Quack Quack

April 6, 2001

[Special note: All good things must come to an end. Freethinkers Anonymous, on the other hand, only requires an occasional vacation. The mailings will resume on April 27th, 2001.]

A while back I read an article that made the claim that the number of words in the English language was rapidly diminishing. This threw me into a panic. Forget the shrinking ice caps, disappearing rain forests, the energy crisis, rising fuel prices, uncontrolled arsenic levels in drinking water, and new strains of bacteria that are resistant to everything.

The decline of words is a serious matter. Words are not only my stock-in-trade, but most of the people I know use them. If the language disappears, how will people use their cell phones to completely ignore people they’re actually with? Will we become an Orwellian society where people walk around quacking like ducks, and, if so, will we have to fly South in the winter? And where are these words going? Well, apparently they’re not going anywhere, they’re just getting the word "obsolete" placed next to their entry in the dictionary, so it may not be much of a crisis after all. The reason certain words seem to fall out of circulation is because nobody uses dictionaries anymore, so even if you tell people you have an "umberty" of old magazines you’re trying to get rid of, not only will they be too embarrassed to admit they don’t know what that word means, they’ll never bother to look it up so they won’t know it’s obsolete.

Of course English will survive, if for no other reason than its unfailing ability to make new words by sticking prefixes on other words. (This is a habit borrowed from Latin and Greek, which is odd because English is a Germanic language. Fortunately we haven’t adopted the German practice of making new words by sticking several really long words together. If we did this, we’d have to make a new group of words called "ridiculouslylongwords".) But the use of prefixes raises some interesting questions. For instance:

  • -Someone can be "incompetent" or "competent", "incapable" or "capable", but have you ever heard of someone being "capacitated"?

  • When a patient stops breathing doctors "resuscitate" the patient (or try very hard to). So when you’re breathing, are you "suscitating"?

  • If "reincarnation" is being reborn after death, is being born "incarnation"? Or is a newborn simply a "carnation"?

  • If the "interior" is the inside and the "exterior" is the outside, is "terior" the side? Or is it somewhere in between?

  • You can "exclude" someone or "include" someone, but what are you doing if you "clude" someone?

  • If you do something impolite, you say, "Excuse me," but why is it that if you do something polite you never say, "Incuse me"?

  • If an "obsolete" word is one that’s no longer in use, are words that are currently used "solete" words?

  • You’ve heard of people being "ruthless", but have you ever known anyone whom you would call "full of ruth"?

And finally, what about those words that are still in use but that no one can really define–words like "ziggurat", "punctilious", or "ombudsman"? Maybe Lewis Carrol said it best when he said, "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean."

Enjoy this week’s offerings.

[Normally I would save something like this for the annual "Oh What A Year It Was", but this was too funny not to share immediately. Of course it’s already old news, but then so are most of my jokes.–CW]

In the Birmingham Sunday Mercury (7th Jan 2001):


Bosses of a publishing firm are trying to work out why no one noticed that one of their employees had been sitting dead at his desk for FIVE DAYS before anyone asked if he was feeling okay. George Turklebaum, 51, who had been employed as a proof-reader at a New York firm for 30 years, had a heart attack in the open- plan office he shared with 23 other workers.

He quietly passed away on Monday, but nobody noticed until Saturday morning when an office cleaner asked why he was still working during the weekend.

His boss Elliot Wachiaski said: "George was always the first guy in each morning and the last to leave at night, so no one found it unusual that he was in the same position all that time and didn’t say anything. He was always absorbed in his work and kept much to himself."

A post-mortem examination revealed that he had been dead for five days after suffering a coronary. Ironically, George was proofreading manuscripts of medical textbooks when he died.

You may want to give your co-workers a nudge occasionally.

And the moral of the story: Don’t work too hard. Nobody notices anyway.

One thing that has always bugged me, and I’m sure it does most of you, is to sit down at the dinner table only to be interrupted by a phone call from a telemarketer. I decided, on one such occasion, to try to be as irritating to them as they were to me. This particular call happened to be from AT&T and it went something like this:

Me: Hello

AT&T: Hello, this is AT&T.

Me: Is this AT&T?

AT&T: Yes, this is AT&T.

Me: This is AT&T?

AT&T: Yes. This is AT&T.

Me: Is this AT&T?

AT&T: YES! This is AT&T, may I speak to Mr. Byron please?

Me: May I ask who is calling?

AT&T: This is AT&T.

Me: OK, hold on.

At this point I put the phone down for a solid 5 minutes thinking that, surely, this person would have hung up the phone. I ate my salad. Much to my surprise, when I picked up the receiver, they were still waiting.

Me: Hello?

AT&T: Is this Mr. Byron?

Me: May I ask who is calling please?

AT&T: Yes this is AT&T.

Me: Is this AT&T?

AT&T: Yes this is AT&T.

Me: The phone company?

AT&T: Yes, sir.

Me: I thought you said this was AT&T.

AT&T: Yes sir, we are a phone company.

Me: I already have a phone.

AT&T: We aren’t selling phones today Mr. Byron. We would like to offer you 10 cents a minute, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

Me: Now, that’s 10 cents a minute 24 hours a day?

AT&T (getting a little excited at this point by my interest): Yes, sir, that’s right! 24 hours a day!

Me: Now, that’s 10 cents a minute 24 hours a day?

AT&T: That’s right.

Me: 365 days a year?

AT&T: Yes sir.

Me: I am definitely interested in that! Wow!!! That’s amazing!

AT&T: We think so!

Me: That’s quite a sum of money!

AT&T: Yes sir, it’s amazing how it adds up.

Me: OK, so will you send me checks weekly, monthly or

just one big one at the end of the year for the full $52,560, and if you send an annual check, can I get a cash advance?

AT&T: Excuse me?

Me: You know, the 10 cents a minute.

AT&T: What are you talking about?

Me: You said you’d give me 10 cents a minute, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. That comes to $144 per day, $1,008 per week and $52,560 per year. I’m just interested in knowing how you will be making payment.

AT&T: Oh no, sir, I didn’t mean we’d be paying you. You pay US 10 cents a minute.

Me: Wait a minute, how do you figure that by saying that you’ll give me 10 cents a minute, that I’ll give YOU 10 cents a minute? Is this some kind of subliminal telemarketing scheme? I’ve read about things like this in the Enquirer, you know.

AT&T: No, Sir, we are offering 10 cents a minute for…

Me: THERE YOU GO AGAIN! Can I speak to a supervisor please!

AT&T: Sir, I don’t think that is necessary.

Me: I insist on speaking to a supervisor!

AT&T: Yes, Mr. Byron. Please hold.

At this point I begin trying to finish my dinner.

Supervisor: Mr. Byron?

Me: Yeth?

Supervisor: I understand you are not quite understanding our 10 cents a minute program.

Me: Is thith A Teeth & Teeth?

Supervisor: Yes, Sir, it sure is.

I had to swallow before I choked on my food. It was all I could do to suppress my laughter and I had to be careful not to produce a snort.

Me: No, actually, I was just waiting for someone to get back to me so that I could sign up for the plan.

Supervisor: OK, no problem, I’ll transfer you back to

the person who was helping you.

Me: Thank you.

I was on hold once again and managed a few more mouthfuls. I needed to end this conversation. Suddenly, there was an aggravated but polite voice at the other end of the phone.

AT&T: Hello Mr. Byron, I understand that you are interested in signing up for our plan?

Me: No, but I was wondering — do you have that "friends and family" thing? Because you can never have enough friends and I’m an only child and I’d really like to have a little brother…

AT & T: Click

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