We Interrupt Our Scheduled Broadcast With Breaking News…

This just in from our Northeast Ohio correspondent: The Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team has become the 2016 NBA World Champions for the first time in the history of the franchise. Perhaps the enormity of this can only really be appreciated if you are geographically, socially, and culturally linked to the city of Cleveland and its surrounding towns and cities within a 100-mile radius. Or if you are a Cleveland “ex-pat” living somewhere else.

Cleveland Cavaliers 2016 Championship cap

I’ve never really considered myself in any sense a “sports fan” in the same way that an overweight balding guy who paints himself in sickly orange and brown will stand in the snow at the Cleveland Browns stadium singing “Who Let the Dogs Out” while watching a bunch of overpaid amateurs lose on a regular basis, and will do the same thing week after week, year after year, yet continue paying ridiculous prices to be beaten by the same stick over and over and over again. No sir, that’s not me.

Nor do I have a small shrine in a room of my house that’s bedazzled with trophies of my high school sporting achievements from many years ago, interspersed with memorabilia and posters of half-remembered super-humans and demigods who performed some near Odyssean feats of wonder with a ball, a stick, or just their bare hands. No, my friends, that’s not me.

But last night as the buzzer went and the ball continued to fly, I found myself standing up and cheering in my living room. Yes, my own damned living room! Not even a sports bar or a stadium but the room where I usually spend time watching too much TV, too many movies, or writing too many free blog posts. My traditionally British stiff upper lip flopped around like a fish on a deck and there was a visceral and palpable surge of emotion that took over.

I’ve had several experiences over the past 20-something years that have reinforced the notion that at some level I have – as the English might say – “gone native.”[1] Last night was a new one. I was only 7-years-old when England won the soccer World Cup in 1966, and too young and disinterested to grasp what it must have felt like to people at the time [2]. It’s taken 50 years and another country to work it out. For a short time last night, “Ich war ein Clevelander.” For a brief period I felt part of a much larger community on an emotional level that I don’t often feel. Somehow the actions of a group of five guys tossing a ball into a hoop was about me and not them. Rationally, it really IS just five guys tossing a ball into a hoop, and I’m just an inert and passive spectator to the success of someone else. Yet emotionally, it’s very, very different.

Putting our hopes, dreams, faith, and trust in other people isn’t a new thing. In a few days time, they’ll be taking down the famous banner of LeBron James that’s hanging on a building directly opposite the basketball stadium to prepare for the coming of the RNC – the Republican National Convention. In less than a month, triumph will give way to Trump as politicians, pundits, and pressure groups will flood the city for front-row seats to the next gladiatorial spectacle in Cleveland. Simultaneously, around the country, millions of Trump supporters will be putting their hopes, dreams, faith, and trust in a man who makes them feel like I did last night.

Lebron James banner in Cleveland

Yesterday afternoon, I was out with my wife, daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren on their boat, cruising a local lake and quaffing cold beer in the heat of the Ohio sun. As we snacked on spicy wings and thick cheesy pizza – the perfect companions to ale – Ben told me he was thinking of buying an AR-15 semi-automatic simply because recent calls for banning such weapons is “against his right to bear arms” and “unconstitutional,” and that owning one is his right as an army Vet and American [3].

I have a different view. But after last night’s brief and powerful surge of emotion about something as trivial as a basketball game, I guess I can comprehend what he might feel. He’s simply a reflection of a viewpoint that is special to America – the Gun Culture. And amongst my “going native” moments is the one from maybe ten years or so ago when I decided that I wasn’t against gun ownership and that the way to tackle the issue at a pragmatic level was stricter gun control. Me. The kid from Lancashire. Pro-gun?

Actually, I’m no more “pro-gun” than I am “pro-abortion.” Labels such as “pro-” and “anti-” are often used to falsely polarize arguments into tidy “black-or-white” or “right-or-wrong” dichotomies that simply don’t exist. Anyone who uses phrases such as “you’re either for X or against X” is merely demonstrating that their level of political discourse is so shallow that you couldn’t even float an argument let alone push it. But then again, the folks using such rhetoric are frequently not appealing to any notion of Reason but firmly attached to Emotion.

Which brings me back to the thrilling finale to the 2016 basketball season and my new-found but probably temporary feeling of civic pride. I’m glad the Cavaliers won. I’m happy Cleveland has its first major league sports championship since 1964. I’m excited that Northeast Ohioan’s can celebrate a social singularity for at least a week. I’m thrilled to be wearing my brand new championship hat. And on this first day of what might be a long, hot summer, I’m just a little disheartened that I’ve been reminded how easy it is for rationality to be overcome by emotion. Ad mores natura recurrit damnatos, fixa et mutari nescia – Human nature ever reverts to its depraved courses, fixed and immutable.

Notes
[1] The phrase “go native” is first noted in Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, where we find the sentence “Kim did not sweep the board with his reminiscences; for St. Xavier’s looks down on boys who ‘go native altogether.'” A remnant of Britain’s colonial days, “going native” was seen as a bad thing and part of a slide to becoming “un-English.” The peril of “going native” was such a problem that British Foreign Office diplomats were rarely allowed to spend more than five years in a post. Its early pejorative sense is less so nowadays and tends simply to refer to the way on which ex-pats take up the habits of their new country of residence without thinking about it.

[2] Oddly what I do remember is that I was into stamp collecting, and when the Royal Mail issued a special commemorative 4d (four pennies) stamp, my mum took me to the Post Office to buy one, which I proudly added to my album. Sadly I have no recollection of what I did with my old stamp albums and no longer have it. So much of our lives disappears as if it had never happened. Sigh!

[3] My son-in-law Ben is a great guy and perfect for my somewhat “spirited” older daughter. She (and we) had a somewhat troubled teenage period but he’s been able to calm her down to the point where she’s not the girl she was – and that’s good. He’s a hard-workin’, family-lovin’, country music singin’ kind o’ redneck who brings me pieces of dead deer and slaughtered ducks when hunting season in on. When we spent many hours putting together a wooden train-set for his son one Christmas, he was the one who went out and bought a growler of beer so “the men” could get the job done. Coincidentally, two years later he got his current job with CSX Transportation, a railroad company that presumably deemed our night of construction as perfect experience for the post! His politics lean ever-so-heavily to the right and the only reason he hasn’t got a Donald Trump sticker on his truck is because he’d have to take his “2nd amendment” gun sticker off. But here’s the thing; at the family level, we all still muddle along despite our differences. In fact, his attitude towards gays has softened since he married my daughter and then realized that he now had a lesbian sister-in-law in the form of my younger child! It’s comforting to know that once he was actually able to spend time with her and realize she had one head, two legs, and didn’t eat babies, his tolerance has improved. Now I admit, he’s unlikely to be taking part in the next Cleveland Gay Pride march nor add a rainbow sticker to the back of his Ford F-150 but it’s a start!

