The Style Conversational
The Style Conversational
Loser-friendly discussion with The Empress of The Style Invitational

A rule of thumb: Don’t believe colorful etymologies (just make them up). And whoa, what a way to win.

Good afternoon. If you see any mistakes in this week’s column, it’s only because I was in one of my drunken stupors, so big deal.

I’m expecting lots of imaginative explanations in Week 1046 of how certain expressions came about, just as we did in Week 235 (today’s example by Sue Lin Chong won that contest) and then, four years later, in Week 381.

The Style Conversational


Sue Lin’s “baited breath” entry seemed to be the best for the cartoon; the other week’s winner, Gordon Labow, was just as funny, but both Bob and I thought that it would be too heavy-handed (har har) to depict the wordplay:

"To throw up one's hands": To surrender; from New Guinea cannibal society, in which it was considered de rigueur to be able to keep down one's food. When they failed, it often involved hands, which tended to be dirty, filled with small, sharp bones, and unusually hard to digest.

Gordon’s entry is truer to the spirit of the contest, which is to explain the actual expression, not words that sound like it. On the other hand, Sue Lin’s entry reveals the expression at the end; it turns into a punch line to the joke. I’m not going to demand that construction, but I think that in general it’s funnier.

If you read over the old results, especially those from Week 235, you’re going to see a lot of leisurely storytelling. In the print Invitational of today, it’s more important to be concise — not so much because there isn’t room, but because big blocks of small type in the Invitational just aren’t very inviting. Perhaps we’ll enlarge the type four weeks from now, and run fewer entries in the paper. It’s better than not having people read them at all.

Even when considering various Week 235 inking entries for the example, I found myself editing them down; for example, here was the original from Elden Carnahan, at 98 words:
Tradesmen in illiterate medieval Europe could not advertise their wares with signs, so by law they were required to attach an object to the shoulder of their tunics to attract attention; an onion for a grocer, a taxidermized mouse for an exterminator, a writ of mandamus for a lawyer, etc. This also served as a convenient index to the socioeconomic class of the person wearing such a symbol, which was good for the doctor and lawyer but not so good for the humbler tradesmen. They often objected indignantly, particularly the manure-seller, who resented the “chip on his shoulder.”

And here’s how I would have run it this week, at 68 words:
In illiterate medieval Europe, tradesmen were required to identify themselves not with signs, but by attaching one of their wares to the shoulders of their tunics: an onion for a grocer, a stuffed mouse for an exterminator, a writ of mandamus for a lawyer, etc. Some of the humbler tradesmen objected indignantly to this sometimes humiliating order -- particularly the manure-seller, who resented the “chip on his shoulder.”

Even the second version is pretty long. It's not that shorter is always better, and it’s true that paring a joke down might lose some clever nuance or asides; it’s just that shorter works better for the format we have. As do readable, conversational sentences.

The premise of these bogus-etymology contests is that there are so many interesting but most likely bogus etymologies out there already. “Rule of thumb” most likely comes from the idea that people estimate an inch with the first joint of the thumb, but it’s also been going around that there was a medieval rule that a thumb-thick stick was the largest a man was permitted to use to beat his wife.

Then there are the acronym etymologies: that “for unlawful carnal knowledge” or “fornication under consent of the king” is the “real meaning” of what is actually a very old Anglo-Saxon word that predated Latin-based words like “fornication.” Or that “golf” means “Gentlemen only; ladies forbidden.” Or that “news” stands for north, east, west, south (my own mother informed me of that one).

So maybe Week 1046 will be one of those weeks whose entries get passed around the Internet as True Facts. One can only hope.

Long may he lose! Well, not today.

I wrote a tribute to Chris Doyle in this column 12 weeks ago, when he became the second Loser to pass the 1,500-ink mark. And now Chris has finally nudged the nearly dormant Russell Beland off his well-worn perch to be the highest-scoring Loser of all time. And by winning the contest this week!

I call up Elden Carnahan’s comprehensive Loser Stats every week when I’m writing about the week’s winners and runners-up, but I don’t tend to notice people’s rankings on the various lists; I don’t even want to be very conscious of the competition going on or Loser of the Year, Rookie of the Year, etc.

But that’s emphatically not the case with the Loser Obsessives, such as Jeff Contompasis, who posted on the Style Invitational Devotees page on Sunday: “Are we close to a big change atop the all-time Loserboard within the next week or two?”

At that point, I hadn’t yet checked to see who’d written the inking entries for the Week 1042 neologism contest; I wouldn’t match up the entries and names until the next evening. And I was delighted — if not surprised — that Chris would both win the Inkin’ Memorial and, with his honorable mention, take over the No. 1 spot that Russell had occupied, we’re pretty sure nonstop, since he displaced Chuck Smith in Week 540 — 9 1/2 years ago — with his 639th ink. Russell had been in first place by hundreds of entries for years, and I think that we both had the feeling that the Invite wouldn’t last long enough for that status ever to change.

