Cilia Than You Can Imagine

BERKELEY

It’s amazing the things that stick with you from your schooldays.  I remember seventh grade science as a horror for many reasons.  Among them were the fact that my mother was teaching more or less the same curriculum in another school a few miles away, the fact that my mother had worked with my teacher and knew him quite well, the fact that my teacher was a mean old so-and-so, the fact that I came close to having a nervous breakdown that year, and the fact that I had no interest at all in the subject matter and never bothered studying for the class.  Science just wasn’t my thing.  In that regard, I favored my father, the English major, far more than my mother, the biologist.

Accordingly, I am shocked that I still remember the unicellular microorganisms that we learned about in that class, more than 45 years ago.  There was the amoeba, pretty much the basic model, just a blob with a nucleus.  Never mind that drinking the water in Mexico could introduce a few million of those critters into your system, resulting in the ghastliest case of Montezuma’s revenge imaginable.

Then there was the euglena, which has a whiplike tail called a flagellum that it uses for locomotion.  And finally, there was the paramecium that contained all kinds of anatomical structures that I never could remember.  The only ones that have stuck with me are the vacuole and the weird hairlike structures, the cilia, that surround the organism on all sides.

I found myself thinking back to seventh grade science class while attending a Scrabble tournament in the Bay Area this past weekend.  Allow me to start by saying that Leesa is truly the hostess with the mostess.  This was the fourth tournament that I have attended at her home in Berkeley in 2017.  Most of the tournaments that she hosts are one-day events on Sundays.  For the Memorial Day holiday, however, she held a two-day event followed by a “late bird” on Monday.  Although I did not attend the extra Monday session, I learned quite a bit over the weekend.

By the way, “vacuole” is a seven-letter word, a rack-clearing “bingo” that nets the player an additional 50 points.  But it was those paramecium hairs that have gotten me into some interesting spots during games lately.  Keep in mind that “cilia” is a valuable “vowel dump” in that it allows a player to clear two Is and an A off his or her rack.

So last weekend, I played in a one-day tournament in San José (a six-hour round-trip, thanks to traffic on Interstate 680), where I was paired with host John Karris for the final game.  The guy is good.  He grabbed a blank out of the bag late and bingoed out with “ciliates.”  I assume those are critters that, like our hairy friend the paramecium, are blessed with cilia.  Then, in Berkeley this past weekend, I had plunked down “cilia,” whereupon my esteemed opponent attempted to bingo by hooking an S to my play.  Challenge!  Off the board it went.

I guess it pays to know your Latin.  “Cilia” is already a plural and, hence, does not take an S.  The singular, in case you’re interested in such trivia, is “cilium.”  After I won that challenge, my opponent sheepishly admitted that she had erred, that “cilia” actually takes an E hook (“ciliae”).  No!  It doesn’t!  Granted, adding an E to the end of certain nouns is a way to make them plural in Latin.  And while “ciliae” has a certain ring to it, it comes back down to the concept that one cannot pluralize a word that is already a plural.

I was not so lucky when it came to other plays.  One of my opponents started our game right off with a bingo, “beetier.”  I thought it plausible, so accepted it and struggled to make headway against my opponent’s 72-point lead.  Just call me stupid right now, shall we?  Let’s just say that there are a lot of words with “-ier” suffixes that are permissible in Scrabble.  Among my favorites (although not a bingo) is “eelier,” which gets rid of three Es and and I.

If a particular comestible tasting of grapes can be “grapy,” “grapier” or “grapiest,” why can’t a food tasting of beets be “beety,” “beetier” or “beetiest?”  To make things worse, some veggies and fruits only take you half the way.  Does that taste like onions to you?  The Scrabble dictionary says it’s definitely “oniony,” but cannot be “onionier” or “onioniest.”  Oh, you think that’s bad?  Well, what’s good for the goose apparently is not good for the gander, at least when it comes to garlic.  Forget the onions and grab yourself a K, as the Scrabble dictionary allows “garlicky,” “garlickier” and “garlickiest.”

These things seem more than a little arbitrary, don’t you think?  When it comes to citrus fruits, for example, you’re in the clear when it comes to the superlatives of “orange,” “lemon” or “lime.”  My favorite grapefruit is feeling left out of the citrus pantheon.

