Saturday, July 25, 2009

Some Werds

When I was a boy, George Carlin was building a reputation as — in my opinion — the best comedian alive.

Much of his reputation was established by his routines about words, language, clichés. That wasn't how his career began. If you go back and listen to his earliest albums, you'll hear routines in which he plays characters that were inspired by broadcasting personalities like TV newscasters, weathermen, disc jockeys. Other routines were his musings about issues of the day like the drug culture and birth control.

But when he was in his mid–30s, he made an album called "Class Clown," in which he performed what may have been his most famous and most requested (but probably the least frequently played on radio) routine called "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television," a seven–minute monologue that earned his album a parental warning label many, many years before such a thing became standard in the recording industry.

From that moment on, every Carlin performance, every Carlin album included at least one discussion on language, often more. His very next album, in fact, had an 11–minute routine called "Filthy Words," which was an extension of his "Seven Words ..." routine. That album also had routines on childhood clichés, how certain words (in this case, "fart") were used as personal descriptions and thoughts about "raisin rhetoric" (which was inspired by a popular Raisin Bran commercial from the '70s in which the actors wore raisin outfits, complete with dark shirts labeled "RAISIN," and sang a commercial jingle while sitting in a bowl filled with a milk–like liquid and surrounded by bran flakes).

The album that followed that one had a routine called "Some Werds." It was actually a rant about phrases like "calm, cool and collected," "kit and kaboodle," "odds and ends" and other aspects of language that made no sense to him. He wrapped up the routine with a fictionalized statement from an "anti–pornography dude, kind of an anti–smut man ... (the words) you select tell a lot about you." That led into the statement: "Our thrust is to prick holes in the stiff front erected by the smut dealers. We must keep mounting an offensive to penetrate any crack in his defenses ..." Well, I'm sure you get the general idea.

Anyway, that is why I have been inspired to give this post the title "Some Werds." For a long time, I have had some thoughts relating to language and popular usage, and I feel like I will explode if I don't express them.

When I was in school, I always did well in English. I almost never missed a word on a spelling test. I always got an A when I wrote an essay. When I took my college entrance exam, I scored in the top 5% in the nation in English.

I'm not sure how I developed this talent. It probably goes back to my childhood. In addition to the things I was taught in school, many things were reinforced in my home life. I come from a family of teachers. My father was a college professor. Before my brother and I were born — and then again after we reached our teen years — my mother taught in elementary school. My father's father also was a college professor.

And my father's mother was an English teacher.

By the time of my earliest memory of her, she had retired from teaching, but while you might be able to take the girl out of the English class, I don't think you could ever take the English class out of that girl. In fact, I have memories of sending her thank–you notes for birthday and Christmas gifts I received from her when I was only 6 or 7 years old, and she mailed them back to me with my spelling and grammar mistakes circled.

Now, I never doubted that she loved me. But I guess my ego took a bit of a beating when my thank–you notes came back to me with my mistakes corrected. And it became my mission to write a letter to her that would meet her standards.

I don't remember how old I was when I sent her a letter she didn't send back to me. Perhaps she reached a point where she decided she had fought the good fight. Or maybe she concluded that it had become a mountain too high. She had three other grandchildren from my aunt, and they were all older than I was. By the time my brother learned to write, she may have stopped grading thank–you letters entirely.

But, as I say, it became my mission to submit the flawless thank–you note. She never announced that she had stopped grading them so I may never have passed her test.

But that experience, and the lessons I learned from it, have remained with me all my life. My penmanship has never been much to, ahem, write home about, but I didn't have to worry about that much after I learned to type. And nowadays, most written communication is done by computer, anyway. Even note–taking seems to be done more and more on computer laptops.

But I get the feeling that, for some reason, most people take computers as a license to be sloppy ... in all kinds of ways.

One way is just plain old–fashioned laziness.

I was reminded of that this morning when I was looking at a blog that is written by North Carolina journalism professor Andy Bechtel. The blog, "The Editor's Desk," made the point that the phrase "15 minutes of fame," artist Andy Warhol's often cited statement from 1968, is worn out but "lives on even though the artist himself has been dead for more than 20 years."

In my opinion, it lives on because some people are too lazy to come up with an original observation that suggests the same thing — a one–hit wonder, a flash in the pan, that kind of thing.

It's like saying "friendly confines" as a reference to the home crowd at a sporting event. It isn't an indication of how literate you are or how clever you are. It says you are lazy. Too lazy to find an original way to say which team is the home team.

By the way, I think "friendly confines" should be outlawed by most copy desks at most newspapers — but copy desks seem to be expendable at newspapers these days and, consequently, copy editors are fighting bigger battles. To use another cliché that probably should be retired, they've got bigger fish to fry.

I'm sorry to see copy desks in this sort of fix because I parlayed my training from my grandmother (not to mention my college education) into a profession for many years, but now I feel like I'm caught betwixt and between. I'm out of work, and I haven't found much of a need for people who can write and spell. Journalism majors who didn't study public relations or advertising aren't in great demand.

But I still think it's important to be able to write. And I still think it's important to spell words — and spell them out, not use abbreviations like BTW or IMO — or even more obscure abbreviations, like BFF.

I still have to stop and think about that one when I see it. It always reminds me of a scene from the original movie "The Odd Couple." Oscar was complaining to Felix about the fact that he left notes for Oscar on Oscar's pillow. Then he quoted one: "We are all out of corn flakes. FU." He glared at Felix. "It took me three hours to figure out 'FU' was 'Felix Ungar.' "

Actually, I get irritated by just about all the internet acronyms that I see everywhere around me. When someone writes "LOL," that is supposed to imply that the person is "laughing out loud." Some people punctuate every sentence with it. If that is a statement of fact, some folks must be downright mirthful, judging from all that nonstop laughing.

