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Funny Words


"Now" normally means "at present" when written. However, when spoken it often serves as a pompous proclamation of whatever is to follow, similar to the archaic "Lo". Its vocal phrasing often sounds like it lacks the comma after it.

Speak this phrase and note how it differs from the written one: "Now, it is hard to survive in this complicated world." The written meaning implies that survival was not always so difficult. The spoken meaning sounds like it was something the speaker heard from a Burning Bush -- and the listener ought to feel blessed by having this divine utterance passed on to him.

Spoken, the idea of "at present" is often stated as "nowadays". You never see "nowadays" written, because it is not necessary to achieve this distinction in text.

You know?

The ubiquitous spoken "you know" is an apologetic placeholder that the speaker uses to beg for time, so he can dredge up the next series of words to fill out his initial thought. It is not meant to elicit a response -- except for perhaps an acknowledging grunt, since the speaker is really using the phrase as a plea to the listener to stick around while he stalls for time. A truly vicious listener may elect to say "Yes, I do" following each such utterance.

In this sense "you know" differs subtly from "uh". People who use "uh" never expect an interim acknowledgement from the listener, and are not nearly so neurotic about the thought of losing their audience. "You know" is perhaps closer to "like". The "like" placeholder is potentially a more enticing one, as it tempts the listener to pay attention in the hope of hearing an interesting simile or metaphor to follow. Unfortunately the speaker never delivers on his promise.

"I want you to do this, like…now" is a bit more interesting and commanding than "I want you to do this, you know…now". We are not likely to jump to the task for someone who says "I want you to do this, uh…now." It sounds like they are not entirely sure of the preferred timing of the task at hand - so why should we be?

There are species of large beetles that cannot run in a continuous movement, but rather only in a series of stoccato, go-and-stop movements. Scientists have determined that the pauses in movement are necessary because the beetle has limited brain capacity, relative to its large leg muscles. The beetle must pause and wait for the next streaming packet of muscle activation signals to fill its limited cache of brain neurones. The use of "you know", "like" and "uh" are indicative of a similar process going on between the speaker's tiny brain and his large throat muscles.

Written: "You know what I'm saying is true and will always be so." Or "What I'm saying is true and will always be so. Do you know this?" (Answer required: "Yes, I do know that.")

Spoken: "What I'm saying is true and, you know, will always be so." (No specific reply is required. A grunt or a "uh huh" is sufficient to acknowledge and reaffirm the speaker's corporeal existence. That is the kindest thing to do for people who say "you know" incessantly.)


Are two "as" 's always necessary to formulate a comparison? So it would seem from spoken use:

"I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not gonna take it anymore."

"He was as nervous as a queer at a weinie roast."

"You're as useless as tits on a warthog."

"That horse is as far back as nuts on a cat."

Grammatically, I believe the initial "as" is superfluous and improper -- but I've never heard it vocally dropped by anyone. It seems strange in these modern times that people wouldn't gravitate toward methods of saving precious exclamatory time. Especially people who reside above the Mason-Dixon Line.

Crunched Quotes

While we're at it, speakers never have to worry about confusion regarding imbedded or trailing quotation marks. It seems that the listening centers of the brain don't need 'em:

"He asked if it were necessary to use two 'as' 's."

"He said: "He asked: 'Is it necessary to use two 'as' 's?' " "

Asynchronous Conversations

Communication can be extraordinarily efficient between two people who know each other well. Here is a typical dinnertime conversation between a long-married middle-aged couple.