But that’s quite okay.  I’d probably have to tear my hair out if one of my opponents were to try to extend the word “grapefruit” into the 14-letter phony “grapefruitiest.”

 

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Commatose

Commas are a bit like farts:  They usually stink and they can be quite funny.

If you are on excellent terms with the comma, I salute you.  If you’re not, however, you are in good company.  And if you have any doubt that commas stink, just ask the opinion of a third grader, or for that matter, of a college student struggling through the ordeal that is freshman English.

Should you wince at the mention of the comma, finding nothing funny about it at all, I direct you to the panda that is the subject of the famous “eats shoots and leaves” joke (and also to Lynne Truss’s grammar book by that title, comma added after the first word).  And if that’s not enough to free your inner belly laugh, I refer you to some of my experiences as a proofreader with a major pharmaceutical company, some 35 years ago.

Now, you may argue that proofreading is about the deadliest dull occupation in existence.  Like anything else in life, however, it is what you make of it.

One of my fellow proofreaders was seriously mismatched for the position (she had previously been a printing press operator for the company and, well, we had a labor union).  English was not her first language, she was very poor at spelling and she had no interest whatever in grammar or punctuation.  I am not proud to say that I joined the other proofreader in making some rather cruel jokes at this poor woman’s expense, particularly after one of her written instructions to the typesetters indicated a missing coma.  You have to work for a drug company to truly appreciate that one.

After that incident, we proceeded to make horrible comma jokes at every opportunity.  I’m talking about everything from “Can you comma over here for a minute?” to bad karaoke attempts at singing James Taylor’s “Handy Man” (click on the link and listen to the end of the song if you don’t get the reference).  From there, we moved on to mangling other forms of punctuation in the name of medical proofreading humor (correcting an improperly punctuated sentence might involve a “semicolonoscopy”).

I thought about those long ago days while I was standing in the checkout line at the supermarket this morning.  I noticed a sign regarding the use of plastic bags.  Let’s just say that this topic has become something of a big deal in our fair county since a local environmental ordinance, passed by the Board of Supervisors earlier this year, requires supermarkets and box stores to charge ten cents per plastic bag.  Many of my neighbors drive across the county line to Roseville to do our shopping, where no such ban is in place.  But even the “avoiders” may be out of luck come November, when an initiative to extend the measure statewide will be on the ballot.

The sign in question read:  “Say so long to single use plastic bags.  Bring Your Own Sac.”

Whoa, Nellie!  Sac?  Seriously?

My Webster’s defines the word as “a pouch within a plant or animal, often containing a fluid.”  I also checked one of the online dictionaries, which added the note “can be confused with sack.”

No kidding.  Just when I was processing images of shoppers bringing cow stomachs and goat bladders to the supermarket, I realized that that the issue was not one of spelling, but one of punctuation.  To understand this, it helps to be aware that, locally, “Sacramento” is often shortened to “Sac.”  Apparently, the statement in question was intended as an instruction to county residents.  “Bring your own, Sac,” has quite a different meaning than the same sentence without a comma.

It’s been a while since I’ve discussed grammar or punctuation in this space, so let me know if you’d like me to do so again (or conversely, feel free to lob rotten tomatoes at me).  In other words, please leave me a comma.

 

Doin’ the Circûmflex Dance

One of my favorite cartoons of all time (which I discovered several years ago in Jonathan Fenby’s excellent France on the Brink) depicts a harried teacher before a French grammar class composed of teenage hoodlums.  In an apparent effort to help her students relate to the rather dry lesson, she writes the following conjugation on the blackboard:

nous brûlons une voiture
vous brûlez une voiture
ils brûlent une voiture
ells brûlent une voiture

“We burn a car, you burn a car, they burn a car . . .”

Best of all is the wry caption:  “And don’t forget the circumflex!”

I remembered this today when I read about the new rules and words developed by the Académie Française, the nearly 400 year old body that protects the integrity of the French language and determines how words are spelled in the French dictionary.  Among those changes, to take effect in schoolbooks next academic year, is the removal of the circumflex (the little hat- or roof-shaped accent) from words in which it has heretofore appeared over a U or I.  So brûler in the teacher’s lesson above will become bruler and entraîner (“to practice”) will become entrainer.

