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Strictly Speaking



Being members of a linguistic species, words provide ample opportunity to trip over one’s tongue, particularly if an individual is caught in the unblinking public eye of the media while providing a seemingly glib response that becomes an instantaneously and universally embarrassing faux pas. The first rule is always think before you speak. Second to this is to be certain that you understand that meaning or meanings of the words that you speak.

Winston Churchill memorably recommended that it is better to keep one’s mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt. It is perhaps his second wittiest saying. Wittiest by far is when Churchill was approached by a liberal adversary in seemingly indemnifying female form, who said, “If you were my husband, sir, I would give you poison,” to which Churchill instantly responded (without as much as exhaling from his execrable cigar), “If you were my wife, madam, I would take it.”

Proving that where great wit has been cultivated by class, education and repartee, even excusing Churchill being half American, leaves the conclusion that with practiced tongues, gaffes are rare and trips rarer yet.

Pity the poor instantly famous astronaut and future President of American Airlines when asked, “Mr. Borman, how do you see the future of NASA.” Blinded by Klieg lights and unaware that he was playing out a Warholian moment, Borman responded, “I see the future of NASA as extremely nebulous.”

Star-crossed with words, Borman was probably alluding to nebulae, which as interstellar objects are brilliant clouds of gas, often remnants of supernovae, hatching places and nurseries of new stars, many of which will form solar systems, and – known only recently with great confidence – many of which will have earth-like planets circling them in orbits known as the Goldilocks zone, far enough from their star to resist incinerating radiation, close enough to keep water liquid, a condition most favorable to life as we know it. And so, Borman the star-seeker, seeking Earthly stardom like any normal person thrust into the blaze of fame, burned up after re-entry, thinking that a word meant one thing, while failing to know that it was another: a zone or place of confusion and disorder, a place sometimes brilliant but on deeper contemplation, a source of bafflement as to its origins, purpose and ultimate destiny. The kind of organization that would push on after Challenger and Columbia is, arguably, producing lots of confusion and hot gas in Congressional hearings.

And you wonder how American Airlines got into its tailspin. Houston, we have a problem. It’s not just a southern accent and you can’t solve it with an ap on your i-phone, because it deals with words and their meanings, and precious few people use words corresponding to their meanings any more. As words once familiar and correctly applied in former ages become recycled, often they are reduced to no more than noises.

Sometimes a flash of misuse creates a brilliant and unforgettable linguistic blooper. The reason why this phenomenon continues to increase in frequency as we boldly go where no one has gone before may come down to Captain Kirk’s message to Scottie after the Enterprise has warped forward in time to see what planet Earth has become in the 23rd century: “Beam me up, Scottie. There’s no intelligent life down here.” Read More 
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Malapropisms, Oxymorons and Handicaps


Usually taken to mean a person as adept with one hand as with the other, the actual decomposition of this word reveals instead an anatomical freak. With allowance for the fact that better than eighty-five percent of people are right handed, it makes sense for inventing a word that subordinates the other hand to the role of measuring up to the right. Dexter is Latin for right, and ambidextrous might loosely be taken as someone whose naturally inferior left hand has become equal in power of manipulation and reflex to the right. But this is not the sense in which the word is generally intended.

The intent is to say that each hand is equal to the other, and the success of an action like throwing an object can be carried out with equal prowess with either. Unfortunately the Latin root word is stuck on the sense of being both right and Right. This often led left handers to being considered sinister, whereas they are actually just sinistral.

A literally ambidextrous person would be a person who had a right hand at the end of both arms. This would mean that the right hand was exactly superimposible on the left. It is not. The hands are related to one another as mirror images. Now when this relationship happens with chemicals they are optical isomers, and have different chirality, or handedness. The applicable Greek word for handedness is chirality. It is so unfamiliar that most spell check programs will call it up as wrong, with the ominous and stigmatizing wiggly red underline.

But for a person truly equally talented with either hand, the preferred word should be ambichiral. Such individuals are indifferent to which hand is used in, for example, the manipulation of a fork or pen. Usually the facility in deploying fine movements is taken as the measure of equality between hands. One professor of mine at Cornell could write distinct text on the blackboard with both hands as he lectured in subtext providing yet a third stream of information. Complimenting this remarkable ambichiral skill came yet another spiel, its words bounced off the blackboard and back at the audience (a word meaning those who listen; an auditorium is a room in which they listen).

This blitzkrieg of information overwhelmed normal mortals caught at its triple point. And requiring cooperation to overcome adversity. Complete notes required triple teaming this guy. In my triad, I was responsible for what clattered off the professor’s right hand in chalk. My partners shared the other tasks. A left hander transcribed the professor’s left-handed equations. A gifted public speaker recorded his vocal lecture. If I learned nothing else from the class (it was, after all, quantum mechanics), at least I appreciated the advantages of academic teamwork.  Read More 
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