Thursday, November 29, 2007

Feghoot #1

Not familiar with a feghoot? You probably are, but didn't know that's what they are called.

Ferdinand Feghoot is the fictional creation of sci-fi writer Reginald Bretnor (1911-1992), who published under the name Grendel Briarton. The stories involving Feghoot were always very brief and concluded with an elaborate pun.

A feghoot today doesn't need to be science fiction, but it must be brief and ridiculously punny. They are also known as groaners or shaggy-dog stories.

Mark Rapacioli, Editor of Planet Relish E-zine says, "A feghoot isn't just a short-short story with a joke at the end. A Feghoot is a short-short story that ends in a very groan-worthy pun." (quoted from:

Enough explanation. Let's get to some examples:

Two vultures board an airplane, each carrying two dead raccoons. The stewardess looks at them and says, "I'm sorry, gentlemen, only one
carrion allowed per passenger."

A dog on crutches walks into a bar in the Wild West and says, "I'm looking for the man who shot my paw."

Mahatma Gandhi walked barefoot most of the time, which produced an impressive set of calluses on his feet. He also ate very little, which made him rather frail and with his odd diet, he suffered from bad breath. This made him .... what? (Oh, man, this is so bad, it's good)
A super calloused fragile mystic hexed by halitosis.

This one stakes its claim as the "original shaggy dog story":
In the days of yore, a knight on an important mission, rode his horse so hard that it became lame. Spying a village ahead, the knight headed straight for the stables there.
"I must have a horse!" he cried, "The life of the King depends upon it!"
The stablekeeper shook his head. "I have no horses," he said. "They have all been taken in the service of the King."
"You must have something--a pony, a donkey, a mule, anything at all?" the knight asked.
"Nothing. . . unless. . . no, I couldn't"
The knight's eyes lit up. "Tell me!"
The stablekeeper led the knight into the stable where they saw an enormous dog! It was almost as large as the knight's horse. But it was also the filthiest, shaggiest, smelliest, dog the knight had ever seen.
Swallowing, the knight said "I'll take it. Where is the saddle?"
The stablekeeper was adament. "I can't do it." he told the knight.
"Why won't you give me the dog?" cried the desperate knight.
The stablekeeper replied, "I wouldn't send a knight out on a dog like this."

For more of these, check out:

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Fear the Olive!

Starbucks may be guilty of intentional size obfuscation, but they are neither the first nor the worst.

Have you ever checked out the terms used for olive sizes? To quote Dave Barry again, I am not making this up. The olive industry uses the following sizes, based on the number of olives that make up a pound:

small: 128-140 per pound
medium: 106-127
large: 91-105
extra large: 65-90
jumbo: 47-64
colossal: 33-46
super colossal: <33

In Europe, the sizes are even more complex (and ridiculous):

Bullets 159-172 per pound
Fine 146-159
Brilliant 132-145
Superior 118-132
Large 105-118
Extra large 91-104
Jumbo 83-91
Extra Jumbo 74-82
Giant 65-73
Colossal 55-64
Super colossal 50-54
Mammoth 46-50
Super Mammoth 41-45

I find it hard to imagine being confronted with a mammoth olive, much less a super colossal olive. Frightening, in fact.

Starbucks Sizes

I stand an unimposing 5 feet, 5 inches. Recently, a wise-acre student of mine told me, "Mr. Wasko, you're tall...Starbucks style!"

I've got no problem with Starbucks calling their largest size cup of coffee a venti. It's pretty clever, really, since venti is Italian for twenty--the number of ounces in the large cup. But it's just downright marketing madness to refer to the smallest size as tall. I understand the desire to avoid terms with any negative connotations, but sometimes people just want a small cup of coffee. If I want small and get offered something tall, it troubles me.
Fortunately, the Starbucks coffee jerks (okay, baristas, dang it) around here don't correct me when I ask for a "little one." In fact, I say "big one" instead of venti too, not because I disapprove, but because it sounds so pretentious.

Dave Barry agrees:

...this trend began several years ago when Starbucks decided to call its cup sizes "Tall" (meaning "not tall," or "small"), "Grande" (meaning "medium") and "Venti" (meaning, for all we know, "weasel snot"). Unfortunately, we consumers, like moron sheep, started actually USING these names. Why? If Starbucks decided to call its toilets "AquaSwooshies," would we go along with THAT? Yes! Baaa!

Area Rug?

An area rug, I guess, is a rug that covers an area. As opposed to...?

Thursday, November 8, 2007

How Many Words in the English Language?

