Word Watch – April 2006

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People who don’t like this column – and there are people who don’t like this column – complain about its haughty tone, its arrogant desire to instruct, its guilt-inducing emphasis on rules and logic. Who appointed you, these people ask, to be judge over us?

These complaints are wholly without merit. But in the spirit of toleration and benevolence, even to miserable whiners, I will devote this column not to rules, and especially not to logic, but to pleasure, guilty pleasure. What interests me today is the linguistic free-for-all, the open-all-night funhouse, the constant, ridiculous denial of common sense that makes our life as speaking creatures such an inexhaustible source of merriment.

So, to paraphrase the “Divine Comedy”: Abandon All Thought, Ye Who Enter Here.

Thought is always the enemy of fun. One of Richard Nixon’s amusing campaign slogans was “America Can’t Stand Pat.” He meant to say that America shouldn’t stay in one place; America had to progress. Fine. But think (as apparently Nixon never really did): his wife name was Pat. It’s a silly pleasure, taken on the sly, but almost anyone will enjoy a snigger at Dick’s expense.

Or his opponents’. Who was it in the Kennedy camp who called his great new push for harmony with our southern neighbors “La Alianza para el Progreso”? The phrase means, “The Alliance for [‘para’] Progress.” It also means, “The Alliance Stops [‘Para’] Progress.”

Napoleon’s first wife was a lady from the West Indies. When she was asked where she came from, she said, “Je suis d’lnde,” which means, “I’m from the Indies.” But it sounds exactly like “Je suis dinde”: “I am a turkey.” (Experts on the French language doubt that this story is true, but who cares? It ought to be. Besides, we speak English here.)

But speaking of names, how much forethought would it take, if your last name were Hogg, not to name your daughter

“Ima”? However much that might be, it was too much for Governor James Hogg of Texas, who named his daughter that very thing. And his fellow Texans just can’t leave it alone. One of the state’s proud cultural institutions is the Ima Hogg Museum. Didn’t they ever think of using just the last name?

Of course, many ridiculous expressions are the products of a little thought. A little thought, like a little learning, is a dangerous thing. Until recently there was an apartment house in my neighborhood called the “Cota Arms.” Get it? Cota Arms: Coat of arms. I believe it was owned by a man named Cota. It’s possible that Mr. Cota’s antic disposition was bequeathed to the owner of a building across the street – a three-story structure called the Hillcrest Towers. It’s also possible that the builder of this “tower” was a student of philosophy who had automatically imbibed the relativism so characteristic of modern thinkers. Height, after all, is relative. Maybe someplace there’s a one-story “tower.”

I wouldn’t change that name for anything. Nor would I change the name of Oblong, Ill. My family comes from a place near Oblong, and I’m reliably informed that “nobody knows why they call it by that funny name.” I do know why Normal, Ill., is called what it’s called. It was the seat of a “normal school,” that is, a teacher’s college. But the great thing is the persistent legend that a down-home newspaper once ran the following headline: “Normal Man Weds Oblong Woman.” I don’t think anything like that happens in France or Russia – or their newspapers, either.

Neither do things like the phenomenon that anthropologist Louise Pound noticed in the 1920s, calling it “The Kraze for ‘K”‘: Krazy Kat, Krispy Kreme, Ken’s Kwikee Kleeners, and, not kwite so kute, the Invisible Empire of the Ku Klux Klan. Then there’s the wonderful density of puns that certain American industries attract. I’m thinking right now of hair salons. You’d be disappointed, wouldn’t you, if you walked by one of those places and found that it was not called “The Man Thing,” “The Hairport,” “The Clip Joint,” or “The Cut Above.” Ah, shear delight.

English seems to lend itself to strange effects. I’ve always thought it’s charmingly ridiculous that in English we “drive” a car, as ifwe were shooing it down the road, like a horse or ox. But calling a supermarket the “Piggy Wiggly” or an RV emporium the “Pacific Home of Mobile World” is somewhat overdo- ing this poetic license. By the way, at Piggly Wiggly a “Smile Manager is here to do whatever it takes to make you happy.”

O f course, merchants and advertisers know not what they do. But the English language is apparently so hard to nail down that even those masters of style and grace, American journalists, can never quite get the hang of it. You gotta love’em all:

• The Fox News correspondent who was alarmed by the damage done to New York City’s economy by the recent transit strike: “Scores of people stayed home.”

• The pundits at the distinguished journal Science who selected “evolution” as “the breakthrough of 2005.”

• The Yahoo headline writer who insisted that “Ex-EPA Chiefs Blame Bush on Climate Change.” (Yes, that’s our president – just another one of those monsters who are always crawling onto the beach whenever “something has happened, something very very bad” in the boiling seas just offJapan.)

It’s worth a bet: in America, any earnest thought is likely to become a joke. In this context, of course, one naturally thinks of the inscription on Elvis’s tomb: “He became a living legend in his own time.” I don’t know why the people who turn up at Gracelandaren’t all screaming with laughter. Maybe they are. A popular webpage, solemnly entitled “Evidence that Elvis Hoaxed His Own Death,” observes that “the coffin weighed 900 pounds: Elvis is known to have been overweight at the time of his death … but not that much.” Well, can you prove it? And can you prove you don’t mean to be so funny?

“Brokeback Mountain” is an earnestly provocative film about a gay romance. How gratifying it is, therefore, to hear the radio ads invoking it in the warm, ripe tones associated with re-releases of “Dumbo” and “Snow White”: “‘Brokeback Mountain!’: the phenomenon that is connected with the heart of America!” I don’t say that this is gratifying because of some special meaning that I believe it has, but because it is absolutely and completely meaningless, in some inexplicably American manner. Let me put it to you this way: it’s a phenomenon that is connected with the heart of America.

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