space and time would be achieved if everyone drove steadily at 45 mph. But then that would be doing what the government told us to do, and no blue-blooded, patriotic, law-abiding American is about to do that!

I could care less

13 Jan

IMG_0232-0I could. And if I did, this post wouldn’t be necessary, because then I couldn’t care less. And that’s what this is about.

I heard it this morning, on a radio report about the Washington, DC Metro station at L’Enfant Plaza filling with smoke. Close to 80 persons were treated for smoke inhaltion. One passenger died. It happened quickly, with no warning. Or, rather, with little warning, for one passenger in the station did smell the smoke moments before it billowed from the subway tunnel, and he tried to alert a Metro employee, “who looked at me as if he could care less.”

“As if he could care less.” On the face of it, the passenger is telling us that the Metro attendant did display some interest. He cared, because we are told that hecould have cared less. Obviously, he showed some level of concern. Only, that isn’t what this passenger meant. He meant that the Metro attendant showed no concern. He wasn’t interested in what the passenger told him about smelling smoke. “He couldn’thave cared less.

You and I both know this. We’ve heard the phrase uttered a hundred times, and always with the intended meaning of something like, this clown showed absolutely no interest! I’m guilty of saying it myself, even though I know that its meaning is really the opposite of what I intend. Why do we do this?

I don’t think we’re all just very stupid. What we are doing is imitating what we’ve always heard. There must have been a someone, somewhere, sometime who first uttered it that way, and it just caught on. That someone was doing what came naturally. That is, he was making a slight adjustment to the phrase to make it easier to pronounce. Think about it. Say both of them under your breath, and you’ll immediately see that “as if he couldn’t care less” is slightly more awkward to utter than “as if he could care less.” It’s got something to do with that extra unstressed syllable, the “n’t”, that impedes the speech just enough to make the alternative phrase more attractive.

In linguistic terms, this phenomenon is akin to prefix assimilation. It also resembles its opposite, dissimilation, as well as aphesis, apheresis, and metathesis, all of which are attempts to make the unpronounceable pronounceable. Fascinating stuff, if you’re into such things. Or maybe you could care less.

Warm Greetings for the Holidays

18 Nov

Traditionally, merchants began displaying their Christmas decorations after Thanksgiving. Taking advantage of the long weekend that begins on the fourth Thursday in November, retailers festooned their stores in red and green and commenced hawking their Christmas wares on what is now known as Black Friday. The official start of the holiday season had begun. Then, about a dozen years ago, I started noticing at some shopping centers the outdoor decorations were appearing earlier. That trend soon spread to neighborhood homes. Last year, I noticed Christmas trees strapped to car roofs two weekends before Thanksgiving.

This makes sense, I suppose, given that we’ve been seeing year-round retail holiday creep for some time, now. Valentines cards appear in the stores just after after New Years Day, with Easter goodies following hard upon that. The celebration of Memorial Day and Independence Day have merged into a juggernaut of advertising and sales hoopla that continues through the months of May and June,and then (you guessed it), back-to-school supplies show up midway through July. Halloween makes its debut in September, and before we get there, Thanksgiving recipes and pumpkin pie sales begin. So, sure, Christmas trees before Thanksgiving.

It’s the economy, I told myself. Sales have been down, and merchants are struggling to make a living. But then it occurred to me that consumers have been buying this holiday stuff all along, and in ever increasing volumes. The Christmas lights in my neighborhood rival Times Square; I probably wouldn’t have to turn on my headlights to drive down the street at night. Every SUV on the block–and, believe me, that’s quite a few–sports a Christmas wreath on the grill and antlers growing from the side windows. Golden faux gift boxes, wrapped in shiny foil and proudly tied with crimson bows, decorate every other front door. And all of this appearing now before thanksgiving. Sales aren’t down; they’re up. It’s not the economy, stupid.

But then, isn’t everything happening sooner? The songbirds are now showing up at our feeders earlier in the year (and in fewer numbers, as if in reverse proportion to the SUVs), and the dogwoods now bloom three weeks before they used to. Our crocuses sometimes peek their green heads above ground in mid-February. In my house, the air conditioning gets turned on in May. Whether it’s the appearance of the first robin or the appearance of the first Christmas tree, it’s all occurring sooner. Things are warming up, and it makes sense that we are celebrating all the holidays with ever increased fervor. Because deep in our bones we know the shit’s coming down. The party’s about to end, and we’re partying as hard as we can before the clock strikes midnight.

