Wednesday, May 25, 2011

split definitives puzzle


Some years ago I wrote two articles for National Lampoon that featured what I called “Split Definitives.” These were words that were defined by dividing the words into constituent parts and defining them by these parts. For example “Superbowl” was defined as “great hooter,” as it can be divided into “superb” and “owl.”

SPLIT DEFINITIVES ANIMAL PUZZLESee if you can match the split definitive clues on the left with the answers on the right. They all feature words connected with animals in either the clue or the answer.

1)adamant                                                                       a)bitch of a mother
2)antacid                                                                         b)barbecued chicken
3)archives                                                                       c)elk from Virginia
4)aspire                                                                           d)where Noah kept the large animals
5)boasting                                                                       e)pooch that cleans its own poop
6)Catholic                                                                       f)top cat
7)damnation                                                                   g)insect hallucinogen
8)dogma                                                                         h)paw
9)dogmatic                                                                     i)deer country
10)ganglion                                                                   j)Jewish complainer
11)heathen                                                                    k)fashionable religious denomination
12)hippocampus                                                           l)venom
13)Hippocrates                                                             m)compulsive lover of pussycats
14)important                                                                 n)constriction
15)insect                                                                       o)first insect
16)medallion                                                                p)university for fat people
17)oyster                                                                     q)pack animal
18)pussyfoot                                                               r)foreign bug
19)stagnation                                                             s)beaver country
20)vamoose                                                                t)where Noah kept the bees

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Malaprops from Natl Pst readers

(this column is comprised of responses I received last November from Natl Post readers to supply me with some of their favourite malaprops,)

National Post readers enjoy anguished English


Howard Richler

At the end of my article last November whose theme was malaprops, I invited National Post readers to share with me some of their favourite howlers. As a result, I was pleasantly inundated with over 200 emails and I'd like to share some of the extremely amusing material I received.

It would seem that virtually everyone has some loose-lipped friend or relative who inadvertently makes them chuckle. Susan Yervick wrote about her uncle who once told her “about the depression his mother suffered following the birth of his brother.....She suffered from 'post-mortem depression'!” Christopher Servos related two gems. One was a friend who said he had to take a rest as he was suffering from “heat frustration” the other one involved a woman delivering a eulogy for her father-in-law where she said that the man loved the grandchildren and lived “precariously through them.” Jamie Rowland said that while travelling with his wife in Italy he heard her blurt out, “I like the calamari but I don't like the testicles.”

Naturally, children are prone to these types of errors when learning new words and echoing Jamie Rowland's ballsy contribution, Caroline Solis told me that when her son was quite young and sharing a bath with his sister he suddenly shrieked. When Caroline inquired as to the nature of the problem, the lad explained, “She stepped on my tentacles!” Kate Ramsay shared this gem by her six year old granddaughter who came home from school and told her mom she needed $2 to “help the kids that were hit by the big salami” (tsunami). Anne Meredith owned up that as a child she once came home from Sunday school and said she now knew the “Twenty-third Possum.”

As one might imagine, second language speakers of English are prone to these types of mistakes and Vittorino Dal Cengio related this beaut: “A couple of years ago the director in charge of our Italian Veterans Association's members funerals was discussing the last details with the officiating priest. While talking about the selection of the pall bearers our director promptly stated: 'I have six polar bears ready!' ” As if the atmosphere at funerals was not glacial enough already.

Not surprisingly, medical terms are a fertile source for a malaproprian miner. Pat O. tells of of a lady describing the labour of her daughter who stated “the labour was taking so long, at one point the doctor had to go in and seduce her.” Phil Hooker wrote about a “woman who told her friend that the doctor reported her husband had died of a massive internal fart (infarction).” Hooker added, “'I laughed for several minutes. It sounded explosively painful.” Dr Barry Wright itemized several “casual comments made by patients in his “41-year Family Practice of Medicine.” Included were, “'Would you exaspirate this cyst for me?” (aspirate), “'I had my veins litigated” (ligated), and “How's my systolic and apostolic blood pressure?” (diastolic).

If you're like me, you enjoy it when our elected leaders screw up in public and readers were also helpful in outing some pols. Julian S. related the story that when Jack Horner was a minister in Trudeau's cabinet he was given a speech to read by his civil servants which included the word “panacea.” Not being familiar with the word, he rendered it as “pancreas.” Julian was told that “for some time afterwards civil servants would get a chuckle at meetings by saying, in respect to proposals, 'this is not a pancreas, you know.' ” Davis Dunsmuir says that in the 1990s Phil Gagliardi, a British Columbia welfare minister, stated during a radio talk show program that “his ministry might foot the bill for birth control pills for unwed mothers but only 'when there were extemporaneous circumstances.' ”

Some teachers have archives of student bloopers and more often than one would expect, the errors are committed by those in university. Stephen Price shared the story told him by a university professor about a student who handed in a final paper after spending the entire term listening to the tale of Hannibal leading the Carthaginians against the Roman Empire, The student's term paper was titled “'The Plight of the Carthage Indians.”

Many comedians mine malaprops for material and often the seeming half-witted statement proves to be quite witty. Several readers chastized me for not including their favourite malaproprian comedians such as Norm Crosby and Don Harron's portrayal of Charlie Farquhson in my article, but space constraints did not allow me this luxury. Some readers, however, did cite comedians I mentioned but material I hadn't included in my article. Barry Bowman reminded me that in All in the Family, Archie Bunker referred to “yarmulkes” as “Yamahas,” and about putting on a “menstrual show.” Two readers supplied quips by Emily Litella, played by Gilda Radner on Saturday Night Live. Stephen Elioff gave me “What's all this talk I hear about a presidential erection?”, and Bruce Laplaunte's favourite Radnerism was “ I can't understand why people are so concerned with peanuts in Regina.”

I'm sorry that I wasn't able to include other worthy contributions. Keep those letters coming.

Friday, May 6, 2011


The Undead Language

Scholars predicted it would be impossible, but the Hebrew language – long considered dead as a vernacular – is revived and thriving in Israel. How’d that happen?

THERE ARE approximately 50 native languages in Canada, and many linguists believe that only three – Inuktitut, Ojibwa and Cree – are likely to survive this century.

If that sounds like a dire outlook for language rejuvenators, they can at least take comfort in the fact that language prognosticators have enjoyed a spotty record. Referring to the improbability of reviving Hebrew as a vernacular in the 20th century, the scholar Simon Bernfeld wrote at the turn of the century, “To make the Hebrew language a spoken tongue in the usual sense of the word is … impossible. It has never occurred in any language. … A broken glass can no longer be put back together.” Well, May 9th will mark the 63rd anniversary of the state of Israel, and so far the Hebrew glass shows no signs of shattering.

Bernfield wasn’t the only skeptical scholar. Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism, and Nathan Birnbaum (who coined the term) didn’t believe the vernacularization of Hebrew was really possible in the foreseeable future. Time has proven these men wrong. So how did it happen?

With the expulsion of Jews from Israel in the first century, the everyday usage of Hebrew faded and was replaced by Aramaic and Greek. Although Hebrew stopped being a vernacular, it retained its position in Jewish communities as a language of study and prayer. Jews in the Diaspora commonly used Ladino, the traditional language of Jews of Spanish descent, or Yiddish, for internal communication, and a non-Jewish vernacular for external communication. There were rare occasions when two Jews from different areas might meet who could communicate only in Hebrew. A Jew from Morocco (who didn’t speak Yiddish) might meet a Jew from Russia (who didn’t speak Ladino).

The revival of a language that has stopped being used in the vernacular is a rare event, but Hebrew was not so much revived as revitalized. Hebrew, after all, remained on the threshold of speech, having only lost its position as the language of the marketplace.

There were several factors that influenced the renaissance of Hebrew. The Jews of Palestine wanted to break ties to the Diaspora, and a distinct national language was necessary to effectuate this divorce. Also, although English, French and German were common languages, none of them was dominant enough to stymie Hebrew’s resurgence. Hebrew’s main rival, Yiddish, never seriously challenged the predominance of Hebrew because many of the secular Yiddishists were anti-Zionist and didn’t immigrate to Israel in large numbers.

Hebrew was thus able to fill a void by serving as a common vernacularto all the Jewish communities that lived in Palestine.

The Hebrew language was also blessed with many texts with varied Hebraic styles. The person most associated with the revitalization of Hebrew was Eliezer Ben Yehuda who left Europe in 1881 to live in the cramped quarters of Jerusalem. Both he and his wife shared a burning enthusiasm for the promotion of Hebrew. They established a policy in their home that Hebrew was the only language one was permitted to speak. Any visitor who could not speak Hebrew was forced to resort to gestures in order to communicate. Thanks in large part to Ben Yehuda, writer Robert St, John says it is now possible “for several million people to order groceries, drive cattle, make love and curse out their neighbours.”

