Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Warning: word rant ahead

My first call this morning, as it should be every morning, was to the research department of the Oxford English Dictionary. They confirmed what some of you think about me from time to time: I am dead wrong. You see, I have been assuming that the word incentivize (or, to the Brits, incentivise) is not in fact a word. I have been correcting people in crisp suits for years, my conviction so strong they never question it.

Well, I'm wrong. The OED added the word in 2003, citing, among other things, "the prevailing corporate usage" of the times.

They haven't done a new printing of the OED since 1989, but when they do, they should put a big, fat asterisk around the word. Just because enough marketing airheads are brutalising the language, doesn't mean it should be acknowledged by Oxford linguists, I wanted to scream. But the woman on the other end of the line was so helpful, so erudite. No doubt, she didn't want some agitated columnist on deadline, who was now going to have to make a major edit to his column, shouting down the phone at her. Incredulous, I asked her who first coined this phrase, assuming it originated in some Madison Avenue cubicle. "The Guardian, 1968", she told me. The English are responsible for this abomination of a word?, I gasped. Yes, she said, not caring for my choice of words.

I should have guessed as much. Words, these days, have me tied in knots. I admire the flexibility of English, its ability to transform inanimate nouns into bold actions. Don't believe me? Google it! Such a convention would be impossible in Italian. Nouns are nouns. Verbs are verbs. Never the twain shall meet, goes the thinking here.

Case in point: I've mentioned here before how Xtina and I were attacked one night by egg-hurling punks just outside our apartment. In a drippy, yolky daze, I informed a perhaps more dazed Xtina, "Darling, we've been egged."

"Egged?!?", she wanted to know. "Ouvati! Siamo ouavati!" The fact the yolk was hardening on my jacket, my ego was seriously bruised, meant nothing. Forget that Roman nightlife had become a lawless, egg-throwing jungle. She wanted to know how Anglo Saxons could allow for such reckless syntax. I defended the language, flicking egg shells off my shoulders. It's the flexibility of English that shows its durability, I said testily.

But now I'm not so sure. Are we being too flexible with the English language? I don't mind the inclusion of clever rap lyrics into the daily lexicon, but I don't think the good people at the OED should officially recognize it as words. Just because a lot of well-paid people misinterpret word usage on a daily basis, should we make allowances for this by simply giving in and writing it into the dictionary? Forget correcting them.

The Italians would never do this, but then there's a reason why the dominance of the Latin languages are forever on the wane. Somewhere between Italian inflexibility and Anglo Saxon permissiveness, lies the answer. We can start by boycotting that damn "incentivize". And, please, don't throw eggs.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Casa Chiocciola at Five

This weekend marks a fairly significant anniversary for me. Five years ago, I signed my name several times on various legal documents in a language I could barely understand. I then handed over a cheque, plus nearly all my savings, and, in return, took the keys to a little stone cottage on the top of a hill, in a village called Amandola, a place I mention from time to time on this here blog.

I told friends I was buying my second home first. They thought I was nuts. I recall denying that this meant I would some day live full-time in Italy. At the time, London seemed like my proper home. Amandola was to be my refuge, I thought, an escape hatch when things got too crazy in the big city. Things got immediately crazy in the big city after that, and so I found myself coming out to Amandola as often as I could, sometimes for less than 48 blissful hours, just enough to recharge the soul.

The house gave me more than I gave it in the first few months, which was kind of amazing because the house was as simple a place as you could imagine. It had electricity and a few appliances, but few modern conveniences. No phone. No TV. No distractions from the outside world. But it was surrounded by rolling hills and impressive peaks, and in between were flocks of sheep and bobbing sunflowers. Further on, were Medieval hill towns with fascinating local tales about art and war and prosperous times and desperate times, and now, hopeful times. That's the appeal of Amandola. It's such a rare place. It has zero pretensions. And, the more the world around it changes into an indecipherable blur, Amandola, for me anyhow, is always the same tranquil place.

Five years on now, and I've been giving back to the house the love and attention it deserves. It's just a small token of my thanks for all it's given me over the years. Each spring, I squirrel away enough money to make modest capital expenditures on the place. Some landscaping one year, a pergola the next, new furniture last year and even a sat TV (which nobody ever watches). If it was a sanctuary before, it's truly a home now. Today, Xtina and I usually drive up to Amandola with our friends from Rome; sometimes we host friends from elsewhere across Italia. Each time, the experience is the same: completely blissful.

It's probably not healthy to be so attached to an inanimate object. But when that thing is a house that's been standing on a hill for centuries, I guess it's okay. If my arms were big enough, I'd give the place a hug. That's how much the silly place means to me. Grazie, Chiocciola.

Friday, March 09, 2007

"T A X" Romana

A loyal reader sent me this news item: young Roman lovers go on crime spree (stealing padlocks as part of some tender ritual) to show their undying devotion to their ragazza/ragazzo.

You're no doubt wondering if this is typical Roman-style devotion. Is the spirit of Romeo and Juliet alive in modern-day Italy? Has yours truly ever declared his limit-less love for Xtina in such a public display?

Well, just last week I spelled out on the sidewalk below my building "Ti Amo, Xtina" in spaghetti strands. Moments later, unbeknownst to me, neighborhood cats swarmed on my creation, nibbling the good parts and revealing the cryptic message:

"T A X".

Undaunted, I'm off to get something more permanent. A tattoo.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

From Donald Fagan to Marx

Jim Ledbetter, journalist, author, one-time NY Knicks season ticket-holder, fan of Steely Dan and longtime reader of ISB has a new book out this week, Dispatches for the "New York Tribune": Selected Journalism of Karl Marx. My copy just arrived at my doorstep yesterday, generating some curious looks from my Commie neighbors who are now beginning to doubt my CIA roots. Pathetic fools!

You can order it off here, or wait several months for the U.S. edition.