mark my words

Ever since I read my first book (‘Green Eggs and Ham’), I have been in love with words for their own sake. Sure, you can make some cool things out whole bunches of words, but some words are great all by themselves. ‘Effluvium.’ ‘Nexus.’ ‘Philology.’ Hell, ‘philology’ is just plain fun to say. Try it. Say ‘philology’ out loud three or four times (best to do this when you’re alone, as opposed to, say, while taking public transit).

I recently discovered a fascinating website called LanguageLog. Of course by ‘fascinating,’ I mean ‘interesting to people who find arcane observations about the minutiae of language interesting,’ but really, isn’t that all of us?  No? Anyway, from this site I learned that there’s an actual term for a misspoken phrase that still makes sense, like ‘old-timer’s disease’ instead of ‘Alzheimer’s.’ It’s called an ‘eggcorn.’

My favorite new word (new to me, and actually fairly new as a word) is ‘snowclone.’ While it sounds like something created by a villain in a Bond flick (“With my army of snowclones, world domination will be mine!”), the term was coined by a linguist to describe what you might call ‘fill-in-the-blank’ clichés, like ‘X is the new Y,’ or that was ‘the mother of all _____s,’ or ‘the ______ from Hell.’ (I try to make my column entertaining AND educational. You’re welcome.)

I wonder about clichés. What about the first guy who said ‘one hand washes the other’? Was he pissed when everybody started saying it? Or did his friends just look at him funny, like “Well, duh! That’s how hand-washing works!” And some clichés don’t make much sense. Before it became a cliché, did people need to be constantly reminded to look before they leapt?

Sometimes clichés aren’t all they’re cracked up to be (see what I did there? I used a cliché to describe clichés!) Like when you want to point out that two things are dissimilar—they’re like ‘apples and oranges.’ Not very effective, since apples and oranges are both fruit. Shouldn’t it be ‘that’s like apples and…trucks’? And there’s always a flipside to clichés—you could say that ‘what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger,’ but you could also argue that ‘what doesn’t kill us weakens us so that it’s easier to kill us in the future.’ Granted, that’s not as effective as an affirmation.

I’ve been thinking a lot about words lately, which I’ve found is much less labor-intensive than actually writing words. Let alone the whole ‘stringing words together into sentences’ deal. And then the sentences have to somehow connect to each other? Oy.

There are, to be sure, pros and cons about being a freelance writer. On the plus side, I work when I’m inspired to work, not because it’s…Monday. In the minus column, I only get paid when I’ve actually done something, as opposed to getting paid because it’s…Friday.

I read once that to be a successful freelancer, one should treat every day as if one had a regular job. Get up at a certain time, put in your eight hours, etc. Because the myth of freelancing is that you ‘make your own hours,’ when in reality, you have to work with the exact same hours everyone else does. It’s not like you get special ‘freelance hours’ that are eighty minutes long, or freelance days with extra hours in them.

The magic phrase is ‘be your own boss.’ Great idea in theory, but the problem I face is that I’m a shitty boss. Combine that with the fact that I’m kind of a crappy worker, and productivity can really suffer.

For instance, as my boss, I tend to let myself start work around eleven-ish, and I don’t even notice that for most of my first hour on the job, I’m using my work computer to surf the web. Now in my defense, those Scrabble tiles won’t move themselves. But still, you’d think a good boss would at least wander by my desk occasionally to keep me focused. Also, even though I appreciate a laid-back workplace, I’m not sure it’s a great idea to have a boss that lets me smoke pot at work.

I think I’m gonna find a business supply store, buy myself a time clock and attach it to my desk, just to get that tangible feeling of “Now it’s time to start working.” I’ll trick myself into being productive. Maybe I’ll pick up some partitions and turn my desk into a cubicle (I was actually curious where one would buy a cubicle, and I found out there is a company in Dallas called Cubiclemart, which may win the award for most soulless business name in history).

One big difference between a freelance career and a real job is that, in a real job, once you have the gig, you just keep showing up, whereas I have to keep getting rehired every time I finish something. The truth is, I’m not too worried. I’m starting a new assignment tomorrow, so I’ll probably take the rest of today off. Besides, I heard somewhere that not working is the new work.

