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2014 Christmas ’Log Review

Have you noticed that Christmas is in the air? I started noticing in October, when I received my first Christmas catalog eleven days before the start of the World Series.

New ones have been arriving ever since, filled with gift ideas so remarkable that I just can’t keep them to myself.

The Hammacher Schlemmer catalog, replete with high thread counts and decadent relaxation devices, is always on the technological cutting-edge—we’re living in the age of the voice-interactive coffee maker and the talking wristwatch. For the discreet creep, there are the “video camera pen” and the “video recording sunglasses.” Merry golfers will go for the “drink-dispensing golf club,” which pours an ounce of booze per second from a spout in the club head. After a few pops, the “golf ball locating glasses” may come in handy. These ungainly-looking goggles find that lost ball even as they identify anyone wearing them as a dork. The catalog is laden with pseudo-sophisticated phrases like “an ubiquitous ritual,” apparently written by someone who’s never said “ubiquitous.”

The Frontgate catalog got my attention with “100s of best-made gifts” instead of “hundreds” and “1,000s” instead of “thousands.” That just looks silly. Otherwise, a tasteful brochure, filled with good ideas. This isn’t one of them: a $500 treadmill—for pets. How will I ever get Rover to use his treadmill when mine was gathering dust six weeks after I bought it?

Among Gump’s tree ornaments is a comely reindeer wearing a chic cocktail gown. And what brightens up a Christmas tree more than an exquisite hand-blown … fried egg on toast?!?

Grandinroad has some interesting entries in the ornament sweepstakes, including blown-glass kitties in bow ties and terriers in tutus. But this year’s undisputed champion of all ornaments is Grandinroad’s kissing fish. The fish has big blue eyes with coquettish long lashes, and puckering, collagen-pillow lips ablaze with a garish smear of scarlet lipstick. A tank of famished piranhas might not be as festive but would certainly be less disturbing.

The catalog of the Smithsonian Institution devotes two pages to its Jacqueline Kennedy Collection, including the “Jackie Kennedy Sunglasses” and the “Dual Faux Pearl Floral Leaf Pierced Earrings.” Do we even want to know who out there still sports the Jackie look?

Finally, a holiday quiz. What do these words culled from Christmas catalogs refer to: carbide, cinder, daybreak, eclipse, fig, flag, fog, fossil, gargoyle, lava, lichen, lily pond, mallard, moonlight, muleskinner, Nero, oasis, picante, saddle, sprig, thunder, tobacco. Hint: they’re not rejected first names for Sarah Palin’s kids. They’re colors!?! … “Remember our first Christmas, darling? You were standing in my muleskinner foyer, your mallard hair perfectly matching your gargoyle dress. I wore tobacco slacks and a Nero tie with fossil stripes to complement the warm earth tones of my carbide cape.”

Tom Stern

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Posted on Tuesday, December 9, 2014, at 12:07 am


Wisdom of Yogi Berra

April means major-league baseball is back, so I want to talk about Yogi Berra, who played for the New York Yankees from 1946 to ’63, when they were perennial World Series champs. His name is familiar to everyone. He has given the culture more memorable epigrams than have some of our most esteemed wits. I rarely go a week without hearing “It’s déjà vu all over again” or “It ain’t over till it’s over,” two of Yogi’s greatest hits.

Berra, who is about to turn 89, grew up in a working-class neighborhood in St. Louis. Because he talks like a kid off the streets, he is often mistaken for a lovable idiot. However, his best sayings have a profundity that belies such an appraisal. Yogi has been blessed with a wit and wisdom both rare and sublime.

Oh, please, you say, he’s a semiliterate goon who spent his adult life reading comic books and playing a child’s game. All I can say is, talent doesn’t discriminate between rich and poor, or educated and uneducated. As surely as were Mark Twain and Will Rogers, Yogi the everyman philosopher-poet has been given a rare gift. His vision—and the unique way he expresses it—allows us to see the world with fresh eyes.

Berra’s formula is elegantly simple: He establishes a premise and then promptly sabotages it, making listeners squirm until they recognize the unmistakable logic, even insight, behind the thicket of nonsense. It’s that last-second rescue of sagacity from absurdity that generates our laughter.

If you meet someone who’s unfamiliar with Yogi’s sayings and you want to get a sure-fire laugh, just repeat his classic “Ninety percent of baseball is half mental.” People dismiss this line as laughably absurd because of the Berra “formula,” which in this instance creates a “90 percent/half” comical paradox. But a closer look reveals the remark as a baseball verity: physical prowess alone isn’t enough.

