Archive for the ‘Humour’ Category

Have you ever noticed that some words sound perfect for the things they describe and other words don’t sound right at all?

I had occasion to reflect on this the other morning when I passed through the kitchen and my wife asked me if I cared to join her in a bowl of muesli.

“Oh, but I don’t think we could both get in,” I replied, quick as anything. The joke, alas, was wasted on her, but it did set me to thinking what a curious term muesli is. It is not a word we use in America. When we sweep up after we have been doing woodworking and put it in a bag with mixed nuts and a little birdseed, and pretend it’s a healthful breakfast product, we call it granola, which frankly I think is a much superior word. To my mind, granola sounds precisely like a crunchy cereal involving bits of grain and chaff, whereas muesli doesn’t sound like anything at all, except perhaps a salve you would put on a cold sore (or possibly the cold sore itself).

Anyhow, it got me to thinking how some words do their job very well and others don’t seem quite up to the task.

Globule, for instance, is a nearly perfect word. It just sounds right. Nobody has to tell you what globule means for you to know that it is not something that you want down the front of your shirt. Scrapie is another excellent word. Scrapie clearly couldn’t be anything but a disease. (Though on reflection it might be a Scottish cut, as in “He fell down and got a wee scrapie on his knee.”) Snooze, likewise, is also first rate, as are chortle, clank, gasp, dribble, and bloat. To hear these words is to know what they describe.

— Bill Bryson, I’m a Stranger Here Myself

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A sampling of Bill Bryson’s wish list for rules to make the world a better place:

All cars will come equipped with gas caps on both sides and at the rear, and gas station hoses will be at least six feet longer.

Supermarkets henceforth are required to put everything where a middle-aged man who doesn’t shop much can find it.

Boxes of Christmas cards that carry messages like “May your holidays be wrapped in warmth and touched with wonder” must bear a large label on the outside of the box saying: “Do Not Purchase: Message Inside Is Embarrassing and Sentimental.”

Revolving doors must go in both directions, the direction to be decided by the author. Giant revolving doors that take ten people at a time are illegal unless the occupants are known to each other and have agreed beforehand to move at the same speed.

Americans who intend to travel abroad in a group with other Americans must first clear their wardrobes with the author. British men must secure written permission to wear shorts outside their own country.

People who wear articles of clothing on which the manufacturer’s name or logo is prominently displayed must also wear a badge saying: “Yes, I Am an Idiot.”

— Bill Bryson, I’m a Stranger Here Myself

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America is of course a land of bounteous variety, and for a long time after we first moved here I was dazzled and gratified by the wealth of choice everywhere. I remember going to the supermarket for the first time and being genuinely impressed to find that it stocked no fewer than eighteen varieties of incontinence diaper. Two or three I could understand. Half a dozen would seem to cover every possible incontinence contingency. But eighteen–gosh! This was a land of plenty. And what a range of choice they offered. Some were scented, some were dimpled for extra comfort, and they came in a variety of strengths from, as it were, “Oops, bit of a dribble” to “Whoa! Dambusters!” Those weren’t the labels they actually used, of course, but that was the gist of it. They even came in a choice of colors.

For nearly every other type of product–frozen pizzas, dog food, ice creams, cereals, cookies, potato chips–the choices were often literally in the hundreds. Every new flavor seemed to have pupped another flavor. When I was a boy shredded wheat was shredded wheat and that was it. Now you could have it coated in sugar or cinnamon, in bite-size morsels, with slices of genuine bananalike material, and goodness knows what else.

And this applies to everything. You can now choose, apparently, among thirty-five varieties of Crest toothpaste. According to The Economist, “The average supermarket in America devotes 20 feet of shelving to medicines for coughs and colds.” (And never mind that of the 25,500 “new” consumer products launched in the United States last year, 93 percent were merely modified versions of existing products.)

After twenty years in England this copious abundance was, as you might imagine, almost intoxicating. Lately, however, I have come to suspect that perhaps you can get too much choice. I found myself edging around to this view recently when I was at the airport in Portland, Oregon, standing in a line of about fifteen people at a coffee stand. It was 5:45 A.M., not my best time of day, and I had just twenty minutes till my flight was to be called, but I really, really needed to get some caffeine into my system. You know how it is.

