Tilting At Wordmills

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Two fine articles in Sunday’s (1/16/11) Joplin Globe about Mark Twain and his Huckleberry Finn controversy over the “n” word now have the windmills of my mind in a whirl.

Words. What power they have, and what danger they hold.  The pen, it is said, is mightier than the sword.  That would be hyperbole for those prone to be prosaic, but for poets, anarchists and politicians, among others, the phrase carries profound insight into human behavior.

For example, I recently crossed (s)words with my submariner/wordsmith-colleague Anson Burlingame at some length, both in this public sphere and with even more vigor in private channels.  In these exchanges, which we each now consider unbecomingly immoderate, one word would lead to another.

English, I submit, having a superfluity of synonyms, is probably more prone to misunderstanding than any other language.  It invariably depends on context for understanding, a context that is often inadequate, particularly in the written form.  The current use of emoticons in today’s blogosphere is understandable and should probably be encouraged.  I recently accused Anson of a lack of imagination, but on a very serious

subject where, in fact, imagination would have been inappropriate.  Apparently my assurances to that effect were adequate because no grenade, verbal or otherwise, was returned.

So many words, so many nuances, so many opportunities for misunderstanding, and nowhere more than in politics.  One man’s liberal is another’s progressive.  Is Billy Long a conservative, a reactionist, or just a “good-ole-boy”?  Is Rush Limbaugh a, well, never mind.  There comes a point where girth of ego and body overwhelm one’s capacity for comparisons.

Anson, in one of our verbal duels coined a new word, “wingnut”.  It’s not in my dictionary but its meaning seemed clear to me because of its perjorative context.  I thought its use was inappropriate and unsubstantiated, and one thing led to another, including certain impractical and inappropriate anatomical suggestions which are better left to the imagination.  But paraphrasing Willie Nelson:

Willie Nelson became one of the most popular c...

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The bitter fruit of anger, growing from your mind conservative.

Oh what a heartache, but I forgive the things you said to me.

For I believe forgiving is the only way I’ll find peace of mind.

Forgiving you was easy but forgetting seems to take the longest time.

Now Anson, please don’t take offense.  I’m trying to be humorous here.  See the friendly face?  🙂


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As for other problems with words, they abound.  The other night on NBC Nightly News I heard Brian Williams read a word incorrectly.  The item was about the changes in the zodiac upsetting horoscope-believers because a slow progression of astronomical changes had overtaken ancient star patterns.  The root cause was the earth’s “precession”, a term familiar to engineers, gyroscope technicians and navigators but not, apparently, to TV journalists.  Brian smoothly read it as “progression” at least twice, thus proving that he might not understand everything he says as well as you think.  (I have always admired the way the Brits introduce their anchor-persons as those who will now “read the news”. Or at least they used to.  We here in the colonies too often conflate volubility into wisdom.)

And finally, there is pronunciation.  If you want to offend quickly and easily, just correct an adult’s pronunciation and the defenses go up faster than Rush Limbaugh’s income.  I know local TV newscasters who regularly mispronounce nuclear and arctic.  Of course, then there were Jimmie Carter and George W. Bush, but space precludes discussing their word-mangling.  I think Jimmie, a nuclear engineer himself, pronounced it “new-kyar”.

Regional dialects also confound and certainly make me wonder how we only had one civil war.  Take for example one particular Ozarkian oddity of pronunciation, the word “similar”.  How on earth do they get sim-you-lar for that? And here in the midwest we talk of cement as “cee’-ment”, whereas in the East the accent is on the LAST syllable.

Of course we are not alone in peculiarities of speech.  After many years of being transferred all over the country in my Naval career I ended up in, of all places, Boston, a place almost as foreign in expression as if I had been sent to France.  There, a turning-circle or round-a-bout is called a rotary.  When I spoke to someone on the phone before reporting there I mentioned a near-by city, Worchester, and pronounced it the way it’s spelled.  Confusion reigned until she caught on.  Oh, she said, you mean” Woostah”!  Later in that tour, in casual conversation someone mentioned “the chablis and brie crowd”.  Dumb old me, I knew cheddar but I didn’t know brie from tea.

