Crossword Morning

It’s another grey winter day in Columbus.  I woke up early and started puttering around the house.  I picked up the German Village Gazette, our local weekly newspaper, saw it included the New York Times Magazine crossword, and thought: this is a perfect day to tackle a crossword puzzle.

I used to do crosswords from time to time — often on planes, if the people who sat in the seat before me hadn’t already marked up the in-flight magazine in the seat pocket — but it’s been years since I’ve dusted off the mental thesaurus and given it a go.  In the Webner clan, however, crosswords are a long and storied tradition.  Dad was a big crossword fan, always doing them with a back felt-tipped pen, and Aunt Corinne is an ace.  She would particularly like this one, because the unifying theme is grammar, and that’s her bread and butter.

If you haven’t done a crossword in a while, getting the knack again takes some time, but I got a few words and acronyms at the bottom of the puzzle, and it started to come easier.  Once I figured out the puns for the theme — i.e., “Santa’s nieces and nephews” = “relative clauses” — it came easier, and an enjoyable hour later I was done, and set my pen down with satisfaction.

The experts say crosswords and other mental puzzles help to keep the brain synapses sharp, and I think it’s true.  There’s a strong pun element to crosswords, of course, but the clues also often make you think of the world and the words in a different, slightly off-kilter way.  A three-letter word for “Bull’s urging”?  Red, perhaps?  Nope!  It’s a Wall Street “bull” that we’re supposed to think of, and the correct answer is “buy.”

Sometimes, thinking of things in a different way is a useful exercise.

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Attempting An Eclogue

For years, Kish has gotten a “word-a-day” calendar as a Christmas stocking stuffer.  The calendar gives you a word, its definition, and its pronunciation, and then uses the word in a sentence, like you’re the contestant in the national spelling bee.  It’s an interesting, relatively painless way to learn new words and build that personal vocabulary to ever more impressive heights, and occasionally — O, happy day! — the word is one you actually knew already.

afghan_shepherd_by_ironpaw1Sometimes, though, the words aren’t exactly easy to fit into everyday conversation.  On Monday, for example, the word was “eclogue.” What’s an eclogue (pronounced ek-log), you ask?  Why, it’s a poem in which shepherds converse, of course.  The sentence the calendar offers to illustrate its meaning is:  “The poet’s new volume offers modern translations of Virgil’s eclogues.”  Even at an erudite workplace like mine, it’s hard to imagine a discussion where you could smoothly use “eclogue.”

Although I can’t see ever using the word in actual conversation, and therefore am likely to promptly forget it, I thought it might be fun to try to write an eclogue, just to give ol’ Virgil a little competition.

A Brief Eclogue

Far out yonder, on grassy plain

Where sheep did graze, were shepherds twain

As they silently did walk

One shepherd felt the need to talk.

Said Shepherd One to Shepherd Two:

“It’s time for dinner.  I brought stew.

The sheep all graze o’er by the lake.

No wolf in sight.  Let’s take a break!”

Said Shepherd Two to Shepherd One:

“I’m sad to say that I’ve brought none.

I’ve got no food, but none the worse.

Let’s use our break, then, to converse.”

Said Shepherd One to Shepherd Two:

“I’d start, but I don’t have a clue

What we’d discuss, or what I’d say.

I’ve been out tending sheep all day.”

Said Shepherd Two to Shepherd One:

“There’s nothing new under the sun.

And what is new I won’t discuss.

Clinton and Trump just make me cuss!”

So shepherds two sat ‘neath a tree

And watched as sheep grazed peacefully

It wasn’t much of an eclogue

But ’twas enough to fill this blog.

Counting

We learned some things so long ago that we have no recollection of the process.  The words “Mom” and “Dad” and the names of our siblings.  That you don’t stick your hand into an open flame or onto a glowing red burner.  Simple temporal concepts, like “today” and “yesterday” and “tomorrow” and “later.”

