Thursday, December 27, 2007

Christmas Wordoku

Here’s my Christmas Wordoku. For directions: see Wordoku, posted last month. I’m still waiting for a solution to that one. Give it a try! It’s fun!

_ _ C _ _ K _ _ F

F _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

_ _ E _ _ A C _ I

K A _ _ _ _ _ F T

_ C _ T A I _ E _

R E _ _ _ _ _ A C

I _ R C _ _ E _ _

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ U

C _ _ R _ _ F _ _

The Christmas clue word is: F A T R U C K I E

Merry Christmas! Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 23, 2007


When I was a kid I went outside to play after school every single day. Even when it was bitter cold, I went sliding on Malat’s hill or skating on Bassett Creek. I couldn’t wait to get out of my school uniform and into my snow pants and I didn’t come home until it got dark.

I still love being outside, but somewhere along the way I lost the love for being outside in the cold. It probably started when I suddenly began refusing to wear tights to school because they were not cool and stubbornly insisted on walking to school with bare legs. It probably was reinforced while waiting in line on Hennepin Avenue in my mini skirt for movie tickets to see Sidney Poitier in To Sir with Love and Vanessa Redgrave in Camelot. Baring one’s legs and standing or walking in sub-zero wind chills should be mutually exclusive events, but tell that to a teenager.

This year I have decided to make peace with the cold. After all, I live in Minnesota and it’s cold here for six months out of every year so I might as well learn to like it. Last spring I began walk/jogging along Theodore Wirth Parkway every day, and I’m planning to keep it up all winter long.

Today was a little tough. The temperature was near zero and a bitter wind was determined to wreak havoc with the falling snow before it reached the ground. The flakes that hit me as I crossed the railroad bridge on Golden Valley Road were not the soft, fluffy stuff of fairy tales, but sharp, piercing needles of ice that hurt as they pockmarked my face. Fortunately, I wasn’t running into the wind most of the time. Still, I think it might be time to dig out Colin’s old skiing goggles for days like this.

The amazing thing is that I did not slip. There is a sheet of ice under the new snow that didn’t give me any trouble at all. I credit my Yaktrax and I thank my friend, Denice, for telling me about them. I got a pair for $20 at Dick’s and they’re worth every penny. There was only one other runner out on the parkway with me this morning and he was leaving Yaktrax footprints, too.

Yaktrax are made of an elastic material called polyelastomer and steel coils. They fit right over the sole of the shoe, are lightweight and surprisingly comfortable, and are easy to put on and take off. The strips of elastic that fit across the bottom of the shoe are covered with steel coils that provide traction. I think Yaktraks work something like chains on snow tires. Instead of slipping on the ice, they provide stability as they scrape against it. I recommend them; I haven’t enjoyed winter this much since I was a kid.

Sunday, December 16, 2007


According to Merriam-Webster, “w00t” is the 2007 word of the year. It isn’t in the dictionaries yet and it can’t be used in Scrabble because the middle two letters are actually numbers (double zeroes: 00), but it is the word to watch.

W00t is an interjection, popular with on-line gamers, that expresses joy, happiness or excitement. Sometimes, but not always, it is used after a big win. Saying “w00t!” is a little like saying, “yay!” It is what my oh-so-hip husband will exclaim when he reaches into his Christmas stocking next week. “W00t! Once again Santa brought me socks and underwear!”

When w00t does not include double zeroes and is written “woot,” it is considered to be an acronym for “we owned the other team,” and to have the same meaning as w00t. Words that use a combination of letters and numbers are popular in on-line gaming, but apparently both w00t and woot are used. W00t (with the double zeroes) may be the 2007 word of the year, but I’m guessing it won’t be long before woot (with the double o’s) is an acceptable Scrabble word. W00t!

Thursday, December 13, 2007


I remember learning vocabulary words in English class when I was a freshman in high school. I can still recite many of them: hackneyed-commonplace, ostentatious-showy, etymology-word study. Peggy sat across the aisle from me in that class, nervous about our vocabulary quizzes every week. Mari sat in front of me, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and ready to go. We all wore uniforms: navy blue blazers with white blouses, blue plaid skirts and the ever-so-attractive navy blue saddle shoes that we referred to as combat boots. I’ll never forget the morning when I asked Mari if I could borrow a pencil before the quiz. She reached into the blazer pocket on her right hip to get one for me and let out a blood-curdling scream that distracted the entire class. Unknown to Mari I had taken my retainer out of my mouth and slipped it into her pocket, just before asking for the pencil. She got into trouble with Mrs. McPhee for that one, instead of me. Sorry, Mari!