The devil is indeed in the linguistic details: The story of “have”

Be warned! If you’re not interested in language – and I suppose that’s possible – then this article will strike you as something of a “train spotter” post. By that, I mean that like train spotting, it focuses on some incredibly fine details about just one thing, but if you’re not curious about that one thing, you’ll feel like you’re talking to a train spotter, complete with notebook and anorak [1].

 

anorak

Anorak: Inuit

This all came about with a seemingly simple question regarding how to represent simple phrases in an augmentative and alternative communication device [2]. More specifically, it was about phrases using  pronouns (I, you, he, she, it, we, they) and the verb to have. And the specific example was about whether the question form of “you have” is “have you?” or “do you have?” It seems a simple enough question but there’s a grammatical demon lurking in the wings, waiting to stab someone with a pitchfork!

 

Suppose you’re out without a watch or a smart phone and you want to know the time. What would you say to someone?

(a) Excuse me, do you have the time?
(b) Excuse me, have you the time?

Pragmatically, either would work, and one suggestion I heard was that the former is more typical of American English and the latter of British English. Well, intuition is a marvelous thing but a poor substitute for empirical data! This sounded like a job for corpus linguistics – the science of huge language samples.

Using my favorite free online resource, the BYU Corpora site, I checked the incidence of the phrase “do you have the time?” against “have you the time?” in the Corpus of Contemporary American English. Here’s what I found:

“Do you have the time?”: 10 occurrences
“Have you the time?” : 0 occurrences

So in American English, the “do you have” construction seems to be the clear winner. But then I needed to look at the same phrases using the British National Corpus, and here’s how that looked:

“Do you have the time?”: 1 example
“Have you the time?”: 3 examples

Well, hardly conclusive, but you could probably make a case that the “have you” construction is three times more likely to be used than the “do you have” and so the hypothesis that it’s a US versus UK difference isn’t necessarily wrong. So maybe it would be OK to have the question form “do you have” stored on American English communication aids but “have you” on British English – a sort of “separated by a common language” sort of thing.

So the general rule here would be as follows:

A. Statement form = PRONOUN + <to have>
B. Question form = <to have> + PRONOUN

There’s a beautiful symmetry and simplicity to this. “You have” becomes “have you,” “he has” becomes “has he,” “we have” becomes “have we” and so on.

But wait, wait… there’s more!

Have a cupcakeThe verb to have has two roles it can play in language. The first is demonstrated by the example just given where it is used as a lexical verb synonymously with to own or to possess. The sentences”Do you have a pen I could borrow?” or “Have you a pen I could borrow?” are both OK, and that inserted do is a standard feature of both American and British English. In fact, it’s pretty much obligatory for all lexical verbs [2]. I can say, “You like monkeys” but have to ask “Do you like monkeys?” because “*Like you monkeys” just sounds so wrong.

The second, and more common, use of to have is as an auxiliary or helping verb. That means it is found alongside another verb and “helps” it in some way. For example, I can say “You have finished” where the have “helps” the verb to finish, but if I want to use the question form, I have to say “Have you finished?” Notice that “*Do you have finished?” makes no sense, and when used as an auxiliary, you don’t use the do. So you would find things like “Have you finished your soup?” and not “*Do you have finished your soup?” or “Have you washed the car?” and not “*Do you have washed the car?”

The difference in use between the lexical and auxiliary aspects of to have is why if you are going to store the question form of the [PRONOUN + <to have>] phrase as a single unit, you are better to have [<to have> + PRONOUN] with [<do>] as a separate lexical item. You then don’t have to have TWO question forms that depend on which aspect of the verb you are using [3].

Now you can take you anorak off.

Notes
[1] The word anorak is noted in the Oxford English Dictionary as one of the few words to come into English from Inuit. The Inuit language has a number of variations, from which we get other words such as igloo, kayak, and inukshuk (a stack of stones designed to look like a human figure, more familiar to our Canadian readers and Rush fans who have copies of the 1996 album “Test for Echo”).

[2] It’s called “do-insertion” or “do-support” and bizarrely makes absolutely no contribution to the sentence! If you miss it out, it might sound weird but it doesn’t change the meaning of the utterance. German manages to get along quite well without it and “Magst du Affen?” translates as “Like you monkeys?” and in French “Vous aimez les singes” becomes the questions “Aimez-vous les singes?” with ne’er a do or a faire in sight! There are a number of theories out there about why (and when) this funky do appeared but that’s best left for another time.

[3] For those of you familiar with Prentke Romich devices and the Unity® language software, we pre-store phrases using sequences of picture, such as PICTURE A + PICTURE B = “you have” and then PICTURE B + PICTURE A = “have you.” Because we have the same pictures used in two directions, it’s actually easy to teach that if you want to make a statement, use A + B, but if you want the question form, just reverse it for B + A. That regular rule then works all through the system and it automatically handles that tricky little do-insertion for lexical verbs. If you’re not familiar, click on the link below to see a short video:

http://www.minspeak.com/demo.php#.VyPIFXppo5w

 

Shrove Tuesday and the Perils of Being Male

It’s Shrove Tuesday – or “Pancake Day” as we used to call it back in Lancashire – and as people across the country skip their diets in favor of eating fat flat crepes overflowing with carbohydrates and lipids, I thought I’d offer some non-fattening intellectual sustenance regarding the origins of the phrase itself.

Blueberry pancakes Shrove Tuesday

As you might guess, the reason there’s a specified day is because it’s just one of three days that make up something called Shrovetide, a period running from Quinquagesima Sunday [1] through Shrove Monday and Shrove Tuesday up until Ash Wednesday.

The word shrove comes from the Old English scrifan meaning “to impose penance upon” or “to hear a confession.” It includes the notion of “making things right” as a result of self-examination and recognizing one’s sins. Shrovetide is the beginning of the period known to Christians as Lent, which includes the requirement to undertake some sort of fast or privation [2] as a run up to the celebration of Easter Sunday. Hence the relationship to a penance during this time. This in turn is thought to derive from the Latin scribere meaning “to write.”

The practice of making pancakes seems to have originated in the need to use up all the rich foods such as milk, butter, cream etc. prior to observance of  weeks of fasting for Lent. Hence the other name of “Fat Tuesday” and “Mardi Gras” [3].

Another old custom was the gift of the “Shrovetide hen,” which is mentioned in Bishop Hall’s 16th century work Virgidemiarum where he says, “A Shroftide Hen, Which bought to giue, he takes to sell agen.” Sadly most of these hens ended up on a table and not as a re-gift!

