Monday, September 27, 2010

Ugly, Ugly, Ugly

Which words do you think are the ugliest in the English language?  Apparently everybody has a different set of words they dislike, and many people feel compelled to make lists of them. 

There are at least three factors operating in choosing ugly words—sound, meaning, and appearance.  For some really ugly words, all three elements are operative at once.  Here are a few of the ugliest, so deemed by various parties. (Obvious four-letter profanities and vulgarisms don’t count.)

In 1946 the National Association of Teachers of Speech issued this list of the ten ugliest words based on a survey of its membership:

            cacaphony, crunch, flatulent, gripe, jazz, phlegmatic, plump, plutocrat, sap, treachery

Mississippi State University Professor Robert E. Wolverton polled 75 students in his classics classes and came up with:

            vomit, moist, puke, phlegm, slaughter, snot

Willard R. Espy, an old hand at wordplay, compiled this list of his favorite uglies for the Book of Lists:

            aasvogel, Brobdingnagian, cacaphonous, crepuscular, fructify, gargoyle,             jukebox, kakkak, kumquat, quahog

A website called puts forward this batch of repulsive abominations:

            smegma, phlegm, pus, pregnant, rural, moist, juror, regurgitate, crotch,             bunion, pulchritude, schmear, scab, sticktoitiveness, discharge, blog, synergy, crepuscular, ointment, chunk, curdle, tax, fetid, routine, honk

Our British cousins have their own ideas. The Guardian assembled this list after asking its readers to submit their nominees:

            crotch, sac, fiscal, gusset, nappy, gutted, rectum, gash, pustule, obligate,          
spatula, privilege, masticate, kudos, boobs, feisty, veggie, kooky, pasty, pamphlet, spouse, poet

What are your choices for the ugliest words in English? Don’t be bashful! Click that comment link and talk nasty.

You will note that the Brits put poet among their ugliest words.  This indicates that they are undoubtedly familiar with the work of the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who has attempted to write the ugliest verse in the world (and has almost certainly succeeded).

            Vomit, smegma, phlegm, and pus, all pasty in a sac,
            Schmeared with a fetid spatula upon a plump kakkak,
            Discharge a kumquat ointment on the scab of that smallpox,
            Then honk in moist cacaphony in the jazz of some jukebox.
            The curdled veggie, full of snotty sap--just masticate;
            If kooky, flatulent, don’t gripe or puke—regurgitate.
            A gargoyle with no boobs is feisty, pregnant and phlegmatic,
            For routine slaughter, kudos for a pustule plutocratic.           
            A gutted, Brobdingnagian, crepuscular quahog           
            Has so much sticktoitniveness, you can crunch it in a blog.
            A bunion on a rural juror’s crotch is treachery,
            Pulchritude and privilege fructify with synergy.
            My spouse’s fiscal tax will leave my gusset with a gash.
            Tell me what aasvogel means, I’ll give you a chunk of cash!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Ave Atque Vale, Edwin Newman

According to The New York Times’ obituary, Edwin Newman, the pundit, newsman, and defender of the English language who died last month in London at the age of 91, could not abide jargon, idiosyncratic spellings like “Amtrak,” the non-adverbial use of “hopefully,” the conversational filler “y’know,” awkward prefixes and suffixes such as “de-,” “non-,” “un-,” “-ize,” “-wise,” and “-ee”; and using a preposition to end a sentence.

The Times writer goes on to point out that this highly prescriptive approach to English usage had critics, such as linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, who complained that Newman never cited a dictionary or a standard grammar book to back up his dicta.  “Evidently,” said Nunberg, “one just knows these things.”

Well, yeah.  That’s what being able to speak and write with ease means.  You can’t be stopping every few seconds to verify that this is what Webster or Fowler or Garner will justify.  You simply know what sounds or looks right and you say it or write it.

I’ve never been as insistent as Newman on certain rigors.  Jargon has its place (a contract just doesn’t sound official unless there’s a “party of the first part”), “Amtrak” and its cousins such as “Kwik-Kopy” and “E-Z Pass” have a nice, breezy ring to my ear; “hopefully” has clawed its way to an acceptable adverbial role by simply refusing to give up gracefully; to unionize, theatrewise, is a non-issue to me; and ending a sentence with a preposition has been OK in my book since Winston Churchill (allegedly) said a rule against doing so was the “kind of nonsense up with which I shall not put.”  But y’know, I’m not going to defend “y’know,” which is an abomination.

The important thing is to pay attention to what you say and write. Language usage evolves, and the deadly sin is to let it do so on its own, without the control of the user. Carelessness, not error, is the great enemy of grammar, a sentiment with which I think Newman and Nunberg would both agree, not to mention Webster, Fowler, and Garner. 

