Monday, January 21, 2008

#116 - A Ginormous Problem

A Ginormous Problem

1/21/08 (#116)

Just as it is fascinating to live in a city on the cusp of exponential growth, the skyline growing more jagged by the week as each new junior-varsity skyscraper arises to hold another few hundred Portland couples and there .2 children, it is enjoyable to live in a language that perpetually expands and contracts with each passing fad. Sure, it's disconcerting to hear a fifty-something white man use the word "shiznit", but it's also disconcerting to see a fifty-something man in a bikini---and that's hardly the fault of the bikini. For the most part, I embrace such linguistic developments (even if don't adopt the new terminology into my daily vocabulary), but there is one word that I hear with growing regularity that causes me to lament that the English language has no bouncer at the door:


This adjective is apparently a mash-up of gigantic and enormous, emerging to describe that specifically particular size that is slightly larger than gigantic but not quite enormous. Or perhaps enormous is the lesser adjective? Considering that they're nearly perfect synonyms, ranking them is like identifying the largest egg in a full carton of "large" eggs.

When I began contemplating the growing ubiquity of ginormous (both number of users and number of uses seem on the rise) I suspected the origin lay in each generation's desire to create a language of their own: The flappers of a century ago spawned an amazingly creative argot full of reinventions (Fire Extinguisher: The chaperone on a date; Smudger: A person who likes to dance closely) and creations (23 skidoo: To ask/order someone to leave), a manner of speech that surely sounded like a foreign language to the generation that preceded them. (Peruse the "Flapper" section of any slang dictionary and you'll see how extensive their reinventions were, and how influential their vernacular was to our modern English.) After that, the Beboppers arrived with another personalization of the available language, and the soldiers of World War II generated new phrases of their own. Then came Bobby Sockers, hippies, hip-hoppers, gen-Xers, skateboarders, ad infinitum---each generation modifying the language to suit its new tastes. Just as General Motors urged young drivers that "this is not your father's Oldsmobile", the latest generation doesn't want to be saddled with having to use their parent's vocabulary; just as Kerouac doesn't mirror the syntax of Shakespeare, modern generations want to redecorate the sentence to reflect their new personality.

While I thoroughly support the mashing of two unrelated words to create a new adjective (I've created many of my own, collected in my Ridictionary), the vocabulary mash-up requires the application of creative sensibilities: The new word should shine in a way that the old words no longer did. For instance, I coined the word "Spamphlet" (a mash of "spam" and "pamphlet") to refer to the unsolicited handouts one sometimes receives when accosted on the sidewalks downtown. I'm not bragging that the new word is brilliant, but it's a more modern and enjoyable way of describing those unwanted items versus "tract" or "handout".

But with ginormous, there is no creativity displayed at all: The mashed words have nearly identical meanings, and the word produced by their union is yet another synonym. That isn't expanding the language, but merely cluttering it, like a person who gets three copies of "Huck Finn" and then claims to have a collection of works by Mark Twain. Think of the $100 bill, which once garnered the nickname "the C-note" (based on the roman-numeral "C", meaning "100"), later re-dubbed the "Benjamin" (a reference to Mr. Franklin, whose visage adorns that denomination), and how both new descriptions bring more color and playfulness to the English language. But by the ginormous method of word manufacture, that currency would become a "hundobill"---sure, life is short, but not so short that we need to save the time of two syllables with that clunky term.

It's the lack of newness that makes the use ginormous inexplicable: Why would one use the wrong word---or in this case, a non-word---if it sounds similar to and means the same thing as an existing English word? But perhaps its value lies not in what it is, but in what it is not.

Many of us have an gnawing suspicion that some of the people with whom we talk are marking our conversations with a red pen as the words come out of our mouths. We are all subject to the fear of appearing uneducated, and if we use a word with a real meaning, we can also misuse it---for instance, "that enormous matchbook" or "the gigantic cotton swab." Both of these are likely inaccurate (unless you're at a Ripley's Believe it or Not museum), and may expose the speaker as dictionary-challenged. But by using a non-word, the speaker has tossed Strunk & White out the window at the start---there's no misusing the word because the word has no actual meaning.