My Republican acquaintances tell me that Global Warming is all a lot of baloney. They can believe that if they want to. There’s a name for that sort of thinking: denial. Some so-called Christians I know find comfort in believing it’s all supposed to end soon, anyway. Something better (for them) is just around the corner. (Tough darts for the rest of us; we should have known better.) I do have some friends who hope that it’s not too late to stave it off, but I don’t see many of them leaving the party and trying to clean up the mess. Even they realize, at some level, that we’re not going to slow this train down. It has appeared from around the bend, it’s picking up steam, and we’re all tied to the railroad track. So I say what the hell: party on! We’re all wasted, we’ve wasted the gift of this beautiful planet, and now all we can do is drain the dregs from the last can of beer, nurse our collective hangover, and await the end.

When I was a child, I lived in fear of a nuclear apocalypse. Russia and America each had a thousand nuclear bombs and were ready to use them. I know now that the end is indeed near, but it’s not going to be as fast as that. The pain isn’t going to last for just a few minutes. It’s not really a train that’s bearing down on us, it’s the slow death of trees, the drying-up fresh water, and a blanket of carbon dioxide that will have us all gasping to the end. T.S. Eliot had it nailed nearly hundred years ago:

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

What’s the Point?

1 Nov

The point is, literally, the period, that tiny little dot that is supposed to appear at the end of a declarative sentence. If the title of this blog entry led you to expect a weightier beginning, I won’t apologize for misleading you. I was, as my high school students used to say, “just playing with you.” And language play, we are discovering, is a powerful way to get students interested the way English works. So play along with me as I reflect playfully on punctuation, those minute little symbols that often carry a lot of weight.

I became reflective about punctuation after reading a brief blog entry written by Sarah Hepola. Hepola, a regular contributor to, poses the question, “Is the semicolon girlie?” She cites articles that appeared recently in the Financial Times and The Times of London claiming that a number of respected and well-known writers, including Hemingway, Raymond Chandler, Stephen King, and Donald Barthelme, all disrespected the semicolon because of its supposed pusillanimous nature. Heopla’s further research confirmed the prevailing attitude, at least among some of her colleagues. Catherine Price commented that the “wink of the semicolon could be considered girlish and coy”; Judy Berman observed that “semicolons do tend to result in longer sentences, and I think those have long been seen as the ‘feminine’ answer to short, abrupt, ‘masculine’ sentences”; and Laura Miller claims that semicolons “represent a certain development of thought and a degree of emotional nuance that I would not associate with the writers” mentioned above–all of whom are male.” (Curiously, Katharine Mieszkowski finds the semicolon to be transgender, possessing an identity that is midway between a colon and a period.)

Reflections on the personality of punctuation are not new. In 1979 Lewis Thomas published an essay putting forth his observations about all of the conventional marks of punctuation Lewis loved the semicolon, which he contrasted with the period this way: “The period tells you that that is that; if you didn’t get all the meaning you wanted or expected, anyway you got all the writer intended to parcel out and now you have to move along. But with a semicolon, there you get a pleasant little feeling of expectancy; there is more to come; read on; it will get clearer.” At the other extreme, he despised the exclamation point. “Exclamation points are the most irritating of all,” he wrote. “Look! they say, look at what I just said! How amazing is my thought! It is like being forced to watch someone else’s small child jumping up and down crazily in the center of the living room shouting to attract attention.”

If you’ve never read Thomas’ brief essay, you owe it to yourself to do so. You can find it at Sarah Heopla’s piece is at Read them for yourself; see whether you agree. Let me know what you think by posting a response. Are you in favor of the unpunctuated conciseness of a Hemingway (who said, for the record, that Henry James, that master of the long, convoluted sentence, “chewed more than he bit off”) or do you–as Hemingway claimed was true of Faulkner–think that long sentences mean big ideas? And when you write, regardless of whether you employ punctuation sparingly or generously, do me a favor: get to the point!

The Name Game

10 Aug

After the Baltimore Orioles’ 15-6 victory over Seattle last week, I listened with interest as broadcaster Joe Angel looked forward to the next day’s game. “Orioles’ left-hander We-Yin Chen will face the Mariner’s Joe Saunders,” he announced. Though I’ve heard this pitcher-versus-pitcher formula used by broadcasters ever since I was old enough to follow the Washington Senators, it didn’t strike me until last night that something was very wrong with it. In the American League, where pitchers don’t bat, they never actually do “face” one another. Likely the expression dates back to the era before 1973, I concluded, the year the junior league adopted the designated-hitter rule. Prior to that, pitchers did bat and so, at least once per game, “faced” each other. And that got me wondering about the origin of other baseball terms associated with pitchers.

