Tuesday, April 27, 2004

My latest Tribune language column:
On the ambiguities of the word "values" in business and political slogans.
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I wanted to include what I saw last month at ESPN.com, which asserted that the New England Patriots won the Super Bowl "with talent, passion and values." Pity the poor Carolina Panthers, defeated by a last-second field goal, who presumably are morally lax.

My B&C blog is idle this week; it returns next week with a roundup of the month's news and book reviews.
I've returned from the Festival of Faith and Writing enriched for having heard one of the 20th century's most underrated novelists, Frederick Buechner, and having finally picked up his collection-glossary, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker's ABC. At the risk of making him sound like a hokey spinner of Hallmarkisms rather than a miner of the subtleties of the soul, here are the Seven Deadly Sins as defined in his book. I especially like how Buechner, as with the Beatitudes, turns them from Don't's to Do's:

Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations yet to come ... in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.

Avarice [and] greed ... are based on the mathematical truism that the more you get, the more you have. The remark of Jesus ... is based on the human truth that the more you give away in love, the more you are.

Envy is the consuming desire to have everybody else as unsuccessful as you are.

A glutton is one who raids the icebox for a cure for spiritual malnutrition.

Lust is the craving for salt of a person who is dying of thirst.

Pride: Humility is often confused with the polite self-deprecation of saying you're not much of a bridge player when you know perfectly well you are. ... True humility doesn't consist of thinking ill of yourself but of not thinking of yourself much differently from the way you'd be apt to think of anybody else. It is the capacity for being no more and no less pleased when you play your own hand well than when your opponents do.

Sloth is not to be confused with laziness. Lazy people, people who sit around and watch the grass grow, may be people at peace. ... Slothful people, on the other hand, may be very busy people. They are people who go through the motions, who fly on automatic pilot. Like somebody with a bad head cold, they have mostly lost their sense of taste and smell. ... They are letting things run their course. They are getting through their lives.
Enron evildoers' excuses are so maddening, they may as well pray this prayer of confession, says David Batstone in Saving the Corporate Soul (quoted in The Christian Century):

Almighty God, I may or may not need your mercy, for I am neither admitting or denying that I have transgressed. For I would come to you with a penitent and contrite heart, if I were guilty of sin, which I am not saying I am, and I am not saying that I am not. I may have turned from your love and your path, but I am confident that any such allegations made against me will in time be proven unfounded. ... Wash me clean and restore me in a right spirit, notwithstanding the fact that my present spirit may require neither washing nor restoration. Amen.
A Maine resident who lives along the Canadian border was fined $10,000 for driving around an unmanned border checkpoint on Sundays to go to church, even though the man would have to drive 200 miles out of his way to reach a station that is staffed on Sundays.
Last week I wrote about dimwitticisms. Since then I saw that the BBC is hosting an all-cliche short story written collectively by readers. It's a grotesque form of poetry. One of my favorite (and most useful) blogs, Language Log, linked to a 1985 report called Self-Annihilating Sentences, which contains these morsels of wisdom:

This book fills a much-needed gap.

Way down deep he's shallow.

He's a unique type.

You have one choice.

Anyone who reads this is illiterate.

Acupuncture is pointless.
Etymology Today from M-W: hagiography \hag-ee-AH-gruh-fee\

1 : biography of saints or venerated persons
2 : idealizing or idolizing biography

Like "biography" and "autograph," the word "hagiography" has to do with the written word. The combining form "-graphy" comes from Greek "graphein," meaning "to write." "Hagio-" comes from a Greek word that means "saintly" or "holy." This origin is seen in Hagiographa, the Greek designation of the Ketuvim, the third division of the Hebrew Bible. Our English word "hagiography," though it can refer to biography of actual saints, is these days more often applied to biography that treats ordinary human subjects as if they were saints.

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Friday, April 23, 2004

This entry originates at the Calvin College Festival of Faith and Writing. For the links for this presentation go to www.nbierma.com/weblogs.

Update: Summary and surreal moment from attending blogger Anj Colyn.

Monday, April 19, 2004

My latest Tribune language column:
On the ever-growing dictionary of "dimwitticisms."
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Here are some dimwitted cliches on the March 18 "Morning Edition" caught by NPR's ombudsman, who points out, "If the writer doesn't appear to care, why should the listener?"

A nationwide manhunt ensued...
The sense of relief was palpable...
...breathing a sigh of relief...
...they'll be sifting through the evidence...
U.S. armed forces are redoubling their efforts...
...in Minnesota, both sides charged, guns blazing into court...
But Miller says the buck always stops with the U.S. firm...

