Archive for January, 2009

Elms and pears

January 29, 2009

An AP news story issued today begins like this:

WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama issued a withering critique Thursday of Wall Street corporate behavior, calling it “the height of irresponsibility” for Wall Street employees to be paid more than $18 billion in bonuses last year while their financial sector was crumbling.

“It is shameful,” Obama said from the Oval Office. “And part of what we’re going to need is for the folks on Wall Street who are asking for help to show some restraint, and show some discipline, and show some sense of responsibility.”

I beg your pardon, Mr. President? These are Wall Street types you’re talking about, not software moguls or aircraft makers. I can readily see a computer-science nerd with a great love for his subject making it big in Silicon Valley, or a kid with a love of flying going into the aviation industry and somehow soaring to the top. But finance? What reason other than greed would anyone have for going to work for a Wall Street firm? Spiritual fulfillment? What responsibility should they have, other than for filling their own wallets? (I was going to write “their own and their friends’,” but then I thought of Bernie Madoff.)

No, Mr. President, asking “the folks on Wall Street… to show some restraint, and show some discipline, and show some sense of responsibility” is, as they say in Spanish, asking an elm for pears (pedirle peras al olmo).


Our leaders

January 26, 2009

OK, Tim Geithner has been confirmed.  So now we have a Treasury Secretary who doesn’t pay his taxes (until he’s caught) and a Chief Justice who doesn’t know the Constitution. What next?

Vowels and consonants

January 22, 2009

The rumor that Andrew Cuomo is likely to become the next junior Senator from New York reminds me of the time, probably in 1991, when his father, Mario Cuomo, was considering a run for the Presidency. I remember someone saying that he had no chance — that Americans would not elect a President with more vowels than consonants in his name.

Of course, when Americans talk about vowels and consonants, they usually mean letters, not sounds. In fact, phonemically Cuomo is /kwomo/ and consequently has three consonants and two (identical) vowels (which are most often realized as diphthongs of some sort). But in common parlance “vowel” means one of the letters AEIOU and “consonant” means any other letter. And except for Monroe and Hoover, whose names have three of each (but in each case two of the vowel letters form a digraph), all other Presidents of the United States had surnames with more consonant letters than vowel letters.

At last, the pattern is broken. In Obama the vowels win, both phonemically and orthographically.

Update. The latest news is that the new Senator from New York will be Kirsten Gillibrand. The consonants win again!

Ignorance of history?

January 20, 2009

I have heard and read President Obama’s inaugural speech. And I am troubled.

Don’t get me wrong.  It was an inspiring and exciting speech.

What troubles me is that we now have a highly educated President of the United States who, seemingly, doesn’t know American history.

A minor quibble: Early in the speech, the President said, “Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath.” Well, yes, if you count Grover Cleveland twice. But Cleveland, though he held the presidency twice, was, as far as is known to history, one American, not two.

Barack Obama first made his mark as a writer. Writers, as a rule, like to get credit for the words they write, unless they are presidential speechwriters, whose job it is to write words that will be attributed to their boss.

Near the end of his speech Obama quoted the famous lines from Thomas Paine’s Common Sense beginning “Let it be told to the world…” Only the President did not attribute the text to Paine; he only said that “the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people.” It would seem to me that the words were inserted by a speechwriter to whom Paine’s authorship didn’t matter as much as Washington’s use of them. Did Obama assume that his listeners would know that the words are Paine’s? Hardly likely. In fact, Neal Conan began his Talk of the Nation broadcast on NPR by saying that Obama had “quoted Washington.”

It’s more likely that Obama doesn’t know that Paine wrote the words. And that’s troubling.

In the paragraph preceding the quotation, the speech sets the scene: “In the year of America’s birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river.” Obviously the reference is to the Battle of Trenton, beside the frozen Delaware. And then: “The capital was abandoned.”

What capital? Washington? It didn’t exist in 1776! Was the President confusing the Revolutionary War with the War of 1812?

Or did he mean Trenton? Well, Trenton was briefly the federal capital in 1784, but in 1776 it wasn’t even the capital of New Jersey yet. In any case, would someone making a speech heard around the world mean Trenton when they said “the capital”?

Maybe I’m wrong to be troubled. Maybe ignorance of history isn’t all that bad. Only history will tell.

More tilde overkill

January 3, 2009

In a post of mine of a few months ago, dealing with the Spanish names for the inhabitants of cities, I noted the following.

An inhabitant of Havana (La Habana) is habanero, which is also the name of a variety of chili pepper (the strange American habit of calling it “habañero” — tilde overkill! –  notwithstanding).

A few days ago I came across another example of this overkill. At the New Year’s Eve concert of the New York Philharmonic — which was televised on PBS — Susan Graham sang, among other numbers, the Havanaise or Habanera from Bizet’s Carmen. But both the legend onscreen andthe announcer’s voice had it as “Habañera”.

I’ll be looking for more examples.