Lingua Brava

April 22, 2009

Word Choice, Part II

Filed under: Uncategorized — foodorthought @ 10:29 pm

 

OK, I confess: I’ve gotten word-tied from time to time. Not as much in writing because as an editor I read my stuff over and over and tend to catch the mistakes before they transmit. Sadly, though, speaking doesn’t allow for pre-scrutiny. Something gets said: it’s out there. Add my tendency to talk faster when nervous, and a dash of public speaking anxiety (i.e., talking to more than a few people at a time). Then toss in the knowledge that I twist my words at the worst times. And there you have a recipe for colorful language people will notice and remember.

 

One time at a barbecue I find myself tending the grill. This is not a good idea and I’m sure I didn’t volunteer for the job because I would never trust myself to grill for a crowd. Anyway, I poke and flip the food like I know what I’m doing and after awhile someone calls over, “Is it done yet?” “Yep!” I call back, “I stuck a fork in it!” Except what comes out of my mouth isn’t exactly that. What I actually say when I transpose a couple of letters has nothing to do with grilling or food: it involves a stork (I’ll say no more). It echoes across the yard and generates loud laughter and nervous chuckles. As if I meant to say such a thing! It doesn’t even make sense! Yet who among them now, years later, wouldn’t remember that bon mot? I don’t want to know, but if I heard someone say something like that, I would definitely remember it.

 

Junior padfolioAnd here’s a misty water-cooler memory: I am on a work committee (which I did volunteer for) to plan an employee work retreat. Our task is to arrange the agenda, venue, speakers, meals, and a small gift for participants. The committee members – Don, Bill, John, Ryan, and myself – disagree on which gift we should get. The guys want a frou-frou lacquered desk clock that, to me, is more form than function (cube clutter). I want something more practical and I’m particularly keen on one of those leatherette notepad holders – a padfolio – that holds a half-size pad of paper. Useful! The smaller version is called a “junior padfolio.” It is not called a “minipad,” but if you are me that is what’s it’s called over and over again at this meeting. “I vote for the minipad!” Yay! Ignorance is bliss and I lobby enthusiastically for this gift choice. It’s only when I get back to my desk that the lightbulb goes on and the blood drains from my face and I realize what I’d been suggesting; oh dear God. Imagine the winks and nudges taking place in that room.

 

Such eloquence from the geek who prides herself in catching amusing turns of phrase. But I hope there’s something to be said when we can laugh at our idiomatic, idiosyncratic selves. To err is human. To share: divine! Let’s hear about some of your own word gaffes…. J

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April 20, 2009

Word Choice, Part I

Filed under: Uncategorized — foodorthought @ 9:29 pm

 

When I worked as a copywriter, part of my job was to edit newsletters written by employees in different divisions of the company. Clean up the text, fix errors, help with word choice, make sure the right message gets across. In general, some people write very well, others not so well, and some mean well: they get close to what they want to say but get derailed by a wrong word and end up in The Land of Another Meaning. Case in point (only the name has been changed):

 

“A party was held for Doug MacDougal for 40 years of service. The party had an Irish theme to honor this extinguished gentleman who retired in May.”

 

I wonder what Doug would have thought about being called “extinguished”? And while we’re at it, how about we also substitute “expired” for “retired?” Another rhyming pair of words. Doug wouldn’t mind – right? – assuming he’s still around to read it.

 

Here’s another:

 

“Let negative comments roll off your back like water from a duck.”

 

water-from-a-gooseHmm. Now I know a little bit about birds but I never heard about water coming from a duck. A bathtub rubber duck maybe. Or maybe this is some deep fortune-cookie wisdom? More likely it’s a cliché gone wrong, but it’s fun to think about it literally. “Huh? You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? Who the frick do you think you’re talkin’ to? Oh yeah? OK. Well I got a duck, see, and I’m not afraid to squirt you with it! That’s right, you heard me, I got a DUCK. So you just keep your comments to yourself, know what I’m sayin’?”

