the well of idioms may be about to run dry

I’m afraid I may have upset the apple cart with yesterday’s scandalously wasteful overuse of idioms. (I mean, I packed in the idioms like sardines, all higgledy-piggledy as if they grew on trees.) Because as some of you know, this country is suffering from the ravages of an idiom crisis:

Idiom Shortage Leaves Nation All Sewed Up In Horse Pies

WASHINGTON—A crippling idiom shortage that has left millions of Americans struggling to express themselves spread like tugboat hens throughout the U.S. mainland Tuesday in an unparalleled lingual crisis that now has the entire country six winks short of an icicle.

To do my part to conserve, I’ll resolve to work on recycling old careworn and threadbare clichés, and coining my own beet-juggling idioms. For more details, please tumble your aardvark over to the full story at The Onion.

Don’t they know what’s going to happen?

The news has come out that scientists will soon be combining animal and human DNA. This Washington Post article gives a rundown:

Britain to Allow Creation of Hybrid Embryos

Capping a months-long scientific and ethics review, British regulators said yesterday that they are prepared to allow the creation of embryos that are part human and part animal for use in medical experiments.

We all know how this is going to play out. Scientists will create these hybrids for good, but then they’ll turn evil. It’s only a matter of time before we start hearing about crazed half-cow, half-humans going on murderous flesh-eating rampages, or plotting the destruction of human civilization. Just look at the background research:

Movies where scientists conduct experiments involving blending humans with animals, which go horribly wrong

  1. The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977) and (1996), Island of Lost Souls (1933), based on the H. G. Wells book. A scientist creates hybrids with humans and various animals. Who turn evil!
  2. Dr. Renault’s Secret (1942)
    A scientist turns an ape into a man. But then he turns evil!
  3. Ssssss (1973)
    A movie involving turning people into snakes. Who turn evil!
  4. The Fly (1958) and (1986)
    A scientist accidently blends himself with a fly. Then turns evil!
  5. fly_labcoat2.jpg

  6. Creature Unknown (2003)
    A scientist makes a lizard/human hybrid. That turns evil!
  7. Hammerhead: Shark Frenzy (2005)

    When he began fusing human and shark DNA, his colleagues laughed at him. Now his creation is taking his revenge, and they aren’t laughing anymore.

  8. Tank Girl (1995)
    This movie features the Rippers: human-kangaroo hybrids. Created by scientists as fighting machines, they…turn good! And fight the bad guys. So, if we’re lucky, the British scientists will work mostly with kangaroo DNA.


resistance is futile

For some reason today, an old slogan for Lay’s potato chips popped into my head: “no one can eat just one.” And for some other reason, I thought it could so easily be paraphrased to have a somewhat different meaning:

No one is permitted to eat only one.

I imagine a totalitarian society, where potato chip-eating quotas are strictly enforced. And why just potato chips? Why not have a nation-state that dictates other product use, and daily life in general? Advertising slogans abound that need only the gentlest nudge to conjure up such a society:

  • Do you have your required dairy products?
    “Got milk?”
  • Orange Juice is now mandatory at meals other than breakfast.
    “It’s not just for breakfast anymore.”
  • It is strictly forbidden that anything should surmount these batteries
    “You can’t top the copper top”, Duracell Batteries
  • Enjoyment is compulsory
    “We’re gonna make you smile”, SeaWorld
    “Don’t get mad! Get Glad!” Glad
  • Viewing is obligatory.
    “Must See TV”, NBC
  • All youths over the age of 10 are required to enroll
    “Join the Pepsi generation”
  • Establish your approved identity by drinking an officially sanctioned beverage
    “Be a Pepper. Drink Dr Pepper”, Dr Pepper
  • Only certifiably genuine and approved products may be consumed
    “Can’t beat the real thing”, Coca-Cola
  • We will tell you what you need to have.
    “You Gotta Have It!”, Lisa Frank
  • We will tell you what you need to know.
    “You’ve got questions, we’ve got answers.” RadioShack
  • Rest assured: all your decisions are being made for you.
    “Your true choice.” AT&T
    “You’re in good hands.”, Allstate Insurance
  • Continued productivity is imperative.
    “Keep Going”, Energizer Batteries
  • There is no need to leave your community.
    “Your World. Delivered.” AT&T
  • Cooperation is rewarded.
    “Membership has its privileges”, American Express
  • Unmutual individuals will be broken.
    “You deserve a break today”, McDonald’s
  • If you are not with us, you are against us.
    “Stick together”, T-Mobile

And some of the slogans don’t really need any help to be Big Brotherly:

