Sunday 1 November 2015

That'll do, capitalist pig

The Communist Party of China finally came out in favor of brotherhood on Thursday.
And sisterhood.
Indeed, according to the official announcement, siblinghood generally can now bloom in the Middle Kingdom.
You don’t have to stand on the far right in the abortion debate to find the implementaton of the one-child policy horrific. Forced sterilization and worse have oppressed Chinese women for 35 years, according to reliable reports.
But now China has a growing middle class, and the worker’s paradise finds itself subject to the same phenomenon as the developed, decadent West, where rising affluence correlates with declining family sizes.
This principle of demographics is as fundamental as — and not unrelated to — the economic principle of supply and demand. 
Thus the irony: Just as modern, affluent, educated Chinese couples decide they might prefer to have only one child, the government wants them to have more.
And even as economics gets called the “dismal science,” demographics could be the “mind-numbigly boring science.”
But demographic trends predict the world’s future better than any other manageable body of data. We might call a debate among presidential candidates “historic,” but on the grand scale it means nothing compared to the mass migrations that populated the Americas, brought down the Roman Empire, and threaten to overburden the entire planet.
That fundamental principle of less developed nations growing faster than industrial countries has implications for every aspect of civilization. No one can build a wall long enough or high enough — whether in Hungary, China or Arizona — to keep out history.
Meanwhile countries with low growth still find reasons to spin the human drive for reproduction into policy. It has an intuitive place in the list of ingedients for increasing national power, alongside land area, natural resources and military might.
In China, the ills of overpopulation must now seem less dangerous than the perceived economic and power problems of underpopulation.
So we now live in the Looking Glass world where a country with a population of nearly 1.4 billion fears it is dying out. Or at least a near future with unmanageable disproportions of young men and retirees.
And if you find Looking Glass worlds interesting, try the Russian media’s version of daily “news.” It conists entirely of footage of President Vladimir Putin (mostly sitting silently) and “analysis” proving that every problem — from all wars ever to the poor condition of roads in Vladivostok — is America’s fault.
Let’s remember Czar Putin came up as communist and clearly would have called himself a democrat or republican or fascist or Easter Bunny if it provided him a path to power.
Faced with drastic population decline brought about by the end of the Soviet Union, a high rate of abortion and other factors, in 2008 Putin revived a page from Josef Stalin’s book. The Hero Mother of the Soviet Union medal went to women who bore and raised 10 or more children. Putin has renamed it the Order of Parental Glory.
Even in our own country, the equating of population with power lurked on the fringes of recent debate. While state and federal courts wrangled with gay mariage, some people asked why the civil government should have any authority whatever regarding anybody’s domestic arrangements.
If we have a truly secular government, definitions of morality and sin are moot, and the only vested interest of the state in family life would lie in maximizing the production of babies to serve in the army and operate factories.
Yes, the Lord commanded, “Be fruitful and multiply.” But the commandment continues “… and fill the Earth.”
Well, mission accomplished.