But consider the male of the species and the fate of the “Shrovetide Cock.” This hapless clucker was taken out on Shrove Tuesday and beaten with sticks or hit with stones until it was dead. The “winner” was the person who actually killed it. Sure, both males and females ultimately provided supper but the manner of the cock’s demise seems a little harsh.

So enjoy your Mardi Gras celebrations. Eat, drink, and be merry. And offer at least one toast to the poor Shrovetide Cock.

Notes
[1] Quinquagesima is Latin for “fiftieth day” and marks the Sunday that’s 50 days before Easter Sunday, and derives from quinquaginta meaning “fifty.” Breaking this down just a little more, quinque means “five” and the suffix ginta is used to mark cardinal numbers between thirty and ninety. Cunning folks these Latins.

[2] My wife is a theist and attends a local Episcopalian church where the vicar has asked her parishioners to consider giving up plastic for Lent. My wife is OK with the idea of avoiding  packing all her shopping at the supermarket into free plastics bags but is undergoing a severe moral dilemma as regards her daily Starbucks, which has a plastic lid! I suppose she can ask for her drive-through drink to be served without the lid but that’s a potential law suit I’m guessing Howard Schultz is keen to avoid.

[3] For those of us who remember our schoolboy French, Mardi is the French word for “Tuesday” and gras is the word for “fat.” And yes, the French gras and the English grease both come from the same source; the Latin crassus.

Cause Without a Rebel

men in speech language pathology
Over the past few months, I’ve been trying to think hard about the issue of men in the field of Speech-Language Pathology. My biggest hurdle has always been whether or not this is, in fact, an “issue” at all. It may well be an observable and measurable phenomenon but that doesn’t necessarily qualify as an “issue.” By that, I mean does it really matter that the balance of men to women in the field is significantly skewed?

At the 2015 ASHA Convention in Denver, I attended a session entitled “SLTs in Europe – ‘United in Diversity’ – the Challenge of Promoting the Profession” presented by Michele Kaufmann-Meyer and Baiba Trinite [1] of the Comité Permanent de Liaison des Orthophonistes-Logopèdes de l’UE or CPLOL. At the beginning of the session, they brought up a slide highlighting the following three points:

  • Diversity is challenging
  • Diversity is welcome
  • Diversity makes us grow

But the definition of “diversity” was one that focused on cultural, educational, linguistic, and ethnic differences and not gender. At the end of the presentation, I pointed out that when I qualified as a Speech and Language Therapist in the UK back in 1983, the data suggested that about 2% of the professions was male, and that 32 years later, the figures say that at best it’s close to 5%, which is as close to “no change” as makes no difference. So I asked the question that if “diversity” is challenging, welcome, and makes us grow, what was CPLOL actively doing to encourage gender diversity, the answer of “nothing” was oddly unsurprising. If it’s not seen as an “issue,” or so low on the “issue” totem pole that no-one cares, then why would we expect any change?

In fairness to CPLOL, they have two working groups on Education and Clinical Practice that are tasked with the following list of topics:

CPLOL Working Groups

CPLOL Working Groups

All of these are virtuous and worthy, and given that CPLOL is funded by subscriptions from its member organization, and any donations, the organization is not exactly awash with money, so one can understand the need to create priorities. Gender imbalance is clearly not a priority, although I should in all fairness add that Michèle gave me her business card and an open invitation to engage in some dialog, so that proverbial ball is now in my court.

Everyone talks about the weather…

To paraphrase a quote attributed to Mark Twain, “Everyone talks about men in the profession but nobody does anything about it.” That may be a little unfair because there have been sporadic events to try to increase the number of guys becoming SLP/SLTs but if the outcome over 30 years has been at best a 3% increase, whatever has been done has been minimally effective. This isn’t a criticism of individuals or organizations but a simple statement of an observable fact. My guess is that there’s been a bigger percentage increase of male strippers in the past 30 years – another field of endeavor that’s noticeably female.

Social media has offered opportunities for men to promote themselves via such things as the #speechguys hashtag and @speechguys Twitter handle, or the “League of Extraordinary Speech Gentlemen” on Facebook but these are all marked by low numbers. @speechguys currently has 328 followers and the “League” – admittedly a closed group – has 236. Compared with @Sockamillion the cat, a feline with 1.2 million followers, there’s a way to go before men in Speech Pathology make a splash on the internet.

So what’s to be done? Anything? Nothing?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a polemic as “a strong verbal or written attack on a person, opinion,” which is what this article is about to become. Let’s assume that there IS a need to have more men in the profession, and that there ARE benefits to this. If that’s the case, then I’m no longer interested in re-hashing the numbers; I’m not interested in interminable and repetitive discussion about why men don’t become SLPs; and I don’t want special treatment for men just because they are men. What I want is for some commitment from the Profession as a whole to do something that has the following THREE critical components:

  1. A written Plan of Action with measurable results. There’s a time for “raising awareness” and a time for “making a change” and after 30 years I suggest that awareness raising has had its chance. What we need is a list of goals that are defined in ways that can be measured so we can determine success or failure. Saying “we want more men in the profession” is not a goal; it’s an aspiration. Saying “we want to see the global proportion of males in the profession to be 7% by 2018, based on figures collected by at least six national SLP organizations all using the same metrics” is a goal [2]. And on December 31st, 2018, we can actually see whether we’ve achieved it or failed.
  2. Resources. Informal clusters of men trying to co-ordinate “stuff” on the internet in their spare time are not “resources.” They are simply informal clusters of men. Like all of us, they have clients to see, families to care for, homes to maintain, and the usual list of “things to do” that get in the way of fighting for a cause. Resources are time, people, and money – and the latter is the key. Unless a fixed amount of money is allocated to a project, there’s no way to budget for the time and people. The international professional organizations already allocate money to other projects and there’s no reason why “getting more men into the profession” cannot be one of those.
  3. Rebel with a Cause. Over the past ten years of so, the term “champion” has become part of the business vernacular to describe a person who is identified as the prime mover of a project, cause, or product. If we are to have our own “Rebel with a Cause,” this champion has to have a budget, the power to hire and fire, and a position within the administrative structure of a national organization. This person needs to be passionate, articulate, engaging, and unfazed by the prospect of being in the limelight. And he needs to be comfortable with being a role model for other men.

Unless the Profession can commit to these three elements, I’m predicting that in another 30 years, just before I reach my 90th birthday, we’ll still be looking at the numbers and wondering why we’re only up to 7% of SLPs being men.

For what it’s worth, I am not that Rebel. I’m too old, too short, and have all the  “media appeal” of Jabba the Hutt without his make-up. I want to see a media-savvy champion who can be in Washington DC in the morning and attending a meeting in San Diego that same evening. I want to see someone who can deliver a Skype conference at 8:00 AM Eastern Standard Time and do it again at 9:00 AM Australian Eastern Standard Time. I want to see someone who can churn out press releases and articles on why men should be SLPs. In short, someone who treats this as a job and not a spare-time exercise.

