Another Word That Ends Things

In the preceding post, I discussed a word that famously stopped everything else in the news cycle for a few days and then mused about how people manage when they overuse such magical words until they have no further powers left in them. Yesterday, I heard of another word that brings abruptly dire consequences: Literally. No, I mean it. This one word can get you kicked out of a bar in New York (at least until it finally, truly gets demolished soonly). In some ways, this is no surprise, since much has been written about the abuse of this one word (such as in Forbes, The Guardian, and The Boston Globe, to name a few venues). Somehow, however, it escaped Lake Superior University’s Annual List of Words to Banish (We’ll miss you “covfefe”–it was fun while it lasted).

Everyone has their line in the sand. At one point early in my professional life, I had such a special ire for “FYI” that I crossed it out whenever it appeared in front of me. For my husband, it’s any time a server says “Absolutely” or “No Problem.” Under his breath, he’ll mutter “It better NOT be a problem. It’s your job, pal. And ‘Absolutely’…that belongs in some swank bistro where they charge twenty bucks just for saying it. In case you forgot, this here is Pizza Hut!” Or put another way, “Right away, Sir” will do.


Vulnerable Transgender Fetuses

Aside from being a great name for a grunge band, the title of this post contains three of the seven “forbidden words” recently communicated to the Centers for Disease Control by their leaders at the Department of Health and Human Services. The rest are: diversity, entitlement, evidence-based, and science-based. I don’t know about you, but I like my public health interventions to be science-based. They tend to work better that way.

Some pundits mentioned the book “1984” as being especially resonant in this case on the subject of societies where words are forcibly expunged in order to manipulate perceptions of reality and control people. There is a whole world of dystopian science fiction built on the same concept. To be less bleak, one can think of George Carlin’s infamous “Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television” sketch and reflect that all of them are said regularly now on cable and the internet, if not (a least one or two) on broadcast television itself. There must be something about that number seven. Perhaps it’s like the number three, so important to oral history and legend as a mnemonic device (3 pigs, 3 bears, etc.).

Actually, I think more of just one word, “Enciente,” the word used to refer to Lucille Ball’s pregnancy during the run of her popular sitcom in the 1950’s. The networks at that time forbade use of the proper English terminology for the condition but they couldn’t get around the fact that the actress was going to have a baby. They had worked so hard to assure that the on-screen couple stayed in their proper twin beds in enveloping pajamas only to have the illusion that they were affectionate but not sexually active be blown apart by the inconvenient truth. They couldn’t erase the reality of a fetus’ existence by choosing to sound French (’cause…everything sounds better in French?…Sacre merde) anymore than the U.S. government can by wiping out the term by which it is called.

Over and over, commentary (e.g. this piece for a Canadian news agency) on the seven words banished from the CDC over the last few days has highlighted the point that what words we use (or refuse to use) signals to our employees, our constituents, our policymakers, and the rest of the world what we consider important and worth doing. In the case of ‘science’ and ‘evidence with regard to ‘health’, leaving these two out of our discourse says to a world that is watching for our example (and those looking for our weaknesses) that what has long been known as the soundest approach to protecting and strengthening the well-being of our population is no longer our priority. Pretending this approach is no longer useful or important doesn’t make it so.  If nothing else, this episode has been an excellent lesson in the uses and abuses of official language.



Homage to Dotage

A recent article reporting the results of a survey for one word that summarizes our current president also noted that North Korea’s leader (or at least the translator who brought his words to us) managed to find a word that has fallen out of use in American English but quickly captivated its audience: Dotard. The same newspaper helpfully suggested several other lesser known insults to deploy in reply. This reminded me of  the “Shakespearean Insults” widget I once had on a web homepage (in fact “dotard” was used by Shakespeare). Political cartoonists have also had some fun with the idea of a war of words that taps into the vast reservoir of underutilized ammunition. If I had any hope of remembering all these great words, I would surely assist in preserving them like antique seeds in a seed bank.

As for the original article, I was interested as a qualitative researcher in the results of this experiment and the way they were graphically summarized. The most common word selected was “Strong” but the percent of respondents who selected it was not especially high (9 percent), indicating a low level of agreement. However, when the words were grouped by their connotations, negative words (some barely publishable) clearly dominated. I found that for myself it was difficult to come up with a word to summarize all that I think and feel on this subject. This may be because I am inclined to be over-wordy or it might be that I don’t think very fast on my feet. Whatever the cause, I salute those who managed to find one single word to do the job.


A Spell of Trouble

When I spotted the headline in the local paper today, I did a double-take. I texted my distant spouse with a photo and he first replied, “I know.” And then, before I could write, “You DO?” He replied “Furry??” The paper had taken President Trump’s pronouncement that he would answer North Korea’s aggression with “fire and fury” and blown it up into a blaring headline that announced “Trump warns of ‘Fire and Furry‘”. As one of my co-workers pointed out, spellcheck would not have saved the day on that operation. There is no substitute for good, sound quality control (says the girl who left the “e” off of the word “note” in an email to clients yesterday, thus changing the spirit of the message).

