Monday, September 28, 2009

Traitor -- But a Connecticut Hero

Just about everyone today is familiar with Benedict Arnold, the American general of Revolutionary days, and how his very name has become synonymous with the word “traitor.”

But not everyone is aware of Arnold's record of true heroism in the history of my state, Connecticut.

After his heroic service at the Battle of Ridgefield, he was made a major general; no officer in the American army had a better record of courage and leadership.

History cannot tell us the exact moment when Arnold later turned against the United States (and tried to sell West Point to the British), but it is clear that over time he had developed a deep hatred for things American. His attack on New London in 1781 was astonishing: that was his home – he was born and raised there – and he put the entire region to the torch in an attack that was a notoriously cruel and vicious operation.

Benedict Arnold is no longer a hero in the Nutmeg State, but there's no question that he was a giant of a man and a fascinating figure of Connecticut history.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Who Wrote Shakespeare?

News comes that Shakespeare's church, Holy Trinity in Stratford, which houses the Bard's burial site, is in danger of caving in. Funds are sought to keep this from happening.

This raises the question of his grave -- and the strange poem carved on it.

There are four lines of doggerel, which end like this: "And curst be he that moves my bones."

The fact that the little epitaph is of such poor quality lends support to those who claim that someone else, not the person buried in Shakespeare's grave, wrote the Shakespeare plays.

Afer all, they claim, could anyone capable of writing this trivial, poor-quality doggerel possibly be the person who wrote the 37 plays and 154 sonnets that are the greatest works in our literary history?

It doesn't convince me, but it's an interesting question. Do you have an opinion?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Hudson Second; French First

This month there has been quite a to-do, not to mention a brouhaha – in other words, a fuss – over the fact that it’s an anniversary: it was in September four hundred years ago that Hank Hudson sailed up the river of the same name.

From the local paper: “A fleet of 18 Dutch boats sailed into the New York harbor on Tuesday to begin month-long celebrations of the 400th anniversary of the discovery of New York by Dutch Captain Henry Hudson.”

The claim is often made that it was Henry Hudson who was the first European to discover New York; that seems to be what is taught in schools.

But it’s wrong.

The score card should read like this: Hudson second; French first.

It’s simply a fact that not many people are aware that long before Hank H. showed up in New York in 1609, the French Navy had much earlier been there, done that.

It was in 1524 that the French arrived in what is now NYC. Think of it. That’s 85 years before Hudson!

With the warship La Dauphine leading the fleet, the French, who had been sent by the French King Frances I, arrived in New York harbor and gave what is now New York City the name New Angouleme (in honor of the French King, who came from there). It was New Angouleme long, very long, before it was New Amsterdam.

You learn almost nothing about this in schools. Most New Yorkers have no idea that New York was once New Angouleme. But that’s okay; I’ve been to Angouleme and asked around. Most people there don’t seem to be aware of it either.

So here’s a toast of cognac (from the Angouleme region) to Henry Hudson and his trip, 400 years ago, up the river that bears his name. But as far as what the local paper recently wrote – that he discovered New York – that is simply not true.

Vive la Nouvelle Angouleme!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Ad Campaigns that SELL!

When I was a boy – back during the Franco-Prussian War – my mother would occasionally take me to the store to pick up some ice cream for dinner that evening.

The guy behind the counter, enthusiastically digging into one of the tubs with his scoop and then packing the ice cream into a cardboard container, remarked to me, “It’s the fact that it’s hand-packed that makes it taste so good!”

Well, I was only nine (or maybe seven), but I was already beginning to question what was said to me by older folks, also known as adults. Surely, I thought, it’s the quality ingredients that make it taste good; whether it’s packed by hand or not would probably not make all that much difference.

Reason I’m thinking about this today is that I have been impressed again with the never-ending desire of salespeople and advertising folks to come up with hot sales points to sell their products -- something special and exclusive about their item that no other product has.

But of course there aren’t all that many exclusive features, so they have to make up stuff.

Surely everyone must be familiar with Bud Light’s newest slogan: “Drinkability.” I worked a lot with ad agencies over the years, and I’m sure the agency working on this account sweated for many hours to try to come up with something special, something unique, about Bud Light.

Not all that easy since it’s pretty much the same as other light beers.