One of the things I really like about computers, and e-readers for that matter, is the ready access to a dictionary.  I’m a real wingnut on the subject.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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14 Responses to Tilting At Wordmills

  1. wingwiper says:

    Thank you for addressing this matter so well. My additional comments have been left, like fallen leaves on the public grass, already.


    • Jim Wheeler says:


      An interesting anecdote about the wingnut term. I’m sure we all have known people who had physical characteristics that set them apart from the perceived norm. It is common of course for people to be the butt of jokes and targets of bullies in school if they have other perceived differences that set them apart from cliques or, as I often like to think of it, tribes. I’ve often mused that this social trait may well be a principal factor that shapes human beings’ perception of attractiveness and accounts for the near-universal norm for such. Over the millennia the outliers have been rejected as suitable mates. This might even account for the extinction of the Neanderthal species – even though we now know there was some inter-breeding, our kind may well have exterminated their kind.

      As an example, consider how much alike Hollywood starlets look. I have often thought that it is a serious birth defect is to be born unattractive or odd-looking. Even more, I perceive sub-sets of such memes within racial groups, which likely accounts for a lot of what we call racial prejudice. We simply distrust people who don’t look like our own tribe.

      As far as Clucky goes, he must have had an acceptable aptitude and intelligence to get as far as he did, i.e., through college, sub school and nuclear power school, so that makes me wonder about what parts his appearance and personality played in his failure to succeed on the job. His shipmates’ attitudes might certainly have destroyed his self-confidence. Certainly though, a ship’s crew is a tribe unto itself, small and exclusive. I had opportunities to observe perhaps 7 or 8 different crews of nuclear subs while I was at OPTEVFOR and I found that each was unique. The single biggest factor in these differences, I decided in my own mind, was the leadership style of the CO, but for sure the amalgamation of the various personalities of each crew was a complex and unique blend. It would be very interesting subject for a psychological/sociological study.

      Your opinion of Obama’s big ears is revealing of a visceral rejection of him, a rejection that, IMO, comes straight from your tribal genes. And it’s more than ears. As we all know, George W. Bush also had protuberant ears – that’s the way all political cartoonists portrayed him. So, do you think certain other characteristics might be in play here as well?

      As far as “nuclear war fighting strategy” goes, the only president who had actual experience in that is dead of course, so what are your criteria for that judgement? You got to observe Clucky closely, so I can accept your judgement about his abilities on the boat, but I doubt if you’ve been to the White House war room to observe Barack. This is not the first time you have denigrated him with zero supporting evidence.

      Oh, and one other observation comes to mind. I understand you’re pretty tall, but even if you were rejuvenated to equal Obama’s physical age I bet he could kick your ass in one-on-one basketball. Or were you a basketball player at USNA? What do you think? 🙂

      Have a nice MLK day.



  2. ansonburlingame says:


    No offense taken. An amusing yet pertinent blog.

    Now about “wingnuts”.

    I was the Engineer Officer on a submarine and had a young junior officer working for me. He was short, had a large head and huge ears sticking out to the side. He was also a lousy watchstander.

    During the course of his qualification to become and Engineering Office of the Watch, he frequently responded with incorrect, grossly incorrect answers to technical questions. I and others started calling him a “wingnut” base on performance and physical characterisitcs.

    Once he became qualified the troops (enlisted watchstanders) joined the critique. For reasons too long to tell, they began to call him “Clucky”. It stuck. Wingnut became Clucky.

    One Saturday night during a wardroom poker game I had a “pat” full house, Kings over a small pair. I opened with a large bet and “Clucky” met the bet. He drew three cards and ultimately beat me with Ace’s over full house.

    I rared up in dismay and anger and said “Clucky, you SHITHEAD”. That one stuck as well and he became simply “Clucky, shithead” for the duration of his tour, a realtively short one.

    In matters regarding nuclear war fighting strategy I refered to the President as a wingnut. I suppose I could have called him “Clucky shithead” as well. But then eveyone would have been very confused with my term.

    In my view President Obama’s ability to discern nuclear war fighting ideas is the equivalent of “wingnut’s” ability to discern how to operate a nuclear propulsion plant.

    And both of them have very big ears.