The ones that give me pause are the ones who write "ROFL," which means "rolling on the floor laughing." I always try to picture that in my mind, but I just can't quite manage it. And I also find it difficult to picture the ones who write "LMAO," which means "laughing my ass off." And I refuse to even think about "ROFLMAO."

Boy, talk about mirthful.

Now, some of these acronyms predate e–mail and text messaging and computer chatting — like "ASAP" and "FYI." I think they're pretty commonly accepted, even in spoken conversation.

But be honest: Before you started reading this post, did you know what "CMIIW" means? It means "Correct Me If I'm Wrong." Do you know what "IANAL" means? It means "I Am Not A Lawyer."

Apparently, they have entire books now — called "Wiktionaries" — that give extensive internet acronym listings. People who are well–versed in this kind of language could carry on entire conversations by e–mail or text messaging and never write a single legible word.

But I think it is wrong for people to assume that everyone is familiar with all these acronyms. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself if you know for a fact that the person for whom the e–mail or text message is intended knows what the acronym stands for. If he/she doesn't, he/she might spend three hours puzzling over it like Oscar did.

For that matter, if you are sending a message to several recipients at once, I would suggest tailoring it for the lowest common denominator. There may be recipients among them who are fluent in today's acronyms, but if you know that there is a codger or two in there, resist the temptation.

Sending out a message that you know probably would not be understood by everyone would violate what I presume is still the objective of communication — to get a message from Point A to Point B as quickly and efficiently as possible.

I also have an issue with the so–called "emoticons." I've always felt that every key on the typewriter (and now, every key on the computer keypad) has a purpose. Colons and semicolons and parentheses have purposes, and those purposes do not include indicating to the reader if the writer was smiling as he/she wrote a sentence.

Here's another "let's be honest" for you: Up to this very moment, did you know what :-& stands for? It is supposed to imply that the writer is tongue–tied. I learned that in an e–mail exchange. I'll spare you the details, but, again, I will recommend that you be sure the recipient is acquainted with the emoticon you want to use.

Back to the acronyms, for a minute. They might be preferable to some of the horrendous misspellings I see on the internet. Constantly. Everywhere. Sometimes it is sloppy. Sometimes it is plain ignorance.

But it really annoys me that people don't seem to understand (or don't seem to care) how to make a word a plural or how to make a word possessive. And don't even think of complicating things by introducing the concept of plural possessive into the discussion.

I used to have a manager who would send out e–mails all day. Several of those e–mails were guaranteed to require (at least in her limited written language) "there," "they're" or "their." I don't think she ever used the right spelling of the word in any of those e–mails.

My all–time favorite message from her said something like, "Their going to hold there meeting they're on Friday." She was always preaching the virtue of the spellchecker, but her e–mails were prime examples of how spellcheckers can be fooled. Context matters.

I run into the same thing with "your" and "you're." If the description is of something that belongs to a person, such as a car or a house or a book, "your" is the possessive form that needs to be used. But if the intention is to combine the words "you" and "are," forming a construction that can be used to say something like "you are correct," then "you're" is the appropriate choice.

I think it is important to use the right word to express yourself. When I taught journalism, I used to tell my editing students that they didn't need to use a sledgehammer to drive a nail.

Clearly, words can be overused. A couple of weeks ago, CNN.com wondered if the word "absolutely" is overused.

My answer would be "yes," but I have a whole list of words that I think are overused. For example, I think "awesome" is overused. It means to inspire awe. Does your mechanic inspire awe when he changes your oil? If he does, I want to meet him. He might change my life. Wouldn't that be awesome? Most definitely — which I also believe is overused.

And then there are redundancies, which is an entirely different category, but I just can't finish this rant until I mention the one that really annoys me — exact same. I read it all the time. I hear it all the time. If something is the same as something else, why do you need to add the word exact? You don't.

Well, I could go on and on. But the fact is that, most of the time, I don't say anything to anyone. Maybe I should let off some steam now and then.

There were times when I worked for that girl and I had to stop myself from replying to her e–mails and informing her why she should have used "there" or "their" or "they're." Maybe I would have felt better — at least, I would have felt as if I contributed to her knowledge — if I had pointed out what she did wrong.

And there are times when people throw an acronym at me that I am totally unfamiliar with. So, like Oscar, I have to ponder it for awhile — and, given the context of the conversation or the previous e–mail messages, I can usually come close.

And, please, let's not get started on the fact that most people don't seem to know when they should (or should not) capitalize words (the answer is to be found in the difference between common nouns and proper nouns). And many don't bother to use exclamation points or question marks appropriately.

But I guess the main reason why I feel many people are just sloppy is this: When I was growing up, my family had a set of World Books, and my brother and I had a subscription for several years to the children's monthly magazine from World Book.

There were a couple of cartoon kids who were featured in each issue — one month, it might be about weather; the next month, it might be about animals at the zoo; the next month, it would be about something else — and they asked questions that readers could answer by looking it up in World Book. Their signature phrase was, "We never guess. We look it up."

People today are too lazy to look it up. They're too lazy to confirm facts or spellings. And that, I believe, is part of the problem with journalism today.

There's more to it, of course. But that's another rant for another day.

1 comment:

wgb999 said...

Slothful contemporary journalists in our declining culture serve an equally slothful audience that reads little, understands less and cares not at all. Noticing your (so tempted to write "you're") keen interest in George Carlin, you might enjoy reading my new book, GEORGE CARLIN'S ALTER-EGO By His Alter-Ego (Amazon/Barnes and Noble). Please continue criticism of the "Filth Estate."

Bill Brennan BJ U/MO