“Moooonnn River, wider than 1) a mile, 2) the Nile. Well, thanks my listening to trivia on Martha Johnson’s early show on KFUN, I know the answer: It’s No. 1 above, and my miss was wider than a mile.
In my medieval torpor upon waking a few days ago, I heard a radio conversation with a caller about how easily we misunderstand lyrics to songs, in this case Nile and mile, but I wasn’t awake enough to let it register.
The English language fascinates me on several counts. First, it’s the largest language with about 700,000 words, while other popular languages such as French, German and Spanish, having perhaps half that number. One of the points of fascination is the number of words we have for similar things. There’s a couch, a sofa, a divan, a davenport and a futon. True, there are people who can cite subtle differences in the furniture itself to give it a different name, but when unexpected company arrives, we let them sleep on the couch and we don’t parse any further.
Similarly, the language has a host of identical words with widely disparate meanings. For example, at Immaculate Conception School, Sister Mary Grammatica Difficulta spent hours on the apostrophe, that funny little punctuation mark that too many people attach to plural’s (like this). Apostrophe’s serve several functions, the most common of which shows that a letter is missing from a construction. Thus, instead of “should not,” we say, “shouldn’t.”
Does the word apostrophe mean anything else? Glad you asked. The apostrophe is also an exclamatory passage in a speech or poem addressed to a person (typically one who is dead or absent) or thing (typically one that is personified).
How could two identical words have such disparate meanings?
Here are a few disclosures, confessions about words and expressions I learned in my childhood and carried into adulthood:
• Then and than — I pronounced both words as if they had an e, not an a.
• Cease and seize — I would say, “That behavior must seize,” as if cease had a z.
• I would rhyme fifth with gift, omitting the h.
• I’d omit the final s in “asterisk,” pronouncing it “asterik.” I did that until I read an item in Reader’s Digest about a maid who called her employer at work, explaining there was a strange, angry dog in the front yard. The employer asked her to kick the dog out of the yard. She refused, and before she left the house, she wrote this note: “I didn’t even go near the dog as I have only one *.
Being a comma chaser for most of my life, both in the classroom and in the newsroom, I try to discover why people misuse such words and expressions. Many of us are familiar with them — imply and infer, flout and flaunt, regardless and irregardless, founder and flounder and the all-time champion: I could care less.
One source, Bill Bryson, the author of The Mother Tongue, posits that if people read more, they wouldn’t misuse words and expressions so often.
Readers often remark on the ways I use words and expressions in my columns. Whether their message is a mere correction or a tongue-lashing, it’s gratifying, nevertheless. At least that shows they’ve read the column.
And the biggest complement usually comes from Mayor Alfonso Ortiz, who invariably refers to something I’ve written that same day, or week.
• • •
Rather than merely providing a list of words and expressions we butcher, here’s a sample, based on a confrontation I had with a boy I remember as Carlos. He lived a block above me in the Railroad Avenue barrio, and we worked as pinsetters at the bowling alley on Grand. There are at least a dozen butchered words. Can you find them?
• • •
On League Nights, all eight lanes at the bowling alley were in use, but we were short two pin boys, so Carlos and I agreed to service two lanes apace.
Our chores ran the gauntlet, from setting pins to mopping floors to shining bowling balls. In those days, lots of people smoked; Carlos brought a cigar with him to the “pits,” and after placing it down, he mistakenly put the lighted end to his lips and let out a howl.
Several in the pit crew saw that and found it funny. I believe some of them wished to ferment dysentery among the pin boys.
Later, as we were walking home, he brooched the subject, asking me, “Did you laugh at me when I burned myself?” I most certainly had not, and said so, but he went for the juggler. “I saw you laughing.”
I almost coward as I thought he was about to hit me, but I stood firm. I didn’t want to become his enemy. In fact, I got along fine with his family, especially his older brother, who was a corpuscle in the National Guard.
But Carlos was ready for a dual. He refused to speak to me all the way home. The next morning, his brother, the NCO, showed up at my house advising me that Carlos wished to fight me. I feared a physical confrontation was eminent, but I protested that I certainly didn’t carry a garage, but the brother remained hostel toward me irregardless. I wondered how either of us would prophet by engaging in fisticuffs.
I certainly didn’t want to irritate the situation, so, after his brother left, I went to Carlos’s house and found him sitting on his chaise lounge. I expected animosity, as I knew he belonged to a small click of neighborhood toughs.
“Did you really think I was mad at you, Mannie?” I answered, “Well yes.” Apparently, Carlos retained his abdominal behavior long enough to tell his brother about the lip burning. But Carlos certainly cooled off in a hurry. And the issue then became mute.
For several days I saw to it that Carlos and I remained incognito. I didn’t speak to him until our next shift at the bowling alley, where we agreed to a packed.
Oh yes — he brought along his cigar that night but made sure to hold it correctly.
Art Trujillo is a copy editor at the Optic and a contributing member of the newspaper’s Editorial Board. He may be reached by calling 425-6796 or by e-mail to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.