Thursday, March 20, 2008

Lingua Americana

When it comes to additions, subtractions, or incorrect usages of American English, I have often likened myself to the legendary boy with his finger in the dike. I know that language changes, and words and expressions that used to be incorrect are now ones I frequently use myself. My rule is: If I like it, then it's O.K. Certain vogue expressions past and present amuse me, but others I find insupportable. One that I like is "deal breaker." One of many deal breakers for me is the inability to distinguish between "lie" and "lay." I really tune out when I hear this one misused. To me it exemplifies one's educational level and the inability to speak American English correctly. I've also heard it misused in Britain; they probably caught the virus from us.

I grew up with the delightful military acronym "snafu" (situation normal—all f****d up), which was always sanitized to "fouled up," as I recall. But only after the terrible occurrence, right in my East Side Manhattan neighborhood, of the building crane accident that destroyed a local hangout called Fubar, along with much else, did I learn that the bar's name was a relative of snafu, and also a military slang acronym—perhaps more recent—meaning "f****d up beyond all recognition." Wonderful. Love it. Since we also had, for a while, an Asian fusion restaurant called Fu's in the neighborhood, I thought that the name was just an Asian one. But the bar owner set people straight when he was interviewed after, sadly, losing his business.

A word that I've never been able to prove incorrect is "arguably." I simply refuse to employ this unnecessary adverb. None of the writers' manuals mentions it, but I did find one bit of advice online which suggests that it smacks too much of  journalese and should be avoided. I wish others had happened upon this warning. Another offender, often cited, is "hopefully." However, it's now so widespread that I just throw up my hands. I won't use it myself, though.

And please, please, please deliver us from "awesome" and "like" except when absolutely necessary in their original meanings. I know I'm not getting anywhere with this, but blogging about it gives me a chance to vent my spleen (another good old, if clichéd, idiom).

Still will not accept:
"criteria" as a singular; it's "criterion."
Same for "media."

OTOH, (Look! I'm so trendy!), I've been saying "candelabra" for years, when I mean only one candelabrum. I've never heard anyone say "candelabrum." Maybe in ancient Rome. But, believe it or not, I wasn't around then.

Update: This week I heard a military type being interviewed on Terry Gross's Fresh Air on NPR use the word "fubar" just as a matter of course. I guess it's been around longer than I thought, according to Wikipedia. Must have been living in a cave. Apparently it's of nearly the same vintage as "snafu."

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

More on Movies: John Waters, etc.

That delightfully naughty John Waters, of Hairspray fame and much else, is doing a promo on TCM for yet another showing of The Wizard of Oz, which I guess can never be shown too often, at least for some people. I love his take on Dorothy's wish to go home to Kansas. He wonders why anyone would want to go back to Kansas: "She'll probably end up working in a 7-Eleven, or something like that." Why would anyone want to leave Oz? Good question. He appears to have remained in Oz himself, lucky guy.

Speaking of old movies, Oz reminds me that the Wicked Witch of the West frightened my cousin greatly and gave her nightmares for a long time. Hope she's over it now; it's been about 50 years. What frightened me as a kid was the excellent The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), starring George Sanders and Hurd Hatfield, not generally thought of as a scary movie. I was frightened by the color insert of the final view of the portrait, showing Dorian as a terrifyingly ravaged old sinner, marked by all his crimes. Perhaps it was the timing of the way the color inserts in this otherwise black-and-white film were flashed on the screen. On viewing the film later in life, I could never recapture that initial frisson. But I could enjoy the sophistication of the film, particularly Sanders as Lord Henry, uttering all of those Wildean bons mots. I understand that they're doing yet another remake. Why bother? 

Monday, March 10, 2008

Dogged Doggerel

Since blogs are mostly ego trips anyway, I have the temerity to publish a bit of doggerel that occurred to me some time ago. A tidbit of genius by John Updike, at whose feet I grovel, appeared in The New Yorker quite a few years ago, has remained with me,  and, along with the late great Ogden Nash, inspired me. Here's the Updike. I love the way his mind worked when he saw the little music performance notice:

Headline in the Times:
Eskimos in Manitoba
   Barracuda off Aruba
Cock an ear when Roger Bobo
   Starts to solo on the tuba.
Men of every station—Pooh-Bah,
   Nabob, bozo, toff and hobo—
Cry in unison, "Indubi-
   Tably, there is simply nobo-
Dy who oompahs on the tubo
   Solo, quite like Roger Bubo!"
                          John Updike

My more feeble attempt came to me after I had recently attended a number of modern dance performances and was daydreaming in the dentist's chair. It was also the result of having had to proofread and edit numerous reviews of and articles about dance performances:

Alfred, Henryk, and Arvo
(With apologies to all concerned)
Schnittke, Górecki, and Pärt
Are keeping us on the alërt:
The Russian, the Pole, the Estonian
Are so in demand we are moanian.
Two Ts in A. Schnittke, an umlaut for P., 
And Ó's not the syllable stressed in H.G.
Even dear Philip Glass is just left in the dust; 
Neither accents nor umlauts—so him we don't trust.
If you're making a dance and must genius assërt,
You've got to use Schnittke, Górecki, or Pärt!                     