Quite a ruckus has been raised on social media by French speakers who are appalled at the mangling of their language and their perceived betrayal by the organization that exists to protect it.  The hashtag #JeSuisCirconflexe (“I am circumflex”) has been trending on Twitter among those expressing their indignation.  This, of course, is a play on “Je Suis Charlie,” the defiant phrase carried on signs and worn on clothing following the murders at the Paris satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo last year.

As you can see, the French get rather touchy about their language.  Granted, the circumflex doesn’t totally change the pronunciation of a word the way the acute accent or cedilla does (changing a short E to a long E and changing a C from the K sound to the S sound, respectively).  Some believe the accent is pretty much useless, a relic of Old French adopted to indicate locations where the letter S had been omitted (for example, bête, the word for “beast” gained its circumflex when it lost its S in the transition to modern French).  And the circumflex will not be completely disappearing; it will still appear where it always has on the vowels A, E and O, as well as on words in which its absence would change the meaning (such as sur, “on top of,” versus sûr, meaning “sure”).  But it is still a matter of pride for the French.

As if the disappearing circumflex weren’t bad enough, the Académie Française also saw fit to change the correct spelling of a few words — oh, about 2,400 in all.  For example, oignon, the word for “onion,” becomes ognon.  And it’s not only the circumflex that will be seen less often.  Fewer hyphens will be around, too.  Compound words like porte-monnaie (change purse) and week-end will lose their hyphens.

I had to laugh when I heard about week-end.  That, of course, is a prime example of “franglais,” the slang Frenchification of English words and phrases that so many of the French detest.  And although there is a perfectly good phrase for “weekend” in French (fin de semaine), the Académie Française has apparently capitulated to the unstoppable waves of popular culture that have been beating against the shores of French linguistics for decades.  Now, the French can not only use the English word “weekend” knowing it is officially sanctioned, but French kids can even spell it just the way it’s spelled in English without getting points marked off their papers.

I have to wonder about grand-mère, the French word for “grandmother.”  Back in the Stone Age, when I was in school, it was spelled grand’mère, with, of all things, an apostrophe.  By the time I arrived in college, the apostrophe had been replaced by a hyphen.  Could it be that the French will now be able to address their grannies without the need of punctuation?

Something tells me the grandmothers of French aren’t going to like this one bit.  But they can look on the bright side.  At least they won’t be losing a circumflex.

 

 

Trump and Bump and the Political Potty (Mouth)

Yesterday, I wrote about media outlets that are too squeamish to make references to bodily functions, including even words like “pee” that have made their ways into everyday conversation.  Newspapers with “family” sensibilities and radio and television stations fearing censure and fines from the FCC are finding it more and more difficult to operate within strictures that defy the realities of the world about which they are reporting.

Once we get beyond the popularity of slang references to urination and defecation, we get into the territory of what were once known as “cuss words,” many of which refer to genitalia or sexual functions.  I should mention that these words referred to those subjects at one time, although today they have largely divested themselves of those meanings, being used primarily for emphasis or to indicate anger or surprise.

I vaguely recall reading that a major American newspaper vowed never to print one of those vulgar words in its pages until such time as the president of the United States used them publicly.  It wasn’t long until that very situation occurred and the paper had to eat humble pie.

The fact is that quite a few U.S. presidents have demonstrated their fondness for profanity.  Harry Truman, LBJ, Clinton, both Bushes and, yes, President Obama, are among them.  Some would argue that use of this type of language constitutes decidedly unpresidential conduct and is inappropriate for anyone supposedly serving as a role model for today’s youth.  Whether the leader of the free world is expected to fulfill that function in the 21st century remains a subject for debate.

I must admit that I was a bit taken aback by an article published over the holiday weekend by Phil Bump, a Washington Post political columnist whom I admire and respect.  The purpose of the piece was to point out that presidential candidate Donald Trump has a potty mouth, as clearly demonstrated by some of his very colorful tweets.  It’s true:  The man loves his expletives.  If nothing else, they certainly attract attention.  The problem, as I learned in writing class many years ago, is that the expletive tends to be all the reader sees.  The shock value of such words tends to completely supersede and blot out any point the writer may have been attempting to make.

I’m not surprised that Trump likes to cuss, but I was terribly disappointed with the subterfuge to which Bump had to resort in order to present Trump’s Bluest Hits of Twitter without violating the arcane and laughably out-of-date rules set forth by his newspaper.  The plan involved asking readers to solve a type of cryptogram in order to figure out the particular vulgarities used by Trump without the paper having to actually print those words.

