News of the Week: Words of the Year, Why We Say ‘Um,’ and (Literally) Half-Off Christmas Trees

And the Word of the Year Is…

Cursive writing on old paper

This week Merriam-Webster announced their “Word of the Year,” and it’s pickles. I know, I’m stunned too!

Okay, the word is actually feminism. I don’t have to explain why that is the biggest word of 2017, but you can read more about it at Merriam-Webster’s site. And it’s not the only important word chosen by the venerable language company. Other words of the year include complicitrecuseempathydotard, and … gyro? I don’t remember that being a big word this year; apparently Jimmy Fallon did a gyro-based comedy sketch with country singer Luke Bryan and suddenly everyone was talking about gyros, I guess.

Part of the reason the words were chosen is because they’re the words people searched for the most during the year after hearing them in the news, online, and in pop culture.

I still think pickles will be big in 2018. You can put them in a gyro.

As Judge Judy Says, Um Is Not an Answer

We have, um, a lot of verbal tics that we often say. They’re, um, a way of thinking of what we want to say, sort of a verbal, um, placeholder. A lot of people think that it’s, um, better than stopping for a second and saying, um, nothing.

Isn’t it annoying when the ums we say are written out like that? Of course! I often wonder why people don’t fight harder to stop using the word (if we can even call it a word). I’ve done it myself in the past, though it’s really a bad habit we should try to break. But why do people do it? This article at The Atlantic attempts to explain it. Writer Julie Beck talks to N.J. Enfield, a professor and author of the book How We Talk. He actually sees some use in um. He calls it a “hesitation marker,” and it can be useful in conversation.

I guess it could be worse. I was once in a coffee shop and overheard a job interview at the next table. The interviewee must have said “like” 100 times in the span of five minutes.

To the Moon (and Mars), Alice!

First off, I hope you got that reference.

Second, as someone who has been a space geek since he was a kid, I think this is exciting news. President Trump signed a directive this week that will “refocus America’s space program on human exploration and discovery.” With former astronaut Harrison Schmitt at his side, the president announced new projects to send humans back to the moon and eventually to Mars. It’s called “Space Policy Directive – 1,” which isn’t the most romantic name, but it does have a certain Star Trek feel about it.

Facebook Is Bad, Say People Who Helped Create Facebook

People under large hands giving thumbs down

A billion people use Facebook, but a lot of them are getting tired of it. Some have cut down on the number of times they post or even check it, and some have deleted their accounts altogether. It’s probably always going to be popular, but you’re starting to hear more and more people fighting against its influence and pull.

But you rarely hear those things from people who actually had a hand in it becoming the online force that it is. The past couple of weeks, we’ve heard from two different former Facebook honchos who say that maybe Facebook (and social media in general) isn’t worth it. Former Facebook President Sean Parker says, “I don’t know if I really understood the consequences of what I was saying, because of the unintended consequences of a network when it grows to a billion or two billion people and it literally changes your relationship with society, with each other … God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”

Former Vice President of User Growth Chamath Palihapitiya was even more blunt, saying, “I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.” He says he feels “tremendous guilt” about what he has done. Facebook has actually responded to the criticism.

Maybe you should deactivate your Facebook account and see how it goes? Make it a New Year’s resolution. Who knows, you might even like not being connected to everyone and everything all the time.

But wait a couple of weeks before you do it, because I want you to head over to our Facebook page and share this column with your friends.

O Christmas Half-Tree, O Christmas Half-Tree

Christmas pine needles on a wooden floor

Last week I brought up the “real vs. artificial Christmas tree” debate, and from what I heard from readers, a lot of people like real and a lot of people like artificial, with maybe a slight edge to the real tree crowd. The other day, a supermarket cashier went on and on to me about the virtues of a real tree. I didn’t feel like getting into a discussion with her about why I like artificial trees (plus my ice cream was melting).

But what if real or fake isn’t the problem you face? Maybe it’s space. That’s where this Christmas half-tree comes in. It’s a tree that’s sliced down the middle, so it lies flush with the wall. It’s artificial, and stores in Britain are selling it for around $130.

If you really have no room, you can put your Christmas tree directly on the wall.

The Best and the Worst

Best: A new holiday tune from Dick Van Dyke and Jane Lynch, “We’re Going Caroling.” Van Dyke turned 92 on Wednesday, and he’s twice as active as I am.

Worst: This Slate article that dumps on Hallmark Channel Christmas movies. Now, feel free to critique the movies for how they’re made or the plots or the dialogue or the fact that it seems like 400 new ones are pumped out every year (I find them oddly comforting), but the author of the piece makes the whole discussion political and sour, as if we need any more of that.

