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English teachers’ heads literally exploded this month when dictionaries admitted that literally can also mean not literally.

Webster, Macmillan, and the Cambridge Dictionary have all added a second definition for literally.  Even Google has two options:

1.In a literal manner or sense; exactly.

2.Used to acknowledge that something is not literally true but is used for emphasis or to express strong feeling.

Webster’s authors commented, “Since some people take sense 2 to be the opposition of sense 1, it has been frequently criticized as a misuse.  Instead, the use is pure hyperbole intended to gain emphasis.”

Those who deplore this development may not understand one fact about modern dictionaries.  They are descriptive, not prescriptive.

The website English Plus+ explains, in part, “Many times discussions or arguments about correct usage in English are settled by looking things up in a dictionary.”  But that’s not really the purpose of such a book.  “When I was young,” the article continues, “most of us had been corrected by teachers, if not parents, not to use the word ain't.  My teachers had told me there was no such word.  Imagine my surprise when, just for fun, I looked up the word, and there it was.  It was in the dictionary.

“Dictionaries are very helpful tools for finding the meaning of words, and even spelling in most cases.  However, for more information on using words in a standard manner, use a grammar text or reference.”

In other words, grammar books are prescriptive.  They prescribe the official rules.  Dictionaries, however, are descriptive.  They describe the living language.  They illustrate how words are actually used by real people, whether or not those usages conform to the rules.

“I don't get objections to twerk and selfie being added to the dictionary,” writer Eric D. Snider tweeted yesterday.  “It's not like they had to kick other words out to make room.  All words were new at some point.  Many eventually fall into disuse.  Acknowledging their existence in dictionaries doesn't ruin the language.”

Why should dictionaries include nonstandard or “incorrect” usages?  Imagine someone to whom English is a second language.  He encounters the nonstandard sentence,

“Doris ain’t missing; her troubles literally broke her heart.”

He wants to know what it means, but he’s not familiar with a couple of the words, so he looks them up.  If his dictionary says ain’t doesn’t exist and there’s no second meaning of literally, he has to assume the sentence means,

“Doris’s missing; her troubles actually broke her heart.”

So she must have crawled off somewhere and died from a fractured left ventricle. 


AUGUST 23, 2013     HARRY

My great-grandparents Mary and Thomas Buckingham (at left below) welcomed a son into the world 128 years ago this month.  He would become my grandfather (at right below).

The story of Harry Gladstone Buckingham is this month's "100 Moons" article.



My father sold Chevrolets when I was young, and my 5’2” mother usually drove a full-size four-door Chevy with a big luggage compartment.  In those days, there were only two small supermarkets in our little town, and they each employed bag boys to carry each customer’s purchases out to the car and put them in the trunk.  But my mother always insisted they put the bags in the back seat instead.  Preferably not on the seat itself, because the bags might slide off, but on the floor.  I never asked why.  Now I think I know the reason.

You see, even a non-athletic guy like me owns a personalized baseball bat.  It’s a Louisville Slugger with my name burned into it, a thank-you gift from Home Team Sports for being part of their inaugural season of Baltimore Orioles telecasts in 1984.

My car has been in the shop, so I have a rental that’s bigger than my usual ride, a Chevy Impala roughly the size of the one my mother drove.  I was toting a book, a bulky Steelers media guide that I wouldn’t need for a few days, so I casually tossed it into the trunk.  When I went to retrieve it, I found that (under braking) the slick book had slid all the way to the front, well out of my reach.  I had no intention of crawling inside the huge trunk on my hands and knees.  Instead, I got the bat, grasped it by the barrel, and used the knob to rake the book close enough so I could pick it up.

So maybe that’s why my mother wanted the groceries where she could actually lay her hands on them.



They're playing baseball again this week at Lew Hays Pony Field in Washington, PA — the annual Pony League World Series.  The championship game is scheduled for 7:00 pm Wednesday.

