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They Never Said That

The popular culture has always had an uncanny ability to misuse, misinterpret, misrepresent, and misquote. Its adherents believe that Columbus discovered America and George Washington had wooden teeth and dog saliva cleanses flesh wounds.

The other day I heard a goofy radio guy say, “Till death do we part.” He thought “do us part” was ungrammatical. (He was wrong: it’s not we who are doing the parting. The line means “until death parts us.”)

Here are some other familiar sayings that have run into a little turbulence along the way …

“Water, water, everywhere, and not a drop to drink. The words “and not a” can’t be found in the famous couplet from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798). Here is how Coleridge wrote it: “Water, water, everywhere, / Nor any drop to drink.”

“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. There are several memorable lines from Alexander Pope’s 1711 poem “An Essay on Criticism.” This is almost one of them. But Pope wrote that “a little learning” is a dangerous thing. Knowledge and learning are hardly synonyms.

“Gild the lily” is supposedly from Shakespeare’s The Life and Death of King John. The correct quotation is, “To gild refined gold, to paint the lily.”

• “Come up and see me some time” was actress Mae West’s signature line, but the bodacious blonde didn’t say it. In She Done Him Wrong (1933), Ms. West says to Cary Grant, “Why don’t you come up some time and see me.”

“Play it again, Sam. That line might put a lump in your throat if you’ve ever seen the 1942 movie Casablanca. But it’s nowhere to be found in that great film. What Ingrid Bergman says is, “Play it once, Sam. For old times’ sake.”

“Elementary, my dear Watson.” Everyone knows this patronizing utterance by Sherlock Holmes to his overmatched colleague Dr. Watson, but the line appears nowhere in any of the books and tales by Holmes’s creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I’m told it comes from the 1929 film The Return of Sherlock Holmes. Watson says, “Amazing, Holmes.” Holmes replies, “Elementary, my dear Watson, elementary.”

“Beam me up, Scotty” was never said by William Shatner’s Captain Kirk in the original Star Trek TV series.

“Music hath charms to soothe the savage beast.” This is a misquotation from William Congreve’s play The Morning Bride. Congreve (1670-1729) wrote “savage breast,” not “beast.” I’m guessing the error can be attributed in part to good old American prudery, as demonstrated by this passage from a recent newspaper column: “He actually wrote ‘the savage breast.’ But this being a family newspaper, we went with the popular misquote.” Very good, sir. And tonight’s special is mesquite-grilled chicken chest.

Tom Stern

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Posted on Tuesday, November 24, 2015, at 2:09 pm

Euphemisms: Lying to Us Gently

Let’s talk about euphemisms, those soothing words meant to assure us that something’s not as bad as we know it is. A euphemism is a lullaby, a sedative, a velvet glove enfolding reality’s iron fist. In a way, the word euphemism is itself a euphemism—so much kinder and gentler than cop-out.

Euphemisms are employed for many reasons, some of them nobler than others. The ultimate euphemism is pass away. “He passed away” sounds peaceful, effortless. “He’s dead” is a two-syllable gut punch.

Nonetheless, there are those who are temperamentally unsuited for hiding stark truths behind fluffy words. In the 1944 film This Happy Breed a patriarch tells his family: “Mother died. She didn’t pass on, pass over, or pass out. She died.”

A euphemism can transform a narcissist into a temperamental perfectionist, a bigot into a traditionalist, or an unhinged demagogue into a passionate idealist.

It’s not surprising that we find some really clever euphemisms in politics, where double-talkers known as spin doctors speak of collateral damage and enhanced interrogation. It’s not an invasion, it’s an intervention or an incursion or sometimes an uncontested arrival. Terrorists are freedom fighters—if they’re on our side. Our opponents lie; our allies may have misspoken.

Then there are those Wall Street peculators whose malfeasance still has the country reeling. The financial world likes to couch its mischief in opaque phrases like subprime mortgage bonds and collateralized debt obligations. One of our favorite Wall Street euphemisms is overleveraged, a mealy-mouthed term for expanding too fast, borrowing too much, and defaulting on the debt.

Alcohol’s prominent and often problematic place in society has given rise to many colorful euphemisms: Bertie is lit up like Broadway. He just got back from the old watering hole. He was talking to John Barleycorn. Now he’s got his wobbly boots on.

Here are a few more choice euphemisms, some common, others less so:

Nail technician  A manicurist.

Hair stylist  Are there still barbers?

Personnel surplus reduction  Means you’re fired.

