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Category: Language

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.
Whenever I buy a new product, I feel proud of the English language. The instruction booklet usually contains multiple translations in different languages, and the English version is almost always the shortest. My native language takes the least time and space to communicate, and I count that as a good thing.

It is in that spirit of pride, then, that I write this. At least, that is how I hope others will take it — and not as the obsessive ravings of a control freak. Either way, I have a couple of suggestions about superfluous words that might be helpful to others (or in the alternative, annoy them).

Can we stop using the phrase “tuna fish”? Why not just tuna? There are no tuna land animals that might gum up our understanding, and no tuna birds to blur clarity. “Tuna” is sufficient; “tuna fish” can go fish.

I’d also like to stop hearing the phrases “focus in” (as in focus in on brevity) and “reduce down” (as in reduce down to a bare minimum of words). The “in” and the “down” are redundant (but not re-redundant).

And then, there is “unique.” I'm sure you already know this, but I just can't take the risk. Unique is a word that shuns modifiers because they are rarely necessary. If something is unique, it is one-of-a-kind. It can’t be extremely one-of-a-kind or really, really one-of-a-kind or incredibly one-of-a-kind. It’s unique, period. I suppose it could be truly unique (as distinguished from falsely unique) or even broadly unique (unique in a number of categories), but even those modifiers seem suspect. Unique is unique and nothing more.

There are more examples of superfluity out there, but I’m feeling better now. The fever has passed, at least for the moment. I’m simply trying to make a difference, to make the world a better place — one correction at a time. If, however, you have concluded that I am just another word nazi, I can only say that that is an ugly and hurtful term. You swinehund.
The "Thes"
Talk to an Angelino, and before long you’ll hear a reference to freeways. They are central to life, and especially travel, in Southern California. As it is with most metropolitan areas, the art of choosing the right route to your destination has become highly refined there. In Los Angeles, this savvy mostly involves choosing among a snarl of high-speed expressways.

What is also different in such discussions in L.A. is that freeways are given a special linguistic status. Interstate 5, for instance, is simply called “5” by the rest of California. South of the San Gabriel Mountains, however, you will hear it called the 5. You will also hear allusions to the 10, the 110, the 134, the 405, and even the 1. Not just the number of the highway is used, then, but the article “the” is also attached to it.

This practice has long troubled me. Perhaps the roots of my agitation can be traced to my slight revulsion at all things L.A. (go Giants), but I think the issue is bigger than that. In one sense, I have come to understand the impulse to tack on that article. It grants to freeways a standing as edifices separate and distinct from their surroundings. It is a prestige they clearly deserve. They connect to city streets as part of a larger transportation system, but they are clearly their own things — like the Golden Gate Bridge, the Eiffel Tower, or the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

Still, I am troubled. As I have said, the issue here is bigger than regional naming conventions and petty conflicts between cultures. This is about the language we speak and the triumph of reason over the forces of chaos.

So it is that I must reject the Angelino fashion of adding the to the titles of numbered freeways. Not because it’s an L.A. thing, but because of all the “thes”. There are too many of them. Not just on our freeways, but in our language. It is time we rid ourselves of them.

Thes serve no real purpose in our language. Oh, they may provide a little clarity now and then, but does Golden Gate Bridge really need one? Or Hanging Gardens of Babylon? Or World Champion San Francisco Giants? Their identity as nouns is secure with or without this archaic appendage. Dump them, I say.

The operation will not be painless, I know. There will need to be some exceptions, some nouns that will be out of focus without their linguistic crutches. But such variances should only be granted when they are genuinely needed.

I will continue, certainly, to refer to Los Angeles’ baseball team as Da Bums, if only for the sake of clarity.
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No "new normal" for me, this shit ain't normal.
~ MS, Truckee