Thursday, February 26, 2015

“Baby hungry,” and other Utahspeak

 I wrote parts of this is in 2009.  I am re-posting it with some editing and updating.

This cartoon was posted on Facebook recently with a question, “Is the term ‘baby hungry’ specific to Utah?” According to people from other areas of the country who had never heard it, apparently so.  I remember when I first heard “baby hungry” several years ago. Even then I knew it means that a woman is longing to have another baby, but I found the phrase as ghoulish as this drawing.


Some linguists can trace a regional dialect to within 50 miles, and I assume that means they can also track down words and phrases peculiar to a particular area or local population. Utah definitely has some peculiarities specific to local speech.

At age five I was singing, “Hell, hell, the gang's all here,” when my mother corrected me. She told me that I had turned a long “a” sound into a short “e”. She corrected me often in my speech and set me off on the correct path, but she couldn't ever change my dad. Both Dad and Mom came from a rural area in the center of Utah and Mom did not want to talk like the “hicks,” as she called them.

Utahns often pronounce a word like “hail” as “hell”; they also pronounce “meal” as “mill”. My brother and I did jokes about going to a restaurant and having a “rill mill.” It was a lot to do with our father. Dad had a pronounced Utah dialect, where he turned long vowels into short. He also had a strange Utah way of turning an “or” sound into an “ar,” examples being harse, sharts, and the one that tickled me, fartunate. I’ve heard some people with that speech habit do a reverse, and also turn the “ar” into “or” as in “I drove my cor.” And speaking of cors, my dad also called a Chevrolet a Shiverlay.

Watching some local television commercials recently I heard a furniture store manager use the short e sound in referring to his “knowledgable sellspeople,” and a car dealer loudly exhorting us to “test drive a Shiverlay.”

Many of my fellow Utahns communicate through Utahspeak, with expressions understood by locals but puzzling to outsiders. We in Utah know the exclamations, “Oh, my heck!” and “good hell.” “Good hell” comes from the Mormons. They use it rather than “good heavens” because decades ago some church leader apparently said it’s disrespectful to use heaven — a holy place — in an oath. Local folks who use these terms often don't realize they are indigenous to Utah.

Jeff Foxworthy made a living out of Southern dialects that sound funny to non-Southerners, but only in Utah can you hear someone who mangles the word “ignorant” to sound like “ignernt” and means rude rather than “without knowledge.” Other examples of Utahspeak are “sluffing” to mean playing hookey, or “baby tending” when babysitting. It’s too regionalized, unfartunately.

I realized at some point that Dad couldn't be corrected because he couldn't hear what he said. It sounded correct to his ear. He asked me once, “How do you pronounce s-h-o-r-t-s?”

I said, “shorts,” pronouncing it with the short o sound.

He exclaimed, “I was talking to this New York guy and he was making fun of the way I say that word! But I say it just like you, sharts!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Only in Utah: The Red State Blues

With the Utah Legislature in session it seems that every day our daily newspaper, The Salt Lake Tribune, has more of the nefarious, silly and downright comical acts of our legislators.

For one, choosing a Commemorative Gun for 2015. This tradition has been going on without apology for several years. This year’s honor goes to the AR-15. They even got a special deal. The weapon cost them only $650! There was no mention as to whether those were taxpayer dollars.

As one commenter to this picture of Rep. Keven Stratton holding the gun noted wryly: “He looks like he has just given birth.”

Only in Utah.

Photo by Chris Detrick. Copyright © 2015 The Salt Lake Tribune

At the same time as legislators were getting their jollies with the AR-15 the Trib ran another article, headlined: “The oath: Utah first, feds second,” another legislator proposed a new oath for elected officials. Right now it reads “[I] swear to support, obey and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of this state.” One clueless legislator wants to switch “this state” with “the State of Utah,” putting it ahead of the Constitution of the United States. As another, much smarter legislator put it, “[the U.S. Constitution is] the supreme law of the land.” A state constitution cannot be above the U.S. Constitution. (From a story bylined Robert Gehrke).

Only in Utah.

Paul Rolly is a Tribune columnist who likes to hold Republican feet to the fire. He is critical of most of their shenanigans and points them out as often as possible. He wrote about Rep. Lavar Christensen, who a few years ago drafted the bill that defined marriage as being between a man and a woman. It became law, but then it was challenged and Utah became one of those states where a federal judge declared such a law in violation of the 14th Amendment. Rolly asked, by drafting that law did Christensen in fact become the LGBT community’s best friend? His law paved the way for a federal judge to become involved. (What we mean when we mention the Law of Unintended Consequences.)

 Samuel Johnson said, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”

Christensen, who is a Latter-day Saint, also used a “the Lord told me to” card against a legislator who had filled his seat when he resigned to run for higher office. When he lost his bid for U.S. Congress, he wanted his legislative seat back. He told his successor he wanted her to give up her seat, according to Rolly, because “the Lord had told him that he needed to be back in the Legislature.” Well, Lavar Christensen is back, so did the Lord arrange for him to get back there? My question would be, why didn’t the Lord just tell Lavar’s successor to quit, rather than have Christensen deliver the news? It certainly sounds self-serving. Christensen denies ever having said such a thing, but he wouldn’t be the first LDS elected official to claim he had God speaking to him.