Vocabulary quizzes are still in vogue at my kids’ high school today, and my son, Colin, who is now a college junior, readily admits that they actually helped him on his SAT tests. My daughter, Somer, a high-school sophomore, has taken to posting “Words of the Day” on a small dry-erase board on our refrigerator. I love it! I get out my bifocals to read her small print and spice up our dinner conversation with as many words from her list as I can. I am sure once her friends hear about this they will be clamoring to join us for an evening meal. Not!

This week Somer has taken a different tack. There is only one word on the dry erase board: "Finals". She says that it is a noun meaning, “a particularly harsh form of torture, particularly used on children.” She says the root is the Latin word “final” (fee NAL) meaning “death.” So dramatic! Where does she get it?

Needless to say it is Finals’ Week. It is time for students everywhere to strut their stuff, to show what they know in one, last, comprehensive examination in each class. Frankly, I kind of miss those days. As an adult, there aren’t so many concrete ways to measure our progress. Final exams didn’t kill me and they may have done me some good. After all, I still remember some of the vocabulary words on Mrs. McPhee’s test.

Sunday, December 9, 2007


I have been thinking about my comment yesterday that the ability to tell a good joke is an asset in all walks of life (see: steward). Our priest is an example of that. He keeps us entertained with a good joke every now and then, like this one after Mass this morning.

Jew: “You stole all our commandments.”
Catholic: “True. But we didn’t keep them.”

Truth is, the ability to tell a good joke is an asset in most walks of life, but there was a time in my own life when it wasn’t helpful at all.

In the summer before my senior year of college, I was working at the Chamber’s Belt Factory in Phoenix, AZ. I was employed to stand at a table and paint the edges of belts with black ink. If some of the ink accidentally spilled onto the front of the belt, it could be carefully removed with a rag before it dried; but if some of the ink accidentally spilled onto the inside of the belt, it left a permanent stain that decreased the value of the merchandise. It was tiring, tedious and surprisingly stressful work. The quality of my inking could determine whether a belt went to Marshall’s or Macy’s and the supervisors were always on the lookout to judge if someone was ruining too many belts.

There was one other requirement that made the job almost unbearable for me. We could not talk to our co-workers at all. We were required to remain absolutely silent and I am not the silent type. There was a woman stationed at my table directly across from me who did not have a problem with this. She was as proficient as a robot, and she didn’t make a sound. She would grab a stack of belts from the cart on her left, stand them on edge on the table in front of her, tilt them slightly toward her, hold them steady with her left hand while she dipped her sponge into a bowl of ink with her right hand, spread the ink across the edges of the belts with just the right amount of pressure to avoid a spill, return the sponge to the ink, tilt the belts slightly toward me and repeat. She would then flip the belts over onto the just painted end, repeat the entire process and place the finished belts on another cart to her right. Though she was only about six feet away from me, she never looked across the table at me and she never said a word. She just worked her magic on one stack of belts after another.

I spent most of my first day wiping the ink off of the leather and painting belts that would end up on somebody’s discount rack. It was really difficult to get the angle of the belts and the pressure of the sponge exactly right. Once I, more or less, got the hang of it, the silence got to me and I decided to talk to the lady at my table whether it was against the rules or not. I figured a joke would be a good icebreaker.

“You’re really good at this. You must have quite a few years under your BELT!”

No response.

“Want to go out for a few BELTS after work?” Trust me, it’s not hard to come up with belt jokes when you have nothing but the companionship of belts for hours on end.

The robot looked at me as if I were an alien. No smile. No comment. There was definitely, no laugh. I would have been happy with a groan.

On subsequent days, I tried:

“You make this job look like a CINCH!”

“If you don’t answer me today, I’m going to BELT you one.”

“I think this silence rule hits way below the BELT.”

In the end, I was making the jokes for myself. I didn’t even expect a response. I should not have been devastated when I was fired, but I was.

Years later, I heard a belt joke that was actually funny:

“What did the number 0 say to the number 8?”
“Nice BELT!”

For just a moment I wondered if that would have made the robot smile. I doubt it. Being able to tell a good joke is an asset in most lines of work, but it’s not worth diddly squat at Chamber’s Belts.

Saturday, December 8, 2007


My son wasn’t one of those “ha, ha,” funny little kids, but I think he was always interested in humor. I probably first noticed it when he was still in pre-school and his big sister got hooked on knock-knock jokes. One of her favorites was the familiar:

“Knock, knock.”
“Who’s there?”
“Dwayne who?”
“Dwayne the bathtub. I’m dwonding.”

Colin had a lesser-known favorite of his own:

“Knock, knock.”
“Who’s there?”
“Book who?”
“Book. Are you reading enough?”