Here’s how I’d say it: “If you want to succeed at baseball, in nine cases out of ten staying focused while banishing doubts and distractions from the mind is half the battle.” Note that I needed four times as many words as Yogi did. His unforgettable seven-word one-liner imparts its Zen-like philosophy with none of the heavy-handedness of my paraphrase.

That attitude is echoed in one of his less-quoted declarations: “I ain’t in no slump; I just ain’t hitting.” It’s a funny line because a hitter who isn’t hitting is, by most people’s definition, in a “slump.” But Yogi was serious. To him, it wasn’t that simple—over the long season, hitters go through spells when they’re unsuccessful, but a slump is something more insidious. It’s a mental malfunction, an expectation to fail. You’re never “in no slump” if you believe in yourself.

Another great Yogi-ism concerned a trendy restaurant: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” Remember, this man was sports royalty, a star player in a legendary organization at the peak of its success. Make no mistake: Berra meant, “Nobody who matters goes there anymore,” though he is too much of a gentleman to have said it out loud. (It also would have spoiled the beauty of the “nobody goes there/too crowded” paradox.)

Later in Berra’s career, he switched from catcher to left fielder. Around World Series time one year, speaking of the difficulty of fielding in the autumn darkness, he said, “It gets late early out there.” That’s vintage Yogi: the paradox, the concision. Six everyday words that rise almost to poetry.

Last month Yogi’s wife of sixty-five years died. He isn’t seen around much anymore. But his wacky-wise adages will always be with us.

Tom Stern

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Posted on Sunday, April 6, 2014, at 9:48 am


Cheap Talk Can Cost You

A word nerd’s burden: someone said to me, “I guess I can’t say anything around you.” It was a lighthearted remark … I hope.

Saying is far different from writing, and the spoken word deserves a lot more leniency. I don’t want people to think I go around rating everyone’s conversational acumen, waiting to pounce. That’s not my style. Besides, I don’t always speak standard English either. Sometimes it’s more fun not to.

However, it’s different when someone misspeaks over the airwaves. Even if it’s a talk show featuring casual chit-chat, lots of people are tuned in, and the participants must not forget Rule One of being on the air: Watch what you say and how you say it.

So when a great athlete—I’ll call him “E.J.”—declares in front of a national audience: “Kenny and Charles is both right. They shoulda did it another way,” civilized people rightly cringe. Other more-articulate athletes squirm. Parents scowl, aware that this man is a role model for their kids. Teachers worry that their students will follow in his grammatical missteps.

This is not to disparage E.J., one of ten kids who grew up in a working-class family in the Midwest. Matching his physical genius with a relentless work ethic, he became a winner who played on five championship teams. When E.J. retired, he became as brilliant in business as he’d been in sports, and today he is one of the great rags-to-riches success stories in America.

Now why can’t this bright, accomplished man speak decent English? Kenny and Charles is? Shoulda did? Awful—and I don’t mean the shoulda, which I can live with when it’s spoken.

I’ve read that E.J. has someone on his payroll to monitor his verbal skills. If so, start earning your money, buster. On the other hand, some might say it really doesn’t matter anymore. Would better language skills have made E.J. more successful? Doubtful—you can’t get more successful.

Still, I keep thinking of that line from Citizen Kane: “It’s not difficult to make money … if all you want is to make money.” Is it too old-fashioned to think that “having it made” is about more than wealth and fame? There used to be something called class.

There is an annoying argument that good English is irrelevant if you get your point across. Sometimes it might be true, but there are other times when being articulate carries the day, and these may be some of the most significant times of your life: when you have to speak at a formal occasion, when you bare your soul to a friend or loved one, when you meet someone you’ve always respected and admired, when you’re interviewed for a dream job, when you have to make an important presentation, when you propose marriage …

Or how about when you’re in charge and it’s vital to establish your authority. There’s no harsher critic than a subordinate. Respect is never just given away; it must be earned. I was watching one of those inside-prison documentaries and a commotion broke out in the prison yard. A guard had to act fast to restore order. He barked out, “Get on your backs—face down!”

That’s anatomically impossible.

Such a remark can be costly after order is restored. I’ve no doubt that for a long time afterward, that guard was a source of wicked glee for the inmates.

