Monday, February 18, 2013

Puzzling how fanatical puzzlers used to be

(This article appeared on the Feb 18, 2013 Globe & Mail under the title "Crosswords": A 10 letter word for obsession)

Puzzling how fanatical puzzlers used to be


Howard Richler

What activity do the descriptions “epidemic obsession” and “veritable menace” suggest to you? These characterizations appeared respectively in the Canadian Forun and the London Times in 1924 to describe a mania that was sweeping North America.

A little hint – the word starts with C. If you guessed “Charleston” or “cocaine” you'd be wrong. The answer is “crossword.”

No, I do not jest; crossword puzzlers are nowadays a staid, orderly group but their past in much more frenetic. The November 1924 edition of the Canadian Forum featured an article entitled “The Psychology of the Crossword Puzzle” in which the author asks psychologists tp explain the regressive tendencies found in crossword puzzlers: “Psychology should..attempt some explanation of what may be regarded as the epidemic obsession of the crossword puzzle.” Later on this writer reveals that his plea for an explanation is rhetorical: “It is obvious from the similarity of the crossword puzzle to the child's letter blocks that it is primarily the unconscious which is expressing itself in the crossword puzzle obsession.”

A legacy of this crossword madness could be found in the New York Public Library thirteen years later. Then, a prohibitive sign commanded in glaring block letters. THE USE OF LIBRARY BOOKS IN CONNECTION WITH CONTESTS AND PUZZLES IS PROHIBITED.

What sinister force led to the need for such a draconian sign being posted in 1937? In order to answer that question, let us go back to the genesis of the crossword puzzle exactly a century ago.

The inaugural “word-cross” puzzle appeared in the New York World on December 21, 1913. Its creator was Arthur Wynne, the Fun Page editor. What Wynne developed was actually an adaptation of a puzzle that first surfaced more than two millennia ago. The puzzle was called a word square and its distinguishing mark was that the same words read both across and down. Creating word squares became popular in 19th century England. Here's an example:







It occurred to Wynne that the horizontal words didn't have to be the same as the vertical ones and he arranged his puzzle in a diamond-shaped grid and inserted numbers in some of the squares. The puzzler was given clues that indicated the start and position of each word. Before long crossword mania had swept the continent.

In Creative Cruciverbalists, author Helene Hovanec itemizes some of the compulsive behaviour of puzzlers in the 1920s:

Welz Nathan was fined $5 and remanded to jail for an evening for obstructing traffic in a restaurant. He and three friends were so involved in solving a crossword puzzle that they refused to leave when the owner tried to close the establishment. Nathan opted to finish the puzzle in a four-letter place of confinement.”

Mrs. Maria Zaba of Chicago complaining that she was a 'crossword' widow, sued her husband for non-support. Mr. Zaba was so engrossed in solving crosswords that he didn't have time to work. Judge Sabath ordered Zaba to limit himself to three puzzles a day and devote the rest of his time to domestic duties.”

Theodore Koerner of Brooklyn asked his wife for help in solving a crossword. She begged off, claiming exhaustion. Koerner shot her (superficially) and then shot himself (fatally).”

By the 1920s, crossword parties were all the rage. Social intercourse all but evaporated as fanatical puzzlers endeavoured to complete puzzles before their deranged peers.

In the early 1930s, newspapers exploited puzzle contests in an attempt to increase their readership. To solve some puzzles, readers frequented libraries to search out arcane words secreted away on spider-webbed bookshelves.

Long lines of neurotic puzzlers formed in previously deserted libraries all searching for the Holy Grail, the word that would unlock the puzzle's mystery and earn them glory. To gain an advantage over other cutthroat competitors, some ruthless afficianados stole or desecrated some of the rare reference books.

By 1937, officials at the New York Public Library were forced to take action against the puzzling hordes. A library user naive enough to admit to being a dreaded puzzler was presented with this stern note: “Dictionaries, encyclopedias and other works of reference are not provided for use in connection with puzzles or contests of any kind.”

So reader beware. Remember in this centenary year of the invention of the crossword puzzle: lurking in the depths of the next passive puzzler you spot lies a wordstruck maniac just waiting to break out.

