Friday, December 21, 2012

He Don't Need No Vocabulary!



I was standing outside my classroom one day last week, when a fellow English teacher told me about a phone call she’d just had with a parent. It seems the student wasn’t doing his vocabulary lessons and was therefore failing his vocabulary quizzes. My colleague deemed it necessary to speak with her student’s father, hoping for some support. Instead, the father stood up for his son. He said—and I quote—“He don’t need no vocabulary.” Of course not. What are teachers these days thinking? There isn’t any vocabulary involved when we speak or read or listen. Surely it is those who “don’t need no vocabulary” whose only useful adjective is an F-bomb. I know people like that. I’ll give them some credit, though; they’ve learned to adapt. The ridiculous parental quote, however, got me thinking some more about some misstated or misspelled or misunderstood expressions and idioms—vocabulary—that I’ve seen and heard. Some are common…some not so common.


1.       I’ve heard the expression, “A card up my sleeve,” and I’ve heard the expression, “An ace in the hole.” What was new to me was when I was watching some guys play cards, and one of the players bragged about winning and said, “I had an ace up my hole.” Gross.

2.       “The actress is nothing but a temper mental pre-Madonna.” Once upon a time—you know, before Madonna rose to fame and fortune—there were crazy actresses with terrible tempers, and thinking back on them, I guess they’ve finally been categorized. The correct saying, however, would be…a temperamental prima donna.

3.       “For all intensive purposes…” These types of “purposes” are the most exhaustive, demanding, and rigorous…like “intensive” training when a workout partner has the treadmill up too high and he falls and shoots off the back of the machine. But for all intents and purposes, if one finds him or herself often flying off treadmills, maybe a stair-stepper would be a better idea.

4.       “Here are some ordurves to wet your appetite.” Hors d’oeuvres is hard to spell (I got it wrong; I admit it), but wet an appetite? Unhappy wife: “You’re an alcoholic.” Drunk in denial: “Naw, I just like to wet my appetite.” It’s whet your appetite.

5.       This brilliant exchange happened at one of my parent/teacher conferences. Mom to daughter: “Either you start towing the line or you’ll have a long road to hoe.” Daughter to mom: “Just because I missed a couple of assignments doesn’t mean I’m gonna be a hooker.” Complete idiom destruction is what happened here. What I would like to know from the mother is why would anyone choose to hoe a road and to where is the daughter supposed to tow the line? It’s toeing the line and a long row to hoe.

6.       “It’s an exercise in fertility.” Actually, that’s what Rapid Grow and sex are for. It’s an exercise in futility.

7.       “All his criticism hurts my self of steam.” Why would anyone think that made sense?  But then again, I think The Little Engine That Could had self of steam pouring out its smokestack. “I think I can. I think I can.” It’s self-esteem.

8.       “Coffee is a required taste.” Is this a rule I’ve missed? I don’t drink coffee, but I don’t want to get in trouble. It would be an acquired taste—most writers acquire it so they can get their minds off the internet and onto that book that isn’t writing itself.

9.       “I’ve all but finished the entire project.” Here’s a person who has done everything except finish. I wonder why he suddenly quit.

10.   “The island is completely surrounded by water.” I just used this sentence to make a point about being redundant—and because I heard someone say this, and I have a better way of saying it: “It’s an island.” An island is surrounded by definition. If it wasn’t...if it was only partly “surrounded,” it would be a peninsula. We in Michigan understand this. And doesn’t “surrounded” also imply completely around?

11.   “I could care less.” So you care some but there is the potential of caring less? Like “I care that you weigh 500 pounds. I could care less, but right now you’re standing on my foot, so I care quite a bit right now. If you’d get off my foot, I wouldn’t care so much.” It’s I couldn’t care less.

12.   “It’s a mute point.” This must be a point that a person cannot hear. I believe that Helen Keller is respectfully credited with a mute point or two, but the rest of us would be making moot points.

13.   “Nip it in the butt.” It’s nip it in the bud (it’s a gardening expression). Bonus irritating saying: “I got up at the butt crack of dawn.” I wonder if this is something that only people in Michigan say. I wonder because I can’t for the life of me figure out why ANYONE would say it, but I heard it for the umpteenth time on Saturday. Someone on hallucinogens somehow correlated a butt crack to the rising of the sun. “Butt” most importantly, how in the world did it then catch on? Bonus, bonus irritating saying: “He was standing there butt naked.” I’m learning there are people infatuated with butts. It’s buck naked.

14.   “It’s a doggy dog world.” What is this, Disney Land? Only in the Wonderful World of Disney can Goofy (a dog) have Pluto (a dog) for a pet—a doggy dog. But the world isn’t like Disney Land (which is good because we’d all run out of money in about a week). In the cutthroat world of business, for instance, it’s a dog eat dog world.

15.   In my class recently, I heard this. “Did you say you’re a vegetarian?” And the follow-up? “That’s right. I don’t eat meat. I’m not a carnival like the rest of you.” Well, at least the rest of us “carnivals” are having fun and eating well.