And basic words.  Anybody who has children knows that kids typically learn the words “yes” and “no” some time before the age of two and then stubbornly and infuriatingly speak, shout, or scream the word “no” exclusively for the next 12 months.

countingBut counting comes later, along with learning your ABCs.  Counting is a building block for math, just like learning the alphabet is a building block for reading and spelling.  When you think about it, counting is a fairly sophisticated concept.  First you grasp the difference between none, one, and many — and then you learn that specific words and symbols represent precise numbers of, say, the little meatballs in the Chef Boyardee spaghetti that your Mom served for lunch.

One of the challenges of counting, of course, is that the words that represent the numbers, and their progression, aren’t intuitive.  I thought of counting and its challenges when I stumbled across this article about the words “eleven” and “twelve” and their history.  For many kids, the numbers between 10 and 20 are the big challenge because they’re weird and not consistent with the concepts that come before (between 1 and 10) or after (for 20 and up).  To this day, I think the only reason I know the world “delve” is because of the rhyme I learned about counting as a kid.  (“Eleven, twelve, dig and delve.”)

So where did eleven and twelve come from?  According to etymologists, both come from the root word “lif,” which apparently meant “to leave” — the concept being that 11 would mean one left after 10, and 12 would mean two left after 10.  It’s weird, and something that would forever after cause kids learning to count to stumble and hesitate after then got to 10, but it’s not unique to English — when you learn how to count in French, at least, you encounter the same issue and strange words just after “dix”.

That suggests that, in the early days among the common folk, most people didn’t need to routinely count up to 573, or for that matter much past ten.  That makes sense, because we’ve got ten fingers and kids learning to count often do so using their fingers.  Our ancestors created special words for the numbers just past ten, but at a certain point they probably just shrugged and settled for “many” rather than going for precision.

Lots of kids learning to count would like to have taken the same approach.

Down The “Sunday Throat”

Yesterday I took a drink of water that caught in my throat.  I spluttered and did a bit of a spit take, and in my mind I distinctly heard by mother saying that the drink must have gone down my “Sunday throat.”

71887260_25268180_clothesintheearly1900s_getty_90775467“Sunday throat”?  It’s a curious expression.  Of course, when you’re a kid and it’s something your Mom says as she’s pounding you on the back, trying to dislodge a piece of hamburger lodged near your Adam’s apple, it doesn’t seem weird.  Kids tend to assume that every word their Mom uses must, by definition, be commonplace.  It’s only when you get older and start to get weird looks when you use phrases like “Sunday throat” or “elbow grease” that you begin to realize that maybe the Momisms that you know so well aren’t widely used at all.

“Sunday throat” falls into that category.  A Google search doesn’t turn up much; the World Wide Words website, in response to a question from a fellow Midwesterner, found only a few uses of the phrase in literature to describe choking, and concluded that “Sunday” is being used in the sense of “special” or “alternative,” as in “Sunday best.”  I think that’s not quite right.  I always assumed that the “Sunday throat” was the throat that didn’t work — as in Sunday being the traditional day of rest.

Word Games About War

The Obama Administration has an amazing, almost uncanny ability to stub its toe on the most ludicrous things imaginable.  The latest weird distraction involves whether our campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is a “war.”

Secretary of State John Kerry took pains, in two separate interviews, to say that “war is not the right terminology” to describe the U.S. actions against ISIS, which instead will be a “major counterterrorism operation.”  National Security Advisor Susan Rice similarly resisted describing the operation as a “war.”  The next day, however, a Pentagon spokesman and the White House Press Secretary both described the ISIS campaign as a “war.”

I’m guessing that what happened is this:  some political operative issued “talking points” that strongly discouraged using the word “war” because they don’t want Americans to think they’re going to see a repeat of the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns.  But if you say you are going to destroy an an armed opponent, as President Obama said of ISIS in his speech this week, what you are talking about obviously is a war.  Quibbling about words makes the Secretary of State and National Security Advisor look like political flacks rather than the thoughtful, above-the-fray stewards of American foreign policy.