Some occasions are too solemn for foolish language lapses. At a memorial service, a well-meaning soul remembered a renowned artist with these ill-advised words: “Although Michael achieved notoriety, he was a simplistic man.” What he meant was, “Although Michael achieved fame, he was a simple man.” Trying to convey Michael’s integrity and charm, the speaker instead called the dear departed notorious, and kind of a simpleton.

This person’s ineptitude was an affront to both the mind and the heart. Vain and insecure, he dumped fame for “notoriety,” a five-syllable blunder, and swapped simple for “simplistic,” another fancy-sounding but inappropriate word, which further undermined his entire tribute.

It can’t be said enough: Simplify, simplify, simplify.

Tom Stern

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Posted on Tuesday, March 11, 2014, at 6:50 pm


Feb-roo-ary vs. Feb-yoo-ary

We all know that February is the only month of variable length, and the only month with fewer than 30 days. But of greater concern here: it’s the only month that most Americans can’t pronounce.

That includes radio and TV commentators, whose job it is to say things right. There are a few meticulous media types who correctly say “Feb-roo-ary.” But for every one of them, there are countless others who say “Feb-yoo-ary.” Then there are those who fecklessly say “Febber-ary”—at least they’re trying, but it only makes “Febber-ary” all the more annoying. Last and least is “Feb-wary,” a feeble cop-out.

 I hauled out my American Heritage dictionary, about the best you can get this side of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary, and I checked to see what the renowned American Heritage Usage Panel had to say about pronouncing February.

 It turns out the answer is: a lot. And I hate to butt heads with this great dictionary’s panel of experts, but I have a big problem with the “Usage Note” I found. It said that “Feb-yoo-ary” is “quite common in educated speech” and “generally considered acceptable.” Whaaat!?

Wait, it gets worse. “The loss of the first r in this pronunciation can be accounted for by the phonological process known as dissimilation, by which similar sounds in a word tend to become less similar.” By this dizzy reasoning, your six-year-old has been right all along in pronouncing library “lie-berry.”

 “In the case of February,” the panel adds, “the loss of the first r is also owing to the influence of January, which has only one r.” I guess this means we get so accustomed to “yoo-ary” after 31 days of January that our poor little brains and tongues can’t make the adjustment—but the compassionate arbiters on the usage panel want us to know it’s OK, they understand.

Well, to me, this is a dismal misstep by the panel, usually so strict and no-nonsense in its findings. Legitimizing widespread carelessness is where madness lies. Such leniency is an unappetizing leftover from the anything-goes 1960s. That’s when the language was taken down the dead-end trail that has brought America to the brink of illiteracy. That’s when traditional grammar was attacked as elitist, even racist, for supposedly stifling spontaneity and marginalizing the underclasses by imposing on them its tyrannical rules. This was the position taken not only by the rebellious youth of that era, but also by many self-doubting teachers and professors, who chose appeasement over their solemn responsibilities as keepers of the cultural flame.

Anyway, reeling from this seeming betrayal by one of my most trusted allies, I sought and found a second opinion in There Is No Zoo in Zoology and Other Beastly Mispronunciations by Charles Harrington Elster. The enlightened Mr. Elster did not disappoint: Feb-roo-ary “is hard to say, and so most people say [Feb-yoo-ary] because it is easier, not because it is right … [Feb-yoo-ary] may now be standard, but it is still beastly.” Amen, brother.

But Elster wasn’t through. In a direct dig at the American Heritage panel, he said “certain dictionaries have gone to great lengths to tell you that a fancy linguistic process called dissimilation is at work here … the result being that most educated speakers now replace the first R in February with a Y …

“That is a very convenient explanation, which makes a mispronunciation look right because so many people use it, and makes the correct pronunciation look wrong …

“Therefore, I will not dissemble about dissimilation, or feed you some malarkey about how [Feb-yoo-ary] is an alternative pronunciation based on analogy with January.” Ouch—a stinging rebuke from an indignant word nerd!

As for me, I’m not quite that angry with the American Heritage dictionary, which I consider an invaluable resource. I’m just glad I have others like Elster, too.

                                                                                                                               —Tom Stern

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Posted on Tuesday, February 4, 2014, at 4:56 pm


Christmas ’Log Review

Every year, for six weeks or so, I get a taste of what it’s like to be a superstar.

From late October to early December, I am accosted daily by an aggressive mob of stalkers who know where I live. Their urgent need for my attention seems to be their only reason for being. No, they’re not paparazzi or obsessed fans. I’m talking about Christmas catalogs. Every day brings a new swarm—they burst out of my mailbox, entreating me to behold them in all their holiday finery.