I was there for a similar event nearly 40 years ago, and I brought my movie camera.  Yes, it's time for more stills from my home movies!

This time, we’ll look at the exciting Bronco League World Series of 1974, as covered by my local cable channel TV3.  We’ll visit the camera positions, the announcer’s booth, and our mobile unit to reveal the details of this major cablecast production.  And we'll tell you which of the young players went on to the major leagues, where he became a two-time All-Star.  It’s all in an article called Super 8: Bronco World Series.



I’m sure the architect’s two-dimensional blueprints for this church tower were perfectly acceptable — his plans for the floors, his elevations for the walls.

It’s only when we look at the completed three-dimensional tower from this angle that it resembles, in the words of John Donoghue, a confused chicken.


JULY 31, 2013     WHAT I SAW

People like Trayvon Martin and Paula Deen have been much in the news this summer, but I haven’t mentioned them.  I don’t feel I’m qualified to lecture on racism.

However, I would like to tell you about one incident I witnessed a quarter-century ago.  It’s in a new article called Table for Six.



“If it's not long, it's gotta be short!  Those are the only possibilities.”

No, actually, I can think of some others.  That's why my favorite color is gray — in ghost stories, puzzles, editing strategies, patriotism, creation, the Last Judgment, and pictures of my mother. 

“Gray” is the subject of this month's 100 Moons article, in which I grumble about false dichotomies in several fields.


It has always bothered me that when a problem arises, the automatic reaction of all politicians (especially Democrats) is to make a speech.  Let’s appoint a special commission to study the problem!  Or, if it’s already been studied to death, let’s establish a brand-new agency to handle it — funded, of course, by taxpayer money that the government doesn’t have!  No one ever proposes passing the problem on to an existing agency, nor getting rid of the rules that caused it in the first place.  Thus government continues to bloat.

For example, if medical marijuana is supposed to be helpful, let’s hire some experts to tell us whether that’s true.  Then maybe let’s establish offices in all 50 states to regulate its use.  But we must by no means remove the law that criminalizes it.

Congress hasn’t accomplished much this year.  The biggest reason:  Many Republican legislators, whose job description includes negotiating with their counterparts on the other side of the aisle, feel it’s against their principles to compromise on anything.

In the first six months of 2013, according to NationalJournal.com, the 113th Congress passed 13 laws.  These included much-needed disaster relief, but also the Freedom to Fish Act — a two-year moratorium on “no fishing” signs below certain dams in Tennessee.  Also counted among these 13 acts was “A bill to specify the size of the precious-metal blanks that will be used in the production of the National Baseball Hall of Fame commemorative coins.”

In the same time frame, the House of Representatives voted three dozen times to repeal Obamacare, fully aware that it was a futile symbolic effort that would never pass the Senate.  Republicans have other measures they’d like to take off the books as well.  But so far, Congress hasn't actually repealed any laws.

Yesterday on Face the Nation, CBS’s Bob Schieffer remarked to Speaker of the House John Boehner, “You have presided over what it perhaps the least-productive and certainly one of the least popular Congresses in history. How do you feel about that?”  Boehner answered, “Well, Bob, we should not be judged on how many new laws we create. We ought to be judged on how many laws that we repeal.”

That sounds ludicrous.  The Constitution tells how “Congress shall make” laws or no law, but not how Congress shall unmake what it previously made.  Nevertheless, let us go ahead and consider Boehner's judgment.

So how many laws have you repealed, Mr. Speaker?


What do we need Congress for anyway?


JULY 21, 2013     PROM BRIDGE

Pittsburgh is a city of bridges.  There are 446 of them.  Many are inconspicuous short spans that we cross routinely without thinking about it.

But whenever I leave PNC Park after a baseball game and drive home up the north shore of the Allegheny River, I pass seven landmarks — bridges over the Allegheny — in the first five miles.