Ben Yehuda coined the word et-on for newspaper by an adaptation of the phrase  michtav-et, “a letter of the time.” A dictionary had previously been referred to as sefer millim, “book of words” and Ben Yehuda used the Hebrew word millah as a base and created the word millon to refer to a dictionary. The youth of ancient Judea had no balls to bounce and when Ben Yehuda saw his son playing with a ball. the lad apparently uttered a sound like cadurr, hence a ball in Hebrew became kadur. He also coined the word dagdegan, “clitoris” from the root dagdeg, “to tickle.” Not all his neologisms were as successful. His word for “tomato” badura was only used in the Ben Yehuda kitchen and the Greek based petrozilia prevailed over Ben Yehuda’s preferred Hebraized term for “parsley” netz halav.

Although other attempts at reviving a language, such as Maori and Irish, have been hampered by their lack of widespread knowledge of the written language, no case is hopeless. Linguist Kenneth Hale says even though there aren't any speakers of Mohican, "you could take books and deeds published back in the 1600s, and from what we know about comparative Algonquin, you could figure out pretty closely what it sounded like. People could learn it and begin to use it and revive it." Israeli scholar Naftali Tur-Sinai stated, "even an artificial language which has never been alive such as Esperanto, can be made to live, if only there is a recognized need for it and a stubborn will of people to make it come alive."

Happy 63rd birthday, Israel.

Howard Richler’s latest book is Strange Bedfellows: The Private Lives of Words.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Figting Electoral Words

(The following article appeared in today's National Post)

Fighting words
For politicians, schemingand plotting are par for the course

Howard Richler
As the 2011 federal electiondraws to a close tonight, Canadians can breathe a sigh of relief.  Politicians will no longer brandish pamphletsat subway stops. “Attack ads” will no longer intrude on hockey games. And allthe rhetoric and mudslinging will abate – at least, until Parliament is back insession.
If you are wondering whypoliticians, particularly while campaigning, at times display belligerencebordering on bellicosity, you need not look any further than the etymology ofthe word “campaign”. The term derives from the Latin campus - “field” - andthe field in question is one not used for baseball but for battle. The firstdefinition of campaign in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1656 reads:“The continuance and operations of an army “in the field, for a season or otherdefinite portion of time, or while engaged in one continuous series of militaryoperations constituting the whole or distinct part of the war.” The term onlycame to refer to general endeavours such as a political or an advertisingcampaign towards the end of the 18th century.
Similarly, if you harbourdisdain for politicians, you may not be surprised to learn that despite itsderivation from the Greek politicos, or “statesman”, the first meaningof the word in the 16th century was actually “schemer” or “plotter.”Shakespeare declares his ungenerous feeling towards politicians when his KingLear utters: “Get thee glass eyes, and like a scurvy politician, seem to seethings that are not,” and when Hamlet states “This might be the pate of a that would circumvent God, might it not​​?”​​​​

If that explains politicians,what of polls?  The word derives from anentirely different root: the Middle Dutch word pol , or “head.” A pollwas a means of counting heads at a time when people would literally stand to becounted during elections. Until the English Parliament passed the Reform Act in1832, elections were decided by acclamation: that usually meant the candidatewhose camp created the highest decibel level would emerge victorious. Due tothe unreliability of this method, by the late 16th century candidateswith soft-spoken supporters demanded an actual head count of the assembledelectorate, and this is the origin of the poll.
If you believe that voting isa solemn responsibility, again you have etymology in your corner.  The word vote derives from the Latin votum,“vow.” The modern electoral sense originated in Scotland in the early 17thcentury, and quickly became common in England.
Finally, if you rue the factthat candidates are generally not candid, but too often hypocritical, takesolace in the fact that the original hypocrites were only pretending, being actors.The Greek hypocrites denoted an actor on a stage, but when it wasadopted into English in the 13th century it referred to a person whopretends to have feelings or beliefs of a higher order than his/her real ones.
While our election drama maybe all too real, it is still eminently civilized and democratic compared to thatin much of the rest of the world. As Mao Zedong put it, “Politics is warcarried out without bloodshed, while war is politics carried out withbloodshed.”   Something to ponder as we headto the polls, cast our votes, choose our politicians - and celebrate the end ofanother election campaign.
  Howard Richler´s latest book is StrangeBedfellows:The Private Lives of Words.