I realize that the unmangled message from the president is very serious in nature but I can’t shake the image of a basket of puppies or kittens being handed out at a diplomatic meeting as an antidote to tense negotiations. Who knows? Maybe it would work.

Making History

As a life-long fan of history and archaeology, I have been saddened to hear of great treasures torn asunder by war in the Middle East.  Some lesser-known treasures have suffered obliteration closer to home. I think of my visit to Cahokia Mounds, the remains of an ancient city in the heart of the United States that was partly swallowed up by pavement.

It’s a time-honored tradition in a way, wiping out the memory of those who came before. You can see places on ancient monuments where later visitors worked to wipe out the names and images of others, whether it’s modern graffiti vandals etching over historical relics or Egyptian pharaohs knocking out the images of their predecessors. The value of history in teaching us about our nature and potential is part of what motivates those who destroy. They do not want us to share that knowledge and grow away from them.

Writers do their part in rescuing these vanishing scraps of heritage by documenting them in many ways. They can be the sources of both fiction and non-fiction material. Written works and pictures can draw attention to them and make the case for preservation.

I recently began participating in preservation itself by volunteering as an archival transcriptionist for my state archives.  My task is to take scanned documents and type their contents so that they can be searched by researchers. Among the benefits of doing this work is learning more about the language use of persons from another era, always a valuable body of knowledge for a writer. I also find that poring over words written in the past, often with pen strokes that preserve their gestures, is a moving experience.

While it’s true that my new sideline is yet another distraction (along with my art ventures) from actually writing my next book, I don’t see it as time wasted. I like to think that I am helping keep a few small pieces of our shared human story in hand.



A Picture’s Worth

Lately, the coffee shop crowd will greet me with, “How’s the book?” In fact, I have set aside my writing project for now to work on visual arts projects. Since some of my book covers have come from past art projects and working in another medium stimulates creativity in general, this does not feel like a bad trade. I have set up a new blog devoted to recovering old art projects and documenting new ones, as well as recording the results of my “haiku-a-day” project.

In reply to my admission, the writer among them grins and says knowingly, “Same with my book.” The implication is that I’ll never finish. With 18 books under my belt (some of which waited over a decade in an envelope in a closet to be published) I am neither worried nor hurried. My present book will get done when it and I are ready.

The Horrible Truth

Are you writing horror fiction? Before I renewed my acquaintance with Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, I would have thought that was a no-brainer even Abby Normal could answer: Of course not. You’ll find nary a zombie and no trace of a hockey-mask wearing fiend hanging randy teens by their heels with meat hooks and firing up his chainsaw in any of my work.

There’s more to the case than buckets of blood and entrails though. In Danse Macabre, King describes his first personal taste of horror as having been subjected to the then-terrifying announcement that the Soviets had beat the U.S. into space with Sputnik. On the Horror Writers Association site, horror is defined in a post on the basics of horror fiction as a sensation of intense dread and fear, a common definition found in many corners of the web. The post also includes several other definitions, including “that which cannot be made safe.” The author remarks fondly on the classic anthology Prime Evil, which ranges from the-corner-of-your-eye-maybe-you’re-crazy-who-knows to knee-deep-in-blood types of stories, an excellent survey of the breadth of the genre and its sub-genres. The post goes on to lament that horror as we currently define it has slipped far away from the subtle and become dominated by gore.The subtler writers have gone underground so to speak, eschewing the “horror” label for “supernatural” or “fantastic.”

Teresa Hopper at Forward Motion, however, informs us that even if you are merely trying to cause chills for (let alone scare the wits out of) readers, you are writing horror. Stephen King may be better known for splatter but he also gave us The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, which relies solely on mundane but very real fears familiar to anyone living on the edge of the Maine woods (especially two days after the remains of a long-sought elderly through-hiker were confirmed found in a lonely ravine just off the Appalachian Trail). I am reminded of the movie Poltergeist, which featured plenty of traditional scares but also played on the more ordinary adult fears of property loss and injury to family. Fear is fear.

So where does that leave Abby Normal’s original shoot-from-the-hip conclusion? Do I actually write horror? At least one of my works, a short anthology, consists of stories filled with ghosts and shape shifters. I now admit that I meant to at least “cause chills,” which is plain enough from the YouTube trailer with its creepy tune imploring at the end “Where are you? You Gotta get Me Outta Here!”

At the time I posted it, I added keywords like “ghosts” and described the genre as “supernatural.” I avoided “horror” because I was concerned readers would be disappointed by the lack of plasma. I forgot what my mother once said about the old horror movies we all enjoyed growing up: “You could almost see the strings on the bats but they still scared us.” I spent Halloween watching an old favorite, the Boris Karloff version of “The Mummy.” It chilled without spilling a drop of blood in front of us because it obeyed all the rules of horror at their most basic.

P.S. If, like me, you are beginning to feel less afraid of horror (ironically), here are a few prompts to get started.