WORDPLAY

Words, words, words – how they work, where they come from, what they mean

Rooting for the Green Bay Heat?

Forward Gordon Hayward of the oddly named Utah Jazz during a game on Nov. 5 in Denver. AP PHOTO

Forward Gordon Hayward of the oddly named Utah Jazz
during a game on Nov. 5 in Denver. AP PHOTO

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, November 15, 2015.

When the Los Angeles Lakers play their next game at the Staples Center, a fan sitting courtside might wonder: Where are these lakes, anyway?

In Minnesota, it turns out.

Before the Lakers moved to L.A., they were the Minneapolis Lakers. That makes sense. Minnesota is the “Land of 10,000 Lakes.” When the franchise migrated to California in 1960, it left the lakes behind — but not the name. So for more than 50 years, in a place known for its lack of rainfall, people have flocked to see a team identified with bodies of water almost 2,000 miles away.

Here in New England, our team names present no such disconnect. The Patriots and Revolution reflect our colonial past, and the Celtics honor the region’s large Irish-American population.

The original owner of Boston’s professional hockey team, Charles Adams, wanted a name that conveyed speed, agility and cunning. “Bruins” delivered the hat trick. The name also lent itself to brown and yellow uniforms, which just happened to be the colors of the owner’s grocery chain. When Adams’ team skated, it was subliminal advertising on ice.

“Red Sox” became an official name in 1907, as the club adopted red as its color and featured a red stocking on the front of the players’ jerseys. In 1933, when George Preston Marshall moved his fledgling professional football team, the Boston Braves, to Fenway Park, he changed the team’s name to “Redskins” to align with the Red Sox. Four years later, the Boston Redskins became the Washington Redskins. So, interestingly, the colors and name of the Red Sox played an early and unwitting role in the controversy that surrounds the Redskins’ name and logo today.

The Los Angeles Lakers aren’t alone in maintaining a name at odds with a club’s locale.

The Baltimore Colts were named in recognition of that city’s rich history in horse racing. Indianapolis, where the Colts relocated in 1984, is famous for racing too, but the focus is on a different type of horsepower — the kind that propels Indy cars at speeds up to 225 miles per hour.

British Columbia is home to a large grizzly bear population, so naming a National Basketball Association team the Vancouver Grizzlies made sense. Keeping the name after the franchise moved to Memphis? Not so much.

New Orleans’ original NBA franchise produced one of my favorite team names: the Jazz. The non-plural noun stood out and conveyed the improvisational beauty that basketball can produce. But when the team moved 1,700 miles northwest, it committed a technical foul for name weirdness: Utah Jazz?

Next thing you know, the Heat will move to Green Bay and remain the Heat.

Relocation doesn’t always create naming mismatches. The San Diego Rockets became the Houston Rockets, and the new combination was a perfect fit. Houston is home to major aerospace companies and the Johnson Space Center.

Here in Rhode Island, the names for most of our college teams are traditional enough: Brown Bears, Providence Friars, Rhode Island Rams. That’s not the case at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

In contrast to the fierce mascots at many universities — Go Tigers! Go Hawks! — UCSC teams are represented by the lowly Banana Slug, a 6- to 8-inch bright-yellow mollusk that slides around the forest floor in the Santa Cruz Mountains. At one point, a chancellor tried to change the name to something more conventional — the Sea Lions. But in a student vote, the Banana Slug prevailed.

In 2008, ESPN named it one of the 10 best mascots in college basketball.

Go Banana Slugs!

 

Believe it or not, superstitions endure

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In anticipation of Halloween, a re-post of my Op-Ed piece from the Providence Sunday Journal last October.

Pop genius Steve Wonder’s “Superstition” topped the Billboard Hot 100 on Jan. 27, 1973. That’s not surprising. The song’s funky groove and exuberant horns are irresistible. Wonder’s lyrics hook us too, tapping into our semiconscious fascination with the supernatural.

In the chorus, Wonder sings that “superstition ain’t the way,” and he’s surely right. Yet, superstitious practices endure — whether we believe in them or not.

