Author Archives: davesswan

About davesswan

Writer, blogger, editor, former broadcast journalist, all-around communicator

Watch that slanguage!

A few months back, I retired from my gig as an unpaid but dedicated language and grammar grouch. Y’all could have sent me a few thanks and maybe policed your own copy for a change, but nooooooo! So I’m coming out of retirement with some hot tips on slang, which is fun to use and adds color to your writing — but must be applied correctly, like commas, ellipses, and Preparation H.

What set me off is seeing, in a writers’ newsletter yet, the statement that a fictional character with the cops after her is “on the lamb.” The same facepalmer* appears in the online lyrics to Bob Dylan’s song “Wanted Man,” made famous by Johnny Cash: “If you ever see me coming and if you know who I am / Don’t you breathe it to nobody ’cause you know I’m on the lamb.”

As I’ve said a few times before, even if something clears spellcheck it can still be atrociously WRONG. The correct word is lam, which should be familiar to anybody who’s ever seen a vintage crime movie or cop show. The noun is defined as “a hasty escape or flight,” the verb “to run away quickly, escape, flee.” For example: “I’m gonna lam it outta here before Raylene finds that dead skunk in the dishwasher.”

Because I’m a public-spirited person,** I’m passing on some similar lingo from Damon Runyon, the author of the stories that became “Guys and Dolls,” and the master of American slang in the last century. (WARNING: some of these are not quite politically correct in this century.)

Croaker – a doctor, “croak” meaning “to die” in those times.
Loogan – fool, putz, sucker, etc. Sometimes misused as “outlaw.”
Fin – a five-dollar bill. From the Yiddish “finnif.”
Taking it on the Jesse Owens – a variation on “lam;” running extremely fast indeed.
Stinkeroo – what we now call an epic fail.
In spades – to the max. Derived from the spade being the highest suit in bridge.
Zillion – bigger than a billion, quadrillion, or trillion. See also squillionaire.
Sheep’s eye – an amorous glance.
Tomato – attractive woman or girl. See also pancake (I warned you).
Cemetery bait – a tomato whose husband is so jealous that any guy who gives this doll the sheep’s eye is apt to wind up in the boneyard unless he takes it on the lam.

Runyon was also a philosopher: “The race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong, but that’s the way to bet.” I won’t argue with that but since I’ve already got a rant going here, let’s settle the conundrum currently raging over “substitute.”

Q: What’s wrong with this sentence: “We’re often told to substitute saturated animal fats for healthier vegetable oils”?
A: Wouldn’t “Saturated Animal” be a great name for a band? Seriously, the problem is that the fats and oils are in reverse order: the newer should substitute for the older. I’ve also read that , “Over the centuries, the verb substitute has been used with a variety of prepositions for its oblique object,” but I’m keeping my oblique object offline. I’m sticking with the Who, who wrote a song called “Substitute.”

I’m a substitute for another guy
I look pretty tall but my heels are high
The simple things you see are all complicated
I look pretty young, but I’m just back-dated, yeah.


*A new slang word. Send royalty checks here.
**I can’t shut up and I’m desperate to expand my “platform,” if somebody could just explain what it means.

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Scooting through life

My wife and I recently drove from Atlanta to Detroit, a two-day interstate slog that covers several hundred miles and gets even longer when you try to avoid the endless work zone known as Ohio. Despite all that time on the road, the most enlightening part of the trip for me was a ride on the mean sidewalks of the Motor City, aboard a mobility scooter.

You’ve probably seen these at the big-box or the grocery store. Most often used by victims of stroke, arthritis, lung disease, and heart trouble, scooters can transform the quality of life for those with severe disabilities. My wife’s arthritis isn’t that bad but it makes long walks difficult, so her scooter was ideal for a jazz festival in Detroit, with four stages spread over several blocks.

A scooter like the one I rode

A few snarky commentators, especially in England, think some scooter users are lazy sods who just don’t feel like walking. This, as they say in the UK, is bollocks. As I learned the day I retrieved the scooter from the hotel, no one would climb on these things if they had any choice.

