Sunday, January 6th, 2013

Until the 1970s, the American faux spouse was too rare and taboo to even try to track. In 1980, the United States Census Bureau made its first attempt at naming these creatures in order to count them. It really outdid itself lexicographically: ‘person of opposite sex sharing living quarters,’ abbreviated to POSSLQ and pronounced ‘possle cue.’ The CBS commentator Charles Osgood had his way with the acronym, publishing a poem riffing John Donne’s ‘The Bait.’

     You live with me, and I with you,
     And you will be my POSSLQ.
     I’ll be your friend and so much more;
     That’s what a POSSLQ is for.

— “Unmarried Spouses Have a Way With Words, NY Times

 

waddaya call | 9:14 am CDT
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Saturday, January 5th, 2013

search on term fdsafI wanted to do an advanced google search this morning. I was looking for a particular phrase on a particular web site, but the only way I know of to do that is to do a plain old vanilla search from the main google page, then scroll to the bottom, then click on the ‘advanced search’ option.

So I keyed in ‘fdsafdsafd’ by drumming the fingers of my left hand across home row a couple times, just to fill the search box, and hit return. Damned if I didn’t get 20,200 results. There’s even a video.

Even better, if you type ‘fdsafdsafd’ very slowly, pausing between each key, the results change with each new key stroke. Try it. It’s like discovering a whole new world where all they speak is gibberish.

fdsafdsafd | 8:12 am CDT
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Thursday, December 27th, 2012

I sure like saying “pesto pasta.” I’ll bet you would, too, if you gave it a try. Go ahead, try it: “Pesto pasta.” See how much fun?

Pesto pasta
Pesto pasta
Pesto pasta

Man, I could say that all day long, or until I feel like saying “spackle.” Spackle spackle spackle spackle spackle.

Here’s another fun one: Try saying “toy boat” over and over as fast as you can.

Toy boat
Toy boat
Toy boat
Toy boat
Toy boat

You couldn’t say it more than three times without changing it to “toy boit,” could you?

I once new a woman named Cheryl Shimmel. I tormented her by turning her name into a tongue-twister and repeating it every day for weeks until she wanted to strangle me: “Cheryl Shimmel sits in shirt sleeves schlupping sloppy Slurpees.”

We named our oldest cat “Bonkers,” but we hardly ever call him that. Among other nicknames, such as “Bonky Boy” and “Bonky Moon,” we very often call him “Bonkers Bonkers Bonkers.” If you ever call him that, you have to say it real fast in a gruff tone of voice, as if you’re about to tickle a very small child.

This is the kind of drivel you get when I’ve been up since four-thirty drinking coffee and eating pie for breakfast. You’re welcome. Have a nice day.

pesto pasta | 5:25 am CDT
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Monday, October 22nd, 2012

image of Art Smart's Dart Mart in Milwaukee WIWe went to Milwaukee to see a taping of one of our favorite radio shows, Says You! and then we almost didn’t make it to the show! It was an evening taping but we left Madison in the morning and got to Milwaukee around noon so we could have a wander around town. Then we went back to our room to clean up and catch a short nap. When we were ready to go, I called for a taxi to pick us up.

The driver called me from the curb outside the door of the inn when he got there and I very nearly didn’t answer because he had a New York phone number, so I assumed he was a telemarketer. I only decided to pick up so I could mess with him.

“Yessss?” I answered.

“Dave?”

That old dodge: Using my first name to get me to stay on the line. “Yessss?”

Pause. “Did you call a cab?”

“Oh! Yes, yes I did! Hang on, we’ll be right down!”

Then, as we stepped out the elevator into the lobby, a couple dressed to nines were looking out the window and saying something like, “I don’t know how he got here so quickly. Maybe it’s not ours.” But they went out anyway and stopped short of getting into the cab when we followed them as closely as a shadow all the way to the curb.

“Did you call a cab, too?” the woman asked me.

