Skunked Words and Other Oddities

I recently came across the phrase skunked words or skunked terms to describe words for which the usage is in flux, evolving from the original meaning to one that may differ so much from the original that its meaning in context is ambiguous. Thanks Josh Bernoff of Without Bullshit.

The word Bernoff referred to when he introduced the term was fulsome. The original meaning for fulsome was copious or abundant. Over time, however, the word has been used more often to convey excessive or ingratiating flattery. Quite a different matter.

Bernoff cited three recent examples of politicians using fulsome, presumably with its original meaning. Because of the shift in meaning, however, the statements, when read with the negative connotations the term more recently conveys, may seem either humorous or sarcastic. Take a look at Bernoff’s examples below:

First, Sally Yates, former Deputy District Attorney, in her opening statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 8, said

I also want to note that I intend my answers today to be as fulsome and comprehensive as possible while respecting my legal and ethical boundaries. As the Subcommittee understands, many of the topics of interest today concern classified information that I cannot address in this public setting, either directly or indirectly.

Then Republican Senator Corker commented on President Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey this way:

It is essential that ongoing investigations are fulsome and free of political interference until their completion.

Finally, Secretary Tillerson had described a call regarding Syria between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin this way:

It was a very constructive call that the two presidents had. It was a very, very fulsome call, a lot of detailed exchanges. So we’ll see where we go from here.

The phrase, skunked terms, appeared first in the Dictionary of Modern American Usage which included these examples: data, decimate, effete, enormity, fulsome, and transpire.

Those examples got me thinking about other problematic words. A few months ago I pointed out my dilemma about whether to use gantlet or gauntlet when referring to a figurative double line through which someone must pass with difficulty. I chose gantlet, the word with the original meaning of a form of punishment involving people armed with sticks forming two lines through which a person being punished must run in a piece I submitted to an anthology, OASIS Journal 2016. In contrast, the original meaning of gauntlet is an armored glove.

I’ve had my copy of the anthology around for several months, but hadn’t looked at my submission in it until this evening. I guess I’m not surprised that the editor changed my choice, gantlet, to the now acceptable alternate, gauntlet. But I wonder if she knew that my word choice is historically correct. Or am I really a linguistically pedantic snob?

I hereby propose both gantlet and gauntlet be added to the list of skunked terms.

Mother’s Day

The approach of Mother’s Day started me thinking about the books my mom gave me to read over the years.

Of course, she gave me lots of books when I was a child, but she gave me those so that she could read them to me.  The first one I recall she gave me to read for myself was Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. I figured if she gave it to me, it must have something in it I needed to read. I would never have dared ask her why. That’s just the way conversations in our house went. Mom and Dad told us what we should do. And we kids didn’t ask questions.

The family was on one of our annual vacations, staying at a lake in a cabin Dad rented for the week. It may even have been the year my twin brothers were born which would have made them less than three months old at the time, still demanding most of Mom’s time. Mom’s parents also spent the week with us that summer, too, squeezing four adults and six children into a rustic cabin with only two bedrooms. My brother and I slept in the car many nights that week.

So with twin infants and four older children around and responsibility for cooking meals for ten, Mom may have handed me the book simply to give me something to do to keep me out of her hair. But at the time I thought she must have had a specific reason.

I ran into a few words in that book that I didn’t understand. Chiffarobe was one. But I could figure out it was a heavy piece of furniture. It didn’t matter if it belonged in a living room, dining room, or bedroom. Knowing it was a heavy piece was all I needed.

But then there was that word rape. I didn’t know what that was except that it was something bad or else Tom Robinson wouldn’t have to go to trial with Atticus Finch to represent him. I decided I needed to know more, so as rare as it was for me to ask Mom anything, I dared to ask what the word meant. Because I hadn’t finished the book during the week of vacation, we were home by the time I asked, and she sent me to the dictionary to look it up.

I don’t recall just what dictionary we had in those days. But I remember what the definition said, or something very like it:

rape

transitive verb

  1. forcible carnal knowledge

That didn’t help. I had no idea what carnal meant either.  I already figured out there wasn’t much point in asking Mom another question since I already had the dictionary out. So I looked up that word, too.

carnal

adjective

  1. of the flesh

To be truthful, there may have been some other options for both words, but if so, they didn’t help. Nor do I remember them.

Bottom line: I spent plenty of years after reading that book having to be satisfied with knowing rape is something bad and chiffarobes are heavy.

Years later, as I was about to turn 50 years old, Mom sent me a book (I lived in Abu Dhabi at the time), Erica Jong’s Fear of Fifty. At least I understood why she chose that one for me.

What books do you recall your mother giving you to read?

What books would you love to be able to give to your mother today? In honor of Mother’s Day

A Dash of Election Perspective

Others have said it so well. I’m reblogging the best of them.

adoptingjames

azz2lknje6qwru8aifd7drtpkhmw2kgq-large

I think most people are shocked from last night’s election results. I couldn’t stay awake long enough to see the results, but my wife was kind enough to wake me up at 3:00 AM and report them to me. She knows, as a compulsive worrier, I was stressed about the election, even though I didn’t vote for either candidate. I voted third party, something I never thought I’d do. But knowing one of the two would win, I did have my preference.

But like so many early November Wednesdays in our country’s history, we as a people are prone to gloat, to bemoan, to judge, and to fight and accuse.

I’m sorry to those who didn’t get your choice. But just remember, those who got what they wanted today were just as devastated for the last two elections as you are today.

But we’re all still here. The world didn’t end for…

View original post 286 more words

Book Review: The Settlers

Five StarsthesettlersThis is a longer than usual book review. It is also unusual for its content. This review is more about the relevance of the story for what we need to know about our own ancestors than it is about the story itself. Let me explain:

Forty-five years ago, two elderly women in the church where I worked in Berkeley, California, paid me to type their father’s journal entries so that they could print copies and share his stories with their younger relatives. As I typed, I was surprised to learn their father hadn’t planned to remain in America. He came to California from Sweden, intending to make his fortune and then return. When it took longer than he had expected, he traveled back to Sweden to marry and then brought his new wife to America. Still he hoped they would return to Sweden. But in the end, they remained here.

Thirty-five years ago, I married a man whose parents immigrated to Canada when he was three years old. His grandparents had moved to Canada in 1927 when their oldest child, my former husband’s father, was three years old. They had left him behind in Yugoslavia with his grandparents because they only planned to remain in Canada long enough to make their fortune and then they would return. Timing was against them. The stock market crash, the depression, World War II, and the Communist takeover of Yugoslavia prevented them from both making that fortune and returning. Instead, in the 1950s they sponsored their now married son, his wife, and their three oldest children as immigrants to Canada.

Thirty years ago, I worked as a consular officer in Stuttgart, Germany. Time and again I had to explain to a visa applicant that I could not issue a visitor visa because it was clear the applicant wished to work in the United States. For that, I explained, they needed immigrant visas. These applicants expressed universal surprise since they all said they had no plans to remain in the United States. They only wanted to work long enough to make their fortune and then return to Europe.

This has always been the dominant immigrant story: the foreign-born generation comes to America to make their fortune. Most fail. But once there are children, there is no turning back. Even the first generation born in American often struggles without finding success.

Recently I have heard a number of Americans who are two or three generations away from their immigrant ancestors explain that they want all today’s immigrants to follow the path they believe their ancestors followed: intentional assimilation into the American community. But they don’t know what they are talking about. They are too far removed from the experiences to know what their ancestors intended.

That’s why it is important for those of us several generations away from our immigrant ancestors to read stories such as Vilhelm Moberg’s The Emigrants saga or O.E. Rolvaag’s trilogy ofGiants In The Earth, Peder Victorious, and Their Fathers’ God. We are too far removed from our ancestors’ experiences to realize not all immigrants of the nineteenth or early twentieth century shared the enthusiasm for assimilation the progency of their future generations now attribute to them, the same enthusiasm they now proclaim they expect all future immigrants to embrace.

In most cases, only one adult in each couple was enthusiastic about the move. Most often, the husband. The women and children came along because they had no choice. The children were more likely to catch the assimilation bug, but not even all of them were destined to succeed.

In The Settlers, the third in Moberg’s four-book series, he extends the story of the band of emigrants from Sweden in eastern Minnesota, focusing primarily on the family of Karl Oskar and Kristina Nilsson. We get glimpses of those who are likely to succeed in the new world. The pressure to remain connected among other Swedes weighs heavily on some, especially Kristina. The vision and promise of quick wealth in the gold fields of California tempt others. Those known as thieves and whores in the old world find blank slates in the new world, blank slates on which they can begin again.

Later arrivals reveal the emigrants did not escape all forms of religious intolerance by leaving Sweden; some who left Sweden to escape the government’s strict religious boundaries brought equally inflexible strictures they were ready to impose on those in the new world. And while Karl Oskar continued to see promise in the new world, Kristina saw bleakness and separation. And the birth of more children did not bring a sense of renewal for Kristina; each child’s birth felt like the small death to Kristina.

At the end of Unto A Good Land, the second volume of Moberg’s saga, Robert, Karl Oskar’s brother, along with his friend and fellow farmhand Arvid Pettersson, had left Minnesota to seek fortune in the gold fields of California. In The Settlers, Robert returns alone, his pockets now full of paper money but his heart still full of pride. The brothers each ponder whether the other might have chosen the wiser path, at least until Robert’s paper money turns out to be worthless. Karl Oskar remains convinced Robert will never stop lying, and Robert realizes he had let himself be tricked out of the fortune he had stumbled upon in spite of his never having reached California.

This volume is not full of optimism, at least not on the surface. It depicts the weariness of the hard work those early emigrants spent for their children’s and their children’s children’s futures. Too few of us understand our family history. Nonetheless, optimism is the back story for this saga. We are the beneficiaries of our ancestors’ hard work and the separation from family they endured. My hope is that we will keep that in mind when we encounter the current group of immigrants, that we will recognize the separation and hard work they are willing to endure for the sake of their children, and that we will be tolerant of their attempts to retain their traditions, just as our ancestors did.

