If it weren't for the fact that he didn't like getting coffee for his superiors, Gregory Clark might never have written "Words of the Vietnam War."
The incident happened in '69, when Clark was a clerk with the Military Assistance Command. "I didn't seem to fit in too well," he admits. "They had little quirks they wanted me to comply with."
Like fetching pots of java from the mess. "I had some words to the sergeant about that, made some faces about it and what have you," the former Army Spec. 4 remembers.
Clark wasn't exactly sent to the front lines and made a Lurp, but he did wind up out in the field as an adviser on unattended ground sensors to a battalion of South Vietnamese. "It gave me a better perspective on exactly how the war was fought. Basically, we had to destroy the country in order to save it."
Two decades after Clark came home from Vietnam -- he's now a computer technician in northern California -- the country is still with him. "I just can't shake it off," he says, and isn't sure why. He began reading books on the war, eventually accumulating about 500 of them. When he encountered a term he didn't understand, like "incontinent ordnance," he sought out its meaning.
He took notes for a decade and began concentrating on the project in a serious way about 18 months ago. "Words of the Vietnam War" will be published next month by McFarland & Co. of Jefferson, N.C. It's produced in scholarly format (no dust jacket, double columns) with a scholarly price ($47), yet has something of the enthusiastic amateur's feel. There is little etymology, and not much tracing of sources for slang or catch phrases.
Many of the 8,000 words in the dictionary are military terms. "Lurp" stands for Long-Range Reconnaissance Patrol, the troops that operated deep in enemy territory; "incontinent ordnance" means shelling your own troops by mistake; "unattended ground sensors" were implanted on trails and in areas of suspected enemy activity and monitored remotely. See how easy it is to pick this stuff up?
"The English language," wordsmith Robert Claiborne once said, "is like an enormous bank account." That sounds nice, but perhaps a well would be a better image.
After all, the supply is constantly replenished and never affected by withdrawals -- unlike the average checking account. From the lingo of Vietnam to explanations of cultural terms, teams of scholars and amateurs are constantly working to either demystify or just show the multifaceted appeal of English.
It's easy to do a book on words poorly, and hard to do it well. A few of the many annual efforts are so ill-made as to leave a bad taste in the mouth, and a few are champagne. A recent sampling:
" ... As One Mad With Wine, and Other Similes," by Elyse Sommer and Mike Sommer (Gale Research/Visible Ink Press, paperback). Remember learning the difference between a metaphor and a simile? Both draw comparisons, but the first does so implicitly. "She's a tigress" is a metaphor; "she's fierce as a tiger" is a simile. Either can spark up a piece of writing, as long as you don't overdo it. This volume offers 8,000 similes, many of them colorful and most of them attributed to contemporary authors, which means readers should use it for inspiration rather than reference. One of the best in the book is the very first, George Brett's "If a tie is like kissing your sister, losing is like kissing your grandmother with her teeth out."
"Partridge's Concise Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English," edited by Paul Beale (Macmillan, hardcover). Eric Partridge is the grandfather of all slang dictionaries, and his remains the standard. This is an abridgment and update of the eighth edition, published in 1984. It still bulks out at 560 small-type pages, all of them a pleasure to browse. From "Does he drink?" as a euphemism for "Is he willing to be bribed?" to "barking" for "raving mad," Partridge gives ample evidence of how creative speakers of English can be, and how little of what they come up with could be repeated in a family newspaper. One caveat: These volumes are assembled and published in London, which means that America is just one of many outposts of the Empire that contribute to the finished product.
"Grand Allusions," by Elizabeth Webber and Mike Feinsilber (Farragut, paperback). The subtitle explains the intent here: "A lively guide to those expressions, terms and references you ought to know but might not." The authors say their book is for people like Harold Ross, the legendary editor of the New Yorker who supposedly once asked: "Is Moby Dick the man or the whale?" That one is explained here, along with Faulknerian, film noir, Lazarus, Grand Guignol, Captain Queeg, samizdat, Cheshire cat, Chernobyl, Talmudic and the like. These are not, you'll notice, particularly difficult references, which makes "Grand Allusions" most useful to either students or the culturally obtuse.
"Mene, Mene, Tekel," by Eugene Ehrlich and David H. Scott (HarperCollins, hardcover). A couple of years ago coauthor Ehrlich had a hit with his Latin glossary "Amo, Amas, Amat and More," so a lexicon of words and phrases from the Bible must have seemed a natural follow-up. Using the King James version of the Old and New Testaments, the book explains both the familiar ("the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away"; "my cup runneth over") and the not-so-familiar ("go to the ant, thou sluggard"; "a firebrand plucked out of the burning"). But since much of the explanation comes from the surrounding text in the Bible itself, it would be equally efficient to just read The Book itself.
"An Exaltation of Larks," by James Lipton (Viking, hardcover). This compilation of collective nouns for 1,100 professions, beasts or objects isn't going to improve your command of English -- start tossing too many phrases like "a cut of film editors," "an unkindness of ravens," "a latitude of maps" or "a mound of pitchers" into your daily conversation and people will avoid you in droves -- but is nevertheless fun. This third and supposedly ultimate edition of a book first published in 1968 adds authentic terms from the Middle Ages to some (less successful) of Lipton's own coinage. Best suited for eclectic tastes.
"Latin for All Occasions," by Henry Beard (Villard). A few years ago, a wise man developed the useful concept of "ooks." These are things that may look like books, having a dust jacket and a sheaf of pages and a photo of the author on the back, but that aren't quite. This volume, which consists of Latin translations of English sentences, is a case in point. Example: "Honey, I'm home" is "Mellita, domi adsum." Except as a gag gift for Latin professors, it's hard to imagine the appeal of this item. The one funny joke is on the jacket, where Beard says his eight years of studying the language "really hasn't been that helpful over the years, except for the time he suddenly realized that the thing he was about to order from the menu of a restaurant in Rome looked an awful lot like the Latin word for 'eel.' "
"Never Trust a Calm Dog and Other Rules of Thumb," by Tom Parker (HarperCollins, paperback). This one's a couple of notches up the ook ladder. It's the third collection Parker has done on this subject and by far the largest, which means he has completely ignored the rule of thumb that sequels are never as good as the original.
The problem is, there are only so many rules of thumb that either make immediate sense or are widely applicable. When you're putting 2,688 of them in a single volume, you end up with generalizations or irrelevancies like "The drivers of white cars are jerks" and "It costs $1.50 a day to feed and care for a sled dog." Luckily, when there are so many, some are bound to be thought-provoking or at least sensible, from "If you want to discover your true friends, ask them to help you move" to the lawyer's rule of divorce: "If someone tells you they want a divorce, ask them first if the sex is still good. Those who say yes won't get a divorce -- ask for your fee upfront."