Wonder’s song endures, as well. Forty years after reaching pop’s highest perch, it was featured in a series of TV ads for Bud Light. The spots celebrated the bizarre game-day superstitions of National Football League fans, concluding with the wonderful tag line, “It’s only weird if it doesn’t work.”

Merriam-Webster defines superstition as “a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation.”

Have you ever knocked on wood to ward off bad luck? One theory says this common practice is rooted in the pagan belief that good spirits live in trees. By rapping on wood, you summon the help of the good spirit within.

Do you avoid walking under ladders? If so, you are being influenced by an early Christian belief that the triangle formed by a leaning ladder represents the Holy Trinity. When you walk under the ladder, you break the Trinity and invite the devil in.

Many of us say “God bless you” when someone sneezes. That connects the person doing the blessing to several superstitions. One is that the heart stops beating during a sneeze and my request for divine intercession helps restore cardiac function. Another: sneezing is the body’s response to an invading malevolent spirit; my “God bless you” serves as a shield against the invisible demon.

In Rome during the plague of 590 AD, Pope Gregory I commanded people to say “God bless you” to anyone who sneezed, as sneezing was believed to be an early sign of infection. While the plague eventually abated, the custom of saying “God bless you” prevails to this day.

Athletes are notoriously superstitious. Detroit Tiger pitching ace Justin Verlander once ate Taco Bell religiously on nights before his starts. But after he had an off year in 2013, “Live mas” was no more.

I love to watch Rafael Nadal play tennis. His attack on the ball (and his opponents) is relentless. But Nadal may be more entertaining in between his virtuosic volleys. Among his legendary superstitions: in changeovers, he points the logos on his water bottles toward the side of the court he will be playing on; he never steps on court lines before or after points; and when he does cross a line, he always proceeds with his right foot first.

I was sitting in the bleachers at Fenway Park on the night of Sept. 2, 2001, when Yankee pitcher Mike Mussina was literally one strike away from a perfect game. I may have crossed my fingers, hoping to witness history — only 16 perfect games had been pitched to date. And then Carl Everett hit a bloop single. Someone must have violated baseball’s most sacrosanct superstition: never mention a no-hitter or perfect game while it is in progress.

Superstition twists the wishes that we extend to stage performers. We tell them to “break a leg” because, the story goes, saying “good luck” will bring them just the opposite.

Many cultures consider the number 13 to be bad luck. Some cite the betrayer Judas as the 13th guest at the Last Supper; others note the traditional 13 steps to a hangman’s gallows.

I can’t prove that pessimistic associations with the number 13 are justified, but I do have this: As a junior in high school, I wore number 13 on my away-game basketball jersey. Our team had a so-so year. I switched to number 30 the following season and we went 19 and 4. Sure, we had a better squad. But I wasn’t taking any chances.

In 1921, my maternal grandparents got married on superstition’s high holiday — Halloween. Their union spawned an extended Italian family, into whose lively and loving embrace I entered almost 40 years later. I was the 12th of Vincent and Etta’s 13 grandchildren.

I would tell you how happy and successful the 13th grandchild is, but I don’t want to jinx my younger brother.

Why you should check spell check

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Do you check spell check, your computer’s application for flagging words in your documents that may be spelled incorrectly? I do. While spell check is an effective way to give your writing a first scrub, it will never replace proofreading. That’s because there are mistakes spell check will never catch. Often, they involve homophones – words that have the same pronunciation but different meanings. (Homophone derives from the Greek homos “same” + phone “sound.”) The word sounds right and is spelled right; it’s simply not the correct word.

Here are several homophones that lead to common spell check-proof mistakes:

Affect and effect. As verbs, these words have distinct meanings: affect means to influence (The weather affected the outcome of the game) or to feign (He affected an air of confidence despite the fact that the ripcord wasn’t working), while effect means to bring about (The politicians promised to effect change). Effect is more common as a noun, where it means an outward sign or result (The politicians’ promises had little effect on their constituents).

