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Wordplay:Charles Harrington Elster at Home

By Bill Manson

“Hello, word lovers, I’m Richard Lederer.”

“And I’m Charles Harrington Elster.”

It’s 10 o’clock on a Sunday morning.

“Today on A Way with Words, we’re bringing you a ‘city’ of words.”

“In our fair city you’ll find a scare-city of fero-city and a pau-city of pugna-city.”

“Instead we wish to share our capa-city for viva-city, and our feli-city of saga-city.”

“Now please listen to some publi-city for your compli-city with our loqua-city . . .”

And the two launch into that combo of highfalutin analysis and low-pun-intended wit as they jockey the phone requests that form the basis of their KPBS radio show—one of local public radio's star turns. It stands alongside A Prairie Home Companion and Car Talk, and it stands up.

The clear, deep Brahmin voice of Elster and Lederer’s gravelly humor-laden bark have become an institution among a surprising number of listeners who call in, desperate to expose malapropisms and mispronunciations or clear up grammatical mysteries.

“Our language is gluttonous,” declares Elster. “That’s what’s so marvelous. It is thriving probably more now than at any time since the Elizabethan era, which was the last really great flowering of language. English is becoming the world’s language. It’s vibrant.”

Lederer has 14 books to his name (including the best-selling Anguished English). He lectures maybe 50 times a year around the country. He writes a column ("Looking at Language") that reaches “more than a million readers,” according to KPBS.

So what of Charles Harrington Elster? For starters, Elster says he’s the opposite of his partner.

“Richard’s the optimist, I’m the pessimist. He’s the ‘do it now’ guy. I’m the professional procrastinator. He couldn’t care less about food. I love to cook. He’s into art. I’m into music. He can’t stand to let one stray piece of paper clutter his desk. Mine has piles. He loves to travel and lecture, I’m a homebody, a nester.”

Of course Elster has written several books on language himself, including The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations (1999) and There's a Word for It! (1996). He recently finished an eight-year term on the City of San Diego’s Board of Library Commissioners, and (along with Lederer) is a vice president of SPELL (Society for the Preservation of English Language and Literature).

At home in Kensington, Elster, 45, the younger verbivore “by 19 years,” leads me through what he calls his “house of hallways,” the result of haphazard additions to a Spanish revival house on a quiet street near Adams Avenue. He sweeps on to the family room at the rear and outside to a wild garden shaded by a gracious Chinese elm, a tall Canary palm, and a plum tree. It leads across wild grasses to a cabin.

“When I saw the house in 1994,” Elster says, “and I got back here to the yard, and that, I said ‘Aha. This is going to be my office.’ Originally it was a chicken coop. Then I think it was a tool shed, and then it was a kind of playhouse. I have turned it into a useful structure.”

This sunny, bucolic, blue-carpeted, white-walled book-rich room has something of ye olde curiosity shoppe about it: lecterns bearing massive open dictionaries; shelves crammed with books; a wooden desk and old-fashioned revolving chair.

“My maternal grandfather’s,” says Elster. “He was a Boston lawyer. It’s solid oak.”

A computer you hardly notice because it’s drowned by piles of reference books sits in the back. On the walls, a combination of cartoons, pictures and plaques. Awards include the Golden Mike. In 1988 the Radio and TV News Association of Southern California named him for “Best Original News Commentary or Analysis: Vietnam Memorial,” a piece about vet casualties on the streets of America.

“But my real prizes are my Random House Second Unabridged Edition dictionary, my full set of the 1914 Century dictionary, my Funk and Wagnall’s Standard from 1898 — it’s valuable only because I had it re-bound in Moroccan leather — my Oxford English Dictionaries, compact edition, first and second, my facsimile of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary of 1775, and Joseph Emerson Worcester’s Dictionary: people have forgotten about him. He was Webster’s rival.”

On the wall hangs a framed magazine column entitled “Naming Names.”

“That’s my first substitute column for William Safire’s “On Language” in The New York Times Magazine,” Elster says. “Worthy of framing, don’t you think?”

“I grew up in Queens,” he says, looking at a black-and-white photo portrait of a distinguished-looking older man. “That’s my dad. He was the harpist with the Met. His father came from Bavaria. ‘Elster’ is German. It means ‘magpie.’”

His whole family was — and is — musical. His mom was a conservatory-trained music teacher.

“There’s always been music in our family. My mom played chamber music at home. My sister’s a piano teacher. My daughter Carmen won a sonata contest last December. I’ve played music all my life, various instruments from the trombone to the bassoon to the banjo to the piano. But I believe music and language are interconnected.”

Elster attended Yale. And Yale is where fate stepped in.

“My college sweetheart came from San Diego. She is now my wife. Myrna Zambrano. We graduated together in 1981. Then she said ‘Well, I’m going back to San Diego.’ — she’d lived in National City since she was about 9, went to Sweetwater High School — ‘I’ve been on your turf for four years, and you’re welcome to come join me on my turf.’"

Not that it has been all easy. For starters, he had to find a job.