 

One of my favorite word gaffes – no, I confess, it’s my all-time favorite – is this:

 

“Each employee and child brought a canned food or a $1 donation to help others in need during the holidays. One of the most important parts of the party was self gratification.

 

Do you see what I see? I admit it took me a few seconds to realize what it said. After a mental double take and an audible snort, I looked it up in the dictionary just to be sure. Nope, there’s only one definition. I know what the writer was trying to say: the spirit of giving to others. And yet while my word-geek brain can’t help but take a literal diversion down the path of an ill-chosen phrase, since this is a PG-13 blog I’m not going to elaborate on what that type of party evokes. If you care to imagine it yourself, you’re on your own, perv dear reader.

 

Editing can be dry work at times. But just as in life itself, there are nuggets of amusement to be found in everyday places. (No, we’re not talking about the party.) Look around you, read things, listen to what people say. Every so often you’ll encounter language that has the best intentions but nevertheless suggests Another Meaning.

 

As for yours truly, I probably don’t make mistakes in choosing words, right? [ahem] Excuse me for a moment while I gather the courage to confess….

April 16, 2009

Mostly Laundry

Filed under: Uncategorized — foodorthought @ 11:54 pm

 

In the fall of 2005 I cleaned out my grandmother’s apartment. At 85 and a widow for years, she finally agreed to move from Cinci to Toledo to be near me. She was “starting to slip,” she called it, forgetting things and having minor accidents at home. Always practical, she decided it was time for a bit of help. After months of planning we made the move. She had expected this would be to a nursing home, but since she needed no nursing or other care she was practically giddy to learn about assisted living. She could keep her favorite things, go out or stay in as she pleased, and best of all, make new friends. She spent the first few weeks writing letters back home about how tickled she was with her new apartment.

 

Six weeks after moving in, she passed away. She assumed the stomach pain was due to the rich new menu she wasn’t used to: that it was heartburn. In fact, though, acute pancreatitis can creep up and shut down body systems with alarming speed. Literally a here-today-gone-tomorrow crappy surprise if mistaken for a logical coincidence.

 

Anyone who’s had the heartbreaking task of sorting through a parent’s most favorite and personal things knows the drill. We hoard the awards, the photos, the special books and artifacts. We find homes for the furniture, linens, clothes and knick-knacks. We throw away the medications and threadbare purses and private whatnot that were essential only days or weeks ago. We make use of half a bottle of dishsoap, half pads of paper, batteries still in the pack, rolls of toilet paper, snacks bought just last week.

 

And half a box of facial tissues on which was written, in black marker in Gramma’s all-caps hand, “MOSTLY LAUNDRY.”

 

Gramma always made notes to herself – things to remember – so this notation meant something, but what? What do tissues have to do with laundry? These are not dryer sheets (as she well knew). And she wouldn’t designate and go through the trouble of labeling a box of tissues for use only while doing laundry. Even if it was a hastily written note to self using the closest pen and paper at hand: Remember to do mostly laundry? It doesn’t make sense. I still try to figure it out.

 

“Mostly laundry” on a box of Kleenex. If I could, I’d ask her. “Gramma, why did you write ‘mostly laundry’ on this box of tissues?” She was short and cute and would put her arm around me and say, “Oh! Ha ha!” – seeing the humor in it – and explain why she wrote it, and it would make perfect sense.

 

How many of us jot down things that make sense only to ourselves? Hell, my own to-do list reads, “Boxes, blog, crickets, chicken, car, camera.” I know exactly what this means and that’s all that matters. We do this all the time. It’s interesting to realize, though, that when someone special goes away, their words – the thoughts they leave behind – take on a bit of mystery, of legacy.

 

I remember my grandmother for many, many things, as a Gramma should be remembered for. As for the tissues, I put them on my nightstand where a box always sits. I used them almost reverently. Every night, “mostly laundry,” and a fantasy of one of many conversations we might have had.