It’s time to “put up or shut up.” I’m up for taking part but this isn’t a one-man show. It’s not even a 328 men show. It’s a challenge to the profession as a whole to find a Rebel with a Cause as opposed to our current Cause without a Rebel.

References
American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, 2010, Highlights and Trends: ASHA Counts for Year End 2010 (available at: http://www.asha.org uploadedFiles/2010-Member-Counts.pdf).

Litosseliti, L., & Leadbeater, C. (2013). Speech and language therapy/pathology: perspectives on a gendered profession. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders, 48(1), 90-101

McKinson, F. (2007). Why do men become speech and language therapists? RCSLT Bulletin, April, 12–14.

Mosheim, J. (2005). Men in Speech-Language Pathology. Advance for Speech-Language Pathologists and Audiologist, 15 (30), 6. Available online from http://speech-language-pathology-audiology.advanceweb.com/Article/Men-in-Speech-Language-Pathology.aspx

Rowden-Racette, K. (2013). Where the Boys Aren’t. ASHA Leader, August 2013, 18, 46-51. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR1.18082013.46. Available online at http://leader.pubs.asha.org/article.aspx?articleid=1785887&resultClick=3

Sheridan, J., 1999, A career in speech and language therapy: for white women only? RCSLT Bulletin, February, 9.

Speech Pathology Australia, 2012, Real Men Do Speech Pathology
(available at: http://www.speechpathologyaustralia.org.au/
education-and-careers/real-men-do-speech-pathology)

Notes
[1] Michèle Kaufmann-Meyer is the current President of CPLOL and has been representing Switzerland since 2004. She has also been working as a general secretary of the French-speaking Swiss organization for 12 years. Baiba Trinite is Assistant Professor in the Department of Education and Social Work at Liepaja University and President of Speech Therapists’ Association of Latvia.

[2] I’m sure each of the international organizations has ways of measuring the male/female ratio of their membership already in place. What I don’t know is whether they are all using similar methodologies and how reliable the metrics are. Clearly one of the first tasks to be included in the Plan of Action is to reviewing current measurement systems and make sure they are as accurate as possible.

Dudes’ Eye View: Review of 2015

This is now the FIFTH in this series of videos. My oh my, how time flies! Condensing a year of news from across the world into 24 stories is something of a challenge and inevitably misses out the majority of things that have happened. Nevertheless, take it as a snapshot of 2015 and perhaps in five more years when we hit our 10th review it’ll be enough to bring back memories.

 

As always, you can also download the soundtrack as an MP3 to add to your music player of choice, and there’s also the six-minutes extended “Funked Up Dude” mix available. You can simply click below for the downloads:

Dudes Eye View 2015 Soundtrack (4:12)

Dudes Eye View 2015 “Funked Up Dude” Mix (6:04)

Welcome to the New Year!

The Dudes Do ASHA 2015: Day 1 – Of Snow…

So it had been snowing in Denver. Not a lot. But snow there was. Just one week ago in Ohio I’d been able to wear a T-shirt and ride my motorcycle in unseasonably warm 70 degree temperatures. I’m not complaining, just stating a fact.

The charm of a snow-brushed Denver was somewhat offset by the accompanying bitter chill that my jacket was having a hard time fighting off. The Super Shuttle service, for those who haven’t used it, it located at the extreme edge of the transport area, beyond which appears to be nothing but plains for miles and miles. You don’t have to be a meteorologist to work out that if the wind is blowing in across freezing snow, the wind chill by the bus stand takes on a negative value and unless your willing to snuggle up to lots of folks like chickens in a roost, it’s cold. Another way to tackle the frosty air is to focus you thoughts on something else.

Like snow.

Allegedly, one of the special things about snowflakes is that no two are alike. Every single snowflake is different. In fact, a common metaphor used by the kumbaya brigade [1] is that people are like snowflakes and unique in their own special ways, and all of us are beautiful and special. What the one-world tree huggers fail to include in their metaphorical use is that snowflakes are also cold and short-lived; and while one snowflake might be exquisite, ten billion of the little buggers moving at 50 miles an hour is a blizzard.

Snowflakes

Putting my curmudgeonly cynicism aside, what’s more interesting is that I suspect all of us happily accept the “all snowflakes are different” statement as a fact. But based on what? How many snowflakes do you need to look at before you can conclude that no two are alike? Or no three? Surely, you may think, that given the total number of snowflakes that have fallen to the earth since the dawn of time, at least TWO flakes have been the same. Doubtless one of our statistically oriented physics buff readers can supply some mind-bogglingly big numbers regarding snowflakes but math aside, let’s just think a little about what we mean by same and different.

As a Speech-Language Therapist, I’ve been teaching same and different as words and concepts probably from the first time I ever worked face-to-face with a kid. Like most SLPs, I’ve used objects, pictures, symbols, gestures, words, and any number of ways to reinforce what we mean by same and different because it’s a distinction that is critical to how we look at and talk about the world.

In language, “difference” is what marks fundamental distinctions at various levels of a communicative act. For example, at the sound level, whether you use the sound [p] or [pʰ] in a word is not going to make a difference in meaning if you are an English speaker. You might hear a slight variation but folks will not misunderstand you. However, in Hindi, using [p] or [pʰ] can make difference in meaning; [pɑl] means “care for” but [pʰɑl] means “knife.” These types of meaningful differences in speech sounds are what we all “minimal pairs” in Speech and Language Pathology and working with minimal pairs is bread and butter stuff to speechies [2].

The linguist Ferdinand de Saussure made the following statement in his Course in General Linguistics [3];

Concepts are purely differential and defined not by their positive content but negatively by their relations with the other terms of the system.  Their most precise characteristic is in being what they other are not. (p.17)

In other words, it’s differences within a language that are the stuff of speech, not the similarities.

Like all words, same and different are a little grey around the edges; they are not absolutes but “more or less.” Things are only the same so long as we using a pragmatic definition of same that works for us. If I open a can of peas and pour them into a pan to cook, I’d be very likely to say that they are all the same. We even have the expression, “as alike as peas in a pod.” But should I decide that my life is so devoid of meaning that measuring each pea using a micrometer seems like a good idea, I’m going to change my mind as say that the peas are all different. Equally when I say that the great thing about the McDonald’s Big Mac is that it’s the same wherever I buy one, in an absolute sense that’s false because no two Big Macs will ever be “the same” or even taste the same – they will be similar.

