Guest Column

Confessions of a Verbivore

by Robert Neubecker

Carnivores eat flesh and meat; herbivores consume plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. During my life as a word-happy, wordaholic, wordstruck, word-bethumped word wizard, I have met thousands of fellow verbivores who love to eat their words. What is there about words that makes a language person love them so? The answers are probably as varied as the number of verbivores themselves. How do we love thee, language? Let me count the ways.

Some word people are intrigued by the birth and life of words. They become enthusiastic, ebullient and enchanted when they discover that enthusiastic literally means "possessed by a god"; ebullient, "boiling over, spouting out"; and enchanted, "singing a magic song." They are rendered starry-eyed by the insight that disaster (dis-aster) literally means "ill-starred" and intoxicated by the information that intoxicated has poison in its heart. They love the fact that amateur is cobbled from the very first verb that all students of Latin learn—amo: "I love."

Then there are logophiles who appoint themselves Conan the Grammarian and fight fiercely to preserve the distinctions between our two most confused verbs: lie and lay. Lie means "to repose." Lay means "to put." Lie is intransitive; it never takes an object. Lay is transitive; it always takes an object. Pardon the fowl language, but a hen on its back is lying; a hen on its stomach may be laying—an egg.

Alas, those noble efforts have been swept away by the Enron debacle. Here's a little ditty, "Take the Money Enron," that I've written about the company that made an End Run around ethics. Please recall that the disgraced CEO of the company was Kenneth Lay:

The difference between "lie" and "lay"/Has fallen into deep decay./But now we know from Enron's shame/That Lay and "lie" are just the same.

Among my favorite wordmongers are those who prowl the lunatic fringes of language, lunatic because the ancients believed that prolonged exposure to the moon (Latin luna) rendered one moonstruck, or daft. These recreational wordplayers wonder why we drive in a parkway and park in a driveway and why our nose can run and our feet can smell. If pro and con are opposites, they muse, then is congress the opposite of progress?

And there are the many pun-up girls and pun gents who believe that a good pun is like a good steak—a rare medium well done. They tell of the Buddhist who said to the hot dog vendor, "Make me one with everything." The same Buddhist never took novocaine when he had teeth extracted because he wished to transcend dental medication. These punderful verbivores become even bigger hot dogs when they tell of Charlemagne, who mustered his Franks and set out with great relish to assault and pepper the Saracens, but he couldn't catch up. (Frankly, I never sausage a pun. It's the wurst!)

What verbivore doesn't love word games? Here are five linguistic posers that I am delighted to inflict on my fellow UNH alumni. You'll find the answers elsewhere in this issue, but please, no peeking until you've tried your very best.

1. Make one word from all the letters in NEW DOOR.
2. Which is correct: "Nine and seven is fifteen" or "Nine and seven are fifteen"?
3. Which is correct: "Give the book to whomever asks for it" or "Give the book to whoever asks for it"?
4. Here are 15 of the most frequently misspelled words in English. Circle any that you find to be misspelled: aggressive, background, definitely, develop, embarrass, independent, millennium, minuscule, occurrence, privilege, recommend, receive, rhythm, supersede, truly.
5. Many words in English take a suffix to move from male to female, as in prince and princess, hero and heroine. What is the only common word in our language whose base denotes a female and whose suffix makes the word male?

Richard Lederer '80G is a writer, columnist and broadcaster. His most recent book is A Man of My Words.

1. ONE WORD 2. The answer is sixteen. 3. "Give the book to whoever asks for it." Who is the subject of the verb asks. The object of the preposition to is the entire noun clause, "whoever asks for it." 4. All the words in the list are spelled correctly. 5. Widower.

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