Earlier: Mixed Metaphor Watch
Exurbia: the new frontier

This week in my B&C blog: The Atlantic on the case against genetic "perfection," right but weakly argued. Also: fighting crime with books in the Mexico City subway, and five articles more or less related to the topic of suburban development and cultural identity. LINK/ARCHIVE

In the blog I poke some holes in David Brooks' argument about exurbia and American identity. Some other fallacies in his essay I didn't mention: he attributes the culture of exurbia to our hard work, but doesn't a culture that reveres the golf cart, the Big Mac, and (as I saw on a recent ad) the trash bag deodorizer actually celebrate laziness? Also, Brooks equates exurban migration with the Puritans' effort to establish a "city on a hill," even though exurbia encourages an escape to isolated private prosperity while the city was to be a cohesive, collective religious body. Finally, while admiring the creativity of our capitalistic culture, Brooks fails to invoke, much less address, the ambiguities of Joseph Schumpeter's fine phrase, the creative destruction of capitalism.

Philadelphia magazine dug up some errors in Brooks' previous writings; I love the headline, spoofing his last book: Booboos in Paradise

But overall I like Brooks' writing a lot. Among the choice phrases in his NYT piece, he gets off this line about Trader Joe's, the place where

all the snack food is especially designed for kids who come home from school screaming, ''Mom, I want a snack that will prevent colorectal cancer!''

Speaking of American laziness, the chorus of excuses in the 9-11 testimony suggests we have gone from Can-Do America to No-Can-Do America, says Maureen Dowd.

Update: USA Today on why suburban sprawl is bad for our health.
Sosa's 512thOne year and one day after I saw Sammy Sosa's 501st career home run on a summer-like April afternoon at Wrigley Field against the Reds, I witnessed Sosa's record-tying 512th homer as a Cub on a summer-like April afternoon at Wrigley Field against the Reds. When Moises Alou followed Sosa's shot in the bottom of the ninth with one of his own to win the game, the stranger next to me hugged me amid the delirium. Probably the best baseball game I've ever seen in person.

-Essay: A Wrigley Field escape
-From my Chicago album: Wrigley Field
A letter writer to syndicated religion columnist Terry Mattingly found the seven deadly sins represented in the characters of Gilligan's Island: link

Gilligan equals sloth and the skipper represents anger. Then Thurston Howell III equals greed, Lovey Howell is gluttony, Ginger is lust, the professor is pride and, finally, Mary Ann represents envy.
Great Onion this week. A couple of highlights:

New Negative Campaign Ads Blast Voters Directly link
Man Nods His Way To The Top
Etymology Today from M-W: companionable \kum-PAN-yuh-nuh-bul\

: marked by, conducive to, or suggestive of companionship : sociable

Someone who is "companionable" is a person who (etymologically at least) is willing to share bread with you. "Companionable" is the adjective form of "companion," which ultimately derives from the combination of the Latin prefix "com-," meaning "with, together," and the noun "panis," meaning "bread, loaf, food." "Companionable" first appeared in print in English in the 14th century ("companion" has been around for at least a century longer). Other descendants of "panis" include "pantry" (a place for storing food), "pannier" (a basket such as might carry food), and "panettone" (a kind of yeast bread). Even "food" itself is derived from the same ancient root that gave rise to "panis" in Latin.
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Tuesday, April 13, 2004

My latest Tribune language column:
On Lynne Truss' surprise bestseller on the history and necessity of punctuation.
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Here's Truss in the London Guardian on her top 10 language resources, and here's the Melbourne Age on her book.
Mark Twain's studyThis week in my B&C blog: The problems with presuming President Bush is doing the bidding of religious fundamentalists. Plus: Remorseful tourists return chunks of Australia's Ayers Rock, The New Yorker on the history of height, preschoolers using antidepressants, the virtue of boredom, and more. At left, a picture of Mark Twain's study in Elmira, New York--one of my Places items this week. LINK/ARCHIVE
A letter to the NYT on obligations of fact and corrections could be my credo as a feature writer who is wary of the conventions of "hard news" (see my "About" sidebar below left)

Since opinion by definition is subjective, then op-ed columnists are the most "fair" because they explicitly disclose their hand in shaping a narrative, whereas reporters do not. Editors shape the narrative structure: which articles go on the front page, above or below the fold, which photographs are featured in color or in black and white. The font size of the headline prepares readers to expect anywhere from grave emergency to the quotidian status quo. Who doesn't select the facts? And in turn, who does publicly acknowledge, "This narrative is my opinion, shaped to my own preferences"? Seanna Oakley, Ann Arbor, Mich., March 29, 2004 link
In 1440, Canon Fursy de Bruille arrived in Cambrai, France, with an icon of the Virgin and Child he had received in Rome, which he had been told was a holy relic painted by St. Luke. The image [left] shows Jesus squirming in his mother's arms. Mother and child, doleful and shy, turn slightly toward us, as if they are watching or waiting for something. Many artists copied the picture. The canon gave it to the Cathedral of Cambrai, where thousands of pilgrims saw it. Modern historians are not sure who painted the Cambrai Madonna or where, but it conforms to a type, the Virgin of Tenderness, an invention of the late Byzantine era. ... As "Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557)" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art reminds us, artistic decline does not necessarily accompany political decay. NY Times/more

UPDATE: New Yorker review

The variety of Donald Rumsfeld's vaguely creepy hand gestures.
Etymology Today from M-W: pertinacious \per-tuh-NAY-shuss\

