There’s a phenomenon that I must be heir to, something I’ve mentioned before in this column. It has to do with hearing a word that seems new — and then hearing that word dozens of times, often that same day.
One of the words, which I’m not ashamed to admit came late in my life, is “comprise.” The first time I heard it and used it (incorrectly) in a sentence, I began hearing it constantly. It seemed everybody was using the word. My journalism teacher at the University of Missouri lectured on that term, and I pretended I knew ALL ABOUT “comprise” before he even explained.
For the record, “comprise” isn’t the same as “consist.” We can say, “The United States consists of 50 states,” but not “The United States is comprised of 50 states.”
To comprise means to include or embrace; thus, we can say, “The U.S. comprises (includes, embraces) 50 states,” but not “is comprised of.” Grammar lesson accomplished, let’s consider other usages.
As a teacher of speech for 32 years, I fought a losing battle in urging my students to speak and write forcefully, “con ganas,” as we still say in my Railroad Avenue barrio. It means “with force.” In those days as a teacher, I’d write a list of “flabby” terms that I believe work against us.
Let’s say you want to borrow the family car, and instead of making a simple request, we slather the request with pudding and pie filling, virtually guaranteed a flat “NO!” from pops. “Dad, can I like borrow like the car? We’re just going to the movies and we’ll be home by 10. It’s OK if you say no. And if you do, I won’t be mad.” With so many self-imposed conditions packed into the request, why are we surprised that we end up using foot power?
Here are some examples of requests full of puffy prose:
Our homeroom teacher at Immaculate Conception School, Sister Mary Estate Quieto: “I kind of like think my spelling test was sort of, I mean, graded too strictly. You see, like, those markings that you call apostrophes were really stray marks; I really do know how to spell those words.”
“Hi, Evelyn: There’s kinda like a prom at school next week . You wouldn’t consider going with me, would you? I mean, I’ll like even buy you a corsage or something.” We didn’t make it to the Junior-Senior prom that year, and I think I kind of saved a couple of bucks on the corsage and like didn’t need to beg my brother, Severino, to sort of lend me his suit.
Sometimes one’s zeal to make a point can backfire, as in: “Mr. McRorie: I’ve been here at the Gallup Independent, for 18 months, and I’d like to get paid what I’m worth.
That kind of request often caused the head editor to say, “I’d like to pay you what you’re worth, but” (and here I intuited what was coming): “there IS such a thing as the minimum wage.
As a teacher, I knew my job was to get students to say what they mean, to express themselves positively without the flabbiness of “like,” “I mean,” “kind of,” “sort of” and the rest of their lax locutions. Such flabbiness kind of invites people to refuse our request. Sometimes, dither-speak can eliminate people in job interviews. Clarity in both speaking and writing is imperative.
How many prospective employers would take on a worker who replied, “I think like maybe I can do the job, you know”? Or how seriously can an insurance adjuster, for example, consider a claim that includes phrases like, “The car was like dented real bad yesterday, when the hail was big, and the road was like slick. And I was like wow, and my wife cried.”
I often wonder whether the fuzzy words and phrases we use when asking for something dooms our efforts. When I worked at the Optic during high school, I listened in as a newly hired advertising salesperson may have talked herself out of a sale by approaching a Las Vegas business owner with “You don’t kind of want to buy an ad for the Thursday paper, do you?” How much more effective a way is there to kill a potential sale?
I hope my students of the past currently use “comprise” correctly, like as in “my three sons comprise my family.”
• • •
When the late Henry Sanchez, the much-admired former mayor, coach and teacher was still with us, he sat next to me at a meeting in one of the campus buildings. He’d been breathing hard. So I asked him why.
He said he’d been playing a friendly game of basketball at his house and, “I sank a couple of baskets — really ‘sapos’ — and that ended the game.”
Sapo? What’s a sapo? A toad? Yes, but it’s really any miracle shot, usually in basketball. I’d used the term even before toads had even been invented.
That got me to thinking: In my experience, I made a few sapos through the years. But unfortunately, if nobody is there to SEE you make them, proving it is tough.
That’s reminiscent of the man on the links who usually missed when on the course with friends. One morning he prayed: “Lord, let me make a hole in one to show my buddies I can do it.”
So the golfer stayed late on the course and finally made a phenomenal TWO in a ROW. “Thank you, Lord,” the man uttered. “Now my golf buddies will realize how good I am.”
But regrettably, all of his buddies at the golf course had left five minutes earlier, and there was nobody left to witness the two holes-in-one.