Complement and compliment. As a copywriter, I use the word complement often, as in The new entrees complement our existing menu. Here, complement means to complete or make perfect. It is distinct from compliment, which refers to the expression of admiration or praise, i.e., Customers complimented us on our new entrees.

It’s and its. One is a contraction (It’s raining) and one is a possessive (The band saved its biggest hit for the encore). Here’s an easy way to avoid confusing the two: read the sentence using it is instead of either it’s or its and you’ll know immediately if your usage is correct, e.g., The band saved it is biggest hit– oops!

Lose and loose. I see writers everywhere using loose when they mean lose – and the words aren’t even true homophones! Lose the extra “o”.

Premier and premiere. Premier is another common word in a copywriter’s arsenal, since we are always looking for ways to say a product or service is the best in its category. But that has nothing to do with a premiere, which is the first performance of a play or musical, or the first showing of a movie.

Principal and principle. The former is a person, the latter a fundamental truth or belief. In an earlier blog post, I shared a simple trick that my fourth grade teacher, Miss McAndrew, taught our class for remembering the difference between the two.

Who’s and whose. Who’s is a contraction of who is, as in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Whose indicates possession, as in Virginia Woolf is a novelist whose books are read in college literature classes. To avoid confusion, use the same trick suggested above for it’s and its: read the sentence using who is for either who’s or whose and any mistake will jump out at you.

Your and you’re. Your is a possessive pronoun – your blog, your writing – while you’re is a contraction of you and are: I’m happy you’re coming to the game with us. Again, to avoid mistakes, read the sentence with the contraction spelled out (“I’m happy you are coming to the game…). If it sounds right, you’re right.

OK, time to spell check this post – and then proofread.

Words of Thanksgiving from Lincoln

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On October 3, 1863, Abraham Lincoln invited his fellow citizens to celebrate “a day of Thanksgiving” the following month. Here are excerpts from his proclamation:

“The year that is drawing towards its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies … It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people … I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving …”

A piece of Lincoln’s phrasing in the proclamation — “fit and proper” — foreshadowed words he would speak at Gettysburg 47 days later:

“Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.”

Historian Shelby Foote said “you can’t understand the United States unless you understand the Civil War.” That goes for Thanksgiving, too, as Lincoln urged citizens “in every part” of our country to come together. His proclamation echoed the appeal to the South that he made in his first inaugural address:

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”

I love Lincoln the writer as much as Lincoln the president. Probably more.

This Thanksgiving, and every day, may our hearts be touched by, in Lincoln’s words, “the better angels of our nature.”

Telephones, Thomas Edison, And Top 40 Tunes

I’m at a payphone trying to call home, all of my change I spent on you.  –“Payphone” by Maroon 5

When technology changes everyday life, language responds with new words to help us navigate new experiences. Thus, the history of the telephone and the greeting “hello” are intertwined.

Telephone derives from the Greek tele- “afar” + phone “voice, sound.” Imagine how much brainpower it took to make the transmission of voices over wire possible. Still, when the first telephone was unveiled in 1876, one question remained: what should people say when answering?

There were two schools of thought, led by two technology titans. Alexander Graham Bell advocated “ahoy,” while Thomas Edison thought “hello” was the answer.

“Ahoy” is a nautical term derived from the Dutch hoi, which means “hi”. “Hello” is a modern word, dating back only to the early 1800s when people shouted it to get attention. Etymological cousins include hallo, holla, hala, and hola.

The lines are scrambled on why “hello” won out over “ahoy.” According to one source, the first phone book ever published told people to answer with a “firm and cheery hulloa.” Subsequent phone books echoed this instruction, and early adopters complied. Soon, telephone operators were called “hello girls.”

