Archive for the Language Category


Recently I dictated an essay in praise of what I believe is a prefix in the English language. That prefix had to do with the word “non.” You will remember – or I hope you will remember – that I wrote in that essay that I was asked many years ago to identify my daughters. As a general rule, I said that this is “the non-adopted daughter.” I had no idea whether we had made my other child feel special but I hope that that was the case.

Since that time, I have given a bit more thought to the use of what I believe to be the prefix of “non.” In my estimation this word has been overlooked. All things considered, we should praise the use of the word “non.”

And so in my ruminations I have thought of a few other words that incorporate the prefix “non.”

I have already told you about my daughters and perhaps the place to start is to say “non-adopted.” This provides an even playing field.

In this great state of New Jersey, I used to have a driver’s license. I thought that when my driving career came to an end in 2004, I could simply remove that card from my wallet. Here in the great state of New Jersey that is not the case. You may find this hard to believe but I am required to carry a “non-driver’s” driver’s license. My old driver’s license was taken from me and had holes punched in it. My new driver’s license, or I should say non-driver’s license, was issued to me for the purpose of getting on airplanes, cashing checks, and in other instances where identification is demanded. If I may say so, this is the single biggest rip-off by the state government in the history of New Jersey. Currently my non-driver’s driver’s license has expired. As a means of protest, I do not intend to renew it at the price of $26. I suppose the idea is to prove that I am the person that I say that I am in the issuance of the non-driver’s driver’s license. But I have told the great fat man who is the governor of New Jersey, Mr. Chris Christie, what he can do with his non-driver’s driver’s license.

The third word involving the use of the prefix “non” is the word “non-sighted.” I am fully aware that non-sighted means blind. But it seems to me that the word blind is unforgiving and I hope that you will find it within your heart to make use of the word non-sighted.

There is one other word that is non-partisan. It is “non-essential.”

Then there is the word “non-fiction,” which I should have thought about long ago. In my case, I believe that it has been nearly 70 years since I have read a book of fiction. So the word “non-fiction” describes me very accurately.

There are other words such as “non-unique” which I find do not have many uses. But there is also the word “non-gay” which would have applicability here in the eastern provinces of the great and glorious United States. The word “non-gay” seems to strike a chord in my soul.

Then we come to the story of my life which could be called “non-rich.” I have never been a wealthy man such as Mitt Romney has been and I have never been a politician. But I believe the word “non-rich” is a lovely addition to the English language. There is also the word “non-existent.” I am not quite sure where that word would be used but I include it here because of my efforts to be all inclusive. I am sure there are one or two other words that fit into the “non” category.

Well, these are just transient thoughts about the great word “non.” It seems to me as an interested observer of the language of the Anglo-Saxons that the prefix “non” needs to be celebrated a bit more than it has been in the past. And so in this essay I have sought to praise the existence of the word “non.” I realize that there is some redundancy, but the word “non” is a significant word and should receive its full due.

It may not be the most exciting word in the English language but think of it in these terms. Where would we be if we did not have the word “non?” I shudder to think what would happen to our civilization if we were forced to try to find a substitute for the prefix “non.”

January 27, 2012


For the record, the word “nonexistent” gets used in fourteen essays, not counting this one, so he definitely can think of how that word might be used.

“Non” gets me thinking about language a little bit. Specifically I remember the (fictional!) novel 1984, where “newspeak” reduced the English lexicon dramatically. One of the biggest changes was halving the amount of adjectives by use of the prefix “un” — so instead of “good” and “bad” you had “good” and “ungood.” “Fat” and “Skinny” became “Fat” and “Unfat.” The prefix “non” can work sort of the same way — instead of Biological and Adopted daughters, for instance, you can have adopted and non-adopted ones, or biological and non-biological ones. Either way would make the language a little easier to learn, if perhaps in exchange for being a little less poetic. Dystopian connotations aside, I wonder if it’s such a bad idea.

In Chinese, for instance, each type of noun gets what’s called a “measure word.” If I’m trying to buy two bananas and three jackets from a department store, I’d need to tell the clerk not just that I want two bananas and three jackets, but two “slender objects” worth of bananas, and three “clothes pieces” worth of jackets. Papers are measured by the flat thing; chopsticks are measured by the special measure word for things that come in pairs. English has a few of these, of course — for example I might use measure words if I want to talk about a pride of lions or a murder of crows. But I don’t HAVE to — the phrase “I saw a few lions” wouldn’t raise any eyebrows. More commonly, I might use “pieces” of paper or “pairs” of jeans. By and large, though, the language either doesn’t use measure words or vastly consolidates them into a small number of very general purpose words like “some.”

All this to say that maybe simplification of language isn’t so bad — I don’t think we lose out on anything in English by not having a specific measure word for “belts”; I can just say I have three belts at home and everyone knows what I mean. In Chinese I have to let them know that I have three long-things worth of belts at home, and the “long things” measure word of course isn’t the same one that I’d use for counting bananas. Other languages like Spanish will add a gender to every single noun in the language, so in addition to learning that “papel” means “paper,” you also have to remember if it’s “EL papel” or “LA papel” and if you use the wrong one you sound like an idiot. Complications like gendering your nouns or assigning every type of noun its own special measure word serve no purpose other than to frustrate language learners. They contribute basically zero extra meaning.

English of course is a nightmare of exceptions, so standardizing those would probably be of a lot more use than just adding “non” to our adjectives, but any step in the right direction is okay by me.

The prior essay he mentions is here.


I generally keep my notes for future essays in my head but in some cases on an old dictating machine on my desk. Two of these notes appeared simultaneously and I thought that there were enough similarities that they could be married together. The first essay has to do with the ancient word for an insect, “pissant.” That explains the first word in the title. The second word, “politics,” is also related to the pissantries. The third entry in the title is “a gorgeous mistress” named Kimberly Bell, who was the mistress of Barry Bonds, the home run king, for many years. I will take each subject separately but from time to time you may see how they have become married.

The word “pissant” is an older term which refers to an insect. The insect is an ant that seeks the feet of humans and animals. The word “pissant” is far from a vulgarism. It is a living creature, just as bedbugs and gnats are living creatures also. Pissants dart from one section of the body to another and are generally just plain miserable. They are hard to swat and the pressure from the swatter is sufficiently great to move them to safety.

As I have related in earlier essays, my parents were quite religious. But they had frequently identified politicians who were bothersome as pissants. Unfortunately, that word is no longer in common usage because of the advance of insecticides that destroy the pissants in their nests. And so we see that the pissants became largely worthless creatures who now no longer bother us, but who have also disappeared from the latest dictionaries.

During the last few months, there have been inaugurations of several Republican governors in the Midwest and now one in Maine who have qualified for the title of pissant extraordinaire. Apparently these governors have made compacts which they have set out to rule the bargaining rights for state workers. They have set out to achieve these ends by all means fair or foul. In the state of Maine, the new governor there has declared that a mural in the state labor department is offensive to him and must be moved. Yet the mural, consisting of perhaps 13 panels, depicts workers in Maine building boats, fishing, and doing all of the other things that require labor in the state of Maine. The panels have existed for some time but now the new governor has decided that he is an art critic who wants them moved or put in storage. His complaint is that when businessmen come around to the department of labor, they will conclude that the panels prejudice the department against business.

In the Midwest, we have such governors as Scott Walker in Wisconsin and the governor of Ohio named John Kasich, who have passed legislation denying state workers the ability to bargain their wages. As someone who knows a little bit about labor relations, I view this as a temporary situation because given a bit of time these governors will be recalled or defeated in the next election. But these governors clearly qualify as pissants. If my parents were alive today, which they are not, they would identify these governors as clear examples of pissantries. They are making buzzing sounds as pissants do. The results of their labor are nil. These governors, including the Midwestern ones and the one in Maine, deserve to be terminated like bedbugs or gnats. But their time will come in recalls or in elections.

Well, so much for pissantries and politics. It is now time to turn to Kimberly Bell, who was Barry Bonds’ mistress for several years. I suspect that some of my readers may wonder who this Barry Bonds is. I will tell you.

