In which she gets to the new car, or halfway to toity

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If I wrote like I were a truck driver, I would put my idea into the GPS, choose the shortest route, and arrive at my destination in the least amount of time possible. Instead, I write like a tourist wandering around a new city with the vague idea that I might go to the local zoo.

 

I put the address of the zoo into the GPS, choose the shortest route, and head off, eager to see the sloths and Gollum-like tarsiers. On my way, I see hundreds of billboards and decide to check out one of them because it won’t take long, and it’s right on the way to the zoo.

Tariser photo courtesy of motz

Tariser photo courtesy of motz

 

Three hundred and fifty-two times out of three hundred and fifty-three times, I never see a sloth or tarsier because I spend the day at a local winery learning about bâtonnage* or stop to fish for a few hours. While fishing, I notice four kinds of bobbers in my tackle box, and drive to the nearest bobber-making factory to learn how they are made.

 

In my last post, Compound interest, I put “new car” in the GPS and drove off. On the way, I noticed a sign marked off-ramp, began to wonder about compound nouns, and swerved at the last minute to see where the off-ramp would take me.  It took me everywhere but “new car.”

 

Today I finally got there.

 

Several months ago, my husband and I realized my 1997 Bonneville might not make it through another winter. We are cash-only car buyers because I pledged long ago that I would never, ever buy a new car, and I never have, until I did.

 

I have cherished two reasons why I would not be foolish enough to buy a never-owned car. First, once you leave the DDR force shield that covers every car dealer, deadly depreciation rays (DDRs) bombard your car and reduce its worth by up to 9%. Second, I have no interest in paying interest on a car.

 

Our auto search led us to a car dealer to look at fully depreciated cars. Although I am a fairly good judge of character, I don’t know my Buicks from my Bonnevilles. My husband, on the other hand, has a caveman’s instinct for car hunting. He always spears the fattest, biggest mastodon available, and we feast on it for years.

 

During what seemed like three days, but were only three hours in caveman hunting time, my husband went over every inch of a brand-new double-tusked mastodon with shiny gray hair, several shades darker than his own. I pretended to look interested while he looked for cash on its back and something called an APR. Since it had a cash back and the APR search came up zero, we took it.

 

Arriving home in my first and last brand-new car, I realized I had entered fancy territory. As you know, fancy is halfway to schmancy. Or put synonymously, since fancy is the same as hoity, I was halfway to toity.

 

I had no intention to leave the hoi polloi (even if it’s a redundant place to be because it translates to the the many), and then my husband went hunting again – this time for his own mastodon. He found one – an older model exactly like mine, but in black. If that’s not hoity-toity, I don’t know my hoits or my toits.

 

Becoming fancy-schmancy or hoity-toity has required a change of attitude and vocabulary. I must move from being super silly to being supercilious. Rather than shouting out, “Holy cow!” when I see the price tags on shoddy name-brand clothing, I must exclaim, “Holy filet mignon!” To avoid identification with the  double-articled hoi polloi, “Heaven’s to Betsy!” must now be expressed as “Elysium to Elizabeth!”

 

My hoity-toitiness will last about as long as autumn in Wisconsin. By January of next year, my car will be old and my newly acquired rhyming compounds will drop off like autumn leaves. I hope to grow some new ones, befitting my fall from fancyhood. Perhaps I shall be barely-therely, or bleak and meek, or squarely-sparely, or plain mere-here.

 

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*bâtonnage is a fancy French word for taking a big stick and stirring the dead yeast in the bottom of a wine barrel.

 

 

 

 

Compound interest

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If you were lured here by the title of this post, expecting some insight into money, please understand that I do what have to do to get readers. Like most people, I have an interest in money, but I have more outsight than insight; that is, as soon as it is in sight, it usually wings its way out of sight before a lured person can say compound interest.

 

Courtesy National Archives

Courtesy National Archives

However, I am flush with words, have books full of them, store them on my computer, and spend hours everyday stuffing them into other people’s ears – for free. I’m nothing if not generous with them.

 

 

I’m interested in words and find  compound words especially interesting. Hence, I have a lot of compound interest.

 

 

In the intimate life of words, compounding is how words meet and mate.

