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Work of Art: Take two iambs, then call me

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By Art Trujillo

What’s happening to our language? English is a West Germanic language that arose in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England and spread into South-East Scotland under the influence of the Anglian medieval kingdom of Northumbria. In human time, it hasn’t been around that long,  but yet ... but yet ...

Let me explain:

I read Sunday’s Parade, a better-than-average publication when it comes to the use of the English language. But on the cover, next to a photo, it reads, “At Coolidge High School in Washington, D.C., Natalie Randolph is making history — as one of the nation’s only female football coaches.”

The problem is with the part-whole relationship, the words “one of,” but that’s contradicted by the word “only,” which ought to denote a bit of exclusivity. How can Natalie Randolph be both? She simply can’t be “one of” and “only” at the same time. The writer must mean “one of the few.”

That kind of usage, the wretched “only,” is worse than the constant misuse of “unique.” Remember, unique does not lend itself to any kind of modification, so it’s nonsensical to refer to a “plan that’s most unique.” It can’t be “very unique.” It’s unique or it’s not.

So it’s words like “only,” “unique” and even “most” that get us into trouble. An old Mutt and Jeff comic strip featured a banquet in which the emcee announced, “I’d like to introduce my most charming wife.” Jeff whispered to Mutt, “If she’s the most charming wife, I wonder what the others are like.”

Through many a column, I’ve written about the uses and abuses of language. Little has changed: different examples, same problems. In the ‘40s, during grammar classes at Immaculate Conception School, we got daily poundings. Sister Mary Sinsympatia, would ask, “Arthur, is that a participle or a gerund?” Taken aback, I thought I’d been busted, that I must have brought some illicit object to school, like a slingshot. I had to think quickly and gamble on which answer would yield a lesser punishment, a participle or a gerund? And I also wondered, “Was that a yes-or-no question?”

The drilling on grammar made us equate them with the import of the mysteries of the rosary: The first mystery: The placing of the predicate; the second mystery: the cases of the preposition; the third mystery: the examination of the infinitive; the fourth, the declension of the verb; the fifth, the diagramming of the sentence.

• • •

Later, in keeping with schools’ penchant for naming things (as if giving something a name somehow simplified it), we encountered some horrendous poetic terms whose origin was out of Dante’s Inferno, or worse, a medieval medical book.

We have perfectly lovely poetry: lines by Whitman, Emerson, Longfellow, Shelly and Keats. But, apparently we needed to dissect them in order to appreciate them. Here’s where we learn terms, the most innocuous of which is “iambic pentameter.” They degenerate to words like “dactylic tetrameter” and “trochaic and anapestic heptameter.”

Now aren’t these lovely-sounding terms? A trochee is really a metrical foot, and a foot contains various stressed and unstressed syllables. But the trochee (rhymes with tokay) sounds like either a lozenge or a medical procedure needed when something goes down the wrong tube. Heptameter is a line of poetry with seven stresses, but it reminds one of something in a reptile garden.

A trochee, far from being a cough drop, consists of a stressed syllable followed by one that’s unstressed, as in “water,” “heater,” “pencil.” That’s the composition of many, if not most, English words, but yet having to memorize such terms takes away much of the enjoyment of poetry.

An anapest is merely a three-syllable foot containing two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable. “Seventeen” is an example. So is the flow of “Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house ...”

Simple enough, but words of Greek and Latin origin make the analysis of poetry like those annoying June bugs that fall into and get barbecued by our torchiere.

Imagine someone in your family suddenly spouting doggerel. You try to help, but you’re fresh out of tetrameter and your supply of anti-dactylic formula is low. The way to cure Junior would be a medical procedure, in which the doctor might explain, “I’m going to have to perform a dactylectomy — possibly a pterodactylectomy. Then, see that he takes these spondees (another poetry term), and call me in the morning, especially if he begins to split his infinitives.”

Remember, we don’t necessarily learn to write by spouting grammar and usage rules. And memorizing the nomenclature of matters poetic doesn’t necessarily create a Tennyson or an Edgar Allan Poe.

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 artbt@rezio.net or atrujillo@lasvegasoptic.com.