3.24.2015

A Runaway Word: “Bindlestick”

I've recently been enjoying Christopher Miller’s American Cornball: A Laffopedic Guide to the Formerly Funny, a fascinating encyclopedia of old-fashioned comic imagery.

I was particularly intrigued by the article “Bindlesticks” which discusses cartoons depicting hoboes and runaway children carrying their meager possessions in a bundle dangling from the end of a stick carried over the shoulder.

Miller comments, “As for the stick itself, was that ever really the easiest and most comfortable way for runaways and hoboes to carry their belongings? Couldn't they have rigged up some kind of rudimentary backpack? No doubt. But the stick was the whole point: like a walking stick in certain hands, the bindlestick, if it was ever used in real life, must have been a pretext to carry a weapon—to ward off angry dogs, fellow vagrants, hostile locals, and the like.”

This is an interesting bit of speculation, but Miller is clearly skeptical of the actual existence of bindlesticks outside of popular culture. After all, the longer the stick, the more weighty the burden and the greater the strain on arm and shoulder. Carrying a modest bundle dangling from one hand would seem to be more comfortable. It’s common to see street scavengers with large plastic bags slung over their backs, particularly when collecting recyclable cans; but I’ll bet you’ve never seen one dangling bindlestick style.

Search the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs catalog for “bindle stiff” and you’ll find 11 Dorothea Lange images of men carrying bundles but no sticks.

It’s difficult to say how far back the image goes, but Michael A. Chaney says in Fugitive Vision: Slave Image and Black Identity in Antebellum Narrative that silhouetted figures pictured on early 19th-century runaway slave posters often carried stereotypical bindlesticks.

Trying to research the term I discovered that most dictionaries simply do not recognize this word. It’s missing from the online Merriam-Webster, from Dictionary.com, from the Apple desktop dictionary, and from the Oxford English Dictionary. What they all offer instead is “bindlestiff,” which refers to the person carrying the bindlestick. Writers occasionally confuse the object with the person and miscall a hobo a “bindlestick”

Merriam-Webster’s search engine offers another odd alternative to “bindle stick”—“blanket stitch”!

Wikipedia has no article on “bindlestick” but its entry on “hobo” does explain the term in its common two-word spelling: “bindle stick.” Microsoft Word recognizes only the two-word version, as does the blog software I’m using to write this post.

I’ve always imagined the bindlestick to be the whole ensemble: the stick and the bundle. And clearly so do a lot of other people. Here are a few examples I found in Google Books:

“Other hobo slang includes . . . bindle stick – belongings wrapped in cloth and tied around a stick”
(USA by Rail: Plus Canada's Main Routes by John Pitt)

“Snowie packed her bindle stick as she was planning on running away. . .”
(World of Horrotica: Underworld Origins by David Edward Collier)

“Your lunch will come attractively packed in a ‘bindle stick’”
(Great Family Trips in New England by Harriet Webster)

But it seems clear that to most people the bindlestick (or bindle stick) is simply the stick from which the bindle dangles. That’s what Urban Dictionary says.

There is a coffeehouse offering live music not far from where I live called “Bindlestick,” and there is also a New Mexico art studio and a Texas microbrewery using the name.

Somebody on Kickstarter has raised over $6,000 to market a handsomely carved “bindle stick.”

A Google image search on the word will bring up any number of images, including a rather famous one by Norman Rockwell entitled “The Runaway.”

Whatever you think it means, “bindlestick” is clearly a word, despite all the oblivious dictionaries.




3.04.2015

Opening Pedals

I’m a big fan of Consumer Reports, but they made a lamentable linguistic mistake in the current issue (April 2015). The inside of the back cover of the magazine mocks ads and packaging that contain self-contradictory claims, wildly confusing illustrations, and other amusing blunders.

The first example this month features a photo of a storefront sign reading "Axion Auto & Bodyparts." The accompanying text reads: “Commuting Zombies Rejoice! This sign, spotted by Sandy Green of Lansdale, Pa, hints that the auto body shop is pedaling merchandise far more sinister than spark plugs.”