“Yes, I did,” I answered as My Darling B stuck her head in the door to make sure it was, in fact, our cab. It was. As I climbed in, B asked the driver to take us to the Helen Bader Theater on the UW-Milwaukee Campus, and then gave him the address: 2419 E. Kenwood Boulevard. “Right, right,” he said, and sped us to a faraway neighborhood of the city.

Let me just interrupt here to remind the reader that the only times we’ve been to Milwaukee before this have been on guided tours, or to pick someone up from the airport. We don’t know any of the streets or neighborhoods, but we assumed our driver did, and when he said, “Right, right,” and nodded, I don’t think we went out on a limb when we assumed he knew exactly where the Helen Bader theater was. Certainly, we expected him to know where the campus of the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee was.

So when he dropped us off at the intersection of what looked like a shopping district, we didn’t say, “Where the hell are we?” We assumed he’d dropped us off maybe around the corner from the theater and we only had to walk to the corner and we’d see it. Call me foolishly naive, I deserve it. When we walked down to the corner to get our bearings, though, we discovered that the driver had dropped us off on Kenilworth Street, not Kenwood Boulevard! I ran back to the taxi with B yelling, “Stop him! Stop him!” behind me. Thank dog it took him so long to get his dispatcher on the phone.

On the upside, he didn’t charge us for the ride to the correct address, and we got there in plenty of time.

I was trying to describe Says You! to a friend the other day and rather ironically found myself at a loss for words. Ironic, because Says You! is, as the show’s host, Richard Sher, describes it, a game of words played by two teams. It’s alrways played in five rounds, each with its own peculiar quirk. They played one of my favorite rounds last night, a game I can play without making my brain explode. Richard Sher gives the name of an actor and asks a panelist to guess the movie he’s thinking of. It’s usually an almost unknown actor in a supporting role. With just one name, the guess is at best wild, of course, although sometimes they actually get it on the first try. If so, ten points! If not, another actor’s name gets added to the list, this one a little more well-known than the first.

With the choices narrowed down a bit it’s not a coin toss any more, but still just barely an educated guess. Sometimes Richard will go with the most popular movie featuring the actors in question, sometimes the most recent, but sometimes he’ll go for the obscure title. You never know. The last name added to the list is a giveaway, the name of whoever got star billing, and when it gets that far its announcement is followed by a lot of facepalming and oh-I-shoulda-got-that groaning.

Two of the rounds are Bluffing Rounds: the host gives one team a word so obscure that it sounds as though he made it up on the spot. The words they used the other night, for instance, were “callithump” and “corf.” Don’t ask me what they mean; I forgot already. Each of the team members gets a card, but only one of the cards has the definition of the word on it; the other two cards say, “Please Bluff.” Those two team members try to make up a definition that sounds plausible enough to fool the other team into picking one of the made-up definitions.

There’s always a musical guest to play a song during the introductions, and to provide a musical interlude during the bluffing rounds, to give the panelists enough time to come up with a good bluff. The musical guest was probably the most delightful surprise of the evening: they were The Squeezettes, the power-polka band we just happened to see last month at the Monroe Cheese Fest. I described them then as an all-girl accordion band but there was a guy drumming and another guy playing a sousaphone, so obviously I wasn’t paying close attention. And although there are three women playing accordion, calling them an all-girl accordion band doesn’t do them justice. They describe their style as “power polka,” which comes much closer to capturing the feel of their art. Have you ever thought of “Wooly Booly” as a polka? Me, neither, but to hear them belt it out is to experience a whole new level of polka that I frankly wouldn’t have thought possible. I didn’t hesitate to buy a CD from the guy selling them in the lobby.

There was just one thing, and I mean only one thing, I would have changed about the evening: If I’d known the six people behind us were going to jabber and shout through the whole performance, I would’ve eaten a brick of cheese right before we were ushered in. I’ll have to keep one in my man purse from now on for emergencies.