Barry Bonds is the son of Bobby Bonds. Both of them were famous baseball players. Barry Bonds, according to baseball records, is the greatest home run hitter of all time. I dispute that, as do many others, because it is reasonably clear that Bonds had the help of steroids as he compiled his home run record. But then as his playing career drew to a close around 2007 or 2008, Barry Bonds was implicated in a steroid scandal involving not only himself but a star swimmer in the world Olympics. The swimmer was a female and, at the time, she admitted her use of steroids and was sent to jail for a short period of time, say two years. But old Barry Bonds wanted once to tough it out and in the process lied, or so it is alleged, to a grand jury about his intake of steroids. And that is what the trial that is taking place as I dictate these lines on March 24, 2011 is all about.

Bonds contends that he took no steroids but that his trainer gave him a combination of flax seed and another thing called Cream. The federal government has witnesses who will testify that they have seen Bonds injecting himself or having a trainer perform that service. At this early point in the trial, it would seem to me that the evidence against Barry Bonds is reasonably overwhelming.

But hovering in the background is a witness for the federal government who will deliver, it is alleged, some damning evidence. We all know that Barry Bonds’s feet jumped by two or three sizes and that the muscles in his arms expanded greatly during a winter off-season when he said that he was not taking steroids and the government said that he was. But regardless of his arm measurements and muscles and the size of his feet, we now come to Kimberly Bell, whose testimony will be extraordinary.

It is an established fact that Kimberly Bell was the mistress of Barry Bonds. There seems to be no dispute on this point. On the other hand, Miss Chicka, my wife, contends that Barry Bonds had a wife as well as the gorgeous mistress. I contend that a man can have a mistress regardless of his marital status but there are those who contend that mistresses apply only when there is a marriage involved. I regard this question as being a pissant one which shall give me the license to say that these two essays are married. In any case, we know that Kimberly Bell was a long-time mistress of Barry Bonds. During that association, there must have been occasions when sexual relations took place. Now we are told that Kimberly Bell is prepared to testify in this federal trial that she is certain that Bonds took steroids because the size of his testicles shrunk. I am not an expert on these matters but I advise all of my readers to pay close attention to the reports from San Francisco having to do with Barry Bonds’s testicular size.

When Kimberly Bell testifies and states that the size of Barry Bonds’ s testicles has shrunk, the defense attorney defending Mr. Bonds should have a field day. In the first place, he will probably taunt the government for not calling Barry Bonds’s wife to testify about the size of his genital equipment. We can believe that the wife had known Barry Bonds longer than the mistress had, and thus a good comparison of before and after taking steroids would be available. But Mrs. Bonds, if there is such a person, is not on the witness list for the government.

Let’s go back to the cross examination of Kimberly Bell. It would be very interesting to know how she had determined that Mr. Bonds’s testicles had shrunk. For example, did she take measurements before and after steroid use was attributed to Mr. Bonds. The defense attorney might inquire of Miss Bell how the size of Mr. Bonds’s testicles compared to other persons, male, that she had observed. This all goes to the point of whether the witness was an expert on the size of male testicles. Then the witness might be asked to provide the jury with the current size of Mr. Bonds’s testicles. She may also be asked whether the shrunken testicles occurred quickly or whether it was a matter of gradual disappearance. But throughout his cross examination the defense attorney is always at question for failure to produce Mrs. Bonds, if there were one. It would seem to most observers that his wife would be in a better position to testify as to the size of this equipment over a long period of time than his mistress.

But the fact of the matter is that the government is going to rely upon the testimony of Kimberly Bell. Because she was merely a mistress of Barry Bonds, it may cause some on the jury to question her value as a witness. Nonetheless, I am advising my readers that they should follow the daily reports from San Francisco to see how the cross examination of Miss Bell proceeds. For all I know, we may get a high definition exhibit of Mr. Bonds’s private parts.

I would make a prejudiced juror in this case because I do not believe that Barry Bonds is entitled to be called the home run king. That title belongs to Henry Aaron, who compiled his record with the Milwaukee Braves and then the Atlanta Braves. He used no steroids. Aaron is a gentleman who was moved to congratulate, not very warmly, Bonds when Aaron’s home run mark fell to second place. Henry Aaron is a credit to the game of baseball. Barry Bonds is a predator in the records of our national pastime.

Well, there you have my thoughts on pissants and politicians such as the governors in the Midwestern states and Maine, as well as my thoughts on the testimony of Kimberly Bell. I regret that I did not become a lawyer. It might have offered me the opportunity to cross examine Kimberly Bell. I would suspect that the lawyer who does the cross examination will remember it for the rest of his life and use it in after-dinner speeches for many years to come. But more than anything else, my notepad is empty and my brain has been relieved of carrying these two potential essays around. That in and of itself makes writing these two essays more than worthwhile. To think that I have informed my readers about pissants and Kimberly Bell’s testimony fills me with joy unending.

March 27, 2011


This one has a sister essay from about a month later that’s also worth a read.

An interesting fact about pissants (which are just wood ants) is that they get their name from their smell; their nests smell like urine, due to the construction material and the formic acid that the ants produce. Incidentally, the resemblance to these ants was what inspired the name of the “Formics,” which are the evil aliens in everyone’s favorite Mormon Sci Fi book, Ender’s Game. (Turns out that ol’ Orson Scott Card is a direct descendant of Brigham Young himself, who knew?). Anyway that series is pretty terrible but it does involve a space war against what I’m now realizing is a race of scientifically advanced pissants, which adds a fun spin to the series.

I regretfully have nothing to contribute regarding the size of Bonds’s testicles, but I think it’s pretty screwed up that he’s allowed to keep the home run record.


In previous essays I have always credited Sven Lernevall of Stockholm with the observation that the English language is a rich language. Sven’s native tongue is Swedish and he has mastered the English language gracefully. When I comment on the mother tongue, it seems to me that the comments tend to be endless. I suspect that this is a function of Sven Lernevall’s rules that the English language is a rich one and there are additions almost daily.

You may recall an essay which was done recently which commented upon the prevalence of the word “right” in our discourse. There is a right way to do things, and the thing to be tended to is “right in front of you.” In that essay, it appears that some comments on “right” were left uncultivated. And so let us take a look at them.

Recently I visited a physician in New Jersey whose residence is in New York. As a means of passing time, I asked him, “Do you still live in New York?” I expected to be told that New York was his home and would be the home of his children. I was flabbergasted to find that the physician told me that recently he had abandoned New York City and moved to a residence in one of the less populated areas of New Jersey.

Apparently after Thanksgiving, the physician and his wife had notions of moving to New Jersey to be closer to his work in Berkeley Heights. With that thought in mind, the two of them decided to take a look at an open house which had been carried by the builder for more than two years. Now if that house had been offered to me, I would have had some questions. The first question would have to do with the location of the house. The second would have to do with its design. In any event, the builder persuaded the physician to buy this house. The physician told my wife and me that the builder made “the price right.” So “the price is right” is another entry into the long series of stories about the “rightness” or the “righteousness” of the English language.

Now, leaving the builder and the physician on the right issue, we are confronted with the subject of human rights, which should not detract from our appreciation of animal rights. In this debate, it is clear that the rights will always prevail.

Now to demonstrate my impartiality, I have searched in my lexicon for something to balance the “rightness” of our language. Two entries popped into mind. When something is not fully consumed but is so good that it is saved for the next meal, we call it leftovers, not rightovers. Sometimes the leftovers taste better the second time around than on the first time. Then of course, it is common to hear someone say, “I left my wallet behind” as distinguished from “I right my wallet behind.” But on balance, the rightness of our language is overwhelming as opposed to the leftness.

I suppose that the rightness and leftness of things constitutes some sort of neologism. But for the time being, I think it is appropriate to put the issue of rightness right there for review at a later date.

Now we come to four phrases, having nothing to do with rightness, that have enriched the English language. All four come from the pen of the Australian composer Eric Bogle. Bogle is now an Australian but he was born in Peebles, Scotland. Bogle is the composer of the well known anti-war songs “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” and “No Man’s Land,” also known as “Private Willie McBride.”

The first lines are from “The Promise,” a song composed by Bogle to comfort the widow of a fellow song writer. In that song, there is a haunting refrain. It says:

“I can’t foretell the future,
The wheres, the whens, the whys.”