  • Genre: Family Saga, Historical, Literature & Fiction
  • Print Length: 399 pages
  • Publisher: Borealis Books; Revised ed. Edition (September 15, 1995)
  • Original Publication Date: 1956

IWSG-October

Insecure Writers Support Group Badge
Here we are at the first Wednesday of the Month where many of us bloggers write about our hopes and fears in the Insecure Writer’s Support Group, founded by Alex J. Cavanaugh. Please visit either site for more info and a list of participating bloggers, to join, or offer encouragement.

This month’s question is “When do you know your story is ready?”

My only relevant experience with determining whether something is “ready” is with submissions to anthologies. As a member of the San Diego Writers/Editors Guild, I have been submitting short pieces (the limit for the first three years was 1,500 words; this year’s was increased to 2,500 words) since I joined in 2013. In each case, I decided my story was ready when the deadline for submission was upon me. This year I took the additional step of having one of my read-and-critique groups review it with me as part of the revision process. The result was a much stronger story.

Read-and-critique groups are great!

At the same time, however, I have been struggling to determine just when to ignore the well-intentioned advice from my read-and-critique groups with my larger project. Ignore is not the right word, but I can’t come up with a more precise one. What I mean is that I realized recently that I have been adjusting my goal (an admittedly amorphous goal never committed to paper) as I have received feedback. For example, my original vision of my memoir was a single book packed full of stories of the many adventures I encountered while living in 11 foreign countries over a 30-year period. I had an elevator pitch to describe my project: My journey from seeking adventure to finding a mission. And I had lots of first drafts of the subplots and vignettes. I just needed to find the right order for them. At least, that’s what I thought.

After trying out a number of read-and-critique groups, I found two I felt fit me. I read with one group and then take the feedback to revise the pieces to read with the second group. That way both groups hear the whole piece. The feedback has been fabulous, except for one thing: I allowed the enthusiasm of the participants to make me think I should break up my story into separate books for each country.

And that’s when I got stuck. I don’t have a whole story for each country. And while I perhaps could squeeze out enough from my memories for a whole book on the first country, I don’t feel that wouldn’t make a very satisfying story. At least not for me. Because the story of my experiences in my first country is a story of failure.

I allowed myself to be lured down a path I hadn’t intended to go. But this does not mean I should have ignored the feedback. I needed the feedback to make me realize that I hadn’t done the groundwork to define my whole story. I thought the route would become clear once I began writing. Instead, I should have spent the time drawing the map so that I wouldn’t be tempted down another road.

So I’m backing up. I’m re-reading Marnie Freedman’s 7 Essential Writing Tools: That Will Absolutely Make Your Writing Better (And Enliven Your Soul) (I told her I would never finish it because there is so much in it worth another look) to help me draw my map first. Then I’ll get back to writing the story.

In the end, I hope I will know that story is ready when it fits the map I have not yet completed.

 

 

 

Book Review: X


Five StarsxI’ve been a fan of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series since I first read K is for Killer in the early 1990s and discovered there were ten books written before it for me to read. I went back and read them all in order and have been grabbing the new ones as soon as they are published. Grafton doesn’t disappoint in X.

I noticed immediately that the 24th book in her Millhone series doesn’t follow her naming pattern. The title is simply X, not X is for something that starts with X. The inside page explains it all, though I didn’t realize it until I reached the final page.

X: The number ten. An unknown quantity. A mistake. A cross. A kiss. X marks the spot.

Grafton’s X is all of the above.

Three quite different stories weave through this novel. Contrary to what I expected, they are not all neatly tied together at the end.

First there is the mystery of Teddy Xanakis, the revenge-seeking ex-wife of Ari Xanakis, a successful and wealthy businessman whose generosity to the community ended at the same time as his marriage to Teddy. Why was she so eager to get in contact with a small-time bank robber recently released on parole? Does X refer to the Xanakises?

And there is the mystery of the assignment of Pete Wollinsky, a PI who was killed during a robbery gone wrong. He died before he had time to deliver a package he had collected from Father Xavier who had held it for safekeeping for more than 20 years. What was Pete’s motivation in hiding both the package and a list he felt compelled to encode to keep its contents secret? Does X refer to Father Xavier?

Finally, Kinsey and her landlord, Henry, draw very different conclusions about their new neighbors, Edna and Joseph Shallenbarger. Which of their conclusions were more accurate?

Grafton tantalizes the reader with these questions, allowing Kinsey to reveal her assumptions and conclusions along the way. But as is always the case with Grafton’s mysteries, there are twists and turns in each of the sub-plots, revealing unknown quantities, mistakes, crosses, and kisses. Assumptions are overturned. Behind each mystery hide even more mysteries.

I regret only two letters remain for Grafton’s alphabet mysteries. It has been too long since the most recent one, and I fear the final one will be here too soon.

• Genre: Private Investigators, Women Sleuths, Suspense
• Print Length: 512 pages
• Publisher: G.P/ Putnam’s Sons; Reprint edition
• Publication Date: August 2, 2016