Word Wiseguy!

This newspaper feature arose out of a series of discussions I enjoyed with a like-minded Wordsmith named Rob Kyff. We developed many more of these columns but only these eight survived the black hole of time. I can’t recall who wrote which and I believe a third writer also contributed to the project. One day I may remember these things. But don’t wait on me to do it.

Statistically, the average Joe just isn’t average any longer

Bring back Joe Camel!

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t miss the camel himself that humped huckster of coffin nails, that repugnant ruminant of respiratory ruination. R.J. Reynolds should have snuffed out Puff the Magic Dromedary long ago.

What I miss is the “Joe” part. Joe Camel’s demise is just another nail in the coffin of a great American nickname.

According to the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, “Joseph” ranked among the top 10 names for American boys until 1970, when it began to wane (along with “Wayne”) in popularity.

As late as 1962, Jimmy Stewart, playing an average Joe in the film “Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation,” could yell confidently, “Hey, Joe!” to a cluster of anonymous teenage boys, correctly assuming at least one would be named “Joe.”

Not anymore. Ever since the 1970s, Joe has been manhandled by a mob of Michaels, Matthews, Jonathan, Tylers and Christophers. What’s worse, these New Age guys disdain the manly handles “Mike,” “Matt,” “Jon,” “Ty” and “Chris” (though some Christophers go for “Topher.”) Even today’s Josephs prefer “Joseph” or “Joey.”

But where would the 20th Century have been without “Joe”?

How would we have referred to the front-line infantrymen of World War II without the nickname “G.I. Joe”? Where would we have been without our buddies “Joe Cool,” “Joe College” and “Joe Six-pack.”

But will “Joe Blow,” like Joe Camel before him, simply blow away? Will the trade winds waft in a new name of regular guys? “Tyler Typhoon,” maybe, or “Topher Zephyr”?
Say it ain’t so, Joe.

Bear and bull markets have been around since the 1700s

As the bears and bulls clash on Wall Street, the stock-buying public is asking the question:

“Where do the terms ‘bear’ and ‘bull’ come from?”

The answer involves a bearskin, a bubble and a pope.  First, picture a typical bearskin trader in England during the 1600s.  He has a shrewd plan: 1) Agree to sell Lord Blunderspout a bearskin for the current price of $2. 2) Delay delivery until the price plummets to $1. 4) Buy a bearskin for $1 and deliver it to Lord Blunderspout. 5) Pocket a profit of $1.

This risky practice was soon being imitated by brokers on London’s stock exchange.  Traders would sell stock they didn’t own and promise to deliver it later.  Then they’d pray that stock’s price would drop before the delivery date so they could buy it more cheaply and pocket the difference.

Stock speculators using this scheme were called “bearskin jobbers” or simply “bears.”
Eventually, “bear” came to refer to anyone who sells stock on the expectation of a decline in its price.

But no one really knows why a bear’s opposite-a trader who buys stock in hopes its price will rise-is called a “bull.”

The two terms appeared in print together as early as 1720.  That’s when the poet Alexander Pope wrote about the disastrous investment scandal known as the “South Sea Bubble”:

“Come fill the South Sea goblet full;

The gods shall of our stock take care;

Europa pleased accepts the bull,

And Jove with Joy puts off the bear.”

In other words, if the market drops, grin and bear it.  And that, by Jove, is no bull.

There’s no little irony in continuing misuse of ‘sour grapes’

“People who were turned away from the concert took a sour grapes attitude and demanded to be admitted.”

When I heard that sentence on the radio recently, I wondered whether its author had ever heard Aesop’s story of the fox and the grapes.

If I remember that fable correctly, a fox is watching a tortoise race a hare when he sees his own reflection in the water – no, wait a minute – he notices a grasshopper lazing in the sun as the ants work…ah, the heck with it. It isn’t such a great fable anyway.

I just cried “sour grapes.” After trying to attain something (an accurate rendition of the fable) and failing, I denigrated and devalued the object of my efforts. That’s what the fox in Aesop’s fable did when he gave up his struggle to reach grapes high above him. To justify his failure to mouth the grapes, he bad-mouthed them.

So if those would-be concert goers had really cried “sour grapes,” they wouldn’t have demanded to be admitted. Instead, they would have said the concert wasn’t worth attending anyway.

