Category Archives: Reading

Books, magazines, newspapers

Fancy schmancy

A reader contacted me this week to help water my dry spell and to seek my views on the question of pretentious writing.

She offered four examples of what she believes are showy words used by “stuffy” writers; some, she claims, are without meaning. The word samples she offered were penultimate, eponymous, jocund and diktat.

Of those, I knew two.

I saw a Facebook or Twitter post  recently that said, “Never use a long word when a shorter one will do,” a quote I believe is attributed to George Orwell.

It’s a good piece of advice, but I’m not sure I buy into it 100 percent.

Sure, I believe it’s always good to use simple language to get one’s point across. Often the fewer syllables the better. At the same time, I delight in learning new words—and using them. I was once told by an employer to quit using phrases the average Joe wouldn’t know right off the bat. I’m still a little grumpy about that.

My everyday stainless steel flatware, which I bought at Sears in 1984, still works just fine. But every now and then, I enjoy getting out the Reed & Barton silver. It’s as ornate and showy and unnecessary as any fancy language thrown about in The New Yorker. But it’s there and it’s beautiful. Why not use it?

My reader cited The New Yorker’s review of the movie Larry Crowne as she pondered the necessity of diktat, which I learned is a harsh penalty. The review said, “During Larry’s midlife crisis, the world is little more than an extended version of the cheerful diktat that disaster is merely opportunity in disguise.” I think that’s a stretch. Perhaps I misunderstand the definition. I’m going with the reader on this one.

Jocund is a nice word, though I’ve never used it. I might try it out, the next time I need to describe someone who is marked by lively mirthfulness. Come to think of it, I might prefer lively mirthfulness.

Eponymous, giving one’s name to a tribe or place, isn’t a word for which I’ve ever had a need. You?

Penultimate means next to last and I remember the day in college when I first learned it. I find it quite descriptive and know of no synonym. I’m keeping it.

However, I would vote penultimate most misused.

The note from the reader got me thinking about words people misuse when they’re being pretentious; I have a couple of examples. To these people, never use a short word when a longer one will do (even if you use it incorrectly).

I’ve heard people use penultimate as if it meant super-ultimate, or the very best. I once heard a person say, “They have the penultimate thick crust pizza.” That might be true, if there is one left in the oven.

A colleague once apologized to me for putting me in “an awkward juxtaposition.” 

I bet you have some funny examples of your own, or responses to my reader who wants to know, why all the fluff?

In the meantime, I come back to silverware. It’s okay to break out the fancy knives and forks for the right occasion, as long as you put them in the proper places on the table. And provided you’re not using them just to show off and make your guests feel uncomfortable.


Filed under All Things Wordish, Reading

Lil something for everyone

The other day I complained to you about a recent case of writer’s block. You reassured me with good advice.

Truth be told, I’ve also been suffering from acute reader’s block—provided that too isn’t a made-up disease of lazy people.

While I usually read more than ever in the summer, I’m still reading a book I started last December, while nibbling bits of other books and articles in between.

I’m three months behind on my Vanity Fair and two months behind on Esquire and, these days, it takes me longer than usual to get through The Washington Post in the morning—sometimes until well into the evening. Or the next morning, when I feel I must read it before starting that day’s paper.

I know this all seems strange; I know it’s strange for me. I’m still reading; I’m just reading a variety of things in no logical order. Habits change, I suppose.

All this said, a magazine has come into our house that recently captured my attention.

In April my husband received a birthday gift subscription to Garden & Gun. Perhaps you’ve seen it.

I know, Garden & Gun doesn’t sound like reading material suitable for a household of flaming libs. Well, maybe the gardening part. Our household is, however, composed of one native North Carolinian, one recently-returned North Carolina transplant and one whom my father calls the “Beltway Baby.”

The magazine’s full title is Garden & Gun: The Soul of the South and, obviously, covers all things Southern. This week I decided to crack open the last two issues—while I was in the middle of reading something else, no doubt.

I commend it to you. Rest assured; you won’t see Larry the Cable Guy or read anything that reveals, “You know you’re a redneck if…”

G&G a rather nice piece of publishing and superb writing on some interesting subjects.

Granted, you’ll be shown the anatomy of the perfect hush puppy and learn the characteristics of the ideal tomato and maybe learn something you didn’t already know about rhubarb.

You’ll also get to meet Nashville painter Emily Leonard; Merigold, Miss., pottery artist Lee McCarty; Athens, Ga., fabric designer Susan Hable; and Steve Huff, thought to be the Best Fishing Guide Alive.

If you pick up these latest issues, you’ll read about the so-called Memphis Mafia, learn the Rules of Yard Art and get a glimpse into Livestock of the Rich and Famous. This Beltway baby was tickled to see a spread on the Washington, D.C. dining scene.

Moseying through Dixie on your summer vacation and want to know where to find a good barbecue joint? I recommend their list of the 20 best, in part because Red Bridges of my husband’s hometown of Shelby is featured.