1 a : adhering resolutely to an opinion or purpose b : perversely persistent
2 : stubbornly unyielding or tenacious

If you say "pertinacious" out loud, it might sound familiar. That may be because if you take away the word's first syllable, you're left with something very similar to the word "tenacious," which means "tending to adhere or cling." The similarity between "pertinacious" and "tenacious" isn't mere coincidence; both words derive from "tenax," the Latin word for "tenacious," and ultimately from the verb "tençre," meaning "to hold." But "pertinacious" and "tenacious" aren't completely interchangeable. Both can mean "persistent," but "pertinacious" suggests an annoying or irksome persistence, while the less critical "tenacious" implies strength in maintaining or adhering to something valued or habitual.

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Monday, April 05, 2004

My latest Tribune language column:
On the global decline of people who speak English exclusively.
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Here's the AP on the journal article I mention; here's the Atlantic on this phenomenon; here's the Future of English report I mention.
This week in my B&C blog: March news and book review roundup. LINK/ARCHIVE
Mixed Metaphor Watch
"... the moment at which the six-month trial might have gone irreparably off the rails."
NY Times, 3/28, on the gesture by the juror who "appear[ed] to flash the 'O.K.' sign to defense lawyers Friday ... in the trial of two former Tyco executives. [She] may have made the most expensive hand gesture in the history of criminal law."

Mended Metaphor: irretrievably off the rails
The Aalsmeer flower market

Twenty-one million flowers and plants are auctioned daily at Aalsmeer in the Netherlands. The climate-controlled auction building, nearly 250 acres, is, according to the Guinness Book of Records, the world's largest commercial edifice, the equivalent of 165 soccer fields. It houses auction rooms, a dispatch and loading center, forwarders, customs and plant protection services, banks and restaurants. About 10,000 people work there.
NY Times

The limits of Amazon: I typed in the title "Act & Being," and--thanks to that first word--up popped the most popular results: tutorials and test prep for the ACT.
I clicked on the Japan Times' site today for the first time in a while and noted their slogan: "All The News Without Fear or Favor."
The London Guardian on the differences between The Simpsons and Matt Groening's other creation, Life in Hell.

Earlier from my B&C blog: The decline of The Simpsons (5th item here)
Saw these three headlines in a row at the Washington Post's local obituaries page. With due respect to the deceased, I can't swallow the sanctifying tone of the headlines, which comes straight out of a church bulletin or benediction:

- Virginia Woman's Warmth, Caring Knew No Boundary link

- Arts Worker's 'Can-Do' Spirit Inspired Many link

- A Man of Many Avocations, All Rooted in Family, Faith link
LA RiverI meant to post this late last year when I clipped a story on the Los Angeles River in my B&C blog (here). So here it is.

Or, in the words of a spam e-mail I got the other day, in syntax that intrigues me: Here is it!
Speaking of Washington and the loss of perspective, I read this at B&C last week about Ronald Reagan worshipers. I think his presidency was mostly a mirage, so I was alarmed to read that "The Ronald Reagan Legacy Project ... is attempting to name one 'notable public landmark' in every state, and one landmark in each of the nation's 3,067 counties, after the Great Communicator. The project also wants his mug stamped on the $10 bill and chiseled into Mount Rushmore."
Jon Stewart, interviewing Karen Hughes last week, observed that Washington D.C. is like Hollywood, except it matters. I found this in an old post by James Lileks:
Never trust anyone who’s awed by the glamor and power of Washington DC. It’s Hollywood for wonks, New York for high-school class presidents, and Miami Beach for people who fancy themselves intellectuals because they subscribe to the New Republic.
I love this phrase from author Richard Manning in an interview with the Atlantic, although he doesn't say where or with whom it originates:

A kind of "blind need for excess" has been driving our culture in exactly the wrong direction. It creates stratified societies. The CEO of a corporation makes a thousand times more than one of his workers. That kind of disparity doesn't exist in any other type of species.
I just learned over the weekend that Neil Postman died last October. I can't believe I missed it--I would have noted it in my B&C blog. That means that three of the most imaginative and accomplished cultural critics of the 20th century--all of them contemporaries of Marshall McLuhan-- died in 2003: Postman, Hugh Kenner, and Walter Ong. Here and here are obits for Postman. Links to obits for Kenner in my B&C blog here and Ong here.
Etymology Today from M-W: vulpine \VUL-pyne\

1 : of, relating to, or resembling a fox
2 : foxy, crafty

In Walden (1854), Henry David Thoreau described foxes crying out "raggedly and demoniacally" as they hunted through the winter forest, and he wrote, "Sometimes one came near to my window, attracted by my light, barked a vulpine curse at me, and then retreated." Thoreau's was far from the first use of "vulpine"; English writers have been applying that adjective to the foxlike or crafty since the 15th century. Its Latin parent is the adjective "vulpinus," which itself comes from the noun "vulpes," meaning "fox."

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