It used to be if you wanted a cup of coffee that’s what you asked for and that’s what you got. But this place, being a 1990s sort of coffee stand, offered at least twenty choices–plain latte, caramel latte, breve, macchiato, mocha, espresso, espresso mocha, black forest mocha, americano, and so on-in a range of sizes. There was also a galaxy of muffins, croissants, bagels, and pastries. All of these could be had in any number of variations, so that every order went something like this:

“I’ll have a caramel latte combo with decaf mocha and a cinnamon twist, and a low-fat cream cheese sourdough bagel, but I’d like the pimento grated and on the side. Are your poppyseeds roasted in polyunsaturated vegetable oil?”

“No, we use double-extra-lite canola extract.”

“Oh, that’s no good for me. In that case, I’ll have a New York three-cheese pumpernickel fudge croissant. What kind of emulsifiers do you use in that?”

In my mind’s eye, I saw myself taking each customer by the ears, shaking his or her head slowly eighteen or twenty times, and saying: “You’re just trying to get a cup of coffee and a bread product before your flight. Now ask for something simple and scram.”

Fortunately for all these people, until I have had my first cup of coffee in the morning (and this is particularly true during hours in single digits) all I can do is rise, dress myself (a bit), and ask for a cup of coffee. Anything else is beyond me. So I just stood and waited stoically while fifteen people placed complex, time-consuming, preposterously individualized orders.

When at last my turn came, I stepped up and said: “I’d like a large cup of coffee.”

“What kind?”

“Hot and in a cup and very large.”

“Yeah, but what kind–mocha, macchiato, what?”

“I want whichever one is a normal cup of coffee.”

“You want americano?”

“If that means a normal cup of coffee, then yes.”

“Well, they’re all coffees.”

“I want a normal cup of coffee like millions of people drink every day.”

“So you want an americano?”


“Do you want regular whipped cream or low-cal with that?”

“I don’t want whipped cream.”

“But it comes with whipped cream.”

“Look,” I said in a low voice, “it is 6:10 A.M. I have been standing for twenty-five minutes behind fifteen seriously selective people, and my flight is being called. If I don’t get some coffee right now–and by right now I mean right now–I am going to have to murder someone, and I think you should know that you are on the short list.” (I am not, as you will gather, a morning person.)

“So does that mean you want low-cal whipped cream or regular?”

And so it went.

— Bill Bryson, I’m a Stranger Here Myself

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Americans have always had a strange devotion to the idea of assisted ease. It is an interesting fact that nearly all the everyday inventions that take the struggle out of life-escalators, automatic doors, elevators, refrigerators, washing machines, frozen food, fast food, microwaves, fax machines-were invented here or at least first widely embraced here. Americans grew so used to a steady stream of labor-saving advances, in fact, that by the 1960s they had come to expect machines to do pretty much everything for them.

The moment I first realized that this was not necessarily a good idea was at Christmas of 1961 or ’62 when my father was given an electric carving knife. It was an early model and, like most prototypes, was both bulky and rather formidable. Perhaps my memory is playing tricks on me, but I have a clear impression of him donning goggles and heavy rubber gloves before plugging it in. What is certainly true is that when he sank it into the turkey, it didn’t so much carve the bird as send pieces of it flying everywhere in a kind of fleshy white spray, before the blade struck the plate with a shower of blue sparks, and the whole thing flew out of his hands, and skittered across the table and out of the room, like a creature from a Gremlins movie. We never saw it again, though we used to sometimes hear it thumping against table legs late at night.

Like most patriotic Americans, my father was forever buying gizmos that proved to be disastrous-clothes steamers that failed to take the wrinkles out of suits but had wallpaper falling off the walls in whole sheets, an electric pencil sharpener that could consume an entire pencil (including the metal ferrule and the tips of your fingers if you weren’t real quick) in less than a second, a water pick that was so lively it required two people to hold and left the bathroom looking like the inside of a car wash, and much else.

But all of this was nothing compared with the situation today. We are now surrounded with items that do things for us to an almost absurd degree-automatic cat food dispensers, electric juicers and can openers, refrigerators that make their own ice cubes, automatic car windows, disposable toothbrushes that come with the toothpaste already loaded. People are so addicted to convenience that they have become trapped in a vicious circle: The more labor-saving appliances they acquire, the harder they need to work; the harder they work, the more labor-saving appliances they feel they need to acquire.

There is almost nothing, no matter how ridiculous, that won’t find a receptive audience so long as it promises to provide some kind of relief from effort. I recently saw advertised, for $39.95, a “lighted, revolving tie rack.” You push a button and it parades each of your ties before you, saving you the exhausting ordeal of making your selection by hand.

