Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Finding the Afikomen

I'm still chuckling about a Jon Stewart thing the other night. (Probably most of North America is doing the same thing, but only half a million or so of us will blog about it, so there.) Stewart caught me with a bit about a dogged TV news reporter whose specialty is personally recreating peculiar scenarios that pop up in the news – in this case, falling off a cruise ship and being lost at sea.

Among other things, Stewart poked fun at the reporter for pointing out earnestly to a Coast Guard rescuer that finding people at sea is as hard as (wait for it) "finding a needle in a haystack". Open-mouthed mugging from Stewart, who offered a few better similes, finishing with " finding the afikomen... in a really big house!" Then an aside along the lines of "That'll please about 16 Jews. The rest of you won't have a clue what I'm talking about."

Well, while I was studying Hebrew (and Latin and Greek and German... oy!) at university, I kept getting invited to Passover dinners (seders), although I'm not myself Jewish. And somehow I was always the youngest one (a mere 23 or so), so I kept being given a lot of songs and readings to do, and being made to go find the afikomen.

At which point I should explain that the afikomen (stress on the third syllable) is a piece of broken matzoh that is wrapped in a napkin and hidden before the seder. The children get to look for it (think: Easter eggs); or sometimes they "steal" it and get to "ransom" it back to the grownups. Different families have different traditions around the afikomen; some keep part of it in the house for the year the way Roman Catholics keep blessed palm fronds after Palm Sunday.

Actually, even apart from the Easter-egg and palm-frond tie-ins, the afikomen is one of those points where Jewish and Christian traditions share common DNA. The Christian Last Supper was a seder, and the bread that Jesus blessed – commemorated as the sacred wafer in Christian services – was essentially a broken matzoh. The afikomen, if you will. In the Jewish tradition, the afikomen stands for the sacrificial lamb that could not be prepared in the days of the destruction of the temple; the Christian wafer stands for the body of Jesus, the sacrificial lamb... the parallel couldn't be much closer.

So whereas I've been laughing with pleasure at being reminded of this longish funny word with such a tremendously specific meaning, those four syllables have also brought back to me the recollecton of a whole fabric of interlaced threads that bear reflection at this time of year. (The first day of Passover is Tuesday, April 3 this year, and Holy Thursday, the commemoration of the Last Supper, is April 5, with Easter on the 9th.)

Flashback to a typically tasteless Family Guy joke a few nights earlier, with a nerdy Jewish guy fleeing from a Hitler scarecrow (dear God, was it referred to on the show as a "scareJew"???) yelling "Save Jon Stewart! He's our most important Jew!" Tasteless, yes, but there's a point there.

Time to Disembark

Here's another one that makes me throw up in my mouth a little: "deplane". These days, airplane passengers are generally given instructions upon landing about "deplaning", as in "please remember to take all your belongings with you when you deplane". (This one wasn't around as recently as the mid-'80s, to the best of my recollection.)

Why did we need "deplane" when we already had lots of other ways to express this idea, like "disembark", for instance? You might think a new word had been chosen because it's easier for non-English speakers to understand. But "disembark" has cognates in French (désembarquer), as well as Spanish and Italian, whereas "deplane" does not.

By the way, I'm guessing that the "bark" part of "disembark" might be related to "bark/barque", meaning a boat, (It's related to the French "barque" and the Spanish/Portuguese/Italian "barca"). So "disembarking" is "getting off the boat". (The airship, if you'd like to put it in terms Mr. Burns might understand.)

On the other hand, the "deplane" formation makes me think of words like "delouse", "debug", "detoxify" and, for that matter, "de-ice". In all these words, the "de-" prefix has the sense of getting rid of something – often a whole lot of unwanted somethings. "Deplaning" conjures up the image of combing a bunch of pesky airplanes out of wet, tangly hair. Or it could be one of those unpleasant military euphemisms like "collateral damage", as in "Sir, we can now report that the area has been fully deplaned".

I find that flying is stressful enough; I'd like to be allowed to disembark peacefully. At the worst, I suppose I wouldn't mind "debarking". Or, in the interests of supreme simplicity, couldn't the powers that be just tell us to be careful to take everything with us when we "leave the plane"?