Most dictionaries define similar as meaning “resembling but not being identical to.” Logical positivists would probably be happy to argue that the word same should be replaced by the word similar, and hence forth when we’re teaching same and different to kids we should be honest and teach similar and different. Fortunately, most of us work at the level of pragmatic sense rather than absolute scientific truth. The inherent fuzziness of words within a language actually helps us to get on with life rather than banging our heads against a stack of dictionaries trying to find the REAL meaning of a word or the ABSOLUTE TRUTH of a proposition. Sure, they may be some mathematical truths out there, such as 2 + 2 = 4, but in the world of linguistics, imprecision is an inherent feature.

So as I got on the bus for the hotel, I was satisfied to look around and realize that we were all different but in the same profession, and we were all heading for the same conference center but then to different bars for different drinks.

Philosophy can be so comforting at times.

Notes
[1] The origin of the word kumbaya is still something of a mystery. In a recent article (The World’s First “Kumbaya” Moment: New Evidence about an Old Song) the author Stephen Winick suggests it originated in the American south as an African Spiritual, with “kumbaya” being a corruption of “come by here.” It’s plausible but there is no solid evidence. The way in which I use it is in a more modern incarnation where it has a pejorative meaning of wishy-washy or naively optimistic. You can even find examples of the phrase “kumbaya moment” in the Corpus of Contemporary American” being used political to deride the actions of the opposition.

[2] For the non-SLPs and non-linguists who follow the Dudes, it can be surprising to learn that the sounds we all use to make words vary across languages and that even a single sound such as a “b” can change depending in where is it being used in a word or phrase. It’s as if a speech sound isn’t a single thing but a cluster of “near enough” sounds. As long as the “b” you say is “near enough” to the “b” I’m used to hearing, then we’re good to go. If you actually record someone speaking a list of words with “b” sounds scattered around them (such as “bottle,” “cabin” “abstract” and “cab”), when you look at the words using speech sound analysis software, you will find that the “b” looks different in each case! The reason that we all think the “b” is always the same is because our brains are actually very good at interpreting “near enough” sounds, which makes life a lot easier.

[3] The original French version, Cours de Linguistique Générale was first published in 1916 after de Saussure’s death, based on the notes he had used for his taught course. It wasn’t until 1959 that an English language version, A Course in General Linguistics was published. It’s generally regarded as a landmark book in linguistics but unlikely to be recommended as an essential read – unless you’re studying the history of Linguistics.

Politics and Platitudes: The “No Shit, Sherlock” Test

A recent TV ad from a Republican group called opportunitylives.com in North East Ohio has been getting my proverbial goat. Not, I should add, simply because it’s from Republicans but because it appears to say absolutely nothing that helps me differentiate their position from that of anyone else. Nothing. The entire ad is simply a sequence of soporific sentences playing over insipid images of smiling people, families, heath care professionals, workers, and so on. All that’s missing are puppies and kittens.

Captain Obvious

So take a look at the transcript I took from the ad and imagine for each phrase what the opposite claim might be:

Republicans believe in a society open to all; where government stays out of our way; where families can get ahead; where opportunity lives; where good schools are available to anyone; where good jobs are there for the hard-working; where every one of us has the opportunity to succeed; and where all can look forward to a better and more secure future. There are people who still believe opportunity still lives in America, and we call ourselves, Republicans.

Let me help make the point a little more obvious by providing you with the possible antithetical marketing copy:

Republicans believe in a society closed to all; where government stands in our way; where families can fail; where opportunity is stifled; where good schools are available to only a few; where good jobs are not there for anyone; where no-one has the opportunity to succeed; and where all can look forward to a worse and more dangerous future. There are people who still believe opportunity is dead in America, and we call ourselves, Republicans.

If you prefer this version of the ad, then you’d have to be close to bat-shit crazy and the sort of person who wears one of those special shirts that ties your arms at the back. And the reason the antithetical prose sounds so bad is that the original is nothing more than a set of vapid platitudes. When the negative version of a claim sounds stupid or is plainly false, then you can pretty much bet that the claim is a platitude.

A platitude can be defined as “a flat, dull, or trite remark, especially one uttered as if it were fresh or profound” (Dictionary.com), “a banal, trite, or stale remark” (Merriam-Webster), or “A remark or statement, especially one with a moral content, that has been used too often to be interesting or thoughtful” (New Oxford American Dictionary). More often than not, a platitude simply states the obvious and so would be better off not having been uttered [1]. In the world of Marketing, a good sales pitch avoids platitudes like the plague. 

Of course, bad Marketing and Politics are crammed so full of platitudes that you have to wonder if there’s a computer spewing out the copy, because surely there’s no sane human doing it? And if you want to spot a platitude, here are two simple tests you can apply:

A: The “What Would the Other Dude Say?” Test

Imagine that the statements being made were uttered or written by your competitor, nemesis, or arch-enemy. Would they make the same claims? Well, in the example above, if you change the word “Republican” for “Democrat,” “Libertarian,” “Communist,” or “Monster Raving Loony Party Supporter,” you bet your patootie they’d agree. And if that’s the case, then there’s no differentiation and therefore it says nothing of substance. Now if the phrase, “where everyone can carry a semi-automatic and a hand grenade into a Chuck E. Cheese” is include in the list of beliefs, then that’s not going to be OK with everyone, so it’s not a platitude.

B: The “No Shit, Sherlock” Test

If you read a claim that makes you want to reply, “Well no shit, Sherlock” then it’s a platitude. So if a law firm says, “We offer a professional service,” well no shit, Sherlock! Or if a printing firm offers “high quality prints,” then no shit, Sherlock! When someone claims to offer something that is inherent or implied in the service, then there’s a no-shit-Sherlock moment ahead.

No shit, Sherlock

At this point, you might be wondering what the difference is between a platitude and a cliché. To some extent, a cliché might be thought of as a platitude that refuses to die. A platitude states the obvious and a cliché states the commonplace.

New platitudes can be created every day but clichés have to stand the test of time. When a company is creating a Mission Statement [2] sometimes it ends up as an exercise in saying nothing but in a new way. Here’s one you might have heard some years ago: Respect, integrity, communication, and excellence. This was from the company called Enron, which was one of the most notorious business scandals in American history and is considered by many historians and economists alike to be the unofficial blueprint for a case study on White Collar Crime. It’s also an example of a crime against vocabulary for creating such a miserably loose mission statement

Avoiding platitudes is always a good thing. But as we in the US move closer to the next Presidential election – and hey, it’s only a year away! – I can guarantee that the platitudes will be coming thicker and faster as we hurtle headlong to November 8, 2016. Set your No Shit Sherlock phaser to stun.

Notes
[1] With a platitude, not only is there a stating of the obvious but it’s also done in such as way as to have the appearance of being profound or wise. Facebook is full of such pre-digested pabulum that, sadly, spreads like linguistic herpes, passed on by well-meaning but ultimately uncritical people who think that quoting something that sounds smart also makes them sound smart. It doesn’t. Platitudes also seem to aspire to taking on a moral dimension, presumably to reinforce the semblance of profundity.

