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.


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.

[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 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” (, “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.

[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


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.”

[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.

[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…

[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.

Priming and “Getting the Answer you Want”

A couple of posts ago (“A Lesson in Ambiguity from the ASHA Leader“) I talked about ambiguous sentences and how they can be affected by the phenomenon of priming. This is where a response to a specific stimulus is affected by the influence of a previous one. So if I ask you “What color is the vase below?” then you are likely to say “white.”

Ambiguous image

But if I’d asked “What color are the two faces looking at each other below?” you would have said “black.” The question (stimulus) affects you response (“white” or “black”).

A specific type of priming is semantic priming, where words are used an initial stimuli to elicit what you might call a “biased answer. Here’s an example:

“I like to boat along a river. The water laps at the edges where the grass and flowers grow. I love to wade in the shallows and squish the mud between my toes. Sometimes I like to sit on the edge with my feet in the water and look for fish.”

Q: What does the word bank mean?

Now, read the following narrative and then answer another question:

“Money is wonderful! It lets me buy thing that I want. I like dollar bills because they fold flat in my wallet. I collect loose change in a jar. Countries have different types of money, such as the Euro in Europe, the pound note in the UK, and the rupee in India. Without money, we’d find it very difficult to trade things between each other.

Q: What does the word bank mean?

There’s a good chance your answer was different in each case based on the narrative you read first. The different text primes you toward a different answer. It won’t always work but you can certainly create tendencies [1].

Politicians, media outlets, and marketing executives know this. Not only do they know it but they regularly put it into practice. A well-constructed priming can get people to agree to all sorts of things without them being always conscious of why? Here’s a classic example from one of the most linguistically educational TV series of all time: Yes Prime Minister:

It’s also a common practice for special interest groups to prime all their discussions by using words and phrases that bias their arguments in a particular, more favorable (for them) direction. One of my pet hates – pun certainly intended – is the use and growth of the phrase pet parent instead of pet owner. Using parent clearly shifts the tone of any conversation in an attempt to make pet ownership seem more important. From the “pet parents” perspective, one doesn’t “own” an animal but treats it like a member of the family. It’s only a small step from there to having strollers for pets, clothes for pets, special diets, hotels, and then “rights” that allow pampered pooches to have, say, a seat on an airplane, a vote for the President, and maybe a driving license.

Or how about the phrase “officer-involved shooting” instead of “police shooting?” In a recent episode of On The Media, an interview took place with Craig Martin, an Associate Professor with Washburn University School of Law about an article he wrote in the Huffington Post entitled Time to Kill the Term “Officer-Involved Shooting.” In it, Martin discusses how the phrase has been used more and more over the past two years by media outlets to describe situations where a police officer has shot someone, but turning the active into the passive somehow degrades the seriousness of the incident [2].

George Orwell’s now classic Politics and the English Language is still a remarkable piece of prose that not only offers sounds advice on good writing technique but looks at priming – without using the term – as it relates to euphemism, where you try to change the tone of a discussion by changing the phraseology of the topic. Consider the following excerpt:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called PACIFICATION. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called TRANSFER OF POPULATION or RECTIFICATION OF FRONTIERS. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called ELIMINATION OF UNRELIABLE ELEMENTS.

This was written in 1946 but if you add in such wonderful newer phrases like collateral damage (dead civilians), enhanced interrogation techniques (torture), downsizing (sacking), or courtesy call (telemarketing call), it could well have been written last week.

