Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

Whatever Happened to “Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice”?

By Bob Litton

¶I believe I have always been averse to absurdities, especially grotesque and gruesome absurdities. That’s why I am coulrophobic (turned off by clowns). The aversion probably circumscribed my enjoyment childhood, affecting not only my reaction to clowns but also to some children’s stories and nursery rhymes. I couldn’t see anything amusing about Humpty Dumpty breaking his “crown” or in Jack breaking his either. And those poor three blind mice whose tails were cut off by the farmer’s wife? Phooey! One nursery rhyme particularly annoyed me, this one:

What are little boys made of?
What are little boys made of?
Snips and snails
And puppy-dogs’ tails
That’s what little boys are made of.

What are little girls made of?
What are little girls made of?
Sugar and spice
And everything nice [or “all things nice”]
That’s what little girls are made of.

¶The reported consensus of literary historians is that the above verses were composed by English poet Robert Southey (1771-1843), although they did not appear in any of his published works. Besides his own seven children, Southey and his wife supported the wives and children of his companion romantic poets Robert Lovell and Samuel Coleridge, after the former died and the latter abandoned his family, so we cannot criticize his personal observation of what children are like. He wrote some poetry and stories for children, including “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”, which was probably my own favorite in childhood.
¶But I am digressing too much from my topic: the change in our image of girls and women.
¶What bothered me about the sketches of gender above is that it paints boys in such miniscule and dingy terms (Did Southey’s boys cut off the tails of puppies?). Of course, individual grains of sugar and spice are miniscule, too, but they are usually partaken in bulk and children of both genders can’t seem to get enough of them. Moreover, reserving “everything nice” for girls pretty much excludes any pleasant attributes for boys. As another grownup male complained on an Internet site that critiqued the verse, “It isn’t fair!” Hearing that poem read aloud was my introduction to the “battle of the sexes”.
¶Back in Southey’s time, girls and women, of the upper classes in England at least, were pointedly sheltered from the cruder aspects of life. They were expected to be the moral exemplars for society, maintaining values which men, for their part, had not many qualms of abusing. Sure, there were some young gentle women — Mary Shelley, for instance — who breached that rule; but, overall, it seems that people paid at least lip service to it until the early 20th century. And it has been a downward spiral ever since Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I was especially disappointed when, in 1987, the editor of the New Yorker magazine caved in and allowed a four-letter word to be printed; now that magazine’s pages are littered with words ordinarily reserved for Penthouse.
¶I was raised under the old code. Mother instructed me to surrender my seat on the trolley to ladies, especially old ladies. And I was taught by various elders that profanity was excusable only among adult males, never in the hearing of ladies. Recently, I mentioned my developing dismay about the modern trend of ubiquitous profanity to a female acquaintance at our local senior center (she is about my own age). “Yeah,” she said. “When I was young we couldn’t even say ‘sex’; we had to spell it, s-e-x’!”
¶One of the former residents at my apartment complex was an old harridan, whose unit was two doors south of mine. She was quite loud in every way: face-to-face conversation, her television-viewing, and on the phone. For some reason I never discovered, she would not have the courtesy to shut her front door when engaged in her racket-making and especially liked to stand on our common porch and chatter away on her cell phone. One afternoon, while I was outside sweeping leaves off the porch, she was in her living room, practically yelling into her phone. I walked over, opened her screen door, and pulled the main door shut. She jumped up from her chair and came to the door, opened it, and started cursing a blue streak. That old cliché about “words that would make a sailor blush” seems hardly adequate to describe her behavior. I silently kept on sweeping.
¶Don’t gather from the above that I am a “goody-two-shoes” (whatever that is!). I sometimes utter curse words, mostly while I’m driving, but my vocabulary level in the vulgar range is limited and I’m certainly not proud of my profanities; it’s just a release for my frustrations, I guess. It is mainly an echo of that old lesson “don’t swear in the company of ladies” that causes me to get slightly irritated when I hear fellows at my favorite bar punctuating their conversations with the activities and products of their body parts.
¶The problem is not just the presence of “ladies” (for they can be just as foul-mouthed); the issue is also the gratuitousness of such extended vulgarity. Imagine: If all of us — men, women and children alike — include an obscenity in every sentence we utter, those profanities would lose their effectiveness. After all, the rare use of a four-letter word used to signify a sudden change in temperament or it charged an incident with emergency. Now they are just wasted puffs of breath with a slightly foul and boring odor in them.
¶Female use of profanity is all part of the “women’s liberation” movement which began in the 1960s. It was also connected to the growing prevalence of smoking among professional women, epitomized by Philip Morris Company’s 1968 advertising slogan for its new Virginia Slims cigarettes: “You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby!”* Of course, smoking by women was common in the 1920s, -30s, and -40s, in the movies at least; but the trend seemed to have burgeoned in the 1960s.
¶Before I go, I want to add a few words about the other new trend: tattooing. Like cursing, this feature used to be almost the exclusive property of sailors and South Seas islanders; but now it seems to have become fashionable in my home country. I frankly don’t understand it. The human body, at least for many of us, can be beautiful; but we seem determined to besmear it with ugliness. Those generally indistinguishable markings with their lurid colors, that look more like signs of a blood disease than artwork, are just another way of attracting attention to one’s self, when the best way to do that is to be well-groomed and courteous.