[2] A Mission Statement is supposed to be a clear and succinct representation of a business’s purpose, which should incorporate socially meaningful and measurable criteria that address concepts such as the moral/ethical position of the company, its public image, the market it serves, the product and services it offers, and expectations of growth and profitability – if you want to stay in business. Alas, a Mission Statement can become so generic that is wanders into the Platitude Latitudes and says essentially nothing, or becomes a boiler-plate for ANY company in the world. A mission statement such as “To combine aggressive strategic marketing with quality products and services at competitive prices to provide the best value insurance for consumers” is about as broad as you can get – and by the way. it’s from Aflac.

My Hovercraft Is Full of Eels and My AAC Device Full of N-grams

Hovercraft

A hovercraft with or without eels

Back in my college days – that’s 1977 to 1982 for those who like historical perspective – a friend of mine was taking East European studies with a view, I think, to improving his chances of joining the Socialist Workers Party. Although it wasn’t actually obligatory to speak any of the languages from Communist Europe, he clearly felt it might help. And come the day of the Glorious Revolution, when the Working Class of England would cast off their Capitalist shackles and take control of the means of production to become part of the global Socialist world, he’d be one of the intellectual elite who would help the under-educated proletariat rise to power. Sadly for him, the down-trodden workers decided to vote for Margaret Thatcher and usher in a new age of Capitalism where owning the means of production meant buying shares in British Telecom, British Aerospace, British Gas, and a host of companies that they already owned as tax payers! This was Mrs. T’s version of Clause IV socialism [1].

And that is why I happened upon a Czechoslovakian phrasebook.

I have to admit that my brief flirtation with radical socialism was fueled at that time by the fact that the local Labour club served subsidized beer, and another of my friends who worked behind the campus bar would serve Russian vodka as doubles or triples while still charging for a single. Hardly a rock upon which to build a firmly held political perspective but unlike my socialist buddy, I wasn’t at college to change the world – I was there to get a degree in Psychology and Linguistics so I could become a professor with a job for life [2].

Like many foreign language phrasebooks, it contained many “useful sentences” that one could simply trot out in the appropriate situation. Although I no longer have the book itself – and can’t for the life in me remember the title – I did keep the following short list of examples:

Can this be invisibly mended?
I have broken this denture.
How high is that mountain?
The clutch engages too quickly.
To whom does this concrete sports pavilion belong?

The latter, if memory serves me correctly, had an example answer along the lines of “It belongs to the people of the glorious Czech Republic.”

There’s actually a name to describe these types of sentences; postilion sentences. This was coined by the UK linguist David Crystal in a 1995 article where he talked about sentences used in teaching English as a Second Language:

A postilion sentence is one which has little or no chance of ever being useful in real-life. It could be used, obviously, because it is grammatically well-formed; but the contexts in which it would be natural to use it are either so restricted or so adult that the chances of a child encountering it, or finding it necessary to use it, are remote. In short, it is uncommunicative. It conveys a structural meaning, and a lexical content, but that it is all.

Crystal refers to a sentence from a early 20th century Hungarian-English phrasebook that went “The postilion has been struck by lightning.” It’s not perhaps a coincidence that the British Monty Python’s Flying Circus comedy group came up with a skit called “The Dirty Hungarian Phrasebook video,” where Hungarian phrases were translated into obscene, or simply ridiculous, English phrases, one of which has taken on a life of its own; “My hovercraft is full of eels.” It has become such a popular example of a postilion sentence that the linguists at the Omniglot website have devoted a page to provide over translations in over 130 languages from Afrikkans (“My skeertuig is vol palings“) to Zulu (“Umkhumbi wami ugcwele ngenyoka zemanzini“). So should you ever find yourself needing to explain the fishy condition of your water-skimming vehicle while vacationing in Iceland (“Svifnökkvinn minn er fullur af álum“) remember to bookmark that page!

Postilion on the Queen's carriage

The royal postilion

In fairness to phrasebook creators, creating lists and lists of sentences can appear to be a reasonable goal. After all, should you find yourself in the middle of a crowded street in some foreign land with the need to scream “That organ grinder’s monkey has stolen my wallet,” having it written down at the tip of your fingers would clearly be of benefit [4]. Similarly if you’re out on a dark and stormy night in Transylvania and your postilion does indeed suffer a lighting-related injury, you’d also be covered (“A légpárnás hajóm tele van angolnákkal“).

The limitation – and it’s a pretty big one – is that it is impossible to predict all the sentences that a traveler could potentially need. The best you can do is create a selection of fairly generic sentences that can be used across situations, such as “I like that” or “That’s not what I wanted” or “Excuse me but I need some help.” Now, if you put your lexical and statistical hats on, ask yourself why “That’s not what I wanted” seems like a better choice than “My hovercraft is full of eels.” If you said it because the former seems to be a more probable sentence than the latter, then you’re definitely on the right track. When you consider strings of words, one way of analyzing them is in terms of frequency of use, and words like that, not, want, what, my, and is, are far more frequently used than hovercraft, eels, monkey, and postilion [5].

If  you wanted to perform a simple test at a bar, a much underrated and underused experimental venue, write down the following cloze sentence [6] and ask as many folks as possible to fill in the blanks:

My <blank> is full of <blank>

In truth, I have no idea what you’ll get in response, although glass and beer may well score higher than most nouns, but the  chances you’ll get hovercraft and eels is very low. What I can predict is that the missing words will be nouns because when you look at sub-strings of words, the inherent rules of how the English language behaves start to bias our choices. In computational and corpus linguistics, folks talk about such string as n-grams, where n is the number of words in the string.

The n-gram [my <blank> is] is a trigram, and words my and is limit the words that could fit into the blank. In fact, if we look at the bigram of [my <blank>], even that excludes certain choices. This is because when we use a possessive adjective such as my, the probability is that the word to follow will be a noun. If it’s the trigram of [my is], that probability actually goes up. For example, we can find examples of the bigram [my ] as follows:

[My dog]. (my + NOUN)
[My old] dog. (my + ADJECTIVE)
[My very] old dog. (my + ADVERB)

As you see, the bigram [my ] doesn’t have to be a noun if it’s part of a longer string. But if we contrast that with the trigram [my is] then we are much more limited:

[My dog is] hungry. (my + NOUN + is)
[My *old is] hungry.
[My *very is] hungry.

For those of us who work in the field of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) we’re actually more familiar with the science of n-grams than we might have realized because this is essentially how word prediction works. Outside of AAC, anyone who uses a mobile phone will have seen next-word prediction and not necessarily worked out that it’s based on algorithms that use n-grams to estimate the most likely next word.

