Friday, November 25, 2005

Here I come, ready or not!

Most of you remember playing Hide and Seek during summer evenings when you were a kid. Or are you from the latest generation of new adults who seldom went outdoors to run and play? Did you too often choose, instead, to sit in front of television screens watching violent programs or playing violent games with your thumbs? That sounds like too many of the current crop of kids, as well. But, my curmudgeon bias aside, I’ll bet you discriminating readers remember Hide and Seek.

O.K., now you are “It.” We will all run and hide while you stand at this tree, the base, with your eyes closed, and count to fifty. Then you come find us and tag us before we can sneak back to the base and be “free.” “Free,” that is, of being “It” for the next round in the game. The first hider tagged will be “It” for the next round. Remember all that?

When we played the game, after the person who was “It” tagged a kid hiding or running to the base from his or her hiding place, interest in seeking all the other hiders often waned. So the “It” kid usually ended the round without seeking everyone who was hiding.

Hide and Seek is an old game, its rules passed down by oral tradition from child to child, with little variation over the centuries. The “little variation” is with the words the person who is “It” calls when he or she is tired of seeking and wants to end the round. If no player who is hiding has been tagged, the kid who is “It,” is “It” again. Still, when “It” is ready for the next round, he or she can let all the hiding players “get in free.” How?

That depends. I have heard different calls. Chicago kids used to say, “Oley, Oley, Oceans free!” I suppose if any play the game in Chicago today, they still do. “Oley, Oley, Oceans free,” and the hiding kids come in to touch base without getting “caught.”

I have asked three different friends who grew up in Chicago what that means. None knows. “We just said it because that’s what we learned from the older kids when we first played the game.”

My wife, who did not grow up in Chicago, reports her neighborhood kids yelled, “Oley, Oley, Olsen, all in free.” One could construct meaning from that call, perhaps believing that “Oley Olsen” was the name of one of the originators of the game, or the first referee to decide who got in free.

I grew up in Iowa, but I am sure there were variations around the state. There were variations within my city! What our neighborhood kids said also made little sense. “Ollie, Ollie oxen free.” What does that mean? Were the kids hiding out named “Ollie Ox”? We never asked.

A friend who grew up in a southern state reports a call close to the original. He used to say, “Ollie, Ollie outsen free.” He said he never knew what “outsen” meant.

The original call, from who knows how long ago, has meaning easily understood. Those hiding are the “outs.” Touching the base without being tagged means you are “in.” When whoever was “It” became tired of seeking, that player gave the call to get “in” free and yelled, “All the, all the ‘outs’ ‘in’ free!”

Try it aloud. “All the, all the ‘outs’ ‘in’ free!” Again. Louder. Say it as kids might. “Oley, Oley Oceans free ,” “Oley, Oley, Olsen, all in free,” “Ollie, Ollie outsen free,” or, “Ollie, Ollie, oxen free!” See? It’s a simple little example of how languages can change from one another over time. In this case, the changes are the results of children “teaching” a variation of the original.

Imagine all the language changes over centuries among wandering tribes and then among nations before there were text books to decree what was standard.

Now you tell me: What did you call to end the round, and where did you play Hide and Seek?

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Friday, November 18, 2005

I'm also like, "Ugh!"

A reporter wouldn’t, and probably couldn’t, make up the lines attributed to Reese Witherspoon which were quoted in a newspaper movie column recently. So I will assume it is what the actress said. Witherspoon plays June Carter Cash in the new movie WALK THE LINE. She was commenting in an interview about feeling inadequate as a country singer and not really wanting people from the world of Nashville to hear her musical performance.

Witherspoon said, “Like I saw Vince Gill the other day and he’s like, ‘I can’t wait to see the movie.’ And I’m like, ‘Ugh.’ Because I’m just scared, and Dolly Parton, she’s like, ‘I really want to.’”

The story went on, but you get the idea. Do you also get the idea that, like Reese, I, too, am like “Ugh”?

I know, I know, languages all change. Still, I’m like, you know, a curmudgeon, and so I’m like, what is wrong that talented actors are like, “I can’t speak well because I’m like, where is the script?”

One thing her brand of natural utterance does show, however, is that when she plays the part of a woman who speaks in coherent, mostly standard English, Witherspoon is a good actress, because that kind of articulate woman is not Reese.
~ ~

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Why did so many Democrats and a majority of Americans think Saddam was a threat with WMD?

