I have always been interested in words.
Had my family stayed in Brazil, I don’t know whether this would have been the case. However, learning English as my third language coincided with that period when the need for self-expression increases exponentially: the teenage years. And unless you are a Valley Girl, the burning themes suffusing that life-stage can’t be articulated with a limited vocabulary! As my daily use of Brazilian Portuguese ceased overnight, the need to learn and use English well was an imperative.
I recently found the notebook in which I wrote the titles of all the books read that first Summer in America, starting a month after arriving. As I knew no one, my days were spent watching TV, reading, and Summer school classes for Math and English so that I would have a fighting chance entering 7th grade in September. (ESOL classes? Hah! Full-immersion, with the added challenge of being the only Asian kid in the school.) So I read. A lot. The choices, as you can see if interested (1964 books read. ), were reflective of being a 13 yr. old boy and the limitations of the one-room library in my Brazilian home-town. My reading became a self-selected crash-course in American history and folklore, the bloodier, the better. To this day, I remember the Dewey decimal call number for books about World War II: 940.54…
An additional incentive to read was a deal with my mother: I could have 30 minutes of TV-watching for every 60 minutes of reading. As I had not been exposed to TV until the week before we left Brazil, it was my crack that Summer. I would do anything for a “fix” and watched everything from Astro Boy cartoons to Sally Starr (a Philadelphia-based children’s show hosted by Cowgirl Sally Starr where I got my introduction to “The Three Stooges”) to now-classic sitcoms (Mr. Ed, My Favorite Martian, The Lucy Show) and westerns/war-centered dramas (Bonanza, The Virginian, Gallant Men, Combat). And movies. Good movies, bad movies, classics…. it didn’t matter: if it was on TV, it passed a test and therefore it had to be worth watching….
But I digress. Back to words.
Over time, as the reading and writing of poetry became a more permanent – and important – part of my inner-life, my interest in words evolved from survival to a pleasurable hobby. I fell in love with specific words, e.g. sussuration, antidisestablishmentarianism*, delirium, moribund, tryst, for different reasons: sound, meaning, playfulnesss, to name just the obvious. And I developed an amateur’s interest in their origin. (For instance, I was just told a few days ago by a friend about the origin of the name “Wendy” for girls. It seems that J.M. Barrie (photo below), the author Peter Pan, made it up for the character of, well, Wendy. (He based on a young friend’s inability to make the sound “fr” in “friendly”: it came out as as “w”.)
Every year, new words are added, some entering popular usage, while others are confined to the obscurity of the specialized fields where they were invented. Some are brand names that come to have broader meanings (xerox, scotch tape), others are proper names or their modifications that suffered the same fate (sandwich, mesmerize). And that made me think of one word that never became mainstream (durly), one that I think could have made it if I had made a bigger effort (bobbitt), and a term (MTBF) that might yet have a chance.
“Durly” was a word Norman Mailer made up and tried to popularize for those occasions when we use the word “funny” in situations where “funny” is not quite right. For example: ” ‘Funny’ how we use ‘funny’ for something that is not funny but just a little odd or curious or ironic…but not enough so to use those words.” Obviously, he never succeeded. I read about this in the 70s – the photo is of him in 1963 – and somehow the factoid remained part of the flotsam and jetsam that is my brain. How durly that someone of Mailer’s stature couldn’t get it done…..
“Bobbitt” is from John Bobbitt, whose male pride was severed by his wife following an incident of spousal abuse. As it was a rare act then (1993) – not that it has become common since! – the sordid details became widely publicized by the media. It occurred to me that the word could be invested with a new meaning, one far more useful than its namesake was going to be, even after re-attachment. Had I been more invested in this project, the following might now be in the dictionary under bobbitt:
bob•bitt ⎪bob, bit⎪ no plural.
1 – a unit of linear measure in the sports of tennis, golf, and football whose length is dependent on the gender of the user and the context of its usage. It is generally accepted to be between zero and a hand’s width (by women) or a hand’s span (by men). It is measured with the eye only, as there is no universal standard. It is also deliberately not converted into “inches”. USAGE:
TENNIS – To describe the distance by which a ball is called “out” or “in” from a line, as in “My shot was in by a bobbitt!”. Particularly in mixed doubles, as both genders will have their own internal sense of the length of a bobbitt, men tend to use it more for balls that are significantly out. As it is never a plural, there can be no argument about the call, as can happen with other units of measure.
FOOTBALL – Mostly by sportscasters in announcing the distance by which a ball may be short of a first-down or a touchdown, as in “Well, folks, it looks like the Dolphins are a bobbitt short of a first-down”. As all parties have their personal sense of a bobbitt‘s length, this usage has cut down on broadcast-booth arguments about exactly how many traditional units of measure away the ball is from the objective.
GOLF – To describe the distance between the ball and the hole when a “gimme” or a tap-in is in order, as in “The ball is a bobbitt from the cup, so it will be a “gimme”.
I missed a golden opportunity to spread my idea when Mr. Bobbitt was still in the national news for weeks. While”Bobbitt” is still recognized and while my proposed definition for it is still useful, it would be difficult to make it a household word again.
Lastly, “MTBF”…. In current usage, “MTBF” (Mean Time Between Failures) is the “..predicted elapsed time between inherent failures of a system during operation”. It can be applied to both a single part (a gear, a relay switch, a whatchamacalit inside a whoosis) or a large whole unit made up of many parts (an iPhone, a dish-washer, a car). It is calculated as the arithmetic mean (average) time between failures and carries the assumption that the failed system (the part or the whole) will be immediately repaired. Depending on what it is, it could be hours, days, weeks, months, years, even decades.
I propose that the term “MTBF” be adopted into the language of dating as a quick short-hand for providing critical information to both parties. Instead of dancing around the subject and/or teasing out pieces of the puzzle, persons in the coupling process can just ask “What’s your MTBF?” and get a quick assessment of just how capable, by past performance, the other person is as a prospective mate.
There is no right or wrong MTBF or a judgement on cause(s). Of course, just using the word “failure” is probably very dampening….
What do you think? Worth a shot?