But they hit pay dirt. “Drinkability,” shouted someone in on of those meetings. Everyone loved it. It was something, they claimed, that no other beer had. (Presumably other light beers had Chewability.)

And today I noticed that Michelob, a beer I had previously respected, also has a new slogan: it has a Smooth-Pour Bottle. This might seem to the uninitiated to be not all that important, but it’s evidently vital; it makes all the difference.

It “pours easy for a smooth taste,” claims Michelob. Other beers pour roughly, making them taste bad.

And you may have seen the beer bottle whose label changes color so you know it’s cold. What a step forward. Some of us old-timers remember when you actually had to feel the bottle to see if it was cold. And what a disappointment it was, after you had a bottle of beer in your fridge for a day or so, to notice that there was no change of color in the bottle’s label, thus giving you no hint as to its temperature. Or, as far as that goes, its drinkability.

Can you suggest any other ad campaigns based on wildly irrelevant claims?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Ford Ad

The Ford Motor Company has released a carefully planned Ford ad campaign to an eagerly-waiting world.

Their slogan, currently appearing everywhere – in print, TV, the works – is “Why Ford. Why Now.”

Which leads one who taught English for years (i.e., me) to ask: How come no question mark at the end of a question? Why not? Why not now?

Or am I being too difficult?

What’s your opinion?

Saturday, September 5, 2009


Ever feel a bit hesitant ordering a meal in an ethnic restaurant? Well, next time you find yourself ordering in a Russian restaurant, say, here’s a simple way to amaze your friends and startle the waiter.

(Though it could, of course, amaze the waiter and startle your friends. Either way, you come out of it looking good.)

You see, there’s a huge, little-known secret about the Russian language. Little-known except perhaps to eighty billion Russians, or whatever the population number currently is.

Most Americans don’t know about it. Those who do don’t seem to care. Well, it’s time all that changed.

Russian has a letter in its alphabet, a letter that we don’t have. It’s the letter “shch.” That’s one letter. This incredibly important, not to say vital, part of the language of the old Romanov dynasty is easily available to anyone of the Yankee persuasion, even those of us who don’t indulge much in foreign languages – which is to say, just about everybody.

If you say “fresh cheese,” you’ve pronounced it. So you can see how easy it is.

Example: surely we all know the word “tovarich,” which means comrade. Only the Russkies don’t say tovarich; they say tovarishch. And it’s just as easy to say it right.

Now, as for that meal in the Russian restaurant. Amaze your Russian waiter by saying that, unlike the others in your group who enjoy beet soup and who have ordered borsht, you’ll have the borshch. He may burst into tears, suddenly recalling the halcyon days in the dear old Soviet Union, but there’s no question he’ll be impressed.

He may give you an extra dollop of sour cream.

Thursday, September 3, 2009


In a recent story about the life and times of Teddy Kennedy, a reporter wrote that in various parts of the country during his campaigns some people would come up to him, pleased to report that they had actually understood some of what he had said, in spite of his Boston accent.

Ah, that New England twang.

Takes me back a few, quite a few, years. In those days I did a daily radio show. (Strictly small time local broadcasting, I hasten to admit; not coast-to-coast.) I was from California, but I emcee’d a radio quiz show in a Massachusetts city.

I would ask a question and folks would phone in their answers. If they answered correctly, they would win a fantastic prize – like twenty bucks or so.

One day one of my questions was, “If you studied semiaquatic amphibians of the order Anura, what would you be studying?”

The answer was frogs.

Nobody phoned in with the correct answer. After a suitable period, I gave the answer on the air: “You’d be studying frogs,” I said. We then went into music to get ready for the next question.

The switchboard operator rushed in: “You can’t go on to the next question till you give the answer to the current question!” she shouted. Seems the switchboard had lit up with a huge number of calls, all from people who had not understood the answer.

I picked up a phone and spoke with one of the callers. “What would you be studying?” she asked. “You’d be studying frogs,” I replied. "F-R-O-G-S.”

“Oh,” she cried. “Frags. I see. It would be frags.”

So help me, that’s the way they pronounced “frogs” in that part of Massachusetts. I realized then that, as far as New Englanders were concerned, I was an announcer with a speech impediment.

Ever have a problem with regional accents?
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