Now, of course, the book knock-knock wasn’t funny, but I laughed anyway, so my darling, earnest little comic thought it was hilarious. I laughed the first time I heard it and I laughed the one-hundredth time. Moms are like that. I appreciated then, and I appreciate now, how well he was able to imitate the form of the Dwayne knock-knock joke, even if his made-up version made absolutely no sense at all. He had no idea why Erin’s joke was funny because he was too young to understand it, but he was doing his level best to play the game and get a laugh.

Knowing how to tell a joke well can be a nice attribute in any walk of life. Even the presidential candidates are quoted with their favorite jokes in this morning’s StarTribune. My favorite is the one Mitt Romney tells about his wife:

Mitt: “Ann, did you in your wildest dreams see me running for president?”
Ann: “You weren’t in my wildest dreams.”

Today my precocious little jokester is a charming young man of twenty-one, with a good sense of humor and much better material than the book knock-knock. Last weekend I had the pleasure of watching him bring his comedic wit to the character of the steward in Into the Woods on his college stage. I was also pleasantly surprised when I read his biography in the program.

“I’ve played a few roles in Columbia theater now, the Steward was the only one that was too hard. Nevertheless, I had a great time, made some new friends, and am glad my mom is here to see me.”

Feeling all puffed up about my mention in the program, I failed to read his bio carefully and missed his joke.

“I’ve played a few roles in Columbia theater now, the Steward was the only one that waS TOO HARD. Nevertheless, I had a great time, made some new friends, and am glad my mom is here to see me.”

Funny people usually make good company. It warms my heart to know that my son is one of them.


1. I’m glad the Spigs were able to put “qi” to good use on the Scrabble board. Count me in for your next tournament.
2. Thanks, Emily, for teaching me a new portmanteau word and educating me on SPAM. This is a timely topic, with eleven employees of Quality Pork Processors in Austin, MN suffering from a rare neurological disease after using compressed air to clean brain matter out of hogs’ skulls. Makes me want to rush right out for a can of Spam.
3. I’ll keep my euphoria in check the next time I play “qat,” Colin. It sounds like seriously dangerous stuff and I hope the Somalis who are now living here left it in Africa. Most of the Somali men I see are either driving cabs or collecting money in parking lots. It would not be a good thing if either group became manic or irrational from chewing qat, although it might make a funny comedy sketch.
4. The etymology of the word steward is "sty," meaning pigpen + "ward," which can mean guard. Can we say, then, that flight attendants and palace stewards are employed to guard pigpens?
5. After years of writing stuff and filing it away without any feedback, I really, really appreciate the comments.
6. One more clue for the Thanksgiving Wordoku. The top line is EFWORMAYL. I guess my earlier clue wasn’t very helpful since the “E” was in the original puzzle. Duh! Coming up: Christmas Wordoku.

Monday, December 3, 2007

qat, qats

Here is another valuable “u-less” “q” word: “qat,” a noun which also has a plural form: “qats.” It is a tropical evergreen shrub that can also be spelled “kat” or “khat” and is pronounced KOT. The plant, which is primarily found in Africa, contains a natural amphetamine that is considered psychologically addictive. Chewing the leaves can produce feelings of euphoria and stimulation. One source indicates that ninety percent of Yemeni men regularly chew qat and that its production and distribution have been a source of conflict between Yemeni and Somali societies.

One of the words I played during my losing Scrabble match in Florida (see: qi) was an evergreen shrub, but it was “yew,” not “qat.” Interestingly, the yew is a symbol of sorrow or death, while qat apparently provides euphoria and stimulation. Next time I’ll play the word qat, instead of yew, and hopefully feel euphoric when the final score is posted on the refrigerator.

Thursday, November 29, 2007


Last month I spent a long weekend in Florida with my book club. We are a group of ten women who have read and discussed fifty-three books in the past five years, sharing a lot of laughs and a few tears along the way. We usually get together in one another’s Minnesota homes, but this time we all jumped at Janet’s offer to do a destination book club at her retirement home in Naples. In addition to much rousing conversation about Jodi Picoult’s Nineteen Minutes, we did a lot of wining and dining, did some walking, played a little tennis, and took a sunset cruise showcasing the stately vacation homes of some of the wealthiest people in the world. None of us will be moving up to their neighborhood any time soon.

I have to admit that I was disappointed that no one else in the group wanted to visit the Everglades. After all, we were only an hour away, I didn’t know when we would be in the area again, and, as it turned out, the everglades was to be the setting for our next book, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston.

