Style Conversational Week 1050: If at first you can’t even lose ...

December 5, 2013

No second chances? Do we have your second chances!

The Style Invitational has been inviting (it’s what we do) people back to try previous contests ever since Week 94 (January 1995). By my count from Elden Carnahan’s indispensable Master Contest List, we’ve courted recidivism 16 times before today’s Week 1050 contest.

Interestingly, it wasn’t until the eighth of these contests (except for the 10th-anniversary special) that we stopped encouraging people to enter any previous Invite — even though back then there was no way to find most of these old contests unless you’d hoarded clippings from The Post’s Style section every Sunday. And so it wasn’t a shock that most of the ink in retrospective contests was blotted up by the Invite-obsessive Chuck Smiths and Tom Wittes and Stephen Dudziks and Chris Doyles; the real surprise was that a goodly number of more normal entrants got ink as well. One can only assume that they went to the library and researched years-old bound volumes or microfiche.

There have been a few variations over the years; Week 223 (1997) demanded new entries only, while in Week 538 , with the brand-new Empress — the E suggested that Losers could try, try again with the new judge. A couple of times I specified some theme — everything had to feature the number 3, for instance — but that seemed needlessly arbitrary and the entries contrived and shoehorned into the contest.

So now, once again, you’re invited to peruse the past year’s contests and give any of them another go, or just a go. And with the Master Contest List, you can look up anything, and nothing on it is subject to The Post’s paywall, the limit of stories per month that a non-subscriber can access. I fervently believe that all Washingtonians ought to subscribe to The Post either in print or online (print gets you online as well), and I think that $10 a month is a great deal for out-of-towners as well. But I don’t want to require Invite contestants, who are essentially feeding us free material to exploit, to pay us for the chance to do that. (If you click on the links at washingtonpost.com/styleinvitational, rather than on Elden’s page, those will count against the paywall of 20 articles a month.)

Some of our most memorable material has come from the retrospective contests. A random sampling:

From Week 94, a double dactyl by the late David Mills, journalist turned TV writer for “The Wire” and “Treme”:
Lickety Stickety
Lady Madonna
Showed us her midriff and
Much more than that.
Now even herdsmen in
Boputhatswana
Know she exemplifies
“{Censored} for tat.”

From Week 223, a three-line poem beginning and ending with the same name:
Mike Tyson,
Thanks for the post-fight interview, but please don’t drool blood and pieces of ear into the
Mike, Tyson. (Dave Zarrow)

The winner of Week 538, the first of these contests I judged:
Combine any two halves of words hyphenated in that day’s paper: Epipha-thing: The sudden moment of clarity when you realize your vocabulary, like, sucks. (Drew Knoblauch)

The winner of Week 707:
Write something using only words used in “The Cat in the Hat”: I sat on the pot. I gave that man a bump -- kind of little kicks -- and then bent to show my hand. He said I looked for bad tricks. In my fear I said yes so that they would tell nothing and my mother would not know. Now I stand in shame. But I did not want to hook up! I do not do you-know-what! Man, I wish I had gone at home. -- L. Craig, Washington (Anne Paris)

The winner of Week 894, yet another double dactyl, for poems on current events:
A Double Tactile
Gribbedy grabbedy,
Airport security
Fondles my stuff in an
Intimate way.
Many object to this
Microanalysis;
Sadly for me it’s the
Height of my day. (Craig Dykstra)

So just send in stuff this good for the past year’s contests and you’ll be in shape.
Note: It’s almost inevitable that some question will arise about how to handle one or two of these contests, how to adapt it for the current week. Feel free to e-mail me at pat.myers@washpost.com with a question, or better yet, post it for everyone’s benefit on the Style Invitational Devotees page on Facebook.

Reckless deriving: The results of the Week 1046 false-etymology contest

Week 1046 turned out to be a pretty hard contest. A lot of people came up with fake accounts of how a common expression originated, some of them fairly logical and some pretty imaginative.