First of all, scooters don’t have shocks. Every little crack and rough spot in the pavement goes straight to the seat, and big holes really rattle your teeth. I felt like I was bouncing all the way to the festival. Second, your carefree way of walking is over. You can’t just cross the street; you have to look for the cutout curb. And good luck getting through a non-automatic door.

Navigating a crowd is a struggle because of all the nubs* with their eyes glued to screens and their earbuds in so they won’t even hear your bell. You’re constantly slowing down, speeding up, and shifting left or right to keep from bumping somebody. On top of that, you have to watch for little kids running loose and big ones breezing past you on those dumb two-wheel scooters, which they later drop in the middle of the sidewalk and block your path. The speed control allows you to putter along at a good clip, but between crowds and bad concrete, I could’ve gone faster on foot.

All of this can be stressful, even if you’re not already coping with a serious disability. I’ll never take mobility for granted again.

The next time you see someone on a scooter, please understand that it’s a necessity, not an indulgence. Open the door for them. Ask if you can help with their bags. And all of us should insist that people with disabilities receive accommodations. We were told the jazz festival didn’t reserve space at concerts for fans who use wheelchairs or scooters. Think we’ll make that long drive to Detroit again?


*A dense, spectacularly clueless person. Derived from Navy jargon: “non-usable body.”

Geezerhood for dummies

Since today is National Senior Citizens Day, I thought we could all take a break from our busy schedule of lying about being at Woodstock, and using periods in texts just to aggravate the grandkids. Stay with me while I share some priceless* information from our good friends at the AARP on the subject of living in place. (You do plan on living for a while, right?)

This concept, also known as aging in place, means adapting your home to your age—perhaps by lopping off the second floor to get rid of those knee-killing stairs! Seriously, there are lots of practical, helpful ways to do this. Sadly, the AARP’s ideas are uncommonly bad.

Their first mistake was outsourcing the piece to those Property Brothers from HGTV (bless their hearts) and putting it in the form of a cartoon. This multi-page spread shows the bros leading their own parents through the house, while offering these king-size pearls of wisdom:

“Bedside units hold books, glasses, water, and medicine.”
“Low-flow toilets reduce water bills.”
“Non-slip floor surfaces reduce falls.”
“Elvis really is dead. He’s not hanging out at the Burger King in Kalamazoo.”

Okay, I made up the last one, but you get the idea. These yutzes** must think us elders have the brains of a kohlrabi. So what did you expect from the magazine that invited you to, “Meet Joe’s Prostate?”

The worst part is that many of their suggestions truly make no sense for seniors (or anyone else). The article notes, “A raised dishwasher eases the burden of bending and lifting.” Except that the cartoon shows, right next to said dishwasher, a fridge with the freezer at the bottom WHICH REQUIRES BENDING AND LIFTING EVERY TIME YOU TAKE SOMETHING OUT.

Still in the kitchen: “Under-counter lighting makes midnight snacking easier.” Right, and while we’re at it, let’s facilitate weight gain and heartburn. And get this: for the bathroom, they propose robo-toilets with “voice-activated flushing and lids that raise automatically.” So when Joe’s prostate gets him up at 3:00 a.m. and the privy suddenly gets balky, he’ll be yelling, “FLUSH! I SAID FLUSH!” and Jane, awakened out of a hot dream involving Harrison Ford, will be telling Alexa, ‘Look up divorce lawyer NOW!”

This panel sums up the witlessness of the story. Would any real husband be so dense as to blurt out, “She’s got a lot more to store!” emphasized by that thought-balloon next to his head? The wife would probably have her own balloon, with a big red X over his vintage Playboy collection.

Seriously?

*Since it doesn’t come with a price, it’s worth exactly what you paid for it. Get it?
**Similar to “putz:” dimwitted, but without the added meaning of being slang for “schlong.”

