Tag Archives: words

Don’t Needle Me: The Words We Use

While traveling a while back, I saw a woman toting a sewing machine as her carry-on luggage. No one stopped her.

What is the matter with the Transportation Security Administration? Don’t they realize the dangers inherent in sewing machines? Consider the terminology.

A needle is a small, slender, pointed implement used for sewing or surgical suturing. Have you never punctured yourself while attempting to attach a button or stitch a hem? I inevitably bleed on my blouse or skirt. It’s no wonder the verb needle also means to goad or provoke. I’m often provoked when attempting to sew.

This line of thought led me to consider the analogies used in business and wonder for a moment why sewing analogies don’t show up as often as sports. I assume it is because until recently the majority of business strategists were male, and the majority of sports enthusiasts were also male. “Let’s figure out our game plan so we’ll be in the catbird seat.” I’ve wondered where the catbird seat is and where the phrase came from. It apparently was used in the south to mean an advantageous position, high up where the group of birds that includes the mockingbird choose to sit to sing their tunes. The term was popularized in a story by James Thurber, who cited its frequent use by sports commentator Red Barber.

When things are going well, the company is batting a thousand, perhaps with the assistance of a cleanup hitter.

Although these terms are easily understood by most Americans, even those who aren’t fond of sports, the full court press utilized by basketball teams and business strategists may be more obscure. Any of these could be misconstrued by those not familiar with the sport.

Some years ago, former Secretary of State Condaleeza Rice, urging patience to critics of a plan to shut down North Korea’s nuclear program, assured them we were only in the first quarter, with a lot of time left on the clock.

Rice’s language was familiar to others on the Bush White House team, but less to the Asians she was addressing. But that’s okay. Ms. Rice took one for the team and kept her eye on the ball. A good thing, else her gaffe might have become a political football for Democrats to kick around.

Let’s level the playing field and consider the other endeavors and hobbies that we employ to add spice to our words. Want to postpone making a decision? Put it on the back burner. Let your ideas simmer for a while. But don’t stew about the problem and by all means, don’t cook the books. However, if the issue rises to the top of the list, consider your opportunity to curry favor with your manager by putting some heat under it.

The phrase curry favor has nothing to do with Indian cooking. It comes from an old French morality poem about a vain donkey named Fauvel that deceived the leaders of the court and rose to power. Those who wanted to please him and gain political power stroked and curried Fauvel. A later English moralist changed the term and it evolved to currying favor.

Let’s end where we began, with sewing. Two basic stitches in knitting are the knit stitch and the purl stitch. Is it possible the word purl is related to purloin? Purloin, meaning steal or misappropriate, has its origins in Middle English, meaning to put away or set aside. I’d love to hear from knitters out there if there’s any sense in my thinking. One website referred to the purl as the opposite of a knit stitch. The purl stitch is yin, the dark, shady hillside, to the knit stitch’s yang, the bright, flat open space.

Or am I merely missing a stitch?

Remembrance: How to Write an Obituary

A week ago my husband and I, along with our daughter, flew to Missouri for the celebration of the life of my beautiful, loving mother-in-law, Jeri. Jeri was born in Oklahoma but was raised and spent much of her life in Cabool, Missouri (really), a tiny town east of Springfield. It was a wonderful tribute to a woman who lived her life dedicated to her immediate and extended family and her community. The many relatives who’d enjoyed her kindness through the years spoke of her graciousness. She did the right thing, even when others wondered why. I was lucky to have her as my mother-in-law. She showed her love for me and my daughter (who came into Jeri’s life at age seven) in many acts of kindness in her life. One other writers will enjoy is that she was so proud of my having a book published that she bought copies for each of her siblings, whether or not they read much or appreciated humorous mysteries.

Jeri's memorial flowers
Jeri’s memorial flowers

Jeri spent her last years in a memory care center here in Tucson, not her happiest move. She’d had a stroke and couldn’t be independent any longer, so my husband and his sister decided she’d have to move here. Even though she was legally blind and couldn’t read anymore—her favorite pastime— or listen to music—another lost joy—she was always kind to the staff of the center and always welcomed me with love. She introduced me to the staff (many times!) as her daughter-in-law, the author. Not much more you could hope for in a mother-in-law.