 

 

Nouns, the parts of speech that never forget a name, live to meet other words and partner up. One day a hand reaches out for a bag, slaps a logo on, and voila, the $10,000 handbag is born. Later in a city, a building rises up to scrape the sky and calls itself a skyscraper. During a show, a magician saws his sister in half and ends up with a half-sister. Back at the farm, Old MacDonald takes a hog, washes it up, expecting it to keep it clean, and finds that his idea is pure hogwash. Then he splits a horse four ways and ends up with a quarter horse. Fun, isn’t it?

 

 

Compounding is not just for nouns. Verbs like to get into the action, as do adverbs, a kind of word that can’t be in a relationship without trying to modify its partner. Prepositions, the words that let you know what’s up and what’s going down participate, as do adjectives, those opinionated words that always have something to say about every noun they meet.

Courtesy of Library of Congress: DN-0068144, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum

 

Some compounds, like bridegroom, are monogamous – two nouns become one and everything they own is joint property. They take seriously the ancient truth: what the dictionary hath joined together, let no auto-correct put asunder. Others are more like the bride-to-be; they flash their hyphen to show they’re engaged. Open compounds go on dates, visit the amusement park, ride the roller coaster, and eat ice cream together, but maintain their distance and avoid PDAs (public displays of affection). Many compounds start out in an open relationship, get engaged, and end up in a closed relationship.

 

 

 

Much of my compound interest comes from rhyming compounds. I like their razzle-dazzle sound. Many of them disparage others, looking down their noses at the jibber-jabber of the snake oil salesman; others have a keen eye for disorder and will call you out if you shilly-shally or dilly-dally. *

 

 

I’ve shared all this to tell you about a car, but as you can see, my thoughts are all higgledy-piggledy, and I’ve used up my cyberspace allotment. So now I’ll have to backtrack and write about the car next time, unless I miss the off ramp again.

 

 

 

*I sort rhyming compounds like I sort my buttons: all in one big pile. There are dozens of ways to categorize them, but since this is a family friendly blog, I would like to afford linguists some dignity and not talk about their piles. If you find yourself disturbed by this and would like to make a case out of it, I’ll see you in court. Tennis or basketball – it’s your choice.

 

 

 

Trickery and taxation

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The word sounds like a barroom brawl: Bam! Booze! All! But that’s part of the con because we’re talking about bamboozle, which means pure trickery or flimflammery.

 

 

The word shows up in England at the turn of the 18th century around the same time as the window tax – one of those not so transparent laws enacted by government officials to increase revenue, which turns out to be a pain for the taxpayer.

 

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At the time, the British people considered one’s annual income as personal and private as the number of one’s underpants and certainly none of the king’s concern. The only way for the king to get a peek at how much money people had was to empower the taxmen to become peeping Toms and report on the number of windows each dwelling had. More windows meant larger dwellings, meant people had more money, meant more tax revenue. To reduce their tax burden, people stonewalled the king by boarding and bricking up some of their windows. Darkening their dwellings seemed preferable to the government lightening their wallets.

 

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Oddly (at least to me) in 1694 two years before the window tax, An Act for the More Effectual Suppressing of Profane Swearing and Cursing passed, enacting fines on swearers and cursers everywhere. Without any historical evidence to back me up, I think the lawmakers were acting preemptively since they must have known the response the window tax would elicit.

 

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But back to the word that started this post.

 

 

No one knows exactly where the word bamboozle comes from. Its first written appearance is in a comedy performed in 1703, so it must have been used on the streets of London sometime before that.

 

 

In 1710 Jonathan Swift, best known for writing Gulliver’s Travels, wrote a protest in the Tatler, a literary journal for gentlemen, lamenting what he perceived as the corruption of the English language, evidenced by “pretty Fellows” using only the first syllable of a word and leaving out the rest, omitting vowels, and inventing words like bamboozle. Swift claimed this “natural Tendency towards relapsing into Barbarity” would not end well for the words of the English language and says, “I am sure no other Nation will desire to borrow them.”

 

 

Swift is not the first language lamenter to be bamboozled by history. For several centuries now, English has been borrowed, taken home and let loose to swim in the Caribbean, play ice hockey, sport tattoos, ride elephants, wear a headdress, and dance the bomba — all before breakfast. It spends the rest of the day roaming the world, mingling with a thousand other languages, and borrowing a few words of its own.

 

 

English itself is a trickster, an ever-changing shape-shifter, untamable, as full of surprises as it is of annoyances (like like as a reporting verb), yet ever my own ears’ delight.