*If you would like to see how this slogan developed over the years, check out this site:


Shade and Shadow

Green park

A scene where both shade and shadow are equally illustrated.
Photo Credit: Bing Images/

©2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

NOTE TO READERS:  Formerly, as an instructor in rhetoric at a community college, I assigned the students a weekly essay topic.  Each subject was intended to be an exercise in some aspect of communicating through the written word, e.g. describing a house or a room, interviewing someone about their vocation and then writing about it, explaining how to perform some fairly complex task. The first exercise I imposed on them was to describe the differences between shade and shadow; the point of this one was to acquaint them with an exam type they were likely to encounter in other humanities courses: “compare and contrast”.  I eventually developed a slight guilt complex about this assignment, since I had never written about shade and shadow myself.  The following essay is an attempt to assuage that guilty feeling.  I believe it is timely to publish it on my blog today because Halloween is just a few days away. While there is nothing “spooky” in the essay, I am sure most of you can recall or imagine times in your past when some shadow made you shiver. So, happy Halloween!

¶Shade and shadow, although at first glance apparent synonyms for each other, are in fact nothing of the sort. They differ not only denotatively but connotatively.
¶Shade and shadow are alike only in one particular: they are created by the obstruction of light in its journey toward a final destination. The first and most definitive differences, indeed, derive from those light sources. For shade results only from sunlight, despite what one might suppose from such a misnomer as “lampshade”; while shadow results from artificial light as well as sunlight (including that reflection of the sun we call “moonlight”).
¶Shade and shadow also differ in that the former can serve as an aid, as is implied by its name: It can protect something from the annoyance or even harm which too much sunlight might inflict. Here we also note that shade moves—or rather changes position—as the light source moves; while shadow moves according as the interfering object, such as a person walking at night under a lamp-post or a plane flying overhead on a sunny day, moves. Nor is shade as sharply delineated as a shadow; the shade created by a tree in full leafage is a diaphanous phenomenon with bits of faint sunlight jostling with the spots made by the leaves on the ground. Shadow, on the other hand, occupies a more outlined area, which might be exemplified by the tree’s trunk as opposed to its leaves. While I suppose it is comprehensible to speak of a tree’s canopy at night as providing “shady protection” for a pair of lovers on a park bench, who have sat there in pursuit of privacy, actually at that time even the leaves are creating shadows, because lamplight does not move around or even penetrate a leaf the way sunlight does.
¶Again unlike shade, shadow is not limited to the daylight hours. In fact, with “shadow” the connotative contrast becomes primary. We have invested that word with mystery; I won’t insult your intelligence by specifying the ways we have done that. Suffice it to say that while, when we hear of a shadow during the daytime, we imagine the darker grayness left by an object, such as a building, on the sidewalk or of the undulating gray trail left by a plane as it passes over some hilly landscape; and when we hear the word “shadow” at night the image that passes before our mind’s eye is that of a skulking figure with a dagger in its hand moving against a wall. Obviously there is nothing inherently sinister about the word “shadow”; the connotation which has become attached to it is just another example of how our language is impacted by our emotions.
¶Shade, then, is a comparatively static phenomenon that is often thought of as beneficial. It is a product of sunlight and some interfering non-mobile object. Shadow is a denser darkness which may appear either during the day or during the night, and is created by either the natural lights of the sun and moon or by artificial light. Also, shadow is not restricted to static objects; it accompanies mobile objects just as frequently as does shade and, perhaps for that reason, has developed a slightly sinister reputation.