  • “You need us for everything you do”, The Weather Channel (We control everything.)
  • “Don’t leave home without it”, American Express (You must have your card with you at all times.)
  • “Wherever you go, our network follows”, Hutch in India (You can’t run.)
  • “VISA ; It’s everywhere you want to be”, Visa (You can’t hide.)
  • “We’ll leave the light on for you.” Motel 6 (The better to see what you are doing.)
  • “You Watch, We Listen”, British Satellite Broadcasting (Your neighbors are watching you, and we are listening.)penny_farthing.jpg
  • “The Listening Bank”, Midland Bank (I told you, we’re listening.)
  • “It’s the Internet that logs onto you” SBC, ca.Yahoo! DSL (We have access to your thoughts at all times.)
  • “The more you hear, the better we sound”, AT&T long distance (Our propaganda is very effective.)
  • big fears and small, hopeful faces

    There was a New York Times article I read a couple of weeks ago that has left me thinking. It describes the some of the education situation in Afghanistan, and the attack on schools by Taliban rebels, who have protested the education of girls. Recently, there have been incidents of attacks on the students themselves, including brutal shootings of young girls leaving schoolgrounds.

    The article was accompanied by a slideshow, containing beautiful photographs of some Afghan schools, and of the people affected by the attacks on the schools. We see the mourning family of a 13-year-old girl who was shot down and killed outside of her school, and students and teachers at work in tents being used as schoolrooms.

    One image in particular gripped me. It shows a classroom, a tent actually, where young girls are standing or sitting among rows of tables, holding textbooks. They wear black and white, and most wear white scarves over their hair. The girl at the center of the image is holding out her book, and looking up eagerly at an adult that is mostly out of frame, a teacher, most likely. The girl’s eyes glint brightly and her mouth curves in a small smile. Another girl’s scarf has fallen to her shoulders, and she looks off to the side, her attention apparently diverted from the book activity. Other faces look down at books, or up at the teacher. Some look confident, some look a bit more uncertain. Some look focused on their books, and some a bit distracted by other things going on in the room. I imagine that they are all a bit exicited to have the photographer in the classroom with them. All of their small beautiful faces look eager, engaged. They look, more than anything, just like children. In spite of the setting. In spite of their formal-looking style of dress. And most amazingly, in spite of the dangers they face.

    In their faces I see myself as a girl, and my own eagerness for learning. I see my daughter’s face, and the future that education will bring her. I see my sister’s face, my mother’s face, my friends’ faces, and the faces of all the women I know, who were once young girls, and who have benifitted from an education that we so easily take for granted.

    My heart sings for those young girls at the same time as I feel the grip of fear for their very lives. Their world is being expanded, their minds enriched, the possibilities of their future are multiplying.

    I am horrified that children are paying such a high price for their education. I’m appalled and deeply saddened. I can barely imagine the choices that these children and their parents must face.

    At the same time, the photo gives me some hope. The number of students attending schools, both boys and girls, is increasing in the years since the end of the Taliban’s government. Educators and parents in Afghanistan, and organizations around the world, are fighting to make schooling possible for these children.

    For more information on the education crisis in Afghanistan, and the emergency situation for Afghani children in general, see the UNICEF information pages for Afghanistan. There are also many other resources on the web, such as this publication of Human Rights Watch.

    and they were like, “yeah, whatever, it’s the quotative like”

    So here I was, sitting here with my laptop when I should’ve gone to bed. And having just finished a task of actual work, I continued to poke around on my laptop, looking around what other folks have written. And then (dude!), what catches my eye but a post on the quotative like.

    As you may know, I’m all over the quotative like. So I couldn’t help but to check it out. And what’s more, I learned that there’s even a recent New York Times Magazine column on the topic. And I was like, “Woohoo! Quotative like is hitting the mainstream!”

    The article’s a quick read, and generally fairly accepting of the quotative usage of like. However, I don’t entirely agree with the author’s categorization of the quotative like as a function word:

    O.K., the new like is hot and it’s useful, but is it legit? Aren’t some rules of grammar or usage being broken here?

    Linguists and lexicographers say no. It’s natural, they say, for words to take on new roles. In this case, a “content word” (one that means something) has become a “function word” (one that has a grammatical function but little actual meaning). Academics call the process “grammaticalization.” It’s one of the ways language changes.

