Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Try to Remember

After a recent blog on frequently confused words, one of the more literistic* customers wrote to say she uses a mnemonic to distinguish continuous from continual.  She remembers that the word ending in OUS means One Uninterrupted Sequence.  Mnemonics have been useful devices for millennia, to help the fevered brain recall hard-to-remember facts, especially lists of items.

You’re probably familiar with HOMES, which is supposed to remind you of the Great Lakes: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior.  Of course, if you want to remember them in order of size, you’ll have to think of SHMEO, which is harder to do. 

It’s just about as difficult to come up with the name of that noted celebrity ROY G. BIV. But if you do, he will lead you effortlessly to the colors of the spectrum: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet. Our British cousins prefer a historical allusion to the defeat of Richard Duke of York at the Battle of Wakefield: Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain.  Whatever works.

Many of us remember Every Good Boy Does Fine for the notes on the lines of the treble staff.  In Britain, as we know from the play by Tom Stoppard and André Previn, it’s Every Good Boy Deserves Favour. And the bass clef lines tell us that those Good Boys Do Fine Always.

Biological taxonomy is embedded in the memory by Kids Prefer Cheese Over Fried Green Spinach, which, to those in the know, can be rendered as Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and Species.

And for mathematicians who want to remember the first digits of pi (3.14159265…), there’s “How I want a drink, alcoholic of course, after the heavy lectures involving quantum mechanics…”  Just count the number of letters in each word.  That could go on forever.

Mnemonics get their name from the mythical Greek Titan Mnemosyne, the daughter of Gaia and Uranus, the mother of the Nine Muses—and the possessor of a prodigious memory.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou’s memory is not prodigious, but his appetite for the ludicrous is nothing short of miraculous, as you may easily discern from the following:            
            The fugitive

            Roy G. Biv

            Remarked one day in Greenwich,

            “Kids Prefer Cheese”

            (Roy paused to sneeze)

            “Over Fried Green Speenwich.”

*I have no more idea than you do what “literistic” means—but it’s part of the name of a New York agency that represents writers like Ruth Rendell, Dick Francis, and John Irving, so I figure it must have something to do with books.

Monday, May 16, 2011

OK by Me

You might think it unlikely that anyone could write a whole book about one word—especially one that sometimes isn’t even a proper word, but just two letters stuck together.  I refer, of course, to okay, a.k.a. O.K., OK, and even okeh. 

Allan Metcalf has done it—and come up with OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word, a narrative of 224 pages all about this expression, which he calls a meme.  Meme is defined as “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture.” That makes it sound like a disease, but okay—or OK, as Metcalf prefers.

Most language experts agree, more or less, on how the word, uh…meme, came to be.  It was in the 1830s when several simultaneous cultural and historical influences gave birth to OK.  First printed in The Boston Morning Post as a faddish joke, O.K. was meant as a facetious abbreviation of “oll korreck.”  It took its place alongside such other jocular misspellings as K.G. (“no go” as if spelled “know go”), K.Y. (“no use” or “know youse”), and N.C. (“’nuff ced”).

O.K. was used as a political taunt against President Andrew Jackson, whose opponents tried to paint him as an illiterate who used it to mean “all correct” because he couldn’t spell.  They also made jokes that O.K. meant Jackson was “Out of Kash,” “Out of Kredit,” “Out of Klothes,” and “Orfully Konfused.”

When Jackson’s hand-picked successor, Martin van Buren, ran for a second term in 1840, the Whigs plastered him with the O.K. designation, which had the added cachet of standing for “Old Kinderhook,” as Van Buren was sometimes called, after the New York village in which he was born.  A group of his supporters called themselves “The O.K. Club.”

With all this background, people began marking “OK” on documents or using the letters “OK” in telegrams to mean that all was well. Thus the expression entered the language and became much-used permanent fixture, not only in English but in many other languages that picked it up.

There is no shortage of other claims of how O.K. originated. 

The Choctaw language has a word spelled okeh that means “it is so.”  That’s the way President Woodrow Wilson spelled OK. A Tennessee historian claims that O.K. appears in a 1790 court record quoting Andrew Jackson who used it mean “acceptable.” Another historian traces its use to 1815 in a hand-written diary of travels by William Richardson. 

A raft of latter-day attempts to explain it include:

*Ohne Korrektur, a German phrase meaninag “without 
*The Russian phrase ochen khorosho (“very well”)
*The initials of “Obediah Kelly,” placed on railroad bills of 
*The initials of “Otto Kaiser,” certifying factory products ready 
        for shipping
*A homophonic transliteration of the French au quai (“on the 
       dock”), a phrase supposedly used by sailors in the 
      American Revolution in making trysts 
*Ober Kommand (German “high command”)
*The initials of “open key,” a telegraph signal meaning “ready 
       to transmit”
*The Latin phrase  Omnis Korrecta, supposesdly used by 
      schoolmasters in marking papers
*“Outer keel,” a marking on the timbers used in ship-building
*Initials of “Orrin Kendall,” suppliers of high-quality biscuits in 
       the Civil War
*The Old English word hogfor, meaning “seaworthy” and 
      pronounced by Norwegian sailors as “hah gay”
*The numeral 0 followed by the letter K, meaning “zero killed” 
     in military dispatches
*The Scottish och aye (“yes”)
*The French O qu’oui (“ah, yes”)
*The initials of “Old Keokuk,” a Sac chief
*The Bantu word waw-kay (“yes, indeed”).