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Thunder Rock

My favorite cable channel, TCM (Turner Classic Movies), listed Thunder Rock (1942) the other day. Assuming it to be a western, a genre to which I'm not especially partial—with exceptions such as No Country for Old Men, I was about to click past it, when whom should I see on my screen in 1940s black and white but James Mason, a favorite, and Sir Michael Redgrave? He wasn't "sir" then, of course. Had never heard of this film at all, so turned to The Internet Movie Database (IMDb) and to my Leonard Maltin guide. It's based on a play that I'd also never heard of, by Robert Ardrey, and concerns Charleston (Redgrave), a disillusioned author and newspaper correspondent in 1930s Europe who tries to convince his British editor of the world dangers that are fulminating in Spain, Italy, and Germany. His editor keeps pooh-poohing Charleston's warnings and prunes all of the essential meaning from his copy.

Charleston, in despair over his ineffectiveness, decamps to America and takes a job as, of all things, a lighthouse keeper on a rocky island in the middle of Lake Michigan. Yes, it is far-fetched, but those who are fond of the likes of Outward Bound or, more recently, The Sixth Sense, may be as intrigued as I was. We get to see dead people! Walking and talking!

Charleston's friend, played by Mason, arrives and tries to convince him that his self-imposed isolation from a world on the brink of war is a mistake and that he needs to continue his crusading stand, but Charleston drives him away. Mason actually has quite a small part and disappears about a quarter of the way into the film. 

There is a plaque on the wall of the lighthouse, commemorating the victims of a Great Lakes ferry that sank in 1849. As Charleston muses on this, a grizzled ship's captain makes an appearance, followed shortly by a poor British workman and his pregnant wife; a determined spinster headed for Salt Lake City; and a distinguished Viennese doctor, his wife, and his adult daughter played by a very young and beautiful Lilli Palmer. These are all the ghosts of some of the shipwreck victims, and Charleston has conjured them up in his mind. The poor workman has left several children with friends in Britain in hopes of making it to California—remember, it's now 1849—where he hopes to strike it rich. The spinster, who has spent time in prison in Britain for disturbing the peace in her crusade for women's rights, has resigned herself to entering into a polygamous marriage in Utah, merely for security. The doctor was ostracized in Vienna for using a powerful anesthetic to relieve the pain of a dying patient and may have been thought guilty of euthanasia. Thus, he had to get outta town.

Charleston gradually realizes that each of these disparate characters had given up instead of trying to soldier through and improve conditions at home. When his head clears, the ghosts have gone and he stands silhouetted against the waves breaking on the rocky island, wind blowing artistically through his hair, looking hopeful and heroic. We assume that he's going back to Britain to stir things up once again. It's possible that this film was directed to some extent at expatriate Britons or other Europeans who went to America when they realized that World War II was about to break out. People should not abandon their ideals or allegiances in the face of danger, although the Viennese doctor may have stood in for the Jews who were fortunate to get out of Austria and Germany at the end of the 1930s while escape was still possible. This, of course, was a different matter altogether; I'm not sure that the film intended this particular parallel. 
Anyway, for special tastes, this is a choice bit of 1940s British wartime moviemaking, worth a look. 

Fairway! Oy veh!

In the August 12, 2007 Times, John Kifner wrote a piece for the real estate section, "My Neighborhood: Life With Zabar's at the Epicenter," in which he referred to the fabled West Side supermarket Fairway as "the home of combat shopping." Boy, was he right! The sage bit of advice to pick one's battles certainly applies to buying groceries here. Kifner's phrase springs to mind every time I enter the place. You really have to gird your loins to shop at Fairway. Little old ladies who have chips on their shoulders and mothers with twin-size baby strollers seem to be the worst offenders. I never try to use a shopping cart. I buy only what will fit into a handbasket (the phrase about going to hell in one certainly applies here).  When I see a blocked aisle, I nimbly sprint to what I hope is a less crowded passageway, if such exists. This is not even to mention the hapless shelf stockers, shouting at one another—usually in Spanish, who have to do their jobs, after all. The checkout system is surprisingly speedy, given the crowds.

The advantages of Fairway are well known. Prices are surprisingly moderate, the selection of cheeses and fresh produce is top-notch, and the variety is enormous. I once read that the owner has never remodeled to give his store the glossy look of the typical American supermarket because he can keep his prices lower that way. A quaint touch is the spreading of—wait for it—sawdust on the floor on rainy, snowy, or icy days. No, there's no pickle barrel. However, you do have to be prepared for a fight every time you enter. Some days I just give up after looking in, and return to my East Side neighborhood, where I have a D'Agostino's, a Food Emporium, and an Associated close at hand, not to mention numerous specialty grocers. But it's just not the same. 

Fairway happens to be on the ground floor of the building that houses the ballet studio where I take class several time a week; thus, its proximity is both an advantage and a disadvantage. Buying all that lovely food may undo some of the good done by a sweaty ballet class. And I do have to schlep my purchases across town afterwards. Nevertheless, when one's favorite jam is more than a dollar less per jar, e.g., the temptation to patronize "the home of combat shopping" is great indeed.

P.S.: The New York Times's Metropolitan Diary (of which I am an alumna; see very first blog entry, January 31, 2008) confirmed the above observations in its column of March 17, 2008. The last item in the column tells the tale: