Archive for the ‘Words’ Category


This quail is going to be eaten.

I would like waiters to stop using the simple future passive voice to describe my food. As in:

The special today is going to be a sablefish, which is going to be lightly grilled. And it is going to be served with bright saffron sauce and quince puree.

I understand that my food is going to be prepared in the future. That’s not so special. And as far as the passive voice is concerned, I think someone has tricked America’s waiters into believing that it creates a more formal dining experience. Perhaps they don’t realize that I tip more for the active voice.

Latest incident: This Tuesday at Wild Ginger, our waiter came by to ask what food we would like boxed up for leftovers. Panang curry? Yes. Duck? Yes, please. Then someone at our table carelessly motioned to a half-eaten short rib. What about this? The waiter looked serious for a moment, and then explained that we should not try to save the rib. He offered helpfully, That is going to be a bone.


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Missourians Never Ever Malign Onondaga's Nearly Incomparable CavesMy son William does not believe in mnemonics, much in the same way that my wife does not believe in stoplights. They might be useful for other people, but mostly they are hindrances to be ignored. Although I am more of a believer in mnemonics, I do have a better appreciation of Will’s point of view now that I have been in the Ozarks. It started a couple of weeks ago when I was following a mother and child down into Missouri’s Onondaga Cave.

“Let me teach you something,” the mother began. “We’re going to see these really cool formations called stalactites that hang down from the top of the cave. You can remember the word for them because it has the letter T which looks like a stalactite with its long tail hanging down. And we’re also going to see formations that are like stalactites rising up from the floor. You can remember the word for them because it has the letter M which looks like two peaks sticking up. These are called stalacmites (sic). And I thought: You ignorant woman, you have a bad mnemonic. Stalactites have a C for ceiling. Stalagmites have a G for ground.

We were descending into a world of spectacular, eerie beauty. But now I was thinking mostly about how Plato was wrong about the Cave. And how appropriate it is that the spelling of mnemonic is so difficult to remember.

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Twitter HaikuThe first haiku I will not share with you in haiku form. It was constructed strictly to win a contest, and I’m not talking about a beauty contest here. At stake were ten new  BlackBerry PlayBooks, to be awarded to the ten best haikus published on Twitter about the new device.

The contest was beautifully simple: Tweet an original haiku about the new BlackBerry PlayBook while complying with the following restrictions:

Rule 1:
The poem must consist of three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables respectively.

Rule 2:
The poem must not mention competing products (Read: Don’t mention the iPad).

But most of the entries went something like this:
          Please for God’s sake give me
          A PlayBook  cuz I wanna win really bad!
          Down with iPad!

This created somewhat of an unfair advantage for winning contestants like Lisa Akari who knew how to follow rules, knew how to construct elegant haiku, and were familiar with Basho. Her approach was to honor the form while having fun. Sadly, there is also a low road to victory.

My approach was to create the kernal of a hypothetical marketing campaign. To be honest, I’m a little in love with my concept, but my execution through haiku was ungainly, like the debut of a beautiful model in ill-fitting clothes. So in this blog post I’m pulling it out of haiku and presenting the concept alone.

I wanted to convey a sense of universe-at-your-fingertips awe about this new tablet computer. I wanted to capture the feeling you would get if you could have this power with you wherever you went, from an evening at home to an afternoon at the neighborhood coffeeshop to a rained-out vacation on the Oregon Coast. All accessible through a tablet computer. I came up with this:

Haiku 1 Tagline Concept
Columbus was wrong. The world is flat.

I do think this is much more interesting than the official PlayBook tagline: “The world’s first professional-grade tablet,” which violates Rule 2 in spirit even if it does not name the iPad explicitely, and has readers reaching for their Chicago Manual of Style: Is that a compound adjective and do I need a hyphen?

So yes, I prefer my approach and I want to see it used in a new marketing campaign. That would be the greatest prize of all. But getting a brand new PlayBook is a decent consolation prize and I’m eager to get that into my hands as well. When you enter a contest on Twitter, there is always a little bit of doubt: What if the contest is a scam? What if the Twitter @blackberry account is run by some pimply teenager in Medicine Hat (the Gas City), Alberta?

I have to admit I started to worry after getting the initial “You’ve Won” announcements and then not hearing much more. So I sent the following haiku to fellow winner Lisa Akari as we were both waiting for updates:

Tagline Haiku 2
     Blackberry haiku
     Sweet promise, like morning mist

But then I checked my email. There was a notification about my winning entry and a new form to fill out. This time they asked for my social security number as well as a written signature. So at last I will receive my new PlayBook as a genuine winner of the haiku contest. Or I will provide my social security number and signature to some scam artist in Alberta.

It is hard, sometimes, to separate the hope we have for tomorrow from the coarse reality of the moment. As  Matsuo Basho recorded in The Narrow Road to the Deep North:

     Bitten by fleas and lice,
     I slept in a bed,
     A horse urinating all the time
     Close to my pillow.

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GilgameshMy 10-year-old brought home a word this year the way other kids bring home the flu. It debilitated everything it touched and spread quickly from house to house. It was epic. No, I mean literally. The word was epic.

In the same way that the British dumbed down the word brilliant and Americans removed the jaw-dropping power of awesome, a new generation of definition abusers has successfully transformed a word that once represented a series of legendary adventures across time and space into a qualifier for the most mundane things in life. According to my 10-year-old, even a dish of spaghetti can be epic. I should not be surprised. The Odyssey was an epic once. Now it’s a minivan.

Maybe the endless hyperbole of Hollywood movie teasers led people to believe not so much that mediocre movies are epic, but that epic means mediocre. Or maybe it is just that epic in its brevity is easier to text to your friends than the right word. Whatever the reason, I’m not giving in. We already have some pretty good words that mean pretty good. And if something is better than pretty good, we have words for that too.

Why can’t we just bring back groovy?

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What is J.D. Salinger to us? Catcher in the Rye was assigned reading in high school, presented by the establishment as a fine example of the antiestablishment. And we devoured it. The kids who hated literature loved Catcher. The kids who loved literature sought out more Salinger (and found very little). Moreover, Catcher as a novel and Salinger as a type of writer became cultural touchstones for generations. We remember the descriptions of Robert Ackley with his pimples and mossy teeth, the mysteriously termed throw that Holden can get for five dollars with a hotel prostitute. Most of all we remember the tone of the novel, at once funny, mean, and sad. But even today, as we are surrounded by entertainment that is arguably funnier and certainly meaner, Catcher still resonates with students. Why?

Hemingway famously stated that all modern American literature comes from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. In reality, in the latter half of the 20th Century and I think still today, it would be more accurate to say that all modern American writing comes from Hemingway. Short, understated sentences composed of unsentimental, ordinary words. This is how we were taught to write, how we were taught to edit, and what we were taught to value in the writings of others.

It is in this context that we first read Salinger. And while the vulgarities got our attention, I think it is the exposed emotion of the narrator that was really the most shocking. It seemed almost as if the redacted portions of a story had been published by accident, while the approved and conventional parts were left out. When the same English instructor who taught us to write controlled, straightforward prose assigned Catcher in the Rye, the world got a little rounder. We were learning how to write for success, but Salinger reminded us of the voice inside, of the emotions behind the facts. And if we could not get away with writing like that, or of sharing aloud how we really felt about the adults around us, Salinger did it for us. With their permission, it turns out.

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Don't try this with KindleMany people suffer from the misconception that books are just an old fashioned way to share ideas, knowledge, and experience. Books are good for that sort of thing, yes, but before you ditch them for a shiny new Kindle, remember that there are functions printed books perform for us that a Kindle simply cannot duplicate. Consider three of the most important ways a book can be used:

  • To Show Off
  • To Fend Off
  • To Piss Off

A Kindle doesn’t show people how smart you really are.
Imagine what it would be like to have offices without bookshelves radiating intelligence and expertise. A lawyer without law books, an editor without a fat orange Chicago Manual of Style, a marketer without something by Seth Godin. How would you know these people were not rank amateurs? I recently worked with a group of marketers who were keenly interested in taking advantage of Twitter, but they couldn’t be bothered to set up Twitter accounts and talk to actual people. So instead, they obtained free copies of Joel Comm’s book Twitter Power and displayed them on their office shelves like diplomas. That way, people visiting their offices saw the book and assumed they were experts in social media. Brilliant!

It’s hard to fend off strangers with your Kindle.
Surely protection is one of the most important, if unappreciated, functions that books perform for us. When you put a book cover between your face and the people around you, you are showing them why it is better not to disturb you. A good friend of mine brought the following book to his daughter’s soccer practices this year: Richard H. Timberlake’s Monetary Policy in the United States: An Intellectual and Institutional History. The title alone told the other parents that he was morose, aloof, and not even remotely interested in discussing the latest scandal about bikini-clad baristas. I used a similar tactic when I rode the Tube every day as a student back in 1989, in this case wielding Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. This book was doubly effective at keeping strangers away by telling them I was dull and pedantic while reminding them that every breath from every other subway rider could spread disease.

You can’t offend people by destroying your Kindle.
The most grievous of sacrileges in Western Civilization, next to banning books, is burning them. Fahrenheit 451 horrifies us because we equate the burning of books with the annihilation of ideas. If you disagree with an author, nobody cares. But burning a book, now that will get you some attention. The trouble with Kindle is, if the content angers you, you just delete it. If you want to destroy your Kindle, you have to recycle it because it won’t burn. And then instead of offending others, you just look like a good earth-friendly citizen.

Oh yes, and there is one more important way a printed book is superior to any electronic format. Most of us first learned to love books by tearing them apart. I’m talking, of course, about the pop-up book. Long before we learned how to read text, we learned that books sometimes contained pictures that would unfold magically before our eyes when we tugged at the pages. The harder we pulled, the faster the picture jumped up. Until we pulled too hard. And that was when we began to learn about how to be respectful of books and the ideas they contained. You could tug at them a little, fold the corners over if you didn’t have a bookmark handy, maybe write a few notes in the margins. But you were not to tear them, or throw them, or burn them except under extreme circumstances (say, for a blog photo).  You might take care of a Kindle because it is expensive to replace, but not because of the ideas it stands for. After all, the Kindle is as much about deleting old ideas as conveying new ones, so in the end the only idea it really stands for is convenience. And no school or library or despotic little country ever found convenience unsettling enough to ban.

That’s why I’m sticking to books where solid ideas are permanently inked onto fragile paper. Books I can use to keep strangers from talking to me. Books I can use to say, “My Dostoyevsky is smarter than your Dan Brown.” And if a funny picture unfolds when I open the pages or pull a secret lever, so much the better.

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Somebody at Dictionary.com goofed up this week, and it was wonderful. Tuesday’s word of the week was sommelier, which of course is a person who knows how to match the right Malbec with your roast lamb. The correct definition for sommelier was posted online (check 1), and also sent out through Twitter (check 2). But Dictionary.com’s original email notification contained not only the wrong definition, but mixed up the quotations illustrating usage as well (uh oh). To be fair, they caught most of the mistakes and sent out a corrected email later, but the damage was already done. I could not shake this misquotation from my mind:


When you read the above misquote, three things jump to mind immediately. First, Hemingway will have a hard time going online to check a menu if he dies in Ketchum, Idaho in 1961, long before the advent of Netscape and the first PC. Second, Hemingway is spelled with only one m. And third, he never wrote like this. Never ever.

And it is this last point that is most interesting to me. As soon as I read the misquote on Tuesday, I started thinking about what it would be like if Hemingway and other writers we hold dear had lived in the age of Facebook and Ning and Twitterific. Would they have a Twitter profile?  Henry James and Virginia Woolf, for example, could not condense the striking of a match into a single sentence, much less 140 characters. Hemingway at least is famous for short, simple sentences, such as, “He liked to open cans.” And you could tweet that easily enough. But out of context, it is essentially meaningless, like a keystone which by itself is a crooked rock lying on the ground, but supported stone by stone from each side is capable of supporting the entrance to a whole cathedral.

Social media applications are great for building connections with other people, but not so great for sharing unfamiliar ideas, especially complicated ideas that cannot be grasped in 60 seconds of video or 140 characters. Some things just require more time, more development, more contemplation. You’ll find a lot of funny jokes and recycled wit in social media. You’ll meet people from around the world who will help you when you least expect it.  But you won’t find many Charles Ives ringtones.

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