Tuesday, May 12, 2009


As I have mentioned before, I am a word nerd. Today I would like to introduce you to my favorite sentence in the English language, but before I do, I need to first introduce you to all of the subtleties of the remarkable word that makes this sentence possible: "buffalo."

The word "buffalo" has a number of different meanings. First and foremost, it is used to describe various species from several different genera of large, bovine mammals, including Syncerus (including the African Cape buffalo), Bubalus (including the Asian water buffalo) and Bison (including the American buffalo, or bison).

By the way, all of those who claim that it is only proper to refer to the American version as "bison," you need to get off your "one true buffalo" high horse. Not only is buffalo an extremely common, generic term (the etymology traces back to Greek bous, "cow"), but it was the only English term used for more than a hundred years after the American animal was first discovered by Europeans.

"Buffalo" is an ancient, poetic word that flaunts modern conventions. While you sometimes see "buffaloes" as a plural form, it is most often used as a collective noun, so that its plural form matches the singular: "a herd of buffalo" not "a herd of buffaloes." This is important for the linguistic gymnastics it performs in my favorite sentence.

Buffalo is also a common place name; most notably it is the name of a large city on the shore of Lake Erie in upstate New York. And it can be used as an adjective to describe things associated with that city: "I hear Buffalo winters are brutal."

Finally, "buffalo" can be used as a transitive verb meaning "to intimidate by a display of power": "As mayor, I tried to buffalo the officer into not writing me a ticket, but it backfired and I ended up in jail."

Now a word about buffalo society. (Notice the lowercase b.) It is clear that the meaning of the verb is derived from the behavior of the animals. It is the nature of buffalo to buffalo; it's just what they do. A buffalo will buffalo anything that it can: people, bears, prairie dogs, you name it.

It should also come as no surprise that buffalo can and will buffalo other buffalo. And while buffalo herds do move around a bit, in general it is safe to say that Kansas buffalo will interact in this way with other buffalo from Kansas, as opposed to, say, buffalo from Wyoming.

And so here we come to our payoff, because if asked to describe the social interactions of buffalo in upstate New York (as I'm sure you will some day), the first thing that should now spring to mind is my favorite sentence of all time:

Buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

P.S. - You can also say "Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo." That's eight buffalo in a row, if you're counting. This version is grammatical in theory, but it really does stretch the rules of English grammar beyond all practicality. As a courtesy to the listener, the speaker of the eight-word version would almost have to insert some extra words to preserve the flow of the sentence: "Buffalo buffalo whom Buffalo buffalo buffalo in turn buffalo other Buffalo buffalo." Because of this, as opposed to the five-word version, I can't see myself ever using it.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Cogito ergo dim sum

The universe can be as mysterious as you want it to be, but if you're brave enough to know the truth, I am going to spell it out for you here.

At the end of your meal in a Chinese restaurant, they will bring each diner a cookie with a piece of paper inside it. You do not have to eat the cookie - there is no effort made to make it taste remotely edible anyway - but you do have to open the cookie, remove the paper and read it. Inside is your fortune. Failing to read it will not change it.

Of course, all of the fortunes are good, right? No Chinese restaurant wants to print fortunes that say "you are going to die of swine flu this year" or "your relationship will end in heartbreak." That doesn't bode well for repeat visits.

But not every customer can actually be lucky. In fact, such is the nature of this cruel, finite universe that every life sees its fair share of pain, misery and disappointment, and even the mightiest among us will finally succumb to death in the end. You may have a few laughs along the way, but make no mistake about it: your life is a tragedy not a comedy, and your story will end badly.

But back to fortune cookies. Don't be fooled! There are two kinds of cookies: those that provide a fortune, usually good ("unexpected money will come your way"), and those that make no claim about telling the future whatsoever ("you are well liked by your peers").

The former type should be believed to a fault, as they are never wrong. If the cookie says you're going to get a new job and a big raise, immediately quit your current job and enjoy the time off: you've earned it! If it says you will soon meet the love of your life, dump your current significant other as fast as you can, because he/she is only slowing you down.

However, I am sorry to say that the second kind of cookie always lies. If it does not predict your future, then there is simply nothing good in your future to predict. It says, "you have a warm heart and a friendly smile" - do you really buy that even for a second? No, you know as well as anyone that you're a douche bag. The cookie is trying to let you down easy, but I feel compelled to inform you that there is bad luck headed your way. Probably really bad luck. There is a new death every 0.57 seconds after all. Approximately 212 people have died just since you started reading this blog post. I'm just saying.

Then again, because the cookie spares you the grisly details, there's nothing you can do about it and really no use worrying about it. As you read your so-called fortune, push the negative thoughts out of your mind and bury them deep inside. Read the fortune out loud and add the words "...in bed" to the end to enjoy a good laugh with the people around you.

Enjoy it while you can.