Think of diction as table manners: Attend a formal dinner and with each course you'll have to decide whether to use the salad fork, or the dessert fork, or the dinner fork; as the flatware inventory increases, the diner is faced with the awful prospect of exposing themselves as incapable of dining with the queen. But add a curling iron along side the plate and even the most snobbish will refrain from saying, "Did you see the barbaric manner with which he used that curling iron?" The curling iron has no correct or incorrect use as the dinner table, and thus all use of it is correct. (Though plugging the curling iron in before eating is universally frowned upon.) Obviously, ginormous is the curling iron in that analogy.

My adviser in college once told me, "It takes a great deal of courage to use the English language properly", his assertion based on the reality that our language suffers from so much widely accepted and regularly perpetuated misuses that wielding it correctly may cause the speaker to look foolish, supported by the style manuals but mocked by a group of people who think that stating "I'm not averse to it" demonstrates a hilarious lack of knowledge of the word "adverse." I suspect ginormous is a manifestation of that fear, a linguistic Golgotham conjured by speakers who seek protection from those judgmental coworkers and dinner guests who mistakenly believe that vocabulary is the hallmark of intelligence. (While it does reflect the attention paid in secondary school and/or a voracious reading habit, vocabulary is unlikely to help you compute the interest on your mortgage, solve a leak in your bathroom sink, or help you escape unscathed if you accidentally fall into the tiger cage at the zoo, so its value should be kept in perspective.)

Whatever the origin of this unnecessary etymological redundancy, I hope its life span will be worthy of measure by the Macarena standard. I fully support the continuing evolution of the English language, to the point where I'm even willing to let "shiznit" sneak through the door. But ginormous? 23 skiddoo.

©2008 wpreagan

Monday, January 7, 2008

#115 - Santa's Secret Service

Santa's Secret Service

1/7/08 (#115)

Watch any movie that involves a fairy tale ending and you will surely see some straight-laced, overly-sober "realist" chastise the hopeful hero with a variation on, "you want everything to be like a fairy tale, but that's not how things work in the real world." (Usually delivered one implausible-plot-twist prior to the ensuing fairy tale ending.)

The problem with the fairy tale is not its incongruity with our so-called reality---after all, all the world's a stage, and for the duration of our show, we are the primary scriptwriters for our own stories: Penning a fairy tale isn't a lot harder than writing a drama about family conflict. (Though on the latter, you'd have the advantage of collaborators.) Unfortunately, the curtain rises on our play at the same time is rises on a thousand other plays, and they're all being acted out on the same stage---if can be hard to concentrate on the Princess' soliloquy if Blanche Dubois keeps interrupting the scene.

The key to staging a successful fairy tale is also the key to planning an elaborate surprise marriage proposal in a crowded restaurant: Getting the bit players to cooperate with your script. And just as the future groom must contend with some members of the impromptu cast caring more about their poached salmon than the ceremonial ruse concocted for his fiancée, there are more than a few bit players who will volunteer to improvise the role of the ogre in your fairy tale.

Santa Claus is a central character in the most perpetuated of our common fairy tales, and over this past Christmas season, I began to realize how difficult it is to protect Santa, to maintain the illusion that he is the real deal. Frankly, even the logistics of that fairy tale are a bit preposterous to maintain in the 21st century: One man with one sleigh delivers a billion toys in 24 hours? Heck, even our UPS driver had a helper with him for most of December, and they worked five days a week. And they could deliver to the front door.

