Monday, December 27, 2010

Mojo Lost, Mojo Regained

For a short period after the November elections, President Obama was beset with political problems—trying to get legislation through a sometimes hostile, lame-duck Congress, parrying attacks from the Tea Party right, and even having to fend off sharp criticism from some fellow Democrats. Pundits ascribed these troubles to the loss of his “mojo.”  The powers of persuasion, the irresistible charisma, the eloquent oratory that were so prominent in his campaign were failing him as President, said the analysts.

But with such successes as the passage of the tax-cut/stimulus package, the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” approval by the Senate of the New START Treaty, enactment of the 9/11 compensation bill, and improved voter ratings, President Obama hit the comeback trail and seemed to have his mojo back.

So what is this thing called “mojo”?  Who has it? What’s it good for?  How do you get it?  Patience, and all will become clear.

I used to think “mojo” was some kind of compound word, constructed from “mocha” and “joe”—meaning a kind of coffee.   After that I got it mixed up with “Moho,” the nickname of the Mohorovičić Discontinuity, which is the boundary separating the earth’s crust from its mantle. Project Mohole was a failed attempt in the 1950s and 1960s to drill through the earth’s surface to reach the Moho.

The truth is “mojo” is a word of African and Creole descent that means “magical power.” The name was applied to a hoodoo amulet made of herbs and animal and mineral fragments wrapped in a red flannel cloth. It probably derives from the Fulani word moco’o (“medicine man”) and was first noted in American English usage in the 1920s.  In its broader usage, it means “self-confidence, sex appeal, dynamic personality.”

As it happens, there are lots of Mojos out there.   A Marvel Comics villain goes by that name, as do a video game, a British rock music magazine, a British black comedy by Jez Butterworth, a monkey helper on an episode of The Simpsons, and a Southwestern U. S. yogurt restaurant chain.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou lost his mojo some while ago, but he has never given up looking for it.  He thinks he may have accidentally left it in one of the shady establishments that he frequents while writing louche verses on the backs of napkins, to wit: 

            When I met V. P. Biden,
            I said to him, “You know, Joe,
            I think perhaps the Prez
            Has lost some of his mojo.”

            “His mojo’s fine,” said Biden,
            “Rest assured of that—
            Except when it is tried on
            A fellow Democrat.”

Monday, December 20, 2010

Post and Mail

This is the time of year when our mailboxes (I mean the real kind, not the electronic ones) are filled with all manner of material—catalogs, Christmas cards, ads for caviar and candy, and cunning come-ons for charitable contributions. In the United States, that mail is delivered by the United States Postal Service.  In Britain, the post is delivered by the Royal Mail. Ask an Englishman if the “mail” has come, and he will probably figure out what you mean, but it will sound odd to him, just as it would if you ask an American if the “post” has come.

The word post is derived from the Latin posta and French poste, and originally meant a “stand, or station.”  From the late sixteenth century the word applied to men on horseback (think Pony Express) stationed at appropriate intervals on a road (later called a post-road), whose duty it was to ride with packets containing the King’s dispatches.  Pals of the King soon persuaded him to let the riders carry their messages, too, and the modern postal system began.

Mail is a word from Old High German malha and Dutch maal, meaning a “bag, packet, or wallet.” By 1654 people were talking about a “mail of letters,” meaning a batch of letters packaged up to be delivered by post. By 1674 post and mail were used synonymously, to mean the letters (in a packet) carried by the post-riders. 

In the United States, by 1890, mail by itself was used to mean the batch of letters delivered to a specific person.
Both Post and Mail have become popular names for newspapers, since the earliest news was conveyed by means of letters carried by the post-riders.  You might think it a bit redundant that there is one newspaper, in Columbia City, Indiana, that calls itself The Post & Mail.

At the Bard of Buffalo Bayou’s home, the postman always rings twice.  That’s to rouse the Bard from the stupor in which he is sometimes found, while spinning gossamer verses like the following:

            Every time I get a letter,
            I wish that it were something better,
            Awarding me a Nobel Prize,
            A year’s supply of chocolate pies,
            Admission to the hall of heroes,
            Perhaps a check with lots of zeroes,           
            An invitation from a hottie
            To come and meet some literati,
            Or just a notice with the news
            I’ve won a Caribbean cruise.
            Instead—rejection slips from editors,
            Snarky claims from nasty creditors,
            Piles of bills I thought I’d paid,
            Appeals for cash I can’t evade;
            A magazine that I desired
            Says my subscription has expired;
            My bank insists I’m overdrawn,
            My broker says my nest egg’s gone.
            Mister Postman—I surrender,
            Take this junk, return to sender.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Apostrophe: It’s Finding Its Place