Wednesday 15 April 2015

Almost, but not quite, entirely unlike chicken

Gator sausage

Like most long-time Kodiak residents, I have lost track of how many times off-island visitors asked me, “So where do you go for a good ’roo burger around here?”
This week, the good people at Henry’s Great Alaskan Restaurant put an end to the shame-faced silence that used to follow such questions by adding a range of exotic meats to their menu.
Supplies of kangaroo sold out quickly when the new weekly special selections premiered Monday, restaurant owner Ray LeGrue said.
The boingy marsupial heads a list that includes duck, boar, venison and, of course, water buffalo. After taking part in a taste-testing session on Sunday for Henry’s staff and a few guests, I can attest that none of it tastes like chicken — although my notes on the alligator include a favorable comparison to pork.
The pre-rollout event introduced us to nine sausage flavors in a wide range of species and spices, and while I might not put all of them on my A list, they beat your off-the-shelf wieners hollow. The English bangers even got me over the disappointment of realizing Bert Parks would not serenade in the komodo dragon.
LeGrue explained this venary venture as the latest chapter in the increasing sophistication of Americans’ palates, following the triumph of coffee bars and craft beers.
Those of us of a certain — but not too advanced, thank you — age remember when you couldn’t get an espresso on every block in rural Alaska. As recent as 1982, I ordered “cappuccino” from a menu at a bar in Toledo, Ohio, and got a cup of Sanka with a squirt of strawberry syrup. Back then the corner deli bragged about having both kinds of cheese: yellow and white. If you wanted Swiss you had to make your own holes.
As for beer, traditional American brands got a bum rap, since the Germans and Brits who snubbed them don’t even have ball parks or bowling alleys to drink them properly in.
So now Americans demand a bigger choice just than chicken, pig or cow. And good thing for Kodiak, as the anti-farmed salmon movement gains traction in the Lower 48, raising demand and prices for our honest, wild product.
I also remember a stretch in the mid-90s when ostrich flooded the upscale markets. Advocates praised its light mouth feel and beefy overtones, while opponents said “meh” and “bleah.” I liked it, but as usual the rest of the world had not caught up with my fashion sense, so ostrich meat buried its head again.
Apparently, times have changed for exotic meats, which now get their — hopefully well refrigerated — time in the sun. However, LeGrue said the Henry’s menu expansion is “based strictly on taste” and not just chasing a trend.
He admits to getting late into the game game, considering the distributor who will supply his restaurant. His daughter, Jessica LeGrue, has worked for eight years at Nicky USA, the Portland-based butchers who have expanded their offerings from rabbit to other alternatives.
Ray said he decided to become a customer after a recent visit with Jessica when he liked all the products he tried, especially the lamb.
Nicky gets all its animals, including the game species, from domesticated herds. Because of limited and somewhat unpredictable supply, Henry’s diners can expect a rotating roster of Monday specials.
Ray LeGrue also touts reasonable prices, aimed at capturing a long-term market as islanders acquire a taste for upscale viands. The restaurateur acknowledges the trend might end at any time, “But one thing’s for sure,” he said. “People are always eating.”
Now where do I go for some capybara?

Drew Herman is a Kodiak-based freelance writer and editor who still wonders where the editors of the “New York Times Cook Book” expected their readers to get fresh fruit bat. No komodo dragons were harmed in the writing of this column.

Tuesday 24 March 2015

True etymologies No. 35
"Cool as a cucumber"
Actually a corruption/shortening of "cool as a Q cummerbund," an advertising slogan that never appeared in print as planned due to the tragic sudden death of product spokesman James Dean. Quentin Queeg invented his concealed refrigeration unit for men's formal wear after a particularly stifling Sausalito cotillion in the summer of 1955. It was operated by a switch in the left pants pocket. After the coup of signing Dean for a magazine campaign to capitalize on the actor's cool image, Queeg hoped to venture into the new medium of television advertising and had already begun negotiations with Harry Botough (composer of "Ta-dah") for an original score. A lawsuit by a product beta tester who suffered a freon leak while accepting an award for toothbrush design and froze his butt off in front of 500 elite oral hygiene professionals ruined Queeg's company. The inventor is now 95 and wears only Bermuda shorts and AC/DC T-shirts. Ceterum censeo "utilize" esse delendam.