Since I arrived in the Pittsburgh area, I’ve always known these bridges by their numbers.  They refer to the numbered streets on the “city side” of the spans, over on the south shore.  There’s the 6th Street Bridge.  The 7th Street Bridge.  The 9th Street.  The 16th Street.  The 31st Street.  The 40th Street.  The 62nd Street.

On my side of the river, the street names are different, because the north side was a separate municipality called Allegheny City until Pittsburgh gobbled it up in 1907.  And I’m not including the bridges that carry trains or Interstate highways.  But the numerically-labeled spans keep me apprised of how far up the river I’ve come.

Now, however, all these formerly numbered bridges have official names, as listed below.  Most of these changes were made only recently.










Roberto Clemente

Pirates baseball star



Andy Warhol*

Pop artist



Rachel Carson*

Pioneering environmentalist



David McCullough*




Billy Prom*

Medal of Honor recipient



George Washington

Future Father of His Country



Robert D. Fleming*

State Senator

The honorees with asterisks grew up in this area.  One who didn’t, George Washington, was on an assignment for his governor when he arrived at the shores of the Allegheny in the winter of 1753.  Because there wasn’t a bridge there yet, the 21-year old Virginian tried to raft across, fell into the water, and nearly drowned.  When folks around here finally got around to erecting a bridge, they called it Washington’s Crossing.

The 31st Street Bridge was renamed only yesterday, in honor of a Marine Lance Corporal who was killed in Vietnam in 1969.  It’s now officially the William Raymond Prom Memorial Bridge.

But we’ve been calling it the 31st Street Bridge since it was built 85 years ago.  Traffic reports always remind us that “Route 28 is backed up from the Heinz Plant to the 31st Street Bridge.”

Will people start calling it the Prom Bridge now?  Stay tuned.



Phil Rizzuto, the longtime Yankees baseball announcer, sometimes marked an at-bat on his scorecard as “WW”.

I keep my own scorecard as a TV graphics operator for the Pirates, and late in a game I’ve sometimes had to resort to marking an “O”.  I’m working on some other task at the time and don’t notice when the at-bat ends.  Now there’s an additional out on the scoreboard and a different batter at the plate.  Did the first guy ground out, or fly out, or strike out?  I could ask my colleagues but they’re busy too, and it doesn’t really matter for my purposes, so I just give the batter an Out.

I do have to ask my colleagues in this situation:  With a runner on base but my attention elsewhere, an increase in the crowd noise alerts me that the ball has been put into play.  I look up at the monitor in time to see the third baseman throw the batter out at first.  But before I looked up, did the batter swing or bunt?  If he bunted, it’s a sacrifice and no official at-bat.  If he swung away, it’s a groundout.  That small detail does make a difference.

A routine strikeout can deceive me as well if the announcers are in the midst of telling a story about something else.  Suppose that each time, the batter either takes the pitch or swings without putting the ball in play.  Here’s a pitch.  The batter walks out of the batter’s box.  Our camera focuses on the pitcher.  Here’s another pitch.  The batter walks out of the batter’s box.  Our camera focuses on the manager.  Here’s another pitch.  The batter walks out of the batter’s box.  Our camera focuses on the pitcher.  Here’s another pitch.  Wait a second, that’s a different batter in the box!  The previous batter must have struck out before walking away for the final time, but no one made a big deal about it.

Last month, a blimp appeared in the skies over Pittsburgh.  It provided overhead views of our ballpark on the north shore of the Allegheny River.

For variety, sometimes the blimp focused on other nearby activities.  A couple of blocks to the west, concert-goers were filling the lawn facing Stage AE.  Between the rivers, other folks were strolling through the annual Arts Festival at Point State Park.  Over on the south shore of the Monongahela, the Riverhounds’ new stadium was a swirl of motion as soccer players raced back and forth.

And then the blimp’s camera returned to the baseball game.

