Dispatches > Quick Takes

Quick Takes

Issue: "No man's land," May 10, 2003

One wedding and a funeral

Johannes Fransen's relatives didn't want him to miss his granddaughter's wedding in New Zealand last month-so much so that they placed his lifeless body in an open coffin in the church during the service. The 79-year-old gardener had died two days earlier. "People just went up to see him," said mother of the bride Nancy James. "It really helped everybody, including Mum, who wanted to be with Dad."

New York state of mind

Troy C. Stephani may have been impaired by the crack he was smoking, but he certainly made a mistake when he accidentally turned into a police headquarters parking lot while trying to evade Suffolk County, N.Y., authorities on April 26. Mr. Stephani fled from police in a 1989 box truck after they had pulled him over that evening. Police say he told them that he fled because "he wanted to finish smoking the crack cocaine that he had in his truck."

Life imitates Seinfeld

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Perhaps the editors of the New Oxford American Dictionary have been watching Seinfeld reruns. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that editors of the prestigious dictionary were considering adding a new entry for the phrase, "Shut up!" to its lexicon. In the 1990s sitcom, the character Elaine Benes would shove Jerry or another character and say "Shut up!" when she wished to express surprise or amusement. Linguists say the phrase is a good example of amelioration-a process in which a word loses its negative meanings. "Shut up" meant "to withhold one's money or kindness from a person" in 16th-century England. By the 19th century, it meant "keep quiet." Now, says senior editor Erin McKean, the phrase can also "express amazement or disbelief." Editors of the dictionary are also considering the addition of "bling-bling," a hip-hop word denoting bright, audacious jewelry.

Good publicity gone bad

Kris Leija of Abilene, Texas, may have been famous for 15 minutes, but he quickly became infamous. Mr. Leija became a local hero last week when he raced into a burning Abilene apartment building three times to rescue four children. But during a television interview with Mr. Leija, sheriff's Lt. Carol Taylor recognized him as the subject of an outstanding warrant: The hero was also a convicted burglar who had missed a meeting with his probation officer. Lt. Taylor, who arrested Mr. Leija after the interview, says she still admires his heroism: "He just should have been more responsible about his personal matters."

Ring of truth?

If the key to a successful prank is making it close enough to reality to seem believable, then some students at Boiling Springs High School in Carlisle, Pa., seemed to hit the mark last week. The students sent a letter on school-district letterhead to parents promising that the school would provide hotel rooms and condoms to students on prom night. The letter apparently made Boiling Springs parents' blood boil until school officials called it a hoax.

Man knows not his time

We weren't laughing at Charles Douglass's invention, we were laughing with it. Most Americans never heard of Mr. Douglass himself, but he transformed the way they watched television. The engineer and inventor developed the "Laff Box," a forerunner to the laugh track. Mr. Douglass died last month at age 93. The laugh track works as a psychological trick. It tells people that others find a certain joke funny and encourages them to laugh along. Mr. Douglass collected all sorts of laughs and chuckles and used them in a contraption that inserts them as sound effects. Mr. Douglass's invention "does something far more valuable" than command a viewer to laugh, explained Paul Farhi in The Washington Post. "It replicates for the viewer the experience of others laughing. Since people watch TV in isolation, the laugh track creates the illusion that one is part of an actual audience."

A bad hat day

Perhaps Robin Loftin of Carlsbad, N.M., was trying to be respectful last month when he removed his hat as Judge Walter Parr entered an Eddy County courtroom, but he ended up being charged with contempt of court and spending two days in jail. The problem: A marijuana joint fell from his hat onto the floor. According to court records, Mr. Loftin was in Judge Parr's courtroom on charges of driving with a suspended driver's license and failure to renew his vehicle registration.

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