Friday 6 April 2012

What's this? It could be — Yes! An essay about punctuation-type stuff: part one

Throughout most of the history of written language, people made do without punctuation.
In this context, “people” refers mainly to ancient Egyptian priests, who seem to have kept a tight hold on the whole recording of words trick as a trade secret for several thousand years. The only regular graphic device they used to distinguish one group of symbols from those around it was the cartouche, an elegant oval around the name of the pharaoh. (And lucky for us they did — the cartouches on the Rosetta Stone proved a key clue for matching the hieroglyphic text with the adjacent Greek translation and deciphering the whole language.)
Egyptian hieroglyphic writing used a convoluted system of word, syllable and sound symbols a lot like modern Japanese, only worse. Other people around the Mediterranean adapted and modified the system, finding a system based mostly on word sounds easier to learn, since it requires fewer symbols. You only need a few dozen sound or syllable characters to represent a spoken language, but you need thousands of characters if each word gets its own.
So your Phoenicians (resemblance to “phonetic” a funny coincidence), Hebrews and Etruscans eventually got things down to one letter per sound, more or less. They didn’t punctuate or bother to put a space between words. Vowels — who needs ’em?
Cn y rd ths sntnc? Nt tht hrd, rlly. Asforwordspacing,thinkofallthenewsprintwecouldsavewithoutit.
When the Greeks took over the one symbol per sound, or alphabetic, system, they introduced written vowels. Linguists do not agree about whether that happened through a conscious act of invention or as who should say organically.
A librarian at Alexandria gets credit for introducing punctuation in the sense we understand it, around 200 BCE. His inventions included the question mark, except it looked like a semicolon, and written Greek still goes with that.
The rest of this fascinating story plays out through medieval times into the period after Gutenberg. I will leave that for another time, so we can anticipate the invention of lower case letters and other wonders.
Except for this conundrum that has nagged me for decades: I found a source about punctuation that said the Latin question mark (?) was adapted from neumes, a system of squiggles written over words in liturgical chant books to indicate pitch, before the invention of staff lines. So, the theory goes, scribes copied the rising pitch neume to represent the rising pitch of a spoken question.
That theory has two problems. First, not all spoken questions have rising pitch, across languages or within single languages. Second, I found a history of neumes that said they developed from written punctuation, such as the question mark.
The paleographer who sorts this out wins the Hawk and Handsaw Prize for 2012.
For today, I just want to offer some typographic terminology for general use. People throw around he word “dash” pretty loosely and mostly don’t like saying “hyphen,” and sometimes call a hyphen a dash, bless their hearts. To printers and copy editors, dashes and hyphens have distinct appearances and uses.
Typesetters call dashes “m-dashes” and hyphens “n-dashes” because of their set width, equal to the width of the letter m or n in that font.
The short version of proper use: hyphens within a compound word, dashes to separate thoughts.
The short version of how to make the world a better place: lay off the dashes.
I have noticed a tendency for people to use dashes as a universal punctuation, replacing commas, periods, semicolons and parentheses. Newspapers have contributed to the trend by preferring paired dashes where parentheses have served for a few hundred years.
Where the dash serves correctly to separate thoughts, people seem to want it to add suspense or drama. I can’t agree that the little line has that much mojo, but even if it does, I see it far too much.
This goes under my “one gimmick per day” rule, which I shall expound more on later, along with scare quotes, colons and — heaven help me — capitalization.
Ceterum censeo “utilize” esse delendam.

Thursday 29 March 2012

Quality advice to avoid issues

Richard Jewell (1962-2007)

