Try it. Who knows, you may even like it.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The US contribution to the world's languages

By Dick Hirsch

Why didn’t I pay closer attention in Spanish class? Shame on me. It is one of my great regrets that the only language I can use with any degree of expertise is English. Oh, I still retain a few words en Espanol, words like sombrero, bano, hasta la vista and muchas gracias, but they don’t provide much of a testimonial to either my ability as a linguist or the classes I attended.

Just a few weeks ago I spotted a woman at the supermarket who had been in my Spanish class a long time ago. I couldn’t resist the opportunity, so I pushed the cart in her direction, stopped and tried a new opening line:

“Buenos tardes, Senorita Abramowitz,” I said.

She stared blankly, wondering who I was and what I could possibly be thinking. I suppose I should be grateful she didn’t hurry off in the other direction in search of a store security guard.

“It’s me, Senor Ricardo Hirsch,” I explained. “I was in your Spanish class.”

There was that delightful instant of recognition and remembrance and the realization that we had been reunited by Spanish. We talked for a moment and I admitted I had nearly exhausted my entire Spanish vocabulary with that greeting to her. She said she, too, wished she had retained more because she spends part of each year in Arizona. Then we said “adios,” and proceeded with our shopping. That brief interlude provided a sad insight into my education. I hope the teaching of language has improved in the intervening years.

That meeting started me thinking about my own dialogues with non-English speakers, both in the US and other places I’ve traveled. I somehow manage to get along, whenever possible stressing the use of one word that seems to be in general use all over the world. Or is it a word? Or maybe it is an abbreviation.

The word is OK.

Anywhere in the world, whether asking directions from a gendarme in Paris or ordering dinner in Istanbul, OK works. It is a reliable, understandable staple in languages other than English, too. OK may be our most significant contribution to understanding, both domestic and foreign. It works fine everywhere in virtually any situation. I doubt there is a day that passes that I don’t say “OK” several times and that certainly isn’t just because I am such an agreeable guy. It is because the word is so universally familiar, adaptable and comfortable to use. It is used as the instrument to approve orders, invoices, manuscripts and arrangements of virtually any kind. OK could emerge in dialogue with a waiter in Mexico City or a bus driver in Munich. The whole world understands and subscribes to its use.

It was always my opinion that the term originated in New York State, during the presidential campaign of Martin Van Buren. I’ve read that and many people have repeated the story. It is an extremely popular explanation, especially in Kinderhook, New York, in the Hudson Valley, the birthplace of Van Buren, the eighth president of the US. Kinderhook today is a scenic village on the Hudson River in Columbia County and although we seldom hear much about either Kinderhook or Van Buren, the village and its most famous personage have been acclaimed as the source of OK. Van Buren served from 1837-1841 and, when he sought a second term, was defeated by William Henry Harrison. In that unsuccessful campaign, Van Buren was known as being OK, supposedly short for “Old Kinderhook.” Harrison won, but his was the shortest incumbency in history. He was inaugurated March 4, 1841, a miserable, rainy day. He made a meandering speech and caught a cold which turned into pneumonia. He died a month after the inaugural and was succeeded by his vice president, another seldom remembered president, John Tyler of Virginia.

In a new book, “OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word” (Oxford University Press), historian Allan Metcalfe insists the rights to the coinage of OK actually belong not to Old Kinderhook, but to his predecessor in office, Andrew Jackson, a man of the people, but a terrible speller. Once in the White House, Jackson began approving documents by declaring them “oll korrect,” and inscribing them with his shortened version, “OK.” Then, as now, the President was a trend-setter, and OK was adopted by others, including newspaper editors.

Where would we all be without OK? We would be forced to use “approved,” as in that familiar tag line, “I am Dick Hirsch and I approved this column.”


Friday, April 15, 2011

Why can't couples agree on the best approach?

By Dick Hirsch

Yes, I realize there are some topics that are rarely mentioned in polite company. And, yes, I’m well aware that the self-imposed embargo applies to commentators, both male and female. The men are reluctant to discuss it because it impinges on their freedom and reflects on their ability to perform in an acceptable manner in a familiar domestic situation. The women shun the subject because any conversation would be likely to portray them as assertive and single-minded, two characterizations they wish to avoid.

Thus, I have reservations. While I am not here to stimulate controversy, I have reached the stage in my career where I am willing to contend with whatever criticism results. This is a male-female issue and I have never claimed much expertise in that area.

Years ago, when I was younger and less familiar with worldly matters, I felt there were only isolated cases of this controversy. How wrong I was. This is a dispute that goes to the very heart of domestic relationships. There have been no published studies of which I am aware, but I’ve collected enough anecdotal evidence to indicate it is a far more widespread problem than many people realize. That status is the direct result of the abject failure of people to communicate their concerns.

I’m hoping this column will shed enough light on the topic to stimulate dialogue that will lessen tensions and eventually lead to a solution.

For starters, consider the emotional testimony of one friend who claims he has been denied his domestic rights for years. He explains:

“I am a college graduate and have a pretty clear understanding of the problems I might face if I became involved in this situation. It is an enigma. I am not permitted to even touch it.”

Touch what?

“The washing machine,” he replied. “My wife believes I am so incompetent that she won’t allow me to go near the machine. She thinks I not only don’t know how it operates, she believes I would somehow wreck the machine, which is no longer under warranty. I have never done anything with any washer that I regret or am ashamed about.”