When we’re talking about using multiple types of priming that we use to establish a particular point of view, the word framing can be used – as in “framing the argument.” Politicians and marketeers use framing an awful lot because it is their job to persuade you to think – and act – in a specific way. If you’re in a historical mood, Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders is still, after 50 years, a readable discourse on priming and framing as they apply to marketing, although the total absence of anything related to the internet might seem odd to digital natives! A more recent offering is Martin Lindstrom’s Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy.[3]

Priming is also something that can occur in the legal sphere, as noted by Barbara O’Brien and Daphna Oyserman in a 2008 article entitled It’s Not What You Think but Also How You Think About It: The Effect of Situationally Primed Mindsets on Legal Judgments and Decision Making:” [4]

…lawyers understand that calling forth certain concepts and imagery can frame evidence in a way that affects how it is interpreted. Courts forbid a prosecutor from comparing a criminal defendant to Saddam Hussein or Adolf Hitler, for example, because it evokes passions and prejudices. Essentially, a lawyer who uses such a rhetorical device seeks to activate a particular set of knowledge structures and beliefs to influence the sense jurors make of the defendant’s actions, motives, and beliefs, a phenomenon that psychologists call “priming.” (150).

Priming is therefore a feature of our everyday lives, either as the user of priming in order to change the behavior of someone else, or as the recipient of priming from people who want to change how we behave. Recognizing its pervasive existence is at least a first step towards understanding how it affects us all.

[1] There are many studies in the psychological literature that look at the issue of priming but they tend to be incredibly focused on very tightly controlled experiments – as they should! – and the purpose of this post is really to broaden the concept rather than provide a detailed literature review. Those of you with access to a library that has access to online journals need do little more than type “priming” into the search box to find enough reading material for the year.

[2] I’ve talked as part of my article In Defense of the Grammar Nazi about another example of priming that’s used in the US in relation to discussions about health care provision. For those who are against any notion of a state-sponsored, tax-funded system (like the National Health Service in the UK), it’s usually referred to as socialized medicine, which I suggest was chosen because of its similarity to socialism, and by extension communism and all things wicked and evil. Supporters of a nationally sponsored health care system tend to use the term affordable health care or simply health care in an attempt to minimize the priming effect of socialized -> socialism.

[3] I was a little disturbed that when I checked the Amazon website to provide a link to this book that it was recommended by Dr. Oz, Tyra Banks, and William Shatner. In light of Dr. Oz’s recent decline into junk science, and Tyra Bank’s credentials being mainly that she’s pretty and made fierce a word-of-the-year phenomenon, I was unsure as to whether or not to still recommend the book. But seeing as I liked it, I’m OK with being lumped together with a TV doctor and a supermodel. And I suppose if it’s good enough for Captain Kirk…

[4] O’Brien, Barbara, & Oyserman, Daphna. (2008). It’s Not Just What You Think But Also How You Think About it: The Effect of Situationally Primed Mindsets on Legal Judgments and Decision Making. Marquette Law Review, 92(1), 149-172.

Language on the Move: The Case of the Flat Adverb

In a not-so-long-ago ad, Apple asked us all to “think different.” Even longer ago, Elvis Presley asked us to “love me tender. And when I was a wee bairn, my mum used to tuck me in at bedtime with the phrase, “Night night, sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite.”

I wasn’t a particularly precocious or bright toddler, so my response to mum was simply to smile and stick my head under the covers to check for insects, rather than, “But mum, surely it should be sleep tightly because you’re using the word as an adverb and therefore the correct formation of the word is to take the adjective as the base and use the –ly ending as an adverbial morpheme?” I suppose if I has said that I’d have been called a “clever clogs” [1] and told to “just go to sleep.”

drive slow sign

Adverbs, by definition, are used to describe verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. With Elvis, if the question to him was “How do you want me to love you,” he should reply “tenderly”; with Apple, if the question was “How would you like us to think,” the reply would be “differently”; and with mum, she should be telling me to sleep “tightly.” We might also find we’re “talking loudly,” “laughing heartily,” “arguing vehemently,” “working quickly,” and “complaining bitterly” whenever the occasion demands it.

So why isn’t Apple thinking differently, Elvis being loved tenderly, and I sleeping tightly? Well, it’s all to do with something called flat adverbs and the appeal of the –ly ending.

