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The Xmas Quiz: discussion

Friday, December 30, 2011

I am ever so grateful that I can raise my hands to the heavens and say, "There were no major errors in the 2011 Xmas Quiz!" No shudders of embarrassment, no obvious mistakes, no long screeds starting, "As every educated person knows ..."

Also, they ran the questions column before the answers column. One year, it happened the other way around, and oh, what fun I had making gentle fun of the snafu while I was raging inside. "Once a year I do this," I said only to myself. "Is it too much to ask to get it right?"

They've gotten it right every year thereafter, so clearly my restraint was the right tactic. The quiz was perfect in every way this time. No need for recriminations, not even self-recrimination. Imagine what a lovely Christmas midterm this has been.

Still, there were amplifications and suggestions. The most frequently mentioned question was, "What word in English can be a noun, verb, adjective, adverb or preposition?" My answer was "up," but more than a few people `suggested "down" as an equally viable candidate.

I buy that. Down from a duck makes the noun, I downed a glass of orange juice, verb; down the rathole, preposition; up the down staircase, adjective; falling down, adverb. So if "up" works, "down" works. Down at the down works, where they make the down coats and business is down. Special thanks to Lisa Van de Water for her thoughts on this downer topic.

Another candidate is "round." You sing a round, noun; he rounded third and headed home, verb; round plate, round Frisbee, round tart, adjectives; and then we hit the preposition. In Britain, round is a perfectly fine preposition ("Come round my place anytime, as the bishop said to the showgirl."), but in America we say "around." Ditto with phrases like "the road round the lake." We'd say "around." "Round midnight" seems like a good example of an adverb, but really it's just "around" again. Thanks to Barbara Barton for her eloquent presentation of the case. I'm still voting no.

Then there's, like, "like." It has full street credit in each of its guises. We will never see his like again, noun; let us group the children of like height together, adjective; she likes me, verb; this tastes like dried yak, preposition. But what about "like" used in the sense of "as if"? Winston tastes good like a cigarette should - adverb or conjunction. I am puzzled. I'm also not a grammarian. Thanks to Stuart Brown for his amusing letter.

An answer to a question about origin of the Toyota brand ("Sakichi Toyoda made the first Japanese power loom. His son expanded into automobiles, changing the family name slightly for easier pronunciation around the world") elicited this letter from Bob Ikeda:

"Most Japanese names that end in 'da,' when spelled using Japanese characters, use the character for 'ta' (strictly speaking, there is no character for 'da'). Therefore Toyota is the pure pronunciation of this name. However, for some unfathomable reason, Japanese custom is to pronounce most names that end in 'ta' as ending in 'da'; my last name is pronounced Ike-da but the actual Japanese characters used are 'ike' (the 'i' is pronounced as a long 'e') ( it means 'lake' or 'pond') and 'ta,' which means 'field' or 'rice paddy.' Japanese names that end in 'ta' are almost nonexistent. I was taught when taking Japanese lessons as a youth that this custom originated because it was believed that 'da' was easier to pronounce. Can't prove it by me!"

Another answer got some mail: "Ronald Reagan and Nancy Davis, as she was then known, appeared together in the movie 'Hellcats of the Navy.' (Which of them was the hellcat is not known to this reviewer.)" People begged to inform me that Hellcat was a fighter airplane, and no imputations were imputed.

Then there's this from Ted Hullar: "My issue is with question 12. Your answer states: 'Firn air is ice that is in an intermediate stage between snow and glacial ice. It has, say people who know, the appearance of wet sugar, and is damnably hard to shovel.' That's an apt definition for 'firn.' However, 'firn air' is not the ice itself, but the air between the individual firn crystals.

"Why I care, in case you are interested: I'm a graduate student studying chemical reactions in snow. Until a few decades ago, most researchers thought that snow was just frozen water on the ground. It turns out that snow is a potent environment for a variety of chemical reactions, particularly in polar regions. Air in the snow pack can exchange with air in the free atmosphere, moving chemical reaction products out of the snow. Firn air can exchange with surface air from depths of more than 300 feet (100 meters). Deeper, the firn air is trapped into individual bubbles in the glacial ice."

There it is: everybody's dream job.

Got some nouns here! Got some verbs, too. Strung 'em into sentences, I did, and uncovered meaning.

Pray, do not mock me. I am a very foolish fond old man, fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor

This article appeared on page E - 10 of the San Francisco Chronicle