— Bill Bryson, I’m a Stranger Here Myself

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Now, a snowmobile, as far as I am concerned, is a rocket ship designed by Satan to run on snow. It travels at speeds up to seventy miles an hour, which-call me chicken, I don’t care-seems to me a trifle fleet on narrow, winding paths through boulder-strewn woods.

For weeks Danny pestered me to join him in a bout of this al fresco madness. I tried to explain that I had certain problems with outdoor activities vis-a-vis the snowy season, and that somehow I didn’t think a powerful, dangerous machine was likely to provide my salvation.

“Nonsense!” he cried. Well, to make a long story short, the next thing I knew I was on the edge of the New Hampshire woods, wearing a snug, heavy helmet that robbed me of all my senses except terror, sitting nervously astride a sleek, beast-like conveyance, its engine throbbing in anticipation of all the trees against which it might soon dash me. Danny gave me a rundown on the machine’s operation, which for all I understood might have been a passage from one of his books, and jumped onto his own machine.

“Ready?” he shouted over the roar of his engine.


“Great!” he called and took off with a flare of afterburners. Within two seconds he was a noisy dot in the distance.

Sighing, I gently engaged the throttle and, with a startled cry and a brief wheelie, took off with a velocity seldom seen outside a Tom and Jerry cartoon. Shrieking hysterically and jettisoning weight via my bladder with every lively bump, I flew through the woods as if on an Exocet missile. Branches slapped my helmet. Moose reared and fled. The landscape flashed past as if in some hallucinogen-induced delirium.

Eventually, Danny stopped at a crossroad, beaming all over, engine purring. “So what do you think?”

I moved my lips but no sound emerged. Danny took this as assent.

“Well, now that you’ve got the hang of it, shall we bang up the pace a bit?”

I formed the words “Please, Danny, I want to go home. I want to see my mom,” but again no sound emerged.

And off he went.

— Bill Bryson, I’m a Stranger Here Myself

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I do know how to skate, honestly. It’s just that my legs, after years of inactivity, got a little overexcited to be confronted with so much slipperiness. As soon as I stepped onto the ice, they decided they wanted to visit every corner of Occum Pond at once, from lots of different directions. They went this way and that, scissoring and splaying, sometimes getting as much as twelve feet apart, but constantly gathering momentum, until at last they flew out from under me and I landed on my butt with such a wallop that my coccyx hit the roof of my mouth and I had to push my esophagus back in with my fingers.

“Wow!” said my startled butt as I clambered heavily back to my feet. “That ice is hard.”

“Hey, let ME see,” cried my head and instantly down I went again.

And so it went for the next thirty minutes, with various extremities of my body–shoulders, chin, nose, one or two of the more adventurous internal organs–hurling themselves at the ice in a spirit of investigation. From a distance I suppose I must have looked like someone being worked over by an invisible gladiator.

— Bill Bryson, I’m a Stranger Here Myself

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My mother was not a great cook, you see.

Now please don’t misunderstand me. My mother is a wonderful person–kindly, saintly, ever cheerful–and when she dies she will go straight to heaven. But believe me, no one is ever going to say, “Oh, thank goodness you’re here, Mrs. Bryson. Can you fix us a little something to eat?”

To be perfectly fair to her, my mother had several strikes against her in the kitchen department. To begin with, she couldn’t have been a great cook even if she had wanted to. She had a career, you see-she worked for the local newspaper, which meant that she was always flying in the door two minutes before it was time to put dinner on the table.

On top of this, she was a trifle absentminded. Her particular specialty was to cook things while they were still in the packaging. I was almost full-grown before I realized that Saran Wrap wasn’t a sort of chewy glaze. A combination of haste, forgetfulness, and a charming incompetence where household appliances were concerned meant that most of her cooking experiences were punctuated with billows of smoke and occasional small explosions. In our house, as a rule of thumb, you knew it was time to eat when the firemen departed.

Strangely, all this suited my father, who had what might charitably be called rudimentary tastes in food. His palate really only responded to three flavors–salt, ketchup, and burnt. His idea of a truly outstanding meal was a plate that contained something brown and unidentifiable, something green and unidentifiable, and something charred. I am quite sure that if you slow-baked, say, an oven glove and covered it sufficiently with ketchup, he would have declared, after a ruminative moment’s chewing, “Hey, this is very tasty.” Good food, in short, was something that was wasted on him, and my mother labored diligently for years to see that he was never disappointed.

— Bill Bryson, I’m a Stranger Here Myself

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