April 9, 2009

Catbowls and Kibble

Filed under: Uncategorized — foodorthought @ 8:17 pm

 

The pet products industry takes itself very seriously, which likely reflects how seriously we take our own pets. We have anthropomorphic tendencies – attributing human traits to nonhuman things; believing our pets think like we do – and the pet industry knows it.

 

So we see things like this ad:

 

“Surprise your pet with the perfect holiday gift.” It’s a ceramic food bowl customized with the animal’s name in cute letters. Now think about this for a minute. Think of the scenario it suggests. It’s Christmas or Hanukkah and people are opening gifts. “Here George, something for you!” George the cat trots over, eyes agleam. You help him open it. He’s excited! What is it?? Here it is: a food bowl with his name on it. His eyes get wide. Oh … my … GOD!, he thinks (you always know what he’s thinking). This is adorable! It’s got my NAME on it! It’s PERFECT! I can’t wait to use this!

 

george-cropped3More likely – if your holiday is anything like ours – if George gets excited about this day at all, it’s only because of the wrapping paper under which he’s hiding, and he won’t come when you call him (in cognito; can’t reveal my location…). The bowl will be unwrapped by you, and you will transfer the kibble, and you alone will admire the cute bowl from here on out.

 

Even for those of us who know our pets can’t read their names, we still want the best for them. The pet food industry knows we do; just look at the back of the bag. There, a more thorough description of nutritional benefits than on most packages of our own food. We get lists of ingredients and some enticing words like “crunchy” and “organic” and “garlic flavored.” For our animals, though, a near thesis. Why don’t our meals come with the same information? Imagine if the following description from a catfood bag was [modified] for the menu at a restaurant:

 

“The innovative nutrition in this [entrée] promotes healthy skin and lustrous [hair]. Our great-tasting, nutritious

provides a patented fiber system that gently moves [food] through the digestive tract, and helps maintain a healthy digestion for colon health.” (Note: references to hairballs removed.)

 

I’m as guilty as anyone for thinking animals think like little people. George and I have been together for a long time and I do believe I know what’s in his fuzzy heart by now. We also have a lizard to whom I ascribe thoughts and dialogue she does not actually have or say, let alone in a childlike voice.

 

As for exaggerated language for average things, though, not so much. I’m more amused than seduced, in thinking my pet recognizes a perfect gift as I might. But they’ve got products to sell, and from a marketing perspective, if you had that job, what could be more fun than playing up catbowls and kibble?

April 5, 2009

Plastic Pitcher / Devilled Eggs

Filed under: Uncategorized — foodorthought @ 7:15 pm

 

I’ve learned, over the last decade or so, that my son John is “language oriented.” This means two things. One: He has a flair for language, excels in spelling, vocabulary, grammar; that’s my boy! Two: He talks nonstop. Teachers call this “highly social.” I haven’t yet figured out if this is meant as a compliment ….

 

Anyway, both of us are talkers though he has far more endurance than I. On weekends, especially, there is an ongoing, almost stream-of-consciousness conversation that stretches from the moment he wakes until he gets back into bed at night. It’s rich, exhausting, and often a lot of fun.

 

Some summers ago I am clipping flowers from the garden to bring inside. On the fly, I find an old plastic pitcher in John’s patio toy box to put the flowers in water for the time being. After awhile he strolls by and notices I’m using his pitcher. He has forgotten it, now remembers it.

 

pitcher1          “I need that pitcher,” he says.

          “It’s not available right now,” I say. [clip clip]

          “I need to use it.”

          “It’s being used for something else.”

          “Can I have it?”

          “Not today.”

          “But I need it.”

          “You’re not the only one.”

          “It’s mine.”

          “I gave it to you.”

          “So it’s mine.”

          “Thank you for letting me use it.”

          “I didn’t let … well now I need it.”

          “It’s not available right now.”

 

Now in all likelihood he didn’t need it, and I knew it, and he knew I knew; he just wanted to reclaim what was his. In the end I convinced him that he was helping me out, which made him feel good and that’s the end of a win/win story.

