Meeting Notes from April 25: A Linguist’s Language Peeves

Notes by Ed Hoffman; Photos by Fred Beutler

Transitions –

The Rotary bell was rung. Everyone stood as voices rose to meet the perennial challenge of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Indeed, it was done with gusto, if it’s all right to revive a somewhat loathsome word born of the Brut cologne era.

Inspiration: Doug Moffat came up, and knocked the Inspiration out of the park. “A good afternoon to my Rotary peeps! [laughter]. My friends and I would sometimes talk about a certain expression – one we just didn’t understand: It is what it is. In the movie St. Vincent, Bill Murray’s character is asking the bank clerk why he is being charged to close his account. The clerk shrugs, and just says: ‘It is what it is.’ As for the Anderson Room, and the audio system here, well, it is what it is! [huge laughter]. I’m so proud to be a part of this group. I remember Scott Westerman – how he would float through the room with that wide, wonderful smile. Many of you have that same memory….” Doug departed the podium, amidst clamorous applause, having acknowledged change while celebrating tradition.

Song: Don Duquette and Tom Strode led us in commemorating the Club’s long association with the Union with a Rotary re-write of “See You in September.” The last verse, so precious, brought a squirmy smile to everybody’s face: “Have a good time but remember/There is danger in the nice meals that you’ll love/Will I see you in Winter 2020/Or lose you to Weber’s fleeting love?” Oh, my.

John then welcomed all members, guests, and visiting Rotarians. New members were introduced by their sponsors. Past President Collyer Smith introduced Toni Gupta. Toni’s daughter, Meghan, was a Junior Rotarian last year and is doing great work at Yale, “The U-M’s ‘sister school’ out East,” Collyer asserted.  Regarding new members, President-elect Greg Stejskal welcomed a returning member, Dawn Johnson. “So she’s not a new member, but we’re glad to have her back”; and Ken Fischer introduced M-Prize Chamber Arts Competition director Heather Kendrick. “She heads the School of Music, Theatre & Dance’s M-Prize [annual top prize $100,000]. She’s a terrific violinist – and our Miss Michigan!”

Cutting Ties

This was the end, the grim burlesque, the coup de grace; the culmination of revolution – a blade, Louis XVI’s rolling head…Alright, it wasn’t that bad. Jim Irwin came forward, brandishing a pair of mega-shears borrowed from some forlorn sheep farm near Adelaide. One last cut, near the knot, and it was over. John’s smart burgundy and gold Rotary tie, its white tongue flapping like the dura mater in a Rembrandt anatomy painting, was gone. Such were the proceedings marking the Clubs (temporary) departure from the historic Michigan Union. “Cutting ties to the Union — ladies and gentlemen, our cravat-cutting couturier,” John declared, with just a hint of tremor. Jim simply added in deadpan voice, “Let’s cut the tie!” Rotarians shifted in their seats, their breathing suspended. Some couldn’t watch. One felt as though present at a dockside ship fire, safe on the quay — but so many blanched faces framed in tiny portholes! Your reporter couldn’t help but notice that John, a just and frugal man, neglected to pay the executioner his customary gift. No need. A clean cut and a new beginning.

Next, John graciously asked the Union catering staff to process to the front of the room. Rotarians bestowed a bountiful garland of applause on the chefs, servers, cashiers, and other staff who have made our luncheon meetings so comfortable and enjoyable. At least one, a cashier known for his friendliness, was clearly moved. This spontaneous show of thanks was perhaps the highlight of the meeting.

Emeritus Ceremony: Believe it or not, Dan Balbach has achieved Emeritus status. That smile, hand always outstretched, his vivacity and obvious joy at being a Rotarian…No, it can’t be possible. Dan’s son, John, came forward and delivered a spectacular tribute to his father. “He is a man of many hidden talents. He is a musician – we call him ‘The Great Balbini.’ Not surprisingly, he’s quite a hambone, probably from his summer camp days. A great sailor, Dad loves bringing happiness to others. And he has a zeal for the U-M like no other. There’s no ‘halfway’ with Dan Balbach – just try to cheer for the other team in his presence!” John also cited his father’s, and his mother, Barbara’s, support of exchange students as well as other U-M programs. At the conclusion the whole room erupted in ovation. Dr. Dan Balbach, superb Rotarian, Past President, and good friend, has segued to emeritus membership. Congratulations, Dan!