Last night I was finishing an article on Gregg Allman when I wondered why I hadn’t seen anything about guns. Then, near the back, on page 108 of the April/May issue, I saw a piece about Griffin & Howe, a famous gunsmith and store—in Greenwich, Connecticut. Maybe it’s in south Greenwich.

The piece notes that Griffin & Howe “is presided over by Guy Bignell, president and CEO of G&H and a Brit of such surpassing handsomeness that he is often assaulted on the streets of Greenwich.”

Am I the only person who finds that funny?


Filed under Family and Friends, Food, Reading


Often when I return from a trip to the grocery store, I report to my husband that the store was “Bedlam.” Bedlam is the most apt descriptor on a Saturday morning, which often is when parents give their spouses a break by taking the kids to the supermarket, parking their carts in the middle of the aisles, ignoring the indoor traffic conventions and letting their young kids run around in circles and climb the cereal shelves. It’s Bedlam, I tell you.

It wasn’t until I reviewed the origins of food names for yesterday’s blog post that I realized how appropriate the term is for the supermarket. Okay, that might be a stretch. But maybe for the bakery.

According to Martha Barnette’s book,  Ladyfingers & Nun’s Tummies: A Lighthearted Look at How Foods Got Their Names, Bedlam has its roots in food; specifically, in bread.

She tells the story in the chapter on Places Named for Foods, right after how Topeka, Kansas, takes its name from “good place to dig potatoes.”

She explains:

From the Hebrew words beth, “house,” and lechem, “bread,” comes from the name of the little town of Bethlehem, or “house of bread,” which, in turn, eventually gave rise to an English word for “crazed confusion and uproar.” In medieval London, the Hospital of Saint Mary of Bethlehem was converted into an asylum for the insane. Over time this grim institution came to be known simply as Bethlehem, then Bethlem and Bedlem, and eventually, Bedlam, which in turn led to today’s term for crazed noisiness and clamor.

She then explains how the word marathon comes from the ancient Greek word for fennel, but I’ve got to end this somewhere.


Filed under All Things Wordish, Food, Reading

Who’s hungry?

Wow, I have this craving for some good bird’s tongue. How about you?

This post is another in the series in which I pull a book out of the stacks and write about it. I hope you’re game.

Fourteen years ago, long before the word nymph in me emerged, or so I thought, a friend and former colleague gave me a book entitled Ladyfingers & Nun’s Tummies: A Lighthearted Look at How Foods Got Their Names, by Martha Barnette, who was once a reporter with The Washington Post. I remember my friend saying he thought the book suited me because of my love of food and words.

Barnette grabs readers of my type with the first sentence of the introduction: “Sometimes the very name of a food tickles our taste buds before a bite of it ever reaches our mouths. Saltimbocca, tiramisu, teriyaki, shabu-shabu, passion fruit, angel hair, soubise, bubble and squeak, chimichanga, couscous – rolling any of these words around on our tongues is a sensory experience all its own.”

Bubble and squeak? Come again? Bubble and squeak comes from the chapter on foods named for what they do while cooking. It’s a potato and cabbage dish that apparently makes noise when it’s frying.

Bird's tongue (orzo)

There are chapters on foods named for what they look like (e.g., bare buttocks in the grass); food names associated with religion or the supernatural (no surprise that there are lots of angels and devils, but also Judas’ ear); foods named by mistake, often as a result of goofs in translation (including German chocolate cake and Jordan almonds); foods named for people and places (the chapter  is called “Edible Eponyms and Tasty Toponyms,” surely a topic for another day); foods named for what’s done to them or what they do to us; and words deriving from other words about food and drink.

Did you know that, In Lebanon, the long rolled pastry known as zunuud as-sitt translates from “woman’s upper arms?” It’s in there.

The book contains hundreds more little-known facts about food names and where they come from. I could stretch this out over several days, and maybe I’ll regret it if I don’t. In the meantime, maybe I’ll give you a little homework assignment.

See if you know—or can find—the recognized food names for the following:

  1. Apple in its bathrobe
  2. Angel’s breasts
  3. Boudoir biscuits
  4. Dad’s beard
  5. Dead fingers
  6. Friar’s balls
  7. Naughty children’s toes
  8. Tipsy parson
  9. Spicy bishop
  10. Whore’s pasta

Want to have some more fun? Look up the origin of pumpernickel.

One final note: my father recently suggested I address the origin of the word “bedlam,” and he traced its origin for me. What I learned from Ladyfingers & Nun’s Tummies, though, is that the word goes back even farther, with its origin in food. Maybe tomorrow?


Filed under All Things Wordish, Food, Reading

Two cousins

When I was little, I used to like the book Eight Cousins by Louisa May Alcott.

Today I couldn’t tell you a thing about it. I think I liked it because I had eight cousins, five from an aunt and uncle on my mother’s side and three from an aunt and uncle on my father’s side. Eight terrific cousins.

Today’s blog entry is dedicated to Lesley, the eldest cousin on my father’s side. Today is her birthday.

Lesley is a year and a half younger than I. We spent a lot of time together when we were little, especially around the holidays. Her family moved away when we were six and seven, so we saw less of each other after that. We did end up at the same university, where our attendance overlapped for a while.