I don’t hear it used much any more, but there was time when the pitcher and catcher were referred to, collectively, as the “battery.” (As a young child, I thought it had something to do with Senators’ catcher Earl Battey.) I looked it up The Dickson Baseball Dictionary. The term probably originated from an analogy to an electric battery, which has opposite poles that have to connect to each other. The application of the term to electricity is itself an extension of the military usage, which in turn is derived from the verb, “to batter.” Starting in 1962, “battery” began to be widely used in reference to domestic abuse, as in “assault and battery.” Which may bring us full circle, at least with regard to the Orioles, who have suffered more home runs against their pitchers at home than on the road–a most certain example of domestic assault and battery.

Reference to a relief pitcher as the “fireman” has declined in recent times, likely because relievers are now more finely classified as long-relievers, middle relievers, set-up men, and closers. (For more on that, see below.) But at least as far back as the 1920s, when the starting pitcher was expected to throw a complete game, the “fireman” was brought in to “put out the fire” when the starter got into trouble. The New York World Telegram referred to Yankees relief pitcher Johnny Murphy as a fireman, and the Yanks’ Joe “The Fireman” Page once posed for a publicity photo wearing a fire chief’s hat. Ironically, The New York Daily News used the term fireman in reference to the player who showered, dressed, and left the clubhouse first after the game–more than likely the starting pitcher who needed the fireman in the first place.

Another curious baseball idiom is the reference to left-handed pitchers as “southpaws,” which comes from the fact that, in the early days of baseball, ball parks were constructed with home plate oriented to the west. Facing the batter from the mound, a lefty would stand with his pitching hand to the south. Although first recorded in baseball usage by Chicago sports writer Finley Peter Dunne in 1885, the term “southpaw” was used in reference to left-handed boxers as early as 1848. Its derivation from that point seems to be lost to history.

As noted above, relief pitchers have become more specialized over the years. The long-reliever comes into the game early on, when the starter has allowed that fire to get going in the 3rd, 4th, or 5th inning. The middle-reliever appears in innings 6 or 7. Then there’s the set-up man in the 8th inning, who paves the way for the closer. Every team craves an effective closer. The term was coined by Chicago Cubs’ manager Herman Franks in 1977, who used pitcher Bruce Sutter only when he had a lead in the 8th or 9th inning. Today the closer’s role is even more restricted. Though occasionally he will appear in inning 8, most often the closer comes in only in the last inning, and only when the team has a lead of 3 or fewer runs.

Baseball’s premier closer, the pitcher whose name has become synonymous with the role, is New York Yankees’ Mariano Rivera. With 643 saves credited to his name, Rivera plans to retire at the end of this year, and it will likely be a long time before anyone eclipses his record. Rivera is an amicable guy, humble when speaking of his accomplishments, and generous with his time and money. At 6′ 2″‘ and weighing just 195 pounds, his slight build belies the description a closer given by baseball writer Michael Bamberger, who wrote in Sports Illustrated that the typical closer has “an oversized body or an outsized personality.” Rivera, of course, has neither. But anyone who has stepped into the batter’s box against him in the 9th inning would probably agree with Bamberger’s further description that the closer has, “at the very least, the sinister face of a 19th century outlaw.” When Rivera strides onto that mound and looks down to his battery-mate for the sign, Mr. Nice Guy becomes Billy the Kid, and woe to anyone who goes gunning for him.

Just to bring things back around to where I began, a word about Baltimore Orioles’ closer Jim Johnson. This season, Johnson leads the majors with 39 saves, but anyone who follows the team will appreciate MASN TV announcer Gary Thorne’s admonition to “buckle your seat belts” when Johnson comes into the game. In his 55 appearances this year, Johnson has surrendered 50 hits, nearly one per game. He definitely makes the 9th inning interesting. Given that statistic, the fact that Johnson has 7 blown saves, and that his demeanor on the mound resembles Billy the Kid much less than it does Bambi, fans might begin referring to him as the Orioles’ “opener”–the guy who opens the game up to extra innings. If that term sticks, you’ll know where it originated.