My sister, Jill, who is also a member of the book club, appeased me by offering to play Scrabble poolside in Janet’s lanai. She must have been a bit nervous that my disappointment about the Everglades would soon escalate into a full-blown snit. Either that or she was afraid I would rent my own car and force her to take the tour against her will, pulling big-sister rank and insisting that the trip was for her own good. Jill wouldn’t ordinarily suggest a game of Scrabble because she likes sports, not word games. She has never beaten me at Scrabble and I have never beaten her at tennis.

As it turned out, I picked the letter “q” in my first group of seven Scrabble tiles. I did not pick a “u” or a blank that I could use as a “u” for the rest of the game. No one else played a “u” that I was able to use either. So, essentially, I played the entire game with six, instead of seven, letters; and lost to my sister. She then made a big show of posting the final score on the refrigerator, just as my dad used to do on the rare occasions when he managed to pull off a win. Need I mention the control necessary on my part to avoid a snit at this point?

I knew at the time that there were some English words in which the “q” was not followed by a “u,” but I had not committed them to memory so I could not use them. That is no longer the case. I opened Janet's Scrabble dictionary and began memorizing the “u-less” “q” words just as soon as the game was finished. I continued studying when I got home and I have discovered that there are quite a few such words. In my research "qi” is the richest find, because it is the only “q” word in the English language that has only two letters, making it a very valuable Scrabble word. My game, and the score sheet, in Naples, Florida would have turned out quite differently had I known the word “qi.”

Qi is not a new word, but it is a new word to the English lexicon. I found it in my 2006 on-line Scrabble dictionary. It is considered a new English word of Chinese origin, pronounced “chee.” Actually, “chee” isn’t exactly right, but it is about as close to right as most Western speakers can get.

The Chinese character for qi is a combination of rice and steam. The literal translation is “steam rising from rice as it cooks.” In Chinese thought, qi is the vital force that is inherent in all things. Qi is the “life force” or “spiritual energy,” sometimes translated as “air” or “breath.” In traditional Chinese thought, the steam rising from the boiling rice is actually considered to be the rice’s respiration.

Frankly, I find the concept of “breathing rice” to be a little bit creepy. I’m guessing that most English speakers who use the word aren’t taking it quite so literally. I am comfortable with the idea of qi as it applies to living things, but less so when it is describing inanimate objects such as sticks, stones and rice.

I’m still disappointed that I didn’t get to the Everglades to see the alligators and the mangroves and the “muck” where Hurston’s Janie and Tea Cake planted their beans. Maybe we’ll get there next year, if we can convince Janet to make the Naples book club an annual event. I’m also disappointed about that score sheet on the refrigerator, but it has certainly proved to be a good motivator to get me working on my game and that’s a good thing. Scrabble anyone?

1. Bobbie, thanks for remembering St. M.M. and Sister Michaelene with me, and caring about it as much as I do. Et cum spiritu tuo. (See comment on clerestory)
2. Colin, thanks for educating me on Jabberwocky. The word chortle was coined by Lewis Carroll in Jabberwocky, just as Emily said it was. Colin informed me that Jabberwocky is a poem in Into the Looking Glass, not a separate work. Sorry, sloppy research on my part. (See: chortle)
3. No solutions to the Thanksgiving Wordoku? Hint: Top left corner is the letter "E." Pete, try unscrambling the word and then solving the puzzle. (See: Wordoku)
4. Please keep the comments coming. They are very much welcome and appreciated.

Saturday, November 24, 2007


An artist’s rendering of a proposed addition to the exterior of my church arrived in the mail a few weeks ago. The drawing includes a tower, which resembles a bell tower without a bell, that is called a “clerestory.” The base of this pillar is about one-fifth as wide as the front of the church and is faced in a strawberry-blond brick, which matches the church exterior. The top third, which extends above the church roof, is made of glass. Looking at it from the parking lot, the clerestory stands in front of the church, to the right of the front doors. It looks something like a beautifully refurbished box car, standing on one end, with the top third encased in glass and extending above the existing roof, and the lower two-thirds covered in brick to match the rest of the church.

Architects are recommending a vertical structure to complement the horizontal flat-roofed church and school buildings that we now have, and to distinguish this particular building from the others as a church. Oftentimes, people pass our campus on Theodore Wirth Parkway and assume it is only a school; or arrive for a funeral and are unable to discern which building is the church. There is a reason the church of St. Margaret Mary looks so little like a place of worship: it was to be a temporary church and a future gymnasium. When funds failed to materialize in later years, the gym became the permanent church.

St. Margaret Mary has been my parish for most of my life. I made my First Confession, First Communion and Confirmation there. I was married in this church and all of my children celebrated their first sacraments there. My father’s roofing and sheet metal company did some of the roofing in the early years.

