Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Plain English

Gene Weingarten, writing this past week in the Washington Post, came to a startling conclusion: The English language is dead.

"It succumbed last month at the age of 1,617 after a long illness," he wrote. "It is survived by an ignominiously diminished form of itself."

And who is to blame for this outrage, this laying to waste the language that binds us together? Rap music? Illegal immigration? A failed public education system? Obama?

Weingarten doesn't really single out any one cause but he does point the crooked, bony finger of blame at the American newspaper industry as a partner in crime.

"In the past year alone, as the language lay imperiled," he writes, "the ironically clueless misspelling `pronounciation' has been seen in the Boston Globe, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the Deseret Morning News, Washington Jewish Week and the Contra Costa Times, where it appeared in a correction that apologized for a previous mispronunciation."

I feel his pain, especially since executing a computer keystroke will launch spelling and grammar checks that guarantee even bad stories will be written in good English.

Weingarten continues, "The Lewiston (Maine) Sun-Journal has written of `spading and neutering' and The Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star described professional football as a `doggy dog world.' The Vallejo Times-Herald and the South Bend (Ind.) Tribune were the two most recent papers to report on the treatment of `prostrate cancer."'

Not mentioned but one of my favorites was a line in a newspaper that read, "And when he arrived, nobody wasn't there." It had a zen-like quality to it.

To be sure, newspapers aren't the only purveyors of botched grammar.

The Cook County (Ill.) Board, apparently fed up with what it perceived as negativity in the mainstream media, decided to produce its own magazine to ensure "regular positive press."

But the initial run of 5,000 copies had to be tossed because the magazine had too many spelling and grammatical errors.

In Minnesota, a would-be bank robber was arrested after handing the teller a note that said, "Give money, I gun" thereby assuring that the only sentence he'll complete is in state prison.

But back to newspapers.

I read newspapers every day, lots of them, and while I see the occasional grammatical lapse, it pales in comparison to the millions of words that are published.

Weingarten's examples are painful but most come from smaller papers. Small papers pay small wages and don't often attract erudite writers, settling instead for inexperienced reporters who are still learning the craft. This journalist as a rookie learned a lot more about grammar by writing than I ever did diagraming sentences.

Then there is the copy editor, the last line of defense at any newspaper. When I first started out, these were mostly gray-haired newsroom veterans who spoke like ham actors and read dictionaries on their lunch break. Make a grammatical mistake and you would be loudly and publicly humbled.

Copy editors are still on the job but in much fewer numbers. In this era of severe staff cutbacks, they are overwhelmed by the workload, which includes myriad production responsibilities and leaves scant time for careful editing. Thus, mistakes get made.

It may be a rough patch for the English language. It is under siege by texts, tweets and blogs. But it is far from dead. Dozens of new words are added to the language each year. An estimated 6 billion people worldwide speak it. The Oxford English Dictionary gets 2 million online hits a month.

Hold the autopsy, Mr. Weingarten. As Winston Churchill once famously said, "This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put."

Nobel Causes

Thank God for the gift of science. Without it, I would be etching this column on the wall of a cave using a bird feather dipped in animal blood.

Actually, several of my readers have suggested I do just that. But I digress.

For all the gifts science has provided us - imagine a world without auto alarms, Snuggies and plastic grocery bags - researchers sometimes get a little goofy in their never-ending quest to push the boundaries.

For these folks, we have the Ig Nobel Prizes, awarded each year at Harvard University to those whose research might strike many of us as downright silly.

Or as the sponsors, the Annals of Improbable Research, put it, "science that makes you laugh, then makes you think."

Past winners include a study that confirmed an empty beer bottle makes a better weapon than a full beer bottle in a fight, a scientist who studied why woodpeckers don't get headaches and the invention of a bra that can double as two protective face masks in an emergency.

Thanks to a generous benefactor, winners receive a 10-trillion Zimbabwean dollar note.

This year's honorees:

Scientists from the Instituto Politecnico Nacional, Baja California Sur, Mexico, for perfecting a method to collect whale snot using a remote-control helicopter. One wonders how they retrieved samples in the past.

Two Dutch researchers who discovered that symptoms of asthma can be treated with a roller-coaster ride. Did they study the Ferris wheel, fun house and tilt-a-whirl first?

Japanese and British teams that found they could use slime mold to determine the optimal routes for railroad tracks.

New Zealand scientists who demonstrated that, on icy footpaths in wintertime, people slip and fall less often if they wear socks on the outside of their shoes. It was reported that trial subjects did report better traction, but also reported feeling slightly ridiculous.

British researchers who confirmed the widely held belief that swearing relieves pain. They also found that people who don't normally swear benefited more than habitual potty-mouths. "Swearing is useful, but don't overdo it," they advised.

An American team that determined by experiment that microbes cling to bearded scientists.

A group including British Petroleum that disproved the old belief that oil and water don't mix. BP, of course, validated this theory in the Gulf of Mexico earlier this year.

An Italian team that demonstrated mathematically that organizations would become more efficient if they promoted people at random.

Chinese and British researchers scientifically documented that fellatio in fruit bats prolongs copulation. The group, however, was prohibited from demonstrating their findings using hand puppets.