My daughter is five, and while she started the Christmas season as a true believer, there were several incidents that led me to lament the previous year's tutelage in the value of analytical thinking, occasions when this production of the fairy tale seemed genuinely threatened:

Previous Scripts for the Same Story: We watched a lot of Christmas movies this year, and I was flummoxed to find so many tackling the question of "believing" in Santa Claus. From Charlie Brown to a pint-sized Natalie Wood, children are presented with an array of variations on faith and frustration. The trouble is, even though Natalie Wood eventually believes in Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street, the damage was done with the initial expression of disbelief: Midway through, Sage turned to me and asked, "Why wouldn't she believe in Santa?", as if she had heard someone refuse to believe the ocean is blue. Any explanation I could offer was irrelevant, because the seed of doubt had been planted. (Hollywood is the most difficult bit-player to urge into cooperation.)

Casting Overlap: Santa came to Sage's school, a larger-than-life man in a flawless costume (complete with a bushy, real beard) who distributed presents (supplied by the parents) to the students and told trie little elf stories with perfunctory Kringlese. (Though after he asked the children, "Does anyone know who Jesus was?" I suspected he was going to refer to his reindeer as "Peter, Paul, John, Matthew...".) Afterward, Sage asked if that was the real Santa. "It sure looked like Santa", I assured her. "Yeah, but he looked different than the one at the mall downtown." (We had not "visited" that Santa, but he had come into view when we breached the border of the Pioneer North Pole when looking for something for Sage's mom.) It's tough to keep up a fairy tale in which the hero continually changes their physical appearance---it's like trying to believe "Darren" was actually Darren when he seemed to be a completely different person in random reruns of Bewitched. (Worse, imagine Bewitched with dozens of different Darrens.)

Prop Problems: Sage and I sat watching one of the holiday cartoon movies when she asked, "If Santa comes down the chimney and out the fireplace, where does he get out at our house?" Her curiosity was genuine: Our 1924 bungalow has no fire place, no wood stove, no possible portal between the rooftop and the living room. It was one of those moments that you see in an advertisement, the dad speechless to such a simple yet complicated question, except there was no voice-over narration to mask the awkward silence that followed. I goggled my brain for something...anything...plausible. "There's a little door in the base of the chimney", I explained, then immediately recalled that the little door I was picturing was actually located on my parent's chimney, in a house they sold 20 years ago. I don't like fibbing to Sage (though when necessary, I will obfuscate the truth verbal gymnastics that would leave even the Dad in Calvin and Hobbes dizzy), and this was a lie that she could fact-check during a commercial break. A man shouldn't be subjected to such dilemmas---parenting is expansive enough without an additional section of the test featuring logic puzzles.

Too Many Writers: In our family, Santa brings one gift; Mom and Dad supply the rest. (Santa already has a billion toys in his sled, he can't be bringing the whole Smurf village to every little girl who asks.) But in Sage's cousin's house, Santa brings most of the gifts. Thus, when the kids got together that night, Sage's cousin rattled off a long list of gifts delivered by jolly old St. Nick, while she stood by with her single Santa-supplied toy in her hand, a puzzled expression on her face: Why is Santa so disproportionate in his generosity? Was her letter to Santa too specific in its request? Or had she deceived herself into thinking she would be on the "nice" side of Santa's ledger, and in fact had a line reserved for her name under "naughty"? I watched from across the room as she wrestled with these puzzles, knowing that my involvement would only exacerbate the problem because it would give her a forum for articulating her uncertainties, each question (and its noncommittal answer) begetting another question. She shrugged it off as they got down to the serious business of playing with their new toys, but at that moment I felt Dickens' ghost of Christmas Future creep onto the stage.

He looked like an ogre in a fairy tale.

What surprised me this season is that I had not anticipated any of these spoilers, yet they were hammering me on a near-daily basis, making the holiday season feel less like reveling and more like spin control. I think we managed to keep the ruse in tact, and next year she will again be excited to believe that this particular fairy tale will come true again. I just have to remember: First, don't let Santa tell any Jesus stories; Second, keep a keen eye out for rogue Santas lurking behind department-store snow drifts; Third, investigate financing on the installation of a fireplace, and finally....well, sorry Sage, Santa's going to stick to the one-gift-only rule. More than one gift for each child and, well...then the story just wouldn't work in the real world.

©2008 wpreagan