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May I Have a Word?

November, 2005
By John Huckans

POLONIUS. What do you read, my lord?
HAMLET. Words, words, words.
POLONIUS. What is the matter, my lord?
HAMLET. Between who?
POLONIUS. I mean the matter that you read, my lord.
HAMLET. Slanders, sir: for the satirical rogue says here that old men have grey beards…

Words are tricky things. They’re supposed to help us understand each other as we try to explain what we have observed, what we think, or how we react to what life sends our way. Sometimes they don’t.

One of the realities of editing a magazine like this one is that publishers often send us review copies of their books, whether we ask for them or not. Occasionally we review a new title that we think our readers might be interested in knowing about, but more often we comment on interesting or important books regardless of when they were published. An advantage of having once been active in the antiquarian book business is convenient access to a large collection of books, both old and new—if my collection were better organized I might even dignify it by calling it a library.

The other day an unsolicited copy of Green Weenies and Due Diligence: Insider Business Jargon—Raw, Serious and Sometimes Funny (by Ron Sturgeon) turned up in the day’s mail and while flipping through it, was somewhat amused by the occasionally clever terminology understood by few people outside of the business world. Language, like much of applied technology, has become such a moving target that without books like this, twenty or thirty years from now today’s hip business-speak would be as dead and forgotten as the video laser disk, the 8-track audio tape player, the CPM operating system, Windows 3.1, or next year’s iPod. A couple of examples (there are hundreds more): “Cappuccino cowboy—a nickname for an employee who just has to have a cup of Starbucks on the way to work everyday; generally someone who lives in the suburbs and commutes to the city to work.” (or) “blamestorming—a discussion wherein the goal is to avoid responsibility for a failed initiative, and pin it on someone else if possible.”

Type “neologisms” in your favorite Internet search engine and you’ll turn up many more. (I sometimes wonder whether information found on Internet websites will survive the server space on which it is stored—information in book form can survive for centuries, but when stored on a website it will last only as long as someone remembers to pay the rent). Some of the websites offered up lengthy compilations of specialized words and arcane terminology; others focused on popular culture. A few of my favorites:

Body nazi: a hardcore exercise and weightlifting fanatic who looks down on anyone who doesn’t work out obsessively.

Irritainment: entertainment and media spectacles that are annoying but for some people irresistible—i.e. professional wrestling and most “reality” television.

Mouse potato: internet version of a couch potato.

Starter marriage: a short-lived first marriage that ends in divorce with no kids, no property and no regrets.

Stress puppy: someone who thrives on being completely stressed out; often a whiner who loves to feel victimized and isn’t shy about letting you know about it.

Treeware: techno-geek slang for documentation or other printed material, especially books.

New words aren’t really a problem—or shouldn’t be in my opinion. What really irritates my nerve endings is the misuse (especially by local television news reporters) of common words or expressions. I divide these into two general categories—(1) pointless word substitutions and (2) misleading euphemisms.

Input” and “access” have been used as verbs for so long that few of us remember that they started life as nouns. Formerly it was understood, (according to the O.E.D.) that input (a figure or data) is what one enters, records or puts in a written document, or it can be the information one contributes during a discussion. In the second example, one used to gain access to something—lately the verb has been dropped and the direct object or noun must do double duty as a verb. No big deal—this sort of thing has been going on for a long time.

Although to reference rather than to refer to something does sound a bit odd or clumsy, there is some 18th century precedent for its use as a verb, as in “to give reference to (a passage).” But with the current overuse of reference as a verb, it’s as if people have forgotten that there was a time when people actually referred to things as in “excuse me while I refer to my notes.” Nowadays it’s “excuse me while I reference my notes.” Or reference my references.

Several and many are words that have nearly disappeared from popular usage. The victim was not shot several times, he was shot multiple times, there were multiple cars involved in the traffic accident, multiple people were seen in the vicinity, multiple people attended Mary’s dinner party, and so forth. Why last week I even chased multiple deer out of my vegetable garden.

A surprising number of people have forgotten how or are afraid to use use in a sentence these days. Almost everybody utilizes utilize instead. Really folks it is permissible and safe to use use in polite conversation—the language police won’t come and take away your car keys. Furthermore, the shorter O.E.D. dismisses utilize with “to make useful, or turn to account” while spending nearly a full page describing the various nuances of use (as a verb).

The current number one on my top-ten list (if I had a top-ten list) of words that make my teeth itch is the embarrassingly tortuous (and often torturous) use of effort as a verb. One no longer attempts or makes an effort to do anything, one efforts it. So help me God. If you haven’t heard this one you’ve been living as an expatriate somewhere in Romania for the past few (or as some would say, multiple) years. Not long ago when asked to confirm whether a guest had been scheduled to appear on the Imus in the Morning radio program, Bernard was heard to say “I’ll effort that right away…” Listen carefully to the television news or to people around you and I’m sure you’ll come up with even sillier examples. And if at first you don’t succeed—effort, effort again.