Road Trip

13 Jul

If you are above a certain age, you may recall with nostalgia the roly-poly little devices called smudge pots, yellow, cannon ball-sized warning contraptions that were placed around road-work areas. Hollow and made of thin steel, they were filled with kerosene and topped with a cotton wick. When lit, they gave off a barely perceptible yellow light and a thick river of dark smoke. It was the smoke, not the flame, that got your attention (and made you roll up your window. See Wing Windows, below)

Sometime in the late fifties, smudge pots were replaced by saw-horses. The front side of each was painted with orange and white diagonal stripes. Sawhorses had several advantages over the humble smudge pot. Rising to the height of the driver’s window, they were clearly visible. A battery-powered orange light, mounted on top, flashed a warning signal. Furthermore, sawhorses could be left in place overnight because their fuel needn’t be continually replenished. As a child, I wondered what kind of battery might be powering that light, as it never seemed to run down. A friend of mine decided to give it a test. In the early hours one night, he snuck out of the house and walked a mile to a nearby road work site. Keeping to side streets and sometimes ducking behind bushes, he carried a sawhorse home and put it in his bedroom closet. His mother came across it nearly a month later; it was still blinking.

Though saw horses are still occasionally used, you are far more likely these days to confront the traffic cone. Made of a phosphorescent orange plastic, they can’t be missed in daylight, and they dependably reflect off a vehicle’s headlights at night. But no more about these johnny-come-latelies

Speaking of headlights, I believe it was sometime in the early 70s that the high-beam dimmer switch moved from the floor of the car to the steering shaft. It used to be that the driver’s left foot operated a mechanism that switched the beam on and off. For whatever reason, many cars built outside of the United States relied on a dimmer switch mounted on the steering column. It may have been the sudden importation of foreign cars, in reaction to the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo, that prompted a change in American cars. Many imported cars, with their 4-cylinder engines, got better gas mileage than their American 6- or 8-cylinder counterparts. With gas prices soaring and the long lines at the filling stations becoming longer by the day, drivers began dumping their heavy Chevys, Buicks, and Fords in exchange to Toyota Coronas and Opel Kadets. It took the Detroit boys a long time to learn the lesson and begin manufacturing smaller, lighter cars. As they gradually redesigned their products to compete with the import market, the location of the dimmer switch made the move to the steering column, where it remains today.

Three other features of vehicles built half-a-century ago deserve acknowledgement: AM radios, wing windows, and the backety-back. AM radios were standard equipment back then; indeed FM radios hadn’t yet made the scene. AM radios were frequently vulnerable to static interference and, worse yet, there was no stereo sound. Everything came from a tinny speaker mounted beneath the vehicle’s dashboard. As the sun disappered and nighttime descended, a curious feature of the AM band reveled itself. Your local stations became more and more difficult to home in on, while at the same time voices out of the dark air, originating in Boston, New York, and Chicago, began coming through as clear as day.

Then there were wing windows, small, triangular windows located in the front of the car, next to the driver’s and passengers’ doors. They didn’t roll up and down; rather, they pivoted on a swivel joint, deflecting a stream of air into the car on one side of the window and creating an out-draft on the other. They were useful when you drove on a highway, where the traffic noise prohibited the lowering your side window, but when you still wanted some fresh air. And, of course wing windows were especially useful for smokers (and their passengers). The reverse draft grabbed exhaled smoke and pulled it out of the car. Eventually to be followed by the cigarette butt.

And what baby boomer doesn’t remember the backety-back? In station wagons, the precursors of today’s mini-van, this was the area behind the second seat where luggage was stowed. Apart from the shotgun seat (which your mother or aunt or an older sibling always got) the backety-back was the preferred travel area when the family took a long vacation.There, you could sprawl out and read your comic books in peace, nod off to sleep, and generally ignore the slow passing of miles that made the trip feel interminable.

I haven’t covered them all, those long-lost features of automobile travel from the mid-twentieth century. Burma Shave signs along the side of the road, Milton Bells that rang (“ding-ding”) when a car rolled over a thin hose in front to the gas pumps, and gas wars were common features of the era. And the road trip was just getting underway!

