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The Holy Grail of Grammar (and other Humdingers)

My family is big on wordplay—the sillier the better. Whether it’s deliberately mispronouncing or making up words for comic effect (only to us), overusing idioms (beating a dead horse), or simply quoting dumb movie lines, we delight in linguistic levity. As our Commander-in-Chief might tweet, “It’s just sad!” No doubt, but entertaining nonetheless.

My ex-husband and I had a thing for Monty Python and Charles Dickens–“that’s Dikkens with two K’s, the well-known Dutch author.” Certain catch phrases, like this one from the Monty Python Bookshop sketch, still make me smile. If I was feeling particularly sorry for myself, my former spouse would call me Mrs. Gummidge—the “lone lorn creetur’” in David Copperfield who “everythink goes contrary with.” The name stuck.

It wasn’t all fun and games, however. As a high school English teacher, his students’ misuse of the mother tongue was no joke. Those who committed the egregious sin of spelling “a lot” as one word received an automatic “F”. Harsh? Perhaps. But if they gave a rat’s…I mean, if they cared a fig about their GPAs I bet they made that mistake only once.

Our kids are forever quoting dialogue from favorite films–Old School, Airplane!, Wedding Crashers, and Groundhog Day top the list. Before I left to visit my youngest while she was studying in Paris, her sister in San Francisco texted me, “Bring me back something French.” Seriously? I hadn’t planned on buying any souvenirs, plus my carry-on was already crammed to capacity.

“Mom,” another daughter explained patiently, “it’s a quote from Home Alone.”

If you wish to showcase your talent for reciting random movie lines, there’s no shortage of material at the Morrill Memorial Library.

A font of hyperbole, my mother was renowned in the family for her own quotes. Spending time at the shore with Mom was no day at the beach. As we trudged from the parking lot to the water one afternoon she complained, “This beach has too much sand!” Eyeing the cot on which she was to sleep during a weekend visit, she muttered, “Prisoners sleep on thicker mattresses than this.” And the last time she saw her bearded grandson, the Christmas before she died, she told him, “You look terrible!” Mom did not mince words–or beat around the bush.

I may have said “I’ll eat my hat!” once or twice myself, and I’m especially keen on “colder than a witch’s…” er, you get my drift. If idioms tickle your fancy as well, give this one a whirl–I’m Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears and Other Intriguing Idioms from Around the World by Jag Bhalla. (That’s a new one on me, too.)

But back to my maternal parent. Regarding her youngest grandchild, who Mom believed showed particular promise: “At least she’s not going to grow up to be just a librarian.” Ouch. My daughter enjoys her job in TV news but once admitted that her dream was to be an archivist (read: librarian who likes old stuff). Have you heard the expression, “turning over in her grave”?

No stranger to the pun himself, my partner called his own mother Cleopatra, Queen of Denial. Desperate for a girl after having produced three sons, she called her fourth child Mary for the first few days. The baby’s name was in fact Bill.

I may be just a librarian but my real passion is copy-editing. Put a red pen and the written word within my reach and I’m as happy as a clam at high tide. Knowing my penchant for proofreading, my boss presented me with this laminated keepsake: “My life is a constant battle between wanting to correct grammar and wanting to have friends.” While I usually manage to bite my tongue, it requires a Herculean effort to refrain from fixing typos in the margins of whatever book I’m reading. Were it not for the shame of getting caught defacing library property…

Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night prevents me and my partner from playing along with Jeopardy every night with our favorite host, Alex…Trebek! The only categories in which I have a snowball’s chance in… well, of distinguishing myself, are those relating to language. “Proverbially Speaking” was a walk in the park, and I nailed “Words that Begin and End with N.” It’s extremely satisfying when I shout out the right answer, or rather question. Except that when I don’t, the correct response often gets drowned out in all the excitement.

I suspect this homegrown word game may never be ready for prime time. When someone uses a vaguely erudite or multi-syllabic word in conversation, the other will respond by saying basically the same thing minus the big words. For example, after a wedding we’d attended my friend commented, “Wasn’t the bride absolutely radiant?” Me: “Yeah, and she looked pretty darn good, too.” Upon hearing someone recently described as indigent, I couldn’t help remarking, “He probably didn’t have a ton of money, either.” I engage in this terribly witty repartee with just two people–my significant other and his ex-wife. It’s our way of poking a bit of fun at each other for using a ten-dollar word.

To learn the proper usage of “its” versus “it’s” or “me,” “myself,” and “I,” Strunk and White (The Elements of Style) are your go-to guys.  But if you want to dig deeper and enjoy a few chuckles in the bargain, check out Lynn Truss’s British bestseller, Eats, Shoots & Leaves—the Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. Another humorous read for the serious word buff is Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris, who chronicles her long career at The New Yorker and shares amusing anecdotes and helpful tips. I also really liked Kory Stamper’s Word by Word: the Secret Life of Dictionaries–a wonderfully irreverent inside look at the life of a lexicographer.

Regardless of your particular quest, make haste to your local library. And if you don’t find the holy grail of linguistic treasures, or whatever it is you seek, I’ll eat my hat.

April Cushing is the Adult and Information Services Supervisor at the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, Mass. Read April’s column in the November 9th edition of the Norwood Transcript & Bulletin.

Liz Reed

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