Sunday, May 2, 2010


Here's a conundrum, dear readers. What is the most terrifying single word in the English language?

You might think "terrorism" or "fire" or "recession" or "RuPaul" are frightening*, but according to the sort of decorations that get put up every Halloween, the scariest of all the words available in the entirety of our mother tongue** appears to be a simple three-letter word:


(As an aside, I should point out that I am fully aware that we also commonly use "Boo!" as a way of indicating that the performance we are watching is not at all up to snuff. If you're unaware of this usage of the word, simply attend any showing of Brendan Fraser's "Furry Vengeance".***)

We all take it for granted that ghosts say "Boo!" Why is that? When one dies with unfinished business on Earth, and goes to all the effort to avoid moving on to the afterlife in order to haunt the mortal world, why does one then float around just saying "Boo!" to everybody? What is it that is supposed to be so very frightening about that particular word?

If we grant that the word "Boo!" is in fact frightening why do we not have harrowing nightmares from watching the Yogi Bear Show as children?**** It starred Yogi Bear, whose sidekick's name featured the terrible word not once, but twice! In theory, Boo-Boo should have scared the corn flakes right out of us every time Yogi mentioned his name. But he didn't. He was just sort of lame.

Now, I will grant that a ghost -- a supernatural, semi-transparent apparition -- would be pretty scary to see, and I suppose it would remain pretty scary no matter what it said.***** But even more inexplicably, alone among the components of modern English, the word "Boo!" is apparently assumed to remain scary even in written form. For example, if I were to write:


I can then continue my story secure in the knowledge that I have just narratively frightened my readers. Except that this never actually works. Seriously, when was the last time you read a story with the word "Boo!" in it and wet your pants with fright?******

Even better, the word doesn't even need a supporting story to retain its potency. At Halloween time, people put up decorations that consist of nothing but the word "Boo!" Have you ever walked around a corner, read the word "Boo!" written on something, and experienced a scare or any amount of startlement as a result? "Whoa! I read that word really quickly, and I was so frightened that now I need to change my trousers!"

What is it that is supposed to be so uniquely scary about the word "Boo!"? Is it the shape of the letters? Are 1-800 numbers likewise terrifying? I mean, "800" looks a lot like "BOO"... but perhaps it loses power in proportion to how dissimilar it is to the canonical "BOO!". So maybe if you came around a corner and saw the number "800" on a house or something, you'd only be mildly concerned rather than actively terrified. A one looks a lot like an exclamation point at first glance... would "8001" be scary like "BOO!"?

Look, it's the year 2010. Can't we do better than "Boo!"? It's only scary when someone sneaks up behind you and yells it, and in that case, anything would be scary. They could shout "kittens" and you'd still jump.*******

Honestly, I'm going to have to give "Boo!" a very low rating. Since I haven't come up with a rating system yet, I suppose I'll use a scale of zero to five artichokes********, where five artichokes is something totally awesome*********, and zero artichokes is something totally crap**********.

With that in mind, I decree that "Boo!" gets one artichoke out of five.

* And you'd be right!

** Fun fact: nobody knows how many English words there even are. The Oxford English Dictionary defines over 600,000 words, and the people at the Global Language Monitor reckon that we passed a million words around a year ago. A million words! Dang.

*** Don't actually do this.

**** Hanna-Barbera's Laff-A-Lympics, on the other hand, was terrifying.

***** Even if it just kept repeating "Head On! Apply directly to the forehead!" Actually, now I'm not sure if that would make a ghost less scary or more scary.

****** If this really does happen, then I suppose we'd have to assume that Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird specifically to upset this guy.

******* Of course, if you're as allergic as I am, the word "kittens" is already kind of scary.

******** What? I like artichokes!

********* Like having five artichokes.

********** Like Scrappy-Doo.***********

*********** Hat tip to the Brunching Shuttlecocks.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Daylight Saving(s) Time

'Tis that time of year again, dear readers.  Not since the passage of the Warm America's Feet Act of 1897* have we had such a wonderful opportunity to spend so much time and money doing something so very stupid and pointless.

