Clear or Clean

I’m a lover of precision, whether it comes to a competition obedience judge’s scores, the scale at my weigh-in, or the cleanliness of a kennel. But I’m especially fond of the correct use of words and phrases. A well-honed sentence, read or spoken, is delightful, conveying an image that is clear and precise.

It bothers me to see poor language, grammar, and spelling in books, both fiction and non-, in business use, or heard in broadcast journalism. Beyond troubling is the lack of clear thought, reflected by the atrocious mangling of the native language all over the Internet. But on this very wintery day, nothing upsets my applecart more than the lack of clarity and precision shown by the current crop of so-called communication professionals, specifically those commenting upon the road conditions.

Last night, snow and ice fell, creating precarious road conditions. Naturally, morning dawned with a.m. newscasts dominated by school closings, work delays, and most important for those who had to go to work, road status reports. The traffic reporter constantly referred to improvement of travel conditions once the roads were “cleaned.” This irked me to no end. With all the snow, slush, and muck, I couldn’t imagine the city putting the street sweepers to work. My feeling was that the word the professional broadcaster really meant was “clear.” This word, originating from the Latin clarus, meaning “bright” and “evident,” gave rise to the Old French cler, also meaning “clear,” and finally, the Middle English clere, which also meant “clear.” “Clear” means to be transparent, to be free from obscurity, which for me defines journalism and reporting.

And though the reporter’s choice, “clean”—which means to be “free from dirt”—can also mean to be “free from extraneous matter,” it just did not seem to be the most precise word for the wintery situation. “Clean” arose from both Middle and Old English, (clene and claene), but there are linguistic ancestors in both Old Frisian—klene—and Old High German—kleini—which both refer to size, chiefly “small” and “delicate.” Mayhap my mood is hardened to all this cold and snow, but these wintery roads need to be cleared, not cleaned.

To be clear as a communicator means to be sharply defined, distinct, and free from obscurity. As should be our wintery byways.

An Ophid in the Orchids

Like most gardeners, one of my favorite occupations during winter’s frigid evenings is paging through seed catalogs, enjoying the glorious colors, imagining the tastes, and dreaming of the warm growing season. I’m starting to plan my 2014 garden and part of that planning is considering not just what I will plant, but how I’ll nurture and grow my garden.

Sustaining my plants has become more important to me than during my earlier years as a gardener, when birds and bees were a constant, drawn by native flowers and farmers’ blooming acres, insect foods free from laboratory intervention. But things have changed over the years; butterflies and bees and many birds are infrequent visitors. The remedy? Plantings that attract the pollinators of flowers, fruit, and vegetables, and the predators of the pests of plants.

A pleasant thought, imagining hummingbirds and honeybees floating and diving through the buds and greenery, songbirds snatching insect pests, and even a spider or two, charlotte-webbing the bushes to catch the biting flies.

But there’s another class of beneficial creatures, a group that humans seem to fear and dislike, the ophidians. Ophidians? Do I mean orchids? No. I mean a creature who might be lurking beneath the garden vegetation, a beneficial animal whom many reflexively fear.

Ophid is the diminutive form of the Greek word for “serpent,” ophis. Thus the ophid in the orchids is merely a snake in the flowerbed. I welcome the ophids to my garden, since they are quiet hunters of garden pests; they never touch the vegetation, don’t damage the grounds, and keep rodents—potential disease-carriers—away from my home.

As I peruse my seed catalogs, plan my plantings, and ponder on beekeeping, I’ll also be thinking about the beneficial creatures I want to attract to my garden and flowerbeds. I surely hope to see an ophid in my orchids.

Rat’s Ass

The other day, someone posted to a dog obedience competitors’ list that her dog “didn’t give a rat’s ass” about earning one title or another. The first response came from a very experienced competitor, a new judge, who kidded, “Perhaps she should have said ‘rodent’s behind.’” A third judge joked, “Then you don’t know TJ, do you?” A funny exchange.

Of course, my mind tilts in more than one direction at once, so I, once again, wondered at the meaning of the phrase, “doesn’t give a rat’s ass.” Just what the blazes does that mean? What is the importance of a rodent’s posterior, and why would anyone give or withhold one? The phrase, of course, indicates one’s lack of interest in the topic at hand, but why a rat’s ass?

Sometimes, a diligent search, or a short investigation, reveals the root, the seed of a phrase, but at other times, the origin of things remains obscure. Such has been the case of the rat’s ass. Idioms are all over the place, and multi-versioned, reflecting the country of use.

In England, to be “rat-arsed” means to be drunk, but it’s a more modern idiom, having stumbled into British usage in the 1990’s. One wonders about its connection to “not giving a rat’s ass…” perhaps once you’re rat-arsed, you no longer give a rat’s ass. Either way, it’s just another example of the strange inventiveness of the human mind searching for a clever imprecation.


The way of the world—rather, the way of the Web world—means that the talents and flaws of anyone and everyone who begins sharing thoughts, ideas, plans, brags, and screeds are revealed to all.

