Hey, I Own Those Words

Originality is a good thing. Like variety, it's the spice of life. Unfortunately we spend too much time without it, such as when we watch TV sitcoms which cause deja vu flashbacks ("Wow, another incestuous group of friends who don't appear to have jobs and say the cutest things!"), listen to boy bands and adolescent virgin slut singers who came out of the same Garanimals factory ("Justin's the bad boy. The rebel is in the Backstreet Boys."), and read books which wouldn't know a new concept if they tried to teach us how to come up with one ("I want Chewing Gum For Complete Morons, not Juicy Fruit for Dummies."). But that doesn't mean fresh ideas aren't out there. You just have to look hard.

Whatever you do, don't look too hard for it in history books. Recently historian Stephen Ambrose was found to have plagiarized passages in several of his books. Then another historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin, admitted to -- whoops! -- forgetting to attribute portions of one of her books to the real author. They're far from the first people to be discovered copying other's work. George Harrison lifted the melody to He's So Fine, Martin Luther King cribbed parts of someone else's thesis to include in his own, and when I say that if you steal from one author it's plagiarism but if you steal from many it's research, I'm doing the same thing. (NOTE: I could tell you who I stole that line from and then it wouldn't be plagiarism, but that wouldn't be any fun, now would it?)

There's really no excuse for plagiarism. After all, according to the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary (motto: "So many words, so few places to use them unless you want to sound like you have a stick up your butt") there are 615,100 words in the English language. Thus it would seem there should be a nearly infinite number of word combinations one could use.

Unfortunately it doesn't actually work that way. Not if you want it to make sense, anyway. Interestingly, the Bible uses only 20,000 different words, which is a measly 3.25 percent of those it could contain. How disappointing! Personally I would have expected a lot more from God.

Then there's Shakespeare. Even though English Lit majors think he is god, he used only 4,000 more words than the Bible-writing one. And that includes a lot of words he made up, like doest, wouldeth, wherefore, and spooge. Just kidding. Actually he stole that last one from the Farrelly Brothers.

Even so, writers have a much larger vocabulary to work with than musicians and no one seems to complain about them. For example, most blues songs use three chords which are played in 12-measure segments repeated throughout the song. That makes for a very limited number of musical combinations and, face it, they've all been done. A million times. Over and over. And over. So please, stop it already, will you?

People are possessive about the words they use, and rightly so. After all, I don't want others quoting me without attribution, co-writing credit, lots of money, and adoration. Make that adulation. But lately people have become obsessive about their words. The Todd M. Beamer Foundation, established in the name of the man on Flight 93 who called his wife on September 11 just before the plane went down and was heard to say, "Let's roll," has applied for a trademark on the phrase. For that matter, so have at least a dozen other people who may or may not have said it during their lifetime but have printed it on T-shirts. It's true Beamer said it. And it's true it was a strong rallying cry that was appropriated on clothing, in songs, and at craps tables everywhere. But it's hardly new or unique.

Trademarks are, after all, intended to show origin. That's why the French have a lock on the word champagne, which makes sense since it designates that the sparkling wine comes from Champagne. Georgia has a law that Vidalia onions must come from the Vidalia area, also a good idea. But recently President Bush got carried away when he declared that catfish from other countries can't be called catfish here in the U.S. This is true. Calling them kittyfish, swimming pussies, and floating hairballs are all okay, but not catfish. Or bottom feeders, since the American Bar Association claims that's reserved for its members.

If this keeps up, the next step will be for the president to decide that no one else can be named George Bush. Especially once he finds out there's one residing in the California prison system. Of course he can take solace in knowing he's not alone in having his good name besmirched. It turns out there are prisoners in California sharing the names of 27 U.S. presidents, including John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Ronald Reagan, and William Clinton. There's also a Benjamin Franklin, Dan Quayle, and Jesus Christ, though the last one had his name changed to that so he could say "Yes" whenever the warden asks, "Jesus Christ, are you here again?"

So choose your words carefully. You never know when you're trespassing on someone else's previously coined phrase. And while it may be good to forgive those who trespass against us, not everyone will be so beneficent. They might just hire a catfish -- I mean, bottom feeder -- and take you to court over it.

More Mad Dog can be found online at: www.maddogproductions.com.

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