It's a simple question, but pretty much impossible to answer. The problem lies in determining what constitutes a word. Take almost any verb--call for example. Are the various forms of the word separate words (calls, called, calling, etc.)? And is the noun form of call a word distinct from the verb? What about the 33 separate definitions listed for the verb form by, and the 31 definitions of the noun form? Is call one word or 64? And then there are idiomatic expressions using call, like call for, call out, or call in. These have unique definitions as compound expressions. Do they count as words in combination, or only as separate words?

What about technical or scientific terms? Do we count the hundreds of thousands of chemical and medical terms that are unused in common parlance?

What makes a word English? English speakers and writers use lots of words from other languages. Do we count burrito, bourgeois, habeas corpus, wanderlust, karate? Then there's the debate of slang and jargon. How long must a term be in popular use before it is considered a "real" word?

What about proper names? Should Edward, Lincoln, Chicago be considered words? What about foreign places and names? Should or shouldn't Bangladesh, Argentina, and Moscow be considered English words?

With these significant complexities taken into consideration, sources will put the number of English words at anywhere from a quarter million to two million. Take your pick.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

A Whole Nuther Thing

What's up with that? I often hear people using the expression "a whole nuther." A local football coach was quoted in the paper using it. No dictionary I know includes nuther. I don't believe anyone who uses the expression would even argue that nuther is a word.

I did a little web research and found some interesting discussion of this odd construction. One these two theories seems to explain it:

1) The modifier whole is inserted in the word another. This is a linguistic phenomenon called infixation, which most commonly occurs in expletives. Mild examples would be "abso-bloomin-lutely," or "guaran-darn-tee."

2) The other theory is that people confuse another with a nother, and are simply applying the adjective whole to the second word. This sounds odd, but it's a linguistic occurrence called reanalysis. It's how we now have the word apron. It derived from the french word naperon. People misconstrued "a naperon" as "an aperon."

I find the first explanation easier to buy, but it was interesting to learn that it's a matter of some debate.

The question remains, of course, whether "a whole other thing" or "another whole thing" are adequate replacements for "a whole nuther thing."

Monday, November 5, 2007

Tom Swifties

A Tom Swifty is a quip where an adverb attached to a dialogue tag carries both a literal and a "punny" meaning. They are also easier to demonstrate than explain. Here's an example:

"The pencil needs sharpening," Tom said bluntly.

As you have already experienced, the most common response to a Tom Swifty is a groan, although I admit several have made me chuckle.

As to the origin of the term, Tom Swift was the young adventure hero of a series of early twentieth century novels by Edward L. Stratemeyer (who published under the pseudonym Victor Appleton). Mr. Stratemeyer loved to qualify all of Tom's dialogue with adverbs: "...Tom said knowingly," "...Tom replied eagerly," "...Tom cried desperately," etc.

Thus a Tom Swifty involves a playful pun on the dialogue tag. Here's a short sampling.

"This pencil needs sharpening," Tom said bluntly.
"The salad has too much vinegar," Tom said acidly.
"Give me a haircut," Tom said barbarously.
"The doctor removed my left ventricle," Tom said half-heartedly.
"I'll use a darker font," Tom said boldly.
"I presented my case to the judge," Tom said briefly.
"I've dropped the toothpaste," Tom said, crestfallen.
"Congratulations on your graduation!" Tom said diplomatically.
"I am a schizophrenic," said Tom, being frank.
"For what we are about to receive, may God make us truly grateful," Tom said gracefully.
"I've gained twenty pounds," Tom said heavily.
"I learned the somersault years ago," Tom said flippantly.
"I work out every seven days," Tom said weakly.
"Nay!" said Tom hoarsely.
"Waiter! My salad needs more cheese!" Tom said gratingly.

A slight variation excludes the adverb, and just makes a pun of the verb. It's still a Tom Swifty if Tom isn't doing the speaking, by the way:

"This must be the weight room," Tom worked out.
"My parents are Billy and Nanny," Tom kidded.
"She probably has her own jet," Tom leered.
"The sun is rising," Tom mourned.
"I told you not to ride that old horse," Tom nagged.
"I didn't take a single look!" Tom peeped.
"The exit is right here," Tom pointed out.
"I teach at the university," Tom professed.
"I couldn't believe I had won by 3,457 votes!" Tom recounted.
"Okay, you can borrow it again," Tom relented.
"I'm taking the ship back to the harbor," Tom reported.

Most of these come from Please share your originals--they are not hard to create.