Wednesday, August 31, 2011

454 Words on Two Words

I was taking an online FEMA Emergency Management Course today and I stumbled across this passage:
When American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon, 900 responders from 50 different agencies were able to communicate with one another. Response agencies had learned an invaluable lesson from the Air Florida tragedy.

Invaluable is a strange word. Webster's New College dictionary defines it as: "extremely valuable; having value too great to measure; priceless." It can be extremely valuable or priceless. Something can be extremely valuable and still have a price. If it is priceless, by definition it is "of inestimable value; beyond price." It seems like we should say valuable or priceless, and leave invaluable to people who don't really know how valuable something is. Would that sentence have been any different if it said "response agencies had learned a valuable lesson?" No.
Why bother using invaluable? If they meant priceless, then say priceless. It's a dopey word to use for something that couldn't possibly have a price to begin with. A collectible car can be priceless. A ticket to a special event can be priceless because it has a price on it. But a lesson, to me can be valuable but not priceless. And you can't call a lesson invaluable because it means the same as valuable.
Every year a group of scholars gets together and decides on new words that they want to add to dictionaries. Invaluable sounds like a word that we should eliminate.
We have enough words already, and when we have one that means two things, perhaps it's time for it to go. Why do we continue to use invaluable when priceless will do? Occasionally, I'll read something about how difficult English is to learn. When I see words like invaluable I understand why. If you were a new student to the English language, you would have to assume that invaluable meant not valuable, since the prefix is the opposite of the word it is in front of in many situations. Incorrect, injustice and incomplete are the negative versions of correct, justice and complete. How can those three words be negatives with the same prefix as a word that uses it as an exaggeration?
Inflammable is another strange word. It means anything flammable. It confuses some people because they interpret the prefix in as meaning not, but inflammable and flammable mean exactly the same thing.
In fact, the definition contains the word flammable. It comes from the Medieval Latin inflammabilis, an adjective derived from inflammare ("to set on fire"). I nominate inflammable as another word that should be eliminated. We don't need two words that are barely different yet mean exactly the same thing.
Or, perhaps you think I'm being insolent?

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

It's all in the perspective.

While I was looking over the flooding in my neighborhood on Sunday, I realized that I live near some Urban Hillbillies. I call them Urban Hillbillies because their speech pattern doesn't match the area in which they live.

They pronounce creek crik, water wuter and they say things like "I swum" and have an accent that belies the fact that they live 20 miles from Philadelphia. They're fascinating, mainly because they have managed to develop their own voice and mannerisms while others around them find it strange.

I saw a few of them
in the local Wal-Mart this afternoon. If you hyphenate Wal-Mart, you are not an Urban Hillbilly. Urban Hillbillies call it Walmert and show up in whatever they happen to be wearing when they rolled out of bed into their pile of clothes that morning. I wandered in there because I needed Benadryl and had almost given up finding some.

The Deptford Wal-Mart is relatively new. It's been there a year or so, and today was the first time I had gone in. I needed Benadryl, and the Wal-Mart was my third stop trying to find the stuff. When I go into one of those places I instantly feel out of my element. The place is huge. It has a supermarket, pharmacy, a Subway sandwich place and (even though I didn't look) I think they had chewing tobacco and white tank t-shirts, but I didn't look for them.

I tend to wander in, make a bee-line for what I want and get out. Having all that stuff so close together scares me a little. OK, a lot. The Wal-Mart philosophy must be to give people not only what they want, but everything they want all in one place. Then the pile on by making everything less expensive than it is almost everywhere else. I suppose that's why they have been around since 1962.
The non-Urban Hillbillies hate the Wal-Mart and everything it represents. They claim that their low prices and product availability hurt local businesses. I suppose that is true, since people do love low prices and available products. Don't hate the player; hate the game.

Can I hate the Wal-Mart because I had been to 3 other drug stores (big chains, not the local rabble) in an attempt to find the elusive Benadryl, only to find it at the local Wal-Mart. And for a paltry $6.97 for 48 tablets. Take that, Rite Aid and CVS. You had your chance. It would have been to find an ounce of weed than it was finding Benadryl, which they tell me is legal.

Perhaps the reasons the Urban Hillbillies survive is that they don't mind wading into brown stream water and they know where to find bargains? Whatever their reasons, perhaps we can learn something from them. They're smarter than us, anyway. They know that you can wade into dirty stream water without rubbing your hands in sanitizer and they can unload a cart full of groceries and products while saving money in the process. I think the literati cal that "street smarts."
That they will live longer than us is their reward. Or their curse, depending on your perspective.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Changing Landscape

Lately, I have been lamenting the absence of silence. It is nearly impossible to escape noise in our 21st century lives. The din of cell phones and the loud conversations that others have on them has become a staple in our lives. I think one of the reasons I enjoy road biking is the relative peace and quiet that comes with the road. All we hear is the grind of the gears and the tires rolling against the asphalt. As days go, it is a peace that we cannot find in the office, gym or almost anywhere else in public.

We have learned to accept (or learned to tolerate) outside noise in our lives, and the more I hear the less I need. Cell phones ring and people chatter. For some reason, they speak more loudly on cell phones than they do on regular phones or when they are speaking to each other. What is even more interesting to me is how willing people are to give up the peace and quiet of life.

Almost everyone in the gym has a set of headphones plugged in. Sometimes it sounds like they have a head full of bees. The music is so loud that those of us on the outside can hear the buzzing. I can't help but wonder what it sounds like to their numbing head. I don't know how or when they have decided that the outside world is too distracting to them that they feel the need to infest their heads with noise, but it has happened.

I think it's why I enjoy the solitude of bicycling. The only thing between me and the outside world is the roll of my tires on the road. It's a unique noise - or I should say, a unique absence of noise - which is where the solitude comes in. I have an opportunity to think. I'm not sure we appreciate the ability to stop and think about things.

When I was in college, I would escape the outside world by going to the library and seeking out silence so that I could concentrate on whatever assignment I had. Occasionally, a boob on a cell phone would invade my world, and when I would glare at him and ask him to take his conversation elsewhere, I was greeted with a return glare and an accompanying comment that would go something like "screw you," or words to that effect. Strange behavior from someone in a library, I thought.

I remember hearing an old Bill Cosby routine about two things he would like to have in his life. Peace and quiet. The whole monologue was structured around those two words. I've carried it with me, even though it has become less desirable in today's world. We don't seek out peace and quiet. Now, we look for distractions and work toward finding noise. Every new piece of technology is built around infesting our lives with noise and distraction. I suppose we seek it, otherwise the stuff wouldn't be as popular as it is.

The next time you are in a situation where you can find a bit of silence; stop and think about it for a second. I say a second, because it's likely that a second is all the time you will have to appreciate it. Any longer than that, and you are either in a power outage or involved in some sort of fraternity prank where you have been locked in a room by yourself.

Solitary confinement. Another dream of mine.