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Category: Language

Live Free or Die
Are you tired of hearing word snobs crab about how everybody else misuses the English language? I know I am. Nothing chaps my hide more than a bunch of stuffy know-it-alls telling us how we should speak and write.

That’s what makes writing this so difficult. I tried not to, but the voices in my head would not leave me alone. If it’s any consolation, no one hates me for doing this more than I do.

That said, let’s get right to the main topic of conversation among my personal demons. Can we stop, please, using the phrase “to die for”? I’ll admit that there is a legitimate need to express our enjoyment (particularly of food), but this expression just doesn’t make sense. If you are willing to die for that extravagant helping of dessert, when are you supposed to do it? Before you eat? Wouldn’t that reduce your enjoyment somewhat? On the other hand, if you agree to die afterward, then you are faced with the ugly prospect of a death made worse by 1) the realization that the whole purpose of food is to sustain life, not end it, 2) remorse because the Chocolate Midnight Madness you just ate doesn’t seem as irresistible as it once did, and 3) guilt over crashing your diet. Plus, you’d be an uncomfortably full corpse.

Now, if you thought the Midnight Madness was good enough to kill for, then I could understand. As a method of food acquisition, that practice has a long history of success. I am not advocating it, mind you, but at least it would make sense.

Okay, that felt great. The demons are quiet now, but as long as I’m rolling, let me add another candidate for permanent ban: “it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread.” I don’t think the demons even care about this one; I am proposing its termination because I prefer to slice my own bread, if you don’t mind. Sometimes I like it thick, and at other times, thin. It’s all about freedom. Am I supposed to feel good about some machine dictating the dimensions of my toast? That kind of usurpation of choice is anathema to me, and if you’ve ever had anathema, you know what I mean.

Fortunately, I have found a suitable replacement for this moldy idiom. Why not “the greatest thing since sliced baloney”? It conveys the same ironic understatement but does nothing to undermine our fundamental Constitutional guarantees of control over our food. Insisting on one’s freedom to slice one’s own baloney, I maintain, would be stretching those freedoms too far. Like shouting “fire” in a crowded theater.

You see? I’m not a crabby know-it-all. I’m really only trying to help. I see the demons nodding in agreement. We all hope we have made your life a little better, and we thank you for reading this blog. Around here, we think it’s the best thing since sliced baloney.
A Toast to Harshmellows
When was the last time you heard someone seriously say, “Hey, man…you’re harshing my mellow.” It makes me smile to think of some tie-dyed dude drawling his complaint over having his serenity spoiled.

I calculate that the hippie in this reverie is now in his late 60s or 70s, and I’ll bet he’s long since stopped protesting his lost mellowness with that nice phrase. It is now an antiquated expression, after all, like “What’s buzzin’, cousin?” or “Ducky shincracker.” You don’t hear it anymore, and that’s sad because it leaves a hole in our slang vocabulary that cannot easily be filled.

You might suggest that “You’re bumming me out” or “You’re bringing me down” would suit, but those terms don’t have the poetic power of a mellow turned acrid. They communicate the same thought, but they are pedestrian phrases, and we should be looking for something with the same flair as the original.

“Don’t rain on my parade” might be offered as a substitute, or “Don’t burst my bubble,” but neither of these conveys the same sense of an organically-attained high laid waste. A parade, for example, is a product of planning and precise timing; its fun is fully orchestrated. A bubble may be a pretty thing, but its enjoyment is by nature fleeting and insubstantial. A good mellow, conversely, is a slow, natural groove — a feeling that might well persist indefinitely if not interrupted by some negative force.

“Pissing on my bonfire” is not quite right either. It implies malice on the part of the pissor, while the harshing of a mellow could simply be the product of clueless inadvertence. The same goes for “Breaking my crayons” or “Pooping on my cake.” The expression we are looking for is not about being mean; it’s about making someone feel crummy through simple thoughtlessness.

In short, there is no good alternative for harshing my mellow, though a few possibilities come to mind: Don’t choke my flow, diss my bliss, dim my bulb, eclipse my moon, soil my linen, despoil my wilderness, ignite my Hindenburg, interdict my shipment, or pack my parachute backwards.

You can see I’m having trouble with this, but let me try a few more: stunt my growth, empty my calories, fog my solar panels, lower my dividends, or overheat my antioxidants. Okay, that’s all I’ve got, but I welcome your suggestions for a replacement of this lost, lamented idiom. Please share your thoughts with this blog about any potential new version of “Harsh my mellow.”

No, this is not a contest. No, there will be no prizes awarded. No, your nominations will not be published. So stop with the questions, please. You’re precipitating a synesthesia in my aura, man.

Pick a Number
When I was about five, my older brother announced that 4 would be his lucky number. I remember this especially because that was the number I would have selected if I had thought to do so, and I was bitterly disappointed that 4 was no longer available. Once my brother made his declaration, I couldn’t very well take the same one. I settled for my second choice, 2.

In retrospect, I see that 2 was actually a pretty good selection itself. It finds resonance in the duality of the universe, it’s half curved and half straight, it tries harder, and it’s a Gemini, the coolest of all signs.

I imagine that right now you might be thinking that my concern about lucky numbers is pretty childish. I admit to that, but as I have matured, the importance to me of lucky numbers has faded. These days I am more concerned with identifying the best number.

The best number, you ask, cocking your eyebrow in suspicion. What is that supposed to mean? It’s interesting that you should ask that question, because it touches at the very core of this blog. Any search for the best number must, in my view, take a holistic approach. Does the number have an interesting backstory? Is it pleasing to the eye? What is its vibe? Does it play nicely with other numbers? Would you go on a cross-country trip with it? The more such questions can be asked about a number, the more reliable our conclusions will be.

