Monthly Archives: August 2014

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? They 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, they 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.