Sampling  “The process of taking brief segments of sound (from a song, movie or elsewhere) and using that sound to form another sound or musical piece.” That’s how defines sampling. We can define it in one word: stealing.

But the winner by a landslide …

Atlantic triangular trade  A few years ago the Texas State Board of Education voted to use this Machiavellian phrase in history textbooks to replace slave trade.

When it comes to euphemism-wielding prevaricators, the Texas State Board of Education is in a class by itself.

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Posted on Tuesday, September 8, 2015, at 10:34 am

Stengelese Spoken Here

The long and winding big-league baseball season started this week. Every year at this time we profile a baseball immortal who is equally celebrated for his unorthodox language skills. The choice this year is Charles Dillon “Casey” Stengel (1890-1975), who at the age of fifty-eight became manager of the mighty New York Yankees and took them to ten World Series in twelve years.

Casey Stengel broke into the major leagues in 1912 and played for fourteen seasons. He later said, “I had many years that I was not so successful as a ballplayer, as it is a game of skill.”

As player and manager, Casey was for decades baseball’s class clown—but a lot of snooty Yankees fans thought he was a no-class clown and opposed his hiring. They weren’t alone. Boston sportswriter Dave Egan’s reaction to the new manager: “The Yankees have now been mathematically eliminated from the 1949 pennant race.”

Instead, Stengel guided the Bronx Bombers to five straight World Series championships (1949-53), a baseball record that may never be broken.

Casey spoke a dialect of English called “Stengelese,” utterances that concealed nuggets of wisdom in a dense matrix of dizzying gibberish. “Stengelese was mostly a public act,” said sportswriter Maury Allen. “He double-talked in part to diffuse pinpoint questions.” An extreme example: “He’s the perdotious quotient of the qualificatilus.”

Stengel seasoned his speech with trademark words and phrases, one favorite being “at the present time,” which he’d drop in anywhere: “Most people my age are dead at the present time.” He also found creative ways to use “fairly,” as in: “This club plays better baseball now. Some of them look fairly alert.”

Some Stengelese could be harsh. On a player’s lack of potential: “He’s only twenty years old and with a good chance in ten years of being thirty.” On another player’s batting prowess: “He couldn’t hit the ground if he fell out of an airplane.” On managing twenty-five men successfully: “Keep the five guys who hate you from the five who are undecided.”

The baseball lifestyle, with its constant travel and unsupervised free time, has ended many a promising career, but Stengel came to believe in players who could hold their liquor: “I have found that ones who drink milk shakes don’t win many ball games.” “We are in such a slump that even the ones that are drinking aren’t hitting.” “Look at him. He don’t smoke. He don’t drink. He don’t chase women. And he don’t win.”

In 1958, Stengel appeared before Senator Estes Kefauver’s U.S. Senate subcommittee on baseball’s antitrust status. Here is one exchange:

Kefauver: I was asking you, sir, why it is that baseball wants this bill passed.

Stengel: I would say I would not know, but would say the reason why they would want it passed is to keep baseball going as the highest paid ball sport that has gone into baseball and from the baseball angle. I am not going to speak of any other sport. I am not here to argue about other sports. I am in the baseball business. It has been run cleaner than any business that was ever put out in the 100 years at the present time. I am not speaking about television or I am not speaking about income that comes into the ball parks. You have to take that off. I don’t know too much about it. I say the ballplayers have a better advancement at the present time.

That’s quite an oration. Most of us would have quit talking after the first seven words.

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Posted on Tuesday, April 7, 2015, at 11:16 am

Are Two r‘s One Too Many?

Here we are, in the month that’s hard to spell and harder to pronounce. Every year I grit my teeth listening to the bizarre ways people mangle “February.” The culprit is that first r. Most people just ignore it and say “Feb-yoo-ary.”

The 2006 American Heritage dictionary has a “Usage Note” at “February” that made my brain squirm the first time I read it: “the variant pronunciation [Feb-yoo-ary] … is quite common in educated speech and is generally considered acceptable. 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.”

Oh, I grumbled. Now I’m expected to believe that a blatant mispronunciation is not simply
sloppy—no, don’t you see, it’s a phonological process, dear boy.

This is the kind of thing that gives scholarship a bad name. At least that was my initial reaction. Don’t get me wrong, I still believe “Feb-roo-ary” is the way to go, but there might be more to this dissimilation business than I originally recognized. Take a look at other instances …

Library  Just about every schoolchild who ever lived has said “lie-berry,” and some say it well into their teens. The similarity of this word to February can’t be overlooked.