I dedicate this week’s column to the late Richard Jewel, a regular cop who earned months of public abuse for staying alert, doing his job and saving lives during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
Some would say he performed quality work when faced with a potential situation.
I would not.
While I am not above wasting ink on ideas of dubious value, I draw the line at wasting ink on words that convey nothing at all.
Alas, because of the way people use “quality” and “situation,” I end up using a lot of ink drawing that line.
In the case of “quality,” blame for the misuse — as for so much deterioration of American diction — likely rests with advertisers. A thorough search of the archives might even pinpoint what ad for which product started it.
I imagine a Lucky Strike-puffing copywriter on Madison Avenue deleting one little word on his way to a four-hour martini lunch on Tuesday, so the handbills printed Wednesday proclaimed “For a quality washday soap, buy Sudzo!” instead of “For a high quality washday soap, buy Dynokleen!” (Did I miss my calling, or what?)
Was that writer just trying to save a tiny bit of ad space, or was he consciously and sneakily avoiding any commitment as to whether the “quality” in question was high or low, letting the targeted consumers fill in that crucial bit based solely on the number and size of the following exclamation points, or on the beatific look of satisfaction worn by a June Cleaver doppelganger?
Likewise “situation,” although in this case I blame the military-trained butchers of English. We are well served if they can render our enemies half as impotent as they make their prose.
A high-ranking spokeshuman probably intended to avoid alarming the citizenry by leaving out words like “dangerous” and “volatile” when describing an unexpected encounter between heavily armed, hostile forces at a sensitive time and place: “We have a potential situation developing along the Hungarian border.”
Which left us all praying that the Soviets didn’t maneuver us into the losing side of a potential situation gap.
So did Jewell “perform quality work when faced with a potential situation”? Certainly, but so do we all, every day, whether that work is outstanding, average or sub-par, and regardless of whether the outcome proves glorious, tragic or completely inconsequential.
The sentiment intended is, of course, that an alert police officer performed effective work that prevented a problem. The words “effective” and “problem” carry the moral value as part of their fundamental denotation — no inference, supposition or wishy-washing needed.
Several other words get this treatment. “Issue” comes to mind, as in “That family has issues,” where we start forgetting to wink at the neutral word so that it soon has to lug around the negative connotation wherever it goes.
As my fellow high school band trumpeter John Williamson paraphrased in our senior yearbook, “Of all the schools I’ve ever been to, this is certainly one of them.” (Hi, John.)
Now to the rhetorical legacy of Officer Jewell and the Centennial Olympic bombing.
I can’t name the specific culprit who originally saddled us with “person of interest.” I did a little digging, but couldn’t divine whether the phrase came from the media or the police first. They certainly share guilt for its spread in the early stages.
The police latched onto it because it seemed to let them say “suspect” without taking moral or legal responsibility for naming someone a suspect. The media let them get away with it.
Both the media and the police continue playing this spineless game. This week The Associated Press moved a story about a person of interest arriving in Anchorage from Texas, presumably as an honored traveling companion of the federal marshals who surrounded him the whole way.
The moral worthlessness of “person of interest” as a euphemism stands clear. To an extent, case law rejects it as legally worthless, too. Neither police nor news outlets can stave off a libel judgment simpy by arguing they never called someone a suspect.
I will call the inventor of the phrase a poltroon to their face and gladly embrace any consequences — pistols or swords, your call. Meanwhile the rest of us should stop letting it slide.
But maybe time will take care of it. Euphemisms have a way of deteriorating back to the original negative connotation their first users aimed at suppressing.
This effect can use up a whole string of words as one after another sinks into vulgarity. Thus the French, over a few centuries, have worked their way through every likely word for “kiss,” because sooner or later each one ends up meaning a far more intimate interaction.
See, I can euphemize, too.
I conclude with this sociolinguistic conundrum: Does the increasing acceptance of blasphemies such as “hell” and “damn” in polite speech during the last half century represent an opposite tendency for those words to lose a semantic taint, or does it just means the society throwing them around no longer abjures Satan and all his works?
Now there’s a damn quality issue.
Ceterum censeo “utilize” esse delendam.

Wednesday 10 August 2011

This error has gotten soooo common!

