Busy Buzzwords

Our local news wraps its nightly broadcast by pushing little surveys you can take online. Earlier this week was, “Should the U.S. Senate vote to increase stimulus checks to $2,000?” (88% said yes). The night before, “What was your favorite holiday food this year?” (pie narrowly edged ham). What I find laughable is the participation rate – maybe 25 responses on average – yet the results are announced the following night like headline news.  25 is a minuscule sampling for a basis, like surveying a few of your neighbors and calling it good.  Yet other companies take the exact same approach.  Example: Merriam-Webster just announced its 2020 “Word of the Year”.

Merriam-Webster’s fitting “Word of the Year”

You’ll find almost 200,000 words in the English language (with more added every year).  Should pandemic take the trophy for 2020?  Well, yes, it’s hard to argue with Merriam on that one.  Not only did the COVID-19 pandemic dominate headlines and conversations, the word created the single largest spike in dictionary traffic.  On March 11th, when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, the lookup of pandemic increased over 100,000% over 2019.  I can’t convert 100,000% to a quantity but I know it’s a big number.

Merriam isn’t content with just “word of the year”, however.  They also list the top ten words according to increased dictionary traffic over the previous year.  Accordingly, 2020 self-branded with coronavirus, quarantine, and asymptomatic.  I wouldn’t think any of these words – pandemic included – induces peace of mind, but in dire situations our brains have a relentless need to know more.

With the mental fatigue brought on by too much COVID talk, perhaps you’ll find Merriam’s other top-ten words more refreshing.  Antebellum made the list because the long-popular country music trio Lady Antebellum changed its name to “Lady A”; also because the movie “Antebellum” was released in September.  Mamba was a top-ten for the passing of basketball legend Kobe Bryant, his nickname in reference to his killer play.  Kraken is the newest franchise in the National Hockey League, the mascot a mythological Scandinavian sea monster.

Seattle-ites will learn to chant, “GO KRAKEN!”

But none of these are my favorite.  How about #7, schadenfreudeSHAH-dun-froy-duh means “enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others”.  In March, schadenfreude pointed to the college admissions scandal, particularly the outing of the guilty A-list celebrities.  Schadenfreude also colored the daily coverage of President Trump by the so-called “fake news media”.

For the record, schadenfreude is German (of course it is) so let’s give it bonus points for sneaking onto a top-ten list of English words.

You may not agree with Merriam-Webster but at least its choices are based on real data – lookups that imply support from the masses.  Other organizations are much vaguer with their selection criteria.  Consider Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year”.  Time’s stated criteria is, “for better or for worse… has done the most to influence the events of the year.”  By that definition it should come as no surprise to see Adolf Hitler selected in 1938, Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1963, and Mark Zuckerberg in 2010.  However, you’ll also find almost every U.S. President on the list, as if simply inhabiting the Oval Office makes you more influential than all other persons.  President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris are 2020’s “Person of the Year”.  Uh, shouldn’t we at least get them inaugurated before evaluating influence?

Deserving of more “Timely” recognition…

[Note: Time’s “Person of the Year” recognition owes a debt to aviator Charles Lindbergh, who completed the first solo transatlantic flight in May of 1927.  The magazine overlooked Lindbergh’s accomplishment by never featuring him on its cover.  To make up for it, Lindbergh became Time’s inaugural “Person of the Year”.  Makes you wonder if someone else was more deserving in 1927, doesn’t it?]

One more “of-the-year” example for you.  Pantone, the “color company” best known for its Pantone Matching System (or PMS, a rather unfortunate acronym), chooses a color of the year to put the last twelve months in review.  For 2020?  Like Time Magazine, Pantone broke its own rules and went with two choices: Ultimate Gray, which suggests solid shadows cast on a wall; and Illuminating, a lemony shade hinting at “the light at the end of the tunnel”.  Illuminating might be a little premature for 2020.  Let’s go glass-half-full and call it next year’s color instead.

Is this light “Illuminating” to you?

If Merriam-Webster could choose its busy buzzwords in hindsight, 2020’s winner might not be pandemic but rather, malarkeyMalarkey came in at #11 in the top ten (come again?) because it’s a favorite of President-elect Biden.  Rather than saying, “C’mon man, you’re making that up.” (okay, he says that too) Biden prefers, “Give me a break; that’s a bunch of malarkey”.

“Malarkey” my words; you’re gonna hear the Biden favorite a lot over the next four years.