How to see Milwaukee on just $500 a day – Part 2 | 8:59 pm CDT
Category: daily drivel, food & drink, music, My Darling B, O'Folks, play, radio, travel | Tags: , , , , ,
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Sunday, February 5th, 2012

What do you call that empty space at the top of a beer bottle? There’s already a word for it that goes back centuries, but I don’t think I heard anyone use one word consistently for it until the last five or ten years when I started hanging around beer brewers, who usually call it headspace.

The traditional name for it, going back a few centuries, is ullage. I wanted to find out where the term came from, so I looked it up in a two-volume Funk and Wagnall’s dictionary I snagged at Saint Vinnie’s a couple weeks ago for three bucks, a purchase I am still feeling well chuffed about. I have in my possession, ah, let us say, more than two dictionaries, but I digress. Ullage comes from a French word and, I have to assume, so does the clunky definition in my old dictionary:

ullage: the amount that a container lacks of being full.

“Lacks of being full?” What kind of incomprehensibly uptight way is that to describe a concept as simple as “the empty space above the liquid?” It left such a bad taste in my mouth that I looked it up in a modern edition of Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary that I have long regarded as the non plus ultra of desk dictionaries. It had the same goofy definition, word for word, as if they’d plagiarized it from Funk and Wagnall’s. I’m not saying they did, but it’s weird that Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate described ullage using the exact same, nearly opaque wording that Funk and Wagnall’s did nearly forty years earlier. And so did Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate. What the hell?

Descending to my basement lair, I consulted Volume Two of The New Century Dictionary of the English Language (pock-mark to zy-mur-gy, and supplements) to see if they spoke in this stuffy, backwards-assed manner in the 1920s. Well, duh. Of course they did. Verbatim. Almost as if an Intelligent Designer decreed many moons ago that ullage would for all time be known as “the amount that a container lacks of being full,” no matter how much it makes anyone sound like a complete doof.

Speaking of sounding like a complete doof, I might never have heard of this word if I didn’t incessantly read about the moon landings. Rocket fuel floats around in the tanks that hold it, just like astronauts float around inside their space ships, but like the gas tank in your car there’s only one way for the fuel to get out: through a pipe running from the bottom of the tank. To make sure the fuel is down there to feed the rocket, astronauts give the ship a little jog forward with the maneuvering thrusters just before firing the main engine, which they report to the ground by saying, “Ullage.”

Too bad the landings didn’t take place forty years later, when they could have said, “Headspace.”

ullage | 2:41 pm CDT
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Wednesday, January 4th, 2012

Oh, hey, look at that, Romney won in the Iowa GOP primary. That was unexpected. Sure didn’t see that coming. What a surprise. I’m astounded.

According to The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Romney barely beat Santorum by “the tiniest of margins – eight votes.” In the whacky world of politics it’s entirely possible I’m wrong about this, but I’ve always thought that, as far as voting goes, “the tiniest of margins” would be one vote. Eight votes is tiny, I’ll grant you that, but you can’t get less than one vote, can you? Help me out here.

margin | 6:01 am CDT
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Wednesday, September 21st, 2011

Hock rots. Puggled nose. Eye gron gree. Up up ter.

These are just a few samples of the first words used by our offspring. When the Seanster needed to blow his nose, for instance, he told his mother that his nose was puggled. It was a short jump from plugged so it was easy to figure out, and it was so endearing that both B and I started using puggled instead of plugged. The word has stuck with us to this day, as has Sean’s stated desire to satisfy an empty stomach: Eye gron gree.

Helicopters are up up ters. The first six months or so after Tim started talking were spent endlessly reciting nouns. He pointed at everything, everything and asked, “Whatsa?” Talking to him during those six months was like reading a dictionary out loud. One day he pointed at a helicopter and asked, so I told him. His rather fitting version came out up up ter. On the rare occasions when a helicopter appears in the sky, either B or I will almost always enthusiastically announce it to the other by pointing and shouting “Up up ter!” – usually drawing quizzical looks from passers-by.

