One day the teacher — it might have been Miss Riordan, my second-grade teacher — meted out plasticene to us: greasy, smelly, glistening cold elephant-colored never-hard modelling clay for us to be creative with. There wasn’t quite enough to go around, though. Two children remained empty-handed, so I was sent to the class next door to borrow enough for them. There I asked the neighboring teacher — Miss Hamm, I guess — for “two people’s worth of plasticene.” She laughed. I felt resentful because I was just a kid doing my best to follow instructions, but I went back to Miss Riordan and said, “Miss Hamm sends regards and here’s two people’s worth of plasticene.” She laughed the same laugh and I felt not just resentful but colluded against.
I don’t remember what I shaped the plasticene into, but that afternoon I spoke to my mother regarding the ridicule. She said, “It makes no sense to say ‘two people’s worth of plasticene,’ because you don’t pay for plasticene with people.” With regard to payment she was right, of course; but I knew I wasn’t making up my own idioms. There was a precedent somewhere for everything I said, if only I had a way to look it up.
I stared at the picture on my wall, where Donald Duck was meeting the Blue Fairy in some indiscriminate Valhalla of characters who somehow outlived their movies, and I thought, “I wish I were fifty years older and had web access.”
So here I am. One definition of “worth” at Merriam-Webster, http://www.m-w.com/, is “the equivalent of a specified amount or figure <a dollar's worth of gas>.” I suppose that the term “equivalent” could imply some license. Encarta.msn.com says specifically “the amount of something that can be bought for a particular sum of money or that will last for a particular length of time,” and in that regard Google indeed yields hundreds of thousands of pages with expressions like “a week’s worth of work.” As regards people, Google yields three hundred hits: “eight people’s worth of space,” “two people’s worth of pancakes,” etc.
There’s a Wiki dictionary anyone can edit at http://en.wiktionary.org and, though not everyone holds Wiki references in high regard, maybe I’ll get around to liberalizing the definition of “worth” over there.
But I didn’t intend to spend this whole column on a single word. I have an additional word in mind, and you may have noticed as, not too elegantly, I slipped it into the text here and there. “In high regard.” “As regards people.” “In that regard.” “With regard to payment.” “Regarding the ridicule.”
And “Miss Hamm sends regards.” Miss Hamm sent the plasticene with regards to Miss Riordan.
The word “regard” has several meanings. One, as Merriam-Webster says, is “an aspect to be taken into consideration.” A movie review says, “Casino Royale may weigh in a bit lighter than many of the 20 preceding Bond flicks on explosions, gunplay, fisticuffs and other action. What it does have in those regards is riveting.” But unless you are referring to several different aspects to be taken into consideration, the plural noun “regards” is pretty much limited to the meaning of “friendly greetings implying respect and affection.” I’ve seen technical writing with sentences like “See the appendix for information with regards to replacement batteries.” The replacement batteries do not appreciate your friendly greetings. Trust me. I’ve tried friendly greetings and I’ve tried sinister threats, and the batteries still pretend I’m putting them in wrong.
Comments and questions are welcome: ]]