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Archive for March, 2010

THE WORD IS NOT THE THING

By Ruth Minshull

A friend called me the other day to ask how I was doing.  “Just fine,” I told her.  We chatted awhile, before she said, “Well, I just thought I’d check on you.  I like to keep track of my, ah, mature people.  We don’t use that other word around here.”

That other word?

Oh, I realized, she must mean “old”.

Well, she had managed to convey that she thought I was old.  (It was like telling someone “Don’t think about a pink walrus.”)  Anyway, I had begun to suspect the “old” thing all by myself, with the help of the calendar, the mirror and an increasing assortment of aches and pains.

She really did insult me, however, with her clumsy avoidance of the O word.  Did she think I was so fragile that hearing the word would make me crumble and blow away like a desiccated leaf?  Or was she herself so fragile that she couldn’t bear to hear or use the word?  (She’s merely six years younger than I am.)

I wanted to shout at her, “The word is not the thing!”

Saying the word does not make me suddenly age—to think old, act old, or even resist feeling old.  It’s just a word.

I grew up with kids chanting, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me.”  This was the standard response to the insults we freely exchanged.

What has happened to people?

Of course, there have always been mean-spirited folks who like to put others down with cruel comments and invalidations.  But nowadays they have to be much more subtle about it, because the word police are ever-vigilant.

At one time we could say deaf, dumb, blind or crippled–and the sky never fell in.  And, as far as I could see, people afflicted with these problems were not offended by the descriptive words.  Oddly, at the same time, we never ever heard the vulgar four-letter words that are so loosely flung around in comedy shows, Eddie Murphy movies and Joan River specials.  They’re not fooling anybody with those bleeps.  (It’s just the pink walrus thing again.)

These days, if a person utters a politically incorrect word (or even a word that sounds similar) someone, somewhere, is bound to be offended.  The offender may be publicly chastised, have a career destroyed, lose a nomination, or get fired—even when there were no bad intentions.

People often say, “It is what it is.”  Well, this may seem like a pretty useful statement unless you’re a government bureaucrat.  In that case it’s more likely to be “It is what we’ve renamed it to be.”

I’ve read that the pentagon prefers the words “resource constrained environment” when they mean that there isn’t enough money to go around.

And just the other day I heard that government authorities, in their infinite love of obfuscation, have declared that the word “hunger” is no longer allowable.  In its stead is “very low food security.”  (Can’t you just see the indoctrinated four-year-old of tomorrow saying, “Mommy I have very low food security.  Can I have a cookie?”

When I was a child, we often had men come to the back door offering to work in exchange for food.  We called them “tramps” or “hobos” and my mother always fed them.  Now, of course, such vagrants are called “homeless” and—even if they haven’t eaten for three days—they must be greatly comforted by knowing that they are no longer hungry, but simply, enduring very low food security in a resource constrained environment.

You have to stay current on the latest euphemism or one slip of the word and you could suffer the contemporary version of getting tarred, feathered, and dragged out of town.

All this tiptoeing around is because too many people are offended by language.  Too many people think the word is the thing.  And their censoring is choking our freedom of speech.

I’m fed up with not thinking about all those pink walruses; I’m bored with all the offendees and their tiresome mewlings.

In fact, I’m offended by them.

Where can I go to complain?

* * *

(c)2010 by Ruth Minshull

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NOT TOO MUCH,  NOT TOO LITTLE

By

Ruth Minshull

We were playing cards with a new, plastic deck.  My granddaughter kept dealing with too much force and the cards would sail across the table and onto the floor.  After she did this several times, I said, “You know, there’s an ability you might call evaluation of energy.”

“What’s that?”

“In this case the question would be:  how much energy do I need in order to get this card across the table?  Since these are new, and not scuffed up, they are more slithery; so they slide with very little effort.  It’s easy to overshoot and send the card sailing onto the floor.”

“Yes, I know.  But how can I do it better?”

“First you need to change your old idea of how much energy you need to use.  Start by simply dropping each card in front of the player.  Later you can toss it, gently, and get it in the right spot.  You’ll soon work out just how much force you need.”

She caught on immediately, and no more cards hit the floor.

You could call this concept by any number of names.  It’s basically a matter of making a correct judgment:  how much effort do I need to accomplish the objective?  It can apply to many activities.

When I was first learning to drive, I steered violently.  I’d veer sharply to the right, then overcorrect and careen across the road to the left.  Fortunately I got the hang of it before I smashed into a tree or an oncoming car.  I then needed to make the same type of adjustment for accelerating and braking.  We’ve all learned these things, and eventually we drive smoothly without thinking about it.

If we are teaching a child to play catch, we must throw the ball with just enough effort to reach him.  He will learn to catch, but also he must learn how to throw the ball back with the right amount of push–not too hard, not too weak

I’ve noticed that if I really dislike a project, I put off confronting it as long as possible; it seems an insurmountable task (preparing income tax returns, cleaning out the garage–each a particular bête noire of mine).  And yet, when I actually get to it, the job is seldom as difficult as I had expected it to be.  So, we not only use too much (or too little) energy doing a certain thing, we can burn up a lot of useless mental effort in dreading it.