Jeri’s death reminded me of an article I wrote some years back about how to write an obituary, so I’m including it here. Now I realize it would be easier to write one after friends and relatives share memories of the departed loved one. For example, a cousin talked about how Aunt Jeri always had lemon drops on hand in her home, something I’d forgotten.  A good obituary provides memories for the bereaved to cherish.

Here’s that article:

What to say in an obituary or other tribute

Writing an obituary for a relative or a dear friend or delivering a eulogy are tasks likely to fall to many of us. How can they be done successfully?

The Obituary

To be certain your obituary includes what you want others to remember about you, write it yourself. Only you know what you hold most dear and which accomplishments and amusing stories about your life should be shared after your death. Doing it yourself also saves loved ones the pain and anxiety of writing your obituary.

Writing an Obituary for Someone Else

Funeral homes will provide assistance in writing an obituary, but their employees did not know the deceased and will include only the essential facts – birth, date of death, a list of surviving family and family members who predeceased the person. They may include other vital information, if you provide it, such as military service, education, honors and awards.

It’s your responsibility to assure all information is correct. Include the full name of the deceased along with any nicknames. Double check the spelling of survivors’ names and cities of residence.

Most newspapers charge by the line for publishing obituaries, so length is a consideration. Given lower circulation, newspapers are desperately seeking new revenue sources, so check before you blithely send off a lengthy obit.

A butterfly at the Springfield Conservation Nature Center
A butterfly at the Springfield Conservation Nature Center

As with any communication, consider the audience. What do you want those who read the obituary to remember about the deceased individual? How would he or she wish to be remembered? Include previous residences in the obituary and consider placing it in a newspaper in that city.

An obituary is not a biography, not a listing of all major life events as they occurred. Sometimes it is better to begin with the person’s distinctive character traits or contributions, or to an event that changed the direction of the person’s life.

If you are not a family member or a very close friend, consider spending a few moments with the family, interviewing them about what to include and what to omit. Try to add something of the deceased person’s personality to the obituary. Someone who went through life with optimism and a sense of humor wouldn’t want to be recalled in a totally sorrowful obituary. Someone who found frivolity a waste of time might not appreciate your amusing anecdotes. Use simple language, short words and sentences. Don’t be flowery or overly formal.

If you wish, include clubs and service organizations the person belonged to, his or her hobbies, and passions. If a woman took joy in teaching her grandchildren to bake, share that. As in any communication, avoid acronyms or other phrasing readers won’t understand.

Include information on where memorial contributions or donations may be made. Also include funeral or memorial service information.

As with any important document, proofread and have someone else proofread it.

Cobbler, Slab, Crisp or Slump?

Some might consider the various terms used to describe fruit desserts as jargon, “insider” language to be avoided. I consider their colorful names words to ponder, and the dishes delicious treats to savor.

We all know what a pie is, but why all the other creations and the many names? A 2013 article by Kim Severson in The New York Times, “Sonkers, Grunts, Slumps and Crumbles: What You Call Your Pie Depends on Where You Live,” begins with the search for an authentic recipe for a sonker and ends with a helpful glossary.

Many of the dishes were created to stretch the use of fruit that wasn’t ready for display in a tart. Food author Amanda Hesser maintains that the various names disguise “plain desserts that have been well marketed with good names. Who doesn’t want to try a slump?”peaches-869386_640

A slump? A sonker? Give me a pinch of patience and I’ll describe them. Let’s start with the ubiquitous cobbler. Severson said that what you call a cobbler depends on what you grew up with.

Here in the West, pioneers brought their recipes with them, so a cobbler may be interpreted in several ways in the same state. A 1984 fundraising cookbook from the Owyhee County, Idaho,  Senior Citizens, Country Cooking, shared a recipe for a cobbler with a crumbly top, while a cobbler in a 1970 cookbook by The Idaho Historical Auxiliary had a pie crust-like topping. Some cooks top their cobblers with biscuit dough; others consider that an outrage and stick to batter or pie crust toppings. My stepfather made a great peach cobbler, notable because I believe it had more sugar than peaches. Pandowdy is another colorful name for the cobbler, so named perhaps because of its dowdy appearance.