“For kicks,” writes Bump in explaining his scheme, “we’ve changed the four swear words we looked at into names.  The word beginning with an F is “Frank.”  The one beginning with an S is “Sam.”  The three-letter word starting with A becomes “Alex,” and the longer, seven-letter variant thereof, “Alexander.”

Bump then coyly quotes some of Trump’s rants on Twitter, substituting the proposed words above for the profanity actually used.  WTF?

“Before we continue,” writes Bump, “we will demurely note that The Washington Post tends not to use a lot of cussing on its pages.”  No, really?  I mean, gosh darn, you could have fooled me.  He then goes on to state, seemingly by way of distancing himself from his own folly, that “We are not 10, but if any 10-year-olds read this, their innocent sensibilities will be spared (in case there is some 10-year-old who doesn’t know the f-word).”

I believe that this last sentence, particularly the parenthetical portion, is designed to point out Bump’s awareness of how utterly ridiculous are the rules by which news writers and columnists are bound.  Surely it is no surprise to anyone that a demagogue, a self-styled man of the people such as Trump, would speak using the same type of language that (most of) the rest of us do.

That the news media ignore the facts of the modern world, instead opting to sing “la la la la” while sticking their fingers in their ears, is a demonstration of how out of touch they are with reality.

As for you, Phil Bump, quit playing cryptogram games and insist on telling it like it is.  If the Post won’t print it, tell them to go Frank themselves.

 

I Gotta, Um, Er, You Know, GO!

My coworkers and I had a grand old time and a lot of laughs at our recent holiday luncheon.  The highlight of the afternoon was the annual gift exchange.  The emcee would pull a name out of a hat and call the lucky person up front to select a wrapped gift from a very full table.  Alternatively, if you coveted a gift previously selected by someone else, you could “steal” the gift away.  The gifts of alcohol were extremely popular, so it was a good thing that there was a rule that a gift could be stolen only twice.

To add to the hilarity, the emcee started out by informing us that anyone who decided to steal had to either sing a holiday song or tell a joke.  If this was supposed to deter the predilection for stealing bottles of vodka, gin, whiskey and champagne, it wasn’t very successful.  It was a great rule, however, as the terrible singing and even worse jokes resulted in roars of laughter.

My favorite joke of the day, which the teller admitted she borrowed from her young son, referred to the streets of downtown Sacramento that are named with the letters of the alphabet.

Q: Why is it so hard living on O Street?  A:  Because you have to go a block to P.

What is funny about this joke, of course, is the double entendre reference to urination.  You can’t really go wrong with a joke on this subject.  Peeing is always funny, and comedians have been milking the topic for generations.

Before HBO and cable programming generally, you couldn’t make reference to “peeing” in the media without being accused of vulgarity.  Even today, over-the-air radio and TV stations have to watch it, as the FCC has been known to impose some pretty steep fines for gratuitous mention of bodily functions.  This pressure ultimately sent “shock jocks” such as Howard Stern, who appears to delight in “juvenile” humor about urination and defecation, scurrying to satellite radio.

In this day and age, references to the elimination of human waste are judged to be exceedingly mild, at least in the grand scheme of things.  This makes sense in a world in which many give not a second thought to the use of the most demeaning racist and sexist slurs.  It’s all relative.

For example, in the various places I’ve worked, I can’t recall ever seeing someone raise an eyebrow at an offhand description of an impending rest room break as “I gotta go potty” or “going to pee.”  I admit to stifling a giggle when I see the text abbreviation ggp (“gotta go pee”).  I have been lurking around online long enough to remember when this was a way of informing the mates in your chat room why you were going to be afk (away from keyboard).  At any rate, I now know that you can tell a joke that refers to peeing in front of fifty of your coworkers and no noses will be wrinkled.  And you can guarantee that I will be the first to laugh.

Many moons ago, I spent a couple of years working for a tiny community newspaper in New York.  It was a “family newspaper,” both in the sense that the publication was owned by a family and in the more traditional sense of that phrase, meaning that it was unfailingly “G-rated.”  The idea was that all members of the family, including young kids and Grandma, should be able to read the paper cover to cover without encountering any word or phrase that might be deemed offensive.