    I would tend to categorize the quotative “like” as a content word, not a function word. But it’s a bit tricky. But it does make me ponder the origins of the usage. I wonder if it arose from the hedge-like interjection form of “like.” You know, the one that, like, people toss in that doesn’t, like, add a lot of meaning? I can imagine an origin based on a usage like (such as) “…and then he said, like, ‘no way.'” or “I thought, like, ‘his use of that discourse marker was infelicitous in that context.'” If my hunch is right, then this would be a case of a word becoming more contentful…

    throwing blame

    As I headed out from an appointment on Wednesday, I walked passed a recently delivered newspaper on the ground outside the office building. It was folded up inside a clear plastic bag. The following headline jumped out at me:

    ICE¹ sweep nets 5 local immigrants
    Officials say those who commit crimes deserve ticket out of town

    I bent over to get a better look, and to read the portion of the article² that was visible through the plastic. I was disturbed. The headline and the article seemed to suggest that immigrants are criminals.

    A closer reading of the article revealed that in fact the individuals who had been arrested were charged with various crimes, some of them more serious than others, and in addition were immigrants. (Well, actually, they were tracked down because they were immigrants who had committed these crimes.)

    At the same time, the article did contain various subtle and not-so-subtle suggestions that illegal immigrants are somehow menacing. Take this section about the reactions of a local police chief:

    “I don’t have a problem with them going around and trying to round up these illegal immigrants,” said [town] Police Chief […]. “Illegal immigration just can’t be tolerated.”

    With two convicted criminals from his town arrested, the chief said it’s high time the government start getting illegal aliens off the streets. The group has largely been overlooked in the past, “creating a problem on a couple of angles that people don’t want to look at,” he said.

    [Town] Police are seeing some crimes increase with illegal immigration, particularly unlicensed automobile operation charges.

    One overarching problem I have with the article is the way the discourse is framed. A careful reading of the article shows that the particular individuals arrested had been convicted of crimes. But let’s face it. Not everyone takes the time to read articles closely. It would be all too easy for a reader to be left with the impression that immigrants are more likely to commit crimes, and that illegal immigrants are particularly threatening. Consider this phrase, taken out of its context:

    crimes increase with illegal immigration.

    No discussion of the complexity of the issues and no contrary viewpoints were offered. The tone of the article is congratulatory towards the ICE. A casual reader would have the impression that the general public attitude towards this ICE sweep is of approval. That the issues are clearcut. Even that the arrest of these individuals is just the surface of the festering problem of “criminal aliens”.

    The article, as well as many ostensibly neutral reportings of issues relating to immigration in the media, reflects a subtle undercurrent of anti-immigrant sentiment. (And don’t even get me started on the venomous hardcore anti-immigration set.)

    This increased xenophobia quite honestly reminds me of other dark times in our world’s history. When things look dark, whether it’s because of plague or economic depression or threats of war, people look for someone to blame. When the issues are complex, it is hard to pinpoint the source of the problem. What it is easy to do is pick some group to shoulder the blame. Communists. Gypsies. Jews. Witches.

    Our country is at war. Gas prices and living expense are rising. Homelessness and unemployment rates are high. Many people are finding it hard to make ends meet. People want answers. People want solutions. But because these are not quick or easy to achieve, people want to blame. It’s so much easier to blame the other, because blaming those that are too close to us seems not to accomplish anything. Lately, immigrants, especially those that have violated current immigration laws, have been offered up and targeted for blame.

    The issue of immigration is one that I think about often, though I have not yet ventured to write on the topic. It’s been hard to work myself up it, even though I have many thoughts I’d like to write down. For the most part, though, I write about fairly lightweight topics on this blog. This is because I write primarily for my own amusement and for the potential entertainment of others. I like to write with humor, even when the topics touch on seriousness. But I just can’t find anything funny about the growing hate and intolerance evidenced in the discussion of immigration issues.


    ¹ US Immigration and Customs Enforcement

    ² Note: The online headline reads: Immigrants face deportation³

    ³ Note (added later): I forgot to mention that I stopped to buy my own copy of the paper on my way home, so that I could read the article more closely. Which is how I noticed the two different headlines.

    the case of the 54 million dollar pants

    This is a tale of a man who loved and lost. He had pants. He loved them. He cared for them. Then in a brutal act of dry cleaning, he lost his beloved pants. “Vengence will be mine!” he cried to the heavens. Setting himself up against the drycleaners who had so wronged him, he decided to sue the pants off them.

    But the cruel fates and crueler legal system failed him:

    A judge in the District of Columbia has dismissed a case against a dry cleaner who was sued for $54 million in damages over a pair of missing pants.

    Roy L. Pearson, an administrative law judge, originally sought $67 million from the Chung family, owners of Custom Cleaners. He claimed they lost a favorite pair of his suit trousers and later tried to give him a pair that were not his.