I have been a long-time observer of music and the English language, and I have never before seen this construction having to do with the wheres, the whens, the whys. That is a masterly composition which does great favor to the English language.
The second phrasing does not have to do with the love of two human beings, but rather it has to do with Bogle coming to the conclusion that he now felt more at home in Australia than he did in his native Scotland. The lines are from the song “Green and Gold.” They are:

“I wandered half the world over,
left no wild oats unsown.”

The line about leaving no wild oats unsown seems to me to deserve a Nobel Prize.

The third reference to a song by Eric Bogle comes from “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda.” On this occasion in 1915, the Australians were sent into a battle at Suvla Bay where disaster against the defending Turks awaited them. There is a line to the effect that:

“And those that were left, well we tried to survive,
In that mad world of blood death and fire
And for ten weary weeks I kept my self alive,
Though around me the corpses piled higher.

Then a big Turkish shell knocked me arse overhead,
And when I awoke in me hospital bed,
And saw what it had done, well I wished I was dead.
Never knew there was worse things than dyin’.

This is a powerful indictment of careless wars such as our invasion of Iraq. I hope that every prospective soldier will listen to the line from Eric Bogle. In this case, the Turkish shell had caused the loss of both legs to the Australian soldier. “Never knew there was worse things than dyin’.” These are sobering thoughts to every prospective soldier.

Finally, the last Boglism is contributed by his mother Nancy. When Bogle was a youngster, he may have expressed the wish that weekends could come sooner, so that he could avoid attending school. Nancy Bogle responded to these sorts of wishes with the comment, “If wishes were fishes, we would all cast nets in the sea.” Eric, her son, fashioned a lovely song with the title, “If Wishes Were Fishes.” There is a lot of truth in the thought that if wishes were fishes, we would all cast nets in the sea.

There you have my thoughts on this cold Sunday afternoon as February draws to a close. Yesterday I heard my first radio broadcast of an exhibition baseball game being played between the New York Mets and Atlanta. That means that spring is not far away. Once it arrives, I will be emboldened to search out more richness for our mother tongue.

February 27, 2011


Bogle probably takes a close second to Mencken in the contest for Pop’s most-admired content producer. Currently he features in 10 essays, compared to Mencken’s 19.

I appreciate the attempt to balance leftness against rightness. He’s correct in that left words make up a pretty short list. “Leftenant” and “left out” are pretty much the only additions that come to mind that are not explicitly concerned with the leftward direction.


For better or worse, I was born in this country and so my mother tongue is the language of the Anglo-Saxons. Those of us who speak the English language are quite fortunate in that the language of the Anglo-Saxons has now become the lingua franca of the world. Perhaps one of the reasons for the English language to maintain such a paramount position has to do with the fact that it is a rich language that seems to welcome additions to its vocabulary.

From time to time in these essays, I have commented on the additions to the language and such will be the case in the following essay. I want to make it clear that some of the additions to the language are nothing less than atrocious and bastardizations. I will leave it to my readers to distinguish between those that they will welcome into the language and those that they wish to reject. This essay will be devoted to several newcomers to the Mother Tongue.

So let us start with some of the new words that we find in newscasts and often in print. The first word or phrase is “looking forward” or “moving forward.” “Looking forward” is a term dear to the heart of nearly every politician that I have heard in the past six or eight months. There is no such thing as “looking backwards.” We should all go forward by looking forward. The former press secretary to Barack Obama, Robert Gibbs, is a major offender when it comes to the phrase “looking forward.” So, as a progressive, I have no choice but to look forward hourly and when tomorrow comes, I will still be in a position to look forward again.

The second word which has beleaguered the English language is “transparent or transparencies.” This is nothing more than an attempt by politicians to say that they are being honest with us. As we all know, politicians are not all that honest even though they contend that their propositions are fully transparent. Perhaps we should say that we are looking forward to an honest politician who does not need to tell us that his proposals are always transparent.

Now we come to an entirely new phrase that has me largely baffled. The term is “skin in the game.” I assume that it means that there is some risk involved as in the case of a wager at the race track or participation in an election. The term seems to suggest that only those who are involved and taking a risk may be heard from. Perhaps this is a restricted construction about skin in the game but, as I said, it leaves me largely baffled. I see no future for skin in the game and hope that it dies a peaceful death soon because it is a bastardization of the language.

The next term makes a lot more sense. That term is “optics.” When Berlusconi, the Prime Minister of Italy, fools around with teen-age show girls, the “optics” to most Italians and the rest of the world are atrocious. But Berlusconi will not take my advice. The show girls that he toys with are not only in their teens, but may well be simply prostitutes. Berlusconi should resign the Premiership and join the Assumption Abbey Monastery in Ava, Missouri, a group that observes silence and makes the best fruitcakes known to man or beast.

Now we come to what I consider a bastardly phrasing in the English language. It has to do with the term “referencing.” When someone sticks a gun in my ribs and robs me, I refer it to the police. I don’t “reference” the police department. Why this term has gained popularity, particularly in the circles around Hillary Clinton, is a mystery to me. For all these years, we have gotten along with “refer to” as opposed to being “referenced.” So I say that we should reject this term before it goes further.

There is also the matter of “partnering” which Mrs. Clinton and others seem to favor. Partnering is an obvious term but I do not see that it improves upon someone saying this fellow over here is my partner as opposed to saying that we are partnering. I think this comes close to being a bastardization of the Mother Tongue.

Another new term we hear almost constantly is the term “focus like a laser.” Politicians love to “focus like a laser” but that term does not endear me to such a politician. Focusing like a laser is the careless man’s way of saying that he will pay attention to the details of the proposition to be considered. This is another bastardization.

And that brings us to a term that is baffling to me called “one off.” It was used the other night during the State of the Union address when politicians of different parties sat next to each other. The question is, “Is this a one-off arrangement or will we go back to the seating arrangement that was seen in previous years?” I see no future for the term “one off.” I believe it should go by the boards along with “skin in the game.”

Here is another Hillaryism. Mrs. Clinton is an avid devotee of the term “tasked.” It means that you assigned responsibility. Being tasked is popular in political circles in our nation’s capital. But that word is sort of an abortion in our language.

Now we come to the term “incentivizing.” I had two friends from the Australian Telecommunications Authority who appointed the three of us to oversee new words for the English language. One was Randolph Payne, and the other was John Hampton. Randy is deceased now and John has retired and seems to have left no forwarding address. Randy and John and your old friend Ezra would consider “incentivizing” as thorough and complete bastardizations of the Mother Tongue. It should not be repeated within my range of hearing.

Next is the term “doubling down.” I had always assumed that the term came from the race tracks. If a man lost his wager on the first race, he would double the bet on the second race to make up for his loss. But now we find that doubling down has to do with such things as Obama’s sending more troops to Afghanistan. According to observers, which do not include me, Obama is doubling down on the war in Afghanistan. I believe this to be an atrocious construction.

Now we come to the term, “under the bus.” It has to do with abandoning friends of long standing. For example, when we abandoned our support for Hosni Mubarak, commentators would say that the U.S. has thrown Mubarak “under the bus.” I believe that this construction has the ability to stand the test of time.

There is a television program which states that, as the program nears its end, we are “approaching the shallow end.” I assume that this comes from swimming and pools where there is a deep end and on the other end of the pool is the “shallow end.” As in the case of throwing someone under the bus, this construction has a happy future.

Finally we come to the term “getting under the hood.” It has to do, for example, with the Federal budget which appears at this time of year. Getting into the details or under the hood of the budgetary details might also be called “getting into the weeds.” It strikes me that, once again, as in the case of putting someone under the bus, this construction may be with us for awhile.

There you have more than a dozen new constructions of the Mother Tongue. Some are laudable, some are middle of the road-ish, and some are plain bastardizations of the language. I said earlier that I would leave it to my readers to accept or reject those terms, but I believe my prejudices are clear for all to see. If someone were to use the phrase “skin in the game” or “tasked” in a conversation with me, I would call for the cops.

January 30, 2011


I notice that the two car-related sayings make it through without issue — I’m gonna say that’s filling station bias, right there.
On a somewhat unrelated note, a friend of mine has made a whole career out of focusing lasers. Many lasers, it turns out, have massive focus issues, which probably isn’t what that phrase is going for.


