Monthly Archives: September 2009

Sounds Like…

Fare at the Fair

Fare at the Fair

Don’t trust your computer.  In particular, don’t trust the application on your computer that checks your spelling.  Oh, it will probably be helpful if you’re typing a letter to your little niece and you slip up on words like “caribou” or “embouchure”.  Spell Check will instantly notify you that you’ve made a typo — it practically calls you dummy, right to your face.  But it can’t deal with homonyms worth a darn.

In case you were out with strep throat the week your English teacher covered this topic, homonyms are words with dissimilar meanings that are pronounced the same but spelled differently… or pronounced differently but spelled the same.  Examples of the first category — sometimes called homophones — include pair (two of a kind), pear (the fruit), and pare (to cut off).  The second type — technically known as homographs — include tear (that drop of fluid coming out of your eye) and tear (to rip apart).

There are lots of others, and will your computer catch them?  I don’t think so.  As long as you spell a word correctly, it doesn’t know whether you meant to say, “I can’t bare it” — declining an invitation to the nude beach — or “I can’t bear it” — about some other problem you’re facing.  Spell Check doesn’t comprehend context.

Suppose I write, “My wife is a sewer”.  Shocking!  But I didn’t mean to insult her by comparing her to… well, you know. I was simply stating that she is a person who sews, a seamstress.  (And a very good one, too; her quilts win prizes.)  The word I was using is pronounced identically to sower — one who sows, meaning “scatters seeds”, not sows, which are female pigs.  So — are we clear on this?  Good, because your computer is completely lost. 

 Here’s what I’m getting at:  If the two of us are having a spoken conversation, I’ll know when you mean isle and not aisle.  But if you are writing the same idea to me, your computer might try to correct you, even if you used the right spelling, or — more likely — it won’t even bother.

You and I care about these subtleties of our complicated language because we want our emails and our reports and other written communications to convey what we actually mean.  That’s why we struggle to find just the right word, and try to be sure we’ve spelled it correctly.  To Spell Check, these distinctions are neither hear nor their.  Its a dam shame.

Chiseled In Stone


Crazy Horse Memorial: model in foreground, mountain sculpture taking shape

Crazy Horse Memorial: model in foreground, mountain sculpture taking shape

What possessed him?  Why did sculptor Gutzon Borglum think it was a good idea to carve massive likenesses of four U.S. presidents into the side of a mountain in South Dakota?  Part of the answer is that he was paid to do it; he already had some renown for grand-scale carving elsewhere.  His project at Mount Rushmore may also have been inspired by his fascination with what Borglum’s wife described as “the emotional value of volume.”  In other words, sculpted sixty-foot heads on a mountainside have a much greater “wow” factor than twelve-inch busts in a museum.

Whatever drove Borglum also seems to have influenced another (lesser-known) sculptor to attempt an enormous monument to the Native American chief Crazy Horse.  That project, still underway, is just down the road from Mount Rushmore.  Sally and I visited both; following are excerpts from my journal of September 19, 2005: 

Our hotel had promised a free continental breakfast, but they hadn’t specified which continent — it could only have been considered lavish in parts of Asia or Africa.  There was an assortment of “pastries” that looked as if someone had sat on them.  We picked through the meager selection and found a few items that looked edible, ate them, and got out of the tiny eating area as quickly as possible.

By nine a.m. we were off to Mount Rushmore, which enabled us to get a prime parking place.  There is a big parking structure, several stories high, just down the hill below the Memorial… The main walkway, leading past restrooms and a gift shop, continues through an arcade of flags of the fifty states and then terminates at what they call Grandview Terrace.  The view is quite grand from there, and we took our first daytime photos of the presidents.  For the record, they are (left to right) Washington, Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Lincoln.  Incidentally, for the first time ever, the monument had just been given a thorough cleaning only last month.

Directly underneath Grandview Terrace is a museum.  In it we saw a film about Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor who envisioned the monument and supervised its creation.  We learned, among other things, that he died in 1941, just before its completion…

Our first car hike of this trip was through the beautiful Black Hills.  It was a very well maintained highway, as most of the roads in South Dakota seemed to be, and it led us to the Crazy Horse Memorial, seventeen miles from Mount Rushmore…

The self-styled “Storyteller in Stone”, sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, had been approached by Lakota chief Henry Standing Bear — the official story goes — to commemorate their great hero.  Korczak began work on the memorial in 1948 and died in 1982, but his wife and seven of his ten children are still involved with the project.