I remember how, in my college days, where I was one of the editors of the student newspaper back in the 1970s, we made a big point of thumbing our noses at this standard by taking advantage of the opportunity to print the most flagrant vulgarities in 72-point headline type on the front page.  Protesters (and we protested everything back then) were quite fond of including some very colorful language in their chants, cheers and taunts.  Quoting those was a convenient excuse to cuss in a big black headline.

At the staid, conservative weekly newspaper where I was employed in the composing room, however, our problem was not quoting protesters but how to, um, accurately describe the actions for which some of the local loony toonies routinely found themselves arrested.  Should we print “public exposure” when really what we meant was “public urination?”  I can just see some kid reading the paper when it hit local driveways every Thursday.

“Mom, what’s ‘exposure’ mean?”

“That depends on the context, dear.  Usually it has to do with developing photos, like how much light hits the film.  But it can also mean freezing to death, like when someone dies of exposure.”

Our family newspaper found itself in a pickle when a trucker got arrested for pulling off the road into a subdivision so he could pee in a bottle.  Some kids noticed what the hapless guy was doing.  Indecent exposure?  Or just a garden variety case of ggp?  The guy wasn’t exactly a flasher, but who knows what was in that pea brain of his?  Either way, the paper couldn’t get around mentioning that unmentionable, urination.  Ha-ha!  The joke was on the publishers.  “Serves them right for being such prudes” was my first thought as I gleefully typeset the article.

I very much like the approach that my brother-in-law’s mom always took in regard to this subject.  As an elementary school teacher for years, she was no stranger to kids who casually dropped references to peeing into conversations to see what kind of reaction they would get.  She would always interrupt the kid mid-sentence, interjecting “We all do it!”  Never failed to steal their thunder.

One could argue that, even today, we continue to experience some discomfort at public references to elimination of bodily waste, which may explain the use of such infantilized terms as “peeing” and “pooping.”  Admittedly, the liquid version seems to be a bit more acceptable than the solid one.  Few would be surprised at a fellow employee referring to a “pee break,” but one who was brazen enough to say “I gotta take a dump” would likely be considered vulgar.

Whatever you do, however, be sure to keep the bathroom references off the radio and network TV.  ‘Cuz the FCC’s gonna get you if you don’t watch out!

Devotees of the First Amendment need not apply.  After all, freedom of speech must take a back seat to protecting the delicate ears of our eight and ten year old children.

(Cue laugh track)

 

Palabras Con Amigos

no es exit

I know the word “exit” is good in Spanish.  I have the proof:  Here it is on a Spanish sign in a restaurant!  Why won’t the Spanish version of Words With Friends accept it?

I’ve been playing Words With Friends on my phone for a couple of years now.  I usually have about a dozen games in progress at any given time.  Yes, I sneak in turns at work.  Yes, I check my games when I wake up in the middle of the night.  Yes, I play in the car on the way to work in the morning.

Alright, so I’m addicted.  Don’t judge.

Anyone know of a good 12-step group in northern California?

I play in very competitive rated Scrabble tournaments all over the west coast.  On some level, WWF (not the wrestlers) seems like a logical extension.  And yet, many of us Scrabbleheads won’t go near it.  Admittedly, it’s not for purists.  For what I assume must be copyright reasons, the values of many of the WWF tiles are different than those in Scrabble.  Plus, WWF accepts quite a few words that are not legal in Scrabble.  Words like FI and ZEN, for example.  And the “dirty words,” all perfectly acceptable in Scrabble, are no-gos in family-friendly WWF.  Well, except for shit.  I wonder how that one made it through?

Allow me to tell you about my current opponents.  In no particular order, they are:

  • A coworker from three jobs ago
  • A retired lady who used to work for me several years ago
  • One of my wife’s friends
  • A stranger named BigJo who has a Rottweiler avatar
  • Another stranger named 6Griffins
  • Someone named Daphne with whom I play in French
  • A woman named Mely from Argentina with whom I play in Spanish

So I play in three languages.  What’s it to ya?  You already knew I’m a strange one.

At least I speak French, unlike Nigel Richards, who won the Francophone Scrabble Championship in Belgium this year without understanding a word of français.  How is that possible?  He said he did it by memorizing the French Scrabble dictionary.  Go figure.

I didn’t say I speak French well.  But I can get by after having spent my teen years studying French in junior high and high school.  I even visited Paris once and found that I had no problem communicating at all.