I don’t watch much television these days, being confined to the dialogue. But in noodling around the television, I ran into a program featuring an interview involving two homosexual men. From what I could gather, the two men have been together for more than 20 years and a crisis has now arisen. It seems that one of them has contracted AIDS and that the other one is subject to deportation by the Immigration authorities and seems likely to be deported.

While I grieve for the person who has the problem of AIDS and who has the problem of deportation, my interest went to another factor. Apparently they have become married out of love for each other. This is a development that I support. Straight people can marry; why should not there be a provision for marriage between homosexuals? During the interview, there were constant references to the other partner as being called “my husband.” This was a bit jarring to me, that each of them referred to the other partner as “my husband.”

Perhaps I have been influenced by those right-wingers who contend that marriage should be between one man and one woman. But the constant references to “my husband” were a bit jarring to me.

In a marriage between two heterosexuals, generally speaking the wife does the cooking, supports her husband, and provides him with sexual relief. In this long-standing homosexual arrangement, apparently there is no wife at all. I am quite certain, or it is my belief, that one or the other of the homosexual males provides those services to the other. As for the references, I suspect that I have been taken in or influenced by the right-wingers who contend that a marriage is between one man and one woman.

The references to “my husband” bring to mind the slip of the tongue by Condoleezza Rice who once referred to George W. Bush as “my husband.” I am sure that Mrs. Bush would lay a prior claim to George W. Bush and that she has the wedding certificate to prove it. In the long term, I support gay marriage even though I am as straight as a man can be, I believe. But my curious nature is aroused by two partners in a marriage, each one calling the other partner “my husband.” Clearly, perhaps what is needed is a new term combining the best aspects of “my wife” and/or “my husband.” If Condoleezza Rice can make a mistake by calling George Bush her husband, I see no reason why any new term applying to the homosexual community would be objectionable.

I have heard of the other partner being referred to as “my roommate” and “my partner.” These are not inspiring terms. Perhaps we should pay attention to the relationship between two lesbians as a clue as to what the other partner should be called, but at the moment, I will await to hear from my readers as to their suggestions. If a new term could be invented as a result of Ezra’s Essays, I would be more than happy to hear of it.

August 15, 2011


I don’t actually see the issue with “husband” — and I think the ‘generally speaking’ part of this essay is maybe a little dated. I guess some concessions have to me made for age, though. His heart was clearly in the right place with this one.


My linguistic skills are limited. I speak the mother tongue of English in a generally acceptable form. I used to mutter a few words in Italian and some in German. A lack of use has tended to cause those skills to diminish. And then there are two derivatives of the English language which are worthy of note here. The first is “country speak” which is the language used by my parents and their rural counterparts. Secondly there is another language called “Washington speak.” As a general principle, I understand country speech and Washington speech perfectly. But I refuse to use them for speaking purposes. However, in the current case, there is a phrase in Washington speech which is worthy of our attention. That phrase is “the new normals.” Obviously the new normals are used to distinguish them from the old normals. A few examples come to mind immediately.

Formerly the countries in the Middle East such as Egypt and Libya were run by dictators. They offered us no great trouble. So it’s fair to say that they were the old normal view. Now that the dictator of Egypt is banished to live in a palace in the south of Egypt and now that Colonel Gaddafi appears to be headed for the ropes, we have a new normal. Throughout the Middle East, there are other examples of the old and the new normals.

It used to be at this time of year that the New York Mets, a baseball team, would be in search of the free agent market while offering astronomical sums to corral a star performer. Ahhh, but that was old normal. Since the owners of the New York Mets were subject to the magical wonders of the Bernie Madoff scheme, the owners, Mr. Wilpon and Mr. Katz, are out of money and are looking for somebody to buy their ball club. So the new normal is that the New York Mets will go in to the season with a tattered lineup and will hope to make it through September, when some new finances may occur. To put it succinctly, the old normal for the New York Mets was that they were the new kid in town trying to challenge the New York Yankees. But since Bernie Madoff has performed his miracle, the new normal for the New York Mets is that they hope to avoid a last-place finish.

A final example of the old and the new normals has to do with the US House of Representatives. The old normal was that the House was under Democratic control with Mrs. Pelosi being in charge. Since the elections of last fall when 57 new right-wing representatives were elected, the House has changed its speakers and the new normal for the Obama administration has been to get used to the change in ownership.

I hope at this juncture it is clear what I mean by the examples of the old normal and the new normal. I am fond of the new age in Washington speak because it is easily transferrable from the world of politics to the human condition. For example, during the days of our youth, we were not only carefree but pain free. The joints in our bodies were basically pain free and we thought that illness was never going to be our lot in life. That was the old normal. The new normal for older people is the scourge of arthritis and forgetfulness and a string of other failures that are now normal and plague the human condition. The carefree days of the rule of the old normal have been replaced by such things as ingrown toenails, loss of hearing, and diminished eyesight. This is the state of the new normal. Under the old normal, I used to mow our half acre of grass with a 22-inch lawnmower and think nothing of it. In the new normal for the past six years or so, I have asked a contractor to take care of the grass growth.

Under the old normal, I used to be amused by patients keeping track of their doctors’ appointments. That was the old normal. Under the new normal, I’ve got so many doctors’ appointments that it is quite confusing. So you see the new normal has universal appeal that will apply to virtually everything.

The new normal of Washington speak is also appropriate for the end of life. Fortunately, the new normal at the end of life also includes walkers, wheelchairs, and help to climb into bed. I do not mean to end this essay on a downer, but the facts are the facts. With that, it seems to me that life at its end results in more new normals than one new normal being replaced by a diminished other new normal. We can’t all be like my 55-year-old neighbor who was going full speed until he dropped dead. This fellow missed the new normals that go with the end-of-life process. But in any case, according to the hand that we are dealt, we see the end of life as one of diminishing prospects that we are obliged to accommodate. Rather than bemoaning our diminished lot in life, we should all rejoice because we have politicians in our capital city that have finally done something worth while. So let me say hallelujah while we rejoice in ecstasy.

March 11, 2011


Pop had such a funny way of ending his essays. It’s so often punchy, or humorous, or sarcastic, or powerful — I’d say that a strong closing statement is one of the hallmarks of a great Pop essay. I just picked out a random recent one and found this: “I suspect that when history is written, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney will be remembered for having taught us to hate. What a terrible epitaph.”


In a previous essay, I commented on missing people. In this case, I will try to comment on a very few missing words from our vocabularies these days. This exercise is called “Country Speak.”

I call this essay “Country Speak” because the words that are missing from urban areas are found most often in the vocabulary of rural speakers. Words that no longer have meaning in urban areas are still retained in country speak, that is, the language spoken by rural residents. Let me give you a few examples.

When my father, who came from the farthest reaches of civilization in Illinois, died, my belief is that the certificate of death read, “died of natural causes.” That was quite acceptable to me because my father had always worked outside, supervising a dairy farm, climbing trees and mowing lawns and working in a brick refractory, jobs that required physical labor. By the time that he died at 77, he had exhausted his supply of energy I suppose. My mother, who also was a practitioner of country speak, said of his death, “I reckon he was plumb wore out.”

Translated into modern usage, my mother was saying by her use of the word “reckon” that I think or I believe this to be the case. When she said that he was “plumb wore out,” she meant that he was completely exhausted or entirely worn out. It seems to me that the use of the word “reckon” ought to have more currency than it enjoys today. As for “plumb wore out,” I believe that there are adequate substitutes but in any event I believe that my mother’s statement captured the day. It was a statement in pure country speak that set the record straight. My father was simply worn out and so he died. I reckon that all of his children and friends were sorry to see him go, but that’s what happens when you are “plumb wore out.”

There is another word that I would like to see used more often, and that is “yonder.” That word can be used to indicate a town down the road apiece or it can be used to indicate a pasture in the neighboring fields. Yonder is a term that is often used by poets and hymn singers, but unfortunately it is not used much by those of us who speak modern English.

