The Importance of the Right Words

Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill

On the TV game show “Jeopardy” a contestant who was a teacher was asked by the host Alex Trebeck whether there was a particular student he was especially proud of. He replied that he had many unique students. Sorry teach! Unique means “the only one”. He could have said many “outstanding ” or “remarkable” students instead. That is also why you cannot be “more unique” or “the most unique”.

On PBS during the fund-raising pledge break one host said: “KQED thanks our viewers.” That too is an offense against the English language. “Our” can only be paired with “we”. What should he have said? “KQED thanks its viewers” or “We at KQED thank our viewers.”

How about redundant expressions or the habit of using two or more words when one would suffice.We constantly hear: “I thought to myself.” Advertisers offer “free gifts”. People “gather together” for “advanced planning” or “alternate choices” People seem to like to make assurances doubly sure so they hit you with too many words These are also called pleonasms.

Many expressions have become tiresome from repetition:
“Think outside the box.” “Kick the can down the road.”
One particularly annoying phrase that our President, who is otherwise an effective speaker, uses a little too often is “Boots on the ground.” (Where else would you find boots?)

He also has the unfortunate habit of calling people “folks”.
Sometimes it is totally inappropriate. Jihadists are not “folks.” They are vicious individuals.

Why is it so important to speak correctly? Can’t people express themselves the way they would like to? Well, no. When we become sloppy in our speech we lose precision and clarity and the ability to communicate effectively. Fuzzy language is like a badly sharpened pencil or a badly cooked meal.

During World War II, Hitler’s steady advance left England standing alone and defenseless amidst relentless bombings. Churchill’s eloquence gave people support and the courage to go on. His words resonated, comforted and inspired, and people clung to them. They were what kept them going until American help came. This was a turning point in history and words made the difference.

Putin’s Pigeons

flock of pigeons flying


It has become too painful to watch the Russian news “Vesti” on Russia’s state controlled channel 1. It is now the official voice of Russia and no independent news filters through. It has always been slyly Anti-American, rejoicing at every event that depicts the U.S. in a bad light. But recently it has become quite shrill. This is not just the Cold War all over again, it is an Arctic War. Most of the hour is now devoted to Ukrainian atrocities against their own population. Every destroyed house, bombed playground, ruined hospital, fleeing refugee carrying bundles is shown again and again. It even looks like some of these scenes of horror are recycled from the day before. The rest of the world has receded or moved to another planet as far as they are concerned. Ukrainian President Poroshenko is labeled as a Fascist.

Mobs around the world are violently demonstrating against Israel, burning synagogues, shouting “death to the Jews” and “Hitler was right”. But where are the protests, marches and demonstrations against Putin’s aggression in Ukraine? Who is protesting against a downed airliner carrying 298 people who probably did not even know that they were flying over Ukraine at that moment?
Putin is still very popular at home but the winds are shifting and he may start to feel some uneasiness as events start to turn against him. The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled that Putin’s government must pay $50 billion in damages for using tax claims to destroy Yukos, once the country’s largest oil company. In addition the European Court of Human Rights in Strasburg has decided that Russia must pay 251 billion dollars to Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s defunct company for unlawful expropriation in 2003. Mikhail Khodorkovsky was released recently after spending 10 years in the Russian prison camps for alleged tax evasion. It is probable that Russia will refuse to pay but in that case the shareholders will try to seize Russian assets in 150 countries around the world. All this comes on top of harsh economic sanctions just imposed on Russia by the US and Europe aiming to restrict state-owned banks from accessing European capital markets and stop the export of arms and technology to Russia.
Meanwhile Ukraine is slowly and painfully reconquering its eastern provinces and is now attempting to recapture the Donetsk area.

All Putin’s pigeons are coming home to roost. What is still not clear is whether all this will harden his resolve to continue his aggression or perhaps cause him to try to change course without losing face at home.



What is more pleasing to the eye and soothing to the soul than to watch sheep peacefully grazing in a sunny meadow? Sheep have been with us since biblical times . Bach wrote a cantata on “sheep who may safely graze when the shepherd guards them well”.

We do like our sheep and when we have trouble falling asleep we like to count them. But we also have our doubts about their mental capacities. Sheep do tend to indulge in group-think and are easily led, “like sheep to the slaughter”. And “sheepish” comes to mind when someone has acted somewhat foolishly and is aware of it. Then there is the wolf in sheep’s clothing who will try to fool us into thinking that he is really a harmless fellow .
The black sheep of the family is the somewhat disreputable relative of whom we are ashamed.
Jessica Mitford who wrote “The American Way of Death” identified herself as the red sheep of her family because she was, for most of her life, a communist though she was born to an aristocratic family.

Why do we want to separate the sheep from the goats? What fate do we have in mind for the poor goats? Of course, sheep are useful creatures too. When we shear them they give us wool. And because wool keeps us warm and snug in winter we have warm feelings towards those woolly creatures.

