Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Spelling Bee

Pittsburgh's representative in the National Spelling Bee was eliminated yesterday after misspelling the word chervil. Reading this story this morning led me on yet another excruciating trip down memory lane:

I was in one of the preliminary competitions for that very same spelling bee when I was in 6th grade. After informing me that I'd been chosen to participate, my teacher gave me a special vocabulary book that had lists of words arranged according to subject with which to practice. Some of them were doozies. I practiced for the bee the same way I practiced for spelling tests: I'd skim through the book when I didn't have anything better to do or when my cousins weren't using it to play impromptu games of Balderdash, but other than that I didn't really place much importance on it.

I can't even remember where the event took place; it was in some nameless, totally forgettable auditorium with a little stage set up in it. I was pretty nervous, especially after I spotted where my parents were sitting and my mom gave me one of those perpetually embarrassing "I'm so proud of you, my little girl!" looks.

I made it through several rounds. I wasn't totally embarrassed by the word that I missed until years later, when I decided what I would spend the rest of my life studying:

The word I missed was financier.

I'm so embarrassed by this now, but really, how is an 11-year-old girl who hates math supposed to know what a financier is? Even if I would've asked the proctor to use it in a sentence, I still would've been up shit crick without a paddle (yes, in this neck of the woods, it's "crick"!). I can't even honestly say that being exposed to French earlier in life would have helped me, considering that I had never seen the word in print nor heard it pronounced until that point. So I suppose I'm beating myself up for nothing...but it's still embarrassing. That's like telling someone you're a bestselling author but can't write a decent sentence to save your life. Oops.

[indiscriminate mumbling here]

I had all four of my wisdom teeth surgically extracted on Friday. Ouch.

My poor swollen jowls aren't too happy about speaking English, let alone French. As a matter of fact, I haven't even attempted to pronounce one word of French since Friday morning. I thought about it, but then decided that it would be disastrous to even try. Frenchies must just resort to sign language until the swelling goes down, because tensing the muscles around the lips to form such sounds as [y] and [u] is simply excruciating, not to mention trying to spread one's lips far enough to properly pronounce a sound like [i]. That's one good thing about English: it's an easily mumbled language. I can hold my cheeks in the same position and still manage to mumble a sentence that's somewhat intelligible. Maybe one of these days, I'll see someone come up to me on the metro and set a little card down on my seat. Instead of the card saying something to the effect of "I'm deaf and I sell pins for a living", it'll say "Take pity on me, I just had dental surgery and can't speak for the next two weeks. Your donation goes to feed my diet of chocolate mousse and flan." And I will gladly contribute to the cause.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Mushrooms, Chocolates - Same Diff!

Last week, my employer sent me to a one-day conference with a coworker. It was great to get out of the office for a change and have some self-enrichment time.

During our lunch hour, she and I were joined by two other women, each from different companies. We made some pleasant small talk while picking through the offerings on the [rather pitiful] buffet.

When our check was delivered, my coworker asked the other women if they were being reimbursed by their respective companies for the meal. I commented, "Well, since we're eating on their dime, we should order the truffles!"

To which one of the other women at the table, a good 20 years older than me, replied, "Oh - I hadn't even thought about dessert."

I suppose I just have a totally different frame of reference than most people.

Monday, May 01, 2006

"Don't forget to dot your i's, cross your t's and accent your nasal consonants..."

I just stumbled across a great blog on grammar & linguistics and wanted to share this particular gem of an article, as it illustrates something I try to explain to people quite often:

April 25, 2006
Full tilde
Jim Gordon recently complained about how the New York Times crossword puzzle elides diacritical marks from foreignisms even when this results in a different word in the relevant language. The most egregious example, Jim noted, is the use of "year, in Spanish" as a clue for ANO, even though ano differs crucially from año. Below the jump, a real-world example illustrating the perils of de-tildeing año(s), provided by Matthew Baldwin of The Morning News.

My friend Rebecca is a prosecutor and, whenever I see her, I insist she fill me in on her recent cases. Though most involve routine litigation, she occasionally tells a gem of a tale.

The last time I asked, she told me about the Anus Motion.

"This guy gets pulled over on suspicion of a DUI," she said, "And it turns out that he only speaks Spanish. So the cop radios for a Spanish-speaking colleague. A second officer shows up, reads the driver his rights in Spanish off of a little card that all cops carry, and they administer the breathalyzer test. Sure enough, the guy is soused.

"We figure this case is a slam dunk. But a few weeks later the driver's lawyer submits a motion to have the results of the breathalyzer voided, saying that the defendant didn't understand his rights before we gave him the test. And we're all, like, 'Nuh-uh! We read him his rights. In Spanish, even.'

"But the defense somehow got a copy of the Spanish language card that the officer read from, and noticed that the little squiggle was missing from above an 'n' in the sentence: '¿Tiene veinteuno años?' In English that literally translates to 'Do you have 21 years?' — in other words, this was just a routine question to make sure the guy was an adult. But without the tilde over the 'n', the word 'años' becomes 'anos' — Spanish for 'anus.' [sic: it's Spanish for 'anuses.']

"They're claiming that the driver thought the officer asked 'Do you have 21 anuses', despite the fact that the officer reading the card spoke fluent Spanish and would have pronounced it 'años' anyway. And the defendant said 'si.' We're supposed to believe that the guy genuinely thought he was being asked if he had multiple anuses and answered with an enthusiastic 'yes!' [read more]

This further supports my idea of having shock buzzers on students' desks that are wired to the teacher's wristwatch and every time he/she forgets an accent mark, a healthy buzz is administered. Getting a mild shock now is better than getting fired from the state police office later because of a lousy tilde or cedille, isn't it?