Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Double El(l) Dilemma

How one man’s spelling rules made me a true American

Here’s a question certain to divide the English-speaking masses. How do you spell the past tense of cancel? If you answer canceled, then you and I probably would agree on many other issues of grammar. If your spelling contains two l’s, perhaps you’re British, an Anglophile, or a lover of gratuitousness. Regardless of your spelling choice, I’d like to suggest why you spell the way you spell: Noah Webster.

Let me explain.

I’m currently immersed in David Sacks’s 2003 history of the alphabet, Language Visible. Among the contents of his letter L chapter is a section devoted to the Colonial American scholar and lexicographer Noah Webster, the man responsible for changing the way Americans spell.

James Herring’s 183 portrait
of Noah Webster
After graduating from Yale in 1778, Webster zigzagged across the Nutmeg State for several years, trying unsuccessfully to find work as a lawyer. Dissatisfied with several teaching jobs, he began writing articles supporting the American Revolution. While doing so, he founded a private school where he wrote his wildly successful grammar and pronunciation guide, called The American Spelling Book. Webster championed consistency in grammar foremost, but as new editions of the book were published, he changed certain British spellings. Defence became defense. Theatre became theater. And the second l was dropped from words like counsellor and traveller. By separating us from the British way of spelling, Webster hit upon something revolutionary: This act of defiance — this Americanization of words, if you will — not only strengthened the American identity by showing that it was different from British identity but also encouraged the publishing of American books on American soil. The United States therefore would not have to rely on the importation of publications from England. Self-reliance like this was important in the early days of the Republic: it created a sense of American pride, as well as more jobs.

One of Webster’s Americanizations reminded me of a conversation I had one night, over cocktails, with two fellow grammar geeks. The question was whether or not you double the l when a verb that ends in a consonant-vowel-l trio changes to its past (-ed) or gerund (-ing) form. Webster unequivocally ordained not doubling the final consonant of any word that spun off into derivative words when the final syllable was unstressed. To put it more simply, cancel becomes canceled in the past tense and canceling in its gerund form. This was radical, as it defied the British rules mandated by Englishman Samuel Johnson, the reigning lexicographer of his time and place.

Here are a smattering of l-ending verbs that demonstrate Webster’s dictum. Notice that there are far more words that do not add an extra l to their past and gerund endings. Webster, a die-hard patriot, must have known this when creating the first American dictionary. Loyalist grammarians must have raged at the affront.

Last syllable unstressed; do not add an l:
bedevil, bevel, cavil, channel, counsel, equal (we treat qu as one consonant), imperil, label, level, marvel, model, parcel, pencil, revel, rival, shovel, travel

Last syllable stressed; add an l:
excel, expel, extol, impel, compel, dispel, repel, rebel

Even the way we spell the letter L, el, has a British alternative spelling, ell. It’s really a matter of preference; I prefer the former. Of course, if you feel the need to spell all these words with two els, like an English person, be my guest. Your caviling won’t annoy me in the least.

My second English dictionary, c. 1989.
The spectacles are Colonial American.

Webster’s rule gets thrown out the window when spelling cancellation. Perhaps this can be attributed to some fiercely loyal Johnsonian involved in the production of Webster’s An American Dictionary of the English Language. (Johnson, I’m certain, is smiling in his grave.)

If you find yourself in Central Connecticut, visit the Noah Webster House, in his hometown of West Hartford, to learn more about the man behind America’s first dictionary of the English language. Information available at https://noahwebsterhouse.org.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Growing Up in the Presence of Spirits

When Should Children Learn About Alcohol?

Having been on a month-long cleanse, I am ready to start drinking again. Not that I need a drink, but I do miss two aspects of the bibulous life. The first is the way alcohol makes me feel: more social, a little braver, a little sexier; the second involves the ritual of creating a cocktail and celebrating Happy Hour with my mate, sharing tales from the livelong day, while munching on small bites of umami goodness. This usually involves watching videos on one of our countless streaming devices. Although we may not be going out to a bar every night to get our buzz on, we are experiencing a sort of community, albeit a virtual one, by viewing the lives of those whose stories are digitized on the small screen. In that respect, alcohol brings us closer to the world and its inhabitants.