This Week in History

Frank Sinatra Born (December 12, 1915)

Ol’ Blue Eyes would have turned 102 this week. There’s a new Sinatra holiday album titled Ultimate Christmas, and it includes this song, written in 1954 by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne. According to Sinatra’s daughter Nancy, Frank wanted a new Christmas song that would be his, and Cahn and Styne came up with “The Christmas Waltz.” It was the B-side to “White Christmas.”

Bill of Rights Ratified (December 15, 1791)

The first ten amendments to the Constitution were created in 1789 and ratified two years later. President Roosevelt declared December 15 Bill of Rights Day in 1941.

This Week in Saturday Evening Post History: Christmas Train Set (December 15, 1956)

Christmas Train Set
December 15, 1956
George Hughes

Do kids still get train sets for Christmas, or is there now an app for that? I don’t know, but my favorite thing about this cover by George Hughes is the guy on the left. He seems to be looking directly at the artist and thinking, “Yeah, draw me, whatever.”

Today Is National Cupcake Day


Remember three or four years ago when cupcakes were the hottest thing? Cupcake shops popped up everywhere, and it seemed like every food show on television revolved around cupcakes. Then they just faded away, replaced by kale and fidget spinners and HQ Trivia.

Good Housekeeping has 28 Christmas-oriented cupcakes you can make for National Cupcake Day, including ones that look like snowballs, reindeer, Christmas trees, Santa hats, and even Ebenezer Scrooge. If you’re feeling like the actual Ebenezer Scrooge and don’t want cupcakes that remind you of Christmas, try these Oreo Cupcakes.

Hey, you know what you should do on Christmas morning? Fill your kids’ stockings with kale. The joy on their faces will be priceless, and you can post the pictures to Facebook.

Next Week’s Holidays and Events

Winter Begins (December 21)

The Winter Solstice for the Northern Hemisphere begins at 11:28 a.m. EST. There’s also something called a “Meteorological Winter” and that began December 1, but that’s just confusing, so forget I even mentioned it.

Crossword Puzzle Day (December 21)

This marks the day in 1913 that the first official crossword puzzle was published. You can try to solve it at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament site. I couldn’t finish it.

News of the Week: Sinatra, Silver Bells, and Scotch Whisky

Frank Sinatra’s 100th

Ol’ Blue Eyes would have turned 100 tomorrow, and many people and publications are celebrating his impact on music and culture. USA Today has a list of 10 ways he changed the world; The Guardian has a list of the best songs from Sinatra’s Capitol Record years; James Kaplan has a Wall Street Journal essay on why we’ll still be listening to Sinatra decades from now; and George Will calls him the greatest American singer of all time. Last weekend CBS had an All-Star Grammy Concert to celebrate his 100 years, with performances by Lady Gaga, Tony Bennett, Harry Connick Jr., Carrie Underwood, and Adam Levine, among others; and December is Sinatra Month on Turner Classic Movies. They’re showing Sinatra movies and specials every Wednesday night for the entire month.

It’s really hard to pick my favorite Sinatra song. He recorded so many albums that I’ll be listening to the Siriusly Sinatra channel on SiriusXM and I’ll hear a song I’ve never heard before, which is amazing after listening to him for so many years. If I had to pick one? The live version of Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” with Count Basie.

Who First Sang ‘Silver Bells’? Fred Mertz!

He was no Sinatra, but the very first person to sing the classic Christmas song “Silver Bells” was Lucy and Ricky’s friend and landlord on I Love Lucy. Well, okay, it was the actor who played him, William Frawley. He sings the first part of the song (with his own lyrics) in the 1951 movie, The Lemon Drop Kid, where the song made its debut:

Most of the song was sung by Bob Hope and Marilyn Maxwell, but it’s a cool little piece of trivia that Frawley actually started it. It’s such a classic song that it seems like it has been around a lot longer than the 1950s.

The Lemon Drop Kid is a fun movie, by the way. It’s one of those movies that doesn’t get mentioned enough as a Christmas movie.

RIP, Robert Loggia

A lot has already been written about the veteran actor, who passed away last week at the age of 85. He was fantastic in everything he did, from his roles in TV shows like T.H.E. Cat and Mancuso, FBI to dancing on the keys with Tom Hanks in the movie Big. He also did a TV commercial many years ago that is still one of my favorites:

I remember seeing it for the first time and thinking, What the hell? Why is Robert Loggia doing an orange juice commercial? It’s one of the few times I’ve laughed out loud at a commercial because it’s so clever and perfect.