Hock rots goes way back, and in our house only I use it, which is fitting because it originated with me, although I didn’t know that until a year or two ago. For the longest time I thought it was German or Czech or maybe even Polish, because my parents and their parents used to babble to each other using a mash-up of words and phrases from those languages, either to talk around the kids or just because, so naturally enough I thought hock rots must have been one of those words. On the few occasions that I wondered how it was spelled, I imagined it was something like haakrautz or hocrocz, but I was never able to find it in any dictionary no matter how many different variations I imagined. I always knew what it meant, though. That was never a secret. Whenever I started to hiccup, Mom or Dad would ask me, “Got the hock rots?”

Not long ago, after she described something using a smattering of German, I asked her about hock rots. “Where’s that word come from? I’ve never been able to find it.”

She laughed at me. “It came from you!” she said. Like Timmy’s up up ter, I mangled hiccups into hock rots, and Mom and Dad kept using it. I don’t get the hock rots much any more, but B does, so I still get to use it.

talk talk | 12:33 am CDT
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Thursday, December 16th, 2010

I have trouble spelling things in e-mail. Yes, you are correct, wise ass, I have trouble spelling all the time, but in e-mail my very special problem seems to get magnified so disproportionately that I can’t even get past the salutation without making at least five spelling mistakes, and that is indeed special.

“Drea M.r Joesn:” Oh, screw it.

In my world, “thanks” is always spelled “thnaks.” Always. Even when I slow down to ten words per minute. I think it’s hard-wired somewhere deep inside my cerebellum, or whatever part of the brain does the spelling shit. I have typed it with just two fingers and it still came out “thnaks.”

What I’m working up to is, can we just agree to spell it “thnaks” from now on, so I don’t have to go back and change it every time? I suspect we all spell it that way anyway, don’t we? If you’d let me spell it “thnaks” from now on, I could right mouse over it and click on “add” so the red squiggly line would never mock me ever again. Please?

Miss Pelling | 9:29 pm CDT
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Sunday, December 5th, 2010

Grant Barrett started off this morning’s episode of A Way With Words with a tribute to train conductors and the singsong way they rounded up passengers lingering on the platform by calling out the names of the stops along the way, something like, “Anaheim, Azusa, and Cu-ca-monga!” wrapping it up with the still-familiar, “bo-AAAAHHHd!” Grant likened the exaggerated pronunciation their speech to the wordplay of voice caricaturist Mel Blanc.

(This was a replay of a show broadcast on November 9, 2009, so you won’t see it on the home page of the show’s web site, but I found it in the discussion forums.)

Cohost Martha Barnette gave a similar example of a train conductor in New York State reeling off the names, “OSS in ing, poh KIPP see,” and so on with the New York twang I love so much, and they both gushed over the elision of “all aboard” into a single-syllable “BOAR!”

I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a train conductor do this, except in movies. I was, however, once on a train waiting to leave London from Saint Pancras Station when a teenager opened the door to the compartment, stuck his head in and asked me, in his best clipped Cockney, “ask USE me mite, duh CYST rain GOAT uh PUTT uh SPA?” The translation circuits in my brain came to within milliseconds of a truly spectacular blowout before the nickel dropped and I realized he’d asked me if the train stopped at Potter’s Bar, a town along the route.

The only other thing I can compare this with is calling out commands to march troops in formation, something I’ve been trained to do by a professional, believe it or not. It’s supposed to be a bonding experience for airmen in leadership school, but to me it was mostly a glaring reminder of my limitations. As much as I loved to do it, I never could quite get the hang of it.

We were to divide commands into two distinctly separate portions: A preparatory command, and a command of execution. The preparatory command was the verbal wake-up that warned the airmen that we were about to order them to do something. The command of execution told them when to do it.

To make each command as easy to recognize as possible, we were to make them as different from each other as we could. The most common way to do this was to boil each word down to a single, explosive syllable.

A formation of airman is called a flight, and to call them to attention we were supposed to shout, “FLIGHT!” This was both a preparatory command and a command of execution wrapped up in one word, like “At ease.” We barked it out, and a split-second later the airmen did it without any further prompting.

