Saturday, June 15, 2013


I have measured out my life with coffee spoons...
-- T.S. Eliot

Rizal's calling card in Hongkong
A colleague at People's Tonight once showed me a copy she had prepared for the backpage of the morning edition. She had done a good job, and I guess that's why she wanted me to appreciate it. The lead paragraph indicated that it was a crime story involving an eye doctor.

"It's spelled ophthalmologist," I said, "the t is sandwiched between two h's."

"Are you sure?" She was already turning the pages of her desk dictionary, unable to find opthalmologist.

"Yep. Its root word did not derive from the Middle English optic, but from the 14th century Greek word for eye, ophthalmos," I said. "That fact is one of the tidbits I have picked up earlier."

"And I did not even think there is a problem here," she said, her smile deflating.

"Perhaps it's serendipity, but I have learned it just a few days ago from Ed there," I said, pointing to a nearsighted editor of a sister publication. 

She immediately brightened up, the twinkle in her eyes indicating that her UP masscom degree cannot be upstaged by an upstart with a grungy Engineering degree from that Dominican backwater joint, that... that UST. Her superiority restored, peace was allowed to reign. She even smiled when I lit up a forbidden cigarette. A Marlboro for me, supremacy for her. Life is good.

Technically I was her boss, and because my rank and pay scale were two ranks higher, I took care not to pull rank on her. It had taken quite a time before I earned her grudging acknowledgement that I was not as illiterate as she had expected. Finally, in her ophthalmos, I ranked above the amoebas, with high expectations to be elevated to bacteria soon.

I remember my first encounter of the 
editorial kind with her. She had just made a printout of the backpage, and I saw that her headlinewas about the Philippines to cut off diplomatic ties with blahblahblah...

"Should not that be Sever instead of Severe?" I pointed out. I did not pull rank, but I did not let errors get pass my watch either.

"Yeah, sure!" she said, the arch of her brows high enough to hang my neck on. To her credit she looked the word up in her dictionary, perhaps to show me not to meddle with a journalist with a valid degree. However, a few minutes later she showed me a new printout, with the third "e" severed from Sever.

"We usually use the past tense and sometimes get confused," I said, "we do not just add a 'd,' we add 'ed.' It's when we use the infinitive form that we realize how severe our mistake is, particularly when we use the word in the headline. That's why we prefer simple words like 'cut,' as in, The publisher will cut off my head if he sees a misspelled head."

"It's these tidbits that you remember best," the young Bobby Fischer had been attributed as commenting on his game against former world chess champion Max Euwe in 1960. Tidbit, according to Merriam-Webster's secondary definition, is "a choice or pleasing bit (as of information)." The word was first used about 1640. A variant spelling is titbit: I do not use it because I am haunted by the unpleasant impression of a breast having been past-participled by a hungry mouth.

More tidbits: Fischer's comment appeared in the book My 60 Memorable Games, ostensibly authored by Bobby Fischer himself, a high school dropout from Brooklyn. The book is now widely believed to have been ghostwritten by his erstwhile friend, Larry Evans, who wrote short introductions for all 60 games. Up to the end of his life, the mentally unhinged Fischer relied on the royalties from that book to sustain his troubled existence.

Fischer died on January 17, 2008, and was buried in Iceland, unmourned and hated by millions of Americans. Four hours after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, he gleefully announced on Bombo Radyo in Baguio City: "I applaud the act. The US and Israel have been slaughtering the Palestinians for years. Now it is coming back to the US..." Bitter and paranoid, he died at age 64, a year for every square of a chessboard.

Fischer's book and grave
Other tidbits: In this article I relied heavily on the Merriam-Webster app of my iPad. The app is free. However, I have a hardcopy of the Eleventh Collegiate edition, which had made me P1,200 poorer. I think hundreds, if not thousands, of Webster knockoffs proliferate in markets worldwide now. Editions without the "Merriam-" prefix are much cheaper because anyone can publish and sell it without paying royalties to Noah Webster, who died in 1843.

Webster stamps and dictionary

I don't understand why Merriam-Webster allows free apps to its dictionary. Will it not drive out sales of the hardcopies? Encyclopedia Britannica has ceased publication of its printed version since 2010, converting to online format. Britannica died, as the hardcopy edition of Newsweek died, because we googled up for any information on Wikipedia instead of buying the printed kind.

Anyway, I am not really concerned if Merriam-Webster loses or makes a bundle: I am trying to learn how to write, not to learn economics. I have tried business, and I'm not good at it. I have been a newspaper employee, and I learned I could invent and write lies and sell them as news -- and get rewarded with a fat salary. Now I don't even read newspapers. What I read are novels, written by the best and inventive liars who earn gazillions of dollars. Alas, I can read but cannot write beyond a brief, shining lie. So I live retail because I cannot handle wholesale. Now I understand T.S. Eliot's line about measuring life with coffee spoons.