In keeping with the spirit of the awards, this year's ceremony featured the premiere of a new work called "The Bacterial Opera," about the bacteria that live on a woman's front tooth, and about that woman.

This year marked the 20th anniversary of the prizes.

The scary thing is that there were almost 7,000 nominations.

A committee had the thankless job of whittling down the list to 10 winners, according to past honoree Kees Moeliker, who won in 2003 for discovering homosexual necrophilia in mallard ducks.

It was duly noted that there are four winners from Great Britain this year. (Britain also this week produced the first real Nobelist, physicist Andre Geim, to have previously won an Ig - for levitating frogs with magnets.)

Said Marc Abrahams, editor of the Annals and architect of the Ig Nobels, "The British Empire had a rough 20th century. Maybe this is the best sign that the empire is surging back to prominence."


A Rose by Any Other Name

Mention the words “Rose Parade” and people think of New Year’s Day in

Mention the word “Honda” and people think of a Japanese automobile.

Mention the words “The Rose Parade Presented by Honda” and people
think that another American icon has been gobbled up by a
multinational corporation, an act that threatens to turn the
festivities into a five-mile long infommercial.

That was my reaction when the news was announced that naming rights
to the parade had been sold to Honda. And it was the reaction of
dozens of Internet posters who weighed in on the subject.

A sampling: “As if the event weren't commercial enough, we get the
final sell out. How disgusting!” “I was planning to go to the Rose
Parade this year, but I dislike the idea of hearing Honda this, Honda
that. I’d rather go hiking.” “Why not just make it North American
Honda presents The Tournament of Roses sponsored by Acura?”
“Traditions for sale. Get em' while their cheap.”

This isn’t exactly scientific polling but the fact is the only
positive comments on the deal are coming from Tournament House, Honda
headquarters and City Hall which doesn’t exactly indicate a
groundswell of popular support.

Pasadena, which embraces tradition and civic pride, has been sucker
punched. The culture of the Rose Parade has been compromised.

I guess we can be thankful the sponsor wasn’t Depends or Fruit Loops.

None of this should come as a total surprise. The first commercial
float in the parade appeared in 1935 and the number of corporate
entries have increased steadily since.

In 2010, Honda, Anheuser-Bush , Bayer, China Airlines, Farmers, Jack
in the Box, Medieval Times Dinner and Tournament, Macy’s, Kaiser
Permanente, Dick Van Patten’s Natural Balance Pet Foods, Inc.,
Phoenix Satellite Television (U.S.),.Rainbird, RFD-TV, Subway
restaurants, Wells Fargo and Trader Joe’s joined in the festivities.

We know college bowl games have corporate stickers affixed to them
including the Rose Bowl game which has been sponsored by AT&T,
Playstation and Citi in years past.

It’s the way of the world, 2010. But we don’t have to like it.
And what I like least about it is the efforts of Tournament officials
to spin the message.

For example, parade officials stressed that there will be no major
changes in the parade itself. Then they announced that the Honda
brand will be incorporated into the Tournament of Roses logo and said
there would be changes in the marketing of the event to note Honda's

They also announced that Honda would get the lead position in the
parade each year. And the Honda CR-Z will be used as the “pace car”
for the parade. Clearly, things are going to look different now.

(Note to self: See how many times the Honda brand is incorporated
into the parade route or mentioned on TV. I’m betting I will need
more than my fingers and toes to add up the numbers).

Next, there was this doublespeak: "(Honda) are presenting sponsors,
not a title sponsor - it's not like we've sold the name," said
Tournament of Roses President Jeffrey Throop. "It's the Tournament of
Roses Parade presented by Honda. It's not like the `Tostitos Fiesta
Bowl' ...or when you use a corporate sponsor before it as a title.
That's one thing we're saying is a big difference."

Selling the name is exactly what you have done, Mr. Throop. It’s a
cash transaction no matter how you slice the baloney.

Throop said he wanted to assure everyone the T of R is in "terrific
financial shape."

Then why sell the naming rights? Could it be because a scant two
years ago, some float participants said the economic crisis forced
new cost-trimming and fund-raising efforts?

Fiesta Parade Floats official Tim Estes said smaller companies and
organizations attached to the annual event were particularly hard hit
in regard to budgetary concerns, according to published reports.

Meanwhile, the Rose Float Foundation in West Covina, saw a drastic
decline in donations from area businesses apparently due to the
ongoing economic crisis nationwide. "We're grasping at whatever,"
Foundation Executive Vice President Chris Freeland said.

Two years later, the economy hasn’t changed for the better and its
difficult to believe that the recession hasn’t affected the Rose
Parade’s bottom line.

Erik Wedin, manager of corporate community relations for American
Honda Motor Co., said that he thinks there will be general acceptance
of the presentation agreement. "I think if we were approaching this
relationship as a way to generate sales, then I might agree it would
not be a popular move.”

That’s tough to swallow. The Tournament was a seller and Honda was a
buyer. The parade gets cash and Honda generates visibility which
translates into sales. To suggest otherwise is ludicrous.

In three years, the sponsorship will be up for sale to the highest
bidder. Let the games begin.