I attended grades 1-8 in the adjoining school before and after the church was built. In the winter of 1959, masses were held in a basement church that doubled as the school cafeteria. If my family did not arrive for Sunday services early enough, we had to sit in folding chairs in the hallway between the cafeteria and what is now the church. It didn’t bother me to sit in the chairs, but kneeling on the linoleum floor was a killer, even for a second-grader. My mom was excused from getting on her knees because she was very pregnant with my sister, Jill, and I was very jealous because my knees hurt.

Plans for the current remodeling include such practical improvements as handicapped ramps and bathrooms to meet accessibility requirements and to meet the needs of aging parishioners, including the parents of some of my former classmates. There is also a plan to enlarge Visitation Hall, the social room now used for funeral lunches and church gatherings. When my son rose to the rank of Eagle Scout, we celebrated with a reception there.

In the fall of 1959, there was no social room. There were, instead, two third-grade classrooms and one nurse’s office occupying the space that is now Visitation Hall. The kindly, lenient Miss Kruse, who also taught music, had the room next to the church. The strict, demanding Sister Michaelene, ran a very tight ship, intimidating in her full Franciscan habit, size XL, in the room next door. The nurse’s office was smaller than many of today’s closets and equipped with a tiny table that served as a desk; as well as a cot, a toilet and a sink. It was often, if not always, manned by a parent volunteer rather than a nurse.

In other words, there were two third-grade classrooms, overflowing with students, two teachers and one parent volunteer holding a thermometer in the three rooms that have been combined to form Visitation Hall today; along with their desks, school supplies, boots and coats. It is amazing to me that the teachers kept their sanity and that any of us learned anything.

In those days, I did not know that Minnesota was a home to Swedes and Norwegians named Anderson and Andersen because my classmates were Germans with names like Mueller and Schroeder and Kleinhenz, or of Irish descent with names like Sullivan and Roddy and McPherson. The girls were named after the Blessed Virgin: Mary Ann, Mary Jo and Mary Beth. The boys were named after the apostles: Thomas and James and John. There were no African Americans or native Americans. The Nguyens and the Cabreras had not yet arrived. The Mormons in my neighborhood did not set foot in my church and I did not set foot in theirs, lest I commit a sin.

Sister Michaelene taught me so much and so well that year that I was able to coast for the next three years. Seriously, I don’t remember covering much new material until Mr. Umerski arrived in seventh grade. Because our parish was building a new church in 1959, Sister Michaelene squeezed in a whole unit with church-related words such as sacristy and pew and apse, which we learned we would not have in our new gymnasium church.

Clerestory was not on Sister Michaelene’s vocabulary list, not because she forgot it, but because it is not actually a church word. Clerestory has an architectural origin, not a religious one. It is pronounced CLEAR-story and it describes a construction rising above adjacent rooftops to let in natural light or air. The word fits in our case since the top third of the proposed tower would be made of glass, but not all clerestories involve towers. The windows or slits found at the top of railroad cars are are also called clerestories.

In truth, there will never be a clerestory at St. Margaret Mary unless parishioners donate enough money to build one. A ramp and handicapped restrooms are a necessity and a larger social room would be nice, but a clerestory is a luxury. There have been other plans in other years for other buildings, including a real church, that have never been built.

There has long been a division among the church faithful, in other parishes as well as ours, as to whether it is best to glorify God by lavishly decorating places of worship, or whether it is best to keep the worship space simple and use available funds for social causes. My guess is that that the majority of St. Margaret Mary parishioners prefer simplicity because there is nothing fancy about our gymnasium church and we have made the choice to worship there. Several beautiful Catholic churches can be found within just a few miles of St. Margaret Mary, including the truly awesome Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, where we could spend our Sunday mornings if we so chose.

However, a clerestory would be nice. It is not really fancy, just a little bit fancier than what we now have. I can’t help but wonder that if a bit of sunshine and a breath of fresh air improve the cross country journey of the travelers riding in Amtrak train cars, wouldn’t it be possible that a bit of sunshine and a breath of fresh air might also improve the faith journey of the congregation sitting in St. Margaret Mary pews?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


Pete is brilliant: “packingthread,” “pickthank” and “puckish.” Wow! I bow to Peter, the Platers’ master. Whether he invented the game or not, he’s good! More from me on Pete’s great words later (and the new one that finally came to me on today’s walk, the much more ordinary “pinkish”), but first, I’m anxious to post a Thanksgiving game.

