Persnickety prose

Words have always held a strange fascination for me. Some words and phrases—persnickety, amok, and tump over, for example—are fun to say, but also paint specific, often humorous, pictures in the mind.

In the vernacular of my people, "That there bot done tumped over!"  Image from gfmarine.com.

In the vernacular of my people, “That there boat done tumped over!”
Image from gfmarine.com.

I remember when I was in grade school that one of my teachers wrote the phrase “tump over” on the blackboard, pointed to it and told us not to use it, to use “fell over” or “fall over” instead.

That may have been my first real exposure to reverse psychology because most of the kids used “tump over” for the rest of the day, more than they would have otherwise.

Or was that a dream?

Never mind. Some phrases and words have a distinct cadence to them that tie them to us as a people. Ask a Southerner 30 years old or older what “tump over” means and, after they stop laughing at the idea that someone doesn’t know, they’ll tell you … or more likely show you. Hope you didn’t wear something that’s hard to clean.

****

What happens here? Not nearly enough of import ... more like a bunch of 5-year-olds fighting over a toy (us). Image from Wikimedia Commons

What happens here? Not nearly enough of import … more like a bunch of 5-year-olds fighting over a toy (that’d be us). Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Clarence Wolfe of Searcy asks about use of the word “Congress” in news accounts. He’s noticed, as I have, the incorrect usage of the word as it relates to our own Congress in Washington: the use of “Congress” to refer to only the House of Representatives instead of to both houses.

A look at the etymology of the word from dictionary.com shows that the word has mostly resisted change through the centuries (just like some members of that body):

“c.1400, ‘body of attendants’; also ‘meeting of armed forces’ (mid-15c.); main modern sense of ‘coming together of people, a meeting’ is from 1520s; from Latin congressus ‘a friendly meeting; a hostile encounter,’ past participle of congredi ‘meet with, fight with,’ from com- ‘together’ (see com-) + gradi ‘to walk,’ from gradus ‘a step.’ Sense of ‘meeting of delegates’ is first recorded 1670s. Meaning ‘sexual union’ is from 1580s. Used in reference to the national legislative body of the American states since 1775 (though since 1765 in America as a name for proposed bodies).”

Once again, baboons are the butt of the joke.  Image of Hamadryas baboons from Wikimedia Commons.

Once again, baboons are the butt of the joke.
Image of Hamadryas baboons from Wikimedia Commons.

And no, a group of baboons is a troop, not a congress, despite what that chain email says. You can tell because the baboons are far more dignified.

As far as how it’s used in the paper, except in quotes, AP and our house style say Congress refers only to both houses of our bicameral legislative branch, the House and Senate, with elected delegates referred to as senators or representatives, and that’s the way it should be throughout the news sections. On the opinion pages, though, you’ll occasionally see the use of “congressman” referring to a member of the House of Representatives, which is an acquiescence to its usage in conversation.

That conversational usage probably is at least a little bit responsible for the current misuse of “Congress” as just the House, but is so fully ingrained now that it would likely be nearly impossible to reverse. We can, though, hold our ground against further erosion of the terminology.

This erosion shows that words and their usage can evolve over time, sometimes through misuse or mispronunciation. On the Voices page, though, I will continue to correct the “Congress” mistake when I find it.

 ... and ponies explode. So learn how to make a plural, people! Image from Grammar Police! Pinterest page.

… and ponies explode. So learn how to make a plural, people!
Image from Grammar Police! Pinterest page.

This is not to say that I’m a grammar snob … far from it.

Who versus whom doesn’t concern me unless it’s an obviously wrong usage. In most cases, it’s better to write around it, and usually sounds less stilted and more conversational. That’s what the Voices page is, a conversation, and that’s why I don’t correct every tiny grammar error I see; we’d lose that wonderful tone of a spirited chat with friends if that happened.

There are, though, misuses that will drive me nuts, as I’m sure there are for everyone. My detest for “ole” is apparently becoming a bit of a joke for some but, as I recently commented on a fellow blogger’s page, unless you’re talking about the Grand Ole Opry or some guy named Ole, there’s no reason to use anything but ol’, which indicates the elision of the “d” in “old.” Unless your intent is to drive me nuts.

The relatively recent spate of “verbing” nouns is also one that’s high on my annoyance list, and there are some, such as “author” and “transition,” which strike me as pretentious.

Yes, there are English teachers in my circle of family and friends, so I come by these distastes naturally. But yep, I’m also a bit weird.

****

President Barack Obama kisses author and poet Maya Angelou after awarding her the 2010 Medal of Freedom during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington on Feb. 15, 2011. Image by Charles Dharapak, AP.

President Barack Obama kisses author and poet Maya Angelou after awarding her the 2010 Medal of Freedom during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington on Feb. 15, 2011.
Image by Charles Dharapak, AP.

I would be remiss if, in a column about words, I didn’t acknowledge the death of a master of them. Author and poet Maya Angelou, formerly of Stamps, passed away a week ago, and her grace and good humor will be sorely missed.

While most people remember the soaring yet inspirational “On the Pulse of Morning,” which she read at Bill Clinton’s first presidential inauguration, her words from “When Great Trees Fall,” published in her fifth book of poetry, I Shall Not Be Moved, seem most appropriate now:

 

“And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.”

 

Her voice is silent now, but her words live on, and we’re better for her having existed.

