aired Dec. 19, 2015 on Dave’s Gone By. Youtube clip: https://youtu.be/YIhD_FGHX7I
Shalom, Dammit! This is Rabbi Sol Solomon with a Rabbinical Reflection for the week of December 20, 2015.
Well, Chanukah’s over, so I can go back to being my crotchety, miserable self. Perfect timing, too. You’ve got terrorists shooting everybody, Republicans shooting their mouths off, and, as usual, my poop chute hurts—and I’m low on Desitin.
All I want towards the end of the year is a little good news, a bit of lightness to counter the darkness and stupidity all around. So what do I get? First, Time Magazine —- remember Time Magazine?—no one does. I’m sure it’s four pages long and printed on tissue paper at this point. But Time Magazine tries to stay relevant by picking its person of the year. Now, that doesn’t always mean the honored person is honorable. Past People of the Year have included Hitler, Stalin, and the Ayatollah Khoumeini —- who are always my top three when planning a holiday party. But Time has also singled out U.S. presidents, Pope Francis, Bono—pretty much anyone who’ll sell at the newsstand.
This year, Time chose Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, as person of the year. I know, right? Your guess is as good as mine. Aside from my lingering fear of anything German—including measles, cars, and ovens—did this nice lady do anything at all that affected my life? I mean, she could have gotten me a bagel from the grocery downstairs or maybe paid forward my last meal at the deli, but pfft, nothing. All Merkel does is strengthen the Euro, which is fine for Germany but hasn’t exactly been a boon for Greece, Finland, or the American greenback.
But Time Magazine is not why I am grumpy. Last week, Merriam-Webster announced its Word of the Year. Now, that’s a nice thing. In order to stay somewhat relevant in a world where dictionaries are just those clunky things we used before spell-check, Webster’s reminds everybody they still exist. How? By choosing a word that has been particularly relevant or popular over the past annum. For example, last year’s number-one word was culture. Lovely word! Culture. It means the behavioral customs of people, as well as the fine arts. And also what they take from your throat when you’ve got strep.
But you know what? People don’t listen anymore. They don’t play by the rules; they don’t follow directions. Webster’s Third International Dictionary has 470,000 words in it. That’s nearly half a million choices the editors could make when picking a word of the year. They could select words like lambrequin, which is a hood or covering for a helmet; or rasophore, which is the lowest order of Greek monk; or flabelliform, which means shaped like a fan. If people aren’t using these terms regularly, maybe making one of them Word of the Year could change all that. Undercover spies from Webster’s and Oxford could sneak the word into common usage: “Hey, isn’t that the guy from ZZ Top?” “No, he’s just a lowly rasophore. You can tell by the cassock.”
But okay, maybe these words aren’t at the top of everyone’s text-message suggestion bar. So how about cheese or synergy or the word everybody googles: porn? Somehow, even these simple words weren’t good enough for Merriam and his life-partner, Webster. As I said, they had hundreds of thousands of options for Word of the Year, and the one they chose . . . the word these scholars, in their infinite wisdom, selected as Word of the Year is: Ism. I’ll say it again: Ism.
Why do I have a problem with this? Very simple. You have a swath of geniuses using computer programs, volumetrics, and common sense to come up with a word, and the word they choose . . . last time I checked, IS NOT A WORD. It’s a suffix. Look it up! No, really, look it up IN WEBSTER’S DICTIONARY. I-S-M: it’s not a word, it’s the end of a word! Imagine if Baskin-Robbins held a contest for ice cream flavor of the year, and the winner was “ocolate!”
Now the dictionary dances around these semantics by saying that “ism” is a noun, that represents a whole bunch of words ending in ism. Which sounds to me like a tautologism. And the reason for the choice of ism this year has to do with all the web searches for ism terrorism—thanks to ISIS, socialism—thanks to Bernie Sanders, racism—thanks to Freddie Gray, capitalism and fascism—both thanks to Donald Trump, and, of course, jism, thanks the aforementioned porn.
Please understand, I have nothing against “ism” as a suffix. After all, where would I be without Judaism? Probably, happily sipping martinis on a yacht. And I’m also pretty big on Zionism, secular humanism, and the occasional aphorism. But if the sacred guardians of words can’t be bothered to find a word, what’s the world—and the word—coming to?
The answer is that it’s already come and gone. Yes, dictionary.com chose its own word of the year, identity, a gratifyingly rational decision there. But the Oxford English Dictionary—the gold standard of linguistic lexicography—they, too, had a word of the year. They didn’t pick a prefix, no. They didn’t pick a compound word or phrase. They didn’t go with slang or an abbreviation. My friends, the O.E.D. chose, as word of the year: a drawing. More specifically, the “tears of joy” emoji. You know, the Japanese-y face with the tear drops and the slanty eyebrows and one long tooth smiling while crying? This is their Word of the Year. You can’t even say it. It takes a paragraph to describe it. I thought a picture is supposed to be worth a thousand words not replace all of them!
If the best and smartest of us can’t even get simple instructions right, what hope is there for the rest of us numbnuts to solve immigration, feed the hungry, and slow down climate change? That is why I have, not one, but two words for the Webster’s and Oxford dictionaries. Each word is one syllable. The second word is a pronoun. The first word is a transitive verb that is, quote, “usually vulgar.” In case you haven’t guessed it by now, my words are—well, picture an emoji of a big yellow hand with its middle finger lifted in defiance. Or, in a different language, geh kaken oifen yam! And yes, I realize that’s a yiddishism.
This has been a Rabbinical Reflection from Rabbi Sol Solomon, Temple Sons of Bitches, in Great Neck, New York. Can I get a lambrequin for my shtreimel?
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