Confessions of a Verbivore

September 15, 2010

Black Hats vs White Hats

Filed under: Verbivore — jargontalk @ 2:15 pm
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Who are the good guys and the bad guys these days?

There was a time not that many years ago in America when if you were watching cowboy shows or movies on television, you could always tell the difference between the bad guys and the good guys. Everyone knew that the bad guys always wore the black hats, and the guys wearing the white hats were good. It was like a rule, a Sacred Law of the Screen, if you want to call it that.

Roy Rogers James Arness, in Gunsmokewore a white hat, so did Gene Autry. John Wayne wouldn’t have been caught dead in a black hat, and even the puppet Howdy Doody’s hat was at least some light shade. Roy Rogers’ wife, Dale Evans wore a white hat, as did all of the Texas Rangers.  James Arness, playing Marshall Matt Dillon (of Gunsmoke) always wore a white hat.

You could add many others to this "white hat" list, actors such as: Hoot Gibson, Rex Allen, Tex Williams, Tex Ritter, Ray ‘Crash’ Corrigan, Jim Bannon (as Red Ryder), Clayton Moore (as the Lone Ranger) and others.

The guys in the white hats always kept their word, and they didn’t use bad words. As a kid, you would never get your mouth washed out with soap copying their language.

They always triumphed over evil, too.

Keeping things on a fairly liberal, broad perception, a white hat could be tan or light gray. It could be almost any light shade, and still be generally referred to as a white hat. A dark brown or blue hat wouldn’t qualify. And a black hat was just plan bad. Author Harold Rabinowitz used this concept in the title of his book Black Hats and White Hats: Heroes and Villains of the West (ISBN: 156799377X).

And yes, there were some exceptions. It’s true that Hopalong Cassidy, the cowboy hero of the early 1950s portrayed by actor William Boyd usually wore a black hat. There was also Richard Boone’s characterization of Paladin from Have Gun, Will Travel. He not was only a good guy with a black hat; his whole outfit was black.

The real point here is that the good guys and bad guys, the heroes and villains, were recognizable to all; generations were raised with that concept. Things changed with the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King in the 1960s, as perceptions became less focused. The advent of the Vietnam War changed our concepts further, but generally we still could identify good and bad.

But suddenly there is a new reality regarding good guys and bad guys that was brought forth by the tragic and criminal acts of September 11th, 2001. You know the details: supposed Muslim fundamentalists hijacked four airliners and crashed them into the World Trade Center in New York City, and into the Pentagon in Washington, DC. A fourth airliner, which seemed to be headed for the White House, crashed in Western Pennsylvania.

And our world changed, possibly to never be the same as it was before.

We became suspicious of people in our midst that looked different from us. Within that first week following the terrorist attacks, violence had been done to a number of people in this country because they wore headgear that didn’t seem "100% American," as one individual stated it. There were disturbing reports of violence and threats against Muslims and Arab Americans. Sikhs were harassed because their turbans resembled Taliban headgear; whole other religious and ethnic minorities were subjected to slurs and profane comments right here on our streets. And many of these people were born and raised in this country.

Windows were broken, bricks were thrown and bullets were fired in incidents directed towards the some of the Islamic communities in America. Luckily law enforcement personnel responded quickly and decisively to stop most of these acts, even offering special security for some local mosques soon after the terrorist attacks. President George W. Bush repeatedly urged tolerance in his television broadcasts, as did New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who publicly appealed to New Yorkers to be tolerant.

But during all of this, children across the country were becoming more confused with each news story that was being broadcast on television and on the radio. They were trying to figure out who were the good guys and who were the bad guys, and they weren’t getting any clear answers.

My own son, five years old at the time, was caught up in all the confusion as well. He quietly watched the few news reports we let him see starting the day of the terrorist attacks, and we had to explain top him that this wasn’t like a cartoon or movie where everything seems to be right in the end. He asked questions, and we tried to answer them, carefully but honestly. He asked if they were going to "fix" the WTC towers, and we had to explain that they might not.

He suffered no bad dreams or nightmares, and we watched out for any signs that he was being effected adversely by what he had seen and heard. There seemed to be none.