Shop Talk: Our Changing Language

© 2016 By Bob Litton > All Rights Reserved (except for quoted passages).

All right, I admit: I am consistent only in my inconsistency. That might explain why I am back into my blog, at least for this post about my native language. I consider it to be that important.

This morning I listened to’s Tom Ashbrook — the regular host of the weekday “On Point” program — interview linguist John McWhorter, of Columbia University, about how the English language is constantly “morphing” (not “evolving”) and how we should accept the sometimes disconcerting changes as natural. I tried about half a dozen times to phone in and offer my input but each time got a busy signal, so I gave up. As an alternative approach, I am resuming the chair in front of my dormant blog.

As a former working journalist and sometime teacher of English composition, I have feelings about English grammar and expression just as fervid as my feelings about democracy. Discussions about either one cause me to grab my sword and buckler, figuratively speaking.

One of the offerings I had in store for Ashbrook and McWhorter was to assert that while it is true that, as McWhorter said, our grammar and spelling became crystallized in the 18th Century through such efforts as Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary, most of the subsequent deviations from the “rules” were actually sensible gestations attributable to easier pronunciation and reading comprehension. Former crimes like the use of such terms as “ain’t” as a contraction for “am not” (have you ever tried to say “amn’t”?), the beginning of sentences with “But”, and the ending of sentences with a preposition have now become established as acceptable in general communication, although they are still considered Nonstandard (U.S.) or Informal (U.K.) in academic, professional and business papers.

Another influence on the development of our language was the employment of Latin grammatical structure and definitions by our pioneering grammarians. Unlike McWhorter and his cohorts, I appreciate the historical efforts to maintain the rules of Latin grammar, even though those rules are not entirely symbiotic to English. In its early centuries, English was just as inflected as Latin:the uses of its words were determined by orthography, not by position in the sentence as they are now. The result of our language’s pupation is that now we have to be taught explicitly not only the case names but how and where they are to be used in sentences.

Most of us literary types, regardless of how tolerant we might consider ourselves, still retain, I believe, prejudices toward grammatical infractions. One fault which McWhorter dwelt upon that particularly irritates me, but which he finds perfectly acceptable, is the confusion of cases in pronouns. His example was the use of “me” (the objective case) as the subject of a sentence, a role normally reserved for nominative case pronouns, in this instance “I”. A typical erroneous sentence would be “Me and her went to the show.” For anybody who doesn’t see the problem, that should be “She and I went to the show.” Actually there are two problems here: one is the grammatical issue already noted; the other is a matter of etiquette — politeness dictates that we mention other people prior to ourselves. When “I” and “me” become legitimized as identical twins, then our language will indeed become chaotic.

Another modern infraction which McWhorter and Ashbrook discussed was the term “like”, used principally by teenagers as a meaningless interpolation during their jabbering, as, for example, “So my mom was, like, going ballistic because I didn’t get home before eleven last night!” I would add to that grievously ubiquitous error the phrase “you know”, which I constantly hear even educated guests repeating on Ashbrook’s show (and elsewhere); it seems to serve as a substitute for “uh”, the old-timey pause syllable many of us utter when we haven’t quite got our phrasing organized in the brain. Those terms wouldn’t be so annoying if they were used less, but many people employ them repeatedly within a single comment.

One caller, a teacher, astutely remarked that we need to try and inculcate Standard English into children’s minds if they are to cope well in society and business. McWhorter acknowledged as much but maintained that children are very capable of handling two and even more languages adeptly; they can readily use Formal English in their school papers and Informal, even slang, at home and among their friends on the street.

Another aspect of our changing tongue which McWhorter mentioned and which always fascinates me is the more glaring differences between the English of the Beowulf saga, Chaucer’s Tales, and Shakespeare’s plays; we need defining footnotes — in the cases of the first two, even facing page “translations” — to comprehend those works now.

I might add that we can include much 19th Century literature among the works that require footnote definitions or good guessing. Among these latter I can list George Eliot’s 1860 novel Mill on the Floss, which I have almost finished reading. In particular, there are some terms the less-educated characters frequently use which in my first encounters I had to read twice to glean what was meant. The heroine’s father, Edward Tulliver, for instance, has a habit of proclaiming his confusion with life, as in Chapter IX of Book III, where he says to his employee, Luke:

 ‘The old mill ’ud miss me, I think, Luke. There’s a story as when the mill changes hands, the river’s angry — I’ve heard my father say it many a time. There’s no telling whether there mayn’t be summat in the story, for this is a puzzling world, and Old Harry’s got a finger in it — it’s been too many for me, I know.’