Another term that is not in common usage these days is “joshing.” “Joshing” is no more than kidding or joking among one’s fellow contemporaries. It might be said that I was only joshing with him, meaning that my words were not to be taken seriously. They were all in fun. I regret the passage of “joshing” as a term of kidding because there is a degree of affection associated with it. One does not josh with someone unless he is friendly with him. But the word “joshing” in these days does not enjoy wide currency.

Finally there is the word “lick.” In country speak, “lick” is a blow or a strike. If a ball player hits the ball out of the ball park, he may be said to have “hit that ball with a good lick.” If a boxer hits another boxer on the chin and knocks him out, it will be said in country speak that “he hit him a good lick.” I am fairly certain that you have heard the phrase “give it a lick and a promise” for a job poorly done. That must refer to an ineffective lick in any case. Country speak uses lick to this day and uses it effectively. All things being equal, I believe that “lick” ought to be part of our vocabulary today.

The examples that I have used thus far in country speak will come as no surprise to a friend of mine named Thomas Warren Scandlyn, originally of Tennessee. Tennessee is well known because it makes Jack Daniels whiskey, it is the home of Elvis Presley, and it produced T. Warren Scandlyn. I suspect that those words used in the foregoing statements were entirely known to Tom Scandlyn and my belief is that he might even use them today.

Now we go on to Hurley Fitzwater, who was a preacher in a neighboring town. Hurley’s claim to fame was that he was a practitioner in the art of country speak and that he had received a call from God which he answered by becoming a preacher in a small church in Brentwood, Missouri. Hurley had no seminary training of any kind. He simply got the call from God and stood up and started preaching. It was about that simple.

In my father’s declining days, he summoned Hurley to his bedside and asked Hurley to make a few remarks at the funeral which he knew would occur before long. Now remember, my father’s testimony, which he is no longer around to refute, was that he asked Hurley to make a few comments at the upcoming funeral. As far as I know, he had no intention of Hurley doing any more preaching, other than a comment or two.

Nonetheless, at the funeral I noticed a lectern being rolled over in front of the coffin. In a short time Hurley Fitzwater stood behind that lectern and delivered a sermon that must have taken perhaps a half an hour. The title of the sermon was “There – – – The Sun Will Not Shine.” There was a pregnant pause between “There” and the rest of the sentence. But the pregnant pause produced nothing but bafflement.

Now I am not a bible scholar of any kind whatsoever but I had never heard a quotation from the bible alleging that there was no place that the sun did not shine. My instinct is to believe that Hurley made up this Biblical quote. Hurley spoke for a good amount of time in pure country speak. While I enjoyed Hurley’s use of country speak, the rest of my family and myself were entirely baffled as to what the sermon was about. It simply made no sense to any of us and now, forty-eight years later, as I reflect on that sermon, I can make no more sense of it today than I did in 1958. When my mother and brothers and sisters died, Hurley was not invited to their funerals. Poor old Hurley shot his wad with the sermon at my father’s funeral but I must tell you that I greatly enjoyed his use of country speak to deliver it.

Well, there you have just a few examples of country speak. It is important to separate country speak from ancient English such as “thine,” or “art.” Country speak is an entirely different language from ancient English and it should be recognized as such. It could be said that when my ears hear a good example of country speak, I reckon I suffer a strong lick to my soul. So be it.

April 23, 2006


Tom actually wrote a response to another essay on country speak, several years later.
See also, for the curious, Military Speak and Black Speak, also from 2012.

In other news the internet seems to validate Pop’s usage of “give it a lick and a promise,” a phrase I’d never heard before. I’m not sure I could pull off using it around the office, but I’m curious if anyone would understand it if I did. It seems to me that it’d make most sense in the context of a repair job or something — say you were supposed to fix the engine but ran out of time, maybe you’d give it a swift kick and hope for the best.


This essay is a love story in the Irish tradition. It has nothing to do with horny politicians trying to seduce an intern nor does it have to do with an amorous preacher trying to embed a soprano from the church choir. It has to do with the Irish use of the English language, the language of Ireland’s despised and hated oppressor. The only plus to come out of 800 years of occupation by the British is that the Irish learned to use the English language.

And this essay also has to do with Irish earworms. Earworms are not a disease of any kind. They are simply pieces of song or literature that stick in your head and can not be shaken. My wife has earworms all the time. My mother had an earworm for 75 years over the hymn, “Amazing Grace.” She sang it or hummed it every day of her adult life. My earworms have to do with Irish literature, songs and poems. Before I grow much older, it seemed appropriate to write a modest essay about Irish earworms that celebrate and commemorate pieces of Irish works written in the English language.

According to my great and good friends Ella and Sven Lernervall, whose native language is Swedish and who speak flawless English, the English language is a rich one. I suspect I agree with their conclusion and would like to point out that the Irish have made a major contribution toward making the English language much richer. With that thought in mind, there are four pieces of Irish prose and poetry that I would like to offer to make my point.

Before that point is made, it should be noted that my formal schooling in the Clayton, Missouri public school system did not encourage much use of abstract languages like the Irish use of the English language. For example, at the time in the mid 1930s, English customs were considered the ultimate achievement by civilized people, particularly here in the United States. England had ocean liners such as the Queen Mary which dominated Atlantic travel. English manners were often copied in the mannerisms of my fellow citizens. In my eighth grade class there was a teacher known as Miss Maxwell, who was an Anglophile of immense proportions. Miss Maxwell had some immense proportions of her own. She was what the Sears Roebuck catalog would have called a very stout woman. And on top of that she wore button-up shoes, which I thought went out of style during the First World War. But nonetheless, Miss Maxwell had control of the eighth grade in the Maryland School of the Clayton public school system. Periodically, that is to say twice a week, Miss Maxwell would read English poetry to us that was full of nymphs and fairies, castles, knights, and the like. It was clear that the boys in her class hated for Miss Maxwell to take out her book on English poetry. I was probably the foremost among those who hated to see Miss Maxwell reach for that book. After leaving Miss Maxwell in the eighth grade, I crossed the street to the high school where I ran into the English teacher, Blandford Jennings. Blandford Jennings did not read poetry to us but rather he constructed plays to be put on by students that featured fairies and nymphs and castles and knights and all that sort of thing. So you see, when I left Clayton High School in 1940, I had a pretty jaundiced view of English literature.

So, I set out to educate myself. I read almost every thing I could lay my hands on, including a German language newspaper that appeared in the prison camp during World War II where I was held for a short time. It did not help that when I asked a guard for assistance in trying to read the newspaper, he turned out to be a Rumanian who spoke no German and could not read the German language at all. My reading took me to the poems of William Service and later to many books and articles by Henry Mencken. Among the Irish authors, I read the works of William Butler Yeats and Connor Cruise O’Brien. In the final analysis, I concluded that the Irish could handle the English language at least as well as the English or, in many cases, much better.

You will recall that for 800 years, England had its heel, its instep, and its steel-plated shoe sole planted firmly on the neck of the Irish nation. Irishmen could not own property, were denied the use of Gaelic, their native tongue, and were often deprived of their Catholic heritage. The English enforced their rules with cruel abandon, including hangings and shootings. Out of all of this unpleasantness, most Irishmen today will tell you that the only benefit they gained from the occupation was that the Irish learned to use the English language, which is the lingua franca of the whole world these days.

And so, here are the four pieces of Irish literature and poetry which tend to demonstrate the Irish use of the English language. The first is an excerpt from a Time Magazine book review of Brendan Behan’s “The Borstal Boy.” The borstals were an English invention, which were intended to house youngsters in their early teens as opposed to sending them to ordinary prisons. While Brendan Behan was in the borstal system, he tried to read books and, on many occasions, he would permit himself to read only a certain number of pages each night so that he would have more to read the following nights. This review appeared every year for many years in the March 17th issue of Time in celebration of Saint Patrick’s Day. Time has now stopped publishing this piece of literature but it was lovely for the many years that they used it.

The review goes like this:

“The English language brings out the best in the Irish. They court it like a beautiful woman. They make it bray with donkey laughter. They hurl it at the sky like a paintpot full of rainbows, and then make it chant a dirge for man’s fate and man’s follies that is as mournful as misty spring rain crying over the fallow earth. Rarely has a people paid the lavish compliment and taken the subtle revenge of turning its oppressor’s speech into sorcery.”