Another post from the Herman's Hawks and Handsaws collection

In the language of Western tonal music, a V chord at the end of a phrase makes your brain expect a I chord. This V-I sequence, called an “authentic cadence,” creates the most satisfyingly final-sounding ending possible. Consider the end of the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, a sequence of G and C chords (the V and I in the key of C) alternating eight times, just to make sure everybody really gets the point.
Other types of cadences play with the strong sense of expectation. The “deceptive cadence” creates a sense of surprise by following the V chord with a VI instead of the expected I.
The “half cadence” just cuts off at the V, ending the phrase with the unshakable feeling that something more must follow.
But where Beethoven could use that feeling to carry us into the next musical idea, people speaking and writing English have taken to misusing a little word, leaving listeners and readers hanging.
The culprit is “so,” when used as a substitute for “very,” as in this example:
“The teen vampire was so dreamy.”
This adverbial “so” needs another clause to make a complete sentence:
“The teen vampire was so dreamy that the girls swooned.”
“I swooned because the teen vampire was so dreamy.”
One might argue that the incomplete version belongs in the category of exclamations, like “Wow!” and “What a fluffy kitty!” These sentences share with imperatives an exemption from usual subject/predicate requirements. That whole area would make for some interesting syntax papers.
Meanwhile, I associate the incorrect usage with a style more immature than illiterate, but it has spread beyond the junior high schools.
The same internal grammar sense that gives me the “unfinished” feeling about those “so” sentences leaves me unhappy with an AP-sanctioned usage. It goes like this: The omnipotent stylebook tells us to use upper-case “Gov.” or “Sen.” before a name, as in “Gov. Sean Parnell.” But that leads to the less perspicuous usage “former Gov. Sarah Palin” or “ex-state Sen. Ben Stevens,” supported by a dedicated entry on the word “former.”
That bugs me because it applies the AP style by grouping the wrong elements. The rule should apply only to titles like “governor” or “senator” — not, I argue, to quasi-titles like “former governor.”
In formal syntax terms, “former Gov. Sarah Palin” treats “Gov. Sarah Palin” as if it is a constituent, excluding the “former.” However, any reasonable structural analysis would treat “former governor” as a constituent separate from the following name.
How say the readers? Should I defy AP and start using “former governor Sarah Palin”?
And why should my sense of what sounds wrong — as opposed to anybody else’s — have any relevance in deciding the issue? Frankly, the best reason is that I grew up in a middle-class family in Toledo, Ohio, and therefore use the most generic possible American English. It looks like this blog will keep coming back to the question of prescriptive authority for language.
Ceterum censeo “utilize” esse delendam.

Sunday 10 July 2011

Did elsewho among the studentry sneeze?

Serious publications naturally adopt a conservative stance toward language choices, or diction. At the same time, language inexorably evolves, so that the Latin of Caesar’s time turns into the French, Italian, Spanish and so on of 1,000 years later.
I am fascinated by the ways change comes to different languages — and how communities consciously try to control the change. People who read Modern Greek can understand a 2,500-year-old text pretty well. The Icelandic of today differs little from the Old Norse of 1000 AD that changed to become Swedish, Danish and Norwegian. For English the break-off point comes a little before Shakespeare.
And I will come back to the Académie Française in a later blog.
It happens bit by bit. The Associated Press recently decreed that the venerable “e-mail” must now appear as “email,” and cell phones are now “cellphones.” Both demonstrate the common progress of compound nouns: first two words, then hyphenated, then one word.
I don’t particularly like “email,” but I won’t fight AP on this one.
Americans have brought several logical improvements to the language, including “plow” for “plough” and “today” for “to-day.” Phonologically, “centre” versus “center” is a toss-up.
Some reforms didn’t make it. I think it was the old Chicago Herald that tried to give us “thru” instead of “through” in a crusade to save three characters worth of ink.
Professor Strunk (pictured above) suggested one of my favorite failures. He wanted “studentry” to replace the awkward “student body,” by analogy to “faculty” and “peasantry.”
Eminently sensible, and stylistically strong, to boot.
Even more sensible would be to drop the biologically silly term “crab fishery” in favor of “crabbery.”
I don’t really think I’ll win this one, either, so here is another of my ideas for reform:
The word “elsewhere” is so tidy and useful, why not also “elsewho,” "elsewhen” and "elsewhat”? Much neater than “somebody else,” etc.
And of course, when I am king, “snaze” will become the official past tense of “sneeze.”
The complementary category consists of words and phrases that clearly do not deserve to survive. Some people call them “buzzwords,” but I say that’s one of them. This week two that have long outlived their time came over my desk. Please immediately and permanently retire “no-brainer” and “man up.” Other candidates?
Ceterum censeo “utilize” esse delendam.