Yes, it's Daylight Saving Time***, and it makes me proud**** to be an American.

Sure, other countries have noticed that it doesn't matter what number we assign to a given hour of the day, and that the rotation of the Earth does not, in fact, respond to legislation, but here in America we don't let little things like facts and knowledge get in the way of utter raving lunacy.

Let's start with the name.  "Daylight Saving Time" suggests that time is like a commodity; that you can stuff an hour or two of pure, unadulterated Time under your mattress every month, and then take it all out and use it later to spend 34 hours working on that blog post about Daylight Saving Time you want to put up before tomorrow.  Unfortunately, time doesn't actually work like that.*****  When you get up an hour earlier, it just means that you're sleeping an hour less.  It definitively does not mean that you're somehow magically manufacturing a new hour out of pixie dust and sunbeams.

Sure, there have long been claims that there are substantial energy savings due to pretending that screwing with our circadian rhythms twice a year is a good thing.  These claims are precisely as reliable as the claim that wearing a five-gallon paint bucket on your head will allow you to safely cross the Santa Monica Freeway on a tricycle.******  Seriously, it's been studied, and no, the energy savings don't actually exist.  However, it is nice to send the kids off to school in the dark, isn't it?

So why is it that we bother with DST every year?  The answer is simple: sporting goods manufacturers.  It's known that when there are "more" daylight hours, Americans tend to buy more golf clubs, soccer shoes, and whatever those baskety things people use to play jai alai are called.  So it only makes sense that the people who manufacture and sell that stuff were tirelessly working behind the scenes to get Congress to impose it on us almost 100 years ago, and continue to lobby even today to keep us from noticing that it's the kind of thing that we would find hilariously stupid... if it were other countries doing it instead of us.

It's not that implausible... if we've learned anything as a nation over the last few years, it's that Congress will pass absolutely anything into law, no matter how daft or unpopular, if it means somebody writes them a check.

Yeah, okay.  You're probably thinking this isn't a very good conspiracy theory.  Where's the Illuminati connection?  How do Elvis sightings figure into this?  Well, sure, you have a point there; this theory manages to be both highly improbable and kind of dull.  In fact, the only saving grace of this particular conspiracy theory is that it happens to be absolutely true.  Here's a quote for you, straight from the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association's own website:
The sporting goods industry was behind the initial daylight savings movement back in 1918 as a way to encourage participation in outdoor activities and enhance consumer spending on sports equipment. The Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association applauds Congressional efforts to extend daylight savings further, believing that in addition to preserving energy resources, it will also encourage activity, increase fitness levels, promote active lifestyles and result in additional consumption of sporting goods.
See?  See?  And maybe now when I explain how the Freemasons are responsible for the recent dearth of Loch Ness Monster sightings, you all won't laugh at me any more.

So why do we let the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association screw with our sleep patterns twice a year?  I mean, we don't keep calling up Tom Cove (the president of the SGMA) at two in the morning to stop him getting a good night's sleep...

... hmmm.

* The Warm America's Feet Act mandated the removal of the top two feet of every "Blanket, Quilt, Comforter, Duvet, or other Sleeping Cloth", in order to lengthen said blanket by sewing the newly cut-off portion to its bottom.  This was obviously a huge success, and made everyone** very happy.

** Specifically the sewing needle manufacturers, who were so very concerned about Americans suffering from too-short blankets that they spent a great deal of money lobbying for the bill's passage.  (This is what they call "foreshadowing", by the way.)

*** It's officially called "Daylight Saving Time" but I defy you to go out on the street and find someone who doesn't call it "Daylight Savings Time".  If you do find such a person, marry him.  Or stab him, depending on your feelings about over-precise pedantry.

**** Smell that in the air?  That's the heady aroma of sarcasm!

***** Except in Greenland and Nova Scotia, oddly.

****** Really, though, which one is more plausible?  I know I'd hit the brakes if I saw a bucket-headed tricycle rider entering my lane.  Getting me to save energy by waking me up before dawn, on the other hand? I'll run the blender and the microwave 24/7, just to spite anyone who wants to force me to get up an hour earlier.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

"Country and Western"

The term "Country and Western" is silly, and should be retired from our beloved English language forthwith.  Or, to end its use in a more thematically appropriate way, the term should perhaps instead be taken out behind the barn and shot.