Of course, probabilities are simply that; probabilities. Given a word or n-gram as a starting point, we can make good guesses as to what word or words may come next but you can never be 100% sure. A number of AAC vocabulary sets have a feature whereby if you bring up the n-gram [SUBJECT PRONOUN + TO BE] a selection of verbs appear that are all in the progressing form i.e. VERB+ING. This is based on the thinking that whenever you say something like “I am…” or “he is…” or “we are…” any following verb is likely to be along the lines of eating, drinking, running, finishing etc. But that’s a probability only –  I might want to say “I am finished” or “He is done” or even “I am really thinking about…” or “we are certainly not wanting…” where the verb is actually in the ED form or there are other words (typically adverbial) before the following verb. If I want to say “I am doing something” then having doing appear automatically after “I am” can save keystrokes; but if I want to say “I am done,” I have to delete the word doing then find done as a word on its own, which adds keystrokes and takes more time.

Designing AAC systems to take advantage of n-grams is not a bad idea. Back in the 1990s when I was working with the team that developed the Unity symbol-based language program for devices built by the Prentke Romich Company, we included a number of bigrams and trigrams based on the thinking that phrases such as “I like” and “do you want” or “she doesn’t feel” have frequencies that are comparable to individual words and actually much higher than the vast majority of nouns. At the time, we didn’t have the resources to check the figures but nowadays it’s pretty easier to do that with online corpora. A phrase such as “do you want” has a frequency score or 11126 in the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), which is way above words like postilion (9), hovercraft (109), eels (464), and even lightning (6724). Another example is “I don’t like,” which comes in at 5282 but when you look for “I don’t like ,” the frequencies drop dramatically:

I don’t like (5282)
I don’t like it (682)
I don’t like this (211)
I don’t like being (128)

What you see is that in general, as the length of the string increases, the frequency drops, to the point that “I don’t like eels” and “I don’t like hovercrafts” score a big fat zero. It’s only those bigrams and trigrams that seem to have frequencies that make them practical within an AAC vocabulary set.

You can now probably work out why sentence-based AAC systems are not only impossible to design but unlikely to be of use. Sentences are in effect simply n-grams with a large n value. “My hovercraft is full of eels” and “My postilion has been struck by lightning” are a 6-gram and a 7-gram respectively, and because probability is cumulative (the sum of the probability of each word) you can imagine how stunningly low the frequencies can be for sentences. Word-based systems, supplemented with high-frequency bigrams and trigrams provide access to vocabulary sets that are flexible and practical. Having the individual words eels, full, hovercraft, is, my, of as building blocks from which to construct novel sentences when turns out to be much better than having thousand upon thousands of prefab sentences stored “just in case.”

Notes
[1] The phrase “Clause Four Socialism” came from the fourth clause in the UK Labour Party constitution of 1918, which read; “To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.” Although it sounds like it was written by a lawyer and has more embedded clauses than a convention of Santas, it formed the basis for the Socialist ticket of Britain in the 1970s, where the country came as close to being a satellite of the USSR as it had ever been.

[2] That turned out to be yet another dream unfulfilled with my life taking a very different path that kept me well out of the world of academia. But you’re not here to read about me so go back to the article and keep reading😉

[3] Crystal, D. (1995). Postilion sentences. Child Language Teaching and Therapy, 11(1), 79-90.

[4] Technophiles will point out that the better way to do this is to shout “That organ grinder’s monkey has stolen my wallet” into their smart phone with translation facilities. That may be true but even machine translation can get a little iffy at times, and there’s a good chance that if the aforementioned simian is smart enough to target your wallet, it’s probably going to snatch your iPhone too. No-one reads books any more – not even monkeys – so your pocket phrasebook would be safe.

[5] I suppose now is a good time to add a little bit about postilions for those who are curious. On horse-drawn carriages, the postilion is a person who sits on the leading left-hand horse and who can guide the carriage if there isn’t an actual coachman on the carriage itself. The word derives from the French postillon meaning “the person who rides the post horse,” and the post horse was the one reserved for a mail carrier who would use it to take letters from one location to another. The earlier Middle French noun poste referred to “Any of a series of men stationed at suitable places along appointed post-roads, the duty of each being to ride with, or forward speedily to the next stage, the monarch’s (and later also other) letters and dispatches, and to provide fresh horses for express messengers riding through.” (OED).

[6] A cloze sentence is one where words are purposely left out so that readers can add appropriate choices. It’s a standard tool for research and education, especially when teaching literacy. The word is simply a shortened version of the word closure, hence the pronunciation of /kləʊz/ and not /kləʊs/. It’s not a “close” sentence but one that needs “closure!” It was first noted in 1953 so is relatively new.

Retronyms: We Only Get ‘Em When We Need ‘Em

I learned a new word this weekend. Retronym. For me, learning new words is simultaneously exciting and depressing; exciting because it’s something new, but depressing because it serves to remind me of how much I don’t know. If my vocabulary were to be measurable and I turned out to have a 60,000 word lexicon, you can bet your life I’d be miserable that it wasn’t 60,001. And if I learned a new word, I’d be equally bummed that I didn’t have 60,002.

My psychological issues aside, the word retronym is also fascinating to me because it serves to describe a phenomenon that we all know and use but without actually knowing the word to describe it!

Back in the 1970’s, when phones were not smart and coffee was not decaffeinated, clever inventors at the Hamilton Watch Company designed a new timepiece that eschewed such primitive things as “hands” and “winders” in favor of a using something called light-emitting diodes that would light up and show numbers. Imagine that – actual light-up numbers! So instead of learning that “the little hand is between the 2 and the 3, and the big hand is on the 30, so it must be two-thirty,” you just saw a 2 and a 30 and said. Two-thirty.” Brilliant!

This became the first ever digital watch. and it was called that to distinguish it from the original watch. But the next thing to happen was the use of the new compound analog watch as a way of being more specific about the difference between the two timepieces. Analog watch thus becomes an example of a retronym; a word that the Oxford English Dictionary defines as, “a neologism created for an existing object or concept because the exact meaning of the original term used for it has become ambiguous.” Clearly there was no need for this word prior to its coinage because all we had was a watch [1]. Digital watches became cheaper and cooler to the point that it was pretty naff [2] not to have one.

Digital LED watch

Is this cool of what?

Of course, like all such fashion accessories, they eventually became so ubiquitous that folks began to stop wearing them in favor of analog watches – what we used to call watches but can now also be called analog watches to distinguish them from digital. I for one love my Accurist MS832Y Chronograph and always recommend that a dude should have at least one real watch in his collection of fashion accessories.

