Friday, October 16, 2009

The new watchword for Wal-Mart: strafe

“Wal-Mart Strafes Amazon in Book War” blares the page one headline in today’s Wall Street Journal. “Strafe” would have sent me running for cover, had I known its meaning. Instead it sent me scurrying to the dictionary.

As it turns out, strafe has a very specific—and rather lengthy—meaning. To quote American Heritage: “To attack (ground troops, for example) with a machine gun or cannon from a low-flying aircraft.” Like trench coat, strafe is a vestige of World War I. It’s from the German strafen, to punish, which is what Germany wanted to do to England at the time.

That war is over. Now it seems Wal-Mart and Amazon will engage in their own punishing campaign to see who can go lower on the price of a book. (Mainly it’s authors who will get punished.)

Strafe is what I call a one-syllable wonder: one of those economical words in our language that says in one sound what might otherwise take a sentence to explain. Add it to your arsenal of words that pack a powerful punch. And if someone threatens to strafe you, take cover.

Friday, October 2, 2009

At the Library of Congress, some words for the Capitol

Last week I went to the Library of Congress on business—although I don’t think it’s possible to be in the take-your-breath-away-beauty of the Jefferson Building of the Library and feel like it’s hard work.

I had never been to America’s library before, so I didn’t realize that the Library is literally across the street from the U.S. Capitol building. The two are now connected through an underground tunnel. They also share an icon in their lofty treatments of Minerva. Atop the Capitol building, she fulfills her role as goddess of might in war. Inside the Library, she assumes her equal role as goddess of wisdom.

But what really joins these two buildings are the books—not because of what they are but because of what they represent. This is, after all, the library that Thomas Jefferson established for members of Congress, even though it is open to all (that’s democracy for you).

Government grounded in words

As Librarian of Congress James Billington reminded guests at the reception for this year’s National Book Festival, our country, more than most, is built on a foundation of governance that’s grounded in the written word. How fitting, then, that everywhere you turn in the Jefferson Building, there is writing on the walls. They are the words of great thinkers through the centuries—Bacon, Virgil, Cicero, Milton, Shakespeare and a host of others.

The inscriptions carry an apostolic quality, as well they should. The Library of Congress is America’s secular cathedral. It represents not simply books but learning, and not only learning but knowledge, and not just knowledge but, when we as a nation play our heritage cards right, civil comportment.

“Words are also actions, and actions are a kind of words.”

The words are Emerson’s, and they are among the hundreds that capture this transcendent power of the possible.

More than the tunnel that connects them, more than the domes that define them, even more than Minerva, the immutable bond between Library and Congress rests with the words. In the most hopeful and uplifting of ways, the writing of American possibility is on the walls at the Library of Congress. Let's hope that members of Congress visit often.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Declare your independence today from dumbed-down words

Just about 233 years ago today, a small band of revolutionary thinkers agonized over whether to use inalienable or unalienable in the declaration of independence they were crafting.

Would the question even come up today?

Here we are, in this revolutionary age of click-and-learn, and still the notion lingers, like some moldy imperial decree, that Americans can’t be smart about their words, that they must be presented their news in terms that resonate with eighth-graders (okay, ninth-graders if you’re daring).

Americans of any mettle should chafe at such a condescending—and unnecessary—attitude. Why dumb down words when it’s so easy to look them up? Especially now that so many of us get at least some of our news online, where finding a definition takes just a few keystrokes.

Even readers of The New York Times have to look up the meaning of some of the newspaper’s terms. (“Sui generis” topped a recent list. Go ahead—see how long it takes you to look it up.) I declare that to be a good thing: it means we know we’re still capable of learning.

In fact, I’d say it was our inalienable right.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Who took the “ugh” out of “doughnut”?

June 5th is National Donut Day, so get thee to a Dunkin’ Donuts (where my husband will be) or a Krispy Kreme. But whatever happened to the “ugh” in “doughnut”?

The word itself is an Americanism. Washington Irving put “doughnut” on the linguistic map back in 1809. It was a lot easier to say and spell than its unappetizing synonym of “olykoeks” (literally, oil cakes).

We Americans have long had a thing about “u” words. “Dialogue” is now “dialog,” “honour” is “honor.” So it’s not surprising that we took the “ugh” out of “doughnut.” Besides, most of us would swap that “ugh” for “yum.”

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Obama’s Hurricane Recession

When President Obama began his message to Congress last week with details of his economic recovery plan, his words were startlingly familiar—at least to many Floridians.

“We will rebuild,” he said. “We will recover.”

That Obama-speak was also hurricane-speak. “Rebuild” and “recover” are the watchwords of devastation. Those are the phrases that people in Florida (and no doubt in other hurricane-prone parts of the country) hear after each storm blows through, blows down the power lines, blows away the roofs.

It seems a fitting parallel. As with hurricanes, so with recessions: both expose a weak infrastructure.

If there’s a silver lining to this dark cloud, it’s that eventually, we do rebuild and do recover from the hurricanes. Let’s hope the recession follows the same path.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

If Lincoln had blogged on Inauguration Day…

…he would not have found Obama’s language overly familiar. For despite what some were expecting, President Barack Obama’s inaugural address was not an echo of Lincolnian cadences. But what Lincoln would have recognized in Obama was a shared mastery in turning words into deeds.

Once upon a time that seems not to matter now, these barely-known candidates from Illinois were dismissed as being no more than adroit wordsmiths. But both have shown that carefully considered words can yield hoped-for actions. The right words, in the right hands, become instruments of power.

Had Lincoln blogged, he might have commented on the transformative power of Barack Obama’s inaugural words. Almost instantly, they put into motion a national mindset of we, the people, together, we can.

In Obama’s good words rest good deeds poised to be done—the kinds of actions that elicit in Americans what Lincoln might have called “the better angels of our nature.”

Granted, it’s just a beginning. But what a way to begin anew.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

I’ll have whatever Calista Flockhart is having

Am I the only person who had never heard the term “brain sex” until Kitty (Calista Flockhart) said it to her husband, Robert (Rob Lowe) on TV’s “Brothers and Sisters”?

If I understood her correctly, it means the kind of verbal sparring that occurs when two people speak to one another on a subject they care about in animated, intelligent, lucid, lively, bright, colorful and descriptive sentences.

We word lovers have long known that words matter. Now there’s one more reason why being smart about your words can make you happy.