The “’ud” and the “summat” most of us readers would easily enough interpret as “would” and “somewhat”. Also, nowadays even an uneducated character would say “many times” instead of “many a time”, but we get it. One might suppose that the “as” is a typo, but really it is an antique way of saying “that”.  A reader unacquainted with English folklore might wonder who “Old Harry” is, but the rest of us would recognize him as the Devil. The phrase that really caused me to pause, however, was that last one: “too many”: what I finally discerned Tulliver to be saying is “too much for me”.

Further in on their conversation, Luke says to Tulliver:

‘Ay, sir, you’d be a deal better here nor in some new place….’

In our age, we would say “a good deal” or “a great deal”, but Luke’s meaning there is clear enough. The term that confused me (and it actually occurs several times earlier in the novel) was “nor”; after a little head-scratching, I deduced that it stands for “than”. Wow, I said to myself, I wonder how that came about!

Finally, and on the same page again, Tulliver says:

‘But I doubt, Luke, they’ll be for getting rid o’ Ben, and making you do with a lad — and I must help a bit with the mill. You’ll have a worse place.’

Now, this one really stumped me! Nonetheless, I figured it out. Old Tulliver and other characters in the novel are actually using “doubt” for “believe”! You explain that one to me!

In spite of its confusing and frustrating aspects, my native tongue — and other languages, too, (I’m studying classical Greek right now) — fascinate me. Maybe I should have been a philologist.


Another Twist of the Kaleidoscope[1]

Greek Amphora

An ancient Grecian amphora: Image Source > Bing Images

© 2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

I am in a strange position right now. On the one hand, I have three topics in my noggin, each deserving extended composition. On the other hand, they all require more research than I have devoted to them thus far, if they are to be “done up” right. Yet it has been eleven days since I published my last post, and my ego is supposing that some regular — but non-“Following” — readers are getting a bit antsy after returning often to my blog site and finding nothing fresh. So, my only recourse is to compose a potpourri of short opinions/insights. (Well, actually there are a couple of other options, but I don’t want to go down that “rabbit trail” right now.)


About twenty years ago, in Dallas, I bought a set of classical Greek language texts published by Cambridge University Press. I purchased them because I had been reading translations of the early Greek tragedies and Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War and wanted to read them in the original language. I had noted some editors’ comments that the playwright Euripides, the historian Thucydides, and the philosopher Plato, were superb stylists. I had been a good student of Spanish, French, Chinese, and Old English (Anglo-Saxon), so I did not anticipate much difficulty with Greek, although I figured that the Greeks’ odd-ball alphabet would annoy me for a while. By Zeus, was I wrong! All the diacritical marks, the dizzily varying declensions and conjugations, and the swamping mass of vocabulary to learn frustrated me. I got as far as Section VII (out of XIX), laid my books aside, and went on to other interests. Twice over the next two decades I started the Greek again — at Section I. (I got that one down pat, by the way!)

A couple of months ago, I dove back into the translation of Thucydides and was freshly astonished by the parallels with current events. If you read the Greek statesman Pericles’ oration at the memorial service for the first Athenian warriors killed during the Peloponnesian War, you too, I believe, will be struck by the similarity of Pericles’ claims for Athens’ “exceptionalism” to American politicians’ claims for our homeland’s superior qualities. Thucydides also lays out in bold yet unbiased descriptions the virtues and faults not only of Athens but of Sparta, Corinth, Thebes, Corcyra and other city-states as well. He also analyzes the characters in their actions and their motives. The people as a whole are scrutinized with equal clarity. The acts of heroism and of treachery are rendered vividly.