Accurist watch

Real watch

But now we have the smart watch. Here’s another retronym we now need because it contrasts with the previous stupid watches; you know, the ones that only tell you the time – duh!

In general, technological advances are a spur to the creation of retronyms. I have a wired headset and a bluetooth headset (I used to just have a headset) to listen to music from my wireless radio or my satellite radio (we used to have radios); I see both American football on TV and European football (because we used to just have football until the Americans decided to use it for their version of rugby with padding), and get calls on my landline phone as well as my cell phone (all phones were landlines 40 years ago); and I prefer to read paper books (thought more people now read e-books) and avoid non-alcoholic beer (because we all used to drink just a beer). Fortunately we don’t yet have a retronym for non-alcoholic beer as there seems to be no ambiguity about it.

As you can see, a retronym is typically a compound noun where the original noun is preceded by an adjective or noun that modifies it. The word e-book is a step ahead of other retronyms in that the full form, electronic book, has quickly been shortened to the e– prefix [3], as have many other electronic devices such as the e-cigarette, e-mail, and perhaps e-learning. However, only e-mail seems to have gained any real traction as a “real” word, with hopeful monsters such as e-zine, e-banking, and e-reader still left struggling for acceptance.

Just for completeness, the original word from which a retronym is derived can be called a protonym. So e-book is the new word (or neologism), paper book is the retronym, and book is the protonym. Similarly ballpoint pen was a new word, with the retronym being fountain pen, and pen the protonym.

Learning a retronym is also another lesson in aging. Most frequently, the retronym represents something that is on the way out or outmoded. I guess that’s why I cling so dearly to my paper books.

Notes
[1] The first watches were designed to be carried on a chain and kept in a pocket. Then when a watch was designed to be worn of the wrist, we suddenly found we had a wristwatch and a pocket watch. But in this specific case, eventually the word wrist was dropped from the new word, leaving us with a watch and a pocket watch. The word watch was originally a protonym for a timepiece you kept in your pocket, but it became a protonym for a timepiece you have on your wrist. Essentially, it changed its meaning. So we didn’t see the new word *digital wristwatch versus *analog wristwatch but digital watch and analog watch.  Well, at least I find that interesting😉

[2] The British English word naff is relatively recent (1960s) but of uncertain origin. It means, “unfashionable, vulgar; lacking in style, inept; worthless, faulty.” The phrases “Naff off” or “Naff all” are euphemisms for “Fuck off” and “Fuck all” and may be a nod toward one suggested origin of naff as being Polari slang for “Normal As Fuck,” but this is hard to substantiate. And Polari is “A form of slang incorporating Italianate words, rhyming slang, cant terms, and other elements of vocabulary, which originated in England in the 18th and 19th centuries as a kind of secret language within various groups, including sailors, vagrants, circus people, entertainers, etc.” It was used extensively by the gay community of London in the 1950s and 1960s but has pretty much faded out now.

[3] The modern e-prefix is a shortened form of the word electronic. The older e-prefix (as in eject, egress, eviscerate) comes from Latin and means “out of,” “from,” “without,” or “former.”

Not Dead Yet; But Not Asleep Neither

Life, as we know, has a nasty habit of sweeping us along at a pace that gives us scarce a chance to breathe. This is why the last post from the Dudes was on June 24th – and that’s close on 2 months ago. 2 months! My personal goal has always been to have one per week but as our dear readers know the closest I’ve ever come to that is during the Christmas Quiz of last year. It’s also the case that I can’t just “rattle off” a post because contrary to what some might believe, I actually think about what I’m writing, and often have to track down articles and information to support whatever outrageous claims I might be making. So a post of around 1500 words (a “short post” is probably 1000) can take me a few hours, spread over a few days.

So my plan during July was to add a couple more posts taken from the 14 draft posts sitting on WordPress [1], based on the assumption that while I was taking a week’s vacation in the UK visiting my family, I’d have some time to write.

No such frickin’ luck.

This turned out to be one of those vacations that you get from and feel you need another holiday! During that one week my wife and I visited Accrington, Blackburn, Blackpool, Bolton, Burnley, Lancaster, Llandudno, Portmeirion, and York [2], as well as meeting up with my brother, parents, in-laws, and a couple of friends from way back when. In retrospect, imagining I’d have time to “sit back and chill” seems to have been a stupid idea. That’s not to say we didn’t have a good time (and that includes the day we had a blow-out and had to be towed for a repair because rental cars in the UK now seem to have given up on having spare tires) but it turned out to be much busier than I’d expected.

Needless to say I also managed to send my cholesterol levels above what my doctor considers safe by indulging in a slew of traditional and delicious food such as real bacon butties [3], full English breakfasts [4], boxes of Maltesers, steak and kidney puddings and meat pies, chips, mushy peas, Indian curries, fried fish, gammon ham, clotted cream and scones, and so on and so on.

Full enlgish breakfast

Full English

It’s now close to 2:00 AM and I’m writing because I couldn’t sleep. Knocking out a 1000-word post seemed to be a reasonably good way of tiring myself out, and it seems to be working. On the other hand, the thought of a breakfast fry-up is making my stomach rumble so I’m probably going to have to raid the fridge for a quick snack before bed – although it’s likely to be healthier than a Full English.

And so to bed. To sleep, perchance to dream…

Notes
[1] The working titles for those draft posts include “The Case of the Flat Adverb,” “Peppa Pig: Learn Core Vocabulary from Watching TV,” “Ip, Dip, Pen and Ink,” and “Bathrooms, Toilets, Restrooms, and Loos: Just Where DO You Pee?” I’m open to suggestions as to which folks would like to see first – otherwise I’ll tackle them as soon as I can learn how NOT to be distracted by Life.

[2] Our UK readers will notice that all these places are pretty much “up t’north,” which is where I comes from. Visiting old haunts is something of a secular pilgrimage whenever I’m back over the pond, so although these towns may seem rather uninteresting to my fellow northerners, they have an almost spiritual value to those of us who consider ourselves ex-pats and less English than they used to be!

[3] A butty is northern dialect for a sandwich, originating from bread and butter. A good butty uses real butter and is then stuffed with heart-clogging fillings such as fried bacon, cheese, chips (fries for our American cousins), spam (oh yes, spam indeed!), jam, mashed potatoes, or anything that you can shoehorn between two slice of bread.

[4] A proper English has fried eggs, fried bacon, fried mushrooms, fried tomatoes, baked beans, fried black pudding, and fried bread – which is a slice of bread that you drop into the pan at the end of the fry-up so as to soak up all the fat that’s still there. You might also want to include hot buttered toast to that list because you can’t have too much fat to start the day off. I’m pretty such the American Heart Association has the Full English on a hit-list but if you’ve never experienced one, you have to add it to your bucket list; probably the last item on the list.