Not only do I like to play word games, but I like to play Sudoku. Last summer, Somer gave me a book called “Wordoku,” which contains Sudoku puzzles for word lovers. It is a paperback written by Frank Longo and printed by Sterling Publishing Co., Inc. of NY, NY in 2006. I love it!

Many people, including Pete, think that Sudoku is a numbers’ game, but it isn’t. It’s all logic and can be played with letters instead of numbers. Wordoku is exactly the same as Sudoku except that all the numbers have been replaced by letters. It also has an extra fun component for word lovers in that somewhere in the grid, either in one of the horizontal or vertical rows, or diagonally from the upper left to the lower right, appears a 9-letter word. I have made up a Wordoku of my own, in which a Thanksgiving word will appear. Here are the letters:


Each of the nine letters above must appear in each row, across and down, as well as in each of nine 3 letter by 3 letter grids. The grids are formed by dividing the puzzle into three equal parts horizontally and vertically, nine grids in all. It is not necessary that all nine letters appear diagonally. I have used _ to represent an open space in the grid.

E F W O _ M A Y _

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

R _ _ _ A _ E _ _

_ E F L _ _ _ _ _

O _ _ E _ W _ _ A

_ _ _ _ _ F R M _

_ _ Y _ L _ _ _ R

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

_ W R M _ A O F Y

Have fun! Happy Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 17, 2007


“Platers” is a word that I have made up to name a game that I like to play. It is a portmanteau word (see portmanteau and dandle) which blends the word “plate” (as in license plate) and the word “letters.”

It turns out that platers is also a real word. It can mean people who do plating, such as metalworkers or printmakers, or machines that do the plating for them. Maybe the sheet metal workers in my dad’s sheet metal shop were sometimes known as platers. Maybe my dad worked as a plater himself when he studied typesetting in high school. He once explained to me how, in his day, nothing was printed without painstakingly laying out every single letter in every single word and each and every character in each and every sentence.

I like antiques and I have a printer’s box, with the letters “b” and “c” from an old print shop on the wall in my kitchen. The raised letters on the end of each matchstick-sized metal piece, are so small that I can’t read them without a magnifying glass. I cannot imagine lining them up to spell words.

There is another meaning for the word platers: inferior race horses. I’m not sure how the sorry, nosed-out nags got this name, but a horse race or other contest for a prize can be called a “plate,” so maybe it has something to do with that.

I have adapted my game, Platers, from a game my kids used to play in the car with one of their friend’s dad. I don’t know if their game had a name and I’m not sure of the exact rules, but this is how I play it.

When I am out for a walk or jog and passed by a car, I look at the license plate. In Minnesota, handicapped plates don’t work because they don’t have any letters, just numbers. I can’t remember how many, if any, letters are on Veteran’s license plates. License plates that support the Department of Natural Resources are too easy because they only have two letters, but they might be fun for kids. Vanity plates can be a challenge; I usually just try to figure out what they mean.

Regular Minnesota license plates have three letters and three numbers. I ignore the numbers and remember the letters. I then try to make the shortest word possible, using all three letters in the same order as they appear on the license plate. Sometimes it is very easy, i.e. MAT; sometimes I can’t come up with a word at all, i.e. VXV.

On my jog yesterday afternoon I had fun with the letters PKH:

1. The first word that came to me was “Poughkeepsie,” which does not work because it is a proper noun and proper nouns are not allowed in Platers, just as they are not allowed in Scrabble. Also, the letter “k” comes after the letter “h,” and I needed a word in which the letters followed the sequence: PKH. Still, Poughkeepsie is a great word and it brought to mind a visit to Vassar College, which is located there. I remember that I couldn’t get any cell phone reception in Poughkeepsie and that two boys were streaking across the campus in the middle of the afternoon while we were on our tour there.

2. The second word that occurred to me was “pricketh.” I imagined this as Shakespeare’s way of pricking his finger. “My lord, haveth thou pricketh thy thumb?” Although, in The Merchant of Venice, Shylock says, “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” so I guess pricketh is not really a word, even for Shakespeare.

3. My third word was “packhorse,” a horse that carries supplies, but I was afraid that packhorse might not be one word, but two: pack horse. Turns out packhorse is a word, so I could have quit there, but I didn’t.

4. My fourth and final word was “peckish,” meaning irritable or slightly hungry. I remember Lauren Graham from Gilmore Girls saying, “I’m feeling a bit peckish,” when she wanted something to eat. Peckish creates a word-picture for me: hungry chickens pecking the dirt for food.

Some people like to listen to their ipods when they’re out walking. Some people like sharing the time with their dogs. I like playing Platers. Anyone with another word for PKH? I can think of one.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

portmanteau and dandle

I got a nice surprise from my son, Colin, yesterday: an e-mail with some new words! (He also had a list of things he would like for Christmas in that e-mail, but I didn’t pay much attention to that.) “Portmanteau” was on his word list. Thanks, Colin!