Playboy’s Final Nude Issue Cover Girl Is …

Pamela Anderson
(Mercy For Animals MFA /

… Betty White! I know, I was surprised too!

All right, the woman who will grace the cover of the final Playboy that will feature nude photos is actually Pamela Anderson. The January/February 2016 issue will be Anderson’s 14th time on the cover, which is a record. The issue will include an interview with Anderson conducted by James Franco along with a 12-page photo spread (with Anderson, not Franco).

We told you a while back that Playboy will stop having nude models in the print edition. That’s what the Internet is for.

For the record, the final nude centerfold in Playboy will be Kristy Garett.

Changes at Barnes & Noble

How does a brick-and-mortar bookstore survive in the age of Amazon? Maybe sell a lot more than books.

New Barnes & Noble CEO Ron Boire has a plan to change the retail chain, which has been going through some tough times the past several years facing store closings and online competition. He wants to make Barnes & Noble not just a place you can get books but also a “lifestyle brand,” a place where you can get toys, gadgets, games, and other gifts (in addition to the non-book products they already sell). Oh, and coffee and lunch too, for the Barnes & Noble locations that have cafés.

As I’ve mentioned before here, I was in a Barnes & Noble recently and saw that they’re now selling vinyl albums and turntables. Maybe that’s part of this new strategy. This could be a great thing, but I hope it doesn’t mean that some day Barnes & Noble will change into a place that sells toys and gifts and, oh yeah, we have some books too.

Ticks the Season!

Christmas Trees for Sale
(Shutterstock / © Cynthia Farmer)

As if you didn’t have enough problems to worry about with real Christmas trees, from their price to the trees drying out to having to drag them to the curb in January, here comes a new one: ticks! Seems that some of the trees from the Northeast might have some unwelcome inhabitants because of the warm weather we’ve had the past few months. Don’t spray it with insecticide though. It’s flammable. Instead, shake the tree a lot before you bring it in the house.

Now when people ask me how I can possibly prefer an artificial tree to a real one, I’ll just say, “Hey, no ticks!”

Nick Offerman Nipping at Your Nose

The Internet is filled with superlatives. It’s not enough that something is good and enjoyable, everything has to be THE BEST THING THAT HAS EVER BEEN ON THE INTERNET or THE GREATEST VIDEO YOU’VE EVER SEEN or YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHAT HAPPENS NEXT IN THIS VIDEO CLICK HERE! It has gotten to the point of being silly, inaccurate, and just plain ridiculous.

Having said that, this video might just be THE GREATEST VIDEO YOU’VE EVER SEEN. You know those Yule logs that we see on various TV stations during the Christmas season, just an endless video of a crackling fire on our screens that give our living rooms a warm glow and a sense of the holiday season? Here’s a new entry, with a twist: 45 minutes of actor Nick Offerman sitting next to the Yule log, enjoying some Lagavulin.

It’s best if you know Parks and Recreation and picture Offerman as his character Ron Swanson, deciding to just sit in his chair and stare straight ahead while drinking his single-malt Scotch whisky, waiting for his hearty steak dinner to be ready. Expand the video to full-screen and turn up the volume and leave it on while you’re wrapping gifts.

National ‘Have a Bagel’ Day

It’s today, and it shouldn’t be confused with National Bagel Day, which was February 9. I don’t know what the difference is. Maybe on National Bagel Day you can celebrate the bagel as long as you don’t actually “have” one.

How about some Christmas bagels? Here’s a recipe from the Eclectic Recipes site that turns ordinary bagels into Pizza Bagel Wreaths, with broccoli or spinach for the greenery and red peppers for the bow.

I don’t know what you can do if your kids don’t like broccoli or spinach. Maybe a little pesto? Just don’t tell them about the basil leaves.

Upcoming Events and Anniversaries

Dick Van Dyke born (December 13, 1925)

Van Dyke just turned 90 and has a new book out, Keep Moving and Other Tips and Truths About Aging.

George Washington dies (December 14, 1799)

The Saturday Evening Post has had many covers over the years focusing on our first president.

Glenn Miller disappears (December 15, 1944)

Glenn Miller
See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Miller’s plane vanished over the English Channel, and while a cause has never been officially declared, many people think the plane was accidentally bombed.

The Battle of the Bulge starts (December 16, 1944)

The battle on the Western Front in Europe lasted until January 25, 1945.

A Christmas Carol is published (December 17, 1843)

Author Charles Dickens inspired Norman Rockwell to create several covers for The Saturday Evening Post.