When completed, the likeness of the Native American warrior will dwarf the sculptures of the presidents on Mount Rushmore.  The head alone is something like 8 stories high, and his outstretched arm is 227 feet long.  The whole thing will be 563 feet high and 641 feet long.  As of 2005, about all that is done is the head, so when it is ultimately finished, I expect to be over two hundred years old.  We took a few photos, so that someday our descendants can see what it looked like back in the 21st century…

A King’s Ransom

King Louis IX of France

King Louis IX of France

The idiom “a king’s ransom” means something that costs a staggering amount of money, as in “I’ll bet that diamond- encrusted wristwatch cost a king’s ransom.”  An incident in the life of Louis IX of France gives us a vivid illustration of its actual meaning.

Born in 1214, Louis became king at age 12.  His mother, Blanche of Castille, didn’t waste any time getting her boy on the throne after her husband’s death.  One of the titles bestowed on the adolescent Louis at his coronation was “lieutenant of God on Earth”.  Titles like that are why crowns don’t come in small or medium sizes — only extra-large.

As soon as he was old enough to act in that capacity, Louis IX set about spreading God’s love by slaughtering as many infidels as possible.  He put together a big army and launched the Seventh Crusade in 1248.  His campaign in Egypt went fairly well for a while, but then, in 1250, dysentery caught up with Louis and his men.

Not long thereafter, Louis was captured.  As you might imagine, the Sultan of Egypt demanded a literal king’s ransom.  In addition to surrendering the city of Damietta, the Crusaders had to cough up 400,000 livre if they wanted their king back.  To give you an idea how much that was, consider that at that time, France’s annual revenue was 250,000 livre.

Louis was a few bucks short of the 400,000 and American Express wouldn’t let him put it on his card, but the Knights Templars had a stash of cash and agreed to make Louis a loan.  Get this:  it took two days to count and weigh all the gold required to buy Louis IX’s freedom.  In other words, about as much as a corporate executive’s year-end bonus.

Even Louis must have known it was a lot of dough, and this is a guy who liked to throw his subjects’ money around.  In 1240 he had bought what was reputed to be the actual crown of thorns worn by Jesus.  Louis paid 135,000 livre for that relic, and then spent 60,000 more to build a chapel in which to keep it.  Sainte-Chappelle, as it is known, is exquisite.  Built in 1248, it is still one of the must-see attractions in Paris.

In spite of his extravagant ways, the French people loved him;  he was renowned for his piety and his fairness.  When he died in 1270 during the Eighth Crusade, he went to the head of the line for prospective sainthood, and was canonized by Pope Boniface VIII in 1297.  Louis IX is the only French king to achieve sainthood, and (as far as I know) the only French king to have a city in Missouri named after him.

Saint Louis’ feast day is August 25.  In his memory, go spend a huge amount of money on something.

When “Ouch” Just Isn’t Enough

Some swearing required

Some swearing required

You took a bad spill on the ski slopes and blew out your knee.  Or you were slicing raw vegetables when the knife slipped and you stabbed your hand.  What did you do next?  More specifically, what did you say next?  Well, potty-mouth, you”ll be interested to know that there seems to be some therapeutic benefit to that four-letter word (not “ouch”) that you yelped.

A journal called NeuroReport recently published the results of a study that explored the connection between pain and cursing.  A British psychologist named Richard Stephens had noticed the link when he accidentally slammed a hammer onto his pinky.  “While it was throbbing,” Stephens said, “I swore a bit.”  A bit?  I’m sure he’s just being modest.  If I smashed my finger with a hammer, all the expletive-using skills I perfected in the U.S. Army would come flooding back, believe me.

Stephens speculated that “swearing is such a common response to pain, there has to be an underlying reason why we do it.”  So he and his colleagues at Keele University recruited some college students to participate in an experiment in which their hands were immersed in icy water.  As you know, that can get pretty &%#*! painful after a while.

In one round, the students were instructed to use a non-expletive.  In another round, they were permitted to repeat a curse word.  Each was allowed to choose his or her own curse word, by the way; being British students, the most popular choice was “bollocks”.  Most used obscenities rather than profanity.  (The difference, basically, is that obscenity is biological and profanity is theological.)

It turned out that those who cursed were able to withstand pain better than those who didn’t.  On average, the bleep-word users were able to keep their hands in the water forty seconds longer than the students who used words you could say to your mother. 

The researchers noted that using curse words elevated the heart rate of the study’s participants.  “In swearing, people have an emotional response,” Stephens stated, “and it’s the emotional response that actually triggers the reduction of pain.”  There was more theorizing along those lines, about primitive reflexes that evolved in animals and which are articulated as words in humans, and so forth.