I wish the general public had a better memory. Maybe it is the frantic pace of American life and the fantastic array of events and activities shoving their way into all minds, making brains so crowded that a single memory is hard to retrieve. Like a computer due for an upgrade, perhaps our disks are nearly full.

In the run up to the Iraq war, the public was bombarded daily by various members of Bush League politicians telling us over and over that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. Saddam was a threat to the region and an imminent threat to our own security.

He has weapons of mass destruction. He has weapons of mass destruction. He is a threat. We don’t want the “smoking gun” to be a mushroom cloud. Saddam has weapons of mass destruction. Besides, he has flaunted UN declarations, murdered Iraqis (years before, but still...), and, perhaps most important, he tried to have George Herbert Walker Bush killed. Did you hear that he has weapons of mass destruction and poses an imminent threat?

At the same time, most other nations were skeptical. Yes, they really were. Not only that, the United Nations had a team of inspectors headed by Hans Blix on the ground in Iraq. They had faced Iraqi bluster and threats, but according to regular reports to the UN and the world, Blix said the team was able to go wherever they wished. They had made hundreds of unannounced visits to suspected sites of WMD. Nothing. They had made surprise return visits to sites. They had made surprise visits to palaces, rumored to house secret labs. Mr. Blix continued to report that there was, as yet, no evidence that Saddam was engaged in the production or stock piling of WMD.

Still the Bush League repeated “Weapons of Mass Destruction” so often that late night comedians began satirizing the call. Colin Powell went before the UN and spoke at length about the reported secret intelligence proving WMD. He held a small vial, supposedly of anthrax, similar to the anthrax the Bush League said mobile labs in Iraq were making as part of their WMD program. Imminent threat, you know. Mushroom cloud on the horizon. Smoking gun. Purchasing materials from Niger. WMD! WMD! WMD! Imminent threat. Defies UN resolutions.

Congress eventually passed a resolution authorizing the Bush League to use military force against Saddam as a last resort, if all else failed in the negotiations. Hans Blix kept reporting that his team was moving freely about Iraq and finding no evidence of WMD. Few seem to remember that.

Did anyone in the Bush League suggest that it might be both easier and less costly to continue with the inspection team in a country that did not have its infrastructure destroyed in shock and awe bombing? Easier and less costly than to invade a war torn country of angry survivors, insurgents, terrorist recruits, and then search the rubble? If so, that idea was dismissed, and Bush began his war in 2003.

It is now near the end of 2005, and our memories are numb. The Bush League is trooping around the nation and world chanting that many others also thought Saddam had WMD and was an imminent threat. That argument sounds very much as if Bush is whining. He seems to be saying, “Don’t place all the blame on me because we found no WMD, and there were no ties between Saddam and Ossama, and Iraq posed no imminent threat! Congress and everyone else also thought Saddam had WMD,” Bush sometimes says. “They had the same intel as I did,” he repeats, “and they thought Iraq was a threat, too.” He seems to mean, “So, get off my back.”

But those are lies. First, everyone else did not have the same intelligence reports as the Bush League. Powell referred to the intelligence as “secret intel.” It was classified stuff! “Everyone else” does not have intelligence gathering sources feeding them information. Even members of Congress, for the most part, rely on the intelligence reports fed to them by the administration.

Second, “everyone else,” or even “most people” did not believe there was an imminent threat from Iraq. At least they did not believe so at first. That is why the Bush League chanted their WMD mantra for so long in the run up to war. To convince the people, the people who did not have their own intelligence gathering sources!

Bush now pouts that, after all, Democrats also voted for the resolution to use force, downplaying that it was to be after “all else failed.” He says other countries, many people, and all but nine senators thought Saddam was a threat. He accuses “others” of revisionism now, concerning the perceived threat by Saddam.

Unfortunately, collective memory fails, for the most part. So far, at least, no one has said to the president, “Why do you think all those people you cite came to believe that Saddam was a threat?”

What would his answer be? It is hard to predict, but the truth is that Americans who thought Saddam had WMD and was an imminent threat believed it because, in those days, they believed their President!

What about you who are reading this? Did you think Saddam had WMD? Why did you think so? Because you believed the Bush League, of course!

So what Bush does not understand that he is saying, when he argues that a lot of others should also be blamed for believing Iraq needed invading, is that those others should be blamed for believing the President of the United States when he told them over and over and over that Saddam was a threat!