And have you noticed that people don’t have problems anymore? They have issues. Jim was a diagnosed paranoid who had issues with his friends and colleagues; in the 13th century the people of Asia and Eastern Europe had issues with Genghis Khan. Earlier when I referenced Mary’s dinner party and the multiple guests who attended, I didn’t mention that one person had food issues—she wouldn’t effort to eat the asparagus or the salmon.

Misleading euphemisms are also a source of amusement and there’s enough fodder in the popular culture to fill a stout quarto-sized volume. Two of the latest examples grew out of the recent hurricane and massive flooding in New Orleans and along the Gulf coast. During the first days news reporters were told not to use the word refugees in connection with the thousands of people who fled the scene seeking refuge in safer areas and on higher ground—and in a matter of only a few hours they became evacuees. Refugees are people from other parts of the world who flee from tidal waves, massive flooding, earthquakes (such as the recent calamity in Pakistan and India), and other disasters—natural or man-made.

There were many eyewitness accounts and substantial video footage documenting widespread looting in New Orleans, but the strangest attempt to spin the obvious came from a high ranking official in the New Orleans police department. When shown an actual film or video record of policemen looting cameras, electronics, appliances and other non-food items from area stores, he explained it by saying it was not looting but “the appropriation of non-essential items…” Right. If only Jean Valjean had been clever enough to appropriate the silver first (instead of the bread), the authorities wouldn’t have had a case.

Words are wonderfully versatile tools—they can illuminate, educate, or obfuscate—the way we all use them sometimes provides an endless source of fun and irritainment.

A Doctor’s Journey

Rashid A. Abdu is the retired chief of the surgical residency program (which he headed for 23 years) at St. Elizabeth’s Health Center, a teaching hospital in Youngstown, Ohio. Since retirement he has been volunteering his time (paying his own travel expenses) to serve as the medical consultant to a clinic in the remote Mayan village of Xhualtez in Mexico. Before leaving for Mexico a few weeks ago he spent part of September in New Orleans, working in an improvised emergency clinic set up in the lobby of a looted WalMart (incidentally, the store reeked from all the spoiled food that was left behind, while the jewelry & electronics cases were stripped clean).

His story is told in the recently published book Journey of a Yemeni Boy (Pittsburgh, Dorrance Publishing, [2005]; 552pp., softbound, with numerous photographic illustrations and appendices). The first part of the book is an intimate look at what it was like to grow up in Yemen during the 1930s, when much of the country was still living in the 13th century—quite the opposite from the early middle ages, when Europe was the cultural backwater.

At the age of five Rashid was sent to a religious school where learning to read and write really meant going back to basics:

To prepare the board for writing, we had to rub a limestone on a hard flat rock and make a paste with water. We then smeared the paste evenly on the board with the palm of our hands; when it dried in the sun the smooth surface became white. For ink, I went to an aloe patch on a hillside…(and) from the thick leaves I bled about a pint of the sap into a container. I mixed the sap with soot, plentiful on the kitchen ceiling, and boiled the mixture. I ended up with a tar-like syrup into which I thoroughly soaked a mechanical waste cloth. When it cooled, I cut the material into small pieces, then rolled each into a golf-ball size, and let them dry in the sun. I placed one of the dry black balls in a small pottery bowl, which served as an ink well, to which I added water to make the ball moist. I split a one inch wide dry bamboo stem longitudinally and cut a piece the length of a pencil. I sharpened one end into a point with a paring knife and then split the pointed end, which resulted in a splendid pen…

And all of this, including how to read and write, before the age of six.

In school Yemeni children were allowed to progress at their own rate (there were no age-based grade levels) and by the time he was six Rashid was considered old enough to earn a living and take on some adult responsibilities. He traveled south to Aden (in South Yemen and now a part of Yemen) with his father, making most of the journey by camel caravan—the last part in a Model T Ford with 17 people on board— and was put to work in a coffee shop working from four in the morning to about eleven every evening for five rupees a month (about $1.50). He never actually received his salary which was sent to his father who used it to buy qat—a mild narcotic derived from chewing the leaves of the qat plant, at that time used almost universally by the male population.

A few years later through his uncle Ali, Rashid was hired as a general servant by the American Red Cross on the U.S. Air Force Base near Beer Fadhl and after becoming more proficient in English (sometimes serving as an interpreter) he was introduced to Harland B. Clark, the American Consul who learned of his ambition to become a doctor. Education, travel, and more education followed as Rashid attended school in Falls Church (VA), LaFayette College (PA) and eventually George Washington University Medical School (DC).

Following a long and sometimes wild ride, Rashid embarked on his medical career which eventually led to his appointment as chief of general surgery and director of surgical education at St. Elizabeth’s. His life both before and after retirement has been dedicated to giving back to his beloved adopted country and to people in need everywhere. As a memoir the writing is simple and straightforward (unlike a lot of the more polished “autobiographies” that William Novak writes for his pop-celebrity clients), but for me the real importance lies in the unvarnished picture of life in Yemen during the 1930s and ’40s and how a small boy, despite being born into what some people would call poverty, achieves his dream of working at the highest levels of the healing profession—a dream that has not ended with “retirement.” It is an important social and historical document. For more information contact the publisher at (800) 788-7654.

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