My first reaction was to think: “is ‘bodyparts’ even a word? Isn’t it “body parts” in both meanings? Neither Merriam-Webster nor the comprehensive Oxford English Dictionary recognizes the one-word form.

But then I noticed “pedaling,” This word is confused with “peddling” often enough that I cover it in Common Errors in English Usage:
If you are delivering newspapers from a bike you can pedal it around the neighborhood (perhaps wearing “pedal-pushers”), but when you sell them from a newsstand you peddle them.
I realize that my example is rather dated: papers are now usually delivered by adults in cars before dawn, not by kids on bikes after school. Beginning in seventh grade I delivered papers on a hilly five-mile rural route until I was a sophomore in high school. Toward the end of my route I had to pedal a full mile and climb a steep hill to reach one isolated farm subscriber. I earned a whopping $20 a month.

We were constantly pressured to sell new subscriptions. I was fine with pedaling, but not with peddling. We were sometimes dumped off in neighborhoods and told to ask at every house whether the occupants subscribed to our paper or would like to. Since there was an altogether superior paper published in a larger town nearby, the answer to both questions was usually “no.”

I hated it.

I am often reminded of my career in newspaper delivery by one of my favorite comic strips: “Red and Rover” by Seattle cartoonist Brian Bassett. The strip is set in the early ’60s and lovingly reflects many aspects of that era, including the fact that Red delivers papers from his bike accompanied by his dog, Rover.

And that in turn reminds me of the old dismissive expression “go peddle your papers.” The entry in the online Free Dictionary, citing McGraw-Hill's Dictionary of American Slang and Colloquial Expressions, reads: 

[get out of my face and] stop annoying me like an aggressive paper boy. Get out of here and go peddle your papers!

This sort of paper boy, rather than delivering papers to subscribers, hawked them on the street, as romanticized in the Disney musical Newsies

Then I began to wonder whether people often confuse “pedal” with “petal.”

It’s not hard to find Web pages offering such items as a “flower peddle plant stand,” a “flower peddle style baby link bracelet,” or a “flower peddle printed cotton scarf”; but I also found a number of amusingly named businesses such as “Petal Pusher” (a floral designer) and “Petal by Pedal,” (a bike-powered flower-delivery service).

Puns work only if your audience knows the usual definitions of the words involved, of course. Now that copyediting is frequently neglected in publishing, readers are less and less likely to be reminded of the correct spelling of words even if they are among the minority that still gets a daily newspaper.




2.10.2015

Pro-/Per- Speech

This morning NPR Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep introduced a story on solar panels by saying “Let’s shed some light on a proverbial question: to lease or to buy?”

But no proverb was involved. Did he mean “perennial”?


http://www.npr.org/2015/02/10/384958332/the-great-solar-panel-debate-to-lease-or-to-buy

2.07.2015

Waiving Goodbye to Your Student

Yesterday I was listening to a recent podcast from the Radiolab series titled “American Football.” I am not a football fan, but the first half of the show was dedicated to the amazing story of football at Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, where the game was used both to assimilate Native American students to the dominant culture and to gain these students wider recognition and respect.

The story begins by recounting how students at Carlisle were given a radical makeover upon arrival to erase all visible traces of their heritage.

Host Jad Abumrad introduces a clip  featuring Eric Anderson, a professor at Haskell Indian Nations University: “Just imagine the parents, he says, the first time they see their kids,” and then we hear Anderson saying “Parents are seeing their students marched around in essentially the uniforms of what had been not very long before the uniform of the enemy.”

I was fascinated by this story but this moment in it bothered me a bit. Notice that Abumrad refers “their kids” but Anderson calls them “their students.”

But these are the students of the school, not the students of the parents.

I first became aware of this pattern when I was doing a lot of recruiting work at my university, often speaking with parents. I noticed that staff members when addressing parents of potential students often referred to them as “your students.” This struck me is a bit alienating: all of a sudden your relationship has shifted in a radical way: you may still be a parent, but your relationship to your offspring is being defined by their relationship to the school—the school they are leaving you to dive into, the school that in many ways is replacing you, in loco parentis. 