I trust I don't need to explain the idea of "Country and Western" music* to you, dear readers. We've all heard the strains** of this sort of music as we go about our daily business (assuming, of course, that our daily business takes place at truck stops, barbecue restaurants, and farm-supply stores).

And there's really no need for me to hold forth on my opinions about the merits of the genre; I mean, sure, it's like the Special Olympics of music, what with the ludicrously relaxed definition of "rhyme", and yes, approximately 85% of all Country and Western music was created by a process that starts with "Find a mildly amusing cliched phrase that isn't already the title of a song", but that's neither here nor there.

No, I'm here to review the term "Country and Western" as it relates to music.

First, let's examine the second part of the phrase. "Western". Here in the United States, we have a lot of states. Fifty of them, in fact. Obviously, they can't all be "western" states; some are contractually obligated*** to be "eastern" instead.  Here is a handy map to help illustrate precisely which states are "western".

Where does Country and Western music come from? Well, as one would expect from looking at the above map, it comes from...

...the southeast.  Here's another map to show you exactly what I'm talking about.

Don't believe me?  Just listen to country music some time****. How many songs wax lyrical about farming outside of Spokane, Washington or ranching near Provo, Utah? None of them, that's how many. How many mention Tennessee or Alabama or Texas? Almost all of them.  Another hint: If your song features a character named "Bubba", you're not talking about the American West at all.*****

Did you look at that map in the link above?  See the total, utter, complete lack of any overlap between "states that Country and Western songs are about" and "states that are actually in the western United States"?  Even Texas, the westernmost of the Country and Western states, would be better described as a "Country and Centerern"****** state.  You might even say something like "What?  But that makes no sense whatsoever!"  And let's assume you do, because if you don't, then I don't get to explain the Vast and Sweeping History of Country and Western Music.  So here it is:

It came from Appalachian hillbillies.

Yeah, that's pretty much it.  See, it was originally called "Hillbilly Music", but somebody thought that was demeaning*******, so they changed the name to "Country and Western" for no good reason whatsoever.  And it stuck.  This of course proves that Pat Robertson was right and God hates us.

Don't get me wrong; this would be completely understandable if all of this had happened in, say, 1795, when the country was a tiny, mewling little thing all smashed up against the Eastern Seaboard and Oklahoma was marked on maps with "Here Be Dragons".  But by the time people started calling Hillbilly music "Country and Western", all those states, clear out to the Pacific Ocean, had long been settled... it's not like folks back East were surprised to discover that there was a bunch more land out that way.  I mean, the proclaimed capital of Country and Western music is Nashville, which is in Tennessee for crying out loud.  The only possible explanation is that "Country and Western" music was named by someone who a) had never seen a map, and b) was, at the time, standing waist-deep in the Atlantic Ocean.

If you want real, authentic "western" music, well, I guess there are a few options out there.

But just because the "Western" part of  the term "Country and Western" is wildly inaccurate, at least the "Country" part is okay, right?  Remember Nashville, Tennessee?  The world capital of "Country and Western"?  Well, at least that's a sleepy, down-home sort of place where a simple farmer or ranchhand can feel at home...


I rest my case.

* Alternatively "Country & Western", if you like those newfangled ampersand thingies. Though Wikipedia tells me that the ampersand dates from the first century A.D., and thus isn't really newfangled. It's certainly fangled, however. I mean look at it. It's chock full of fangle. It fangles all over the place, with malice aforethought... but I digress.

** Or, more precisely, "twangs"

*** It's totally in the Constitution.  No need to go look!  Just trust me.

**** If you haven't already built up a tolerance, I recommend having a supply of antidepressants ready and a suicide prevention hotline on speed-dial.

***** I'm looking at you,
Mark Chesnutt.

****** Pronounced "center-urn".

******* The name "Hillwilliam Music", while more formal, never really caught on.