Inevitably, each writer who intends to explore and expand their craft by way of the Internet sets themselves up for the dreaded Archive Gap. What begins with passion and intention can often be slowed by the reality of life, all of those many things that draw the writer away from her work.  Often, this leads to self-recrimination and accusations of Procrastination.

For a writer–or anyone with a good intention to commit to an endeavor of meaning–Procrastination is a capital-letter word. If one wishes to assign a quality of appearance to a word, then Procrastination, a noun, is an ugly word.

What is it that we are doing when we don’t take action on a project that we say we want to do? In the verb form, when we procrastinate, we think we’re just putting it off until we “find time.” But consider  the Latin origin, procrastinare: it means to postpone until tomorrow. When is tomorrow? If you consider one chestnutty philosophy, the present is now, and tomorrow never comes.

In reality, though, tomorrow will arrive. The Procrastinator must ask herself whether it is worthwhile to defer the pursuit of her desired goal, to keep waiting for tomorrow, or rather to reengage now, today, and close the Archive Gap.

Nepotical Nephew

Upon first glance, nepotic, a rarely used adverb, seems slightly sinister. Could it mean the same thing as despotic, or maybe even necrotic? Logophiles may recognize that it is a form of nepotism, which today refers to the act of providing employment or other favors to relatives or friends, whether or not they are qualified for such rewards.

Looking deeper, one finds that nepotic has a close relationship with nephew. At first glance, it doesn’t quite stretch the imagination that a word defining a relative became associated with the act of playing unqualified favorites. But why a nephew, and not a son? The answer traces to various Popes of the Middle Ages who occasionally requested men of influence to employ a “nephew” who was actually the Pope’s son. More commonly, however, was the Papal practice of elevating any male relative to the post of Cardinal; an actual nephew was the most common choice. It’s no wonder that nepotism is generally held in such gloomy regard.

There is a brighter side, however, the natural feeling we have for those we know and trust, relative or no. It’s natural to seek connections for those we hold in high regard. When it comes to the youngest member of my immediate family—my 3 and ½ year old nephew—his energy and spirit have enlightened and delighted me since he was born.

I’m looking for someone to fill the position of junior associate of joy and wonder, a position for which my nephew is highly qualified. Yes, I’m definitely guilty of nepotism.

Memory Colander

As the calendar pages fly, our memories flex and change, some moving slowly to the back shelf, others flowing forward and easily fronting. What keeps the often-tenuous connection to the back of the brain’s library of life are anchors, those possessions, those things which instantly remind us of those memories, and those who helped us form them.

Sometimes, the anchor is obvious: an album of photos, a card, a voice mail. But many times, the anchor isn’t so obvious, even to the one holding the memory. And sometimes, it is the kedging of that anchor which prompts the memory.

Such an event happened to me recently. After decades of use, my old colander finally rinsed its last basket of dark Bing cherries. It was an unexpectedly sad moment for me, silly, since it wasn’t a valuable antique, just an old cornflower blue plastic thing, full of small cracks after long use. The colander fell off the dish drainer as I was retting up the dishes. One of the cracks finally gave way: when it hit the linoleum, a small piece, shaped like a miniature Ohio, popped up and out. A colander cannot be of much use with a hole bigger than that which it’s to hold.

It was a poignant moment, the making of the memory colander, since it had belonged to my late mother. She’d have been 74 the 3rd of this month, but passed at the very young age of 51. That old colander had been one she’d used, so each time I used it, I was in touch with her, whether I consciously thought of it or not.

The word colander comes to us from Provence, the old French colador, and can find its origin in the Late Latin colare, to filter, and from Latin colum, sieve.

While the end of my old cornflower blue colander marks the passing of its life as an anchor, it’s not truly a sad thing. Mom left me much more in the way of anchors, memories, tangibles. The old sieve, passed from one cook to another, is gone, but the memory of that cook, and the skills she passed to me, will always be forefront.

The Interminable Indeterminate

For the writer who wishes to be productive, a silent pen—or quiescent keyboard—can be frustrating, an interminable period, the end indeterminate.

The monotone of silence may be the ultimate destination for the average Eastern mystic, but not the mission of the average writer. She instead wishes to avoid the tediousness of the perpetual blankness.

Interminable originates in the Middle English terminable, an adjective describing the capability of being terminated. Thus, interminable, designating annoyingly, unending, and protracted, has its roots in another adjective, proving that even the worst droughts will eventually come to an end.

The time it takes that emptiness to cease, for the seeds of something–anything–fresh to be sewn, however, feels awfully indeterminate. Speaking outside of calculus and algebra, the vagueness of the null set page leaves the creative mind unsettled. Much like interminable, the origin of indeterminate is in the Middle English, as well as Old French, with the Latin source, terminate.

Ultimately, the interminable whitespace, the indeterminate silence will come to an end. One can rest, refresh, assured by the termination of the interminable indeterminate.