She (sipping a glass of wine): "My baby sister makes me so mad! I don't know if I like this wine or not, do you?"
He (reading the op-ed page): "It's OK, dear…"

She: "I don't know why she insists on dating that cheap, two-timing moron. It was a little more expensive than our normal brand."
He: "You get what you pay for…"

She: "She thinks he'll divorce his wife soon…hah! Perhaps I should have poured it sooner to let it breathe a bit."
He: "One needs to be patient…"

She: "Well, she's an adult and I guess she's perfectly capable of making her own decisions. They have such a large selection, I had a hard time picking it out."
He: "Maturity is the key…"

She: "You know, she was the black sheep of our family. It's darker than the usual wine, don't you think?"
He: "You can't tell a book from its cover…"

She: "She was always running around getting into trouble. I don't think I'll buy this brand anymore."
He: "Experience is the best teacher…"


Dysfunctional Asynchronous Conversations

Of course, lots of marriages are doomed from the start if the husband cannot properly deal with his wife's spoken asynchronous information packets. Let's replay the above conversation to illustrate this:

She (sipping a glass of wine): "My baby sister makes me so mad! I don't know if I like this wine or not, do you?"

He (reading the op-ed page): "Why is that, dear?"
She: "So I know whether or not to buy it again! It was a little more expensive than our normal brand. I don't know why she insists on dating that cheap, two-timing moron."

He: "It was a good choice…"
She: "I can't believe you would even think that, much less say it! He's a cad! She thinks he'll divorce his wife soon…hah! Perhaps I should have poured it sooner to let it breathe a bit."

He: "Better to cut the loss, I think."
She: "If you hate it enough to want me to pour it down the drain, then you do the shopping next time! They had such a large selection, I had a hard time picking it out. Well, she's an adult and I guess she's perfectly capable of making her own decisions."

He: "Sound like a case of being incapable of making the proper decision."
She (sobbing): "That's not true! I'm perfectly capable of making the proper decisions!" (Sobbing, runs from room.)

Like, uh, you know… how the rest goes.


"Lacunae" are passages in ancient written texts which have been obliterated, lost, or are otherwise unreadable.

Good historians will represent them with a series of dots, as for example:

"The people of Shem, being righteous before the Lord,…the evildoers of Aselot."

Bad historians will make history out of them:

"The people of Shem, being righteous before the Lord, [smote] the evildoers of Aselot."


Hamsters originally lived in Palestine;
That was the only place they hid.
I don't know if any wild hamsters survive,
But it would please me to know that they did.

"The people of Shem, being righteous before the Lord, [prepared a feast of succulent hamsters for] the evildoers of Aselot."

It’s Only An Apostrophe

Beginning in the late 1950’s, Federal, State and Local governments began to pour billions upon billions of dollars into correcting perceived shortcomings in the basic education of our American youth. You can probably thank the Russians and their preemptive Sputnik satellite launching for that – although the original motivation for the increased spending seems to have been forgotten, as the dollars continue to pour into the schools long after the demise of the USSR. Since many of these dollars are mine, I've quite naturally maintained a close interest in the outcome.

I am rather sad to conclude, here at the dawn of the 21st Century, that I might as well have flushed my hard-earned share of those bucks down into my septic field. There, at least, some nutrients from the greenbacks may have leached out, wound their way through the ground water, and gotten sucked up by thirsty roots, therein to be used for improved tree growth. That would have been much more productive than what actually became of them.

If you doubt my conclusion, consider a simple example: the abject failure of our modern educational system to instruct and enforce the distinction between the possessive form of "it" and the contractive form of "it is". Fifty years ago, this was not an issue. Those aged, blue-haired elementary school English teachers whom I remember so well did a flawless job of beating grammatical truth into our terrified little minds. Back then, you never saw such grammatical usages confused in printed newspapers, magazines, books or advertisements. People were careful about these details and retained a strong dedication to getting things right. The alternative was to suffer the wrath of those blue-haired Medusae – a fate worse than Eternal Perdition itself.

In stark contrast, today you cannot pick up a magazine or watch a CNN screen blurb without running headlong into examples of grammatical sloth: "White House says its ready to submit new education bill…" Or: "Senate education subcommittee says it’s work is almost complete…"

There are a number of possible explanations. It may be that journalists and other print media professionals have only just begun to realize that their blue-haired nemeses did, in fact, die of old age a few decades ago. Their ghostly apparitions have finally become so tenuous that they no longer hold dominion over the living. Now it’s payback time -- and fragrantly flaunting poor grammar is the new order of the day.