But many writers and speakers use sour grapes as a general term for disgruntled or dissatisfied.

Ironically, another concept that’s often misused is irony. A TV newscaster might say, “Ironically, the couple who moved to Michigan found themselves living next-door to their former next-door neighbors in Connecticut.”

But irony means more than coincidence or improbability. It’s usually reserved for situations reflecting the folly of human endeavor and intention. While the story of the ubiquitous neighbors is coincidental, it would be ironic only if the couple had moved to Michigan to escape them.

Be careful – word misuse results in embarrassing bloopers

The always-fashionable Word Guy Blooper Patrol presents its fall collection:

“They had distributed leaflets accusing the fast-food chain of selling unhealthy food and exploited workers.” (Mary Graham, Memphis, Tenn.) Do you want guys with that?

“Classroom practitioners…are eager to shake off the yolk of textbook direction.” (Betsy Samuels, Princeton, N.J.) They don’t want to produce a bunch of eggheads.

“Mr. Jaeckel played a churlish sergeant who was one of the few survivors of the climactic battle.” (John Daigle, Vernon, Conn.) “I’m going in there to wipe out global warming, Lieutenant, and don’t try to stop me.”

“He came to our lodge almost daily and spent untolled hours doing whatever needed to be done.” (A.R. Charles, Concord, Calif.) No wonder his name doesn’t ring a bell.

“He is a smart, methodical loaner who will kill again.” (Rolf Pottinger, Willington, Conn.) Must be a loan shark.

“The judge ordered her always to keep her Labrador-mix dogs chained or leased.” (Mary Tanner, Watertown, N.Y.) But within a week they had rent a puppy in two.

“A pregnant woman fainted and fell into the path of an oncoming subway train Friday but escaped serious injury……After regaining consciousness and crawling out from under the car, passersby helped the 22-year-old woman off the tracks.” (Les Krumm, Sioux Falls, S.D.) Those passersby were certainly well-trained.

And finally, from Blooper Patrol Captain Bill Ward of Simsbury, Conn.: “He was arrested and charged with heroine trafficking.” As our brave heroine escaped, she must have smacked him.

Converting nouns into verbs is upsetting to human nature

Gail Jones, a substitute teacher from Grand Rapids, walked into a first-grade classroom one morning and discovered this item on her schedule: “10 a.m. – bathroom the children.”

While Gail knew bathroom language was sometimes heard in the classroom, this wasn’t what she had in mind.

This casual conversion of nouns such as “bathroom” into verbs makes many of us cringe. We instinctively wince, for instance, when a copying center touts itself as “the new way to office.”

The boss says, “Let me sophisticate you on this issue.”

Instinctively, human beings love objects we can see and touch and hold items we can count on. So we don’t like to see people take these fixtures and move them around.

It’s the same with words. When we see nouns whirling around as verbs, we feel like Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” watching cows, floors and people sail by during the tornado.

So when people talk about “gifting” newlyweds, “guesting” a talk show, and “authoring” a book, we see our friendly old nouns “gift” and “guest” and “author” flying through the air. On their faces are the desperate looks of people strapped into a roller coaster they don’t want to be on.

We want to rescue them – to stop the roller coaster and pull them back to Earth. “Get thee to a nounery!” we yell. “Why wouldst thou be a breeder of verbs?”

But, alas, English is a fast-talking carnival huckster. It entices unwitting nouns onto its roller coaster and whirls them through the stratosphere.

And, once the ride is over, you’ll probably have to bathroom the children.

From the Latin, rolling stone gathers a lot of semantic moss

The ancient Romans noticed that a troublesome ethical issue irritates the soul the way a tiny pebble in the shoe irritates the sole. So the Latin word for a small, sharp stone (scrupulous)also came to mean any source of anxiety or worry.

That’s why, in English, a scruple is an ethical consideration or principle that tends to inhibit action. So, when an actress with scruples shares her qualms about playing vapid vixens, she’s sharin’ stone.

In Latin, a calx was a pebble used as a counting piece in games and reckoning. After a long march, for instance, a Roman legionary could often pick enough stones from his shoes to make an abacus (and a soldier cuss).

This stone meaning of calx soon calcified in English as calcium, calcite and calculus (an accretion in the body, such as a kidney stone). In passing (ouch!), I’ll mention that the rolling calx even gathered enough semantic moss to give us calculate and calculus (a field of mathematics).