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Gluten-free Cobbler from King Arthur Flour

Some say the biscuit toppings resemble cobblestones and give the dish its name. Others say it is cobbled together.

Fruit crisp or crumble: In this Northeastern favorite, the fruit is topped with oatmeal and brown sugar. Again, however, the 1970 Idaho cookbook sprinkled flour, cinnamon, margarine and brown sugar over apples and called it a crisp. The same cookbook contained a Rhubarb Crunch. Rhubarb, a plant in the buckwheat family, that is neither fruit nor vegetable, is covered with an oatmeal crumble and baked.

Brown Betty: made by layering fruit and buttered bread crumbs.

Apple slab: A pie made in a 9 x 13 rectangular pan, easier to divide and serve than a round pie.

Buckle: Made with more batter, a buckle is more cake-like. Some top it with streusel.

Slump: Similar to a grunt. In these American cousins of British steamed puddings, stewed fruit is topped with batter or biscuit dough, which is then steamed into dumplings.

Sonker: Specific to Surry County, North Carolina. Some cooks in the county insist that sonkers are made only with sweet potatoes and buttermilk, but others allow it can be made with fruit. The sonker is made in a large, deep pan, ideal for feeding big farm families and their crews. Some cooks insist it be covered with a pie crust, others opt for batter.

Severson quoted Alma Venable, one of the cooks who believe that a proper sonker is made with a crust. On what separates a sonker from a cobbler, Venable said, “You have the violin and you have the fiddle. The sonker is the fiddle.”

Rorters, spruikers and malarkey

While researching the art of the long con for a new novel, I came across an article from Australia and was introduced to two delightful words: rorter and spruiking. Exploring them led me farther astray. What a great way to procrastinate.

A rorter is generally considered Australian slang, and is a noun meaning a swindler, a small-time confidence trickster or cheat. Say it out loud, with or without the Aussie accent. It simply sounds cool, nicely insulting.hog in meadow

The same article referenced spruiking, which means speaking in public, especially to advertise. Ever visit North Beach in San Francisco? No doubt you’ve heard spruiking from the people trying to lure you into the strip joints. The term also is used—by the opposition, no doubt—to describe political speeches. Proponents call it orating.

A rorter might be found spruiking near a bank, hoping to snare a mark with a pigeon drop scheme. A pigeon drop is a confidence trick in which a mark or “pigeon” is persuaded to give up a sum of money in order to secure the rights to a larger sum of money, or more valuable object. In reality, the scammers make off with the money and the mark is left with nothing.

The wise—or bitterly experienced— passerby will recognize the con artist’s spiel as malarkey and keep passing.

Malarkey. Ah, yes. Love the word. Malarkey is defined as foolish words or ideas, or bunkum. Another great word. While the origin of malarkey appears murky, bunkum has a specific and colorful history.

Around 1820, U.S. representative Felix Walker, from Buncombe County, North Carolina, rose to make a spDSC01016eech during a debate. He spoke on and on. And on, refusing to stop, even though most of what he said was irrelevant and foolish. He maintained he was speaking for Buncombe. Because it was not used as an intentional delaying tactic, it was not filibuster, a technique and a term introduced a few decades later. It quickly transformed into bunkum and took on the general meaning of nonsense or balderdash. Balderdash originally meant a jumble of liquors but now means a senseless jumble of words, or claptrap.

Claptrap, according to an online etymology dictionary, originated showy stage action designed to trap applause or claps and has evolved to mean nonsense.

A quick search for synonyms reveals a basket of words—beans, blarney, blather, blatherskite, bosh, blither, drivel, codswallop, fiddlesticks, humbug, guff, taradiddle, and more. Is this because we encounter it so often?

Have you encountered a flim flam man (person) or written about one? What’s your favorite film about con artists? I figure watching several could extend my procrastination for weeks!