A potpouri — from Superbowl to Shakespeare

By Michael Raffety


Feb. 3’s Superbowl game between two teams coached by the brothers Harbaugh is now reported to have the third highest viewership. Except maybe during the half hour the lights went out in the Mercedes Superdome.

The local power company had just completed a $4.2 million upgrade to the Superdome electrical service and things went off without a hitch during three games prior to the Superbowl including the Sugar Bowl game Jan. 2

When you look at how the 49ers performed before and after the power outage it’s no wonder that I’ve heard many people speculate that someone rigged a fuse to blow in order to meet a point spread. But the Ravens losing a key defensive lineman Haloti Ngata to injury made more of a difference in the second half. And, hey, what about that brilliant clock-killing tactic the Ravens coaches used by having their punter run around and take a safety?

Speaking of sports betting, in the 1980s our first full-time sports editor loved to go to Tahoe and bet the sports book. He was from New York and true to form would even play the horses. He’s worked for a Las Vegas paper for the last 20 years and is a happy camper. Last I checked in with him he was covering the boxing beat. He made that switch after his hero Jerry Tarkanian quit coaching the Running Rebels basketball team. The most miserable time he had was working for a paper in Salem, Ore. He was a very talented writer and had a Brooklyn personality. In Oregon his fellow sports writers spiked his tires. Who would have thought newspapers could be such a cutthroat business and in Oregon no less. Too many plaid shirts.

• • •

Wednesday we had a story about the Jeepers Jamboree and the American Legion sending cooler packs to a Jeepers Club based out of Ft. Richardson near Anchorage, Alaska. The club is composed of soldiers who served tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. The club serves as a way for them to engage in off-duty activities with their families that undoubtedly make for some memorable family outings.

My dad was stationed in Ft. Richardson during WWII and loved to fly fish the local streams. He made major while stationed there. We have home movies of him walking around in his uniform with a .45 holstered to his waist. Long after he retired from the Army Reserves the Army showed up at his house and requested the return of its pistol. Who says we don’t have gun control?

• • •

For years I’ve been turning their to it and which to that and that to who. After listening to a series of Teaching Co. CDs by a linguistics professor from the University of Michigan I’ve decided that being the last defender of the English language as it is supposed to be could turn me into a crotchety anachronism. If written English gets too far out of whack with spoken English one can wind up looking as silly as Benjamin Franklin objecting to using colonize and notice as verbs. If the language had stayed still we could all speak and understand that foreign language used in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales or Beowulf. Greek and Latin gave me enough fits, though I really enjoyed Sanskrit.

Their has been used as a singular since Shakespeare’s time. It is even listed in my 1983 Webster’s Ninth Collegiate Dictionary as having a secondary singular meaning of “his, hers or its.” It is a convenient way to be gender neutral and avoid the awkward he or she or his or hers.

That, according to Follett’s Modern American Usage, is an absolute relative pronoun and should not be substituted with which. Which is a relative pronoun that sets off dependent clauses. I’ve eased up on that absolutism and occasionally let a which slip through that should really be a that.

I’m still rattled by writers, primarily our letter writers, who use that in reference to a person. An example would be “The editor that writes those right-wing editorials.” It should be “The editor who writes those right-wing editorials.” However, not wanting to be an anachronism I am not longer changing that to who in letters to the editor. As much a possible I want to keep the letter writer’s voice and not stand in the way as the English language shifts. But some letter writers really challenge me with their spelling. Sometimes it takes inspiration to divine what some are saying and then spell it correctly.

From the lecture series, “The Secret Life of Words: English Words and Their Origins” comes this fun quote from Winston Churchill: “This is the kind of pedantic nonsense up with which I will not put.”

Not everything gets caught, even with two editors looking at it and another person proofing. Once we had a writer who said the Great Wall of China was torn down when the Cold War ended. I didn’t read that one until it got into print. My assistant editor at the time preferred reading fiction to nonfiction.

Another Cold War error was when we had a reporter of Pakistani heritage, who would take Ramadan off as a holiday. He wrote that Mikhail Gorbachev and George H.W. Bush met at Yalta. Yalta, of course, was where President Roosevelt gave away Eastern and Central Europe to Joseph Stalin. Malta is where Bush 41 and Gorbachev met. That’s one I didn’t see until print. All I could say is “Kids these day, they just don’t know any history.” Malta is where I first boarded the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga for a Mediterranean cruise. The former is on the Black Sea coast and the latter is in the Mediterranean Sea.

• • •

One more thing about Shakespeare is that he coined about 1,700 words, although as Professor Ann Curzon points out, the editors of the newest version of the Oxford English Dictionary have been able to predate some of his words. Sometimes Shakespeare included a definition of a coined word in the same sentence or more often he just rejiggered existing words. One example of rejiggering is something like monolingual which entered the language in 1879 by combining a Greek prefix with a Latin base. We attach mono to a lot of words now.

But we are changing words all the time, such a brunch, smog, bling and yuppie, but yippie is slipping away into word history. And we are constantly turning nouns into verbs, such as google, network, blog, impact, trash. And verbs into nouns such as update, commute, spam and hire. And then we rejigger them such as blogosphere, trashed and friend as a verb on Facebook.

Google Shakespeare idioms and you will be amazed at all the idioms so many of us use without knowing they  originally came from a Shakespeare play or sonnet, such as wild goose chase, too much of a good thing, in my heart of hearts, in my mind’s eye, one fell swoop, hobnob, salad days and bated breath.

My favorite Shakespeare compendium comes from “Enthusiasms” by British journalist and columnist Bernard Levin (Crown Publishers, 1984):

“If you cannot understand my argument and declare It’s Greek to me,” you are quoting Shakespeare; if you claim to be more sinned against than sinning, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you recall your salad days, you are quoting Shakespeare; …. if you have ever refused to budge an inch or suffered from green-eyed jealousy, if you have played fast and loose, if you have been tongue-tied, a tower of strength, hoodwinked or in a pickle, if you have knitted your brows, made a virtue of necessity, insisted on fair play, slept not one wink, stood on ceremony, danced attendance (on your lord and master), laughed yourself into stitches, had short shrift, cold comfort or too much of a good thing, if you have seen better days or lived in a fool’s paradise, why be that as it may, the more fool you, for it is a foregone conclusion that you are (as luck would have it) quoting Shakespeare …”


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