But we were given to understand that correctly pronouncing the word flight or any other word as a command was really very uncool. The closest I could get to the sound that came out of our instructor’s mouth was something like, “FLYeee!” I say it was closest because he didn’t like the way I did it, demonstrating several times. He very definitely didn’t want me to pronounce the “T” on the end, and he seemed to be lengthening the vowel sound while keeping it in the back of his throat, but no matter how many times I tried to imitate his example, I never got it to sound the way he said it should. Eventually I gave up and just shouted, “FLIGHT!” It may not have been right, but it was certainly distinctive, because nobody else was saying it that way.

To get them moving, we commanded, “Forward, march!” Barking it out in single syllables, the preparatory command, forward, reduced it to something that resembled “foe-ODD!” And the command of execution ended up somewhere between “HARCH” and “HOTCH.” Getting it exactly right was really an art. Some guys could affect a very cool, Chuck Yaegerish drawl that sounded just like sergeants in the movies. The rest of us had to make do with a clunky imitation. Even a simple cadence, the “hut, too, tree, far.” we were all familiar with, was quite a trick to pull off well.

I suspect it’s the same with railroad conductors. There are probably some who make it look and sound so easy, and there are quite a few who are, and always will be working on their style but will never quite be able to pull it off.

foe ODD, HOTCH! | 10:58 am CDT
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Sunday, October 31st, 2010

I was almost supernaturally compelled to write to Grant and Martha, the hosts of A Way With Words, after I heard a listener who spoke Swahili call in to ask why people say “slept like a log” because, obviously, logs don’t sleep much. He was calling as much to find out the origin of the phrase as he was to let Grant and Martha know he’d heard the same phrase in Swahili, an expression so full of lee-lee-loo-loos that it sounded like a lyric from a Paul Simon song.

Almost immediately, the expression sometimes used to describe snoring, “sawing logs,” popped into my head. My brain makes random connections like that so often now that I can hardly speak a coherent thought any more. And I’m pretty sure that’s all it was, a random thought, so I fought down the urge to write to them and went back to half-listening to the show, half-reading the paper. Other than the mention of logs, the two phrases are probably so unrelated it wouldn’t even make sense to point it out.

I felt the same compelling urge yesterday when I was reading a biography of Harry Truman and just about jumped out of my chair when Truman was quoted as saying, “I know every one of these 50 fellows. There isn’t one of them has enough sense to pound sand in a rat hole.” I’d heard lots of people use the phrase “go pound sand” as a way of telling them to get lost or take a flying leap.

This was not a phrase I thought I would ever get Grant or Martha to talk about on their show, however, because the way I’d heard it used it didn’t end with “rat hole” but an entirely other kind of hole. In the military, where I’d first heard the phrase, “go pound sand” was a substitute for a much more emphatic phrase urging you to seek carnal knowledge with yourself. Grant and Martha will occasionally explore military jargon, but I’ve never heard them consider the more colorful language of the martial arts, and so far as I knew the version I’d heard was the original.

Truman’s version, though, predates the phrase I heard. What’s more, he was not a man known to sanitize his language when he was riled up, and on the occasion he used “pound sand in a rat hole” he was up for re-election and everyone in the country, including everyone on his staff, and his wife, and his daughter, were doubtful he would win. The fifty fellows he was talking about were fifty political writers commissioned by Newsweek magazine to speculate who would win the election, and every one of them said Dewey would win, and Truman would lose. Under the circumstances, if Truman knew the grungier version I knew, I think he would have used it.

But he didn’t, and when my brain made the random connection between “sleeping like a log” and “sawing logs” I was reminded about finding the phrase “pounding sand in a rat hole” and the possible connection with the phrase I’d heard. See what I mean about the convoluted way my brain wanders amongst the verbal undergrowth? It’s a wonder anyone understands what I’m saying. Or maybe they don’t, and I don’t realize it only because I’m off in my own little world. If so, please don’t try to lead me out; I’m actually quite happy here.