Absolutely the Most Perfect Blog Post Ever

1 Jul

I love words; I revel in learning their origins and histories; a thrilling afternoon for me is spent perusing The Oxford English Dictionary. But I am not a language snob. I don’t correct people’s grammar at parties. In fact, I believe that “correctness” in English is a fluid thing. The language is always changing; that’s what makes it exciting. But there are some particular phrases and expressions that grate on my nerves. They mostly involve imprecision in the use of words. The ones that bother me most are not simply inaccurate; they demonstrate an uncritical use of stock phrases and an unthinking use of the tools of our language. (I stop short of asserting that they demonstrate stupidity; someone may review my blog postings and discover that I have used some of them myself.). In any event, herewith are a few of my favorite bugbears:

absolutely nothing
“The prisoner told the police absolutely nothing.” Nothing is zero, zip, nada. It is already an absolute state. Something is either nothing or something. (Puzzle that one out.) Adding absolutely to nothing doesn’t add anything to it. (And if it did, it wouldn’t be nothing, would it?)

totally destroyed
By definition, destroyed means “to reduce to useless fragments, injure beyond repair, annihilate.” It is an absolute condition in which a thing ceases to be. Adding totally to it adds absolutely nothing.

more pregnant
An expression that especially annoyed my father, a newspaper reporter who always aimed at precision with words, is more pregnant, as in, “Elizabeth is more pregnant that Theresa.” Presumably, this is meant to indicate that Elizabeth is further along in her pregnancy than is Theresa; she is showing more. But she’s not more pregnant. Whether or not life begins at conception, pregnancy sure does, and whether a woman has been pregnant for one day or for seven months, she’s still just pregnant. (Though maybe you can be more pregnant if you are carrying twins or triplets, what do you think?)

the most perfect
Perfection, like nothingness, destruction, and pregnancy, is also an absolute state. It means that nothing can possibly be superior to the experience to which it is attached. Now, I was taught as a child that nothing in this world can be perfect; only God is perfect. Nevertheless, I have heard of friends speak of “the perfect vacation” or “the perfect gift.” (You might infer from this that these friends are atheists; you may or may not be correct.) However, I will grant that perfection can theoretically be attributed to earthly things. But then, how could you know that a particular things was perfect–say, a sports car–unless you had also seen every possible example of that thing to compare it to? Astonishingly, one of my acquaintances recently told me that she had experienced “the most perfect birthday party ever!” This would seem to surpass even the magnificence of God.

As in, “The quarterback gave 110% of his effort in that game!” I’m not a mathematician; I deal in words. My favorite English-Teacher tee shirt says, “I Teach English, You Do the Math.” But even I know that there can never be more than 100% of anything. Obviously, sportscasters who use this term are trying to convey the intensity of an athlete’s effort, and that is all well and fine. But shouldn’t 100% do it? “He gave 100% during the game.” After all, have you ever heard them speak of someone who gave 90%? Or 62%?

medium, large, extra-large
Ask for a small Coke at MacDonald’s, and you will be told politely (if not always lucidly) that they don’t have small drinks; they have medium, large, and extra large. If you try to explain that their medium drink is therefore their small drink (I’ve done this), they will look at you as if you were from Krypton. (Don’t even think of trying this at the drive-through.) Technically, the word “medium” is a meronym, a term for something half-way between two extremes, as in black-gray-white, or left-middle-right. Or small-medium-large. (At Starbuck’s, a small coffee is a tall coffee, but that’s food for another thought.)

infinitely better
This is akin to medium-large-extra large. In English, our positive terms of comparison are good-better-best. Something that is infinitely better must be the best. Why not just say so?

a free gift
A gift is “something given voluntarily without payment in return” By definition, it is free. (Unless, of course, you “buy one now and receive a free gift,” in which case you have to pay something.)

the same identical place
“I was in the same identical place two years ago!” So declared a woman during a conversation I overheard while I was waiting for my turn in the dentist’s office. Her companion had just finished describing an out-of-the way tourist attraction in Bavaria. I have no doubt that the two women were describing the same place, that they both had been there and seen it with their own eyes (but see below). What I wondered was, why the same identical place? I went home and looked it up. identical means “similar or alike in every way”; same means “identical with what is about to be or has just been mentioned.” They are identically the same.

Here are a few other phrases that are popularly used: “I saw it with my own eyes” (who else’s eyes could you have seen it with?), the very best (the sort-of best?), and fatherless child (Is that even possible?).

Go figure.

You can’t get there from here

24 Jun

My brother and I were driving on Old Ox Road one day when he wondered aloud about the highway’s name. “Do you think the ‘Old’ refers to the Ox or to the Road?” In other words, he was asking me, were we talking about an old ox or an old road? He had me there–especially as there is also a West Ox Road nearby. Where was East Ox Road, I wondered? Or Young Ox Road?