“I looked at the (San Diego Tribune) newspaper. Could I get a job there? I spent one day as a copy boy: Neil Morgan (then editor) was walking me around, and I thought: this is so humiliating, that a guy with a Yale degree is reduced to emptying people’s out-trays and filling up their in-trays. I thought ‘I can’t do this.’ And by the end of the day I quit. I said, ‘I’m sorry. I think there’s got to be something better out there than a copy boy.’”

Or not.

He worked at a series of pickup jobs, “what the Economic Development Department calls ‘casual labor,’ where you’re on a list and they call you up and they say ‘someone needs help unloading a truck. You’ll make twenty bucks.’ I did everything from that to construction labor.”

His wife, Myrna, works as district manager and top aide to Distrcit 76 Assemblywoman Christine Kehoe. She is bilingual and bicultural, says Elster. Ironically, it was partly Elster’s struggles to become bilingual in Spanish that led to his present expertise in English.

“She’s first generation. I had taken Spanish off and on. But becoming adept in a second language has always been a Sisyphean task for me. With Spanish I got the rock almost to the top of the hill before it rolled back down.”

A computer job in Solana Beach set him in the right direction.

“My apprenticeship to the English language was my first real serious job out here, at Kaypro Computers. They hired me to do a special project for them. The ‘Johnson O’Connor English Vocabulary Builder.’ I spent four years — 1982 to 1986 — making 2,151 lessons and recording them on tape, in sync with the lesson on screen, so it was a simultaneous audiovisual teaching program.”

He opens a fine old dictionary.

“(At Kaypro) I was working with this Century Dictionary, produced around the same time as the Oxford English Dictionary. Nineteen fourteen. That was the last year they published. Gilt binding, and the most beautifully detailed line drawings ever. And I started to work with a number of big dictionaries and usage guides. I got familiar with H. W. Fowler, and started to read more and more about words. I learned a little bit of Greek from the Century, and I learned a lot more on the fly about etymology. And eventually when I felt that I had achieved a certain level of competence and authority, I wrote a letter to KPBS proposing a commentary series on language, which I called A Word to the Wise. I started that in 1985.”

One result was his first book, There Is No Zoo in Zoology, and Other Beastly Mispronunciations. Another, in January 1995, was his very successful vocabulary-building audio program Verbal Advantage, which still sells nationally. Random House published it as a book in 2000.

Then, in the fall of 1997, he met Richard Lederer, wordsmith, teacher with a Ph.D. in linguistics, and already nationally famous verbivore. Lederer had intended to move from back east to Las Vegas to be near his grown kids there. But a stay with Elster convinced him to come to San Diego instead. After a dual interview with the two on KPBS the radio station proposed they team up for A Way With Words. It is so successful KPBS wants to take it national.

The show certainly proves that language is alive and well in San Diego, but Elster does worry.

“A third of the population of the U.S. is illiterate, effectively. Another third can read but does not. Thirty-six percent of U.S. adults haven’t read a book in the last six months. So there I see cause for concern. On the other hand I think the language itself is in great shape and growing like Topsy.”

He’s just explaining how he tracked down that expression (to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin: “Somebody says, ‘Topsy, you’re so tall!’ And the girl’s famous expression is, ‘I don’t know. I just growed’”) when he remembers the time.

“Oh. Time for Carmen to get home.” We walk back through a wild grassy blue cornflower-studded yard into the house. Through the back family room where, clearly, most of the life takes place. Bedrooms — especially daughter Judith’s — are small. In the dining and living rooms, Van Gogh, Diego Rivera, and Marc Chagall liven up the walls. But again, the star pieces are in the bookshelves. Elster proudly shows first editions of Charlotte’s Web, Winnie the Pooh and Madeline, by Ludwig Bemelmans.

“This house is fine,” says Elster, “but what I love is my neighborhood. I think Kensington is the best neighborhood in the whole city. I love my neighbors. We have a really tight block. People look out for each other. We socialize, we have barbecues, we have progressive dinners. I’m just glad I’ve got a house on a nice lot with a home office, in Kensington. Because you can’t get one now for all the tea in China . . . as they say.”

After 21 years, Elster says, he has definitely developed emotional roots here.

“There was a day that I knew I was a San Diegan,” he says. “It was a nice moment. My wife and I were back visiting family and friends in New York City. And we wound up in Chelsea at the White Horse Tavern, probably best known for being the last place the poet Dylan Thomas drank at before he died. For some reason we didn’t order Samuel Adams Stout, but two Mexican beers — Corona, probably — and two shots of tequila. We put Los Lobos on the jukebox, and we toasted San Diego. And I told my wife, ‘I miss our home.’ There I was sitting in the heart of New York, and I said ‘I miss our home.’ And that’s when I really knew that I had been seduced by Southern California and sunny San Diego.”

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Copyright © 2002 by Bill Manson. All rights reserved.
This article appeared in the November 2002 issue of San Diego Home/Garden Lifestyles magazine, and is reprinted by permission.