In Britain, a suitcase, trunk or bag used for traveling might be called a “portmanteau,” especially if it is made of leather and opens into two halves the way hard-sided American luggage does. It is pronounced “port-man-TOE” and the plural is portmanteaux or portmanteaus. I’m guessing it’s a combination of the English word, “port,” which we all know as a place where ships load and unload; and the lesser known French word, “manteau,” which means cloak.

Linguists use portmanteau in a different way. They call words that are made by blending parts of other words, “portmanteau words.” It seems that people who spend their days studying words and languages think that combining parts of two or more words into one word is a little like cramming the contents of two sides of a suitcase together when it is jammed shut. I like that analogy.

I have mentioned some portmanteau words in previous blog posts, without knowing that’s what they were: chortle, TomKat and Brangelina. I don’t think the word portmanteau qualifies as a portmanteau word, because, if I am right about its origin, portmanteau combines all, not part, of two words, making it a compound word, not a portmanteau word. Whew!

Sometimes learning a new word leads to another new word. Portmanteau led me to “dandle,” which is a combination of the words dance and handle, meaning to pet or pamper. It is often used to describe the way adults move a baby or child lightly up and down on their knee or in their arms. I have bounced a lot of babies, but I never knew I was dandling them.

Dandle is a great portmanteau word because it combines the joy and music and rhythm of dance with the love and concern and spoiling implicit in careful handling. Like any good word, dandle creates a word-picture. In my mind’s eye, I can see Grampa T., who is no longer with us, dandling my younger daughter on his knee, boisterously chanting, “This is the way the little girls ride.” This tender word-picture, of a time when Somer was so small and Grampa T. was so full of life, brings a tear to my eyes.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007


Here's a fun website for word lovers that builds vocabulary and (if we can believe what they say) feeds some hungry people:

Once again, Somer found it. Thanks, Somer!

Sunday, November 11, 2007


Back to Kelly Jo. She is the young woman at work, who gave me the idea for this blog by repeatedly asking me, “What’s the word?” She tells me that she actually does talk about some of my “words” with her friends every once in a while. She admits that most of the time when I’m babbling on and on about this word or that, she just appreciates the break from filing and phone calls and word processing; but sometimes, a word sticks. One of her favorites is “jo.”

As far as I know, “jo” is the only two-letter word in the English language that contains the letter “j.” That makes it a very valuable word for a Scrabble player like me. In my experience with the game, it is much more helpful to know lots of little words than it is to know lots of big ones. Little words that use the “j,” “q,” “x,” or “z” are especially valuable. Recently, I was able to use “jo” in the lower left-hand corner of the board for a triple-word score of 30 points, which is not a terrific Scrabble play, but it is quite respectable.

First, it is important to know what “jo” is not:

1. “Jo” is not a marsupial. The Australian word for any young animal, especially a kangaroo is not “jo,” but “joey.”
2. “Jo” is not an average man. The American slang word for a regular fellow or regular guy is not “jo,” but “joe.” Think average joe.
3. “Jo” is not the Mexican word for “yo,” meaning “I.” The Mexicans do say “jo” for “yo,” but this is a foreign word and therefore not allowed. Also, the word is “yo,” not “jo.”
4. “Jo” is not a morning pick-me-up. I don’t know how to spell “cuppa jo,” but however I’ve tried to spell it, the Scrabble dictionary doesn’t have it. The game’s official reference book says “cuppa” is a cup of tea. It does not contain “cuppa jo.”
5. “Jo” is not a girl’s name. Well, actually, it is a girl’s name. Who could ever forget Jo March from Little Women? However, since Jo is a proper noun, it is not allowed in Scrabble.

That brings us to what “jo” is. “Jo” is a Scottish word which comes from the word “joy.” It means beloved one, darling or sweetheart. Kelly Jo remembered this word because it is also her middle name. Last week when she and her boyfriend were having a fight that resulted in name-calling, Kelly Jo shielded herself from Sean’s insults by insisting that she was a "jo," a sweetheart...and she is.

Saturday, November 10, 2007


The best thing about having a blog, so far (two days!), is that people actually respond to what I post. It seems to me that writing is usually a very solitary endeavor and I am not a very solitary person. So, while I like to write, I miss the camaraderie of people while I do it. Thanks for the comments and keep them coming!

