Saturday, October 13, 2007

Za

This probably isn't going to be a very interesting post. I had a few ideas floating around in my mind, but I wasn't too excited about any of them, so I decided to pick the least interesting one to write about today.

When the movie "Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny" came out last year, I had no interest in seeing it. As an actor, Jack Black is good at what he does, but what he does gets pretty tiresome pretty quickly. Besides that, the reviews weren't exactly great either -- the general consensus seemed to be that with its juvenile humor and bare-minimum plot, the movie would only appeal to die-hard Tenacious D fans.

I'm not a die-hard Tenacious D fan. I really liked the first two 15-minute "Tenacious D" episodes they had on HBO in the late '90s, and whenever Jack Black appeared on "Mr. Show with Bob and David," it was clear that he had a lot of talent. So a year or two after the first two "Tenacious D" episodes, I was eager to see the four new episodes, but they were a big disappointment. And nothing they've done since then is much better. So as far as I'm concerned, those first two episodes are probably their best work.

Anyway, one good thing about all the bad movie reviews is that when I finally got around to seeing it on cable, it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. It even had a few laugh-out-loud moments, although I don't remember what they were. As a matter of fact, I don't remember a lot about the movie, but one thing that stands out in my mind is that one of the characters referred to a pizza as a "za."

There's nothing earth-shaking about that, of course -- hardly enough for me to recommend that you rush out and buy the DVD. It's not even the first movie in which I've heard "pizza" shortened to "za." I don't remember what the other movie was, but that's not important. What's important is that twenty years ago, I invented that word myself.

I pronounced it zuh instead of zah, and it was in a private conversation with someone I'm no longer in touch with, so I have no way of proving that I invented it. You'll just have to take my word for it, but if you doubt me, it doesn't matter, since it's really not all that important. But just so you'll know, sometime back in 1987 or so, a friend of mine and I were planning on getting something to eat and then seeing a movie. I don't remember most of our pre-dinner conversation that day, but part of it went something like this:

Him: What do you feel like getting?
Me: I don't know. How about a zuh?
Him: What's that?
Me: A pizza.

He thought it was pretty funny, and we did end up getting a pizza. I remember that, although I don't remember what movie we saw. But that's not the point. The point is that I invented the word, so I notice every time someone else uses it, even though I've never since used the word myself.

One of the Wikipedia definitions for "za" is "A U.S. colloquial term for pizza," so the word obviously enjoys some popularity. At this point, it's still uncommon, but maybe one day in the future it will spread into the mainstream and Italian restaurants will have a "Za" section on their menus.

I can't say I mind that other people are using a word I invented without giving me credit for it -- that's just the way language is. Original or clever phrases aren't copyrightable, so you can't register them as intellectual property. And even if you could, it wouldn't be a very good idea, since it would effectively prevent people from using those phrases, making them short-lived and quickly forgotten.

So I have no complaints. Besides, it's quite possible that someone else independently thought of the term. You know what they say about how great minds think alike, so maybe there's another great mind somewhere out there. And beyond that, the word "za" isn't really all that interesting -- it's hardly something to be proud of.

But what about the guy who first uttered the phrase "Fuck you" or "Bite me" or any of the other popular expressions of our time? Those expressions probably get uttered millions of times every day. How do you think he feels every time someone uses the phrase he invented without giving him the proper credit? Is he proud of his phrase nonetheless? Does he wish he could get some recognition for it? Or is it enough for him that his phrase became so widespread, so deeply ingrained in our popular culture?

The thing is, we'll probably never know who invented these phrases. Maybe the person who coined the phrase "Fuck you" died long ago in obscurity. We'll never know. But even if he's still alive, he will eventually die, and when he does, any acknowledgment of his creation will die with him. Whatever other accomplishments may be listed in his obituary, "originator of the phrase 'Fuck you'" will probably not be one of them.

It's an interesting thing to ponder. Or maybe it isn't. Maybe it's only interesting to me. But if it isn't all that interesting to you, keep in mind that I warned you about today's post in advance.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

"Don't Tase Me, Bro!"

It seems like ever since that unfortunate incident at the September 17th speech given by John Kerry, "Don't tase me, bro!" has become a popular culture catch-phrase. I did a Google search on the phrase and got almost a half a million hits. And they weren't links to the news story either. You can watch various different remixes on YouTube, or you can buy the "Don't tase me, bro!" T-shirt of your choice from one of the many online T-shirt vendors.

