Tuesday, April 22, 2014


Literally is a Chrome browser extension that replaces literally with figuratively. Funny, yes. But a better choice when writing is to replace literally with nothing, nothing at all:

That meeting had me literally climbing the walls.
That meeting had me figuratively climbing the walls.
That meeting had me climbing the walls.
My friend Aldo Carrasco used literally with impunity. He must have gotten special permission. “Literally unbelievable” was a signature Aldo phrase.

[As you might imagine, Literally turns this post into nonsense.]

Musicians and vocalists

From the introduction to a 60 Minutes segment on the Kinshasa Symphony: “We were surprised to find two hundred musicians and vocalists.” I know what that means: “We were surprised to find two hundred instrumentalists and singers.”

Musician can be a tricky word. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the meanings “a person talented in the art of music” and “a person who performs music, esp. on a musical instrument; a professional performer of music.” So the word does tilt in the direction of those who play instruments. But ask someone in music the innocent question “What do you play?” and a someone who sings may be slightly offended. “My voice is my instrument” might be the chilly response.

Vocalist makes me think of a guy or gal sitting on a bandstand circa 1940. That guy or gal was a singer, probably a fine musician. Vocalist seems especially odd when applied to classical music. Elly Ameling, Janet Baker, Beniamino Gigli: vocalists? No, singers. Or a soprano, a mezzo-soprano, and a tenor.

Applying the word musician to both instrumentalists and singers can be awkward: am I comfortable calling, say, Britney Spears, a musician? Yipes. But that’s where the word’s earlier meaning kicks in: “a person talented in the art of music.”

[The Kinshasa Symphony is the subject of a 2010 documentary. Its Netflix availability: “unknown.” About the “chilly response”: don’t ask me how I know that.]

Monday, April 21, 2014

Georges, Formby and Harrison

As you may already know, British Pathé has made an archive of 85,000 films available through YouTube. I’m not sure how I found my way to this one. From 1940, it’s George Formby singing one of his signature songs, “The Window Cleaner”:

Did you notice what was going on in the first two seconds? Those are the ukulele chords at the end of The Beatles’ “Free as a Bird,” played a half-step down. That tag also appears at the end of the Formby favorite “Mr. Wu’s a Window Cleaner Now” (in the proper key of D: B♭7, A7, D). I knew that the end of “Free as a Bird” was a tip of the hat to Formby, but I didn’t know that the hat fit so perfectly.

It’s not a Formby sample at the end of “Free as a Bird”; by all accounts, it’s another George, Harrison, Formby fan and devoted ukuleleist, who plays those chords. According to the George Formby Appreciation Society, the man on stage at the end of the “Free as a Bird” video is Formbyite Alan Randall.

And as every Beatles fan should already know, the voice at the end of “Free as a Bird” that sounds as if it’s saying “Made by John Lennon” is John’s voice in reverse, speaking the Formby catchphrase “Turned out nice again.” That phrase is the title of a Formby film. And “It’s Turned Out Nice Again” is a Formby song.

Here’s a page with a link to George Harrison playing and singing a Formby song. And here’s George at home, playing Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz’s “A Shine on Your Shoes,” ending with the tag. And here’s a clip of George and Jeff Lynne on banjo-ukes. The tag’s at 2:54.

I love the Internets.

[“Mr. Wu’s a Window Cleaner Now” is not nearly as offensive as I had feared. But proceed at your own risk. How do I know that the George-at-home clip is in fact George? The footage is included in an iPad app about his guitars. At iTunes, the clip is visible at the top of the Video Vault screenshot.]

Friday, April 18, 2014

“Pat talks to teenagers”

Three finds at a library book-sale: a selection of entries from Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language, a Webster’s Third New International with marbled edges, and Pat Boone’s 1958 book of advice ’Twixt Twelve and Twenty. “Pat talks to teenagers,” says the cover. From the chapter “April Love”:

Kissing for fun is like playing with a beautiful candle in a roomful of dynamite! And it’s like any other beautiful thing — when it ceases to be rare, it loses its value and much of its beauty. I really think it’s better to amuse ourselves in some other way. For your own future enjoyment I say go bowling, or to a basketball game, or watch a good TV program (like the Pat Boone Chevy show!), at least for a while.
I would like to imagine a lost original for ’Twixt Twelve and Twenty, the print equivalent of “Tutti Frutti”: Little Richard Talks to Teenagers. That would be quite a book.