Spanish, however, is another story entirely.  Not only do I not speak español, but I haven’t even imitated Nigel by memorizing the Spanish Scrabble dictionary.  Sure, I can order lunch in a Mexican restaurant (the poor employees try so hard not to laugh), I can ask where’s the bathroom and I once told a stranger soy perdido when I needed directions in Laredo, Texas.  I’ve gotten pretty good at reading the labels on cans in the grocery store, at least as far as distinguishing between proteína, grassa and carbohídrato.  I know some of the words to “La Bamba.”

This should give you a pretty good idea of just how very bad I am at my Spanish language WWF games.  One of my first problems was figuring out what to do with that maldito W.  That nasty little critter is worth 10 points in the Spanish game.  That’s because there aren’t any words in the language that use that letter.  Why should there be?  There is no “W” sound in Spanish.

Gradually, I discovered that the W can be used in Spanish to spell some international words that are pretty much the same in every language.  There is won (a monetary unit of Korea, or what does not happen to me at the end of any game played in Spanish) and there is watt (as in a unit of electricity, a thoroughfare here in Sacramento, or watt the hell am I doing playing in a language I don’t know?).  That’s about the sum total of my Spanish W knowledge.  All of my other attempts have bombed out.  I tried web (apparently, the word is la red), I tried war (it’s la guerra), I tried west (nope, it’s oueste).

Actually, that about sums up my strategy for playing Words With Friends in Spanish.  There are no “challenges” like there are in tournament Scrabble, so I can just try one combination of letters after another until I get lucky.  Throw it at the wall and see if it sticks, as they used to say back in the day.  If at first you don’t succeed, try again, try again, try again, grit your teeth, curse, hold yourself back from throwing the phone across the room because it cost $750 and you can’t afford to replace it.

Amazingly, I recently played my first bingo (play using all seven tiles in the rack) in Spanish WWF.  The word was melones.  Actually, I first tried an anagram, lemones, but then I remembered that the Spanish word for “lemon” is actually citrón.  No matter, I got my bonus points!

Of course, I finally got busted.  Mely, good sport as she is, tried to start a conversation with me over Zynga’s chat feature.  In Spanish, of course.  I was able to fake a few sentences before I had to sheepishly admit that no hablo español muy bien, soy gringo.

What really surprises me is that she still keeps playing with me, two Spanish games at a time.  I figured she’d stop at the end of our first few games, but nope, she keeps rematching me.  I guess I had it coming.  Serves me right for trying to be a big shot.

I’d better turn on the SAP function on the TV or start watching Univision or listen closely to the lyrics of all those unintelligible songs, replete with choruses of ¡ay, ay ay! that they pipe into Chevy’s Fresh Mex.

The ultimate irony is that I recently won my first game with Mel en español.

Su idioma es mi idioma.

Tomorrow on A Map of California:  Can a sane person support both Trump and Sanders?

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Impostor

I am reading a beautifully written essay on the difficulties of relating childhood memories in English when you grew up speaking another language.  Some things just don’t translate.  In fact, one could argue that events experienced in one language can no more be translated into another than apple can be translated into banana.  Barney the Dinosaur notwithstanding, if you grew up speaking, breathing, existing in purple, how is one to render the experience into green?  The phrase “lost in translation” doesn’t tell the half of it.

In the very first paragraph of the essay, I ran across the Spanish word maldito.  Instinctively, I know that this is translated into English as “damned.”  I do not know how I know this.  Somewhere between growing up in New York and twenty years in California, I inhaled it through my pores.

I do not speak Spanish.  This fact hit me hard recently when, sitting at a table full of strangers, I heard a nearby woman speak a few words en español and I responded in kind.  “Do you speak Spanish, or just understand it?” she asked me in English.  Busted!  I am an impostor, and this was her way of telling me that she knew it.

Having some knowledge of Latin roots has helped me “figure out” the meanings of many English words without having to look them up, just as Mrs. Morse promised back in tenth grade.  But recognizing bits of Latin has helped me to understand words in the Romance languages as well, first in my high school and college study of French and later, in my study of Spanish on the streets, in the supermarkets and in the break rooms of my workplaces in central California.