We were watching a news broadcast on television a few days after the attacks, one of those describing the many diplomatic meetings that were taking place around the world. I had just gotten up to go to the kitchen for a drink when my son pointed towards the television and blurted out, "Look, Daddy! There’s one of the bad guys!"

I turned and looked, my mind expecting to see yet another news clip of Osama bin Laden holding his AK-47 assault rifle, but that’s not what was on the screen. The image that was there was that of a Sikh diplomat from India, in London discussing something with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. This stopped me cold, and I wondered if I might have said something that would have made him identify a turban with a terrorist. I muted the television, then sat down with my son and tried to discuss it with him, prepared for a difficult conversation.

I found it hard to begin, to find a way to constructively help him differentiate the good guys from the bad. That’s tough enough for adults these days, so how is a child expected to know. Still we moved on, and all the time I was thinking about the guys in white hats and black hats. The old rules wouldn’t work, because in a period of ten seconds on television, we saw two pictures that invalidated them. We saw a New York Police Department patrolman with a black cap helping a dust covered woman onto an ambulance at Ground Zero. Seconds later we saw Osama bin Laden talking with an upraised finger, and his Taliban headgear was white. White hats and black hats weren’t working, and then suddenly it hit me.

Osama bin LadenI muted the television and picked up a new magazine with a picture of a stern-looking bin Laden on the cover. I held it up and asked my son if that was a good guy or a bad guy. He responded quickly that it was a bad guy. I asked how he knew that the man in the picture was a bad guy, and he pointed to the photo and said that the man pictured there "… made people crash airplanes and kill people."

I wasn’t going to argue with that, and I moved on. I pointed to the bin Laden photo and asked him if he though that everyone who wore a turban was a bad guy. He looked confused, and with him being a five-year-old, I didn’t want to lose him on this. I pointed to the hair on bin Laden’s face and asked my son if everyone who had hair on his face was a bad guy. He thought for a second, then started laughing, naming an uncle of his who has a beard and stating that his uncle wasn’t a bad guy. He then looked at me and touched my moustache. He then pointed to the bin Laden picture and said to me, "That’s the bad guy, Daddy. You’re a good guy!"

Right now he sees only one bad guy in the media, and for the time being, that’s just fine. That’s all he needs.


The above article had the title Good vs. Evil #2: Black Hats & White Hats, and was first published in a now defunct site in October, 2001. It was a personal reflection of feeling at that time. My feelings haven’t changed much since then, and I’ve seen my son grow to be an honor roll student who doesn’t judge others by the color of their skin, their ethnicity, whom or what they worship or how they speak. In those respects he’s quite color blind… and for that I’m proud of him. But in our changing times, it’s becoming hard to determine just who is the good guy, and who isn’t.



August 18, 2009

Musings of a Verbivore

Filed under: Verbivore — jargontalk @ 7:33 am

I am a verbivore. I’m someone who metaphorically eats words. I am a word-struck, word-fixated, word-obsessed, totally shameless verbivore

Carnivores eat meat; herbivores chomp through vegetables and plants; verbivores devour words. I’m just such a creature. I indulge myself words, ogling over their enticing textures, shapes, and colors. I enjoy dialogs with other wordaholics, lexicomaniacs, and verbivores, people who also eat their words.

The term "verbivore" was coined by author and speaker Richard Lederer in the early 1980s, a man best known for his books on word play and the English language and his use of oxymorons. Dr. Lederer is known for uncovering word origins, pointing out common grammatical errors and fallacies, and exploring palindromes, anagrams, and other forms of recreational wordplay. He has been profiled in magazines as diverse as The New Yorker, People, and the National Enquirer (go figure), and has appeared on radio as a commentator on language. He has written hundreds of articles and more than thirty books, such as Anguished English, a book that spawned an entire best-selling series.

Amongst his other offerings were such titles as Get Thee to a Punnery, Crazy English, A Man of My Words, The Word Circus, The Miracle of Language, The Cunning Linguist, and Word Wizard. His most recent offering was Presidential Trivia. And kids haven’t been forgotten. His offerings have been The Circus of Words (letter play for kids 9-14, for whom hardly anyone writes language fun and skill), and Word Play Crosswords, 50 original crossword puzzles, each with a language theme.