****

If you get the print edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, you might notice this rather cranky letter:

No longer a republic

Nationally, from California to Texas, judges have overruled the will of the people by forcing states to accept homosexual marriages as somehow legitimate. Remember in 1996 President Bill Clinton signed into law the Defense of Marriage Act, which was passed by Congress with the overwhelming support of the American people, thus defining marriage as between one man and one woman.

Statewide Amendment 83 to the Arkansas Constitution was approved by voters in November 2004 and defined marriage as between one man and one woman. Despite nearly 75 percent of Arkansans polled still opposing same-sex marriage, according to a poll conducted by Talk Business Arkansas in January, one judge overrules the will of the people.

Since it seems the majority of Arkansans are against homosexual marriages, why is the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette so inundated with pro-homosexual letters? I believe the answer is obviously Brenda Looper, who ultimately approves what letters are inserted into the Voices section.

I have been a longtime subscriber to the paper. I enjoy reading the state news. However, I am, like I believe are many other Arkansans, now considering dropping the paper due to the unabashed bias for homosexual marriage despite the overwhelming opposition to it by a majority of Arkansans, myself included.

That we appear to no longer have a republic and are instead apparently ruled by activist judges is occurring. That I support a paper that apparently propagates the demise of our republic and the overruling of our people is becoming indefensible. Remove Looper or lose readers.

WILBURN ROWELL

White Hall

Kristin Seaton, left, and Jennifer Rambo, kiss while waiting for their marriage license Saturday at the Carroll County Courthouse in Eureka Springs. The Fort Smith couple were first in line and were later married outside the courthouse. Photo by Alexander Reyes, NWA Media.

Kristin Seaton, left, and Jennifer Rambo, kiss while waiting for their marriage license last month at the Carroll County Courthouse in Eureka Springs. The Fort Smith couple were first in line and were later married outside the courthouse. Photo by Alexander Reyes, NWA Media.

Wow. Again, I didn’t know I was so powerful. I’ve got to start using this power for chocolate and new vehicles.

But really, the surge of pro-same-sex marriage letters couldn’t possibly have anything to do with there having been a shift in attitudes (not only in the U.S. in general, but in Arkansas specifically), could it?

Nawwwww …

You mean this traditionally Democratic (though mostly moderate) state might not be solidly red as the GOP has been claiming? The hell you say!

First, let’s look at that Talk Business/Hendrix College poll, conducted Jan. 19 and which has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.3 percent, completed using IVR survey technology among 520 Arkansas likely voters statewide. Political Science Professor Jay Barth of Hendrix helped build and analyze the poll, and noted:

On the issue of same-sex partnership recognition, just at half of respondents oppose any legal recognition of gay couples’ relationships. Just under half do see a place for legal recognition either as civil unions/domestic partnerships (24%) or civil marriages (21.5%). Survey data across time has show that, while Americans as a whole are shifting views on marriage equality consistently and fairly swiftly, Arkansas is one of a handful of states where attitudes are changing decidedly more slowly.

I know what you’re thinking (yes, I’m reading your mind, you sick puppy): Where did ol’ Wilburn get that “nearly 75 percent”? By addition of the civil union/no marriage response with the no legal recognition response. Here was the specific question and the response percentages:

Which of the following policy positions most closely resembles your own view regarding relationships between two people of the same sex?

21.5% Gay couples should be allowed to legally marry
24% Gay couples should be allowed to form civil unions or domestic partnerships, but not legally marry
50% There should be no legal recognition of a gay couple’s relationship
4.5% Don’t know

Regular readers know my feelings about several research methods, including surveys, and how easy it is to use statistics to prove just about anything you want. While the questions seem well-constructed (a tribute to Barth, a man I greatly respect), I’m still reticent about applying the results to the population at large, especially considering that several other polls show more of a shift, especially among younger Arkansans. Public Policy Polling had this to say recently:

Arkansas reflects what we find in most southern states when it comes to attitudes about rights for same sex couplesvoters don’t support gay marriage but they do at least support legal rights in the form of civil unions. Only 27% of voters in the state support gay marriage to 63% who are opposed. You can see the wheels turning thoughwhile seniors oppose gay marriage 18/74, voters under 30 actually support it 53/32. When you broaden the discussion to civil unions 54% of voters support some form of legal recognition to only 41% opposed to any at all.

Now, about that 75 percent of Arkansans that people keep citing as having approved Amendment 83. Eh … not so much. That’s voting Arkansans, not all Arkansans.

In 2004, the population of Arkansas was 2,754,629 and, according to the Arkansas secretary of state’s office, 1,005,684 votes (excluding 3,552 over-votes and 44,163 under-votes) were recorded on Ballot Issue 3, which became Amendment 83. That means that 37.5 percent of Arkansans voted on that particular issue.  Of those, 753,770 people (27.4 percent of the population) voted for the amendment defining marriage as only between a man and a woman.

That’s right: Less than 28 percent of the state’s population decided that marriage can be only between a man and a woman. Not quite as impressive now, is it? Just more proof that words matter, especially when you’re trying to muddy an issue.

Pot, meet Kettle.  Image by John Deering.

Pot, meet Kettle.
Image by John Deering.

One more note: I did have to cut Wilburn’s “avowed leftist” remark from the original. Someone who says she’s slightly left of center can’t really be called a “leftist,” unless we broadly characterize all people left of the center, regardless of degree of liberal-ness, as “leftist,” which traditionally is extreme left, not the whole left.

Unless we want to start calling all people on the right “Tea Party fascists.”

Seriously, don’t do that. It only riles them up, and ain’t nobody got time for that.

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