“’Twixt Twelve and Twenty” is also a song. Alas, it can be taken as an argument for kissing: “Don’t they know love is ageless when it’s true?”

[Small-world department: In April 1959, Boone’s book was fourth on The New York Times list of nonfiction bestsellers. In first place: Alexander King’s Mine Enemy Grows Older. Who is Alexander King, you ask? This page by Margie King Barab explains.]

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Imaginary word of the day

The imaginary word of the day is plutonic:

plutonic |plo͞oˈtänik|
(of a relationship) formerly of great importance but now of little or no importance: their relationship is strictly plutonic.
Elaine hit on the word and together we worked out the meaning.

Pluto plays a small part in the OCA archives:

“Chin up, Pluto” : Educated mothers and pizza : Pluto Day : Pluto in Illinois : Venetia Phair (1918–2009)

[Imaginary dictionary-entry modeled on the entry for platonic in the New Oxford American Dictionary.]

Wednesday, April 16, 2014


Cooper-Hewitt’s Object of the Day yesterday: a 1958 Rolodex.

I have still not seen anything similar to this Rolodex-like design.

A related post

Mark Trail, from a distance

[Mark Trail, April 16, 2014.]

Mark Trail has a new artist: Jack Elrod has passed the ball to longtime assistant James Allen. And Mark is back home after catching a poacher. Mark has been driving about in a jeep, taking in the sights and sounds of Lost Forest. He has been driving since Saturday. In the panel above, he is talking to his wife Cherry.

As any Mark Trail reader knows, Mark’s relationship with Cherry is non-existent. The strip’s pattern: Mark heads out on an adventure, comes home, sits at the table with his family, and heads out again. It’s like the Odyssey without book 23. But the dialogue in the panel above marks a new intimacy between the Trails. What better way to show affection than to call as you drive alone and aimlessly, avoiding your partner’s company?

Is James Allen having fun with his own strip? I think it’s too early to tell.

Related reading
All OCA Mark Trail posts (Pinboard)

[Jack Elrod’s final daily strip ran on April 10. A Sunday strip appeared on April 13. In Odyssey 23, Odysseus and Penelope tell each other stories and make love.]

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The dictionary as commercials

Here’s why Merriam-Webster recycled madeleine as its Word of the Day yesterday: this week’s words are a form of advertising, “dreamy” words promoting the DVD release of the 2013 film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. The Wall Street Journal explains it all for you:

The [Word of the Day] page and email are peppered with banner ads for the DVD release — a more typical form of web advertising — but the text itself reads like “sponsored content,” ads meant to look and feel like the publishers’ original content.
The Journal quotes Merriam-Webster editor-at-large Peter Sokolowski: “People take us as a public service,” he said. “Nevertheless, we are a business.”

Yes, Merriam-Webster, Inc. is a business. But it never occurred to me that the Word of the Day was promoting anything other than Merriam-Webster itself. I miss so much by using an ad-blocking extension in my browser.

Favorite documentaries

Online at The New Yorker, the film critic Richard Brody’s list of “The Best Documentaries of All Time.” I’ve seen just three of ten. Reading Brody’s list prompted me to write my own, a list not of what’s best or greatest but of ten documentaries I could watch again and again:

Jazz on a Summer’s Day, dir. Bert Stern, 1959
Crumb, dir. Terry Zwigoff, 1994
Être et avoir, dir. Nicolas Philibert, 2002
The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of
    Robert S. McNamara
, dir. Errol Morris, 2003
Helvetica, dir. Gary Hustwit, 2007
The Art of the Steal, dir. Don Argott, 2009
How’s Your News?, dir. Arthur Bradford, 2009
Bill Cunningham New York, dir. Richard Press, 2010
Cave of Forgotten Dreams, dir. Werner Herzog, 2010
Jiro Dreams of Sushi, dir. David Gelb, 2011
What’s missing? (Especially between 1959 and 1994.)

[“All time”: I’m surprised to see that phrase in New Yorker environs.]

Monday, April 14, 2014

DFW, “Your Liberal-Arts $ at Work”

Jason Kottke linked today to a post concerning a David Foster Wallace handout on punctuation and usage. Alas, the handout is full of errors, as I showed in this 2013 post. I’ll quote what I wrote there: “Pedantry is always tiresome, but it’s especially tiresome when the pedant doesn’t know what he is talking about.”

[I know: correcting mistakes is tiresome too.]