If you are tempted right now to blurt out pi as your choice, I’m afraid that will not be allowed. It is certainly a good number, a significant number, but we are limiting this to whole numbers. Also, no imaginary numbers, negative numbers, or complex polynomials. Just good, old fashioned numbers, the way God counts them.

Let’s begin by eliminating from consideration all numbers over 100. Less is more, after all, and more is too much. We can also drop any number containing a 7. Too ugly. 66 and 99, conversely, are so sexually attractive that people tend not to take them seriously as integers. While I certainly don’t want to encourage the objectification of numbers, we cannot deny that these titillating numerals can be a distraction. And that can lead to mistakes in math, thereby undermining the most fundamental rationale for the existence of numbers — accurate counting. So we can’t really call them best; they’ll just have to settle for hottest.

Most of the other double-digit numbers can be bounced on account of their sheer ordinariness. 58, for example, would never be noticed at all if it didn’t look like a pot-bellied old fart in a homburg standing next to his young trophy wife. I won’t walk you through the rest; let’s just say these wouldn’t be numbers at all if they could have found work as letters.

I do want to move on to my candidate for best number, but I feel that we should pause to make special mention of 3. Many of you, I’ll wager, would put 3 in the top spot. There is no doubting the ubiquity of 3 in our culture: 3 little pigs, 3 wise men, the tri-county area, and about 3 million other examples of things coming in threes. Yet, I must say what is true: 3 is, in almost every way, derivative of 2: two humps instead of one, a similar list of things coming in twos, and so on. Like Pat Boone’s cover of Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti,” it is a very, very pale imitation. And yet 2 is not the best, either.

No, that honor must fall to…10. That’s right, 10. Try saying it out loud, with gusto. “10!” Doesn’t it sound like you’ve just won something? That’s because 10 is the highest score — a perfect 10! It is the ultimate, the most, the best.

Still, I am sensing skepticism. Consider this, then: 10 marks the first appearance in the grand parade of numbers of 0 (the 0 before 1 being a silent 0) — and 0 is the most beautiful, most mysterious, and holiest and of all numbers. 10 is the first double-digit number (which is sort of like reaching puberty for numbers). 10 is the basis of the decimal system itself. There are ten commandments — and those, we know, were decreed by God.

10, moreover, makes no claims as to its own luckiness. Such claims are left to prepubescent numbers who might doubt their own worth. 10 knows who it is and how to take care of itself. 10 is the team captain, the MVP, and a proven winner. Not only can it make its own way, it can make its own luck.
Up is What?
I took a break last week after publishing my hundredth EaganBlog. I wanted to reflect on what I had done. Sadly, the prospect is not a pretty one.

When I took this job, I promised my readers that I would root out waste, fraud, and abuse in this space. Even though that was a solemn vow, when I look back at my work I find way, way, way, way too many modifiers. My word-to-idea ratio is dangerously out of balance, and this blog is running a huge linguistic deficit. To atone for these transgressions, I am instituting some cuts designed to end serial redundancy and also repeating myself over and over.

Fortunately, there is an easy way to do this: stop using “up.” Oh please, I hear you saying, how could it possibly help to eliminate just one word? Especially one that has only two letters?

Fair question, although I don’t particularly like your tone. Let me answer by pointing out just a few of the redundancies this word is party to. Take, for instance, “open up,” “serve up,” “stand up,” “clean up,” and “rise up.” Aren’t “open,” “serve,” “stand,” “clean,” and “rise” clear enough? Not only does the “up” get in the way, it adds two blanks spaces on either side of itself. Furthermore, it insults the reader by suggesting that he/she/it is so stupid that he/she/it needs an extra word to understand something that should already be crystal clear. Those “ups” are about as useful as a crutch to a three-legged man. Think about that, if you dare.

Part of the problem with “up” is its status as the most promiscuous of all words. It attaches itself to practically any loose noun, verb, or preposition, seemingly without shame. In today’s paper alone I saw two examples I’d never seen before: “loan up” and “strengthen up.” Sheesh. There must be thousands of other examples, some redundant, some not. As if that weren’t enough, it also doesn’t seem to care which part of speech it is. Do we call it a verb, noun, adverb, or preposition? — the answer is yes. I find this uncertainty troubling, even dangerous.

“Up” is like salt. It can add flavor to food, but too much and it could give you a kidney stone. Or a heart attack. Or cancer.

Okay, maybe that’s a bit strong. Let’s be fair. What I have called promiscuous might simply be “up’s” liberal, easy-going personality. “Up” is, perhaps, the most positive of all words; no wonder it’s so popular. Other words just naturally want to hang out with it. So why would I saddle this gentle, beloved word with the full weight of my program of austerity?

Well, why not? What easier place to trim verbiage than among the smallest and most vulnerable? I suppose that I could have chosen to cut all those polysyllabic adjectives, but that kind of pretentious gobbledygook will eventually be needed as the engine of this blog’s recovery. Adjectives, as you know, are job creators for other words. I dare not do anything that might threaten their capacity to stave off the crippling stagflation of dullness. I have my readers to think of.

I wish it could be otherwise, but sacrifices have to be made. Someone has to bite the bullet, even if they have no teeth. There will be some hardships, of course, and a loss of brevity, clarity, and coherence, but I am confident we will all come out of this stronger. With all those “ups” out of the way, the quality of this blog will have no place to go but, you know, topward.
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No "new normal" for me, this shit ain't normal.
~ MS, Truckee