    Man, he must really have loved those pants.

    When the drycleaners tried to pull up some other man’s pants, and pass those phony pants off as his own, he was not swayed. When they tried to offer him payment for replacement pants, he was not mollified.

    Over the course of the litigation, the Chungs said they made three settlement offers — $3,000, then $4,600, then $12,000 — all rejected.

    He demanded satisfaction. The satisfaction that the drycleaners so boldly guaranteed on their front sign. He refused to drop his pants suit.

    What price freedom? What price pants?

    Thanks for sharing this, jenny. You have become a remarkable source of pants. And thanks, John, for sending me this other article.

    Al Gore rocks.

    Al Gore made a guest appearance on the Daily Show this week to talk about his book, The Assault on Reason. (I didn’t get to see it when it was on TV, as we suffer from a cable deficiency, and don’t get Comedy Central.) You can see a pretty complete transcript of the interview here, but the clip is worth watching:

    Gore has some interesting things to say about the media, and also about The Daily Show¹:

    Actually, if you want to get through a lot the nonsense, and get to the heart of the most important news of the day is, this is one of the places to go to get the straight story. And it’s ironic.

    He also goes on to make an analogy to court jesters of the Middle Ages, who were in a unique position to criticize the court through jokes. And he uses the term highfalutin, which I just don’t get to hear often enough.²

    One point that comes up (by both Gore and Stewart, who also rocks) is that the internet is a means by which the money-driven zombie-producing powers of TV news can be counteracted. Gore says of the internet:

    It is the single greatest source of hope that we will be able to fix what ails the conversation of democracy.³

    So, here’s to the conversation.

    And here’s to Al. (Ah, how different the world might have been…)⁴


    ¹ Please note that Jon Stewart did not hound Gore with questions about the horserace.

    ² And by the way, the spelling of this etymologically mysterious word seems to be not terribly conventionalized. We also get high-fallutin’, hifalutin and high faluting, to name some of the possibilities.

    ³ Please also note that the first 3 comments on this YouTube post are apparently written by 12-year-olds. Which demonstrates some of the flaws of the internet as a medium for serious discourse.

    ⁴ I like to use footnotes in my posts. Footnotes are cool.

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    the skies are falling (in our estimation)

    John just sent me a link to an article entitled “US Airways Says Thousands Still Stuck:”

    PHILADELPHIA (AP) – Thousands of weary travelers faced a third day waiting to reach their destinations Sunday as US Airways struggled to recover from the ice and snow storm that paralyzed airports in the Northeast.

    The airline was still trying to find seats for 100,000 passengers systemwide whose flights were grounded by Friday’s storm, spokesman Andrew Christie said. Many of the passengers were diverted to US Airways’ hub in Charlotte, N.C., on Friday.

    Holy crap. 3 days of waiting. And all this happened 2 days after we got home. So close. Here I was feeling put out about standing in line at the check-in counter for an hour and a half. (Admittedly, the weather was perfect so no flights were actually cancelled and I was wearing a remarkably patient but nevertheless wriggly, and eventually hungry, 23-pound 1-year-old that whole time we stood in line, as we got more and more worried about missing our flight because nobody was giving any information, only to be bumped to another airline, leading us to be flagged for the extra security near-stripdown search, and not getting seats together because we were added to the flight last minute, and then once we did get on the plane, having to beg, plea and avoid fisticuffs with an ornery passenger who didn’t want to change seats so we could use the carseat for Phoebe since we’d paid for 3 seats while the whole plane waited…)

    I do feel sincerely sorry for those poor US Airways employees who were working the ticket counters. Dealing with all those people. Thousands of irritated people. For days. Ugh. I swear, I hope those employees have some vacation time coming. And I hope that if they need to fly somewhere, that they get there. Perhaps by means of another airline.

    And another funny thing. I just saw this NYT article this morning about airlines writing apology letters. I guess somebody has their work cut out for them.

    One last thing. In defense of US Airways. We did actually get home by way of our original reservations with them. Their computer system was actually working on Wednesday, at least at the time we checked in. Also, they actually are comparatively family friendly, assuming you can get on your flight. They had preboarding for families with small children, which I guess has largely been done away with on other airlines. And they had a changing table in the lavatory. Plus the crew members and some of the other employees we encountered were courteous. See? I can say something nice about them. So maybe I should rethink their slogan from the “Shut up and fly” I’d suggested before. Here are some possibilities:

  • “We do some things right.”
  • “Our flights are worth the wait.”
  • “We’re trying. Give us a break.”
  • “Hey, at least we’re not Jet Blue.