I was stunned when I heard that story because it was comparable to my own experience. My wife, Lynn, years ago restricted me from the operation of our washing machine. For years I had freedom of use until it was discovered that I employed a washing tactic of which she disapproved. I never attempted to conceal the fact that I mixed darks and whites. Lynn says that is unacceptable. Of course I was cautious when confronted with intense colors----a maroon or black sweatshirt, for example. I knew such items needed to be laundered with other darks. It was the old policy of separate but equal. In most cases, however; my loads were integrated. I washed without concern about the colorful aspects of doing the laundry.

That approach resulted in my laundering being limited. I am allowed to take out the garbage, rake the leaves, dry the pots and handle other routine assignments, but I am considered ill-prepared for washing and, thus, precluded from the most significant task that takes place in the laundry room. I am free to use the dryer, however, because that is a less complicated device. Although I occasionally yearn to launder---especially when my supply of socks dwindles---I believe I have accepted my role with equanimity.

The mixing issue is dominant. In selective interviews, I have found that men naturally adopt a mixed load philosophy while women insist on separation.

“My trouble developed when she (name deleted for purposes of confidentiality) discovered I was mixing fabrics,” one man explained. “I was doing well with the colors. In other words, I was aware of the policy of having white loads and dark loads, and I adhered to that procedure.”

The man never realized there was a need to separate fabrics, creating loads for cottons and different loads for certain synthetic fabrics. That is where the issue of fine undies and delicate lingerie entered the discussion. He admits that his background on such articles was definitely limited.

“It was a mistake and I apologized,” he recalls, “but still I was banned.”

These are homely stories but they reflect the growing gap that exists over the laundry issue. Is there room for compromise? That’s the question many have asked. There has never been a serious attempt to educate the men and reassure the women. Most men believe there should be provisions for mingling in the laundry room.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Forgotten: one of life's lessons

By Dick Hirsch

    Some people never learn. That is a sizable group. Then there are those others who have the intellectual capacity to learn but whose established behavior patterns will not permit them to make use of the intelligence they possess. In such cases, their passion subverts their brain function and they adopt an approach known in the street as the “I don’t give a damn” attitude.

    I don’t know whether Carl Paladino belongs in either of those categories. He may even be regarded as a person inhabiting a class by himself after his noisy and embarrassing campaign for governor last year. Wherever he positions himself he has ignored one of the basic axioms of public life.

    When you are familiar with an axiom and it applies to you it is recommended that the advice it offers should be heeded. Axioms provide premium advice. Axioms are more intense than adages, aphorisms or proverbs, which are more casual, even folksy. Axioms stress established wisdom and usually provide counsel only on matters of a serious nature. 

The axiom that prompted this discussion is this:

    “Never get in an argument with someone who buys ink by the barrel.”

    That relates to a public figure becoming involved in an ongoing public fight with a newspaper as Paladino has done with The Buffalo News. Paladino has ignored that essential axiom. After his shattering loss in what developed into an unusually nasty gubernatorial campaign, it would have been expected that Paladino would flee the public arena, seeking an interlude of solitude, some thoughtful time during which he could soothe his wounded psyche. But no; within a very short time he was once again elbowing his way into the public consciousness, erecting a huge billboard attacking Stanford Lipsey, the publisher of the News, on a Paladino-owned building, a dilapidated warehouse alongside the 190 expressway near downtown.

    The sign said: “Spineless Stan Lipsey & The Buffalo News threw WNY under the bus.” Paladino has earned a reputation as an outspoken man and the campaign for governor only enhanced that image. He also was revealed to be a sore loser, apparently vengeful because the News endorsed Andrew Cuomo for governor.
The first time I saw the billboard I was both startled and amused. I knew there would be a response. There had to be a response; no newspaper is going to remain silent when its publisher is subjected to a personal attack. Yes, daily newspapers are in decline, but they still wield considerable power and remain the primary source of news and informed opinion in the communities they serve.

    Public officials have had visible arguments with the News in the past but they tiptoed around the issue, strongly disagreeing, but concealing the underlying rancor. Mayor Jim Griffin had many differences with the paper during his four terms and even claimed he quit reading it. But he was restrained and wise enough to avoid malicious name calling. Years ago then Mayor Frank Sedita grew furious about stories published containing insinuations of wrongdoing in his administration. That provoked a prolonged vendetta with the News, during which he blamed the paper and its editor for the investigation that resulted. 

Those were memorable events at the time but they really don’t apply because the men involved were public officials. Paladino is unelected and appears to be breaking new ground by engaging in such an adversarial relationship with the paper. It is very rare to have a private citizen embroiled in such an escapade.

    The response of the News has been diversified. Surely the most creative countermeasure was the full page advertisement reproducing 10 editorial cartoons published during the campaign and portraying Paladino as a menacing and malevolent character. The paper is offering reproductions for sale in various sizes, framed or unframed, available for purchase through its store, They probably don’t expect to sell very many, but the paper will enjoy each and every sale.

A few days later appeared a front page story about the thousands of dollars of unpaid bills for services rendered to Paladino during his campaign. That was followed by a story relating to the billboard being erected without a permit close to a state highway as well as alleged code violations at the Paladino building where the billboard is located.

Yes, at the News they buy ink by the barrel. That axiom originated in the 19th century and we are now seeing that it still applies at a time when some are questioning whether newspapers can endure.