Well, even a six-week celebrity has an obligation to his public. I checked out every last one. None was turned away. Here, then, is my Christmas catalog review.

For big spenders there is the stately Gump’s catalog, so tasteful you want to take a nap; or Neiman Marcus, with its sullen, stubbly, pasty pretty boys modeling $390 sneakers; or the gaudy Hammacher Schlemmer, for taste-challenged high-rollers: I’ve got to have that animatronic singing and talking Elvis, or more accurately, Elvis’ head and shoulders—the King has been mutilated, I guess, to spare the embarrassment of pelvic thrusts in mixed company. How about spoiling your child rotten with Hammacher’s “6½-foot teddy bear” for $500. If that’s too sissified, the NFL Shop will warp the values of your little tough guy with a personalized 12-minute CD of a football game in which the announcer says the kid’s name 30 times. It’s never too early to learn that it’s all about you.

Frontgate offers a machine that enriches your oxygen as it plays music. An up-and-comer called X-treme Geek has caffeinated soap, a talking toilet-tissue holder, and, for the guy whose girlfriend doesn’t hate him enough already, a Wild West revolver-shaped TV remote, which makes a loud gunshot as it changes channels. It comes with a “super-cool official-looking sheriff’s badge.”

The Signals company tempts pet lovers with the “I kiss my dog on the lips” T-shirt, but I have my eye on the coat rack with three duck tails for hangers. Not to be outdone, What on Earth offers a “cat butt magnet set,” to go with its flatulent toy puppy (“squeeze his belly”) and a Bill Clinton figurine with a corkscrew coming out of his pants.

Wolferman’s offers 44 pages of … muffins?! Fahrney’s offers 56 pages of … pens!? Don’t miss the Marlene Dietrich model (“sensuous curves in all the right places”), a bargain at $880, or the $3,000 “pen of the year” (who voted?).

From high-end catalogs on down, the one constant is the writing, which is excellent across the board. (Is this what good writers have to do to eat these days?) Oh, some are better than others. Fahrney’s thinks the plural of entry is “entrys”—a store devoted to writing can’t make such a dumb mistake. National Geographic’s otherwise classy mailer misfires with the awkward “spiders are one of the creepiest crawlers out there.” Spiders, plural, are “one”? Why not “a spider is”? Sahalie’s writes “completely waterproof.” How is that different from just “waterproof”? Orvis Men’s Clothing says, “Crafted in New England, you’ll appreciate the comfort.” This sentence, taken literally, means “you” were crafted in New England. Herrington’s high-spirited but sloppy catalog spells minuscule “miniscule.” Herrington is also one of many catalogs that can’t get the subject to agree with the verb: “Every one of our vintage Ferraris are parked …” No, every one is parked. Subject-verb agreement is a big problem nowadays, and reflects the carelessness and short attention spans this era will be remembered for.

When you read as many of these things as I did, you come to realize that catalogs have their own language, rules, and customs. Numbers are almost never spelled out, not even leading off a sentence. That’s against all civilized rules of writing, but merchants want to be direct, not correct. They’re targeting our eyes, not our brains. Capitals are thrown around extravagantly because anything capitalized looks Important and Impressive. Hyphens are avoided wherever possible because advertisers will always choose two simple words with a clean space between them over one long, confusing word with an ungainly bar right in the middle.

Many companies sell jewelry made with “Swarovski crystals,” a fancy term for rhinestones, which is in turn a euphemism for phony gemstones. And countless catalogs feature “nutcrackers,” so called because they were inspired by the popular Tchaikovsky Christmastime ballet. The 21st-century versions look to be useless, charmless statuettes, tackier than tin soldiers. You can get them wearing uniforms of your favorite pro sports team or branch of the military. Despite the name, I doubt they could even crack a moldy peanut. Their heads don’t even bobble.

Finally, see if you can figure out what this list of words culled from several catalogs refers to: chianti, chili, dirt, dragonfly, dusk, espresso, grasshopper, mineral, nutmeg, ocean, persimmon, raisin, root beer, sesame, spa, sweet pea, sweet potato, toast.

You might as well give up, because you’ll never guess. They’re … colors?! “Oh, sweetheart, you look fabulous in that root beer muumuu!” “Thank you, darling, and that dragonfly-and-dirt sweater goes so well with your spa-and-dusk striped tie and those toast trousers.”

—Tom Stern

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Posted on Thursday, December 12, 2013, at 7:12 pm