But we clearly sold short both the Invite and the staying power of the World’s Cleverest Retired DoD Actuary.

I’m not going repeat all the info and gush that I wrote in the Week 1034 Conversational. But I thought I’d cite just a random few of Chris’s 47 first-place entries since he started playing the Invite in earnest in 2000.
Week 407, Tom Swifties: Let’s face it, good oxymorons are plenty scarce.

Week 417, turn a person’s name into an acronym and say what it spells out: Look, I never divulge anything that’s related in privacy. Promise. (Linda Tripp)

— Week 441, the difference between two nouns found on one page of the paper: What is the difference between President Bush and major campaign contributors? Bush speaks of the axis of evil, while campaign contributors bespeak the evil of access.

— Week 486, joint legislation: The Cole-Porter-Musgrave-Turner Act awarding Eminem a Medal of Freedom for his contribution to the field of music.

— Week 532, extremely short pans of movies: “Cast Away”: Man overbored.

— Week 617, write something about someone using only the letters in that person’s name:
Scarlett O’Hara: [A character’s short tale.] A careless lass, a tease, has a secret hero. Alas, her heart aches: He shoos her. Cross, she chooses Charles, a loser (later, a carcass). The rascal Rhett chases her: He’s crass, hot to trot. Chaos! Terror! Shells scorch the earth. Her clothes tatter. She eats a root, retches. She shoots a looter. Later, Rhett catches her. She has a tot a horse tosses. (A carcass here, too.) The horror shatters Rhett (alcohol has a role), so he scoots. At last, she settles at Tara. [A close shot. Tears roll. The orchestra soars.]

Week 825, lyrics for a piece of instrumental music:
To Fucik’s “Entrance of the Gladiators” (click on the link for the music)
(the traditional music for circus clowns)
Clowns are entering the three-ring circus,
In the center ring are scary smirkers.
Red bulbous noses, grimacing poses.
I’m in panic with a manic harlequin psychosis.
Freaky pantaloons from Barnum-Bailey,
Bozos mugging and cavorting gaily.
Run to survive. Gotta stay alive. Get in the car -- and drive!
Krusty, Clarabell or Emmett Kelly.
Doesn’t matter, I’m a nervous Nellie.
Bright-painted faces, fright-wiggy aces.
Got a fear that clearly has a psychogenic basis.
Madcap zanies at the Ringling Brothers,
Merry-andrews -- if I had my druthers
I’d can the clowns.
Ban all the clowns.
Down with the clowns!


Chris’s winning neologism today — in the 10th installment of a contest that he suggested — is firmly in his tradition of ingenious puns. And it’s not just his 47th win; it’s his ONE HUNDRED EIGHTY-FIFTH ink “above the fold.” I am confident — since the alternative would simply be unacceptable — that Chris will continue to enhance the Invite more weeks than not for many years to come.

Late note: I just posted the Invitational, and linked to it on the Devotees page. And it drew this immediate comment from Brendan Beary, No. 5 all time with almost 900 inks:
“Congratulations to Chris for making it to the top of the Loser leader board. While I’ve admired his verbal & poetic cleverness for years, there’s no doubt that the cleverest thing he’s ever done (and the only one that qualifies as fiendishly clever) is the strategic decision to be a genuinely nice guy, supportive of other entrants, and injecting regular doses of joie d’esprit into the comments around here (along with an encyclopedic recall of his & others’ limericks) . It leaves us completely unable to hate him for his success.”

SANE it 42 ways: The results of Week 1042

Lots of good, funny neologisms — what else is new? — in this 10th Tour de Fours contest. Even though I expanded it this year to allow for creative definitions of existing terms, I don’t think I ended up using any after all. Because they’re so short, all 42 inking entries — even Steve Honley’s cleverly risque “Hanes Point” — will be in the print paper (and there’s even room for a little note about Chris’s achievement).

If a neologism seemed hard to read, I sometimes added a hyphen or broke a compound into two words. “Can-esthesia,” for example, might otherwise read as “cane ...”

In contrast to Chris’s absolutely-no-surprise ink, it’s a First Offender, Chris Damm, who gets the second prize along with the FirStink for his first ink. Meanwhile, it’s yet another above-the-fold win for Christopher Lamora (his 23rd, for 195 blots total) as well as for Rob Huffman (his fifth, for Ink 65). Christopher and Rob, let me know whether you want the Cup Punneth Over mug or the Almost Valuable Player Grossery Bag, because I’ll surely choose the other one.

As always, I have a list of great words that people came up with, unaccompanied, alas, by great definitions. I’ll keep them on hand for one of those weeks in which I invite the Loser Community to improve on them.

There was really only one unprintable entry this week that I thought was otherwise inkworthy:
Squeezesnatch: A Kegel exercise.
It is by (Chris Doyle, Ponder, Tex.)

Who’s joining me at the Nov. 17 Loser Brunch?
C’mon, it’s a buffet! And it’s at noon, so you can even do church first. Details and RSVP here.

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