Sing A Song Of Syntax

TO WIT

March 01, 1992|By DAVE BARRY

A significant reason why the United States is having trouble competing in the modern industrialized world is that most Americans, through no fault of their own, are, in the words of U.S. Department of Education Secretary Lamar Alexander, "as dumb as fungus."

That is why this newspaper, at great expense and physical risk, is once again presenting "Ask Mr. Language Person," the educational feature that answers common questions about grammar, spelling and punctuality.

Today's first common question was mailed in by an actual reader, James F. Wood of Denver, Colo., who asks:

"In the song, 'Someone's in the Kitchen with Dinah,' when it says 'Someone's in the kitchen with Dinah, I know, oh, oh, oh,' does it mean that the singer knows that someone is in the kitchen with Dinah, or that the singer knows who is in the kitchen with Dinah?"

A: Leading grammar experts have wrestled naked with this question for years. Some clues to the answer may be found in the song's reference to "strummin' on the old banjo," and the lines:

"Dinah won't you blow

Dinah won't you blow

Dinah won't you blow your horn?"

These lines strongly suggest, as was noted in a groundbreaking study by Dr. A. Howard Lorgnette of Yale University, "that Dinah has a horn." But why would people be playing a horn and an old banjo in the kitchen? And what about the song that goes, "There was a farmer had a dog, and Bingo was his name, oh"? Whose name was Bingo? The dog? Or the farmer?

Q: It had to be the dog. Who would name a farmer Bingo?

A: Who would name an education secretary Lamar?

Q: In the song about the bunny rabbit that attacks mice, what is the rabbit's correct name?

A: Mr. Language Person thought it was "Little Rabbit Foo Foo." However, Mrs. Language Person contends -- and the prestigious "Wee Sing Song Booklet" backs her up on this -- that it is "Little Bunny Foo Foo." But consider the following: Mr. Language Person is certain that, in the correct version, the rabbit is picking up the field mice and bopping them on the head. Whereas the "Wee Sing Song Booklet" contends that it is scooping up the meecy mice and boppin' 'em on the head.

Q: Speaking of lyrics, what is the most romantic song ever written?

A: That would be "Boom Boom," by John Lee Hooker, which is copyrighted by Conrad Music, a division of Arc Music Corp., and which includes the following verse, reprinted by permission:

"I like the way you walk,

I like the way you talk.

When you walk that walk,

And you talk that talk.

You knock me out,

Right off my feet."

Q: You had to get permission to reprint a verse that rhymes "out" with "feet"?

A: Yes.

Q: What does it mean to "put the onus" on somebody?

A: This is an ancient legal expression referring to the onus, which was a large rock that was used in ancient court proceedings.

Defendant: I plead not guilty.

Judge: All right, then, put the onus on him.

Defendant: I mean guilty! guilty!

Q: What is the difference between a "consensus" and a "general consensus of opinion"?

A: "Consensus" is used when selecting toppings, as in: "The consensus between Phil, Norm and myself is garlic and pepperoni." Whereas "general consensus of opinion" is used when discussing somebody who is not in the room at the time, as in: "The general consensus of opinion is that those puff sleeves make Darlene look like a Chicago Bear."

Q: Speaking of football, have you heard any good quotations from professional football analyst and former Kansas City Chiefs coach Hank Stram recently?

A: Yes. Hank emitted an excellent one Dec. 16 on a Miami sports-talk radio show, when he was asked what the New Orleans Saints needed to do to get ready for their game against the Oakland Raiders.

Q: What did he say?

A: He said: "I think they have to desperately come into this game with an urgent feeling."

Q: Whatever happened to Hank Stram's neck, anyway?

A: Apparently it was stolen.

Got a Question for Mr. Language Person? Write it down and hide it in a safe place.

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