Roller coaster   I have heard sane adults say they went on the “rolly coaster.”

Kindergarten  Come on, admit it, you or someone you know says “kin-dee-garten.” You’re as likely to hear it from parents as from kin-dee-gartners themselves.

Peripheral  It’s quite common to hear things like, “When I was a young player, I learned to use my periph-ee-al vision.”

All four of the previous examples are words in which the r’s cause the difficulty. But other consonants can create similar problems …

Probably  A lot of, uh, dissimilators pronounce it “prob-lee.”

Et cetera (etc.)  Many smart, educated people botch, er, dissimilate the first t, and say “eck settera” rather than “et.”

I don’t know if the next two examples count as “textbook” dissimilation, but a curious thing happens with certain double-c’s:

Succinct  Everyone says “suh-sinkt.” When was the last time you heard someone correctly pronounce it “suk-sinkt”? Well, why else are there two c’s? You don’t say “secede” when you mean succeed.

Flaccid  Again, most people overlook one of those c’s. The widespread mispronunciation is “flassid”; the correct pronunciation is “flaxid.”

But I’ve been saving the best for last. Can anyone explain the silent c in Connecticut? All I’ve been able to dig up is that the state got its name from quinnitukqut, a Mohican word meaning “beside the long tidal river.” So where does the second c in Connecticut come from? Note that it’s quinnitukqut, not quinnictukqut.

Maybe, when nobody was looking, some prankster, perhaps one of the ringleaders of Dissimilation Theory, sneaked in that middle c, daring anyone to pronounce it.

Tom Stern

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Posted on Tuesday, February 3, 2015, at 3:45 pm

Resolutions for Word Nerds

Below you’ll find ten New Year’s resolutions for self-appointed guardians of the English language. We are a group that needs its own code of ethics to protect us from ourselves and shield others from our self-righteousness. So let’s get right to …

The Stickler’s Ten Commandments

1) No using big words to intimidate. You can’t beat a polysyllabic onslaught for sounding authoritative. But laying big words on someone who may not be as educated as you are is just shabby.

2) No correcting someone’s English in an argument. It’s the wrong time to do it. When someone makes a valid point, picking on that person’s language is a cop-out, and a contemptible way of gaining the upper hand.

3) Do it in private. If a person you care about says “irregardless,” it can be a thoughtful gesture to gently advise that there is no such word—but don’t do this when others are within earshot.

4) No condescending preambles. If you have some wisdom to impart, don’t start with “Didn’t you know,” or “I can’t believe you just said,” or “How can someone from your background …” Such statements sound uncomfortably close to “I’m smart and you’re not.”

5) Casual conversation gets a lot of leeway. Public figures are rightly under scrutiny when they’re speaking or writing on the record. Even private citizens may be held accountable, not just for what they say but for how they say it, in a meeting or serious discussion. However, the language police ought to back way off in settings where people are just relaxing and making small talk. At such times, perfect grammar is probably the last thing anyone should worry about. No one ever mistook a Super Bowl party for a summit conference.

6)  And no correcting playful correspondence, either. If you get an email that says, “I didn’t mean nuttin’ by it,” your correspondent is kidding around. What is friendship without informality and levity? And what kind of a sourpuss would point out that “nothing”was misspelled and that double negatives are bad grammar?

7) Know what you’re talking about. Before you correct someone, how do you know you’re right? There are many myths about “proper” English floating around. Here are three discredited rules that a lot of people think are true: Never end a sentence with a preposition. (Yes you can.) It’s wrong to split an infinitive. (No it’s not.) The relative pronoun that cannot refer to a human, so always say “the person who called,” never “the person that called.” (Utter nonsense.) If you believe even one of these superstitions, you see the problem.

8) Look it up. Good writers choose their words with utmost care. So you can’t go wrong with a dictionary nearby. Many people believe they needn’t look up a strange word. They are deluding themselves. Suppose a critic you respect refers to a book’s “meretricious manifestation of sophism.” The word meretricious sounds a lot like meritorious; and sophism brings to mind sophisticated. Having seen the review, you are eager to purchase and read this admirable, stylish work—not realizing that the critic has denounced the book as lurid and devious rubbish.

9) No excuses when you slip. Two can play this game, professor. We all make mistakes. If someone busts you, don’t try to wiggle out of it.

10) No correcting strangers. Keep it to yourself; it’s the Wild West out there.

Tom Stern

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Posted on Tuesday, January 6, 2015, at 4:01 pm