Marie Antoinette liked to act like a shepherdess in her little farm and amused herself by playing with her sheep and dying them in different colors. A song was written during the revolution warning her of a storm to come:
Il pleut il pleut bergere
Rentre tes blanc moutons.
(It’s raining, raining shepherdess
Take all your white sheep in)

Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson raised sheep on their farms In Mt Vernon and Monticello.And the first mammal ever cloned successfully was Dolly the sheep.

Some Thoughts About Hair

Hairdress girl head4

Why are religions so concerned with hair?

Devout Muslims grow beards even though it is not specifically mentioned in the Koran and Arab women cover their hair at the onset of puberty. Religion commands Jewish men not to cut the hair on the side of the head, hence the dreadlocks called payot sported by the ultra-Orthodox. Pious Jewish women cover their heads or wear wigs over their own hair. They are not supposed to be attractive to men other than their husbands. In the Catholic Church, men and women have their hair cut when they enter a monastery or convent. For men it is a tonsure and women also cover their hair with a wimple. Apparently hair is associated with eroticism and sexuality and so has to be left behind when you devote your life to God .

I remember the movie “A Nun’s Story” where Audrey Hepburn’s long hair is savaged and falls slowly to the floor. I was thinking: Why must one abandon beauty in order to tend to the lepers in the Congo? Hair makes a huge difference to one’s appearance. In another film Cate Blanchette shaves her head and wears men clothes as a disguise because she is on the run for a crime. She is immediately unrecognizable.

For two centuries, royals and nobles wore elaborate powdered wigs which became a status symbol. But actually it was to hide the ravages to their own hair caused by poor hygiene and various illnesses. This custom was thrown out, as so many other traditions during the French Revolution.

The word “hair” is usually a plural in other languages, presumably because one has more than one hair on one’s head:

Les cheveux in French
Volossy in Russian
Saarot in Hebrew.
Capelli in Italian

The word for “hairdresser” also has a funny journey emigrating from one language to another:
In Russian it is “parikmacher” which comes from the German and means wig maker. The Germans however no longer use it. They have imported the word “Friseur” from the French where it meant “one who curls your hair”. The English word “barber” comes from the French word barbe which means beard. But the French now say “coiffeur”.

You may have heard that Man is the only animal who empathizes, mourns, reasons, experiences consciousness, makes tools etc. It turns out that other animals do these things too, but there is one area at least where man is still distinct from beast:

Man is the only animal who wears clothes because his body is no longer covered with hair.

Viva Vivaldi!

composing music

A few years ago I read a book by Barbara Quick called “Vivaldi’s Virgins” a historical novel set in 18h century Venice and more specifically at the Ospedale della Pieta with its music director Antonio Vivaldi. The Ospedale was more than a hospital, convent and orphanage. It was a charitable institution that took in abandoned children, especially girls and educated them. Illegitimate or unwanted babies were deposited in a sort of revolving drawer and the mother would ring a bell to insure their quick acceptance. Secrecy was observed. The children were schooled and at age 10 apprenticed and taught a trade that suited their abilities. Girls who showed unusual musical talent were trained either as instrumentalists or singers. Vivaldi, a priest, was their music master. The chorus and orchestra were renowned around the world and the Ospedale della Pieta was the highest ranking school of music in the 18th century. What an enlightened treatment of the poor and disadvantaged that was!

When I was growing up, in the intermission between the two World Wars, playing the piano was one of a girl’s accomplishments. I performed the usual staples of classical music: Beethoven, Chopin, Schubert, and Schuman. We also listened to classical music on the radio and were familiar with the baroque masters: Bach, Handel, Corelli and Telemann. But we had never heard of Vivaldi. Nobody knew Vivaldi. He had not been discovered yet. Although Vivaldi was famous and very influential in his day, a great many of his compositions were lost subsequently and he slid into obscurity. It was not until 1926 that many manuscripts and volumes of compositions were discovered in another religious institution.
It took many years to appraise and gather all the works and they ended up in the Turin library. A sponsor was found to finance the reissue of Vivaldi’s works but by then the war had started.

It was not until the Festival of Britain in 1951 that the public rediscovered this Baroque master and Vivaldi was elevated to his present status. The Baroque era without Vivaldi would look like a temple without one of its pillars. What a fortuitous accident that discovery was.

Everybody knows the Four Seasons, that exuberant and ebullient work. I have heard it many times, but until recently had trouble telling which season was which except for Autumn with its recognizable beginning. Then one day I saw a presentation on PBS that made me realize that although this music was so familiar I had never really listened to it properly. The Four Seasons is programmatic music as opposed to Bach’s abstract music. It is onomatopoetic (a fancy word for imitative).
In Spring you can hear finches, cuckoos and turtledoves as well as rain and thunder. Summer suggests languorous heat, cattle peacefully grazing, as well as a summer storm. Winter provides, shivering, feet stamping, slipping on the ice and contentment by the fire. Autumn features a hunt with the violins imitating a horn. This is one thing I wish I had not known because I have a strong aversion to hounding animals to their death. It is a barbaric custom.

Vivaldi was not only an exceptional composer and teacher. He was also a virtuoso, a brilliant bravura violinist. Viva Vivaldi!