We find references to the telephone, in the service of lovers and lonely hearts, in legions of Top 40 tunes:

“Telephone” (Lady Gaga): Stop callin’, stop callin’, I don’t wanna talk any more…

“Sylvia’s Mother” (Doctor Hook): Sylvia’s mother said Sylvia’s busy, too busy to come to the phone…

“867-5309/Jenny” (Tommy Tutone): Jenny, don’t change your number…

“Telephone Line” (Electric Light Orchestra): I’d tell you everything, if you’d pick up that telephone…

“Hanging On The Telephone” (Blondie): If you don’t answer, I’ll just ring it off the wall…

And then there’s “Hello It’s Me,” Todd Rundgren’s early ’70s smash. Edison would have loved the title, of course. And it’s a good thing his phone greeting prevailed. Somehow “Ahoy It’s Me” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Game On: The Sport Of Naming Teams

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In honor of last night’s World Series finale and the kick-off of the NBA season this week, a re-post from two years ago about team names – the good, the bad, the curious, the hilarious:

The question at answers.com was logical enough: a fan of the Los Angeles Lakers wondered where all the lakes were in the City of Angels. In Minnesota, it turns out. Before the Lakers came to Tinseltown, they were the Minneapolis Lakers. Makes sense. Minnesota is the Land of 10,000 Lakes. When the franchise headed west, it left the lakes behind, but not the name. And for more than 50 years, in the most densely populated urban area in the United States, basketball fans have flocked to see a team with an idyllic, outdoorsy moniker.

Here in New England, our team names present no such hiccup. The Patriots and Revolution connect to our colonial past. The Celtics reflect Boston’s large Irish-American population. Red Sox became an official nickname in 1908, after the club adopted red as its color and featured a red stocking on the front of its players’ jerseys. The original owner of Boston’s professional hockey team wanted a nickname that suggested speed, agility, and cunning. Bruins delivered the hat trick. It also lent itself to brown and yellow uniforms, which just happened to be the colors of the owner’s grocery chain.

The Lakers are not alone in maintaining a nickname despite its disconnect to a new locale:

> The Baltimore Colts were named in honor of the region’s rich history in horse racing. Indianapolis, where the Colts moved, is famous for racing, too, but the focus is on a different type of horsepower.

> British Columbia is home to a large grizzly bear population. Naming an NBA team the Vancouver Grizzlies made sense; keeping the name when the franchise moved to Memphis did not. Favorite son Elvis has left the arena, and there is no risk of a grizzly attack outside.

> The New Orleans Jazz pioneered the use of singular nouns in team names (the Miami Heat, Colorado Avalanche, Orlando Magic, etc., would follow). It’s one of my all-time favorites. But when the franchise moved to Utah, the name became oxymoronic. Utah Jazz? Imagine Thelonious Monk sitting in with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

At the college level, leave it to two New England athletic powerhouses – Berklee College of Music and Rhode Island School of Design – to give us inspired team names. Berklee’s hockey squad – the IceCats – reflects the school’s contemporary music pedigree. (According to berkleegroove.com, “contrary to popular belief, some musicians actually are capable of playing sports.”)

And then there’s RISD’s hockey team. The Nads may strike you as a curious name, until you cheer on the team at the top of your lungs:

GO NADS! GO NADS!

In the universe of team names, the Nads are in a league of their own.

What Lost Luggage Led Me To Find

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My son’s luggage got lost at O’Hare International Airport last weekend. It’s still missing in action, to his extreme annoyance.

As I texted him for an update, the lug in luggage leapt out at me. Did the two words share etymological DNA?

Sure enough, at etymonline.com, I found that luggage derives from the late 14th-century lug, meaning “to move (something) heavily or slowly.” Even better, lug derives from the Swedish lugga and Norwegian lugge, “to pull by the hair.” Ouch.

Luggage emerged about a hundred years later, meaning “what has to be lugged about.” By the 20th century, it referred to “baggage belonging to passengers.”

True to lug’s Scandinavian roots, my son will be pulling his hair out if his bag doesn’t show up at his doorstep soon. What a drag.

In the meantime, I have newfound respect for the word luggage. I love words that tell a good story.

I’ll never call it a suitcase again.

Believe It or Not, Superstitions Endure

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As published in the Providence Sunday Journal on October 19, 2014.