“Among recent Irish sorcerers with the gift of golden gab, Brendan Behan ranks high.” ….

From TIME, The Weekly Newsmagazine
T. E. Kalem, Senior Writer
in a review of Borstal Boy

“Turning its oppressor’s speech into sorcery” is an elegant piece of Irish earworm. That sorcery has stayed with me for a number of years.

When Irish friends take their leave of each other, they often share a drink, a handshake, and perhaps a hug. This ceremony is called
“The Parting Glass.” Here are a few lines from a traditional Irish song having to do with parting. A traditional song means that no one now knows who wrote the music or composed the words.

The Parting Glass

Of all the money that ere I had, I spent it in good company.
And of all the harm that ere I’ve done, alas was done to none but me.
And all I’ve done for want of wit, to memory now I can’t recall.
So fill to me the parting glass. Goodnight and joy be with you all.
words and music Traditional

“And all I’ve done for want of wit, to memory now I can’t recall.” This is another piece of elegant Irish thought. There is no better way to say that some ideas are beyond ones intelligence.
Here now is another song about parting. It is known as “The Journey’s End” or “The Parting Song.” The music and words were written by an Irish author J. B. Goodenough.


The fire is out, the moon is down
The parting glass is dry and done
And I must go and leave this town
Before the rising of the sun
And long’s the road and far’s the mile
Before I rest my soul again
With girls that weep and girls that smile
at all the words and ways of men
For some there are, who may not bide
But wander to the journey’s end
Nor take a girl to be a bride
Nor keep a man to be a friend
And when I’m done with wandering
I’ll sit beside the road and weep
For all the songs I did not sing
And promises I did not keep

“And when I’m done with wandering, I’ll sit beside the road and weep,
For all the songs I did not sing, And promises I did not keep.” The thought about songs that were not sung and promises not kept has haunted me for many years. It is a beautiful piece of phraseology. No wonder that Earworms afflict me.

Now let us turn finally to an Irish blessing that has served our people for more than a century. The text reads this way:

Irish Blessing:
May the Road Rise to Meet You

May the road rise to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back,
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
The rains fall soft upon your fields and,
Until we meet again,
May your God hold you in the palm of His hand.

“May the road rise to meet you” is to Irish ears a wonderful thought. Does any other language offer a similar thought? I doubt it, which makes it one of my consistent earworms.

Here then are four Irish pieces, prose and poems, that contribute heavily to a love story with the language and to earworms. The fact that they are elegant expressions makes it clear that the Irish know how to use the English language, perhaps better than the English people do. Winston Churchill might take some exception to that thought but, all things being equal, it is my belief that the Irish learned their lesson well from eight hundred years of occupation and, indeed, their use of the language is magnificent. How can anyone forget “turning the oppressors speech into sorcery,” “For want of wit I can’t recall,” “Songs that have not been sung and promises that have not been kept,” and “May the road rise to meet you.” There is no wonder that Irish earworms stick in Irish ears forever.

February 14, 2006

Postscript: It seems to me that the difference between the Anglo-Saxon’s in England and the Celts in Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, is that the Celts are singers and the English are not. Perhaps this makes a difference in their use of the English language.


This is one of precious few essays that uses text coloration, and it happened after Pop went blind. I wonder why that is.

I also suspect that the double-dose of knights and fairies and castles is probably what turned Pop off fiction for life. It’s a shame that poor teaching can leave a mark just as indelible as good teaching, but in the wrong direction.

Letter to Kevin 6/15/05

Kevin –

Judy and I were delighted with your response to the letter and the essay about Mencken. I am not surprised by your mother withholding it from you. She may well have referred my letter to the FBI or to the Texas Holy Roller Diocese before she let you read it.

Basically, from the day of her conception, she has been a prominent juvenile delinquent. She jay walks, spits on sidewalks, cadges cigarettes and reads girlie magazines. In one of his regular appearances on Fox TV news, God himself told me to quit praying for her as it was out of his hands. God’s former wife told me that I would be turned into a pillar of salt if my prayers persisted. Tom Delay is the only person who could have any influence on your mother.

In your last sentence you suggest that sending more essays to Texas might be in order. I will be happy to do that. I have been writing essays for about eight years. I believe that 200 or more essays have been written here. Your tap dancing mother has most if not all of them. Judy and I will go through them and send you some.

As you read the essays, remember that unjust wars disgust me. Iraq for example. I am a liberal Democrat whose religious beliefs are in total non-belief. I have no sympathy whatsoever for the British royal family – or for anyone else’s kings, queens, princes, etc. Gay marriage is fine with me. Generally speaking, all the prohibitions of the Catholic Church are regarded here as the acme of stupidity. My writings mock politicians, preachers and do-gooders. I praise countries that sing, such as the Celts. The death penalty is abhorrent to me. I like baseball and consider NASCAR racing as obscene.

Now about your debating skills. Reading Mencken would be a good investment of your time. He was a sharp logician who laughed at the many of the laws that hampered this country. Prohibition of the sale or consumption of beer or whiskey was high on HLM’s lists of foolish laws.

I hope you can find books by Mencken in your library. I believe I have everything that he put between hard covers so we can be a resource for you. There is a new book dealing with the Bible that is excellent reading because it is logical. It is “Sins of Scripture, Exposing the Bible’s Texts of Hate…”. John Shelby Spong, who was the Episcopal Bishop of Newark wrote it. If you ever get into a debate about such things as homosexual acts, etc. it is the gold standard for setting the Biblical situation straight. The book was published in 2005 by Harpers in San Francisco. The subhead is “Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism.”

When we get the mailing together, we will talk some more. I am delighted by your interest in Henry Mencken who had a profound influence on my life.

Stay strong,
e-mailed 6-15-05


It is with reluctance that I publish my 15-year-old-self’s email that Pop is replying to here. Even though it makes me cringe, I take solace in the fact that Judy is probably the only person reading this, and she’s seen it already. For extra context, apparently my mother had waited three months to hand me one of Pop’s essays that was sent to me specifically.

I am truly, truly sorry that I could not have read your essay about HLM earlier, seeing as it was written on March second. It was mailed May 15. It was given to this particular churchwallop….10 minutes ago. Needless to say, I read both parts of the letter right away.
Addressing the first part: dad says that all I need in order to be the essential twin of Jesse Halloman is a handlebar mustache. I’ll work on that one. About religion: I have decided that there is in fact a God, but He really doesn’t give a damn about us. Nor did he create us. Nor did he do much of anything really; mom calls this the watchmaker approach. I have long since considered the bible a load of crock, and have yet to read it. “Religion is the archenemy of progress” made me think, and i’ve come to accept that it is absolutely right. I’ve heard that more people have been killed in the name of Jesus Christ than by both Stallin and Hitler combined. The essay itself was another work of brilliance, and it got me to wondering if our library has any books by Mencken–he seems to think like a debater, and arguments against a rigid state and or democracy would be a wonderful tool to have in my cases. I thank you for passing the torch, and introducing another generation to this author.
As for the two paragraphs from chain of command, it reminded me strikingly of good old jack shepherd–if you say you’re getting a milkshake, you’re getting one. Then I realized that i had just compared George W. Bush to someone as great as Jack, and was disgusted with myself.
I thank you for your letter and essay.

P.S. try grounding mom…forbid her to leave the house until she has given all mail directed to me, well, to me. I enjoy reading your essays, and hope you send more.

Upon reflection twelve years later, it strikes me that the “watchmaker” theory here is more of an issue of nomenclature than of theology. Everything is caused by something else (exempting, perhaps, extremely advanced physics on very small scales), so the “watchmaker” approach is tantamount to just saying “there was a big bang, so we’ll just say that “God” is whatever phenomenon that kicked that off.” I think that’s where I was coming from at the time when I “Decided that there is in fact a God” above.
Any deeper probing into the watchmaker theory makes it fall apart just as much as any typical explanation of God, namely that one is forced to wonder what created or came before God, which of course is a dead-end line of thinking. Looking at small-scale physical interactions of particles and extrapolating as far backwards into the big bang as we can with physics is probably a much better bet if you want to eventually find out what happened to cause all this.