It’s easy to see, after all, how Metcalf was able to get a whole book out of just two letters.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has trouble getting a couplet out of all 26 letters, and after his week of rest, insists, “Och aye, waw kay, O qu’oui, I’m hah gay,” the meaning of which is clearer than his weekly offering in what passes for verse:

            I thought it would be okey-dokey
            The time I wound up in the pokey.
            My cellmate was another bloke; he
            Said that he was born in Skokie,
            But later he became an Okie.
            He had a cough and sounded croaky,
            Because our cell was hot and smoky.
            So I offered him a troche,
            And when he said such stuff was hokey,
            I tried to play it cool and low-key.
            He went to sleep, and when he woke, he
            Began to dance the hokey-pokey,
            Which made me think he must be cokey
            And maybe not so okey-dokey.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Double N, One L

The Assistant Director of Personnel at a large corporation noticed that his boss, the Director of Personnel, upon arriving at his desk each morning, unfailingly opened a drawer, took out a metal box, unlocked it, looked inside, smiled, then closed it and put it away. The Assistant Director longed to know what was in that box. Years later, the boss retired and the Assistant Director became the Director of Personnel.  He couldn’t wait to open that drawer, unlock the box, and look inside.  There he found a small slip of paper on which was written: “Two N’s, one L.”

There are many words in English, like personnel and personal, which look similar, but are spelled differently and mean different things. Guess what? They are often confused with each other.

Here’s a list of some of the most commonly confused, misspelled, and misused words. Like the man said, there is no royal road to geometry—nor to orthography.  Well, he didn’t mention orthography, but it’s equally true.  English being what it is, there is usually no way to differentiate between these similar-looking words, except to commit them to memory.  Do it.  Now.

Here are a few to get started on; you will no doubt think of many more on your own:

            Affect (v.) – cause a change in
            Effect (v.) – put into operation
                    Note: Effect can also be a noun, in which case 
                    it can mean the result of having been affected.  

            Altar (n.) – place of religious sacrifice
            Alter (v. ) – change 

            Census (n.) – a counting, usually of people
            Consensus (n.) – general agreement, usually of 
            Compliment (n.) – favorable comment
            Complement (n.) – the full number that makes 
                    something complete
            Confectionary (n.) – place where confectionery is 
                   made or sold
            Confectionery (n.) – sweet foods made in a 
                  Note: Some dictionaries will tell you that these 
                  words are  interchangeable. Do not believe them.

            Continuous (adj.) - uninterrupted
            Continual (adj.) – recurring over time in rapid 

            Council (n.) –  deliberative or advisory body           
            Counsel (n.) – advice or the adviser who gives it, 
                      specifically a lawyer 
            Consul (n.) – diplomatic or trade official in a foreign 
            Forego (v.) – come before
            Forgo (v.) – do without

            Foreword (n.) – part of a book preceding the main text
            Forward (adj.) – situated in an advance position; 
                            (v.) – promote
                            (n.) – player at the front of a team’s 
                            (adv.) – toward what is ahead
            Precede (v.) – come before
            Proceed (v.) – move along

            Prescription (n.) – order for medicine from the doctor
            Proscription (n.) – ban

            Secede (v.) – withdraw
            Succeed (v.) – do well
            Supersede (v.) – take the place of, especially if 
                  superior to
                  Note: Some dictionaries will tell you supercede is 
                  an acceptable spelling. Do not believe them.
            Stationary (adj.) – immobile
            Stationery (n.) – writing paper

            Weather (n.) – climatic (not climactic!) conditions
            Wether (n.) – castrated male sheep
            Whether (conj.) – indication of alternatives

There, now.  Don’t you feel better having learned all that?  The Bard of Buffalo Bayou certainly does; in fact he feels so much better that he decided to take a week off, write proscriptions on his stationary, forego confectionary, give council on the wether--and if at first he doesn’t secede, he’ll precede again. He is expected to return next week, but I wouldn’t count on it.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!

Did you celebrate May Day yesterday by festooning yourself in garlands of bright-colored flowers, gamboling friskily about a maypole, and crowning a nubile young woman as the Queen of the May? Probably not.  But that’s what some of your ancestors did, and what some people still do in many parts of the world. 

The celebration of May Day, as the beginning of the farming season, originated in Roman times with festivals in honor of Flora, the goddess of flowers.  The practice was taken up by various pagan cultures in Germany and Britain.  No one is sure what the maypole symbolized.  It might have represented spring growth. It could have been the tree of life.  Possibly it symbolized Yggdrasil, the center of the cosmos in Norse mythology. Or perhaps it was a portrayal of a giant phallus.  Take your choice.

May Day is not to be confused with mayday, an international signal of a life-threatening emergency, used by ships, aircraft, police, fire workers, medical personnel, and anybody else experiencing a disaster who wants to seek help from those within earshot.  The term was first used in 1923 by Frederick Stanley Mockford, a traffic controller at Croydon Airport near London.  Since much of the air traffic at Croydon came from France, he devised the word “mayday” from the French m’aidez, which means “Help me!” For maximum results, you’re supposed to say it three times without pause.

Mayday rhymes with heyday, which means the highest point of excitement, health, happiness, youth, or prosperity.  It probably stemmed from the German expression heida, which simply means “Hey, there!” and was an exclamation denoting frolicsomeness or surprise. 

One of the earliest uses of heyday on record is in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, published in 1602, when the Danish prince tells his mother: “…at your age, the heyday in the blood is tame, it’s humble, and waits upon the judgment…” Cheeky kid.

When the Bard of Buffalo Bayou was asked to use both mayday and heyday in one of his poetic excrescences, this is what he produced:

            The livin’ was easy
            Back in my heyday,
            My lifestyle was breezy,
            I thought things were Grade-A.

            But now I get queasy
            When I approach payday,
            ‘Cause my take-home is cheesy,
            And I want to yell “mayday!”