Spring Fling: Shelley MacMillan was next to the podium, and what a fashion height she reached. Wearing a beautiful straw hat that looked like a spring garden there were so many flowers, she began: “I’m borrowing Susan’s hat, but it’s a bit prickly, so I’ll speak quickly!” Shelley then noted that today was the last day to pay for a ticket to this year’s Spring Fling, at the Yankee Air Museum. “Thank you to the 45 who have paid, but we’ll need the money today from the rest of you who would like to attend. There will be heavy hors d’oeuvres, questions answered by a docent, and all of you are welcome to dress as Rosies. Thank you.”

[Note: Spring Fling at Yankee Air Museum will take place May 3, from 5:30-8:30 p.m. YAM is located at Willow Run Airport, 47884 D Street, Belleville (look this up on Mapquest, etc., if you’re unfamiliar with the location. It’s a bit hidden). Rosie material for scarves and handkerchiefs can be purchased at JoAnne’s Fabrics.]

Rotary International Convention: Returning to the podium, John announced that RCAA will sponsor students attending the Rotary International convention in June. “Let us know if you would like to sponsor a student.”

Speaker:

There were two introducers of our speaker: President John and Steve Schram. John went first, and set an indelible tone. Can you imagine a rap about grammar? He sang it. Steve came to the mic shortly after. He admitted, flat-out: “I don’t know how to follow that up. Professor Anne Curzan is a professor of English, and Associate Dean of Literature at the University of Michigan’s School of English Language and Literature. She will speak to the subject of grammar and usage today…Ladies and gentlemen, Professor Anne Curzan.”

“Thank you for all the applause and the opportunity to be here!” began Prof. Curzan. I get to speak about grammar twice today [she would appear that evening with Steve at another event].” Grammar, like good manners, usually begins at home, with mother. “The ‘less vs. fewer’ issue was always a big one with my mother. The Oxford Dictionary says to use fewer when referring to people or things in the plural. Use less for things that can’t be counted.” Prof. Curzan then raised the subject of how language evolves. As you might guess, it’s propelled by young people. “In this photo of Venus and Vanessa Williams on the tennis court, is Venus versing Vanessa [groans audible through the room]? Language development is a wonderful thing,” Curzan asserts. “And the young people, who are saying it, will win. Why? Because older people will die before younger people [worried laughter].”

Prof. Curzan showed a series of slides of distinguished linguists and grammarians of the past, such as Richard Grant White. Grant wrote a book in 1876 titled Words and Their Uses in which he lambasts certain words elbowing their way into the language. The point, Curzan insisted, is that change happens, and when it comes from the young, it usually prevails.

“Here’s a word: impactful. It is a newish word – since the 1960s.” Curzan showed a chart of the growth of this word over decades. By the 1980s it was soaring. “This is a word that [can rear-up] your inner grammando! I wish I had thought of that term.”

“Have you ever gone grammando on someone? [huzzas galore] It can be a very powerful thing. If you correct someone in mid-sentence, it can make them stop talking. As a linguist and historian, the line between right and wrong [grammar] is very blurry.” Not for your reporter’s high school German teacher. He used to brag about correcting personal letters, including those from family members, and mailing them back, covered in red pencil marks.

Prof. Curzan informed her audience that she serves on the 200-person panel that drafts usage notes for the American Heritage Dictionary. “How do you pronounce often? Off-en, or of-ten? More people these days are saying of-ten (as it was said in early English). Not pronouncing the t sounds almost lazy. The young people will win on this.” She concluded her very informative and of-ten amusing presentation with this observation: “Part of generational change is changing the language. It’s a fascinating process.”

John thanked Prof. Curzan as a hearty ovation filled the Anderson Room – for the last time, for two years. He then reminded us of JET: Join leaders; Exchange ideas; Take action – of-ten.