I possess the first two (of four) volumes of Harvard University Press’ Thucydides, with Greek printed on the left-hand pages and English on the right. However, I have delved into the first volume only as far as the first 70 pages. The version I read all the way through, years ago, and am perusing for the second time is the 1874 translation by Richard Crawley, heavily abridged by Sir Richard Livingstone for the Oxford University Press in 1943, during the hottest period of World War II. It is only 388 pages long (not counting two maps and an index) with the pages measuring 9×15 cm. Still, condensed though it is, Livingstone’s offering provides a full sense of the flavor and drama of that conflict — the “world war” of its time. Especially perspicacious is Thucydides’ analysis of the class warfare between the aristocrats and the democrats, which led into the general war. I have excerpted the sentences below from his commentary:

Revolution brought on the cities of Greece many calamities, such as exist and always will exist till human nature changes, varying in intensity and character with changing circumstances. In peace and prosperity states and individuals are governed by higher ideals because they are not involved in necessities beyond their control, but war deprives them of their very existence and is a rough teacher that brings most men’s dispositions down to the level of their circumstances. So civil war broke out in the cities; and the later revolutionaries, with previous examples before their eyes, devised new ideas which went far beyond earlier ones, so elaborate were their enterprises, so novel their revenges. Words changed their ordinary meanings and were construed in new senses. Reckless daring passed for the courage of a loyal partisan, far-sighted hesitation was the excuse of a coward, moderation was the pretext of the unmanly, the power to see all sides of a question was complete inability to act….

The cause of all these evils was love of power due to ambition and greed, which led to rivalries from which party spirit sprung. The leaders of both sides used specious phrases, championing a moderate aristocracy or political equality for the masses. They professed to study public interests but made them their prize, and in the struggle to get the better of each other by any means committed terrible excesses and to still greater extremes in revenge. Neither justice nor the needs of the state restrained them, their only limit was the caprice of the hour, and they were prepared to satisfy a momentary rivalry by the unjust condemnation of the opponent or by a forcible seizure of power….[2]

Appear familiar? Of course, history does not repeat itself in a symmetrically balanced manner; there are some differences from that situation in ancient Greece and today’s world; but I believe there are more analogous than non-analogous elements, both in our Congress and in the world entire. In fact, I am so enamored of Thucydides’ work that I believe our senators and representatives should be required to take a month-long course with this book as their text before they assume office, or perhaps even before they run for office, and attain a passing grade.


 Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought for a price; therefore glorify God in your body.
                                                                                                — I Corinthians 6:19-20

If there are any anti-spiritual types out there in Cyberland, I beg your pardon, but I feel a calling to preach a bit here. Oh, don’t worry overmuch; it’s not a fire and brimstone message; really more of an extended pet peeve with an ounce of theology sprinkled on to give it some authority. Although I matured in the Methodist Church and even considered a few times becoming a minister, I argued myself out of it by pointing at the Apostles’ Creed and grunting at the several elements I could not honestly adhere to. But that is all fodder for some later blog post; not now.

The above passage from Paul of Tarsus, however, resonates with me for two reasons. Firstly, it brings forward the image of my favorite pastor during those young years, Clark Calvert: he was my mentor, even a sort of father figure for me, and he used that verse to counsel me. Secondly, I appreciate the image conjured by the verse itself: my body as the eternal residence of the Holy Spirit. To be perfectly frank with you, dear reader, the Holy Spirit is the only Person of the Trinity I feel that I can comprehend and be comfortable with. God the Father is too abstract and paradoxical, especially when I consider the old conundrum about Evil; and Jesus of the New Testament — “The Son” — has too many faces and does and says self-contradictory things, like some protagonist in a Jacobean tragedy. The Holy Spirit, on the other hand, is definitely comprehensible to me; he has a definite, singular role to play: to act as our guide, comforter, and advocate. And I believe He/She/It has done all that for me many times. Naturally, I don’t always respond positively to the nudges, but I recognize my responsibility when I recalcitrantly plunge ahead at the suggestion of my impulses.

But let’s return to the image of the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit. Lately, like within the past couple of years, I have become inordinately conscious of my appearance and, even worse, of the appearance of others. Of course I realize that, aging as I have, I would become more aware of the changes in my body, particularly in my face; giving up three molars during the past twelve months certainly highlighted those changes! I really do not take good enough care of myself, and I cannot fathom why. Is it just laziness or perhaps a self-contempt expressing itself physically?

But it is my view of others that really bothers me. I judge people constantly, especially young people, who, to my way of thinking, have an almost moral obligation to keep themselves in shape and definitely to avoid tarnishing their features with rings in their noses and lips, and with tattoos all over their bodies. What are they going to do, I wonder, when they get older and suddenly realize how tacky they look. One can erase only so much. Enough people are ill-favored, even downright ugly, and I look on them with pity, thinking that Nature has been too unkind to them; but, ironically, many of them found mates, while I remained single.

