A typically multifarious post from The Daily Growler goes on to discuss burgoos, structuralism, golf, and Mezz Mezzrow, but it starts with a reminiscence of how the Growler learned to speak and write:

I could already “speak” by the time I entered public school; I was taught not to use contractions, especially “ain’t,” a forbidden word in my house. “Is not, young man, and if I catch you saying that word again, I’ll wash your mouth out with Lava soap” [an exceptionally harsh soap said to have been made from volcanic pumice ash] and I was afraid of my folks when it came to proper language; they really would have washed my mouth out with Lava had I tried to get away with using it again.

Also I could write fairly well with pen and ink before I went to 1st grade thanks to my dad’s obsession with fine pens and with the fine penmanship you could become capable of developing using one of those fine “writing instruments,” as my dad called them. He would take one of his beautiful fountain pens, he had a gold-tipped Sheaffer that was a pen among pens to him and cost him an arm and a leg that he taught me to write with […] my dad would take his fine Sheaffer pen and he would show me how to write, like starting with the alphabet, you know, holding my hand and then moving it to form each letter—teaching me to use a square-topped A—my dad’s style—his first name beginning with an A; and then a fancy B, I later think he got from seeing a letter B in German, each letter having to be printed or scripted in his certain ways, on and on, etc. Then he taught me how to sign my name—he could sign his name backwards and upsidedown; sometimes, if you caught him in a show-off mood, he would sign his name forwards and backwards at the same time. Then, using the Good Book of the Christian World of Fables, he taught me grammar and, by golly, I was growling pretty correct sentences when I entered first grade. Besides, all that prepping had caused me to develop into a little smartass know-it-all. I was amazed at how advanced I was with knowledge-seeking tools over those other just-plain kiddie dumbos who competed with me in first grade. I was a little man; they were pencil necked geeks. I knew how to spell words correctly too, another discipline taught to me by my dad who loved to read the dictionary and loved the idea of spelling bees. My dad loved learning to spell, pronounce, and use-in-sentences big words, and of course I knew how to spell “antidisestablishmentarianism” before I was 5.

I learned to write and spell early, too, but I didn’t get to use any fine Sheaffer pens. Now I feel deprived.


  1. Me too. I didn’t discover fountain pens (I started with Sheaffer) until high school.
    Fountain pens are one of the few area in which adding precious metals provides a functional benefit, since a gold nib is more flexible and thus writes better than a steel nib.

  2. I’ll wash your mouth out with Lava soap” [an exceptionally harsh soap said to have been made from volcanic pumice ash]
    As far as I know, the name of Lava soap was an intentional pun — referring to the Latin lavare, “to wash,” as well as to the abrasive pumice grit contained in the soap.

  3. David Marjanović says


  4. When I was about 10, my friends and I collected fountain pens, albeit casually; there is something about the blue of fountain pen ink, and they are infinitely more appealing than biros. I probably had about 8 at one time–but they were cheap, not lavish gold-plated variants. I’ve never had a really expensive one: it would be nice now, but then the computer has completely superseded the pen for me. From what I understand gold-plate is better mainly because it doesn’t deform in heat, etc.

  5. I had a Lamy fountain pen I loved very much. But the frustrating thing about them is that one must remove the ink cartridge from the pen before boarding a flight, since otherwise due to changes in air pressure they tend to leak ink rather badly all over the place.
    Sadly, the pen was was taken away from me during a terrible connection at a London airport a few weeks ago. The carry-on baggage screener didn’t even want to let an empty fountain pen through. :-\

  6. Dear LH
    You once did me the favor of mentioning my blogproductions kindly here. Perhaps you won’t mind then if I send you this link to my latest production in which I describe the hilarious experience of learning Thai. (Which apparently, no longer is sino-tibetan). It’s here . Many thanks and I apologize in advance if I have committed a blogpshere faux pas.
    Warm regards
    Sir G, Knight

  7. I never had Sheaffer.
    Was presented with Parker.

  8. I’ll wash your mouth out with Lava soap
    So, ah… I’ll is not a contraction?

  9. Gawain: No, no, I appreciate such links — it’s the spam ones I have to clean out every morning I object to! This rings all too true:
    My classmates are not bothered by the tones. They memorize and speak toneless Thai, something at the parsing of which the teacher is by now quite adept, with the result that they can have meaningful conversations with each other (You like beer? Oh, yes, I like beer. Do you prefer whisky? No, I prefer beer. Etc.) in a language no Thai speaker understands (even if they could see themselves having this sort of conversation).
    I balked at learning Thai when I lived there as a kid, and now I fear I haven’t got the stamina…
    Noetica: Ah, but he’s no longer under the thumb of his prescriptivist parents!

  10. Except that he’s quoting his father on banning contractions by *using* a contraction… all too typical of the prescriptive crowd, by the way, as a comparison between anything White wrote with The Elements of Style will show you.

  11. Except that he’s quoting his father on banning contractions by *using* a contraction… all too typical of the prescriptive crowd, by the way, as a comparison between anything White wrote with Strunk & White’s “horrible little book” will show you.

  12. David Marjanović says

    I have a similar experience with toneless Mandarin. But there, because of all the bisyllabic words, understanding it without the tones is presumably easier… it still won’t get you understood much in China, though.

  13. David Marjanović says

    Oh, and Thai hasn’t been Sino-Tibetan anymore for quite a while. It doesn’t seem to have much in common with the Sino-Tibetan languages other than tones, short words, simple syllables, and presumably lots of loans in both directions.

  14. David Marjanović says

    Having read the page, Thai has a lot in common — with Chinese. I don’t know how widespread those features are within Sino-Tibetan. Tibetan lacks tones, for example, except for a dialect that has acquired them rather recently. Some reconstructions of Old Chinese get by without tones as well. Looks like massive loans (of words and grammatical particles especially) from southern Sinitic languages. Compare Singlish (which has a nice Wikipedia article).

  15. michael farris says

    NB (add ‘I think’ AFAIK or IIRC to pretty much all the following sentences.
    Typologically Chinese and Thai are pretty different. Thai is very strongly head initial (sometimes called SVO) and Chinese is mixed, partly head initial but a lot of head final (also called SOV) features as well. Tibetan and Burmese are strongly head final.
    Thai is also pro-drop (you can talk a long time with no subjects whatsoever from what I hear) while Chinese isn’t.
    The behavior of classifiers is also somewhat different in Thai and Chinese I believe (and Thai has no default classifier but sometimes the noun can be repeated as its own classifer, sathaanii khoong sathaanii (two stations, the second is the classifier).

  16. Surely, all the emphasis on penmanship and taking the time to painstakingly render each letter ultimately boils down to nostalgia.
    The day of the pen is gone and the world has moved on to word processors. People are more likely to type out their homework nowadays than to write it out on a piece of paper.

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