An accomplished speaker, Lederer was the 2002 recipient of the Golden Gavel of Toastmasters International. He also served as the 2007 commencement speaker at Case Western Reserve University. He is a member of American Mensa, and is often a featured speaker at its gatherings.

Dr. Lederer was once asked which of his works was his favorite, and the answer was The Miracle of Language, in which the reader is treated to a collection of fascinating and enlightening essays. Lederer celebrates language as "incomparably the finest of our achievements" and passes along some eloquent testimony on the emancipating power of language in the lives of such people as Helen Keller, Richard Wright, Malcolm X, Anne Frank.

The author identifies William Shakespeare as the most prolific word-maker who ever lived, a man who Shakespeare is credited with the first use of over 1,700 words, nearly eight percent of the different words that he used in his writing. Next is Samuel Johnson who, with his breakthrough dictionary, captured the majesty of English and gave it a dignity long overdue. Others include writers such as Ambrose Bierce, Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson, T. S. Eliot, and George Orwell. There’s a chapter on the beauty of using short words, that rounds out this a delightful and edifying collection.

A large vocabulary is a great predictor of success, according to the Johnson O’Connor studies and others. I believe that it is also one sign of certain kind of intelligences. It’s a matter of simple math. The more words you have, the better you can describe and live in this world. As Holmes said, ‘Language is the skin of living thought.’
~ Richard Lederer

But this is also no dry author, for there’s an amazing amount of humor in many if his works. His interests include uncovering word origins, pointing out common grammatical errors and fallacies, and exploring palindromes, anagrams, and other forms of recreational wordplay. On top of that, he has been elected International Punster of the Year. A few year ago he wrote The Cunning Linguist, a book in which he shows us the naughtier side of wordplay, revealing hundreds of hilarious, ingenious, unabashed, and adults-only puns, jokes, limericks, one-liners, and other adventures in sexual humor. As the author says, this book is "300 pages of good, clean, dirty word play for appreciative punographers." I had to fully agree in my review of this book.

Also worthy of consideration is the author’s newer book, Word Wizard, an anthology an anthology of his best and most popular essays, published by St. Martin’s Press. In the opening pages, he states:

Some people are bird-watchers. I watch word-botchers. Over the years I’ve cobbled together five anthologies of fluffs and flubs, goofs and gaffes, blunders, boo-boos, botches, boners, and bloopers. They’re the fuel that runs the motor of my career as a fly-by-the-roof-of-the-mouth, word-struck, word-besotted, word-bethumped language guy.

If you like words, if you are a fellow verbivore, then any of these books would probably appeal to you.

It’s about time!

Filed under: Verbivore — jargontalk @ 4:14 am
Tags: , , , , ,

I’ve been on WordPress for some months now, reading the posts and journals of others, just like a lurker, and haven’t posted a single thing here.

A monkey at a typewriter could do better, so maybe I should get moving and post something. It would be better to be typing the lyrics to a nonsense-verse song here than to just have a blank page that shows nothing. So what have I been doing?

  • I’ve been spending a lot of time here, reviewing a wide variety of books, music releases and assorted products.
  • Have been interacting socially on Facebook a lot more than previously.
  • Had been spending far too much time here and on other forums on that site. It’s all to easy to get involved in the back and forth discussions in on-line forums, but to what end?
  • I used to spend far too much time refuting very abusive comments made here by a very nasty troll who had it in for women who chose to breastfeed in public. One has to learn at some point that once cannot argue with a truly ignorant (or bigoted) mind.
  • Have been having fun watching my son grow from a boy to a young man in his early teens. It’s quite enjoyable to see him doing the things that give him pleasure in his world, from making faces at his Beta (fish) and getting responses, to seeing his enjoyment as he plays new games with his Nintendo DSi, to seeing the wonderful results that he gets with his new Fuji Finepix S700 digital camera… probably the best creative investment that I ever made.
  • Have been eyeing Amazon’s Kindle quite a bit, realizing that it may well be the future of books as we know them.
  • Have been enjoying the fact that fall is coming, and that I’ll be able to get in more time on my MTB (mountain bike) as the weather cools.

It’s amazing what one can come up with when one looks around and thinks for a few minutes.

Maybe it’s about time!

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