Howard's book From Happy to Homosexual and other mysterious semantic shifts will be published in March by Ronsdale Press of Vancouver. Also his puzzle book Anagram Triplets is available on your IPhone on Puzzazz.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Reflections on Businesspeak

       Reflections on  Businesspeak
                   Eve Pearce

The Language of Business

Have you ever listened to businessmen conversing and had no idea what anything that they said actually meant? ‘Business-speak’ has become a language in its own right. Words and phrases that mean one thing in regular use have taken on completely different meanings in the world of business; for example, take the word ‘action’. In regular usage, it is a noun but in business-speak, it can also be used as a verb. One businessman might say to the other, ‘Can you action this?’ By this, he would mean ‘Can you put this into action?’ The word ‘actionable’ has been used since 1591 to mean ‘something that can be put into action’ so it stands to reason that ‘action’ eventually came into use as a verb, as if something is ‘actionable’ then the logical conclusion that one must draw is that it can also be ‘actioned’.

Medical Industry

The medical industry is an area in which buzzwords, jargon and euphemisms are difficult for laymen and women to understand. If the average person had been prescribed Chantix, he or she would refer to it as a ‘Chantix prescription’. However in the eyes of those within the industry, it would be a ‘Chantix script’, ‘script’ being a shortened form of ‘prescription’. Confusingly, the word ‘script’ can also be used to refer to a blank prescription pad and the word ‘scrip’ is also sometimes used to refer to a prescription. ‘Scrip’ started life in the 1600s as a word for a scrap of paper and according to the Random House dictionary, its subsequent development shows influence from the meanings attached to the word ‘script’, implying that these words have been linked for centuries. It is therefore logical that they are interchangeable as words for a prescription. In recent years, the term ‘e-prescription’ has come about to refer to a prescription for a drug that is issued electronically. It is interesting how the birth of the word ‘e-mail’ in 1982 has led to hundreds of words with the prefix of ‘e-’ at the start used to denote a connection to the internet. Nowadays websites offering health information are even referred to as ‘e-health’.

Online Business

The online business world is another area that has developed its own indecipherable language. A lot of this language appears to consist of abbreviations, for example the term ‘B2E’, which is short for ‘business to employee’ and means a corporate portal. The number ‘2’ would never in a million years have been used in place of the word ‘to’ in a business context until recently but it seems that the rise of internet abbreviations and ‘text speak’ has endowed it with a degree of legitimacy. It is also used in the phrase ‘P2P lending’, which means ‘peer-to-peer lending’, ‘B2B’, meaning ‘business-to-business’, and ‘B2C’, which means ‘business-to-consumer’. The prefix ‘crowd-‘ has become increasingly popular in the world of online business in order to indicate that something relies on large numbers of internet users. Examples of this are ‘crowdfunding’ and ‘crowdsourcing’, the former meaning funding provided by a large number of internet users and the latter meaning outsourcing tasks to people via the internet. It is strange the way in which the meaning of ‘crowd’ in this context has changed from a large number of people gathered in one space to a large number of people who are spread out across the world.

Business Mimicking Science

Some business words have started borrowing from science, arguably so that businessmen can attempt to present themselves as a kind of pseudo-scientific authority in their areas of expertise. An example of this is the word ‘infobia’, which is used in the business world to mean the fear of not having enough information. ‘Corporate DNA’ is another piece of ‘business science’. This apparently means unchangeable elements of a business, which simultaneously describe its uniqueness and identity. It can be argued that these words are buzzwords that are designed to sound cleverer than they actually are. Language expert Adam Jacot de Boinod has ridiculed these words for their attempt to bamboozle people into thinking that the users of the phrases are more authoritative about a subject. Perhaps he was correct in doing so.

Purposefully Impenetrable

Jacot de Noinod claims that the jargon that businesses use is designed to be deliberately impenetrable. He points out that phrases such as ‘conscious consumerism’, ‘strategic goals’ and ‘core aims’ sound good but actually mean very little. Whether you believe that ‘business-speak’ enriches the language or simply confuses it is a matter of personal opinion. One thing is for certain: jargon surrounding professions and job roles has always existed and looks set to continue to change and evolve throughout the years to come.