Hey! This is my kidyour student—not my student!

Professors addressing parents don’t normally speak to them of “your student,” but it turns out this phrase is standard usage among educational administrators.

At the high school level and below  the terms “students” and “children” are often used interchangeably. On the District of Columbia School District page titled “Supporting Your Student at Home“ has the subtitle “Learn what your children are learning in school and find ways to support them at home.”

By the time a student has reached college age, although parents may still think of them as “my child” or “my kid,” administrators speaking in formal settings are reluctant to use these terms.

One page instructing parents how to understand what their offspring are going through is titled “Talking to Your Student.

Another about “Parenting a College Student” begins with “Supporting Your College Student.”

A page on student loans says that one requirement for applying for one is “Your student completes a FAFSA.”

Now this is really not bizarre usage. It’s clearly an abbreviation of something like “your child who is a student.” If I had a kid who was in Girl Scouts would I object to people in the organization referring to my daughter as “Your Scout”? Probably not. If my son was on the soccer team, would I mind the coach sending out a memo about “your team member.” No.

What’s the difference?

I think my discomfort has something to do with the context. The phrase is most often used as part of the transition from home to college. It can feel jarring.

What are the alternatives? We’ve already eliminated “kids” and “children” as disrespectful of young men and women. “Daughter” and “son” work only when you know the gender of one specific student. “Your student” solves both problems. It works. It’s not going away.

But I would never use it.

While researching the phrase, I ran into a University of Minnesota page about authorizing access to a student record with the subheading “What can I access on my student’s record” and this reminded me of a point few parents of college students really understand.

[We are now leaving the topic of English usage, but you may find this next bit interesting or useful.]

Privacy laws and regulations vary, but it may well be the case that you have no legal right to know what grades your offspring is getting at college or much else relating to his or her academic performance.

I used to do a lot of advising and was responsible for dealing with problems encountered by other teachers in the department. When a student had flunked a class, we would sometimes get an angry phone call from a parent wanting to know why. I had to explain the privacy laws and tell the parent to ask the student to explain. But often the student either lied to hide the truth or refused to answer. Some parents would get extremely indignant and even threaten to sue to get the information.

When this happened, I had the perfect answer: “We can’t legally explain this to you, but ask the child to provide a signed note waiving privacy rights and we will be glad to answer your questions.” That usually ended the confrontation. The student would either refuse to sign a waiver or would collapse and admit the real reason for the F.

I hope you never need this bit of information, but it’s good to keep in mind when reading about a school’s seemingly extreme privacy policy.



1.24.2015

Giving Airy Nothings a Local Spelling and a Name

A reader tells me that he frequently hears fellow golfers refers to the greens having been “airiated.” He’s not sure how they would spell the word, but he does hear five distinct syllables instead of the proper four syllables of “aerated.”

He would like to know whether others encounter this mispronunciation.

The Latin root “aer-” could theoretically confuse American speakers since “air-” is so much more common; but in fact few people misspell “aerial,” “aerosol,” “aerobic,” “aerie,” or “aerospace.”

So why the extra syllable in “airiated”? I suspect they’re being influenced by another word likely to be uttered on a golf course: “irrigated.” Aeration allows the irrigation to reach the roots of grass.

There is one case in which “aer-” is definitely dying out: British “aeroplane” has been largely deflated to American “airplane,” even in the UK.

When I was using Google to look for various misspellings like “airate” Google gave me Maman, j’ai raté l’avion” (“Mom, I missed the airplane”), the clumsy French title given the movie Home Alone. Funny.




1.06.2015

Me and My Big Mouth

A correspondent recently suggested that many readers of my entry on base/bass (p. 27) would need to have the reference to Big Mouth Billy Bass explained.

I enjoy writing jokey references like this and leaving it up to my readers to Google them if they want more information, but I'm careful not to let them obscure the point of the entry.

You can read all about Billy on Wikipedia.

Or see and hear Billy on YouTube.