Say what you will, if it wasn’t for the communal and narcotic effects of hooch, we would have destroyed one another a long, long time ago, we being people in general. But that’s not to say that all aspects of drinking are healthy. On a societal level, yes; on a personal level, not so for everyone. A friend’s father, a man loved by all, basically drank himself to death: He suffered a stroke after the unfortunate demise of his first-born child, but it took years for the effects of alcohol abuse and the stroke to send him off to an eternal slumber. My friend can attest to the horrors of a life cut short by alcohol abuse filled with interminable bouts of depression.

I am lucky. I do not possess any genes that make drinkers belligerent, or those that won’t allow the imbiber to stop until they think they’re the life of the party, a party that is unfortunately fun to no one else but the imbiber.

I got drunk twice as a precollege teen. Very drunk. Both times I was in my parents’ house. The first time, they were away, and my brother, a senior in high school, and a star quarterback of the football team, decided we (read he) should throw a party. All I remember from that night is his loving placement of a bucket near my bed and, at one point, my stumbling to the bathroom and catching a glimpse of him making out on the living room couch with my best friend Donna. Whether they went all the way would remain a mystery to me until the next morning, but as you can imagine, I couldn’t care less. My head was pounding and my soul had been crushed by the spirit world, though I couldn’t tell you what spirits I even imbibed.

Of course as luck would have it, the neighbors spilled the beans. My parents must have been possessed by the soul of a new-age Catholic priest: mercifully, they proclaimed in hushed tones that I had learned my lesson. A hangover was punishment enough.

The second time, it was my parents who decided to throw a party—a New Year’s Eve soiree—and Donna and her family were invited. Bottles of gorgeously gleaming alcohol festooned the kitchen counter, and when no one was looking, Donna and I indiscriminately poured ourselves about a half dozen stiff ones throughout the night. We mixed juniper-scented gin, peaty scotch, woodsy Tennessee whiskey, and whatever else we could lay our naive little paws on. If only my parents, or my brother, had warned me about the effects of mixing sprits. I suppose I had to learn at some point; why not in front of my parents and their bemused guests. Indeed, education does begin at home.

When college rolled around, I embraced my freedom with the fervency usually displayed by religious zealots at a revival. The first thing I thought as my parents pulled away from campus in their deep red Honda Accord was, “I can do whatever I want.” So, at every kegger I attended, I let the flagon flow judiciously into my big red cup. My goal, however, was not to get blotto; I just wanted to make some new friends. So I sipped, rather than guzzled, and never drank enough to get completely blitzed. After all, my memories of my drunken nights with Donna were not so distant. The one time I do remember stumbling like a Skid Row sot occurred at the professional theatre across the street from my dorm room. Harry Hamlin, who I secretly held a torch for after seeing him prance around practically naked in Clash of the Titans, was starring in an adaptation of Doctor Faustus. I was able to snag two tickets, so I brought a female friend with me, my freshman-year beard, if you will, and this gal from Texas, before we headed arm in arm to the show, presented me a fifth of Jim Beam and said, “Time to show me what a man you are.” I figured that being so brassy, and from Texas, she would be able to handle her liquor better than I, but as time would tell, she did not. Three shots and a First Act later, she fell face first into the aisle in front of the usher. Intermission would be more challenging than the Elizabethan dialogue. (Harry, by the way, did not disappoint.)

As my time as an undergrad came to an end, and I entered the 9-to-5 “workforce” (a most soul-sucking force if ever there was one), I refined my taste for Tennessee whiskey and bourbon, then discovered rye while doing a grad-school stint in Pittsburgh. Cocktails, like Manhattans and Old-Fashioneds, gleefully washed over my taste buds and sparked a life-long devotion. Aged charred-oak flavor could have become my downfall, but I learned how to pace myself, like a runner in a long-distance race. Water rehydrates, and as I sipped my drink, I always had a glass of iced tap at the ready to prevent a nasty hangover. My goal as a drinker was to relax and be merry, not get wasted, and I would sometimes pity my friends who did not understand, or could not because of a genetic disposition, that drinking should not be a contest, but an ultimately peace-producing pursuit.

So now I ask the question, “How young is too young for kids to learn about alcohol?” One thing is for certain: Kids need first to understand the deleterious effects of drinking or else they will be doomed. And clearly no one wants a doomed child.

