Month: November 2013

Origins of the Word ‘Filibuster’

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When Senate Democrats acted last week to end filibusters as we know them (at least for certain appointments), cries and sighs were heard on both sides of the Congressional aisle.

Sighs came from the Dems, who now could put in a federal post any person living or dead, criminal or upright.

Cries of injustice rang from the GOPers. Had the Republicans pulled the trigger on the so-called “nuclear option” back in the mid-2000s when they controlled the Senate, however, roles would’ve been reversed with Dems crying affront to democracy and Repubs cheering, at least under their breaths.

Republican Gov. Rick Perry of Texas was livid earlier this year when State Senator Wendy Davis filibustered the legislature in Austin over an abortion bill. The good guv called it “nothing more than the hijacking of the democratic process.”

Which brings up the origins of the word filibuster, and for this I rely on the research and writings of Merrill Perlman in the Columbia Journalism Review:

Of “filibuster,” The Oxford English Dictionary says, “the ultimate source is certainly the Dutch vrijbuiter,” or “freebooter,” “a privateer … a piratical adventurer, a pirate; any person who goes about in search of plunder.” From the 18th century to the middle of the 19th, the OED says, the preferred term in English was the French “fibustier.” But about “1850-54,” the OED says, the form “filibuster,” from the Spanish filibustero, “began to be employed as the designation of certain adventurers who at that time were active in the W. Indies and Central America.”

The word filibuster began taking on a legislative slant about mid-century (1850s or later) when “someone in the Congressional Globe wrote: ‘I saw my friend … filibustering, as I thought, against the United States.'” (Note the verb usage.)

In 1889, the noun version of  filibuster appeared, referring to the person blocking the action, not to the act itself. Within a few years, the noun filibuster was being applied to “an act of obstruction in a legislative assembly,” the OED says.

In other words, as Perlman notes in his article, equating a filibuster with a hijacking is not without historical and linguistic justification, regardless of which side of the aisle you or your senator sits.

Categories: Grammar Notes

As Simple as 12345

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dear-santaThe United States Postal Service (USPS), that darling of Benjamin Franklin and his vision for America now gone virtually bust in the face of the digital revolution, created the ZIP code in 1963.

The Zone Improvement Plan (ZIP) was introduced in 1944 by Robert Moon, but it took nearly 20 seasons of moons for the USPS to finally got around to implementing the system.

ZIP codes were designed to speed delivery, as we all know. When the service assigned the ZIP numbers, it awarded 12345 — the simplest to remember — to General Electric in Schenectady, N.Y.

As a result, GE gets thousands of “Dear Santa” letters each year from kids who think “12345” is Santa’s personal ZIP Code.

The good news is that employees at the plant volunteer to answer the letters.

The bad news is, well, that USPS is going bust despite its Zone Improvement Plan.

But I’d better shut up. I’m beginning to sound too much like Scrooge.

Categories: Grammar Notes

The End of Reading?

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Tina-BrownLetter writing has definitely gone bye-bye in favor of 140-character Tweets, misspelled and garbled emails and text messages, and shout outs in all their various forms, but now a noted editor and journalist has driven the last nail in literacy’s coffin by declaring the end of reading.

Tina Brown (pictured),  recently departed from both Newsweek and The Daily Beast, has come out against the printed word by observing that we’re “going back to oral culture where the written word will be less relevant.”

Blame it on the digital revolution, of course. And personally, Ms. Brown doesn’t even read magazines anymore.

“The habit has gone,” the one time editor of Vanity Fair, The New YorkerTalk and Newsweek told reporters in Goa, where she was speaking at the THiNK festival. “I think you can have more satisfaction from live conversations.”

Ms. Brown, coincidentally, is leaving print publishing for a new career in live conferencing, so she’ll no doubt be involved in lots of oral conversations here on out.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep writing. No one wants to listen to me blab anyway. Unfortunately, they probably don’t want to read my writing either, but one must always have hope in life.

Categories: Grammar Notes

‘Silly Remarks’ at Gettysburg

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Gettysburg-speech-editorial-apologyI don’t know what they do today in public schools, but back in the Pleistocene when I studied Latin, trigonometry and the classics (or pretended to anyway), they made us all memorize and perform Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

Not sure about classroom recitals these days, maybe students memorize Jay Z lyrics or lines from Quentin Tarantino movies. Perhaps they just Tweet and send Instagrams, and the teacher retweets.

Anyway, 150 years ago a Gettysburg newspaper (see image) characterized Lincoln’s address as a compilation of “silly remarks.”

The Patriot & Union devoted all of one paragraph to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: “We pass over the silly remarks of the President. For the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them, and that they shall be no more repeated or thought of.”

On the cusp of the speech’s 150th anniversary, the newspaper — now called the Patriot-News — this week issued an apology, which read in part:

“Our predecessors, perhaps under the influence of partisanship, or of strong drink, as was common in the profession at the time, called President Lincoln’s words ‘silly remarks,’ deserving ‘a veil of oblivion,’ apparently believing it an indifferent and altogether ordinary message, unremarkable in eloquence and uninspiring in its brevity.”

The “strong drink, as was common in the profession at the time” is one of the great reasons I became a journalist. Not sure what journalists drink today, maybe Obamaian Kool-Aid. But pardon my silly remark, please.

Categories: Grammar Notes

‘That’re’ Contraction Not Real English


Contractions are a handy feature in English grammar, allowing us to combine a couple of words into one. Contractions such as we’re and they’re are fine, but I just received an email using the would-be contraction that’re, which is completely bogus and not acceptable in standard English.

Another such unacceptable contraction would be there’re.

Though I know by ear and experience that that’re and there’re are both incorrect English, finding a rule to explain why isn’t so easy to do. I did a Google search on “rules for contractions in English” and found all kinds of sites showing examples of how to correctly use contractions, but not a single site that could cite a rule concerning when contractions shouldn’t be used.

If anyone finds the rules, please let me know.

Meanwhile, remember this: Contractions should never be used in formal writing, whether a college essay or a business proposal. In fact, contractions should generally be confined to oral communication.

Categories: Grammar Notes