I Own Those Words!
by Mad Dog
The Bible uses
only 20,000 different words, which is a measly 3.25 percent of those it
could contain. How disappointing! Personally I would have expected a lot
more from God.
||Originality is a good
thing. Like variety, it’s the spice of life. Unfortunately we spend
too much time without it, such as when we watch TV sitcoms which cause
deja vu flashbacks (“Wow, another incestuous group of friends who
don’t appear to have jobs and say the cutest things!”), listen to
boy bands and adolescent virgin slut singers who came out of the same
Garanimals factory (“Justin’s the bad boy. The rebel is in the
Backstreet Boys.”), and read books which wouldn’t know a new concept
if they tried to teach us how to come up with one (“I want Chewing
Gum For Complete Morons, not Juicy Fruit for Dummies.”).
But that doesn’t mean fresh ideas aren’t out there. You just have to
Whatever you do, don’t look too
hard for it in history books. Recently historian Stephen Ambrose was
found to have plagiarized passages in several of his books. Then another
historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin, admitted to—whoops!—forgetting to
attribute portions of one of her books to the real author. They’re far
from the first people to be discovered copying other’s work. George
Harrison lifted the melody to He’s So Fine, Martin Luther King
cribbed parts of someone else’s thesis to include in his own, and when
I say that if you steal from one author it's plagiarism but if you steal
from many it's research, I’m doing the same thing. (NOTE: I could tell
you who I stole that line from and then it wouldn’t be plagiarism, but
that wouldn’t be any fun, now would it?)
possessive about the words they use, and rightly so. After all, I
don’t want others quoting me without attribution, co-writing credit,
lots of money, and adoration. Make that adulation.
There’s really no excuse for plagiarism. After all, according
to the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary (motto: ”So many words, so
few places to use them unless you want to sound like you have a stick up
your butt”) there are 615,100 words in the English language. Thus it
would seem there should be a nearly infinite number of word combinations
one could use. Unfortunately it doesn’t actually work that way. Not if
you want it to make sense, anyway. Interestingly, the Bible uses only
20,000 different words, which is a measly 3.25 percent of those it could
contain. How disappointing! Personally I would have expected a lot more
from God. Then there’s Shakespeare. Even though English Lit majors
think he is god, he used only 4,000 more words than the Bible-writing
one. And that includes a lot of words he made up, like doest, wouldeth,
wherefore, and spooge. Just kidding. Actually he stole that last one
from the Farrelly Brothers.
Even so, writers have a much larger
vocabulary to work with than musicians and no one seems to complain
about them. For example, most blues songs use three chords which are
played in 12-measure segments repeated throughout the song. That makes
for a very limited number of musical combinations and, face it,
they’ve all been done. A million times. Over and over. And over. So
please, stop it already, will you?
People are possessive about the words
they use, and rightly so. After all, I don’t want others quoting me
without attribution, co-writing credit, lots of money, and adoration.
Make that adulation. But lately people have become obsessive about their
words. The Todd M. Beamer Foundation, established in the name of the man
on Flight 93 who called his wife on September 11 just before the plane
went down and was heard to say, “Let’s roll,” has applied for a
trademark on the phrase. For that matter, so have at least a dozen other
people who may or may not have said it during their lifetime but have
printed it on T-shirts. It’s true Beamer said it. And it’s true it
was a strong rallying cry that was appropriated on clothing, in songs,
and at craps tables everywhere. But it’s hardly new or unique.
While it may be
good to forgive those who trespass against us, not everyone will be so
beneficent. They might just hire a catfish—I mean, bottom feeder—and
take you to court over it.
Trademarks are, after all, intended to show origin. That’s why
the French have a lock on the word champagne, which makes sense since it
designates that the sparkling wine comes from Champagne. Georgia has a
law that Vidalia onions must come from the Vidalia area, also a good
idea. But recently President Bush got carried away when he declared that
catfish from other countries can’t be called catfish here in the U.S.
This is true. Calling them kittyfish, swimming pussies, and floating
hairballs are all okay, but not catfish. Or bottom feeders, since the
American Bar Association claims that’s reserved for its members.
If this keeps up, the next step will
be for the president to decide that no one else can be named George
Bush. Especially once he finds out there’s one residing in the
California prison system. Of course he can take solace in knowing he’s
not alone in having his good name besmirched. It turns out there are
prisoners in California sharing the names of 27 U.S. presidents,
including John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Ronald Reagan,
and William Clinton. There’s also a Benjamin Franklin, Dan Quayle, and
Jesus Christ, though the last one had his name changed to that so he
could say “Yes” whenever the warden asks, “Jesus Christ, are you
So choose your words carefully. You
never know when you’re trespassing on someone else’s previously
coined phrase. And while it may be good to forgive those who trespass
against us, not everyone will be so beneficent. They might just hire a
catfish—I mean, bottom feeder—and take you to court over it.
©2002 Mad Dog
Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
These columns appear in better newspapers across the country.
Read them and enjoy the incredibly original word order.