Some content sourced from The Cut article, “Pantone’s Color of the Year is ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’”, Merriam-Webster.com, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

A Sound of Thunder

Like it or not, we’ve changed our personal hygiene habits these last six months.  You’re wearing a mask because you choose to (or your governor mandates it).  You’re social distancing to be able to do things as simple as grocery shopping.  You may even be washing your hands longer (though I still can’t get through the “Happy Birthday” song twice).  But one habit hasn’t changed – I’m sure of it.  You’re sneezing as often as you normally would, and not necessarily because you’re sick.

How often do you sneeze?  The answer to that question is as varied as the number of people reading this post.  Sneezing is a highly personal habit, one you have no control over.  Your body needs to sneeze and will do so whether you fight it or not.  Technically, a sneeze is a “semi-autonomous, convulsive explosion of air from the lungs through the nose and mouth.”  In plain English, your body is fighting something irritating and sneezing helps to get rid of it.

I sneeze every day, without fail.  I know this because I can recall my last sneeze and the one before that; both within the last twenty-four hours.  More significantly, I sneeze twice at a time.  That’s another highly personal aspect.  Some sneeze once, others twice.  My dad sneezes consistently seven to ten consecutive times (to which he declares, “marvelous!”)  Consecutive sneezes either means a repeated effort to rid the irritant, or the body simply settling down in a reflexive sort of way.

My wife knows when I sneeze because I don’t hold back.  I feel one coming, I rear back, and I erupt for all the world to hear.  But once again, we all have our differences.  For some, it’s a sound of thunder.  For others, it’s akin to a cough.  Occasionally you’ll even hear a person squeak.  No matter the sound, it’s generally unalterable.  The body does what the body will do.

Stanford University once conducted a study and concluded a sneeze is the equivalent physiological response as one-quarter of a sexual orgasm.  Now how would Stanford know what one-quarter of an orgasm feels like?  Your one-quarter may feel different than my one-quarter.  Regardless, both responses release a bunch of endorphins and endorphins feel good.  Kinda makes you want to sneeze more often, doesn’t it?

An effort to control a sneeze can be downright comical.  In situations where you don’t want noise (church!), trying to avoid a sneeze can make it worse than just going through with it.  Picture the person anticipating a sneeze in the pews.  Deep breaths or holding the breath (count to ten!), pinching the nose, tilting the head back, and on and on.  The sneeze often comes anyway.

Trying to thwart a sneeze can be downright dangerous.  There’s no truth to the myth your eyeballs can pop out if you sneeze hard enough (though it’s not impossible to sneeze with your eyes open – try it).  But hold that blast in and you can damage blood vessels or the nasal cavity.  Best to just let the volcano erupt.  Even the mask naysayers can’t deny the value of today’s “mouthpieces” relative to sneezing.  A sneeze can emit up to 40,000 droplets of something you don’t want any part of.

What makes YOU superstitious?

Let’s put the superstitions to rest.  Your heart does not stop when you sneeze, even though there’s a quick break in the rhythm.  Nobody’s talking behind your back when you sneeze, nor does the number of times you sneeze indicate what they’re talking about.  There’s no relevant amount of good or bad luck with sneezing.  Finally, your soul won’t leap out of your body to be carried away by Satan (or for you atheists, your “breath of life”).

I like to think of my wife’s “God bless you!” as the protector of that last superstition.  She and I exchange the blessing unfailingly (religiously?) with every sneeze, as if not doing so will separate the soul from the body.  I suppose we could go with “Gesundheit” instead (since the Almighty certainly speaks German) but the English version somehow sounds more effective.  Here’s a coincidence for 2020: the very first “God bless you’s” were uttered after sneezes associated with the very first pandemic: the Plague of Justinian in the 6th century.

Sneezing can be encouraged, be it with pepper or snuff or some other artificial irritant.  Not for me.  My sneezes come often enough to simply deal with them as they do.  I’m sure you agree; the experience is not altogether unpleasant if you sense it coming.

A final nod to sneezing science-fiction fans, who may recognize this post’s title as one of Ray Bradbury’s very best short stories, from his collection, The Golden Apples of the Sun.  “A Sound of Thunder” was the tale of time-travel, dinosaurs, and seemingly innocent tampering with evolution – suddenly gone very wrong.  It’s as chilling a read today as it was at its publication almost seventy years ago.  And the “sound of thunder”?  It wasn’t a sneeze.  You’ll just have to read the story for the real meaning.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.