March and other ambiguities
Joe Mc Kay’s “Crazy About Words”
…toasting our language since 2003!
What with the lion, the lamb, and the ides hovering around our “bewareness,” March is an iffy month.
“Well, old hag, the ides have come,” mocked Julius Caesar to the seer on his way to the Senate on 3/15/44 BC. “Ah, yes, but they have not gone,” she retorted ambiguously, a short while before he was stabbed 23 times by his iffy friends.
I really wanted to use “iffy” in writing. It’s such a wonderful creation…an adjective coaxed out of a conjunction by the simple addition of the underappreciated little suffix, -y. Like the currently controversial “truthy,” it leaves me feeling uncertain every time I hear it, exactly as intended by whoever first used it.
But the dictionary labels it a colloquialism, meaning it originated in informal conversation, and is “not suitable for formal speech or writing” such as you experience here! Ah, how different things would be had Dickens written, “They were very iffy times,” in opening A Tale of Two Cities!
In keeping with the “iffiness” that abounds this month, let’s look at a few words, phrases, and facts I’ve come across recently that demonstrate, in one way or another, just how ambiguous (from Latin, ambigere, to wander about) life is.
I like the word amphiboly (an ambiguous grammatical structure in a sentence) and these nice examples of it: Disraeli once said to a man who handed him a book to read, “I shall waste no time reading it.” And how about a recent news story headlined, “Victims Advocate Counts Yellowstone Wolves” (say whaaat?), or the made-for-Groucho road sign, “Eat Here and Get Gas.”
Humpty Dumpty got Alice going when he said, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – nothing more nor less.” To which she replied, “The question is whether you can make words mean so many different things.” (It’s a fact, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, that the 500 most-used English words have an average of 23 different meanings! The word “round,” for example, has 70 distinct definitions. That explains much of the ambiguity in our beautiful language.)
Legerdemain (pronounced ‘lejerdeman’) is a neat word, meaning sleight of hand. Sy Safransky in an interview about The Sun, said, “…as if I were a magician and my ad-free, nonprofit magazine an elaborate feat of legerdemain, each issue another rabbit pulled from my hat…”
Lagniappe, (pronounced ‘lanyap’), comes from Creole meaning a trifling present given to customers by a salesman. (In the Gulf Coast region of the US, it is used popularly to mean "a little something extra.") The iffy thing about that is it doesn’t sound like either a French or Spanish root. Sure enough, further research indicates that its origin is likely a Quechua word, nyapa, that made its way into Spanish, then traveled up from the Inca Empire into New Orleans where the French article, la, was added. Ayelet Waldman, author of the recent best seller, Bad Mother, rewarded readers who preordered her book with a copy of one by her famous husband, Michael Chabon, as a lagniappe, according to The Wall Street Journal.
As this iffy month barrels past the ides, the time of the equinox (half night-half day), will be upon us. We might look on that as another example of March indecisiveness. But no ifs, ands, or buts about it, the longer days say that Spring is here at last. And whether March goes out like a lion or a lamb, the weather is going to get better… maybe!
Katherine Hepburn said of Humphrey Bogart, “He walked straight down the center of the road. No maybes. Yes or no.” He is the antidote to March iffiness!
Comments, suggestions, and hellos are welcome at email@example.com
Please share with friends you think might enjoy the column, or you may send me their e-mail addresses, or have them e-mail me to be put on the list.