Then there is the obesity epidemic which is affecting all generations. I am overweight myself but am gradually losing some of it; I can now get into half a dozen pants that wouldn’t fit six months ago. However, I can’t see myself as readily as I can others; and the external scene is downright shocking. Especially ridiculous is the sight of the many fat nurses — people whose jobs are to help other people get well and stay healthy. And now, in our small town at least, we have a number of peace officers and criminal justice students who look like balloons. Those people are supposed to be able to chase malefactors, aren’t they? Our modern mode of working is the central villain here: most of our jobs involve a lot of sitting; when I went into the county tax office recently to renew my license tag I was at once both shocked and amused at the sight of a dozen female clerks who looked like walruses on a beach.

I feel guilty judging others as the above remarks evidence. I can’t change the world to fit my aesthetic and moral values; yet the impulse to judge is almost constant. Sometimes I wish I were blind.

— BL

Postscript:  Parenthetically speaking, Paul of Tarsus was not commenting on the Corinthians’ appearance. He was chastising them…actually even condemning some… for the immoral physical actions, such as fornication, that they were guilty of. I think Paul was a bit harsh with the Corinthians, when you consider what he confessed to the Romans:
I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate.
                                                                                                                    — Romans 7:15


[1] If you are interested in my first “kaleidoscope” post, look in the archives for “Off My Head”, July 29, 2015.

[2] Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, trans. Richard Crawley, ed. Sir Richard Livingstone, (Oxford University Press:1943), Book III, ¶83.

NOTE TO READERS: For some reason I don’t know, (WP) does not allow non-WP bloggers to register “Likes” on my or other WP bloggers’ posts. However, anyone can enter a comment in the “Comment” box and it will be published, after I have “moderated” it. I am inviting non-WP bloggers to comment. And, although I prefer positive comments, disagreeing or critical remarks are fine, too, especially if they might help me improve my writing; but no snarking, please: that’s rude!
— BL

Acorns, etc.

© 2015 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

 Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.
 — Luke 2:19

The fairies’ berets

Well, it’s the first week of October, although you can’t tell it by the daytime temperatures around my town; it is already scoring 92 degrees today (10/01/15) at 3 p.m. I don’t recall it getting that warm in July and August, maybe last June, which for some reason I can’t fathom has the reputation of being our hottest month. I know the steering wheel in my truck told me on several June days that hell was nearby. But we have only ourselves to blame, what with our carbon emissions history since the Industrial Revolution started.

Still, we always expect October to be a kinder month, even a time when donning a windbreaker is ordinarily the normal thing to do. In spite of the broiling heat, though, there are a few signs by which Nature is letting us know that Fall is nigh, such as a slight hint that the leaves want to change color from green to yellow, scarlet and purple. In our case here, however, the most telltale sign, that I have noticed, is the drumming of the acorns on my back porch’s metal roof. I see those nuts on the grass and sidewalk when I leave each morning for the coffee shop: they seem unusually large this year. And why have their loud tumbles never drawn my attention in the past twelve years? Yes, they simply must be larger this time.

As a child, influenced by some illustrations in fairy tale books, I would wonder if there were any “little people” around wearing parts of acorns for their caps; I was entirely ignorant at the time that what I was looking at was called a “cupule”. That was way before the age of the Internet, and my curiosity was stifled by a sense of futility until today.  I also used to occasionally wonder why we don’t eat acorns as we do pecans, walnuts and other nut delicacies. I assumed that acorns must be different from other nuts by being poisonous, but somebody told me that, no, the acorn is just bitter to the taste.

I read in Wikipedia today, though, that the ancient Greeks ate them after pounding them into a grain and that the Native Americans and Koreans still do favor certain dishes prepared using acorns. The processes involved, however, look formidably complicated and time-consuming to me. For the rest of us, grains have superseded any comparable meal ingredient. One would have to be near starvation, I suppose, to gather acorns. Yet, some of our media sites are recommending that we consider munching on various insects for sustenance: a hardly subtle reference to the likelihood of famines if climate change develops to its greatest extent.

But we want to believe that Fall is imminent, even though there seem to be no “four seasons” any more, only Summer and Winter. Autumn, like Spring, is being squeezed down to a week. Why is Fall also called “Autumn”? I wonder.

