Monday, July 21, 2008

Words Worth

IF you think a pescatarian is a member of a Protestant church or that prosecco is thinly sliced Italian ham, you, my friend, are engaging in mondegreen.

Or so we're told in the latest edition of the Merriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary which contains 100 new entries including "pescatarian" (a vegetarian who eats fish), "prosecco" (a sparkling Italian wine) and "mondegreen" which describes words mistaken for other words.

The folks at Merriam Webster have picked the new entries after monitoring their use for several years in a job that must be long on patience and short on stress.

"As soon as we see the word used without explanation or translation or gloss, we consider it a naturalized citizen of the English language," Peter Sokolowski, an editor-at-large for Merriam-Webster, told the Associated Press. "If somebody is using it to convey a specific idea and that idea is successfully conveyed in that word, it's ready to go in the dictionary."

Among the other terms that have recently found their way into print are soju (a Korean vodka distilled from rice), air quotes (a gesture made by raising and flexing the index and middle fingers of both hands, used to call attention to a word or expression), edamame (immature green soybeans), malware (software designed to interfere with a computer's normal functioning) and netroots (grassroots political activists who communicate via the Internet).

We also find racino (a racetrack at which slot machines are available for gamblers), webinar (a live online presentation during which viewers can submit questions and comments) and subprime, a term that unfortunately needs no explanation.

"Pescatarian" recalls a couple I once knew who refused to eat anything with a face. They bickered all through a dinner one evening while trying to decide if scallops fell into that category.

But "mondegreen" is my favorite. I'm surprised someone didn't coin a phrase for misunderstood phrases or lyrics centuries ago.

Instead, it was left to writer Sylvia Wright who coined the term in an essay called "The Death of Lady Mondegreen," which was published in Harper's Magazine. Wright described how, as a young girl, she misheard the final line of the first stanza from the 17th century ballad "The Bonnie Earl O' Murray."

She wrote: "When I was a child, my mother used to read aloud to me from Percy's Reliques, and one of my favorite poems began, as I remember: Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands, Oh, where hae ye been? They hae slain the Earl Amurray, (sic) And Lady Mondegreen.

"The actual fourth line is `And laid him on the green.' The point about what I shall hereafter call mondegreens, since no one else has thought up a word for them, is that they are better than the original," Wright explained.

She cited as an example, "Surely Good Mrs. Murphy shall follow me all the days of my life ("Surely goodness and mercy ..." from Psalm 23).

Perhaps the most famous modern example was the lyric from Credence Clearwater Revival that went "There's a a bad moon on the rise" which was heard by many as "There's a bathroom on the right."

Then there was "`Scuse me while I kiss the sky" from a lyric in the song "Purple Haze" by Jimi Hendrix, which somehow became "`Scuse me while I kiss this guy."

In an episode of the television sitcom "Friends," Phoebe believes the lyric from Elton John's "Tiny Dancer," "Hold me closer, tiny dancer" is actually "Hold me close, young Tony Danza."

In the CBS sitcom "The Nanny," "The girl with kaleidoscope eyes," from the song "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" by the Beatles, is misheard as "The girl with colitis goes by."

A Macy Gray song contains the "My world crumbles when you are not there." It was heard both as "I walk on gum balls when you're not there," and "I wear goggles for you on my rear."

Jon Carroll of the San Francisco Chronicle reported that "A social worker ... was dictating a report in which she mentioned that her client was living with her paramour. It came back from the typist that she was living with her power mower."

Carroll also wrote that a TV weatherman somehow became a "meaty urologist."

Who said the study of language was dull.

Bush League

IF any of these things happen to you, run, don't walk, to the nearest metaphoric exit:

A guy on a street corner tries to sell you a gold watch.

A "financial adviser" promises you double-digit returns on your investment.

A lame duck president pulls a major policy change out of his hat, the consequences of which will extend far beyond his term of office.

Let's assume you're smart enough to avoid the first two pitfalls and instead focus on No. 3.

President Bush, a half-year short of concluding what might be charitably called a controversial two terms in office, this past week lifted a presidential ban on offshore drilling, saying it would ease pressure on oil prices by increasing domestic production.

"With this action, the executive branch's restrictions on this exploration have been cleared away," Bush said. "This means that the only thing standing between the American people and these vast oil resources is action from the U.S. Congress."

At issue are about 19 billion barrels that, the Interior Department says, lie in federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico and off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Nothing can happen, however, unless Congress chooses not to extend its moratorium, first enacted in 1981.

Bush's plan is brilliant in its simplicity. But for all the wrong reasons.

To call this move political would be an understatement. In one deft sound bite, the president kicked the entire energy crisis/gas price mess into the laps of the Democrats who currently control Congress. At the same time, he gave hope, however false, to Americans chafing under the yoke of soaring gas prices that the solution is just a drilling rig or two away.
There are, however, a few conclusions we can draw from Mr. Bush's actions:

First, we apparently have a president who decries our addiction to oil (See State of the Union message, 2006), then suggests that the way to deal with that addiction is to find more.

Second, it would take at least seven years to even begin drilling in areas currently under the moratorium, and the resulting effect on gas prices could be a decade or more away. According to the Energy Department, a barrel of oil now costs approximately $140. Increased supply would cut that price to an estimated $138.60 to $139.60 a barrel. No one knows how this would affect the price of a gallon of gas for consumers at the pump.

Third, the president fails to acknowledge that the environmental danger in offshore drilling is substantial.

Californians ought to know. They need to look no farther than Santa Barbara. There, on the afternoon of Jan. 29, 1969, a Union Oil Co. platform stationed six miles off the coast of Summerland suffered a blowout.

For 11 days, oil workers struggled to cap the rupture. During that time, 200,000 gallons of crude oil bubbled to the surface and were spread into an 800-square-

mile slick by winds and swells. Incoming tides brought the thick tar to beaches from Rincon Point to Goleta, marring 35 miles of coastline.

Incoming tides brought the corpses of dead seals and dolphins. Oil had clogged the blowholes of the dolphins, causing massive lung hemorrhages.

Animals that ingested the oil were poisoned. In the months that followed, gray whales migrating to their calving and breeding grounds in Baja California avoided the channel, their main route south.

Shorebirds, which feed on sand creatures, fled the area. But diving birds, which must get their nourishment from the waters themselves, became soaked with tar.

"I don't like to call it a disaster," Fred L. Hartley, president of Union Oil Co., said at the time, "because there has been no loss of human life. I am amazed at the publicity for the loss of a few birds."

But the worst thing about the Bush plan is that an unrestricted quest for new oil reserves would prematurely halt a revolution in automobile manufacturing that has been too long in coming.

In the next several years, a new generation of cars, from hybrids to electrics, will be hitting the market. A new Prius. A new Honda. A new VW. Cars driven by ethanol, hydrogen, biofuel, clean diesel. Many are scheduled to arrive on the market starting in 2010.

We are on the verge of the greatest revolution in automotive technology since the advent of the internal combustion engine. It's one that will not only change the way we drive, but will be cleaner as well. In the long term, it could even break the undeniable link between oil and terrorism.

But if you want to stop it dead in its tracks, make it the policy of this country to dig for oil no matter what the cost or consequence.