As for the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, well, he naturally takes an idiosyncratic view:
            If you are lacking proper grammar,
            You do not speak, you only yammer.
            If you’re deficient in your diction,
            It is a monstrous great affliction.
            If you can’t parse a compound sentence,
            Get on your knees and start repentance.
            If you should fail to spell correctly,
            Beg forgiveness most abjectly.
            Still, these faults will qualify you
            To be a Bard on Buffalo Bayou.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Verb That Noun!

A recent newspaper ad for a bank had a headline that read: "Feel the EARN" (the point being that its CDs would earn high yields for the investor).  It’s an example of what is called “conversion” (or “anthimeria” if you want to be grammatically technical)—the use of one part of speech as if it were another.  In this case the verb earn is used like a noun.

Some people deplore this practice.  I have friends who grow livid with rage, with flaming daggers shooting from their eyes and smoke emanating from their ears, if anyone uses contact, access, or impact as a verb.  Others regard such conversions as a natural evolution of language or perhaps as creative poetry.  Will Shakespeare was especially fond of turning nouns into verbs, with such locutions as: 

            "Season your admiration for a while..."
            "It out-herods Herod..."
            "No more shall trenching war channel her fields..."
            "Grace me no grace, nor uncle me no uncle..."
            "Julius Caesar / Who at Philippi the good Brutus     
            "Destruction straight shall dog them at the heels..."
            "I am proverbed with a grandsire phrase..."
            “The hearts that spaniel’d me at heels”.

Tom McArthur in The Oxford Companion to the English Language writes, “Conversion has for centuries been a common means of extending the resources of English and creating dramatic effects: It is often said that there is no noun in English that can't be verbed: bag a prize, doctor a drink, soldier on.”  

Ben Zimmer, writing in The New York Times, pointed out a new verb now used in Oympic sports: to podium. To medal has been around for a while, and will surely soon by followed by such verbs as to Oscar, to Tony, to Grammy, to Emmy, to Pulitzer, and to Nobel.

Conversion works the other way as well, with verbs changed into nouns, e.g. "a good read," "an invite to the party," "it's a go," "come in and have a sit," "take a bite," "I went for a long run and a short walk."  Some are jocular but others are now standard.

Adjectives are also getting into the swing of things, becoming nouns in phrases like "my bad," "come here, my pretty," and "do you want a long or a short?" Sometimes nouns become adjectives: kitchen sink, church music, theatre party, voice mail, text message, computer screen.

It’s all a bit much for the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who has enough trouble as it is, sorting out all the parts of speak.

            There was a little noun, who said, “I’d like to be a verb,
            And learn to run, and jump, and skip—oh, that would be superb!”
            And so he practiced every day, to try to learn to move,
            For he supposed that if he could, then that would surely prove
            That as a verb he’d be the very best you ever saw,
            And all the other parts of speech would simply stand in awe.

            Alas, it worked out otherwise—his efforts met defeat:
            Before that noun could even crawl, why, he was obsolete.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Roger That

Have you ever used the word “Roger” to mean “understood”?  Do you know why the name Roger is used in that way?  Do you care? If you do care, you probably already know that it’s the international military code word for the letter “R”—which was in use between 1927 and 1957. As used in radio lingo, the letter “R” means “received.” 

Beginning in 1913, all letters of the alphabet were assigned words to be used in order to avoid confusion of similar sounding letters.  In addition to Roger, for example, Baker, George, Mike, and William were other names used to stand in for the letters with which they started.  Dog, Fox, Hypo, Jig, King, Love, Pup, Quack, Sail, Tare, and X-Ray were some of the other words used. 

Various branches of the military in the U. S. and other English-speaking countries had their own variations.  Nowadays the alphabetic code is administered by the International Civil Air Organization, and almost all of those early designations have been replaced by new ones.  Baker is now Bravo, George is Golf, William is Whiskey, Roger is Romeo, and so on down the line. 

Of the words in use between 1927 and 1957, only Mike and X-Ray have endured through the years and are still in general use.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou always hates to see the passing of the Old Guard, inasmuch as he is an Old Guardsman himself, and he has composed this lament, which he keens from the rooftops when there is a full moon:
            Roger, William, George, and Baker
            All have gone to meet their maker.
            Sexy Roger’s Romeo,
            For Baker, shout a bold Bravo!
            George took up Golf (he’s getting frisky),
            Teetotal William’s turned to Whiskey.
            Oscar now won’t play the Oboe,
            The King’s deposed, and some new Kilo           
            Reigns supreme, and that’s no joke.
            A Yankee’s in, and that’s no Yoke.
            Quebec at one time was a Quack,
            Now Delta’s here, Dog won’t be back.
            And do you think you can remember
            When N was Nan and not November?
            Love’s now Lima—does that mean
            A Peruvian city or a bean?
            They’ve changed a Tare into a Tango—
            Where, oh where, did that old gang go?
            Are there more changes down the pike?
            Oh, please, let us hold on to Mike,
            He’s been loyal, brave, and true—
            And let Mike have an X-Ray, too!

