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Fine Distinctions

Telling Tales

A man and a lion once found a stone statue depicting an athlete strangling one of those giant cats. The man said, “We humans are the strongest creatures on earth!” The lion answered, “If we lions could sculpt, the statue would tell an entirely different story.”

Illustration by Lauren Simkin Berke

Of Locusts and Grasshoppers

They were the eighth plague visited upon Egypt: When Pharaoh refused to free the people of Israel, Exodus tells us, Moses stretched out his staff and a wind rose from the east, blowing hard for one day until a vast swarm of locusts arrived. So great was the size of the swarm that the land appeared black, and so voracious that in a matter of moments every tree and stalk was stripped bare of fruit and grain.

Illustration by Lauren Simkin Berke

Mountains and Hills (and Molehills)

Is Mount Everest the tallest mountain on Earth? It would certainly seem to qualify. Chinese geographers tell us that it measures 29,017 feet, while Nepali geographers make it a skosh short of 29,029 feet. The National Geographic Society adds another six feet to the count, a figure the Encyclopaedia Britannica endorses, following measurements taken by an American expedition twenty years ago.

Illustration by Lauren Simkin Berke

Civility vs. Decency

A spokesperson for a divisive president is turned away from a restaurant. That president delights in dog-whistle insults that fall just short of outright ethnic slurs—usually. A white woman calls the police on a black child selling water on a city street on a beastly hot day. A patron who hasn’t been turned away from a restaurant leaves a note for the server, who bears an Arabic name, saying, “We don’t tip terrorist [sic].”

Illustration by Lauren Simkin Berke

Sport vs. Game

Toward the end of the film version of Peter Gent’s corrosively sarcastic football yarn North Dallas Forty, a lineman played by real-life gridiron hero John Matuszak throws a fit upon hearing one more you’re-not-worthy upbraiding from a sniveling, corporate-minded coach. “To you it’s just a business, but to us it’s still gotta be a sport,” he shouts. “Every time I call it a game you call it a business, and every time I call it a business you call it a game!”

On Vonnegut’s Karass vs. Granfalloon

Last summer, I traveled to Northern Virginia to attend the fortieth reunion of my high-school class. As I entered the hotel ballroom and surveyed the scene, a couple of questions inevitably came to mind: “Who are all these old people?” “Where are my people?”

Raven vs. Crow

"Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore.’” Quoth the raven. Why not quoth the curlew? Quoth the grackle? Quoth the—well, the crow?

 

Science Fiction vs. Fantasy

Whereas the proto–science fiction of a century past (H. G. Wells, Octavia E. Butler, Edgar Rice Burroughs) looked to a bright if complex future, we can now scarcely imagine one that’s not irredeemably awful. 

Jelly vs. Jam

If there is an epicene, all-encompassing term for the shivering, shimmering stuff with which we adorn sandwiches, toast, and other baked goods, then it is not “jam,” not “conserves,” not “preserves,” not “fruit spread” or “spreadable fruit,” but “jelly.”

Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Expulsion of Adam and Eve From the Garden of Eden, 1860.

Shame vs. Guilt

You borrow a book from a friend, knowing full well that you’ll never return it. You sleep with another friend’s spouse. You drink too much at a party, then drive home, merrily exceeding the speed limit.

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