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Are you ready for anything?

It's amazing how a new term for a familiar concept, if introduced in a new context, can drive a familiar old term completely out of consciousness.

So it was when I moved to Toronto and was introduced to "eavestroughing." Although I'd never heard it before, I immediately understood what it meant. And then I realized that this new word had immediately overwritten whatever American- English word had been there in my vocabulary before.

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Eventually I figured it out: "Eavestroughing" - the troughs attached to the eaves of a house - is Canadian for what Americans call rain gutters, or roof gutters.

I had a similar moment a couple of weeks ago with ready-to-finish furniture.

Huh? Isn't that what we used to call "unfinished furniture?" That is to say, furniture structurally complete but unpainted, lacking a "finish," in the sense that my friends at OneLook.com helpfully provide: "a decorative texture or appearance of a surface (or the substance that gives it that appearance)."

For example: "The boat had a metallic finish."

The same little trip into the Land of Home Improvement (Improvistan?) also introduced me to "ready to assemble" furniture.

This term is applied to pieces of furniture that are not really furniture at all. Rather, they are cartons of pieces of wood and woodlike substances that have the potential for becoming furniture - as long as the screws and other hardware are present as promised on the instruction sheet. Of course, this assumes the whole package is stumbled upon by someone whose skills in this area exceed, for instance, mine.

"Ready to assemble" is an adjectival phrase doing the work often done by the elliptical clause, "Some assembly required" - an understated locution that can strike fear into human hearts.

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Time was when you could even get a mail-order house from Sears, Roebuck, and Co. True, that parts list was a killer, but those kits opened the way to homeownership for many who could not have otherwise afforded it.

"Ready to assemble" follows on analogy with "ready to wear," the once novel concept of clothing bought off the rack of a store, or ordered out of a catalog like Montgomery Ward's, rather than made to order by a tailor or dressmaker, or made at home from a pattern and fabric purchased at the local dry goods store. The phrase "ready to wear" was pushed into the language by manufacturers, eager to expand their markets, as a more socially acceptable spin on "not custom made."

What do we make of this "readiness"? It is marketingspeak, and it's also a quintessentially American euphemism - recasting a negative (more work for you, do-it-yourselfer) into an opportunity: your choice of finish, your option of paying less by doing the assembly yourself.

This mind-set apparently has let Ford Motor Co. present a layoff of 30,000 employees as part of a corporate restructuring plan it's calling "The Way Forward." Those departing are, let's hope, "ready to employ" elsewhere, if not genuinely ready to retire.

By this same logic, I suppose, a building razed to the ground by fire leaves a lot "ready to rebuild." And so in fact it happens, in forests, on prairies, and in big cities: A major fire is often the impetus for renewal and growth.

I can't help thinking that, in the famous novel by Mark Twain, what Tom Sawyer was really doing was providing his friends with an opportunity - a fence "ready to whitewash."

And what an opportunity it was. As he asked his friend Ben, "Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?"

This weekly column appears with links at http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy


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