Insanity

One afternoon in 1978, I walked into the radio newsroom where I had my first reporting job and found myself in the middle of a huge, fast-breaking story: a multiple shooting. The killings in El Paso and Dayton have brought back memories of those times, when these awful events were still rare—and of my own brush with the shooter.

This is what we reported that day: Billy Hardesty, who was 21, unemployed, and had done time for assault and battery, shot his parents dead at their home. After putting his father’s body in a freezer, he killed two men in the parking lot of a bar, gunned down his ex-wife’s brother and wounded two others at their workplace, and held police in a standoff back at his parents’ house before being shot and captured. The state trooper whose bullet hit him was a guy I’d met at church camp during high school.

I was in the courtroom when Hardesty was arraigned. Still recovering from his injuries, he was brought before the judge in a wheelchair, a thickset kid with long, dark hair and a dazed look on his face. From that point on, the key issue in the case was whether he was mentally ill and legally insane, i.e., not responsible for his crimes.

Several months later, I covered a competency hearing in which he rambled about evil movies at the local mall, and asked to be released in the custody of Billy Graham. Not surprisingly, the judge declared he was having trouble dealing with reality and ordered him back to the psychiatric hospital where he was being held.

Afterward I was chatting with another reporter in the hall when we heard a loud noise, the courtroom door popped open, and we saw two detectives wrestling Hardesty to the floor. He’d made a break for freedom but they caught him just in time, with one of the cops hurdling benches to beat him to the door. Another second and he’d have been out, and I’d have been right in his way. I ran to the nearest phone to file the story. I had a few beers too.

Eventually Hardesty was convicted of the five murders, plus two others he’d committed earlier in California, and sentenced to life in prison. His obvious mental problems didn’t stop a judge from ruling him competent to stand trial or a jury from deciding he was legally sane.

It’s likely that no one even imagined a red-flag law that might’ve kept the gun out of his hands. But Billy Hardesty did his killing with a 1970s-vintage .22 rifle. What would have happened if he’d had a military-style assault rifle and a few hundred bullets, like the butchers of today?

My Woodstock memories

They finally pulled the plug on Woodstock 50 and I for one am not sorry. Anniversaries aren’t created equal and re-creating this one made no sense to me, despite being part of the generation it supposedly defined. I’ve never liked being branded by others—especially now, when I’m one of those selfish old coots who are systematically destroying the millennials’ future even though we can’t figure out our smartphones. But I digress.

In August 1969 I was fourteen, living with my mother in Michigan, a few weeks away from my first year of high school. Naturally, I was worried about meeting a raft of new kids, keeping up in class, and not being a complete bozo around girls. As if this didn’t stir up enough anxiety, my father had died during the winter, and I was still struggling. A music festival in some far-away place was the farthest thing from my mind.

At that point, I’d never even gone to a concert. And because Kalamazoo didn’t have an FM rock radio station, I was clueless about many of the performers. I’d heard some on Top 40, like Sly and the Family Stone, the Who, and Jefferson Airplane, but that didn’t make me a member of the Woodstock nation. Those three days of peace and music were part of another world. Today that spirit seems like a firefly, glowing for an instant before flickering out, never to reboot.

The Woodstock 50 crew cites lost venues, a dispute with a partner, and various other reasons for cancelling the show, yet claim, “A lot of people clearly wanted it to happen.” They did not. Woodstock came together and made history in spite of financial disaster, hostile local citizens, food shortages, and nasty weather because 400,000 people believed in it. After half a century, nobody cared about getting “back to the garden,” as Joni Mitchell wrote in her haunting song about the original event. Woodstock 50 turned into such a mess that Country Joe McDonald could’ve updated his famous anti-war lyric to, “And it’s one, two, three, what are we paying for?”