  3. ansonburlingame says:


    I am not sure how your comment to my comment got “above” my comment. If someone reads them in sequence they might get confused. But anyway here is my reply to your last comment.

    AH, poor Clucky, or wingnut, or whatever. Yes, he had what it took to “get there” as a junior officer on a nuclear submarine. ALL junior officers had that much in them and it is a lot of “stuff” by comparison to the general population. But we on such crews did not judge our peers, subordinates or seniors to such standards. We compared them to the standards we lived under day to day.

    Some junior officers were absolutely superb. Others met the demands placed on them. Some fell short. Clucky for sure was short on performance as well as stature which had nothing to do with his performance. I never challenged him for being vertically challenged or even because he had big ears. I could have cared less about such characteristics. It was all about performance and his was lousy in my judgment and the judgment of several others. He was in essence not a good JO and he had little respect from anyone because of such performance.

    Now if I ran an office today calling some poor performer a wingnut I would not be well liked for sure. Disparaged by many of the politically correct nature would be almost certain.

    But you know as well as I do that in the rough and tumble world of submarine society then, such disparagment was frequent and only directed to those that did not measure up to rigorous standards of performance as observed by subordinates, peers and seniors. And the real beauty of submarine “society” was that the troops got to play in such disparagement as well when respect was not there. Sure they called him Mr. XXX (his real name) when on watch or other duties. But in the crew’s mess, chief’s quarters, etc. you know as well as I do the terms freely banned about in such places against themselves and their seniors alike at least on a submarine.

    You also challenge my understanding of Presidents knowledge of nuclear war issues. Of course I have never sat in the Oval Office or a situation room with him. But I have read and heard what he has said publicly on THAT issue. And I have every right to judge his acumen on those issues from such public statements.

    He wants and has publicly called for a “World free from nuclear weapons”. He has embellished on that theme repeatedly and won a Noble Peace Prize for such statements.

    I tried very hard to state my own views on nuclear war issues in three recent and sequential blogs. In one of them I refered to the President as a “wingnut” ONLY on that topic.

    Calling for a world free from nuclear weapons is impossible to achieve in my view and I have stated the reasons why I hold such views. Now you can call ME a wingnut for such views if you like. Just back such a characterization up with good reasons why I am so wrong, if you please.

    But to say I don’t “know” President Obama or how he thinks on such issues is misguided at best and a weak retort in my view. I don’t KNOW what he really thinks about health care from personal exposure but I sure as hell can publicly judge him from the ACA can I not?

    I judged him on nuclear issues based on public statements frequently expressed. He is wrong on those issues in my view.

    Mr. XXX had little knowledge of how to operate a nuclear reactor plant, knowledge that he should have had based on extensive training and the job he was being paid to perform.

    Both had big ears. So what.

    It is performance again that counts in my book and Clucky and the President fell or now fall short in some instances, in my view.



  4. Jim Wheeler says:


    As for Clucky, I too have known officers who lacked some crucial component of personality or skill which disqualified them as leaders. If we actually knew how to define and filter for that indefinable “it”, the whole process would be much simpler, wouldn’t it? I note that you had no comment on my observation about how different ship’s staffs had such different “personalities”, and that’s fine. I only mention it because I perceive that some “Clunkys” might actually succeed in an environment in which their seniors didn’t disrespect them in front of their juniors. Some leaders of the past have opined that doing such is poor leadership. Obviously though I have way too little information to have any opinion about your particular “Clunky” and I am not trying to do so.

    Now for the nuclear war issue. Reading your comment as carefully as I can, I can count only two reasons you give for considering that Big O is incompetent in that area, so in the interest of clear communications allow me if you will to feed them back to you in my own words.

    1. You think he screwed up healthcare with the ACA, therefore by implication he must also be incompetent regarding nuclear war strategy.
    2. You have heard him calling for a goal, date-unstated, that the world be eventually free of nuclear weapons.

    If I have this wrong, please correct me, but if I have it essentially right, then your reasoning is thin gruel. The same kind of reasoning could well have applied to Abraham Lincoln for stating as a goal that niggers should someday drink out of the same fountains as whites, have their children attend the same schools as whites, or sit up front in the bus with us white folks.