According to recent polls, the majority won’t make the same mistake again, at least with this president. It is a hopeful sign. Still, better memories couldn’t hurt, either.

~ ~

Thursday, November 10, 2005

NBC features grammar and usage problems, but consider this...

NBC Nightly News recently featured a segment complaining about the decline of grammar. If they wanted to be technical, the reporters should have pointed out it is not English grammar that is changing so much as it is American usage. People, in general, often refer to any nonstandard usage as an error in grammar, however, and if a word means what the majority of users of that word agree that it means, then I suspect they mean that our “grammar” is changing.

Technically, however, grammar is the system of rules that describes how a language does operate. The changes that have NBC and so many people pulling their hair and complaining that what they hear and read are errors in grammar are actually errors in diction (word choice), spelling, and punctuation.

A child comes into the house after school, puffing, and says, “I runned all the way home.” Depending on the age of the child, we smile or cringe. A kindergartner probably gets a smile. If the student is a high school senior, listeners may condemn the school for failing to teach “correct grammar.” To repeat, technically, the “error” is one of usage, not of grammar.

The rules of grammar explain that in a construction such as the home runner’s, the subject comes first, a past tense form of the verb second, and a phrase telling where he or she “runned” comes last in the sentence. The child has the sentence structured correctly. The problem is an incorrect form of the past tense. “Runned” is a nonstandard usage, but who will argue that it is not past tense?

The irregular verb “run, ran, (has, have, had ) run” was not used, perhaps, because the speaker doesn’t yet understand irregular verb forms, or because his or her parents have taught “runned” by example, or maybe the speaker has automatically made the language more regular than it was when an irregular verb form long ago worked itself into the language as the standard.

There are probably few people who could not make a list of personal pet peeves or “errors” they read or hear that upset them. What is interesting to consider is that no two lists would be identical. One person’s error is apt to be another’s usage.

Our language has changed considerably since Beowulf first angered his mother by mispronouncing “Hrothgar,” leaving off the sound of the “H.” Usage in Chaucer’s day differed considerably from what most agree as standard English today. I would bet that each change from the language of “The Canterbury Tales” was considered at first to be an error. Fifteenth Century language purists no doubt thought people who deviated from the standards of old Geoffrey were corrupting the English language.

Almost no one uses the language as Shakespeare did in the Seventeenth Century, either. Again, the usage changes were probably condemned as errors when each was first used. Usage has changed considerably, but the rules of grammar have changed little in centuries.

We don’t even use the language as Thomas Jefferson did. The Author of the Declaration of Independence capitalized every Noun in all his Writing, for Example. Today’s purists might red mark those “errors.” Many of Jefferson’s expressions and word choices would sound quaint in this century.

Some “errors” of today are so common that most people do not recognize them as nonstandard usage. They may someday be listed as standard. In the holiday season rushing toward us, we will soon hear, and perhaps sing, “I’ll be home for Christmas.” The rules of grammar say that the verb “be” in all its forms is “intransitive” and, therefore, takes no object. What follows the verb “be” is, grammatically, a “predicate nominative,” a word in the sentence predicate that renames the sentence subject in the nominative case, not the objective case of an object, because “be” takes no object. Do you understand that? Or, in nonstandard English, “Got that?”

Well, you had it. In every grade from fifth on. And it appeared on test after test as one item of many. It is an item most students always have missed. But there are enough other items on the test that pupils of all ages can miss the predicate nominative question each year and still pass.

Still don’t get it? O.K. Technically, according to the rules of grammar which so many critics think they believe should be mastered, “I’ll be home for Christmas” means that for Christmas, I shall be a home. “I’ll be home” is the same grammatical construction as, “I’ll be president.”

“Home” and “president” are nominative case words within the predicate renaming the nominative case subject, since they come after the intransitive verb “be.” To be grammatically correct, according to our intended meaning, then, we should sing and say, “I’ll be AT home for Christmas.” Of course, few people believe the sentence actually means what the grammatical construction claims. Since the word “at” is not needed for comprehension, most never will include the preposition.

Nor will we eliminate the contraction “I’ll” and replace it with the past standard “I shall” or “I will.” Contractions were condemned as corruptions not many years ago, when one considers the long history of language. The meaning of “I’ll be president” is simply too far-fetched to discuss, though it is grammatically correct.