Why Lovers are Bird-Brained

Why lovers are bird-brained


Howard Richler

“On wings of love and fly to me my turtle dove.”

As clear and pure as a turtle dove

And that is what fills me with love.”

I espied these saccharine messages recently while perusing Valentine’s Day cards and had the humdrum epiphany that the turtle dove is the quintessential symbol for Valentine’ Day. (Do not confuse the turtle dove with the reptilian turtle. The bird’s name in Old English was turtur, an onomatopoeic rendering of the bird’s coo.) Not only does “turtle dove” conveniently rhyme with “love,” but the turtle dove is also said to be a very solicitous partner that constantly dotes on its mate. This sense is reflected in the following passage from James Joyce’s Ulysses: “Take her for me... Jove, a cool ruttime send them. Yea, turtledove her.”

The turtle dove is but one example of the “animalistic” nature of romance. Lovers are referred to in other beastly ways such as “bunny,” “kitten,” “puppy,” “sparrow,” “sparling,” “lambkin,” “tiger,” and “stallion,” and are even likened to potentially disease-infested rodents, such as a “mouse” and a “squirrel.”

The metaphorical use of animals to refer to lovers is a time-honoured practice. In his book The Lover’s Tongue, Mark Morton relates that the period from the 15th to the 18th century represented the apogee for the metaphorical comparison of one’s beloved with livestock: “People interacted with animals not just in their McNugget or Quarter-Pounder incarnations, but as fellow creatures, sharing the same plot of farmland, if not the same house.”

For example, in Shakespeare’s Henry V, the character Pistol exclaims, “Good bawcock, bate thy rage, use lenitie, sweet chuck!” “Bawcock” is a corruption of the French beau coq which means “beautiful cock” or more euphemistically “fine rooster”; “chuck” here is a variation of “chick.” In the Scottish poet William Dunbar’s 16th century verse In Secreit Place This Hyndir Nycht, a woman in the poem addresses her lover thus: “My belly huddrun , my swete hurle bawsy” which translates as “My big lummox, my sweet unweaned calf.” I may never ever again be able to eat a steak without blushing.

Perhaps it would also be wise to avoid employing the term of endearment piggsneye, used by Chaucer in The Miller’s Tale in 1388. The OED defines it as “one specially cherished; a darling, pet; commonly used as an endearing form of address.” It is a combined form of “pig’s-eye” and the OED relates that it “originated in children's talk and the fond prattle of nurses.” Its last recorded usage dates back to 1941 in C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters: “My dear, my very dear Wormwood, my poppet, my pigsnie.”

Of course, terms of endearment can transcend comparing your beloved to an animal. You can also employ nonsense rhymes such as “honey bunny,” “lovey dovey” and “tootsie wootsie”. If you find these terms annoying, take solace that many others of this ilk are now archaic. In All's Well that Ends Well, Shakespeare refers to a husband’s “kicky-wicky” which transfers from its literal sense as a gray mare to a wife. Other rhyming terms that have similarly vanished are “gol-pol” (a woman with blonde hair), “crowdie-mowdie” (oatmeal and water eaten uncooked,) and the nonsensical duo of “slawsie gawsie” and “tyrlie myrlie.”

Equally grating are the variety of “–ums” words used as forms of endearment. These seem to have originated as terms for children (or cats) but were soon adopted by babbling, inarticulate lovers. Here we have the quartet of “diddums,” “pussums,” “ pookums” and “snookums.”