It’s not my intent to come off as some expert or ridicule people who make occasional grammar or spelling errors. As I was looking up some of these, I discovered I say a few things wrong myself. For instance, I would say “chomping at the bit” instead of “champing” and “tender loving care” instead of “tender love and care.” So I’m just trying to have fun, and in the pursuit of fun, here is a little narrative I threw together, misusing all of the above, plus a few bonus ones in italics:


Here I was, up at the butt crack of dawn, and I found myself butt naked on a deserted island, completely surrounded by water. For all intensive purposes, it would be an exercise in fertility to try to swim for the mainland, but I could care less because I had a card up my hole. I liked being alone. When I’m with other people, it’s a doggy dog world filled with pre-Madonnas, but here alone, there would be no one to hurt my self of steam. I knew living alone would be a long road to hoe, so I headed off in search of food, hoping to nip my hunger in the butt. I’d all but finished a complete trip around the island when I finally discovered some bitter berries which did nothing more than wet my appetite. I hoped the terrible flavor would become a required taste because I couldn’t see myself hunting and fishing for food—I’m not a carnival; I’m a vegetarian. Irregardless, my belief in my survival was prolly a mute point. There would be no need to tow some imaginary line because there in the distance was literally a blessing in the skies—a ship had come to my rescue. 


If you can think of a few of your own that drive you crazy or a story to tell about someone misusing an expression, feel free to leave a comment. Thanks for reading, and have a Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Eyes as Big as Saucers



I’m working on my next book, and per usual, I mix in occasional scenes for fun and transition. My current novel has a grizzly bear that gives occasional moments of respite, and while I was writing one scene, I manufactured the following sentence:  “By then, Lauren had scrambled onto her feet and run to the kitchen where she turned to face the grizzly, her shovel brandished like a lance, her dark brown eyes as big as saucers.” I kind of liked the “shovel brandished like a lance” phrase, but I was unhappy with “eyes as big as saucers.” So I asked my wife, who often helps me when I’m stuck, to finish my simile. I said, “Eyes as big as ________.” Can you guess her response? “Saucers.” That couldn’t be the only response, could it? 

A simile is a figure of speech in which two fundamentally unlike things are explicitly compared, usually in a phrase introduced by like or as, so I just assumed that eyes can be like other things that I can’t necessarily see out of. How about “quarters”? Well, I scrounged around the house trying to find a quarter, which was difficult because I’m totally broke, but when I did, I put it up to my eye and what I realized was…an eye is almost as big as a quarter. Not a good comparison. I found one of those dollar coins, which I should spend because I’m broke, and it was larger, but it made me think of Colonel Klink on Hogan’s Heroes and the Planter’s Peanuts dude with the monocle, so I dismissed that comparison as well. Next I considered, “her dark brown eyes as big as English muffins,” but when a picture of E.T. the Extraterrestrial popped into my head, I nixed that idea as well. Besides, I thought it was stupid. How could one phrase be so difficult? 

I decided to try the internet. In my writing experience, that’s how all problems are solved. I made the mistake, however, of just typing in “similes” in my search. I got totally sidetracked with the following similes. 1. “His thoughts tumbled in his head, making and breaking alliances like underpants in a dryer without Cling Free.”  2. “Even in his last years, Granddad had a mind like a steel trap—only one that had been left out so long that it had rusted shut.”  3. “The ballerina rose gracefully en Pointe and extended one slender leg behind her like a dog at a fire hydrant.”  4. “The little boat gently drifted across the pond exactly the way a bowling ball wouldn’t.”  5. “Her vocabulary was as bad as, like, whatever.”  6. “She grew on him like she was a colony of E. Coli and he was room-temperature Canadian beef.”  7. “Like a midget at a urinal, I was going to have to be on my toes.”   8. “She walked into my office like a centipede with 98 missing legs.”  9. “He was as welcome as a bacon sandwich at a Bar Mitzvah.”  10. “He fell for her like his heart was a mob informant and she was the East River.”

I find I get easily sidetracked. I typed in “her eyes were as big as…” and the first hit was this: “Dan Brown’s Lost Symbol is awful. ‘Her eyes were as big as saucers when it hit her like an oncoming train.’” Well, now I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I couldn’t use “eyes as big as saucers.” I’d be ridiculed. The next hit was on Jack Johnson’s “Bubble Toes” lyrics. “It's as simple as something that nobody knows that her eyes are as big as her bubbly toes on the feet of a queen of the hearts of the cards and her feet are all covered with tar balls and scars.” I never can quite understand how musicians can get away with lyrics like this. I guess if it makes no sense but it manages to fit the rhythm and has a rhyme at the end, it’s acceptable. I on the other hand, have a reputation to deal with, so my Lauren character shouldn’t have “eyes as big as her bubbly toes.”

I tried “big as…large as…round as…scared as,” and then I gave up. And a phrase came to me all on my own, as it always does. “By then, Lauren had scrambled onto her feet and run to the kitchen where she turned to face the grizzly, her shovel brandished like a lance. Just as with prey in a trap, her dark brown eyes were wild with terror in the midst of the madness.” It’s not funny like many I found or poetic like others or even unintelligible like in the songs, but it’s mine—unless I revise it later.