Anyway, I keep forgetting how this thing called the internet can sometimes find an answer to questions like this, and sure enough, when I googled “pound sand” I got this from the Urban Dictionary:

The origin of the expression go pound sand is from a longer expression, not to know (have enough sense to) pound sand down a rathole. Filling rat holes with sand is menial work, and telling someone to pound sand down a hole is like telling them to go fly a kite. The expression dates to at least 1912 and is common in the midwestern United States

WordOrigins.org cited a 1912 publication called Dialect Notes that quoted the phrase, “He wouldn’t know enough to pound sand in a rat-hole; so don’t get him.” And none other than William Safire, while attempting to track down the same phrase in a column for The New York Times, cited the Dictionary of American Regional English:

DARE asked Americans across the nation how they would end the sentence “He hasn’t sense enough to. . . .” Among the most colorful answers were “to pour water [or sand] out of a boot with directions on the heel and the toes cut;” “to lap salt and drool;” “to pack guts to a hog;” &#147to tie his own shoelaces;” and “to find his rear end with both hands and a road map.&#148 By far the most frequent was “to come in out of the rain,” with “to pound sand down a rat hole” finishing a strong second.

He also noted that the phrase has morphed from the original meaning that described someone with no sense, to describing something that was a waste of time, the connection with the phrase as I originally heard it in the military. The wheel comes around, the circle is complete, and I can now sleep soundly without that one waking me up in the middle of the night any longer.

Pound Sand | 11:26 am CDT
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Monday, July 26th, 2010

image of pet peeveIs it just me? Or is “hone in” a phrase that makes you wince and look away, same as you would if you were watching a kid get a sound spanking while you were waiting in the check-out line at the grocery store?

“Hone in” is one of those English-language mashups that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get used to. I know that a changing language is a vibrant language, and I’m all for that. I’ve got bookshelves that groan under the weight of entertaining books filled with entertaining portmanteaus (mashups) and malapropisms (sound-alikes) but, for whatever reason, “hone in” belongs to that very special subset of mashups that drives me all the way up a rubber wall.

“Home in” is the phrase you want if you’re trying to find something, such as the professional photographer profiled in a story I ran across on NPR’s web site. He received a gift of the last roll of Kodachrome film and wanted each shot to be perfect, so he used a digital camera to home in on the perfect exposure. Only they didn’t write “home in”, they wrote “hone in.” I thought maybe it was a transcriber’s error until I listened to the podcast and found the phrase “hone in” was only in the print story. They didn’t say it on the air.

“Hone” means to sharpen. For most of my life I hardly ever heard anyone use the word “hone” even when they knew what it meant. It’s pretty old-fashioned, like saying “whet,” which also means “to sharpen” and, like “hone”, has survived mostly in folk songs like There’s A Hole In The Bucket, Dear Liza, Dear Liza, and in phrases like “whet your appetite.” Outside of quirks like that, nobody says “whet” any more.

And then, in the last five or ten years, everybody started to say “hone in” I can’t figure out why. Before this started happening, the only time I ever heard anyone say “hone” was in worn-out phrases like “hone your skills.” It was a word as archaic as “thou” or “twas”, yet now everybody’s using it. But they’re using it wrong.

There’s a special ring in hell for grammar nerds who correct other people for goof-ups like this. Misspellings I take a pass on; I can’t spell for love nor money, and I don’t expect others to know the spelling of every English word by heart. I’m passionate about the use of apostrophes, but comma placement is a mystery to me. I admit there are depths to the English language that I’ll never understand.

But “home in” seems so simple to me. You go home, you don’t go hone. It’s insignificant, I suppose, just one of those changes I should bow to and stop obsessing over, but I still wince whenever I hear it, and die a little bit when a writer uses it in print. I can’t look away while a perfectly good word takes a beating.

[Exposed: The Last Roll of Kodachrome by Brad Horn and Claire O’Neill on NPR]

Go Hone | 12:43 pm CDT
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