    Certainly John Wilkes Booth represented many who considered Abe a wingnut, and there’s no doubt he felt strongly about it, is there? But Abe’s vision took well over 100 years to produce a semblance of equality and the first black president. And it seems that there are some who still aren’t ready for that.

    I could cite Kennedy too as an example of a distant goal-setter. His deadline for reaching the moon was beyond his allowed two terms.

    My point is that presidents, the good ones at least, generally see that part of their jobs is setting lofty goals, goals that might even take generations or centuries to attain. Can you not agree with the Scottish poet Robert Burns that, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

    Personally, I would like to think there might come a time when no fallible human being will be able to give a command to destroy all of humanity, but maybe that’s just me. Me and Obama, that is. And just stating that goal does absolutely nothing to give away the store on nukes. I am quite confident that when Obama’s term expires, or even his second term expires, should that happen, the USA and Russia as well will still have the capacity to turn every living mammal on the planet into smoking, radioactive rubble. So, IMHO you can relax about that.

    Finally, in your next-to-last paragraph you say, “Both had big ears. So what.” So nothing, Anson. You were the guy who brought up that topic in the first place. Sometimes I think you could use a nice nap.



  5. Jim Wheeler says:

    About the ears, I guess you were acknowledging that it was an irrelevant issue. If so, please ignore my last paragraph.



  6. Duane Graham says:

    Jim, Anson,

    I have enjoyed this little back and forth. I just wish Anson would call Ronald Reagan a wingnut so I could agree with him. Ronaldus Magnus started all that squishy, “let’s get rid of the nukes,” wingnut nonsense.



  7. Duane Graham says:


    By the way, I enjoyed the post very much. I loved the title.



  8. ansonburlingame says:

    Duane, You are so polite. Thanks and I can find some “wingnut” examples for Reagan or any other president.


    As usual when we get into these type of “things’ communcations break down. Whether it is my writing skills or your reading ones is beside the point. But let me say emphatically that my perception of Obama’s nuclear war strategy is entirely different for his ACA approach and I have never refered to him as a health care or more importantly a “universal” wingnut. Just in nuclear war issues does he thus far deserve, in my view such a approbation.

    Universal health care is indeed achievable. A world free from nuclear weapons is not. Simple distinction in my view.

    I disagree with the call for universal health care or at least the way Obama is trying to achieve it. But that is not an argument about setting possible goals. It is one of setting the right goals. Same with Kennedy and going to the moon. It was possible and in fact we did it. Now that kind of goal setting followed by political achievment is great. And I would express the same admiration if I thought going to the moon was a ridiculous waste of effort. He set a goal, got people on his side politically, gave the scientific and engineering communities the resources to make it happen and it happened.

    Would it not be a wonderful goal if everyone on earth was of the same color of skin, spoke the same language and took the “good” from every religion (which every religion has to a degree in my view) and we practiced each and every day the golden rule in all of our relationships.

    Great goal, in my view and we would have a lot less people killed or in poverty.

    Well achieving such a goal is equivalent, only in my view for sure, to trying to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

    As for Reagans efforts to reduce the number of strategic nuclear weapons, he was right and extraordinarily astute in doing so. He actually “got” a lower number of nuclear weapons and in doing so made the concept of strategic DEFENSE (Star Wars) possible. And that little maneuver did a helluva lot to break the Soviet bank and/or back leading up to the wall coming down, again in my view.

    Reagan thrumped “Gorby” right out of the game in that instance, again in my view. And in the end we did not have to spend a gaZillion dollars to produce Star Wars. Just the possibility of such an effort was enough. But be careful with such bluffs. Someone may call you, internationally, in the future.



  9. Jim Wheeler says:


    You said,

    Would it not be a wonderful goal if everyone on earth was of the same color of skin, spoke the same language and took the “good” from every religion (which every religion has to a degree in my view) and we practiced each and every day the golden rule in all of our relationships

    I believe you are making my point for me here. The impossible goal you suggest appears to be actually happening. Below is a link citing that in 1990, about 14% of 18 to 19 year-olds were in an inter-racial relationship. Ten years later, that had risen to 20%. Link:


    Impossible goal? Why, DQ, I’m shocked! Shocked, do you hear? Can you not dream the impossible dream, to strive when your arms are too weary, to reach the unreachable star?