A lot of it sounds like bulls**t to me, but luckily I didn’t say so out loud.  Scientists warn that so-called casual swearing — using curse words frequently — dulls the pain-killing effect of those words.  Stephens told BBC News, “Swearing is emotional language, but if you overuse it, it loses its emotional attachment.”

I searched several sources, including Time Magazine, Scientific American, and CNN Health.  No one reported what the Keele University president said when he found out that his professors spent money to get college students to say words they use all the time for free.


Doris Stephens

Doris Stephens

The mother-in-law joke is one of the lowest forms of humor, and one of the oldest.  Adam probably bored Eve with mother-in-law jokes, even though neither of them had one.  OK, they may not be quite that old, but there is some historical evidence that the mother-in-law joke existed as far back as Roman times.

Sorry, but I’ve never found them all that funny, which may be because I really liked my mother-in-law.  For some reason she liked me, too, so we got along great.  I realize that is not a universal human experience; I was lucky, I guess. 

Many years ago, my wife and I were with some friends who didn’t have cordial relations with their relations, and they weren’t holding back.  To hear them tell it, their in-laws were… well, you know:  “she’s so awful, rabid dogs run away from her,” and so on.  And they had horror stories to support their claims that they had unwittingly married into a coven.

Finally, one of our friends noticed that I had been uncharacteristically silent.  “Wait, wait,” he said to the others, and then he turned to me.  “Tom, we’ve all complained about our in-laws for years, but you’ve never said anything negative about yours.  Come on — I want to hear one bad thing about your mother-in-law.”

I thought about it for a while, and all I could come up with was this:  “When she gives me a kiss, she leaves a smudge of lipstick on my cheek.”  That lame response earned derisive hoots from my friends, but it was the best I could do on short notice.

Doris Stephens was my mother-in-law for over forty years, and it’s still the only complaint I have about her.  Although she did make me very sad the other day — she went and died on us, a couple of weeks short of her 91st birthday.

  There are a lot of us who loved her, and who will miss that lipstick smudge on our cheeks.


(Note that pencil is held in, ahem, the left hand)

(Note that pencil is held in, ahem, the left hand)

It struck me as an odd question:  “Are you right-handed or left-handed?”  I was asked that by a neurologist who was investigating a medical issue I was having — one that didn’t have anything to do with which of my hands holds a pencil.  The doctor explained that a right-handed person is typically left-brain dominant, and vice versa.  That means that the nooks and crannies in the left side of the brain send signals that influence right-handedness, and left-handedness is characterized by neurons flashing in the right side of the brain.  That’s the prevailing theory, anyway.

I happen to be among the relative few who are left-handed.  It’s generally believed that about one person in ten is left-handed, although some recent studies have pegged the percentage slightly higher.  That number may be skewed, because over the centuries attempts were made to correct left-handedness; it was considered a shameful — or at least unfortunate — condition, like buck teeth or syphilis.

This bias is reflected in word meanings:  the Latin word for “on the left side” is sinister, and French for “left” is gauche, which has also come to mean awkward or clumsy; lacking social grace.  In spite of right-handers’ efforts to cure (or stigmatize) left-handedness, though, some of us have managed to infiltrate world history and culture at a rate disproportionate to the population.

Eight of forty-four U.S. presidents (18%) have been lefties:  James Garfield, Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama.  So was Benjamin Franklin, by the way.  And how’s this for a partial list of left-handed world leaders:  Alexander the Great, Charlemagne, Julius Caesar, and Queen Victoria?  Philosophers who jotted their musings with the wrong hand include Aristotle and Gandhi.  Left-handed athletes are too numerous to mention, but artists include Michelangelo, Hans Holbein, Raphael, and Albrecht Dürer.

Among the lefty musicians are Mozart, McCartney, and Cole Porter.  If you thought there was something sinister about Steve McQueen, you’re correct, and that goes for many more entertainers from Marilyn Monroe to Cary Grant, not to mention Jay Leno, W.C. Fields, Julia Roberts, Dick Van Dyke, Jerry Seinfeld, and Oprah Winfrey.  One out of four Apollo astronauts were left-handers — as was Albert Einstein.  And Mark Twain.  And, I reluctantly admit, John Dillinger.

In recognition of (or sympathy for) alternative-hand users, there is even an International Left Handers Day, celebrated annually on August 13th.  I should have put up this post then, but you know how we lefties are… not quite right.