Monica and Lesley

As I remembered that her birthday was approaching, I recalled so many little things about our childhood. I was the shy one, fearful of doing anything daring or talking to anyone I didn’t know or getting dirty. Lesley was the opposite. Everyone was Lesley’s new best friend. She loved to express herself in song and expressive dance.

Once, while the kids put on a show for the adults at a holiday party, Lesley took the stage (the hearth in our family room) and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I am going to put on a magic show!” She began her first trick and then said to the audience, “Everyone, close your eyes.”

There are several stories of how Lesley’s curiosity and creativity led her to adventure. Up a ladder onto the roof when she was two. Putting Baker’s chocolate in the toaster in the middle of the night. (Haven’t we all wanted to try that?) This photo shows how Lesley’s front teeth suffered during one of her acts of daring. Oh, to have been like Lesley. Arms stretched out, Here I am, world!

My younger cousin used to look up to me. When I was allowed to wear perfume at age 14 (Love’s Fresh Lemon Body Splash, to be exact), she talked her mother into getting her a bottle of Jean Naté.

Truly, it is I who looks up to her. As grown women, Lesley’s the refined one and I’m the one talks to strangers and visits the ER after a hapless home accident.

Lesley is a gifted writer and a poet, and always has a beaming smile and an infectious laugh. She and her husband are rearing and educating five beautiful children, all of whom have their own expressions of wonder and talent.

Here’s to you, Lesley. Happy Birthday! Now go fix yourself some Baker’s chocolate.

P.S. Great outfit!


Filed under Family and Friends, Holidays, Reading

100 proof pure poison

It doesn’t matter how often or how extensively we clean our house. We still uncover the oddest things and collections of things under the layers of dust that have been accumulating for 20 years.

Oh, the things we find in bags, bowls, bins, buckets and baskets.

Yesterday, I dared to peek into an old brass bin on a shelf above the basement stairs. Most of the contents were minute—paper clips, safety pins, tiny pieces of broken toys, a few rusty screws and a small paperback book entitled Jesse Helms “quoted”: 100 Proof Pure Old Jess.

I’m glad I have the opportunity to clean out my things before strangers come in to organize a sale of my so-called estate. This find would be hard to explain.

The source of this relic is a little fuzzy to me; It must have been a gag gift from someone who knew that neither my husband nor I was ever a big supporter of the late North Carolina senator. Quite possibly, it was a re-gift. No matter.

I looked the book up online to see if I could get a little background. I found only a used book site, where several owners were selling their copies. The site did tell me that, if I liked this book, I might also like 2000 Foreign Policy Overview and the President’s Fiscal Year 2001 Foreign Affairs Budget Request: Congress hearing. I think I’ll pass. Maybe I’ll wait for the movie.

For some reason, I expected to find humor in the 67 pages of the book that contain direct quotes from Sen. Helms, who lived from 1921 to 2008. If anyone who lived only during the last two decades of Helms’ life gazed upon these quotes, they’d be shocked—barely more than I was, though—to realize that such flagrant bigotry was expressed so freely and publicly in the late 20th century and into the 21st.

The last section of the book is devoted to political cartoons about the man, but these provided little relief for my sour stomach.

There was only one quote I found worthy to excerpt in this blog; it’s the first one printed in the book:

“Well there are a lot of number one problems in America. But let me boil it down to two…”

Don’t make me share the rest.


Filed under Hearth and Home, Politics, Reading

Pretty it up

Call me one lucky word nymph. I say how much I love words and how they’re used and people send give me their treasured dictionaries. I say how I much I love SweeTarts and people think of me when they see the candies in stores. I publicly fear coming up dry and people send me suggestions for topics.

I received many blessings this Easter, including SweeTarts and other goodies. One gift is something you and I will be able to enjoy together in weeks and months to come.

Get ready to enjoy picks from Hugh Rawson’s A Dictionary of Euphemisms & Other Doubletalk: Being a Compilation of Linguistic Fig Leaves and Verbal Flourishes for Artful Users of the English Language, a treasure that came my way thanks to a very special Easter Bunny.

I’ve wanted to write about euphemisms for some time; in fact, I noticed that I had jotted it down on a pad where I park blog ideas, just before I received the book. I had been separating euphemisms from political correctness in my mind in hopes of sharing some subtleties. I’ll do this later, after I’ve had time to delve into 312 pages of euphemisms A to Z. Already I’ve come upon some gems. Doubletalk merits its own discussion altogether. It’s an art often disparagingly attributed to politicians but made famous by comedic greats Carl Reiner and Sid Caesar. Or maybe that’s doublespeak. I’ll look into that.

This dictionary might be my favorite yet; I see great utility. There’s another one out there that looks interesting: A Dictionary of Euphemisms: How Not To Say What You Mean by R.W. Holder, which could be of value to those practicing in the field of crisis communications.

While I’m at work on this, what are some of your favorite euphemisms?

(So far, mine might be “embroider the truth.”)

Leave a comment

Filed under All Things Wordish, Reading