That year at school wasn’t fun but I survived and gradually got back on an even keel. The Woodstock film and soundtrack album came out in 1970, and like everybody else I dug Jimi Hendrix, Ten Years After, and especially Santana’s “Soul Sacrifice.” I still cue them up sometimes, but by the time I graduated I’d started listening to jazz too. In a few weeks I’m heading to the Detroit Jazz Festival, which is celebrating its 40th year and will surely have a 41st. Peace.

Original Woodstock poster, "3 Days of Peace and Music."

Uncle Grumpy’s gone fishin’

Welcome to my retirement! Not the one from my actual job a few years ago but the brand new one from my other life as a professional language police person and grammar nag, writing under the moniker Uncle Grumpy.

You might ask why I’m retiring. (You might also not care.) Well, it wasn’t an easy decision. I like showing off my knowledge, skewering other people’s bad writing, and—at least once in a blue moon—being funny. However, I’ve reluctantly concluded that the odds of making any real impact* on the problem are somewhere below absolute zero. I’d have a better chance of being voted, “The Hottest of All the Hot Dudes in the South Even Though He’s Sixty-Plus and Is Minus Most of His Hair.”

What brought me to this sorry state? ‘Twas this bit of prose from a New York Times article: “In one dramatic marker of the divide, the Republican minority in the Oregon Senate on Thursday fleed the Capitol to prevent a vote on the carbon-pricing bill, which they say would harm the state’s economy.”

That’s right, FLEED. Of all the linguistic apocalypti** I’ve seen, which is plenty, this is among the worst. What next, “bleeded?” Most fourth-graders would know better. Even spellcheck, which I usually warn people not to lean on, would’ve caught it. I’m reminded of Groucho Marx in Monkey Business: “Oh, why can’t we break away from all this, just you and I, and lodge with my fleas in the hills? I mean… flee to my lodge in the hills.”

In any case, I am done grumping. I will no longer rend my teeth or gnash my garments over every goof I find. I shall live a life of serenity, unbothered by dangling modifiers, promiscuous possessives, buzzwords, typos like “pubic” for “public,” and all the rest. I’ll mentally step over these little issues like parking-lot puddles, and if they threaten to aggravate me I’ll simply take a stiff drink (unless I hear them on the radio while driving).


*This is literally the last time I’m going to say it: “Impact” is not a verb. I know I’m not supposed to say “literally” but since I’m retiring, this IS literally the last time I’m going to say it, so I’m literally giving myself a mulligan.
**This might or might not be the proper plural of “apocalypse.” Who cares? I’m retired, remember?

Nonsense of direction

This “new old age” business is definitely getting old. Not only am I losing vital inches from the frame I’ve been feeding and cultivating all these years, but a precious part of my brain is wilting like last week’s boutonniere.

Why? Because I use a GPS! Those pesky scientists have found that those who lean on this crutch show a decline in the hippocampus (which has nothing to do with African wildlife) and the ability to navigate. Of course, this assumes they have that ability to begin with. Your narrator is not among these fortunate souls.

My powers of direction are such that given half a chance, I’m liable to act like this guy, or this one. In contrast to the famous Wrong Way Corrigan, when I set out for Los Angeles and wind up in Ireland it’s not on purpose. “East is East and West is West” is no guarantee! Like Bob Dylan, I’ve been stuck inside of Mobile, even after they built I-10, and unlike Chet Baker I don’t need to sing “Let’s Get Lost,” because I’m usually there already.

You might wonder how I ever managed to function as a cab driver, which I did for about three years in my college town in Michigan in the 70s. I had moments of misdirection, and a few peeved passengers, but after being out there for eight or nine or ten hours every night—and having to drive efficiently to make money— I learned my way around.

That’s what the GPS generation doesn’t get. Despite having DNA that’s programmed to make me run around in circles, I still remember my routes. Even today, I’ll bet I could make it from the Old West Side of Ann Arbor to the Watergate in quick time.

And no, I don’t mean driving from A2 to DC. “Watergate” was what the drivers and dispatchers called the intersection of Nixon Road and Bluett Drive. Nixon-Bluett. Get it?