I was going out for a glass of wine with some friends after Somer’s play last night, when one of my friends used the word "chortle." I can’t even remember why she used it; something made her "chortle," but I can’t remember what it was. I got a little giddy when I heard Mary say, "chortle," and completely lost track of what she was trying to say. Lesson to self: Do not let an interesting word distract from an interesting story.

Anyway, thanks to my niece Emily’s comment on my first blog entry (in which she offers "chortle" as a good word), I have been thinking about the word "chortle" for the past couple of days. I knew the word, but until I read her comment, I knew nothing of its origin. I did a little research on my own to confirm that the word "chortle" was coined by Lewis Carroll in either Jabberwocky or Through the Looking Glass. I guess I would have to read both the poem and the story to know for sure where it was first used. Either way, it is a combination of the words snort and chuckle, meaning a gleeful chuckle or to utter with glee. This fanciful, TomKat-Brangelina type of word has been around for more than 130 years and is still in common use today. I may be lame, but I find that interesting.

As it turns out there was a "chortle"-worthy moment in my daughter’s second scene last night. I am no serious student of Shakespeare, but I do know that his plays all contain both highbrow and lowbrow entertainment. The wealthy, erudite Englishmen once sat in tiered seats in a semicircle facing the stage at the Globe Theatre in London; while the English commoners stood in the dirt in an open space between the seats and the stage. The two groups were both entertained by the performance, but not necessarily by the same things.

In Act 1, Scene 3 of MacBeth, the three witches have gathered. These are the same witches who later chant, “Double, double, toil and trouble...” and who later predict MacBeth’s ascendancy to the throne. The third witch in last night’s performance was my daughter, Somer. In this particular scene, the first witch complains that a sailor’s wife would not share her chestnuts with her, so the first witch is making plans to sail to the husband in a kitchen strainer, turn herself into a tailless rat, and “do things to him--”

I am sure Shakespeare’s commoners got a chuckle out of the bawdy notion of the old hag “doing things” to the sailor, but the real "chortle" actually comes next, when the other two witches offer “to give some wind” to the first witch to help her sail. This is lowbrow, bathroom humor and the “wind” being offered is actually expelled gas. In other words, I got to "chortle" with the commoners as my daughter pretended to fart on stage.


Sinking is certainly not a new word, but here is a new way of looking at it. I stole it from my daughter, Somer, who got it from her Biology teacher, Dr. Miller, who found it on youtube.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

What's the Word?

What’s the Word?

There is a young woman at work who regularly asks me,” What’s the word?” Now, of course, I know that “What’s the word?” is Kelly Jo’s way of asking “What’s new?” However, I like words, in a rather obsessive, former English teacher, kind of way; so I usually try to answer her literally and come up with some word that I find interesting.

The first time she asked, “What’s the word?” Kelly Jo seemed a bit surprised that I didn’t answer, “Not much,” like everyone else. She looked at me very strangely, incredulous that I really did not know what she was asking. When I convinced her that “I got it,” but that I thought it might be “fun” to actually discuss a word; she rolled her big eyes, displaying lashes perfectly plumped with mascara, tilted her head to the right and put on a fake smile. I have tried to teach her new words in the office on a regular basis for the past four years and now she realized that she had been duped and unwittingly committed herself to another vocabulary lesson. All three of my children would immediately empathize with Kelly Jo because I do this to them at every available opportunity.

I suppose Kelly Jo continues to play along with me because I am her boss and it’s in her best interest to smile and pretend to be interested. It also gives her a few extra minutes to gab; or, more precisely, listen to me gab; instead of doing her work. Besides, she’s a good-natured girl who, in the vernacular of a former teacher, “plays well with others.” I like to think that my “word of the day” gives Kelly Jo something to laugh about at home and share with her friends, but I’m probably completely deluded about that.

Considering how I enjoy discussing words with anyone who will listen, including salaried employees and children stuck in the car with me; I thought it might be fun to post a word that interests me and discuss it on a blog every now and then, too. My niece, Emily, has had a blog for three years that has taken me through her shoulder surgery; study abroad in Spain; and, most recently, her thoughts on the television writer’s strike. My niece, Gina, has been blogging for over a year about her experiences living in Guatemala, including some not-so-pleasant postings about fleas, mysterious rashes and a chipped front tooth. My younger daughter, Somer, who is a sophomore in high school, has entertained me for the past few weeks with entries about being too sick to go to school, play rehearsals and a youtube video that she watched in biology class. Come to think of it I may have to steal the youtube video from her and post it here because it is very funny and involves a “word.”

Anyway, thank you Kelly Jo for asking, “What’s the Word?” and giving me an idea for a blog that is so right for me. Just don’t think that I’ll get so preoccupied with blogging that it will be the end of the vocabulary lessons at work!