Out of balance

A Methodist minister told me, when I was about sixteen, “Life is going to be hard on you, Bob, because you are mature beyond your years.” I wasn’t sure what he meant at the time, and I have pondered his assessment often since then. I now do not believe he was saying that my IQ was above average or that my store of common-sense was abundant: both of those qualities would, I believe, be very useful coping skills, not stumbling blocks. No, I think his point must have been that I do not have much tolerance for ambiguity, ambivalence, and the smaller details in life. I expect the world to be much more plain and decipherable than it is. The pastor’s remark was uttered not many days after I had opined, during a meeting of our church’s governing board (of which I was an ex officio  member), that I believed we needed to do away with Santa Claus. I won’t expound on the Santa Claus issue here any further than to explain that the persona of Santa I perceived was that of a caricature of God — an image that I thought confuses children and might eventually lead them spiritually astray.

No, the issue I wish to dilate on is what personality characteristic my comment reflected. My intolerance for ambiguity and small fictions became, I think, an obsession within me, an obsession that cannot be contained now, if it ever could, even though I am aware of the discomfort it causes for me. When (at age 20) I started reading philosophy, particularly Bertrand Russell’s discussion of Zeno’s paradoxes, I sententiously declared it my ambition to resolve all paradoxes; I wasn’t going to leave any room for an ounce of doubt.

Of course, most of my readers will be aware of how naïve was my goal. As the years multiplied, so did the paradoxes and dilemmas. Even Bertrand Russell, I read later, retreated into symbolic logic to discuss rather basic matters because he saw the plain old vernacular as being the cause of many philosophical rabbit trails¹. I did not have the mathematical ability to follow his lead, so I simply gave up and tried to close my eyes and ears to insoluble problems.

But the questions attacked me anyway, very surreptitiously via my observations of Nature and the people I encountered — nay, viewed, even if I did not meet them. Why is that young man, for instance, wearing a ring in his nostril and two rings in his lower lip? Why do two people not get to know each other better before they get hitched into a relationship that leads to an acrimonious and expensive divorce? Why does a group scream, beat loudly on drums and guitars, set off explosions and claim they are making music? Why does a season of the year have two names: Fall and Autumn? All such questions invade my mind unbidden, and I don’t think I have enough life span left to research such matters. (I know, by the way, that “fall” and “autumn” are not usually capitalized, but I prefer to capitalize them for two reasons: (1) Since “fall” has two meanings, the capital “F” prevents confusion; and (2) since the words are names for seasons of the year, I consider the capitalization better etiquette.)

Subtle biases in our vocabulary

The turbulence in my brain, however, is not all perturbing; sometimes amusement results from the roiling. I often find in it fodder for my teasing humor. One evening, for instance, when I was a guest in the home of former friends — a college professor and his wife — I mentioned, almost as an aside, that I thought it peculiar there are no terms for a hectoring man (except of course “hectoring man”), while there are several for a hectoring woman: harridan, shrew, termagant, virago, harpy, vixen, and nag. Whew! I half-expected the wife to jump out of her chair and attack me, but she disappointingly remained calm, recognizing, I suppose, that I was simply being impish, not sardonic.

And then, returning my spotlight to Nature, it occurred to me this morning, as I was driving to the coffee shop just before the sun rose above Hancock Hill, when the sky was just beginning to glimmer, that we have only two words for the sun’s rising: “sunrise” and “dawn” (basically the same stage), but three for its different stages of setting: “dusk”, “sunset”, and “twilight”. There is something poetically disconcerting about that imbalance.

Many other odd imbalances have occurred to me over the past half century, but I don’t recall any of them right now, which is a good thing, because enough is enough, for the time being. It is time to say good night, dear readers.

Happy pondering.

¹”Rabbit trails go here, there, and everywhere, and pretty much tend to lead nowhere. (Have you ever watched a dog sniff out a rabbit trail? It wanders in small then wider circles, around and around, feverishly looking for the rabbit – literally, a meal and, figuratively, the point of one’s argument.) No one knows what’s at the end of a rabbit trail (the point of one’s argument). Is there even an end to it? It’s a confusing maze of pointless leads. In short, a rabbit trail leads (us) nowhere. It serves only to confuse the prey/the reader. It keeps them preoccupied and confused.”  (“Cassiopea” at
²Of course I recognize that “curmudgeon” can be used to describe a man, as can the colloquial “grumpus”, but they are not gender-specific, being applicable to a habitually complaining woman as well.


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