Only in Utah.

This editorial cartoon by the Tribune’s Pat Bagley, is about Utah’s desire to switch the method of execution at the State Prison. The chemicals to kill someone on death row might become hard to get, or might not even work. Our lawmakers think it would be a swell idea to go back to execution by firing squad. Yep, it worked for our ancestors for over a hundred years, so why not bring it back?

Copyright © 2015 The Salt Lake Tribune

Utah is a state that believes in capital punishment. Many other states do, also, but Utah was somewhat infamous for years (and the answer to a trivia question) by giving the condemned a choice: hanging or firing squad. Some chose hanging, most chose the firing squad. You might remember Gary Gilmore, who was the first prisoner executed in the United States after a hiatus of a few years in the seventies. Gilmore was shot through the heart at the Utah State Penitentiary in January, 1977. Norman Mailer did a book about him called The Executioner’s Song, and his story was even featured as a two-part TV movie with Tommy Lee Jones as Gilmore.

What people in Utah have apparently forgotten is that there was a third choice of execution, and that was beheading. No one ever chose that way to meet his maker. It makes the Bagley cartoon all the more ironic.

An editorial asked if it wasn’t time to put all of this behind us and eliminate the death penalty once and for all. I could practically feel the breeze from the legislature, as representative after representative in unison briskly shook their heads “no.”

Only in Utah.

Finally, Trib editorial writer George Pyle recently wrote about why people in Utah don’t vote. We have the lowest voter turnout in the nation. He surmised, and I believe correctly, that people are turned off by elections because Republicans always win. We live in a state where almost every elected official is a Republican. Osama bin Laden would have won in Utah had he run for office as a Republican.

My natural contrariness to establishment and herd mentality comes in here. I vote in every election, city, county, state and national. Even though my candidates usually lose I win for myself by casting a ballot. My wife is the same way. If our fellow Democrats felt like we did then the red state of Utah might be a little bluer.

We aren’t because our Democrats are intimidated by Republicans. By not voting the defeat of their candidates is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Only in Utah.


Thursday, February 05, 2015

Haters love to hate

Barack Obama has been the target of a tremendous amount of bile and rancor, much of it racing around the Internet, posted by disaffected citizens either disturbed by his politics or his color. Or both. Even Kim Jong Un, the portly dictator of North Korea hit below the belt. To insult the President he said Obama “has the shape of a monkey.” This from a fat guy with a bad haircut. But no one has heaped scorn upon Obama like his own countrymen. In the past six years they have left no insult unsaid, no indignity unexpressed.

I wondered how Obama, or any President, handles all of this negative energy, this continual vibe of the malcontents, filling their blogs and newspaper columns and radio programs with invective and maliciousness. Questioning the President's decision making, his programs, or his ability to lead, leaving out any tone of civility or good manners with the continual Obama-bashing.

I discovered something while contemplating. Historians know it, but its truth just took a while to whack me on the noggin. A President knows he will be hated by many of his fellow Americans. What President Obama knows, also, is that everyone who had the job before him had the same problem. The technology is different than it was a few years ago. It is a more high-tech character assassination than it has been in the past. The Internet, 24-hour news programming and Fox News have raised the bar on angry stupidity. But it will be no different for anyone who follows him, no matter what party they represent.

During his time in office a President is too close to the situation not to create degrees of discontent and partisanship. He is supposed to set the agenda for the country, which causes dissension and controversy. Where he has the advantage is that history will be the ultimate judge of how well he pulled off his agenda. Surviving former Presidents, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton are banking on history to save their reputations.

Bill Clinton showed that just finishing up his second term, which was historically one of the worst for a modern President, immediately took him out of the line of fire. As an ex-President he became an “elder statesman.” This is a value of an ex-President, being able to get things done in a diplomatic way. Clinton even went to North Korea to help free some prisoners. It was a huge deal for the North Koreans, who had a man who was once the most powerful man in the world on their doorstep asking for a favor.

The fact that every President goes through this crucible is well documented. Even men who are rated as the most important Presidents in American history have been, during their time in office, hated. The book, The Hater's Handbook by Joseph Rosner, published in 1965, gives some high points of President-hating from George Washington through Lyndon Johnson. The author quotes Harry S. Truman, who was dragged through hot coals many times during his time in office as saying, “A public official, particularly the President, is always abused; if he isn’t, he’s doing nothing, and is of no value as the Chief Executive.”

 “Give 'em hell, Harry,” got his share of hell from his political enemies.

George Washington, who has universal acclaim today for both his skills as a General and President, was the subject of a 60-page letter from Thomas Paine, who accused him in part of “. . . your treachery in private friendship . . . and [you are] a hypocrite in public life, this world will be puzzled to decide whether you are an apostate or an imposter, whether you have abandoned good principles, or whether you had any.”