I remember that maldito hails from the same Latin roots as the English word “malediction,” which refers to a curse.  I’ve never heard anyone actually use this word in conversation, but I have a vague recollection of once having come across it in the works of an obscure writer named William Shakespeare.  Reaching back in my memory banks to high school days, the year after I sat in Mrs. Morse’s classroom, I sang Mozart’s Requiem with the John Jay Senior High School chorus and, what do you know, the Latin word maledictis cropped up.  It seems that, in every century, a lot of people were into curses.

Actually, the word maldito sounds to me as if it should mean “misspoken,” as in saying one thing when really meaning another.  Returning to memoir mode, as a kid I believed that this applied to most things said by adults.  To my mind, this made them “damned” liars.

Breaking maldito into its two component parts leaves us with mal (bad, evil, wrong, sick, etc.) and dito (from the Latin dictum, or “speech, spoken, told,” I assume).  As in high school, I largely rely on my memory because I am too lazy to look it up.  So if a malediction is a curse, and mal + dito = bad speech, it makes sense that “damned” is still considered a “curse word” (or “bad speak”) in some circles.  (Or so I think.  I am old enough to have been around when a kid could get in serious trouble for saying “damn.”  Something tells me that “damn,” along with “hell,” may have been laughed out of the curse word pantheon years ago.)

The Spanish language has long been a bit of an enigma for me.  One day a basic knowledge of español is my best friend, while the next I find myself flummoxed and fumbling for the correct Spanish word, much to the amusement of the person with whom I am hoping to communicate.

Back when we lived in Modesto, I loved to pull up to the self-service pumps of a convenience store, walk inside, throw a twenty on the counter and yell ¡Veinte, número uno! over my shoulder as I turned around and walked out, knowing that the correct gas pump would be turned on.  It made me feel like some kind of big shot.

Impostor, that’s me.  But I love the ability to live as a stranger in my own land.

If two women are holding a spirited Spanish conversation in the supermarket aisle, most of what they are saying will likely go right over my head.  As I maneuver my shopping cart around them, however, I will catch that one of them is cussing out her cheatin’ good-for-nothing ex-boyfriend.  As I’ve mentioned before in this space, some things you can understand in any language.

Although I happen to enjoy the mellifluous sound of Spanish, I am well aware that not everyone shares my enthusiasm therefor.  It is a hot button issue here in California, where the Mexican border is just down the road a piece.  Many object to the plethora of signs in Spanish and to the way our state and federal governments feel compelled to translate everything into that language.

My father, for example, refers to Spanish as “babble” and will gladly tell you how he feels about people who speak languages other than English in public.  “You like this country?” he starts off.  “You want to stay here?  Learn the [insert invective here] language!”  I’d be a little more specific, but Dad’s colorful language is a notch or two stronger than maldito and I consider this a (more or less) family blog.

It seems obvious to me that just because two people converse in a foreign language doesn’t mean that they don’t speak fluent English as well.  Bilingualism is alive and well in California.  And I know of no law that states that you have a right to understand conversations that don’t involve you just because they happen to be conducted in public.  Our Constitution’s First Amendment right to freedom of speech is not limited to the English language.

There are those who point out that when Americans travel to other nations, they are expected to speak the native tongue, not English.  I call this the “when in Rome, do as the Romans do” theory.  I poked around online to see how much validity this theory actually has.  The answer I found is “not much.”  A recent article in the Washington Post points out that English is widely spoken in 101 countries, is one of the official languages in 35 countries and is the most widely studied foreign language.  This final statistic may not seem like such a big deal until you realize that approximately 1.5 billion people worldwide are currently studying English.  Then I saw this map of the second most spoken languages in countries around the world.  I found it interesting that English is the second most spoken language in Japan (good for my nephew when he visits his girlfriend who is currently teaching there) and in Russia (presumably a lucky thing for Edward Snowden).

I am a fan of diversity because homogeneity is, quite frankly, rather boring.  It would be a dull world indeed if we were all exactly the same.  I find it fun to learn about the cultures and traditions of others and delight when they take an interest in my own.  And if I know that you speak another language in addition to English, I will make an effort to learn at least a few words of it.  And I will try to remember that there is no such thing as an exact translation.

So, yes, I may be an impostor, and I may butcher your native tongue unmercifully, but if I catch you saying something funny in Spanish in Wal-Mart, don’t be surprised if I chuckle as I walk by.