Sunday, December 21, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Site-Seeing -- ''A Word With You''

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

Web site review

XXX "A Word With You"

Those of us who write and edit for a living are undoubtedly predisposed to Web sites that deepen appreciation of language, so indulge us if we have "A Word With You" today.

A month-old, locally produced site by that name is having fun with a daily, online column and cartoon focusing on "little known facts about well-known words and phrases." OK - call them what many of them are - mini-essays on the derivations of cliches.

Kirkland author Lawrence Paros and Capitol Hill illustrator Dave Middleton have teamed up to artistically produce an imaginative, informative site that educates without taking itself too seriously.

Hard-core etymologists who get their weekly fix reading New York Times columnist William Safire may snicker, but less-esoteric word lovers will probably learn something without feeling lectured to.

There's sound, scholarly stuff at the "A Word With You" site, but also a strong whimsical side, evidenced straight off by digital portraits Paros and Middleton upload of "themselves." Paros appears as Telly Savalas of "Kojak" fame, and Middleton as William Tallman, who played Hamilton Burger, the hapless district attorney who never won a case against Perry Mason.

Middleton's drawings have an op-ed, lithographic look that Paros' essays play off. For example, a November column features a Middleton sketch of a legislator holding forth from a podium while his colleagues snooze on congressional cots. From Paros we learn the origin of the phrase "bunk":

A mediocre North Carolina congressman named Felix Walker who served in the early 1800s felt compelled, during a debate on the Missouri Compromise, to make a speech for Buncombe, a county in his district. The speech was so long and so boring that it emptied the chambers.

Buncombe became "bunkum," later shortened to "bunk," to designate empty or insincere talk now linked to elected officials everywhere.

Another cartoon-column combo depicts a bunch of turkeys sitting around a table saying "gobble" to one another with the essay explaining the origin of "talking turkey":

A federal report issued in the mid-19th century related how "a white man and an Indian had gone hunting together. All went well until it came time to divide the spoils. The Indian sat quietly by while the white man did the sorting, `A turkey for me, a crow for you, a crow for you, a turkey for me. . . .'

"Unable to restrain himself any longer, the Indian finally broke in with, `You only talk turkey for you, only talk crow for me.' "

The site also offers an amusing, daily hangman-style game called "Dunceinstein" in which players are given a clue for a word or phrase, then choose letters of the alphabet from a virtual keyboard below.

In the works, says Paros, is a children's section to be entitled, "A Word With You, Junior," or "Amazin' Word," which will show the interconnectedness "of words and phrases."

Paros acknowledges an amateurish quality to the site, which two University of Washington computer-science students help maintain. Visitors are encouraged to send recommendations on how to make it better.

Also coming, says Paros, will be links to major word sites. Among the candidates: Dave Wilton's Etymological Sources (http:// /source.htm); Richard Lederer's Verbivore (http://pw1.netcom .com/rlederer/index.htm) and Jesse's Word of the Day ( /jesse/). - Peter Lewis Seattle Times staff reporter

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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