The only thing was that in large part, they weren’t very funny; there wasn’t a joke, or the joke was lame. Or the entry didn’t purport to explain the origin of a phrase, as the contest explicitly required, but instead just told some general joke setup and used the phrase, or a pun on the phrase, as a punch line. And while I didn’t care if the joke scenario was set in a time frame that came somewhat later than the expression really appeared (Jeff Shirley’s tale of “Fred Starbucks” comes to mind), entries that related an old phrase to, say, Obamacare didn’t work for me as a tale of its origins.

The inking entries you’re seeing today are among the shorter ones I received (or I tightened them up); some people wrote hundreds of words. But more important, these entries “explain” how a certain phrase came into use, and they also related the story in some way, however silly, to the actual meaning of the phrase.

Contrast today’s ink with a clever but not-the-contest shaggy-dog joke like this one from Brian Allgar: “A distinguished surgeon had a badly behaved pair of twins, and was constantly giving one or both of them a severe thrashing. When the Social Services Department put an end to his brutality, he turned them into Siamese twins by attaching them surgically at the hip. Called upon to explain his action, he replied that it was his mother’s suggestion: ‘If you can’t beat them, join them.’ ” (Meanwhile, Brian got more love across the pond this week from Lucy Vickery, my classier counterpart at the British paper the Spectator: He won Competition 2826 (!!!!!) for a nonsense poem on a wintry theme; here’s his “Jabberwocky” parody; scroll down to see the ink by fellow Loser Robert Schechter as well.)

An entry where the joke doesn’t relate significantly to the actual meaning of the phrase: “Once Northern Virginia traffic became a mess in the ’70s, some commuters began yanking four-way stop signs along their routes to speed travel. This became known as “pulling out all the stops.”

I also didn’t much care for jokes that relied on a contrived name in the setup of the joke to make the punch line work. Jeff Contompasis’s “Won Kan Chu” was sort of an exception, but it was the punchline, and it came naturally in the joke. In contrast, I stopped reading this one halfway through: “A panhandler stood outside the Farragut North Metro station every morning. Self-made billionaire John Differ refused to give him any money ...”

If I’d chosen my winners early this past week instead of goofing off during Thanksgiving weekend, I’d have asked Bob Staake to illustrate Frank Osen’s eminently cartoonable joke about Helen of Troy. It’s the third win and the sixth ink “above the fold” for the often-published poet, and his 55th (and 56th) blot of ink total since just Week 938.

The second- and third-place finishers this week, on the other hand, have only five inks between them, and four of them are from Dana Austin, whom we first saw in Week 861. But Dana (who is a male Dana, by the way) might top the standings for — and surely Elden keeps this stat somewhere — ratio of wins and runners-up to total ink. 1 first place; 1 second place; 1 third place; 1 honorable mention. Dana gets one of our final Grossery Bags or Loser mugs before we send away for a new set with a new design. As does Lew Clayman, who’ll also get a FirStink for his first ink. Lew sent in several versions of his story about the origins of traffic circles (one of the few entries not to involve wordplay), in various degrees of length and complexity; I sort of combined them.

Dirty lies: Unprintables from Week 1045

Here’s one from Dan O’Day: “The ‘excised’ parts of the palace eunuchs in Imperial China were kept in elegant silk boxes. If a eunuch committed an indiscretion and was brought to trial, it was considered proper to judge the whole man, so the silk box would be assigned to a particular judge. Then there would be the ritual exchange:
Judge: “And who shall try the case of this miserable eunuch?” Eunuch: “Honorable Judge : ‘the balls in your court.’

I got severa l entries similar to this one from Neal Starkman: “It was not a rare occurrence that certain male members of Congress would have sexual liaisons with the young men who worked for them as interns and pages. Word would get around about a particularly receptive boy, and sometimes the congressmen would find themselves at virtually simultaneous assignations. They would thus congratulate each other on their mutual good taste. Such agreement among people came to be known as “being on the same page.”

And this one from today’s winner, Frank Osen, was both ridiculous and unprintable: “A 19th-century courtesan was renowned for pleasuring clients with her especially deft left foot. She wasn’t as dexterous with the right, so word would spread whenever bursitis forced her to switch feet. Thus, if an experience isn’t quite satisfactory, today we say we “got off on the wrong foot.”

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