 

John loves devilled eggs, especially the ones his grandma makes. For this reason, she always has them on hand when we visit and they are delicious. I don’t make them very often, especially since I learned mine aren’t as good as hers. Anyway, some years ago John is perched on his stool by the counter as I’m making dinner; he’s hungry and waxing sentimental.

 

“You should make devilled eggs,” he says.

“I’ll make them sometime.”

“They’re easy to make.”

“They take a little time.”

“I know how to make them,” he says, shooting up those earnest eyebrows.

“You know how to make devilled eggs?”

“Yep! You get that little yellow thing, that thing that’s goopy, you know? And you put paprika on top. And you need an egg.”

 

So there you have it; who knew it was that easy? And who knew the egg was an afterthought??

 

Now, I may not actually file that under “Recipes,” but it’s too good not to file away in my head. The truth is, John is one of my favorite people to talk with. We relate with honesty, humor, occasional sarcasm, moments of mutual exasperation, and affection. He keeps me on my toes and makes me laugh with the things he says almost every day. I couldn’t ask for better.

March 30, 2009

Intro / Friggin’ Stove / I Just Want You to Know

Filed under: Uncategorized — foodorthought @ 12:56 am

 

Hello, welcome to Lingua Brava! A quick introduction before we get underway (you can read more About me here).

 

I’m a wordsmith by trade – writer, editor, communications specialist – and a language geek.

 

Words, the different things they can convey, how we string them together to express thoughts, how each of us has our own style of saying (or trying to say) what we mean through the language we choose. I’m not talking about nouns and antecedents, or subject-verb agreement; that’s the day job. What gets me giddy is words in active play and the people behind the language. The wonderful and crazy things we do with it, what we say in the moment, the phrases we put together, how we express ourselves, and sometimes, what it might reveal about us.

 

Admittedly, I’ve been known to dwell a moment too long on something I’ve heard or read, but I’m not complaining. It may be geeky – it surely is – but it’s fun to be tuned in when, say, I’m driving down a country road in rural Ohio and pass a big cardboard sign, handlettered that says, “Frig ‘n Stove: $50.” “Hey,” I say to my companion, “There’s a friggin’ stove for 50 bucks.” “That means a refrigerator – fridge – and a stove,” he says. Well I know it means that, but I get a kick thinking about the unlikely alternative, like something out of a sitcom, where Papa Podunk says, “Ma, we just got to get rid of this friggin’ old stove.” Ma says, “Then put a sign out on the road,” and so he does.

 

More recently – yesterday – I’m driving in the car, listening to a new CD by Traffic (new for me anyway), and there’s a song coming up, “I Just Want You To Know.” This implies – right? – a personal, maybe important message? Some kind of message is coming, so I’m listening. And Steve Winwood’s singing, “I just want you to know,” then again, “I just want you to know,” eight times in a row, and then some guitar, some “doodoo-DOO, doodoo-DOO,” some more guitar … then the song’s over, fades out. Waitwhat?? I want to know! But it’s over and I’m not going to find out, am I? And what about the person back in 1970 to whom his “message” was intended? Did they* ever find out? Can you imagine saying to someone, “Hey, listen here, there’s something I just want you to know,” then following that up with “doodoo-DOO, doodoo-DOO”? How anticlimactic is that?? 🙂

 

I make no apologies for amusing myself this way. It gives me a chuckle, a diversion, something to think about later. It’s not always humorous; sometimes serious stuff sticks, too. Either way, it makes a day a little bit more interesting, and who can’t get juiced from a bit more of that?

 

Anyway, I just want you to know, this blog is devoted to language in play, its context on the stage of life. The quirky, the awkward, the thought provoking. Sometimes what we say hits the spot, the right word or right message at the right time. Sometimes it’s inadvertently silly or misses the mark, causes a chuckle or a pause. Sometimes, something we read or hear is so poignant, or so right-on, or so different, it sticks with us. On the fly, off the cuff, crafted, credible, inedible, or indelible. Stay tuned.

 

 

*Note to purists: Don’t ding me for a singular/plural/”he/she/they” infraction. We’re having fun :).

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