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

I Feel Obliged To Point Out...

...that "obligated" is an unnecessary neologism. I cringe every single time I hear it. It must be a back-formation from "obligation". But we already had the perfectly good word "oblige", as in "I am obliged to admit that I find this obligation tedious". No need at all for the clumsy-sounding "obligated".

True, some verbs are shaped this way ("incubate", "concentrate" and so on). But this isn't one of them.

If you think this point tiresomely pompous and pedantic, consider how you'd feel if someone said "I just just realizated that I missed my dental appointment" or "I enjoy conversating with smart people" or "The local theatre company just dramatizated the story of our town".

Not so nice, is it?

Monday, March 26, 2007

Less is Neither More Nor Fewer

"Less" and "fewer" mean different things. "Less " refers to a smaller quantity of anything that can be measured by volume. "Fewer" refers to a smaller number of anything that can be counted.

So you might have less water in a reservoir, less gas in your tank, less spring in your step or less hope for future generations.

You might have fewer students in this year's English class, fewer mosquito bites on your arm, fewer chances to ski since Global Warming began to make itself manifest or fewer grammatical mistakes in this essay than the last one.

However, if you use the phrase "less people", that conjures up the idea that you have ground up the people in question, possibly in a gigantic blender, and poured some out. A truly horrific notion, as I'm sure you'll agree.

Which Hunter

I find it interesting that Stephen King spends quite a bit of time defending the importance of correct grammar in his excellent and inspiring On Writing, yet his editor allowed him to misuse "which" consistently throughout.

"Which" and "that" are both used to introduce subordinate clauses: groups of words that tell us more about the word or phrase they modify. However, "that" generally tells which of several examples of a thing is being referred to. (Often, when used before verbs, it gets dropped out of sentences these days.) "Which" is used to give an extra tidbit of information.

The Canadian Press Stylebook explains this in more technical terms when it says: "That often introduces an essential clause – one that... cannot be omitted. (...) Which introduces a non-essential or parenthetical clause – one that adds information that could be omitted without changing meaning."

Check out these examples:

"The puppy that died was the smallest of the litter." (There were several puppies. Only one died.)
"The puppy, which died, was the smallest of the litter." (By the way, the small puppy died.)

"The bowl that is full of soup is on the counter." (There are lots of bowls, but only one has soup.)
"The bowl, which is full of soup, is on the counter." (There's only one bowl. Watch out! It's full of soup.)

"The book that I am reading is interesting." (This means "of all my books, the one I'm reading right now..." These days, it's apt to be changed to "The book I'm reading...")
"The book, which I am reading, is interesting." (A bit sarcastic, possibly to be read in a Houselike tone: Can't you see I'm reading, you moron?)

Notice that if you drop out the red bits, you still get the essential meaning of the sentence, but if you drop out the purple bits, you have trouble knowing which dog, which bowl, which book.

If you still can't tell, speak the sentence out loud. If you hear yourself making a comma-sized pause before the "which-or-that" part of the sentence, the word that you want is "which".

On an Annoying Basis

If you'd like to shorten a piece of writing, check to see whether you've used any examples of a contemporary plague phrase: "on a [stick any old adjective here] basis". You can pretty much always change it to a single word, as follows:

"He goes for a walk on a daily basis" becomes "He goes for a daily walk"
"I visit my mom on a weekly basis" becomes "I visit my mom weekly" (or "every week")
"It's important to change your furnace filter on a regular basis" becomes "It's important to change your furnace filter regularly"

And so on. (The only exception would relate to an arrangement for paying back a loan, where installments might be set up on a monthly basis, or perhaps on a 28-day basis, in which case the loan would be paid back with significantly less interest.)

Bye-bye to "Healthful"

We've lost this battle, but I thought I'd like to stick a pin in the map to show where there used to be a perfectly good word: "healthful". It meant "good for you", and, in relation to food, was similar in meaning to "nutritious".

A piece of toast or a tomato might be "healthful" when eaten. However, a piece of toast cannot be "healthy", which means "enjoying good health". A tomato can only be "healthy" if it's still on the vine, thriving and free from disease.

Now, food is considered "healthy" if it's good for you. So is a brisk walk. So is a good attitude. Good-bye, healthful!