And then there is the matter of our speech–too much, too little, too loud, too soft.  I think there’s an unwritten rule that every restaurant meal must be enhanced by the strident gum beatings of the Loud Talker.  He/she can be sitting clear across the room, yet we hear every penetrating syllable.  This person has never learned to adjust the volume of his voice to reach his listener—and no one else.  Instead, he bellows to the room at large like an actor playing to the balcony.  Furthermore, these windbags are never divulging the secret of life.  No, they are merely monopolizing the airwaves with mind-numbing prattle.

Many people also misestimate the volume needed to talk on a cell phone.  I hear them in restaurants (The rude dolts!) on the street, in the supermarkets and department stores.  In fact, there’s even a name for this phenomenon; they call it cell yell.

On the other end of the energy scale is the Low Talker who never speaks up enough to be heard by the intended listener.  I hate having to ask (repeatedly) what a person said.  Sometimes these people are simply failing to adjust to the surrounding noise level, but many are just habitual Low Talkers.

Also, we often misestimate the amount of energy required to handle others.  For instance, some people invent elaborate spiels to get rid of telemarketers.  I learned that I don’t need to listen to the whole pitch; I don’t need to cook up stories or jokes.  It’s just as effective, and a lot less effort, to simply hang up.

If we are invited to an event and we don’t want to go, we needn’t bother to offer an excuse.  We can simply say, “I’m sorry, I can’t make it.”  I have been surprised to discover that almost everyone accepts this.  It’ll work for practically any goings-on from a coronation to a mud fight.  Most stories (lies?) require too much wasted energy; we don’t need them anyway.

Life becomes simpler after we get this worked out.  We need just enough effort to do the job.  Not too much.  Not too little.

* * *

(c)2010 by Ruth Minshull

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THE WITS AND THE WANNABES

by Ruth Minshull

“You can pretend to be serious, but you can’t pretend to be witty.”

–Sacha Guitry

I loved this quote as soon as I read it.  Who was this author? I wondered.  What else has he written?

An Internet search yielded a number of entries, most of which were in French, so I didn’t learn much about Guitry except that he was an actor, writer and director.  Apparently he had been largely underappreciated in his time.  I found no other profound words by the man (Had they all been trashed by some witless editor?).

Further Google findings, however, turned up some unintentional humor provided by a courageous French admirer who attempted to translate information about the man:  “Sacha Guitry,” he wrote, “has died for more than forty years, time passed, ‘it does not have more enemies, since one reproached him above all for being alive’ wrote of him François Truffaut.”

This clumsy text lurched along for about half a page, when it finally collapsed back into its original French (with an exhausted whimper, no doubt).  The last entry was a plea:  “Certain pages are still in construction. Do not want me too much, please!  Return quickly to note the improvements!”

Well, I haven’t returned–quickly or otherwise–but I silently promised that I would not want him too much.

Although Webster defines witty as “very clever and humorous,” you still couldn’t describe wit to a person who had never experienced it.  That would be like trying to explain the concept of obedience to a cat.

But where does one go to get this commodity? I wondered.  If you can’t fake it, can you learn it? develop it? or maybe get a pill for it?

I scanned over many of the people I had known in my lifetime, and I observed that those who were not witty to start with, never did become witty.  Oh sure, with a few drinks in them, many people think they are funnier than Robin Williams on a roll, but you would have to be comparably looped yourself to agree with them.

We can change many of our physical features—with hair dye, implants, plastic surgery, Botox.  With a bit of effort, we can improve our mental attitude and general outlook.  We can learn and improve our skills.  But, unfortunately, we can’t say, “Doctor. I want to get a wit implant.”

So, reluctantly, I have concluded that people are born with this ability, or they’re not.  It’s pre-ordained—a DNA of the soul.

While it seems to be true that you can’t pretend to be witty, some people try anyway.  They tell a joke and forget the punch line.  Or (I knew one like this.) they give you the punch line, without telling the joke—and then they wait for you to laugh.  Some of them tell blatant falsehoods, then say, “Just kidding.”  They seem to think “kidding” means “funny”; they’re trying to be clever, but they don’t know how.

I observed that if a person is often saying, “Just kidding,” or “That was a joke,” he’s probably never really funny.

Some people punish us with puns.  (Note how the word “puns” fits into the word “punish”.  Hmm.  That can’t be an accident.)  Personally, I’d rather make people laugh than groan.

There are a few clowns who make their bid for attention by being outrageous—in their clothes, behavior or remarks.  But they’re no wittier than any other wannabes.

The unfunniest pretender is the practical joker.  This half-wit has no capability for clever conversation or humor; he ridicules and humiliates others by making them the butt of pranks.  Then he expects everyone—including the victim—to laugh.  (What’s the matter?  Can’t you take a joke?)  When you meet a practical joker, notice that he or she is never a clever raconteur, never a fun and entertaining person.  You’ll generally find that the underhanded tricks are all he has in his wit bag.

So what’s an unwitted person to do?  Probably the best thing is to practice being an attentive listener.  Ask questions, respond appropriately–especially to humor.  The cleverest quipster needs to know that he can produce a good laugh in others now and then.  And, of course, he’ll think you’re brilliant because you “get it.”

