Friday, July 24, 2009

Wordless definitions: Funny

You know, it's really hard to concentrate on instructing your son on the finer points of highway driving when you get onto US-23 and see the leader of a group of bikers with a naked blow-up doll on the back of his motorcycle. At least she had a helmet on.

Seriously, if you don't at least smile at this, there's something wrong with you.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Word Nerd Sez: O is for ...


This is one of those two-dollar words that I love to use, especially around young children—and especially to describe young children. Webster's says it means "marked by unruly or aggressive noisiness" or "stubbornly defiant or unruly." I think we've all met kids like this (not mine, of course!), and since they don't pay attention long enough for you to dazzle them with brilliance, I like to try to baffle them with bullsh— two-dollar words. "Why are you being so obstreperous!" I'll cry, and they'll usually stop what they're doing to give me a puzzled look, at least long enough for me to physically intervene in whatever mischief they're getting into. I can't claim this is a particularly effective strategy, and it's one of last resort, but it is one that's guaranteed to get one of those "you are so weird" looks that I usually get from grownups. I'm not sure why I think that's a good idea; maybe it's proof that I don't use a double standard in dealing with kids, which they usually appreciate—if they're not being obstreperous.

Anyway, about that word: there's nothing particularly unique about its origin, which is pure Latin. The prefix ob- means "against" (we see it in obstruction, obstacle, obstinate, etc.) and -strepere means "to make a clamor." (In combining these roots, don't think of it as "against clamor," but rather "against, by making a clamor.") So in addition to being very useful in describing other people's children, obstreperous is a very straightforward word, etymologically speaking. I especially like it because of the way it sounds: ob-STREP-er-ous. You can spit out the "strep" part with an amount of frustration that corresponds to the misbehavior.

I had a high school English teacher who would have told you that this expressive quality makes obstreperous a good example of onomatopoeia*. That's another two-dollar O word I really like, meaning "the naming of a thing by a vocal imitation of the sound associated with it" (such as buzz or hiss) or "the use of words whose sound suggests the sense." I still remember her fine example of onomatopoeia: nostril. "It sounds disgusting," she explained, pronouncing it with venom: "Nossss-trull. And it is disgusting!" Needless to say, this was not a big help to us seniors studying for the AP Exam, and I don't think any of us jotted this gem of a tip down. Did this make us obstreperous? I don't think so; later that year I spiked her tissue box with dry ice, creating a cloud of fog around her desk, but she didn't even notice and so there was a distinct lack of clamor involved. Sigh.

*double-checking the definition, I browsed nearby and saw the perfect O-word for this feature: onomastics, or "the sceince of study of the origins and forms of words esp. as used in a specialized field." You mean some people study this all the time, like a career? Swoon!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Little Prince: The Official Haiku Review

I was going to try to read my list of foreign-language classics in chronological order (it seemed to make as much sense as anything else), but my fellow library patrons wouldn't cooperate. So after finishing the dense, poetic Inferno of Dante, I turned to this short little children's novel by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. I've seen it on bookstore shelves all my life, and with more than 80 million copies in print, it's likely the most famous foreign-language work for children ever published. (If there's another candidate, by all means let me know.) So by reading this 1943 work, I'm getting two birds with one stone, so to speak. (Or at least crossing it off a future Remedial Children's Lit Project list.) In any case, here's the review:

Time spent with others
Tames your heart. Awwwwwwww, that prince is
Too twee* to stay here.

Obviously, many many people are fond of this book, in which the narrator tells of being forced to land his airplane in the desert and then meeting the Little Prince there. The LP, being from another planet (really, an asteroid), tells the narrator of his travels and what he has learned. His lessons mainly have to do with learning to see with the heart, and finding value in things and people you love. There is a single rose on his asteroid, and many on earth, but he realizes "it is the time you have spent with your rose that makes your rose so important." Having imparted his wisdom to the narrator, he leaves, telling his friend not to be sad, "because there is nothing sad about old shells."

Sweet sentiments, yes. But by the time I'd finished the book (and it didn't take long, it is very brief), I was ready to gag on the sweetness. Maybe that's being a bit imprecise; I'll try to explain it better. The first thing I found irritating was the continual references to how grownups don't get it, you can't explain things to grownups, they're beyond help, blah blah blah. I don't think it's because I myself am now a grownup who just doesn't understand things; I've read other books that state this sentiment without getting annoyed. But in those cases, the little asides about how children understand the world better than grownups felt like a secret the author was sharing with me. In this book, after about the fifth or sixth reference, it no longer felt like a secret; it felt more like pandering, or like that really eccentric teacher who thinks she's "with it" but the kids all think she's weird. (In other words, more like how Boy sees me at this point: over-the-hill and uncognizant of the fact. Twerp. But I digress.)

The other thing that I found irritating about the book wasn't the sweet theme itself; the story of the fox about how being tamed involves two creatures changing, that was sweet. Having it repeated about ten times with the subtlety of a sledgehammer? Not so much. For a short book, it didn't take long for me to feel like the author was really saying: "Hey! [WHACK!] Appreciate your friends! [WHACK!] Do I have your attention? [WHACK!] Friends are special! [WHACK!] Treasure your experiences! [WHACK!] Are you sure you're paying attention? [WHACK! WHACK!] Love is what it's all about!"

So maybe I'm just a cynical old grownup who sees a hat instead of a snake eating an elephant ... but I think that had I read this at age nine, I would have been a cynical young reader who wanted more story, less moral. C'est la vie, no?

*twee=a Britishism meaning "affectedly or excessively [ie annoyingly] cute"

Monday, July 20, 2009

Photo of the Week--7/20/09

Before we headed down to the southernmost point of Argentina on our way to Antarctica, we had a couple of days to walk around Buenos Aires. We took in a tango, had wonderful steak, and visited this lovely cemetery, La Recoleta. All the mausoleums are laid out like their own little city; some are very well tended, while others are a bit neglected and overgrown, like the one behind me. (Please ignore my stylish outfit; we had to pack more than two weeks of clothes, good for hot and cold climates, in under 35 pounds. I'm almost as proud of making the trip with only one pair of shoes as I am of surviving the crossing to Antarctica.)