Both my parents were in their early twenties when I was born. As you can imagine, they were still in “party” mode, probably because there seemed to be multitudes of other young couples on the block who also shared a penchant for punch- and cocktail-filled nights, and silly parlor games that relied on the effects of inebriation. Thus, looking back, alcohol was always present in the house. When we were younger than high-school age, my brother and I just knew not to drink it or we’d give ourselves away by becoming silly and smelling boozy. Although I have to admit, I loved the smell of alcohol, particularly cocktails. Some of my first olfactory memories are of whiskey sours being made in the rec room, as my parents mixed these delightfully citrus-redolent concoctions atop the hi-lo shag-carpeted bar they had fashioned. Overstock pantry items were stored behind the bar, and I always volunteered retrieving one of them for my mother, for behind the shaggy bar lived an array of little nips, these one-and-a-half-ounce colorful, sometimes oddly shaped bottles of spirits and liqueurs. I would stare at them and admire the way the light shone through them, particularly the brightly hued ones. My favorite was Galliano. It tapered to an almost point, like a tower, and glowed neon yellow, like one of my fluorescent crayons. These bottles became soldiers, waging wars on a battlefield of vinyl countertop, bordered by thick tan naugahyde edging. If the troops needed refreshments, a two-foot-tall pump bottle of Smirnoff that stood regally next to the fridge provided that extra jolt of bravado my little soldiers needed to blaze on. I wouldn’t fully depress the pump for fear my parents would discover some missing hooch, but I do remember at one point placing my little hand gently on the pump, pressing ever so slightly, with my other hand ready to collect any liquid that might dribble out. When a few drops landed on my palm, I sniffed it and immediately thought it was rubbing alcohol. Unconvinced that it was, I tasted it. The burn was so intense I vowed I would never press that pump again.

I never had to demystify the adult world of alcohol, and I think this has a lot to do with my respect for it. Although they were strict, and I was taught not to hang with the “bad” crowd, my parents never shielded me from it. I was even allowed to take a sip of beer every now and then (not to mention my grandmother feeding me a mixture of Southern Comfort, honey, and hot water when I was sick and left in her charge—I loathed the burn but loved the flavor). As I transitioned from tweenhood to adolescence, they always said, “If you are going to drink, we would rather have you drink at home.” I always felt that behind the invitation was a veiled threat. What I understood them to really be saying was “We don’t want you to drink.” And besides, who really wants to have a drink with one’s parents? Nevertheless, when I did take them up on their request that fateful New Year’s Eve, and tested the boundaries by drinking at home, they did not judge me, and for this I was grateful.

The French have been known to serve their children a little wine with dinner, usually starting at age twelve. Some people say that introducing children to alcohol before they are emotionally and physically mature enough to handle it might be good. But recent studies in France have shown that there is a rise in teen alcohol dependency. I suppose that when something is so engrained in one’s culture, most parents just pour wine for the kids without discussing the ramifications of tippling. (Or if they do, it may be the grandparents who undermine the parents’ warnings and are much more lax in their approach.) Remember, education begins at home, so I would proffer that when parents school their kids in the art of the tipple, they need to do much, much more than just decant and serve. Some tough love seems completely appropriate. Kids soak up all they see and hear like thirsty sponges. We must keep the dialogue open, but be strict and enforce boundaries.

When we throw a party and friends bring their kids along, we make sure we have mocktails waiting for them. After all, they are our guests. Just because they cannot yet imbibe alcohol, why shouldn’t they have a special drink, made exclusively for them. Also, we don’t want them to get too curious about what Mommy and Daddy are drinking. So, some ginger ale and mango juice, with a maraschino cherry and an orange slice, on the rocks, usually does the trick. To make it even more special, we add a fun swizzle stick. (We keep a double shot glass filled with them just for this occasion.) Telling them it’s special has the magical properties of making it special. Figurative becomes literal in the minds of children. Our friends Monica and Matt are the parents of two bright and creative children, Frances and Cole. When they visit, or thank us for a little gift, they draw lovely pictures of whatever’s on their minds. Frances has cottoned to the fact that Steve, my partner, and I are in the cocktail biz. Over the years she has drawn us some hilarious pictures of cartoon characters extolling the virtues of cocktails, including Santa Claus and a buzzing bee (which is our logo/avatar). They are very telling and show a preternatural understanding of the drinking life. See for yourself and let me know what you think.

“This Is My BFF!” by Frances
“Yumm!” by Frances