I can't say I'm surprised that the plea uttered in earnest by some poor soul just moments before he was subjected to unnecessary pain at the hands of an undisciplined police force somehow became the slogan du jour -- or that less than a month later, it's already on its way to being passé -- but that's not the first thing I thought of when I saw how popular the phrase had become.

The first thing I thought of is that "tase" isn't even be a word. Or if it is, it shouldn't be.

I don't mean to pick on the guy who said it, since he was obviously under a lot of stress -- being physically restrained by the police and then forced to endure severe electric shocks tends to have that effect on people. And he was relatively young, so maybe he didn't know any better -- maybe he just generalized what he knew about the English language and decided that a taser is something that tases.

But a taser isn't something that tases. According to Wikipedia, the word "taser" is actually an acronym for "Thomas A. Swift's Electric Rifle" -- Tom Swift being the fictional character of countless teenage adventure books. Okay, so it's not a very good acronym -- it actually sounds like someone came up with the word first, maybe to rhyme with "laser," and then tried to invent an acronym for it -- but that's sort of beside the point.

The point, of course, is that the use of "tase" as a verb obviously comes from back-formation. There's nothing wrong with back-formation in and of itself -- a lot of words are created that way -- but they don't usually sound as awkward and clumsy as "tase." So I'm not saying that people shouldn't use the word -- I'm just saying that if they do, they'll sound uneducated and stupid.

The taser has apparently been around since 1969, but the laser is even older -- it was invented in the '50s, but the research for it started a long time before that.

The word "laser" is an acronym as well, as I'm sure you already knew. It stands for "Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation." So just as a taser isn't something that tases, a laser isn't something that lases. Lasers have been around longer than many people have, so I thought we all understood this simple fact, but apparently I was wrong. I've seen the use of the verb "to lase" recently and it doesn't make me happy. As a matter of fact, it makes me think people are getting stupider every day.

Two or three weeks ago, I read an article about how when President Bush gives a speech, some of the cue cards that are prepared for him have certain words spelled out phonetically. It's not as bad as it sounds -- the phonetic spelling is generally reserved for names of foreign dignitaries, whose names anyone might have difficulty pronouncing (although I can't help thinking that if someone had phonetically spelled out the word "nuclear" for him when he was a kid, maybe he wouldn't have so much trouble with the word today).

With Bush's popularity at an all-time low, I probably wouldn't make too many enemies by saying bad things about him, but that isn't my purpose here today -- especially if what I read in the article is true. According to one of his spokespeople, many United States presidents have apparently relied on phonetic spelling to prevent from mispronouncing certain foreign words and names.

Okay. While you're sitting there imagining various recent U.S. presidents reading phonetic cue cards as though they were in the first grade, I'll tell you about another article I saw. I didn't read it -- I only saw the headline -- so maybe I shouldn't judge this so harshly, but apparently it's extremely important for anyone considering running for president to appear not on news shows or in live debates, but on talk shows such as the one hosted by Tyra Banks. On the front page of my newspaper last Saturday, there was a picture of presidential hopeful Barack Obama on the set of the Tyra Banks show.

Tyra Banks, as we all know, is a former supermodel. So it makes perfect sense that any serious presidential candidate would have to appear on her show, or on a show just like it. Where else can the serious issues facing our country -- and for that matter, our planet -- be intelligently and thoughtfully discussed?

Since I don't watch that much mainstream TV, I never knew that appearing on talk shows such as the one hosted by Tyra Banks was so important, although I do happen to know that Fred Thompson formally announced his candidacy on Jay Leno's show. This seems sort of weird to me, but maybe it's because I'm so ignorant when it comes to politics. If I had appeared on television with Tyra Banks when I was running for president, I might not have had to withdraw from the race so early in my campaign.

I'll know better next time, if I choose to run again. But even if I don't run again, it still might be fun appearing on the Tyra Banks show. I don't know what I'd talk to her about -- maybe I'd get all tongue-tied gazing into her supermodel eyes -- but I'll cross that bridge if and when I come to it. Which I probably never will.

Or maybe by the 2012 election, we'll have come to our senses and we'll realize that presidential elections are more than just popularity contests. Maybe we'll require more from our candidates by then.

I'm kidding, of course. Things will only get worse. I can't say how bad they'll get, but I know they'll get worse.

Not too long ago, I was talking to a friend of mine about the "dumbing down" of the human race. She said she didn't think all of humanity was getting dumber, although she agreed that it seemed to be true for some segments of the population. If she's right, we can probably add two new segments: American presidential candidates and the American voting public.

But as much as I'd like to, I'm not going to add the segment of the population that thinks "tase" and "lase" are verbs. My guess is that in 10 or 20 years, we'll all be talking that way.