You come into the house, and a significant other says, “You had a phone call a few minutes ago. I don’t know who it was.” Your response? “What did they want.” It probably sounds more like, “Whudday want?” But you mean, “What did he want,” or, “What did he or she want?”

The rules say that “they” is plural and should not be used to refer to one person, a single caller. But nearly all do use “they” that way. If the first grammar/usage books had not been written in the middle of the Eighteenth Century, but were being written today, then our nonstandard usage asking about the one caller as “they” would be recorded as standard.

Many of us remember something about using “I” with that old bugaboo “be” in statements such as “It is I,” and as part of a compound subject, “He and I shall leave today,” not “It is me,” and, “Me and him are gunna go.” But we often fail to understand why the “I” usage has been called standard. Many, therefore, transfer the usage from that intransitive verb “be” sentence and say things like “Between you and I,” instead of the standard, “Between you and me.” I have seen “Between you and I,” listed in one recent dictionary as, “alternate usage.” That means it may be on the road as a change to a new language usage standard.

The NBC broadcast included an amusing and technically correct, but funny sounding, “Woe is I,” rather than our common usage, “Woe is me.” After “is,” a form of the verb “be,” use nominative “I” not objective “me.” Remember?

French language rules are different. “C’est Moi” is correct and translates literally, “It is me.” Does that mean the French people are more objective about usage? Non.

I also hear constructions such as, “She gave the tickets to Mary and I.” That seems a clear violation of the rule stating one should use objective case (me) as the object of a preposition (to) and not transfer the “Mary and I are going” nominative construction to be the objects of a preposition.

My English teacher and Jefferson, Shakespeare, and Chaucer might list that as a pet peeve. Beowulf probably would merely grunt, “Huh?” Some sounds haven’t changed.

~ ~

Thursday, November 03, 2005

A Republican President Appointed a Catholic Democrat to the Supreme Court

I rediscovered a copy of LIFE magazine for the week of October 8, 1956, in a box of items on a garage shelf the other day. The magazine provides additional evidence of how different our world is from a half century ago.

Many of the advertisements are black and white. The inside cover and eleven of the first twelve pages are devoted entirely to advertising. That is followed by a two page article, and then fourteen more pages of nothing but advertising, before the main news section. There are almost no ads smaller than a half-page anywhere in the magazine. Most are a full page, and many are double page spreads. There are brassiere ads, but the models are drawings, not photographs. Bell and Howell advertises the world’s first totally automatic, electric eye movie camera. Argus has a page to show their newest color slide camera. Magnavox brags that their 24 inch tv is the biggest picture in television. Motorola claims two color pages for a new feature, a wireless t.v. remote for a television that “really tunes itself.” Chesterfield advertises in a two-page, black and white ad: “Enjoy the smoothest cigarette you ever smoked.” Various tire ads feature the latest in tread designs, with rayon cord construction, and B.F. Goodrich announces new, tubeless tires.

A lengthy scientific report tells of limitless power on the horizon from the seas through fusion, not fission. One prophecy back then states that a method for liberating fusion energy in a controlled manner will be developed within twenty years.

The magazine from 49 years ago mentions but one Black American. Syracuse University senior halfback Jim Brown is shown climbing a rope in a training drill with four other players, all White. The story of Syracuse’s rise to power tells of Brown gaining 154 yards against Maryland in the first football game of the season. Five smaller pictures also showcase the team. Brown appears in three of them, as well. So do thirty other players a reader can identify as White. No other Black is pictured. The article states that Jim Brown “hopes to go into pro football.”

Eisenhower and Nixon were running for a second term in October of 1956. Nixon says there will be a four-day work week within ten years. There is a color photo of Ike and Mamie Eisenhower in a beautiful yard, and a four-page article divided into half-page columns and spread across 15 pages, completed by advertising, praising Ike’s “New-Model Cabinet.” I found no mention of Democrat candidates in the issue of LIFE magazine, published one month before the election.

A small, black and white photo of Republican President Eisenhower shows him seated with his Supreme Court nominee. The caption states, “A Surprising Choice For the Court.” The cut line reads: “It came as a surprise last week when President Eisenhower picked William J. Brennan Jr., associate Justice of the New Jersey supreme court, to succeed Sherman Minton on the U.S. Supreme Court. A Democrat and a Catholic, the 50-year-old judge has shied away from politics. He was picked, the White House said, because he was ‘highly qualified’ for the post.”

See? A different world.