Monday, February 28, 2011

Hail to the Lexicon

Last weekend Spouse, Spawn and I headed down to DC to attend our friends Michael & Ron’s wedding and spend time with old pals. A marvelous time was had by all! As we headed out of town listening to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU (DC’s NPR station) we heard a segment on the many words and popular phrases that were introduced into the English language by US Presidents.

I knew that Shakespeare introduced somewhere in the neighborhood of 3,000 words into the language. In fact, based on intensive studies of his works by those whose job it is figure out such things it is estimated that Shakespeare’s vocabulary numbered about 17,000 words, or four times the number of words in the vocabulary of a well-educated speaker of English. What I did not know is that US presidents have attempted to give him a run for his money over the years.

The Americans and the Brits have always had a different way of looking at and adding to the language we call English. According to Kojo’s guest, Paul Dickson, the author of over fifty books, whose current project is a tome on this very subject: the British…were very prescriptive about language. And going all the way back to Noah Webster, Americans believed that you listened and wrote down the words people were actually speaking…the British system was learned men sitting around, stroking their beards telling you what words were useful and could be used and what words weren't. At the time of the founding of the United States the British had no library or copyright systems. Webster and Benjamin Franklin believed that to create these things along with an “American language” we were committing acts of rebellion and resistance. According to Dickson, “when Franklin forms the first free library in Philadelphia, where everybody can go and borrow books, he's doing this as an act of sedition, an act of sort of thumbing his nose at the British”.

So, what have our presidents added to the lexicon over the years? From George Washington we get indoors, non-discrimination, off-duty, paroled and one of my all time favorite words, bakery.

Don’t you wonder what we used to call new words before Thomas Jefferson devised the term neologism? Jefferson is known to have added at least one hundred new words to our vocabulary including Public Relations, belittle and Anglophile (which at the time was assuredly NOT a compliment). The next time you go to a spa and get a pedicure be sure and say thank you to Mr. J. Although, one does wonder what was going on at Monticello that he needed to invent such a word.

Before George W. Bush bemused us with words like misunderestimate and strategery there was Warren G. Harding. Harding’s use and abuse of the language was so notorious it was called Gamalielese (Gamaliel being his middle name). Warren G. did manage to leave a few terms hanging around like Founding Fathers, and normalcy.

From John Adams we get quixotic, and from Eisenhower Military Industrial Complex. Ike also gave us Academic Intellectual Complex but that one never really caught on.

The award for most colorful legacy goes to Teddy Roosevelt who,besides strenuous, brought us bully pulpit, mollycoddle, weasel words and pussyfoot.

The jury is still out on Obama’s attempt at linguistic glory, wee-weed up. No one seems quite sure what exactly at means but saying it does bring a smile. Maybe you can find a way to use it in an intelligible sentence in the comment section.

Here’s the broadcast in its entirety.

PS The photo is from the Ruterford B. Hayes presidential library circa 1952. Wonder what words he came up with.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Whistle While You Loaf

Drawing by Charles Dana Gibson courtesy of A Polar Bear's Tale

I think the winter weather has turned my brain to ice. I’ve been sitting in my chair twirling round and round, browsing e-bay, checking my email for the thirty-forth time, and generally trying to shake loose the blog post that has been swimming around in my head to no avail. I was trying to write about patience, but, as it turns out, I simply do not have the patience to do so. There are some days where the muse doesn’t just hide she leaves the building to hang with Elvis and Jimmie Hendrix on their tropical isle. Can’t say as I blame her a tropical isle would be pretty darn nice right now.

Of course, what I should be doing right now is getting up a blog post with all haste, doing a final edit on the copy for the album cover, preparing for a meeting tomorrow, scouting venues, working on a new song, and just generally being a responsible and productive citizen. What I want to be doing is sitting in my comfy chair with a diet cherry coke watching DVRed episodes of RuPaul’s Drag Race and reading diversionary trash on my Kindle. What I am doing is practicing what my sister- in- law Heather calls Task Avoidance. Task Avoidance is the fine art of doing everything in the world except the task in front of me.

In its (and my) defense it can be very educational. In the last ten minutes alone I’ve learned that ultracrepidarian means to overstep one’s bounds, and that I have more than once committed oniochalasia which is buying as a means of mental relaxation. Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure and Preposterous Words by Josefa Heifetz Byrne has been providing much diversion of late.

The Web, of course, is a Task Avoider’s dream. Did you know that there are blogs devoted solely to Apostrophe Catastrophes, Quotation Mark Abuse and the lost art of the letter? Click on these at your own risk, Task Avoiders go in, but they can’t get out. I could excuse the web troll for the recipe for Chicken Scaloppine over Broccoli Rabe as an effort to uphold my New Year’s goal of eating more vegetables (not to mention that the Broccoli Rabe looks at me mournfully each time I open the refrigerator door) but we know what I’m really doing. I will not even attempt to justify the Dulce De Leche Brownie recipe from David Lebowitz’s site.

I really should get back to work now, and yet the siren song of my phone’s Latin Phrases app is calling. I have to figure out how to work acta est fabula plaudite  into my act!