Matthew Inman, who writes a blog under the sobriquet “The Oatmeal,” recently posted a most useful poster called “How to Use an Apostrophe.”  You can see it at, or you can buy an 18”x24” copy to hang on  your living room wall for $11.95--but if you don’t want to bother with any of that, here’s a summary:

Don’t use an apostrophe to make a plural, except for letters of the alphabet and numbers. Do use an apostrophe followed by an “s” to indicate a possessive—unless it’s the possessive of a plural already ending in “s,” in which case the apostrophe follows the “s”—or unless it’s the possessive of a pronoun (like his, hers, ours, and its).  Do use an apostrophe to indicate contractions (omission of letters).

That’s about it.  The big trap to avoid is the its vs. it’s dilemma. It’s is a contraction of “it is” and its is the possessive of it.  The reason for this confusion is that when printers started using apostrophes in the sixteenth century, they served three purposes: to indicate the omission of letters, to distinguish a possessive from a plural, and to form a plural of certain words (those ending in vowels and the consonants z, s, ch and sh). For centuries people were unclear about which meaning was intended, and very respectable writers often misused the apostrophe. Washington Irving reportedly used apostrophes to indicate possessives less than half the time, and George Bernard Shaw never used them at all for contractions.  

By the way, other grammar posters “The Oatmeal” has available include How to Use a Semi-Colon, When to Use i.e. in a Sentence, and Ten Words You Need to Stop Misspelling.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has no posters available, but he will come to your home, often unbidden, and recite his gnomic work, such as the following:

            It kindles very little drama
            If someone finds a wayward comma;
            A colon and a semi-colon
            Don’t require the smarts of Solon;
            And there’s no problem with the myriad
            Misuses of the useful period.
            But there’s one punctuation mark
            That often leaves us in the dark,
            Wondering if it’s expressive
            Of contraction or possessive.
            And all too often the apostrophe
            Results in linguistic catostrophe.

Monday, December 6, 2010

On Average

Every day we read about  “average” interest rates, “average” gas prices, batting “averages,” “average” SAT scores, and the iconic Dow Jones Industrial “Average”—among dozens of other numerical indexes that purport to denote the general state of affairs in many aspects of life.  But what, exactly, is an “average”?

One of the more appealing dictionaries (its cover is bright red) tells us that an average is “a single value that summarizes or represents the general significance of a set of unequal values.”  Ten bucks says you didn’t know it derives from an Arabic word used to describe a proportional allocation of costs arising from cargo damaged in shipping.  

If you read further, and at this point, you might as well, you will learn that there are three basic kinds of averages, and they do not necessarily produce the same result.  They are the arithmetic mean, the median, and the mode.  The mean is the quotient of the sum of a set of values, divided by the number of values in the set.  The median is the value at which there are an equal number of greater and lesser values.  And the mode is the single value with the largest number of instances in the set. (I knew I should have taken a math course in college.) 

For example, suppose you wanted to find the “average” hourly legal fee charged by attorneys in your town. (Don’t ask me why.) Let’s assume there are 11 lawyers; 5 charge $500 an hour, 1 charges $300, 4 charge $200, and 1 poor guy who barely passed the bar exam charges just $100 an hour and is lucky to get it when he does, which is seldom. What’s the average hourly legal fee? (I knew I should have become a lawyer.)

The mean would be the sum of the 11 lawyers’ fees ($3,700) divided by the 11 lawyers, or an average of $336.36 an hour (check the math if you don’t believe me).  The median, however, would be just $300, since there are an equal number of values below and above it.  Finally, if you preferred, you could say the average hourly rate is $500—since that is the mode, the value that is represented by the largest number of instances. 

Ergo, when someone quotes an “average” to you, be sure you know what is meant.

There is no way of knowing what is meant by the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, whose poems have defied the most assiduous explication de texte.

            The average man is not too smart--
            He’s ignorant of modern art,
            Klee, Kandinsky and de Kooning
            Send him into fits of groaning.
            Grand opera he cannot abide,
            When Valkyries ride, he’ll hide.           
            Chamber music to him brings
            The sound of scraping on the strings.

            Modern novels are a bore,
            And poetry is even more.
            He won’t attend solo recitals
            Or watch a film that has subtitles.

            The average man’s a Philistine,
            His lack of learning is obscene,
            He shuns high culture when he can--
            Good grief! I am that average man!