    🙂 Jim


  10. ansonburlingame says:


    Perhaps that is why I think the DQ reference is not for me. I hope I am far more pragmatic in the goals that I hold dear.

    I would also point out that such a “goal” as I stated it would not even be “good”.

    I hear all sorts of people telling me today how GOOD diversity might be and how we must move mountains to achieve it. The above goal suggests that diversity is in fact not the correct goal. Equality in skin color, religion, etc is the correct goal.

    Now make up your mind, please (trying to be polite and yes, a little cynical)

    And IF my suggested (cynically) goal is so “good” I wonder why President Obama does not promote it?



    • Jim Wheeler says:


      You reply seriously to my light-hearted comment, but what I was trying to convey is not that there should be any kind of political goal for miscegenation, but that it was a process that is happening naturally, very likely accelerated by the internet. However, I do see now that it could be interpreted that way. Therein I suggest is part of the problem with our communication process. OK, no big deal, and it is a serious topic. I will try to be more careful with humor in the future.

      As for racial homogenization, you might be interested in this surprisingly detailed discussion that I found on the topic:




  11. ansonburlingame says:


    Sometimes I don’t even know if I am serious or light hearted. How you can tell if Ican’t is part of the problem for sure.

    I for sure I will not spend any time trying to debate the merits of mis whatever. Much bigger fish to fry.

    Like PLEASE tell my why the SS report on which I blogged yesterday is in error. Scares the hell out of me.

    And I am serious in that request.



    • Jim Wheeler says:


      OK, here’s my take on the SS link. I think journalists, bloggers and other pundits get psychic income from making people want to read their opinions, and nothing is so effective in doing that as doing the Henny Penny thing, i.e., “The Sky is Falling!”. Well, in this case I think it is, but I also think it is temporary and will recover with the economy. There are already positive signs, such as in the auto industry (see today’s Globe).

      The problem, as I see it, is that SS has always been on a pay as you go system, with those working paying into the system. Like a system of a thousand cuts, the payroll with-holding system makes it pretty painless, so the extraction is smooth. Up to now the workers actually payed a great deal more than the retirees required and Congress happily spent the excess, replacing it with IOU’s (Treasury’s) backed by nothing else but the government’s good name (which is getting shakier nowadays, a la Greece and Ireland). But, along comes the greatest recession since the GD, so for the last two years the income into SS, which is a percentage of the GDP, has dropped sharply.

      So, here we have a pundit who, just like the pundits of the past, is projecting that the future will look just like the past. It never does. Just like his predecessors, he is driving by looking out the rear-view mirror. I don’t know what the future will hold but I am virtually certain this guy doesn’t either. Hopefully the economy WILL recover, even if slowly, and SS will magically get better, or at least less dire. The whole thing would have been much better of course if the government had actually saved the payroll taxes, but that’s not the American way. Just like a young consumer the government spends everything it has and then borrows even more. Well, as Willie Nelson sings, the party’s over. For now. But hopefully we have learned a lesson as we struggle back slowly.

      You might recall the post I did on the economy last September 4, ” American Dream, Dismal Science ” It showed entitlement spending as a percentage of GDP, and of course it was based on the past. The chart you will note is dated 2007, which is before the GR. So, of course it assumes the future looks like the past. NOW, this guy is saying, SURPRISE, SUPRISE, THE SKY IS FALLING! That’s because the payroll taxes dropped and the money isn’t coming in anymore. It’s no surprise to the economists, only to the general population who, as they always have, are living in the moment.

      I believe the economy will recover, albeit gradually. That might be the strong medicine we need. Evidently the stock market thinks so too because it’s rising. The latest negotiations with China also have some hopeful signs.

      All this shows, I think, what it means to live on the edge of uncertainty, in the moment. You know, in personal finance good advisors always say to save about 6 months salary in liquid cash before investing, and hardly anyone does. Can you imagine the government doing that? Me neither. The roller coaster will continue, but hopefully we are on an up-swing.

      Hope this helps, but as you know, I’m no pundit, just another amateur trying to figure it out just like you.


      PS – I’m trying to learn to insert links into comments. If the above link doesn’t come out right, I’ll do a another PS with it.


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