If you are looking for an original verb to describe your love play, try “canoodle” which is defined as “to indulge in caresses and fondling endearments.” Its origin is unknown and its first citation occurs in 1859: A sly kiss, and a squeeze, and a pressure of the foot or so, and a variety of harmless endearing blandishments, known to our American cousins under the generic name of ‘conoodling.’” If you’re seeking even greater originality for the one you cherish, try an archaic word. I thus recommend to the gentleman reader that he refer to his love interest as “muskin” (girl with a pretty face), “amoret” (sweetheart), “fairhead” (beauty) or as a “mistresspiece” (female masterpiece), and to employ “court holy water” (flattery) in order that she may “smick” (kiss) and “halch” (embrace) him. A lady may call her beau a “franion” (gallant lover) or refer to him as “snout-fair” (handsome), and tell him that he is “frim” (vigorous and in good shape).

Whatever language you choose to woo the one of your choice this Valentine’s Day, may your “loveship” (courtship) be full of “fougue” (ardour).
Howard's book From Happy to Homosexual and other mysterious semantic shifts will be published March 2013 by Ronsdale Press.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Black English

African rhythms resonate in Black English


Howard Richler

In the month of February, in the United States and Canada, we celebrate Black History Month to honour the achievements of black men and women throughout history. As such in this month's column, I reflect on the speech patterns of blacks.

While negative attitudes towards black English still persist, we have to look back to yesteryear to see that there has been a sea change in how this dialect is viewed. To wit, in the 1830s, a cartoonist in Philadelphia published a series of popular cartoons that mocked the pretensions of the evolving black middle class trying to act “white.” One cartoon displayed a bewigged partygoer asking the following captioned question: “Shall I hab de honor to dance de next quadrille with you, Miss Minta.” Although despicably racist, these cartoons highlight the realization of the distinct nature of black English. The language used by blacks may have been distinct but it was regarded as second-rate. For example, H.L. Mencken in his opus The American Language wrote in the 1920s, “The Negro dialect, as we know it today, seems to have been formulated by the song-writers for the minstrel shows; it did not appear in literature until the time of the Civil was a vague and artificial lingo which had little relation to the actual speech of Southern blacks.” Some years ago, pop grammarian John Simon ordained that “the constructions of Black English are the product not of a language with roots in tradition but of ignorance of how language works.”

However, it is now recognized by linguists that black English is not inferior but merely another of the multitudinous flavours of English available on our planet. In fact, black English contains some useful refinements not available in standard English. In an article some years ago in the magazine Discover, linguist John B. Rickford outlined some of the versatility of black English in the verb “to run.”

1)He runnin. (“He is running.”)

2)He be runnin. (“He is usually running.”)

3)He be steady runnin. (“He is usually running in an intensive, sustained manner.”)

4)He bin runnin. (“He has been running.”)

5)He BIN runnin. (“He has been running for a long time and still is.”)

Most linguists believe that black English has its roots in the creole language developed as a result of contact between West Coast Africans and European traders. Robert McCrum and Robert MacNeil In The Story of English relate that “The African element in the English spoken by slaves on the plantation-known as Plantation Creole-was sustained for some time.. On each plantation, there would be some esteemed slaves who spoke African languages.”

Not surprisingly, an African heritage resonates through black English speech patterns. For example, many West African languages don't possess the problematic English “th” sound. The lack of this consonantal combo may thus lead to “them” being rendered as “dem” and “desk” as “des.”

It was once felt that as more blacks entered the mainstream that the dialect would greatly fade. According to linguists, however, the current generation of inner-city youth employs the black vernacular more than ever. The persistence of the dialect reflects an attitude that prizes cultural distinction. Black English endures because it fulfils a cultural need by enhancing black solidarity. On the other hand, the inability of a black person to speak and write in standard English can seriously impede his or her social and economic prospects.

School teachers used to devote themselves to correcting black English usage under the impression that they were thus imparting proper grammar to the black student. Things are improving somewhat but have a long way to go. The Oxford Companion to the English Language states that “because Black English is devalued..many teachers with excellent intentions continue to denigrate it in favour of standard English. Few such educators..have learned about the history and nature of Afro-American English, and fail to appreciate its diversity and logical integrity as a long-established variety of the language.”

I believe that black English should not be taught as a distinct language but rather should be used as a tool to improve the student's mastery of standard English.

Howard's book From Gay (Happy) to Gay (Homosexual) and other mysterious semantic shifts will be published by Ronsdale Press in March 2013.