The grandson of Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin A. Bache, published The Aurora, a newspaper in Philadelphia. He said of Washington, “If ever a nation has been debauched by a man, the American nation has been debauched by George Washington.”

George Washington: treachery and debauchery? With over 200 years of good press since his Presidency it would be hard for Americans now to believe the worst in him.

Our third President, Thomas Jefferson, although highly regarded as the author of the Declaration of Independence and President of the United States, had his own secrets, which over the years have become public. Having a slave as a mistress and fathering children by her is not something smiled upon by people of either the 18th or 21st centuries (or the centuries in between). Whether Thomas Hamilton, who wrote this in 1826, knew of Jefferson’s personal matters is unknown (it was not mentioned in The Hater’s Handbook), but he seems to give a clue in what he said: “The moral character of Thomas Jefferson was repulsive. Continually puling and whining about liberty, equality, and the degrading curse of slavery, he brought his own children to the hammer, and made money of his debaucheries.”

“Puling and whining” sounds like people who point fingers and complain about today’s President.

Two other men who have gone down in history as amongst the greatest Presidents were Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. But that is history’s verdict. In their times they were both excoriated. Lincoln was found in disfavor by both Northern and Southern newspapers (where he was, like Obama, compared to a simian). No one had kind words for Honest Abe until he was killed by John Wilkes Booth. Booth hated Lincoln enough to murder him. He was surprised to read in newspapers, before he was killed by captors, that he wasn’t a hero for assassinating the President. He believed that he would be revered, and Lincoln despised.

Being assassinated is a good way to end attacks by political enemies.

Business leaders were so threatened by Franklin D. Roosevelt that they tried to arrange a coup (known now as the Business Plot), with retired Marine General Smedley Butler at the head of an army of veterans. They were ready to march in and take over the office. Butler, who remained a patriot, strung the plotters along and gave them up to the House Un-American Activities Committee. The whole affair was widely disregarded because some newspapers pooh-poohed the idea of such a plot. The Presidency was kept intact, but for a time, as told by Butler, the businessmen wanted Italian-style fascism. They wanted someone else to be President, and Roosevelt to be like a do-nothing co-President. That would take a major change of the Constitution, which was unlikely. Apparently this gang of Capitalists thought their plan would work.

Attacks on Roosevelt also got down and dirty on a personal level, with his political enemies calling him “half a man,” because of the polio that had rendered his legs useless. What they did not reckon was his legs may have dangled, but his mind was as sharp as ever. Roosevelt’s legacy is safe because history decided he was one of the great Presidents.

 Born rich and privileged, the only thing he had to fear during the early years of his Presidency were his fellow rich and privileged.

Harry Truman, again, has the most succinct comment of all about the Presidency: “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” The most dynamic Presidents, the most do-something Presidents, have the heat on them continually. The great Presidents — the ones who take the greatest heat — are remembered; the others are just names on a list.

(The portraits shown in this post are from the Topps 1956 U.S. Presidents bubblegum card set. I found them online. I do not own these cards.)


Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Black Hand

“The Black Hand,” by Charles Gardner Bowers, appeared in the January, 1931 Amazing Stories. It is a story of an arm transplant, but it is also part and parcel of the execrable history of racial attitudes in America.

A white man, the artist Van Puyster, has gangrene of his right hand. The physician/surgeon, Dr. Evans, has a plan to replace the man’s arm with one from a black man.

The temper of the times in its treatment of the black characters shows how the author felt about them. While the white people in the story have names, the African-Americans who are singled out have no names. They are known as “a condemned criminal,” “a negro [sic] valet,” and “a porter.” In this story, the African-Americans are just props.

Author Bowers’ clunky prose is mostly in the form of dialogue, and some of it sounds pedantic, like an article from a medical journal. In those days of early science fiction the emphasis was on the science, and the literary quality of the fiction was secondary. That didn’t stop some of the writers from over 80 years ago from going on to develop their talents — a young Jack Williamson, called in his later years “The Dean of Science Fiction,” contributed a story to the issue — but none of the authors were ever going to win any awards for fine literature.

What struck me also was the endorsement in the editor’s introduction of “an eminent physician and well-known writer” (Dr. David H. Keller, M.D., perhaps. In Keller’sWikipedia biography, his writing is described as “hostile to feminists and African-Americans”). The “eminent physician” said the story “is a clever conception and a fine piece of work,” and, “the surgery is far better than anything I could have written.” I have even more suspicion of it being Keller, who was a psychiatrist. He adds, “The psychological phases of it tickle me pink.” An interesting choice of words.

A spoiler for the story: Having a black arm drives the white artist crazy, and he commits murders of several black people. That is told off-camera, so to speak, because of the method of the story’s construction.

“The Black Hand” is only noticeable nowadays by the plot device using race, and the blatant bigotry of the writer, the editor, and the physician who endorsed it. It is just another example of the gulf between whites and blacks in that era, and in today’s sensitive racial climate is a curiosity and a reminder from a time of outspoken racism.

Click on the scans to make them larger.