This is another instance, too, where the words can have real-world consequences.  America is trying to build a coalition of countries to fight ISIS.  If you are the leader of one of those countries that is considering joining the coalition, and you are trying to decide whether you can trust the United States, what message about long-term American commitment do you draw from the silly wrangling about whether the U.S. actions are a “war” or a “major counterterrorism operation”?  If you’re trying to decide whether to deploy your scarce military and economic resources, and potentially make your country a target of a brutal group of Islamic terrorists, do you want to rely on an ally that is inexplicably pussyfooting around about whether it is fighting a “war”?

Should “Bossy” Be Banned?

The Girl Scouts and Lean In, among others, have started a “Ban Bossy” campaign. The underlying concept is that “bossy” is a negative term that is applied to young girls more than young boys, and discourages girls from showing leadership.

This is a complex issue — made more complex by the fact that girls apparently apply the term to other girls much more frequently than boys apply it to girls, or boys. I don’t remember using “bossy” when I was a kid. Young girls apparently use it because they try to play more cooperatively than young boys. “Bossy” girls aren’t viewed as sufficiently cooperative.

I don’t think the word itself is the problem. I don’t equate “bossiness” with leadership. Bossiness connotes more of a desire to control, an unnecessary and officious intermeddling with everything that is happening. Leadership, in contrast, is about making people trust your judgment and decision making and want to follow you. People who are bossy — whether they are male or female — tend to be irritants rather than leaders.

I’m all for encouraging girls to be leaders. God knows we need more capable leaders! I’ve worked for women throughout my career, and they typically have been terrific supervisors and team leaders. Like all good leaders, they know how to get people to work together effectively. Whether they were called “bossy” as kids or not, they developed leadership skills and characteristics.

The “Ban Bossy” campaign, however, risks confusing a word with a mindset. Let’s encourage girls to be leaders, but let’s not confuse them by suggesting that leadership is bossiness writ large. It isn’t.

Sticking To Civil Discourse

As we move closer to the election, feelings become stronger and political passions worm their way closer to the surface.  It becomes harder and harder to have a discussion about politics without increasingly sharp words being exchanged.

Words matter.  Mean-spirited, unnecessarily harsh words can leave a permanent scar.  At our jobs, and in our daily lives, we somehow manage (at least, most of the time) to express and discuss things in a civil way.  We might “disagree” with a co-worker, or “see things differently” than a friend, but we typically don’t call people “liars” or accuse them of standing with Stalin, Hitler, and Torquemada as among the most malign people in history.  We refrain because we don’t want anyone to say such hurtful things about us and we know that such statements can cause long-time relationships to die in a blaze of bitterness.  I’m happy to note that, on this obscure family blog, where our posters and frequent commenters — elroyjones, Mike N, Cousin Jeff, and Marcel, among others — clearly occupy different points on the political spectrum, we can express our differences without flame-throwing or rancor.

I contrast this little world with the political and internet worlds, where grossly excessive, over-the-top overreactions are so absurdly commonplace.  In those worlds, simply failing to provide the detailed context a writer might think is necessary — say, about the unadopted recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles Commission — can convert a perfectly accurate, limited statement of fact into a “lie.”  I’m not sure how I would react if one of my friends or colleagues accused me of “lying” under those same circumstances, but I’m sure I wouldn’t like it.

I know there are those who think that such charges and counter-charges are just part of “the game,” and if you want to swing in the spotlight of politics you just need to suck it up and develop a thick skin.  I don’t care how hardened you are, however — no one wants to be called a liar, or a communist, or a person who desires nothing more than to put people “back in chains.”  Americans often bemoan how inert and ineffective our political institutions are; I’d wager that part of the reason is that it is incredibly difficult to sit across the table from somebody who just publicly accused you of being a liar or a fool, put aside your anger at what you consider to be an unfair charge, and work together to strike a reasonable compromise.

We’d all be better off if we toned it down and strove for civil discourse that won’t leave our country bruised, bloody, and bitterly divided when the morning after the election comes — whatever the outcome.