 

 

Bamboozle has never enjoyed the kind of popularity its close cousin cozen had in the early 1800s, but there’s something I love about those two pops of b’s exploding from my lips, ending with z’s flow of turbulent air suddenly blocked by the letter l and the tip of my tongue, as if to say, “Hold on there a minute. Where are you going, and what are you up to?”

 

 

And the answer? Spending the morning boarding up windows with the common folk, and the afternoon counting windows for the government.

Words that go back and forth

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Before I learned the meaning of the word “palindrome,” I thought it had something to do with merry-go-rounds. If you repeat the word out loud, you’ll hear those three syllables, stressed-unstressed-unstressed. This kind of metrical foot, called a dactyl, comes from the Greek for “finger,” and in this case it pointed to a carousel and me sitting on a palomino with a wild eye and a dark gold coat. (Both the eye and the coat on the palomino, not me.)

 

Unsurprisingly, I was wrong. A palindrome is a number, word, phrase, or sentence read the same frontward and backward.

 

I don’t remember when I learned what the word actually meant, but I know I have enjoyed reading words backward since I was a young girl. Discovering that star talked back and said rats and that was said saw as soon as it turned its back on you seemed magical and subversive at the same time. If I paid attention, I could find enchanted words all around me able to say two things at the same time, and some of them sassy to boot.

 

People have been palindroming forever, or at least in Latin since the late first century, which seems forever to someone expected to live just eight or so decades. Although the inhabitants of Pompeii disappeared when Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D., the palindrome Sator Arepo Tenet Opera Rotas, known as the Sator Square, remained, scratched on a wall to perplex and delight the archeologists who discovered it and all of us who came after. No one knows exactly what it means, but a number of sites list the meaning as Arepo the sower works with wheels. Even if that’s not the exact meaning, it’s fascinating to see how you can read the words any which way.

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In Greek, palindrome means “running back again,” like an echo or a boomerang that comes whizzing back. The Greeks also wrote using a method called boustrophedon, which means “ox-turning.”

Boustro Oxen

 

In English, we read left to right, line after line, as if we were watching a knife-thrower at the circus. We watch throw after throw until somebody dies or the circus shuts down for the night. In boustrophedon, the Greeks read as if they were at a tennis match, watching the ball served from left to the right, and then hit back from right to the left until somebody won or got ejected from the game. Tennis hadn’t been invented yet, so they used the image of plowing with an ox, moving first down one furrow, then turning around to plow the next row.

If I were to write a blog using that writing method

morf enil tsrif eht gnidaer trats ot evah dluow uoy  

left to right, then turn your plowing eye at the end  

m’I .tfel ot thgir daer ot nigeb dna enil taht fo

afraid you would soon grow tired of it.

Some people find the above paragraph easy to read; others don’t. Of course, that’s true of everything on this blog. But be that as it may or may not, anyone can learn to read words backward. Apparently it’s good for the brain. According to this article at mirrorread.com, it causes new growth of gray matter and increased density. I personally could do with more gray matter, dense or not. I may not have a lot of brains, but people  have often remarked that what I do have is already quite dense; even so, I’m sure if I work on it I can get even denser.

 

So this year, I plan to get as thickheaded as possible, read more in both directions and teach my old ox of a brain new tricks, one furrow at a time.

 

 

Village vacancies

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They don’t make idiots like they used to. Once upon a long, long ago, in the late 1400s, an idiot was an ordinary person who lacked an education, someone without professional training, a layman in the church, or simply a private person. Clearly, idiocy was nothing to be ashamed of, and during the day the word hobnobbed with people like the author of the alliterative, allegorical poem Piers Plowman (who may or may not have been William Langland) and John Wycliffe who along with others translated the Bible into Middle English.

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After a hard day of being charitable, however, the word would head to the nearest pub, have a few pints, and start calling everyone in sight a fool. That’s how Chaucer uses the word in the Wife of Bath’s prologue in The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer and others used the word idiot both in this sense and in the sense of being mentally challenged. These three meanings were used concurrently until the end of the 17th century when the kinder meaning moved out of town. From that time on, the number of self-proclaimed idiots decreased dramatically, until the advent of the Internet and YouTube.