Monday, September 6, 2010

Bar None

I get lots of supposedly funny emails, most of which are not, and some of which threaten me ominously with dire consequences if I don’t forward them to at least ten more people.  I never pass them on, and dire consequences have indeed befallen me.  Many of these emails are about people who walk into a bar, and I now share with you now a few that tickled my funny bone (which is adjacent to the humerus).  Now, perhaps no more dire consequences will plague me.

            A man walks into a bar with a slab of asphalt under his arm, and says, “I’ll have a beer, and one for the road."

            A jumper cable walks into a bar. The bartender says, "You’d better not start anything."

            A C, an E-flat, and a G walk into a bar. The bartender says: "Sorry, but we don't serve minors."  So the E-flat leaves, and the C and the G have an open fifth between them. After a few drinks, the fifth is diminished and the G is out flat.

            Two peanuts walk into a bar.  One is a salted.

            A termite walks into a bar and asks, “Is the bar tender here?”

            A Catholic priest, a Protestant minister, and a Jewish rabbi walk into a bar. The bartender says, “Is this is a joke?”

            A dyslexic man walks into a bra.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou walks into a bar every chance he gets, but he doesn’t joke about it.  Instead, he versifies:

            A florist walked into a bar,
            And said, “I’ll have two Buds.”
            A laundress who was with him said,
            “Just pour me up some suds.”

            “On second thought,” the laundress said,
            “Make that a cup of Cheer.”
            And then an undertaker said,
            “I think I’ll have a bier.”           

            An optician walked into the bar
            And said, “I’d like two glasses.”
            A fisherman then said, “I want
            Some ale—make that two Basses.”

            A milkman walked into the bar,
            And said, “I’ll take a quart.”
            A sailor right behind him said,
            “I’m really into port.”

            A cotton farmer in the bar
            Remarked, “I need a gin.”
            A census-taker then came in
            And asked for Mickey Finn.

            A contortionist squeezed in
            And called out, “Bottom’s up!”
            Omar Khayyam came in then
            And wrote, “Come fill the cup.”

            A gunman walked into the bar
            And said, “I’ll take a shot.”
            A realtor scanned the drink list and
            Declared, “I’ll have the lot.”

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Variety-ese Is the Spice of Life

Variety, an entertainment newspaper founded in 1905 by Sime Silverman, is sometimes known as the Bible of those who worship in the Temples of Dionysos, Orpheus, and Terpsichore.  It covers movies, television, theatre (which it calls legit), and other show-biz activities in both daily and weekly editions.  It’s where you’ll find how much the distinguished actress Miley Cyrus was paid for her most recent movie and whether Phantom of the Opera is likely to run for another decade or two.  Variety reports these juicy items in a jargon all its own, sometimes known as slanguage, that might sometimes leave inexperienced readers baffled.

Some words coined by Variety have entered the mainstream vocabulary: the aforementioned show-biz, for example, as well as sitcom for situation comedy, emcee and deejay (from the initial letters of master of ceremonies and disk jockey), and nitery for night club, striptease, and payola.  Others are pretty much confined to the entertainment trade, such as the adjectives boffo, socko, and whammo, all descriptive of movies or plays that have strong ticket sales and therefore have legs—enabling them to “run” for a long time. Whammo, by the way, is considered much better than boffo or socko.

Press agents, who hope the shows they represent will all be whammo, work in a praisery, and if they throw a cocktail party to help with promo, it’s known as a pour. They hope their clients achieve heavy mitting from the auds, that is applause from the audiences, so that they will not have to resort to twofers (two tickets sold for the price of one).

Variety has its own shorthand for certain genres of entertainment.  We all know what a whodunit is, you may have watched a TV dramedy, and crossword puzzle fanciers are bound to have encountered oater, which is a Western (horses eat oats). You can probably decipher meller, laffer, biopic, suspenser, tuner and chopsocky (martial arts film)not to mention that most dreaded of all performances of any type—a yawner.

A female singer, to Variety, is a thrush, a warbler, or if the writer is feeling especially frisky, a chantoosie.  Thrushes, of course, do not sing, they chirp, using their pipes to do so.  Dancers hoof, and are hence known as hoofers, or sometimes terps, in a classically learned allusion to Terpsichore, the Greek Muse of dance. Actors, in a similar vein, are known as thesps. Writers are scribblers or scripters, songwriters are cleffers, and directors are helmers.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who would perhaps be known to Variety as an oder (hmmm), is an avid reader of entertainment news, as you can tell by this quatrain:

            If you’ve had a satiety
            Of the news in Variety.
            Then you sure shouldn’t orter
            Read The Hollywood Reporter.