Book Launch Tonight

Tonight is the launch party for my novel Passage of the Kissing People. (More info about the book, including the first chapter, is available elsewhere on this web site.) Family language played a huge role in the development of the story, because it is based on my family history, and particularly the years 1952-53 when we were beginning to create our own family language. My sister and I were 5 and 7 then, that age where you pick up words at school or from books or movies and try to fit them into your world. For years I told stories about that time and place (and the Sonoma Vallley and the Sonoma State Home were places that made an imprint on a kid’s mind) but with this book I was able to find a way to use those stories in a larger cause. My wife always told me to make the book non-fiction, because it is so much easier to sell than fiction, but I didn’t have a narrative thread. That had to come from the fiction side of my brain. I’ve been steaming around with my hair on fire trying to get everything ready. Now there’s nothing left but the Big Show. Further bulletins will be issued as developments warrant.

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Eat Your Words

The Seattle Edible Book Festival was held last Saturday, March 30. Contestants entered food with literary motifs. Why this endeavor turns so easily to puns I will leave to the reader’s judgement, but rest assured, it does. From The Seattle Times:

Saturday’s annual Seattle Edible Book Festival was a pun-lover’s potluck, in which competitors were asked to represent a favorite book through food. Hence, entries included “Anne of Green Bagels” and a “Communist Can of Pesto.” “Challah-ver’s Twist” featured a golden-brown loaf of challah accompanied by a speech bubble that read, “Please, sir. I want some more.” A large russet potato wielding an asparagus staff and a crown made of a red pepper lorded over a plate of French fries in “Lord of the Fries.”

I cannot resist a well turned pun. Growing up in a family that played with words at the dinner table, I was warped from an early age. Childhood jokes and puns from those dinner-times long ago helped to set certain patterns in my head about what is funny. The informal, spontaneous games families play together form a part of the ritual glue that holds them together.

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When did a power failure become an outage?

You have to read the dead-tree edition of today’s (3/10/12) Seattle Times to see it but the headline and following article pointed up a word usage curiosity. The headline was Power failure hits 28,000 customers. Opening paragraph:

A wide swath of South Seattle was affected by a power outage Friday afternoon. About 28,000 customers were without electricity.

So, was it a failure or an outage? I grew up calling them power failures. It was sometime in the 1970’s that I noticed they were becoming outages. Power outage, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, is a “period or condition in which electrical power is disconnected,” 1903, Amer.Eng.; formed on model of shortage (see short). So it’s not a word concocted in a P.R. firm’s focus group, though it seems built to order. Outage is a much more passive construction than Failure. If there is a failure, something or someone failed. If there is an outage, does that mean something or someone outed? We expect blame to be attached to failure, but what attaches to outage? When Odysseus and his crew were captured by the giant cyclops Polyphemus, Odysseus tells him that his name is Nobody. When he blinds the giant, Polyphemus calls for aid. His friends ask who has done this to him, and Polyphemus replies “Nobody.” His friends think he’s either drunk and fooling them or that the gods must have done it. As they abandoned him, I wonder if one cyclops turned to another and said, “It must have been an outage.” Update: A friend sent me a link to a John D’Anna column in the Mesa Republic last summer:

I had an old editor who was a stickler about that phrase. I learned that the first time I blithely used the phrase “power outage” in a story. He invoked everyone from H.L. Mencken to Lou Grant in lecturing me about how “outage” was a made-up word that the power companies get gullible reporters to use to obfuscate the fact that they screwed up and left us all sweating in the dark. Needless to say, I learned my lesson, and “failure” became an integral part of my storm-coverage vocabulary, not to mention my career path. Read more:

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The Words We Choose

“Words and how they are used can be the difference between getting hugged or punched.” Mike Mathison Mobile Herald Star Every family speaks a private language born of childhood books, family history, and chance. Compressed, coined into words and phrases with extra meanings, the language is verbal shorthand. Deborah Tannen calls it a “Familylect.” Melissa Dibben described it as

“…the secret acronyms, subtextual phrases and redefined nouns that people invent at home, at work and among friends. Insider stuff fulfilling some innate, Spanky-and-Our-Gang need to own key words that unlock the clubhouse door.”

” Family language gets to the heart for joy or pain faster than any other words can fly. Or it can be just a funny name for meatloaf. When my brother was five he came home from school with a head full of images of Plains Indians and buffalo hunts. Mom made meatloaf for dinner that night. We were having company for dinner, and as we greeted them at the front door, an echo in the O’s and F’s of buffalo and meatloaf led him to announce, “We’re having buffalo for dinner!” Fast forward forty years to a Thanksgiving dinner where old family stories were told. Driving my mom, dad and aunt home afterward, I said, “If I told you I wanted buffalo for dinner, what would you fix?” In unison they replied, “Meatloaf.” Family language, and the way it defines and identifies us, emerged as a theme I wanted to explore. I don’t have comments turned on for this blog yet–I’m still trying to figure out all the bells and whistles. But I’d love to hear from people. If you have an example of family language you’d like to share, email me at

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