Very superstitious, writing’s on the wall

Very superstitious, ladders ’bout to fall

Thirteen-month-old baby, broke the lookin’ glass

Seven years of bad luck, the good things in your past

Pop genius Steve Wonder’s “Superstition” topped the Billboard Hot 100 on Jan. 27, 1973. That’s not surprising. The song’s funky groove and exuberant horns are irresistible. Wonder’s lyrics hook us too, tapping into our semiconscious fascination with the supernatural.

In the chorus, Wonder sings that “superstition ain’t the way,” and he’s surely right. Yet, superstitious practices endure — whether we believe in them or not.

Wonder’s song endures, as well. Forty years after reaching pop’s highest perch, it was featured in a series of TV ads for Bud Light. The spots celebrated the bizarre game-day superstitions of National Football League fans, concluding with the wonderful tag line, “It’s only weird if it doesn’t work.”

Merriam-Webster defines superstition as “a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation.”

Have you ever knocked on wood to ward off bad luck? One theory says this common practice is rooted in the pagan belief that good spirits live in trees. By rapping on wood, you summon the help of the good spirit within.

Do you avoid walking under ladders? If so, you are being influenced by an early Christian belief that the triangle formed by a leaning ladder represents the Holy Trinity. When you walk under the ladder, you break the Trinity and invite the devil in.

Many of us say “God bless you” when someone sneezes. That connects the person doing the blessing to several superstitions. One is that the heart stops beating during a sneeze and my request for divine intercession helps restore cardiac function. Another: sneezing is the body’s response to an invading malevolent spirit; my “God bless you” serves as a shield against the invisible demon.

In Rome during the plague of 590 AD, Pope Gregory I commanded people to say “God bless you” to anyone who sneezed, as sneezing was believed to be an early sign of infection. While the plague eventually abated, the custom of saying “God bless you” prevails to this day.

Athletes are notoriously superstitious. Detroit Tiger pitching ace Justin Verlander once ate Taco Bell religiously on nights before his starts. But after he had an off year in 2013, “Live mas” was no more.

I love to watch Rafael Nadal play tennis. His attack on the ball (and his opponents) is relentless. But Nadal may be more entertaining in between his virtuosic volleys. Among his legendary superstitions: in changeovers, he points the logos on his water bottles toward the side of the court he will be playing on; he never steps on court lines before or after points; and when he does cross a line, he always proceeds with his right foot first.

I was sitting in the bleachers at Fenway Park on the night of Sept. 2, 2001, when Yankee pitcher Mike Mussina was literally one strike away from a perfect game. I may have crossed my fingers, hoping to witness history — only 16 perfect games had been pitched to date. And then Carl Everett hit a bloop single. Someone must have violated baseball’s most sacrosanct superstition: never mention a no-hitter or perfect game while it is in progress.

Superstition twists the wishes that we extend to stage performers. We tell them to “break a leg” because, the story goes, saying “good luck” will bring them just the opposite.

Many cultures consider the number 13 to be bad luck. Some cite the betrayer Judas as the 13th guest at the Last Supper; others note the traditional 13 steps to a hangman’s gallows.

I can’t prove that pessimistic associations with the number 13 are justified, but I do have this: As a junior in high school, I wore number 13 on my away-game basketball jersey. Our team had a so-so year. I switched to number 30 the following season and we went 19 and 4. Sure, we had a better squad. But I wasn’t taking any chances.

In 1921, my maternal grandparents got married on superstition’s high holiday — Halloween. Their union spawned an extended Italian family, into whose lively and loving embrace I entered almost 40 years later. I was the 12th of Vincent and Etta’s 13 grandchildren.

I would tell you how happy and successful the 13th grandchild is, but I don’t want to jinx my younger brother.

 

Please Pass The Bread – And The Gravy

 

 

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As published in the Providence Journal on July 16, 2014.

My wife and I had only known each other for several weeks when she asked me a serious question: “Do you eat bread with every meal?”

My astonishment foreshadowed the mash-up of backgrounds that our eventual marriage would bring. “Don’t you?” I said.