Alternately, the answer might be hiding inside a demographic quirk: Upon the demise of the Old Ones, there was simply no new crop of blue-haired English teachers ready to assume their role. After all, those old biddies were truly ancient when we baby-boomers were subjected to their wrath, and, forty-plus years later, none of us are yet even now quite that age. So there has been several decades of biddie-less English grammar instruction going on.

Considering the lack of respect children pay to young and middle-aged teachers today, it is small wonder that we suffer from grammatical lack. I personally rather prefer this scenario, because it harbors hope for the future. At the End of the Day, the biddies will return. What goes around comes around – although, in this case, the blue-haired coming-around has been postponed for a long, long time.

Words We Need

The English language is wonderful in that it has always been free to adsorb and encompass the entire ouvre of all other languages in the world. Despite this, there are notable cases where there are no existing words – and presumably never have been – to needfully describe certain common human experiences and states of being.

For example, when I schedule an upcoming meeting at my workplace, I sometimes err in connecting a date with its applicable day of the week. In these (unfortunately proliferating) "senior moments", I am apt to request presence at a meeting for "Wednesday, 3/27" when 3/27 actually falls on a Thursday. Some recipients of the meeting announcement then wryly ask in what year in the meeting is supposed to take place. This happens so often -- and I am reminded of my mental error so frequently by my co-workers -- that I felt compelled to ascribe a name for the behavior. Being unaware if there was one already out there, I coined a term for this kind of error and defined it publicly as a type of "chronosynaptic dysfunction".

One colleague dared to suggest that I check to see if Pfizer had a drug for this particular malady. I replied: "I will call Pfizer yesterday and try to find out."

Since then, I have warned them all that any future complaints or reminders about my chronosynaptic dysfunction will guarantee their inclusion on my List.

Are All Nouns Verbs in Disguise?

There are many proto-verbs out there, skulking around in the aether, unheard since the formation of human language. Recently, some of them have dared to inject themselves into our conscious, audible world. It happens when we turn our ears aside in a moment of sensory inattention.

I feel compelled to "message" this insidious intrusion to you, as a warning that no noun is sacred anymore. They are all fair game, prone to be squeezed at any moment into double duty at the same pay. Unfair as it seems, this tendency seems to be a logical byproduct of corporate "rationalization". (I am thinking now of the word "downsize" -- itself a new verb that seems to be some sort of a twisted, mutated progeny of two perfectly respectable non-verbs.)

Any number of nouns have lost their labor dispute recently. The noun "email" hardly got out of the gate before it broke down.

The other day, a work colleague of mine sent an email that actually tortured a preposition into becoming a verb, thusly: "…I am asking the to’d people…". That colleague was a younger fellow -- and I suppose we all know that Youth will not suffer wastage of neither breath nor key stoke. Demographically speaking, the population of prepositions is huge indeed, and I am sure the inhabitants of that particular word set were mortified to see what happened to their brood sibling. Nevertheless, the virus of verbalization runs rampart, and I would not be surprised to see the prepositional bastion utterly overrun in the near future.

This barbarous incursion of verbs may have enjoyed some of its recent gains with the invention of computers and computer software. In the halcyon pre-computer days, I remember that we were able to establish programs, to develop programs, or even to write, define, or implement programs. I do not remember us "programming" programs.

But it did not start there. Surely, there was a time when the U.S. Signal Corps did not signal their message, but rather sent it or conveyed it. The capacity for absorbing these (signal) affronts to basic nounness may have been limited in times past, but it has always existed in some measure. So it also was that a simple, solid "implement" could grow legs and take off like a gazelle, verbically speaking, early on in the game.

Even when some nouns continue to hold the fort, they are treated with utter disdain. Take "word" for example. While the usage is not completely unknown, I have rarely "worded" a concept or experience. I have written words, constructed (I thought) pleasing combinations of words, edited words -- even tried to make words sing. But I never "processed" them until recently. And to me, that act denigrates words to the level of processed cheese. Pity the poor word, that it should be subjected to such disrespect!

I look for a time when it will rebel.


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