It’s cute to see one of my first written essay responses, though. I’ve done over seven hundred now!


One Sunday morning recently, there was a series of reports about mosque bombings in Iraq. One sect would try to bomb out the other sect. John Warner, the senior senator from Virginia and the head of the Armed Forces Committee in the Senate, got things terribly confused. Warner, who is a mature man, confused sectarian with secular. They have opposite meanings, of course, but on two occasions Warner referred to the violence in Iraq as being secular rather than sectarian. Perhaps his marriage to Elizabeth Taylor impaired his mental capacities.

That put me to thinking about some of the people I had known during my career with AT&T, as a filling station attendant and as a soldier. Some of those people also had a tendency to screw things up when they pronounced a word.

In 1937, I finally found a job at age 15 with Carl Schroth, who managed a Mobil gas station at the corner of Clayton Road and North and South Roads in Clayton, Missouri. Carl was a veteran of the First World War and he invariably referred to himself as “yours truly.” Being new in the business world, it took me a while to figure out who yours truly was. It was simply old Carl Schroth.

Carl needed a truss or so he said. Rather than buy a truss, Carl put a plywood board down the front of his pants. In this filling station, we served some of the most exclusive residents of St. Louis County, who lived in large homes and drove expensive automobiles. They represented the cream of St. Louis society. Sometimes when Carl would go out to wait on a female customer, he would thunk his board in the front of his pants and would say to the female customer, “What do you think of that?” I suspect that the female customer did not think much of “yours truly’s” performance.

Carl was a good guy who wrote me an effusive letter when I enlisted in the US Army. There were several peculiar aspects about working for Carl Schroth. For example, he had a safe sunk in the floor under the desk in his office. After I went to work for Carl, I wondered why I had not been paid. It turned out that Carl’s employees were expected to go take money out of the safe in the floor and leave a note saying “Charlie Kosta took $12 today” or something of that sort. I never was a fan of that arrangement, but that was the way that Carl did business so it soon developed that when I needed some money, I would go withdraw it from the safe in the floor and leave a note there.

Carl Schroth also taught me about con jobs. Sometimes when I was scheduled for a day off, he would say, “Eddy, you’re too valuable a man to be walking the streets, so I want you to come to work tomorrow.” And I fell for it, at the start. So I got very few days off. Fact is – if you wanted to keep your job during the Depression – you went to work.

There is one other incident that has remained with me since probably 1938. Lake Forest is an exclusive community about a mile from Schroth’s filling station. It has very large homes and the people there drove Packards and Cadillacs, and had chauffeurs and maids. On one occasion on a very snowy night we were called to pull a large car out of a ditch in the Lake Forest subdivision. The driver had had perhaps a bit much to drink and had wandered off the road and had become stuck. When Carl told the driver of the car that it would cost him $12 or $15 to get pulled out on a Saturday night, the driver of the car agreed. When he was winched out of his position down in the ditch, he tried to stiff Carl. He said that he didn’t have $12 or $15 and that he would only give Carl $8 or $10. There were three of us there: Carl Schroth, Charlie Kosta, and myself. None of us believed that this gentleman was as broke as he claimed. When it was finally determined that this man wanted to cheat us, Carl simply reached into the car and released the emergency brake. Charlie Kosta was on one side of the car, Carl was on the other, and I was at the radiator in front of the car. Without a word being said, Carl and Charlie began to push the car right back into the same hole from which it had been pulled. When I discovered this was taking place, I joined in that effort. This is called restoring the status quo ante.

We got into our tow truck and drove off. The driver of the car had to find another tow truck operator late that night, which I doubt that he could have done. Presumably he went back to his host’s house and slept there, but that was no concern of ours. We had been stiffed and we had our revenge.

After I went to work for AT&T in St. Louis, there were two or three characters who made an impression on me, and not a very good impression. The first was George Knickerbocker who persisted in pronouncing every letter in the word “miscellaneous.” George pronounced that word as “mis – kell – aneous.” He is also the man who invented the term “pestimistic.” He simply inserted a “t” where none should have existed.

Close by was a fellow named Ken Greenleaf. Ken always pronounced the word “architect” as though the emphasis was on the first four letters. He pronounced that word as “ARCH – itect,” not as “ark-itect.” Ken also became angry one time and wrote a letter to “the editator” of the  St. Louis Post Dispatch.

Near George Knickerbocker’s desk sat a milquetoast named George Kern. Kern had very slim shoulders and a very slight build, but all during the 1930s and 40s, George Kern had been a member of the National Guard, working toward the 20 year retirement plan. The only thing imposing about George Kern was his mustache, which was sort of like that worn now by John Bolton, the Ambassador to the United Nations. It was full and bushy. George was a complete and absolute milquetoast if there ever was one. Yet all during his service with the National Guard, he had become a lieutenant or a captain or something like that. For AT&T, George was simply a low level clerk. At the end of World War II, George presented himself upon his return from military duty as a Brigadier General in the US Army. I suspect that if the Germans had known that George Kern was one of our Brigadier Generals, they would have died from laughter.

About a year after I went to work for AT&T, World War II came along and I enlisted in that effort. One of the fellows I met in Africa was named Merle Yocum. His wife’s name was Elmira. They were Iowa hog farmers. It always struck me that Iowa hog farmers ought to have proper names such as Merle and Elmira.

Elmira had a desire to keep Merle up to date so she sent him the newspapers from their local press. Military etiquette demanded that anyone receiving a newspaper should leave it in the latrine where it could be read by other soldiers. The Merle Yocum newspaper was read extensively, particularly when some of the hogs became, I believe the word is, “in foal,” which means that the hogs are going to have some little piglets. We followed the hog’s pregnancy with great anticipation, all thanks to Merle and Elmira Yocum. By the time we read the news, those piglets were out of the diaper stage, I suppose.

My last assignment overseas after coming out of combat was at an airbase in Accra, which is now the capitol of Ghana. It was a British base which the Americans used for their air transport command operations. Soldiers who worked at this base were like soldiers throughout the world. They tended to demean other soldiers by telling them that they were ugly and unattractive to females. There is no harm meant whatsoever; it just simply flows with being a soldier that other people are not to be praised.

Ordinarily when a soldier is told that he is ugly, he will respond by saying, “You’re not so pretty yourself,” or things of that nature. In one group of American soldiers, there was a man who had come to this country relatively recently. He was of Russian origin. I do not remember his name, but for purposes of this essay let us call him Ivan. Ivan did not understand the nuances of the English language, having only recently been introduced to it. There was one occasion when Ivan was told that he was ugly and instead of responding as the ordinary American soldier would do, he attempted to use an American expression that he had mangled, much as John Warner mangled the secular/sectarian reference. When Ivan was told that he was ugly, he replied, “You don’t like my face, piss on it.” This occurred while two men were on a workstand several feet above the ground working on an engine. They came fairly close to falling off from laughter after Ivan’s remark.

I had not thought of the incident involving Ivan for 60 years or so, but credit John Warner with bringing it back to mind.

Now we move to two individuals, one of whom was the meanest man I ever knew in the Bell System and the other was probably the dumbest person I have known in my life. Let’s take the meanest man first. The Bell System, when I was hired, was basically an organization of electrical engineers. They had the mistaken belief that electrical engineers could perform any function with great distinction. Consequently, they assigned engineers to run the personnel department, the public relations department, and so forth. My recollection is that perhaps some of the accountants were also engineers. They did not try to perform legal functions, which were reserved for lawyers.

The meanest man I ever knew was Henry Killingsworth. He was the executive in charge of the Long Lines Department where I worked. Long Lines had to do with interstate calling and international calling as well. Killingsworth was mean for the sake of being mean. He was a small man in stature. Perhaps that may have accounted for his meanness. There are two examples that I will cite for Henry Killingsworth.

At Christmas time it was the custom for the head of the Long Lines Department, a Vice President of AT&T, to write a letter to all employees wishing them happy holidays and expressing hope for the future. That was not Henry Killingsworth’s style. He used the Christmas letter one year to record the thought that “We have to take up the slack in the trace chains” from now on. This meant that everybody had to work harder and Henry Killingsworth reserved the right to pay them less. To write a letter at Christmas time saying that we had to take the slack out of the trace chains infuriated all of us. Taking the slack out of the trace chains refers to a plow being pulled by a team of mules or horses. We were working as hard as we could and Killingsworth’s letter simply brought to mind visions of a slave master whipping his employees.