This got me to thinking about how we name roads and how we identify the directions they lead. It can be mighty confusing.

Not far from all the Oxen, we have in Northern Virginia a North King’s Highway and a South King’s Highway. It’s all one road, and I’m not certain where the demarcation line is, or why there are two names for this single thoroughfare. To complicate matters, local residents generally refer to either of them simply as Kings Highway. So, if you pull into a gas station and ask the attendant for directions to some nearby destination, he is likely to tell you, “Take a left at the next traffic light and go six blocks to Kings Highway, then head south.” You get to the intersection, and it’s going to be with either North King’s Highway or South King’s Highway. Which way should you turn?

A similar conundrum presents itself forty miles north of here, where Interstate 695 encircles the city of Baltimore. Everyone calls it the Beltway, and depending upon my location along its circumference, I will be driving more or less west, north, east, or south. Approaching from the south on Interstate 95, I reach the Beltway and my choices are straightforward: I can take I-695 East or I-695 West. However, when I approach the Beltway from the west, say on Towson Road, my choices are still I-695 East or I-695 West. To my way of thinking, I have been traveling east on one highway and have come to another highway that intersects it at right angles. My choices should be north or south, shouldn’t they? If I’m not already familiar with the road, and I want to go north toward Delaware, I’m sunk. Which way do I go?

Washington, DC, also has a beltway, I-495. Originally, it was named The Circumferential Highway. You can see why that name didn’t stick, so it, too, is now known locally as the Beltway. There’s little likelihood that some driver will confuse the two Beltways; that’s not a problem. What could be a problem is that, on very old maps, I-495 it is still identified by the old name. Granted, nearly everyone uses GPS for directions these days, but there are still a hearty few, like my eighty-five year old uncle, who cling to the old ways. I entertain the fantasy that some day one of these relics will pull off the road and ask someone for directions to The Circumferential Highway. I hope it’s me they ask; I’ve got my answer prepared. “You missed it by fifty years,” I’m going to tell them.

Other examples are numerous, and I’m sure you can think of your own. I’d like to learn about them, so please post a comment and let me know. My grand design is to compile a road map of the entire country that will explain to the uninitiated how to negotiate these local absurdities. Of course, by then GPS will be so ubiquitous that road maps will be obsolete. Then again, my GPS recently directed me to someone’s back yard when I was trying to get to a local park, so maybe there’s still hope.



Now hear this! Now hear this!

11 Jun


Dylan Cashman, you have a call on line 4.
Dylan Cashman, you have a call on line 4.

Has anyone else pondered why public address announcements are always made twice?

Doctor Ahmed, please come to the ER.
Dr. Ahmed to the ER.

Why do they repeat it? How did this get started?

Let’s assume that there was a first time that someone did this. Perhaps he was thinking something like, “I just said this once, but maybe they weren’t paying attention. I’d better say it again.” Makes sense. Trouble is, most PA announcements are so loud, how could anyone not be paying attention? But suppose that was the case, as in a sports arena. If your goal is to get everyone’s attention, why not simply announce that?

Please pay attention!
Michael Ross is wanted at the customer service desk.

Wouldn’t that do it?

Frankly, I find it downright rude to have my conversation interrupted by a disembodied voice demanding my attention. A loud disembodied voice. One that overwhelms any possibility of further thought or dialogue, like the piercing cry of an air horn or a pronouncement from God on high. (Though even God did not broadcast to the entire world when He only wanted the attention of one person.)

Moses, you are wanted on Mount Sinai.
Moses to Mount Sinai.

Another thing: Why are these commands so often phrased as question?

Rosa Flores, would you come to the main office?
Rosa Flores, please report to the main office.

Suppose I’m Rosa Flores, a 9th grade student in Mrs. Price’s Algebra 1 class. I hear that announcement and I think, “Well, they’ve given me a choice. I believe I’ll just stay right here.” (Especially if I know that the reason they want me in the main office is because a teacher caught me smoking in the girls’ bathroom.)

I suppose it’s too late to alter this practice. We’re all so habituated to it by now that we’ve come to expect it. We’d probably be confused if the announcement were only made once, like being served a peanut butter sandwich without jelly. But maybe not. Maybe we could work some practical Public Address Announcement etiquette into the beginning of the school day, right after the Pledge of Allegiance:

Students, remember that PA announcements should never be repeated.
PA announcements should not be repeated.