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bad words

I’ll be the first to admit that my language, when unfettered by social propriety, is pretty salty. I never agreed with pedants who claim that swearing just indicates a limited vocabulary (see–I even used the word ‘pedants’). But sometimes, when confronted with certain situations and certain people, swearing is the only appropriate response. These situations include the following:

  • automated phone menus that instruct you to simply say your choice but then pretend to not understand what you’ve said, taunting you like HAL from 2001
  • convenience store clerks who count out your change so slowly that it seems as if they’re seeing the various denominations of currency for the very first time
  • former members of the Bush cabal who won’t shut up because they can’t seem to understand that not only did their ilk create most of what we’re trying to fix but in addition to that they lost and so consequently IT’S NOT THEIR TURN ANYMORE

It just feels good, on a visceral, primal level, to believe that you’re actually saying “fuck you” to the annoying robotic phone lady, or the kid at the 7-11,  or Donald Trump.

Ironically, when I perform standup comedy, I swear less than I do in my offstage life. In performance, language rarely shocks anymore, and the word “fuck” , for most comics on the road, has become a bright shiny object held up to draw the focus away from some hackneyed, hollow joke. Don’t get me wrong–the word is still in my quiver, but I don’t reach for it as often as I used to.

I’m reminded of a comedian who, by way of explaining that he didn’t swear, would point out that it was because he couldn’t think of any words strong enough to express his anger. Which leads me to ‘gadzooks’.

I want to start a movement to bring back some classic, if archaic, words for those “hit your thumb with a hammer moments. A cathartic way of expleting, without deleting. I propose the following ‘starter set,’ with annotations.

  1. Zounds! This one has a little extra spriritual component (it’s short for “God’s wounds“), and as such is useful when you need to swear in a religious setting–“Zounds! How long is this funeral gonna last, anyway?” Strangely, Zounds is also the name of a manufacturer of hearing aids, so context is important.
  2. Holy Mackeral! I like that this one starts out religious, and then veers toward the surreal, allowing you to express the kind of anger that is so disorienting you actually start to imagine fish with supernatural properties.
  3. Yikes! My favorite. Short, punchy, hard ‘k’ sound…channel your inner B-movie star the next time you’re stuck waiting for the cable guy–“Yikes! I thought you’d never get here, my good man!” (note: the “my good man” part is optional)

Speaking of B-movies,  I’d also like to bring back some phrases from the era of black and white cinema, when you knew who the good guys were by the words they shouted, and you didn’t have all that pesky moral ambiguity you see in indie films. Have fun and make the travails of your workaday life into a melodrama!

  • For instance, when the waitress at Denny’s brings you a Grand Slam instead of the Moons Over My Hammy you ordered, bang your fist on the table, stand up and yell”This is an outrage!” It’s best to have one of your friends warm up the car if you feel this about to happen, as you’ll most likely need to move to a different restaurant.
  • Another standby from the movies works like this–someone has told you something you KNOW is wrong…all you need is one word–“LIAR!” The bank teller says you’re overdrawn? Look at her and loudly proclaim “LIAR!” The pompous twink at the Gap says something isn’t made in your size? “LIAR!” (note: this is most effective if said while pointing at the offending party)

Lastly, on the topic of name-calling…ever felt hamstrung by the fact that you reallyreallyreally wanted to call someone a name, but ‘dick’ seemed a little too eighth-grade, and, if a woman was the object of your scorn, well you just didn’t have the time in that moment to navigate shifting waters of feminist theory to determine whether you could use that particular word? Here are some possibilities:

  • Rapscallion–good to bring out in a bar fight, perhaps…if that doesn’t make them back down, try ‘wastrel‘.
  • Chowderhead–this has the advantage of being gender-neutral, with a certain upper-class sensibility…you can up the ante byprefacing it with “Now listen here, you”.
  • Ninnyhammer–now this is a multi-tasking insult–not only does it say to people  ‘I need four syllables to describe your incompetence,’ but it also sounds like the name of the tool with which you would hit them.

I’m sure I’ll think of some others…oh yeah…here–I wrote it down on this…no wait–now I just had it…oh, bother!

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