Being a good audience might be just as worthwhile as being witty.

© 2010 by Ruth Minshull

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A CLUSTER OF CRITTERS

February 6, 2010 by Ruth | Edit

A CLUSTER OF CRITTERS

By Ruth Minshull

Recently I ran across an explanation for the phrase, “a MURDER of crows”.  It seems that these boisterous, aggressive fellows have a practice of meeting occasionally to pass judgment on the behavior of one of their members.   If they decide that the defendant deserves punishment, they will swoop down and peck him to death.

Not everyone agrees with this bit of lore.  I saw one blog entry claiming that it was just a fallacious folk tale:  “The basis in fact is probably that occasionally crows will kill a dying crow who doesn’t belong in their territory or, much more commonly, feed on carcasses of dead crows.”

Other people, however, claim to have seen this quick justice take place—and, they say, it’s not a pretty sight.

Whatever the facts, “a MURDER of crows” appears on every listing of collective nouns used to describe a group of animals, birds, fish, fowl and varmints of most every sort (including people).

The custom of making up such names goes way back.  In fact, most of them (called terms of venery) were cooked up in the fifteenth century when it was necessary to codify hunting terms for the various clusters of game being sought by the hunters.

It was considered the mark of a gentleman to know such words and use them accurately.  Several books listing collective terms were published in the late 1400’s and cultured men were expected to learn them lest they make some embarrassing blunder “at the table”—after which they would be ridiculed.

In his delightful book An Exaltatioin of Larks, James Lipton gives an excerpt from Conan Doyle’s novel Sir Nigel.  One character, Sir John Buttesthorn, is scoffing at a young “jack-fool” for saying “a COVEY of pheasants.”

Sir John goes on to say that it should be:  “…a NYE of pheasants, even as it is a GAGGLE of geese or a BADLING of ducks, a FALL of woodcock or a WISP of snipe.  But a COVEY of pheasants!  What sort of talk is that?”

Getting the correct term of venery no longer seems all that important to us.  Still, it’s fun to peruse the collection of names.  One after another catches my eye:  a CHARM of finches, a PARTY of jays, a SIEGE of herons, a LABOR of moles, a BUSINESS of ferrets, a GAM of whales.

Then there’s the QUIVER of cobras.  I wonder:  is it the reptiles or the observer doing the quivering?

I didn’t expect the lists to have a name for a passel of paparazzi, but they did:  A FEEDING FRENZY OF PAPARAZZI.  That image has certainly held up over the centuries.

Many times the compilers couldn’t stop with one name.  Thus, there can be a FLIGHT, a DULE, a DOLE or a PLAGUE of doves, as well as a PITYING of turtledoves.

Butterflies were treated kindly as a SWARM, RABBLE, KALEIDOSCOPE or a FLUTTER.

They got quite carried away when it came to cats and kittens.  There’s a CLOWDER, POUNCE, CLUTTER and COMFORT of cats, as well as a KINDLE, LITTER, or INTRIGUE of kittens.  (Now, I think I might have gone with a SNOOZE of cats and a FLUFF of kittens.)

Speaking of felines, an assembly of lions can be a PRIDE, FLOCK, SAWT, SOUSE, TROOP or SAULT.  Personally if I met up with such a cluster, I wouldn’t worry much about what to call them but would instantly join a skedaddle of hightailers.

A battery of bees, likewise, has many names:  A GRIST, HIVE, SWARM, DRIFT, BIKE, CLUSTER, ERST or NEST of bees—and if I encountered a buzz of  those, I would also vamoose with maximum velocity.

I can’t help but think that there was often more whimsy than definitude in the choices—especially when it came to people.  About crooks, they offered:  a SCAM of con artists, a SCHEME of swindlers, a SKIM of embezzlers, a HELPING of pickpockets.

Even the religious were not ignored.  We find:  a MASS of priests, a FLAP of nuns, a SEA of Bishops, a FIDGET of altarboys.  Law and politics were addressed:  a BUTTONHOLE of lobbyists, an ESCHEAT of lawyers, a CROSS of litigators, an INSANITY of clauses and (one of my favorites) a PITFALL of fine print.  In a similar vein, there is a HO! HO! of loopholes.  (I might have chosen an AHA! of loopholes, myself.)

Although there are more than 1,000 entries in Lipton’s book, as I browse through it, I find myself wanting to make up my own terms of venery:  a GIGGLE of little girls, a SWAGGER of teenage boys, a SNIDERY of gossips, a TUMBLE of puppies, a SQUAWK of seagulls.

This is irresistible!

An AGITATION of ants, a DITHER of dowagers, a POMPOSITY of congressmen.

On a more contemporary note:  a CHAT of texters, a SNEAK of hackers, a TWEAK  of programmers, a SPAMFUL of e-mails, an INTROVERSION of nerds, an EYEFUL of iPoders, a CLEVER of geeks, a BABBLE of bloggers, an EXHIBITION of FaceBookers, a TWADDLE of tweeters…

Help!

I can’t stop myself….

# # #

(c)2010 by Ruth Minshull


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