Henry Killingsworth had a mean streak that was quite wide. On one occasion in St. Louis, two executives who had wood-paneled offices with secretaries, angered him. When we moved from St. Louis to Kansas City as part of a big reorganization, Henry Killingsworth saw to it that these two people, Bill Haywood and Chester Hotz, were punished. The secretaries and the wood-paneled offices disappeared. They were placed out in the bull pen at steel desks. Clearly their careers were over and they were men in their forties. Parenthetically, it should be noticed that both Haywood and Hotz died from heart trouble within 18 months after their demotions.

There was a gentleman in New York City who worked for Long Lines named Larry Pierce. Larry was a commander in the American Legion and each year he sold poppies on Memorial Day. Killingsworth required Larry Pierce to come to him every year to seek permission to sell the poppies. In any other case, Pierce would be told to go ahead and sell the poppies and don’t bother with coming to ask the big boss. But the big boss had to have Larry Pierce come in and plead with him.

During the time in question, there were nuns who sat at the top of the subway steps which were located within the Long Lines building. The nuns bothered absolutely no one. They simply had a basket into which contributions could be made and the most I ever heard them say was a murmured “Thank you.” The nuns were absolutely harmless.

On this occasion, when Larry Pierce went to see Killingsworth about selling his poppies for Memorial Day, Killingsworth heard Larry Pierce out and then said “Hell, no” to the idea of selling poppies. Then he added, “And while you are at it, get rid of those God damned nuns.” So you see, I believe I am right in stating that Killingsworth was an abominable person, given to bullying and destroying other people’s happiness.

Well, so much for Henry Killingsworth. Now we turn to another Vice President, named Ben Givens. Ben started as an assistant vice president and after a time in a reorganization he was upgraded to a full vice president. He served in what we called the “Washington office,” which was our official terminology for the AT&T lobbying effort. I worked for Ben Givens for three and a half years, and during that time Givens never gave me any instruction whatsoever. There were other vice presidents from New York who came to Washington to talk to me because of my previous labor work, who asked me to accomplish certain things, but Givens was not among them. In any event, Givens was given to malapropisms. For example, he always referred to rare items as “iters collectums.” During the time that I worked for Givens in Washington, there was a saloon known as Duke Zeibert’s, which was supported raucously by Redskin football fans. I once wandered in to Duke Zeibert’s to see what the excitement was all about and ordered a luncheon meal. It may have been among the worst I ever endured in Washington. Duke Zeibert’s was a saloon, no more no less, which appealed to Redskin fans who apparently knew absolutely nothing about cuisine.

In any case, when Ben Givens referred to that saloon, he made hash out of its name. He called it “Zoot Diebert’s” and some other combinations that brought to mind the idea of “iters collectum.” After I returned to New York, I had occasion to pass through the Washington office and went in to talk to Givens to pass the time of day. Givens’s wife had died about a year earlier and on this occasion he went over to the far wall of his office where a picture was mounted on the wall which measured perhaps two feet by three feet. Givens was also a golfer who seemed to believe that all of the people that we were lobbying in Washington were equally nuts about golf as he was. He played at the Congressional Country Club, which he viewed as the epitome of all golfing establishments in this country. Givens told me that on either the eighth or the ninth green at the Congressional Country Club, his recently departed wife would put in an appearance. He pointed to the picture on the wall and said that she appeared to him as an apparition of about that size. He said that they talked to each other about how he was doing and what was happening to the furnishings in the house and apparently the two must have enjoyed a very real conversation. My eyes were rolling while Givens related the story of his conversations with his departed wife. In the end Givens retired and, of all things, became a bishop in some sort of Protestant church. He lived to be ninety years old, at which time he died and so he and his wife can now enjoy their conversations in person rather than at the Congressional Country Club.

We will close this essay with a couple of stories involving reminiscences from the American Army. Not long after I had enlisted in the Army, I was sent to the Embry-Riddle School for Aeronautics in Miami. Because of the urgent need to train many of us as aerial engineers, we were assigned to both day and evening classes. During the day we would march around a little bit, and at about three thirty or four we would start our work as aerial engineers in training. Because we were working in the dark after the sun went down, we had to make accommodations for that fact. At that time of course every airplane was driven by propellers which were mounted in front of the airplane itself. To see if the engines were operating properly, it was necessary to start the engines and to “run them up” to see how their performance was doing. This posed a problem in safety which our instructors were always careful to point out to us. One instructor in my group told us that if we backed into a rotating propeller, it would make “hamburger meat” out of you. I had no intention of sticking my backside into a rotating propeller, but I thought that the hamburger meat was a tautology of considerable importance. And so for more than 60 years, I have always endured the thought that one should not square off with an airplane propeller because it would make hamburger meat out of you.

All of us survived the training on the night shift without being made into meatloaf.

Early in my career as a soldier, there were endless days of marching back and forth on a dusty field in Las Vegas, New Mexico – not Nevada. The field was dusty, the barracks were dusty and so was the mess hall. In any case, there was a person who had identified himself as a former member of the United States Army who was assigned to help train us in our marching. He instructed us on forward marching, on marching to the left and right, and on such things as oblique marching. Somewhere along the line, this drill instructor became confused and I spoke up in an effort to help him with his work. The drill instructor absolutely leveled me with his retort, which has stayed in my memory since the summer of 1942. The drill instructor said to me, “Soldier, you don’t get paid for thinking.” I am here to tell you that indeed soldiers do not get paid for thinking. They get paid to go do what they are told, and what they are told is usually some directive from a politician.

Colin Powell is perhaps among the prime examples of the “you don’t get paid for thinking” dogma. Colin Powell knew that the adventure into Iraq was absolute folly yet he kept his peace and did as he was told. Powell could have resigned in protest or he could have leaned all over Bush in an attempt to avert this disaster in Iraq. Yet, Powell went along and the most dramatic thing that he said was the story about the Pottery Barn rule that if you break it, it is yours. And so you see that my admiration for generals in the American Army is very limited.

Indeed and in fact, soldiers don’t get paid for thinking. They get paid for carrying out orders, including those that result in their deaths. I regret that these are the facts that cannot be changed.

A final note here. For the last 13 or 14 months of my overseas tour, I was serving in Accra in what used to be called the Gold Coast. The Gold Coast is now called Ghana. They ran off their British conquerors and they are now on their own. Most of the people in the section of Accra where I served spoke the Ga language. It seems to be a happy language. I learned only one phrase. It is “i-ee-ko.” It was years before I found out that “i-ee-ko” means well done. On the other hand, the Ghanians actually use it as a greeting. They would walk by our barracks where the natives were working and would shout “i-ee-ko” and the fellows who were working around the barracks would respond with the same remark.
“I-ee-ko” is a gentle reflection of the Ghanian people. I am sorry that I learned no more than that small phrase. But it served me well when three refugees from Ghana appeared in our local market. We all regard each other as friends and indeed Daniel Commodore, his English name, said that when I come around, he feels like his father is visiting. I regard Daniel’s remark as the highest compliment available.

Well, these are reminiscences from a long career and they were triggered by John Warner not knowing the difference between sectarian and secular. I enjoyed recalling some of these events because most of them were pleasant. The Killingsworth expressions were abominable, as he was. I suppose it is true that old men like to reminisce. It seems to me that that’s what memories are made of. So I enjoy recalling the incident about the Russian soldier who was told that he was ugly just as I enjoy recalling Merle and Elmira Yocum’s pig farm. These are not monumental thoughts of course, but they please me, which is, in this case, all that is necessary.

March 18, 2006


My favorite Killingsworth essay is here. I wonder if one of his decedents will find this site someday. If by some SEO miracle this happens, feel free to leave a comment!

Man, so many of the quotes referenced here come up or are more fully investigated in other essays, but short of appending a big list of related essays in the comments, there’s not a great way to easily navigate you around. I think that after all these are done, I’m really going to rethink site navigation as a whole to make it more useful.