Sixteen men stood upon the field (nine defense, one offense, two coaches, four umpires).  From the blimp’s altitude, they appeared motionless.  We couldn’t see it, but the pitcher leaned in to get the sign.  The catcher extended two fingers.  The pitcher shook his head.  The catcher extended one finger.  The pitcher nodded and prepared to pitch.  The batter took a step backwards.  The umpire held up his hands.  The pitcher removed his cap, then replaced it.  And then all these thrilling moments were repeated.

This week, the Wall Street Journal reported that an average three-hour baseball game includes only 5 minutes and 47 seconds of actual “action” — balls in play and runners trying to advance, “when everyone on the field is running around looking for something to do.”

From the blimp, the remainder of the game resembles a painting.  A still-life, if you will.  But they do say that baseball is a game of inches.


JULY 11, 2013     DON'T GO SAMIN'

Truth me.  Have I been doing too much saming?

Saming.  You know.  It’s a word.  Rhymes with naming and blaming.  That is, Lee Hazlewood made it a word when he wrote Nancy Sinatra’s 1966 #1 hit, “These Boots Are Made for Walking.”

Recently I happened to hear this great old classic again, with Chuck Berghofer’s double-bass introduction edging down in quarter-tone steps.  I noticed that the lyrics include these lines:

You keep lyin’
     when you oughta be truthin’.
You keep losing
     when you oughta not bet. 

You keep samin’
     when you oughta be a’changin’.
What's right is right,
     but you ain’t been right yet.

These boots are made for walking,
And that's just what they'll do.
One of these days, these boots
Are gonna walk all over you.

That’s what I like about the English language — its amenability to shortcuts.  “Truth” is a noun.  “Same” is an adjective.  But if we want them to be verbs, we can simply use them that way!  Context apparents the meaning.


JULY 5, 2013     TO THE EDITOR

I have read the “unanimous Declaration” issued yesterday in Philadelphia by a Congress of Men who claim to represent all the American Colonies.  In high-flown Language, this Declaration avows that the Colonies are now to be considered independent States, free of Great Britain’s lawful Rule!

I am appalled by the Insubordination thus openly expressed.  I am likewise dismayed that a Document of such professed Import never once acknowledges the Preeminence of our great God Jehovah.  Rather, we find meaningless Words such as “Providence” or “Nature’s God.”

What is worse, the Authors of this Declaration do not so much as mention our blessed Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  These would-be founding Fathers, who wish to bring forth upon this Continent a new Nation, manifestly are not Christians!  I know not what they be.

The godless Rebels intend to reject our divinely appointed King and to replace him with a democratic Republic of their own Design. 

We recall that in Antiquity, pagan Greece and Rome attempted “Republics” and “Democracy.”  These Concepts were tried and found wanting.  The Roman Republic ended with the Appointment of Julius Caesar as Dictator in 44 B.C., and the World has seen no Republics since.  Instead, to prepare the Way for Christ’s Kingdom on Earth, Governments have been built upon the firm Foundation of Monarchy.

For two thousand Years, Government has been defined as “one King, one subject People.”  And now these “Patriots” in Philadelphia propose to change the Definition of Government!

Institutions long established must never be amended.  Yet this Declaration asserts that “it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish” their Government whenever they consider themselves to be oppressed.  I assert that it would be Madness to allow Government of the People by the People!

Moreover, to do so would be openly to rebel against God’s Law.  The Holy Scriptures tell us in Romans 13, “The Powers that be are ordained of God.”  And I Peter 2 commands, “Submit yourselves to every Ordinance of Man for the Lord’s Sake: whether it be to the King, as supreme; or unto Governors.”

If we consent to this novel Proposition, that a People may unilaterally absolve themselves from all Allegiance to their rightful Ruler, then we shall find ourselves upon a slippery Slope downwards towards Hell.  Women will refuse to submit to the Rule of their Husbands.  Slaves will no longer feel themselves bound to obey their Masters.  Parishioners will begin to doubt what Clergymen preach.  Yea, the End of Times will be near, when God shall surely judge his rebellious Children.  Ye have been warned!