 

From the beginning, the word worked as both noun and adjective. The highly quotable Victorian poet, Lord Tennyson, verbified it in the phrase “Much befool’d and idioted.” I rather like it as a verb because it expresses the feeling I get from my fellow-drivers who have an inordinate interest in my bumper and try to inspect it while traveling 60 mph or who pull in front of me, curious to know whether or not my brakes still work. After any time on the road, I come home feeling idioted out.

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I don’t consider myself an idiot driver; my skills in idiocy lie more in the why-did-I-wait-until-now-to-do-what-is-due-today type of situation, or the you-already-know-what-your-foot-tastes-like-so-why-do-you-keep-putting-it-in-your-mouth situation. Plenty of people have these problems, but the wise ones keep quiet about them. The others, like me, create blogs and wander around the Internet village broadcasting their idiocy. I am a private person by nature and back in the Middle Ages would probably have been called an idiot by my friends. At this point in my life I am advancing beyond my own middle age, wandering around the Internet village, unashamed, speaking to strangers and telling my secrets. Every village needs an idiot or two, and I’m here to fill the vacancy.

 

 

Addendum: No Comment

 

As a blogger, I’ve never wanted to be one of those drive-by likers, the ones who visit hundreds of blogs per day, indiscriminately liking posts in the hopes of getting liked back. I don’t always comment on posts that I like, but I occasionally try to write something that is spelled correctly, even if it doesn’t make sense.

 

These days, however, WordPress (which is easily flummoxed by what I write and thinks you will be too) will not let me comment when I want to. Over half of the comments I try to post are denied. I get the message that you see below.

 Sorry, this comment could not be posted.

If you are a blogger, you probably consider this good news. But I warn you, no system is idiot-proof. I will find a way to comment and flummox you again. Only because I think it’s good for you and helps build character.

 

 

If you can’t say something nice …

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Nice

Imagine you are at the Westminster festival in London in May of 1306 to watch King Edward 1 knight his son, Edward of Caernarfon. You need to be a man for this scenario to work, so if you are a female, imagine that your take-home pay is as much as your male counterparts.

Everyone imagined up? Good, let’s proceed.

 

While you are enjoying your third cup of ale, a big, burly man calls you nice. Enraged, you try to punch him in the jaw, which is both stupid and foolish because he is twice your size. Your aggression proves to everyone within bowshot that you are, in fact, nice. Back then, nice meant stupid or foolish.

But don’t feel bad. Edward of Caernarfon, destined to sit on the throne in 1307 as Edward II, was deposed after twenty years for being nice, too. The nice things he did included military defeat at the hands of the Scots, murderous revenge, scandals, plotting, and lavish living, among other royal entertainments.

For several hundred years, that four-letter word nice insulted and disparaged people by calling them foolish, wanton, lascivious, fastidious, cowardly, and showy. Then by the late 1700s, nice changed its wicked ways, stopped going into bars to start fights, got a respectable job as an bookkeeper, and starting calling people refined, cultured, and respectable. Suddenly nice was finding other people agreeable and pleasant.

Some words at 700 still look hale and hearty; nice does not. His hair is thinning, his belly’s thickening, and his feet are flattening. He mumbles a lot and has begun to call everything and everyone nice. It doesn’t feel right to me, however. It’s a little too nice, if you know what I mean (and I think you do). Do you hear that hint of sarcasm when he speaks? “How nice,” he says in his treacly voice, when he really means, “How mediocre or bland.” It’s a short road from bland to vapid to stupid.

Maybe he’s making a comeback as an insult instead of a compliment. It would make for what some may call “a nice story.”

 

 

 

In praise of

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In praise of

The prepositional variety

Of those that screw on, pop off,

Seal up, keep in

And shut out

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As well as those that

Require tools to remove

Whether bendable or breakable

Hinged or unhinged

Hard as roofs for the dead

Soft as tents for pies

Sturdy as helmets for pots

Or merely heaps of pot

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Atop the heads of rich and poor –

Who need to be warm

Or want to be cool

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Mighty eye shutters

Doors to dreams both night and day

Locking you inside nightmares

Opening up to set you free

Blink and wink makers

Whipping your forty lashes or more

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Pandora’s temptation

Flipping open angry and crazy

Keepers of secrets

Stoppers of talk

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Everywhere you look or don’t

Lids, lids, lids

In praise of

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Photos:   Commode lid     Orange lid      White coffin    Eye     Hinged chest    Decorative Lid