Deb was raised in Canton, Conn., up in the hills northwest of Hartford. Lots of pine trees and farms and country roads — a great place to grow up. But the nearest Italian bakery was at least 30 minutes away.

I was raised in Providence. There were bakeries everywhere, and Italian bread was a staple at our supper table. When I learned the Lord’s Prayer at catechism, “give us this day our daily bread” made perfect sense to me.

Up on Federal Hill, where I worked at my grandfather’s baby clothes store, my aunts would send me to Scialo’s for bread. Papa had his own preferences. Driving home from the Hill to Elmhurst, he sometimes stopped his copper ’75 Olds Cutlass at Amore’s Bakery on Valley Street, or at a neighborhood market, where there might be a loaf of Crugnale’s. And on Sunday afternoons, with her gravy simmering on the stove, my mother would ask me to run up to La Salle Bakery for bread. As I bounded out the door, I’d hear the familiar refrain: “Don’t eat it all on the way back!”

I’d walk the eight blocks home, fresh loaf tucked under my arm like a football, further proof of Pavlov’s theory. I couldn’t resist tearing off the heel of the bread and biting into its flaky, crunching crust. When I got home, I’d tear another piece off and dip it into my mom’s burbling gravy before she could shoo me away.

“Gravy” was another point of courtship conversation for Deb and me. “You mean sauce, right?” she asked. “No, I mean gravy,” I replied.

My mother was a Pantalone, and on Sundays, she made “the gravy.” All my aunts made gravy, too. But I understood Deb’s puzzlement. As I moved beyond the Providence enclave of my upbringing — teeming with first- and second-generation Italian Americans — my use of the term gravy for tomato sauce had produced similar confusion in others. In college, a friend asked, “You put brown gravy on your pasta?”

A quick Google search shows that the gravy-versus-sauce debate is spirited and ongoing. This much seems clear: gravy, as my mom and aunts knew it, is a meat-based tomato sauce, cooked slowly for hours. The term is peculiar to Italian Americans in the northeastern United States. And, yes, it is red, with a hint of brown from the meat and a depth of cooked-tomato color that can make store-bought red sauces look like cheap ketchup.

The word “pasta,” which Deb used, revealed another instance where our vocabularies forked. It was always “macaroni” to me — any of the tubes or shells or twisting ribbons that, coated lightly with my mother’s gravy, made up the first course of Sunday dinner or Wednesday supper. I can hear my mom’s voice across the decades: “Have some more ’ronis.”

During our first trips to the market together, Deb laughed when she found me pondering the options in the pasta aisle (by then, pasta had entered my lexicon). I insisted that the different shapes had different tastes or, at the very least, different textures when cooked.

If nothing else, pasta presented a feast of melodic words and delicious etymologies: “farfalle” meant butterflies; “rotelle” translated as little wheels; “mostaccioli” were little mustaches (it is the staple macaroni in our house today); “cavatappi” meant corkscrews; “orecchiette” were little ears (though we called them pope’s hats because they resembled the pontiff’s zucchetto or skullcap).

After college, most of which I spent living on the East Side, I moved back to Federal Hill and rented an apartment near Holy Ghost Church. Next door stood a small bakery. Each morning, I’d awake to the smell of bread baking in the ovens. Heaven.

Fast-forward 31 years to last winter, when a sign appeared in the window of a vacant store on Main Street in East Greenwich: “Coming Soon: Palmieri’s Bakery.” I looked closely at the logo: “Federal Hill Tradition. Established 1898.” I couldn’t believe it: the legendary Providence bakery was opening a new location right around the corner from my house.

On the Sunday after Palmieri’s opened, I hustled down to Main Street and bought my first loaf. Walking home, I resisted the urge to tear off a chunk. But that didn’t last long. With the first bite, I was a kid again.

Back in my kitchen, I smiled as my daughter dipped her bread, with a communicant’s care, into my simmering gravy.

 

Why Punctuation Matters

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By East Greenwich Cove, a missing apostrophe turns a well-known idiom into a declarative sentence – not the quahaugger’s intent, most likely.

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