Also mined in the Roman quarry is dilapidated (literally, “to have stones missing from”). Purist claim the meaning of dilapidated has become dilapidated in recent decades.

These rock-ribbed hardliners say dilapidated should be used only to describe structures made of stone, such as Stonehenge, the coliseum and their own hearts.

It’s wrong, they say, to speak of a dilapidated house, a dilapidated car or a dilapidated usage rule, unless these objects are made of stone (or, in the case of the usage rule, carved in stone).

In fact, the English word dilapidate comes not directly from the Latin lapis but from dilapidatus, which even in Roman times was a general term for destroyed.
String together syllables or words and get amazing results

“Daisy doats and dozey doats, and little lamsey divey. A kiddley-divey do. Wouldn’t you?”
When I first heard Bob Hope and Bing Crosby sing this ditty, I always assumed it was a collection of nonsense words as rendered above.

But, not so long ago, I discovered this rhyme actually makes sense: “Mares eat oats and does eat oats, and little lambs eat ivy. A kid’ll eat ivy, too. Wouldn’t you?”

My confusion over this frivolous jingle furnishes a nice illustration of the nature of spoken language. We don’t pronounce each syllable or word distinctly.

Rather, our sentences grow like long stems of lamb – digestible ivy, one word flowing seamlessly into the next. So in “mairzey doats,” the e sound of eat has attached itself to mares to produce mairzey. The t in eat has slid into oats to give us doats, and the kid has slid into second for a double.

In other words, we don’t E-NUN-CEE-ATE EACH IN-DI-VID-U-AL SYL-A-BUL like this. We sluremalltogetha’ like this.

As Stephen Pinker reports in his book “The Language Instinct,” even our sophisticated human brains misconstrue oronyms (strings of sound that can be carved into words in two different ways).

He shows how kids’ll swallow strings of verbal ivy and produce mishears like “a girl with colitis goes by” (“a girl with kaleidoscope eyes”); “gladly the cross-eyed bear” (“gladly the cross I’d bear”); and “they played the Bohemian Rap City” (“Bohemian Rhapsody”).

Because Pinker’s book includes so many great egg samples of oronyms, I’d say it deserves a Pullet Surprise.

Wouldn’t you?

Youth slang by the numbers is part of American dialect

Here’s the 411 on the movie “187”. Its title is the numerical designation for murder in the California penal code. With the help of Tom Dalzell’s hip book “Flappers to Rappers – American Youth Slang” (Merriam-Webster, $14.95), here’s more 20th-Century jive you can count on.

If you witness someone 86’ed (murdered, from the restaurant term for “we’re out of it”) with a four pounder (handgun, from its weight), call the 5-0. This term for the police surfed in from the TV series “Hawaii 5-0.”

The 5-0 are on duty 24/7 (24 hours a day, seven days a week).

The 5-0 also handle mundane crimes like five-finger discounts, a term for shoplifting that first jumped off the shelf in the 1930s.

Someone taking a five-finger discount might steal a 40 a 64 (a 40-ounce or 64-ounce bottle of beer), or an eight ball (a bottle of Olde English 800 malt liquor). Before being caught, a shoplifter tries to 5,000 (leave), from Audi 5000, as in, “I’m audi (outta) here.”

Flappers of the 1920s referred to a tough customer as an eight minutes (a guy as hard as an egg boiled that long). Flappers also did a number on 49ers (men prospecting for a rich wife) and four-flushers (fakers who bluff like a poker player with a four flush pretending to have a five flush).

The beats of the 1950s totaled us with four bars past (very) and a blast and half (a really good party). Add-ons of the 1960s include seven-ply gasser (seven times sensational) and 288 (too gross, literally two times 144, a gross).

The 1980s and 1990s have given us six-pack (what the six abdominal muscles on a well-built torso look like), take it down a thousand (calm down), and L-12 (stupid times 12).

By the time the 2000s rolled around marijuana was discreetly called 420. Feeling good or doing good was 100 Percent. And Hip Hop culture escorted a whole slew of new numbers into the vernacular, mostly as some variation of a corruption or the original. Four is now Fo’; Five Dollars is now Fi’ Dolla. A $100 bill is a Hundid’. Never mind, you get the idea. 10-4 and out.


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