The commonest way to create an adverb is to take an adjective and add an –ly to the end of it. You have a “hungry cat” and a “thirsty dog” but the former will “eat hungrily” and the latter “drink thirstily.” Similarly your “perfect day” should “end perfectly” and a “generous patron” will always “give generously.” It’s regularity like this that should make the lives of teachers of English easier, and the possibility for artificial intelligence more likely. Alas, consistency and continuity seem to be in short supply when it comes to language. In fact, just when you think you’ve got it all worked out, the lexical world starts to wobble on its axis and, like tectonic plates on a bed of molten rocks, words slide around and rearrange themselves in all sorts of non-standard ways.

Flat adverbs are an example of these slippery words that want to have it both ways – adjective and adverb. It’s like Bruce Jenner wanting not to become just Caitlyn but both Bruce and Caitlyn at the same time! They skip and jump around like frogs on a hot plate, not pausing long enough for anyone to get a grip on which is right or wrong – or perhaps more accurately which is better at any particular time.

One situation where you can take a stab at which to choose in when you’re writing songs or poems and meter is important. When mum told me “Night night, sleep tight,” she was simply adhering to the underlying stress pattern of the phrase, along with the rhyme for night and tight. The form “Night night, sleep tightly” would be judged grammatically correct but poetically wrong. Similarly when Johnny Cash sang about how “the sun shines bright on my old Kentucky home,” using brightly would have buggered up the timing [2], forcing the Man in Black to slip in an extra syllable that really doesn’t want to be there. And try singing “Love me tender-ly, love me do…” to get a feel for why Elvis flattened his adverb.

Our confusion over flat adverbs is comes primarily from those that are identical to an adjective. If you consider the pair fast and slow, the former presents less of a problem because it doesn’t have an –ly form. I can “run fast” (adverb) or drive a “fast car” (adjective) and not worry about whether it’s an adverb or an adjective because there simply is no *fastly. However, although I can drive a “slow car” (adjective) it’s less obvious whether to “drive slow” or “drive slowly.”

As you might suspect, the bastard nature of English also plays a part in spreading confusion [3]. Way back when Old English was the current flavor of the language, changing an adjective into an adverb was done by the addition of a final -e; fairly simple, eh? So if we had the word glaed (OE for our modern glad) then you could add an e to make glaede meaning gladly. So far so good.

If you wanted to turn a noun into an adjective, you could add the ending -lic; again, not to tricky. The word craeft (meaning skill) became craeftlic, an adjective meaning skilful. So guess what you did to say skillfully? Yup, you added the e-ending to get craeftlice.

This meant we had some adverbs ending in a very weak-sounding –e and others with a more pronounced-sounding –lice. Gradually over the years, the weak –e disappeared and the stronger –lice became the slightly weaker –ly. Equally, those adjective ending in –lic also wore down to take on the sound of –ly. By the 14th century, we had adjectives and adverbs ending in –ly but this ending became the more commonly used to mark adverbs. Folks then started adding it willy-nilly to adjectives and this is pretty much how we do things in Modern English.

It’s not surprising that folks have some trouble working out whether adverbs should have an ly at the end or not, and those fossilized flat adverbs don’t make it any easier. Strang (1970) [4] expressed a sentiment that is as true today as it was in the 20th century:

…the sense of unease about adverbs homophonous with an adjective […] has been felt at all periods, and there has been a steady progress from plain to –ly forms (p.273).

Apart from my earlier suggestion that you can use poetic meter to decide which word to use, another guideline you might want to consider is that flat adverbs are more likely to sound right in short, imperatives. So “sleep tight” and “drive slow” are fair enough. As is “think different.” As always, if you’re unsure, use a dictionary or better still an online corpus. But don’t get too wound up about whether to use an ly form of not; if it’s taken a thousand years to get to this point where no-one is sure, you’re not going to find the definitive answer from reading this one blog post!

[1] I’m something of a fan of the UK cartoon series Peppa Pig, and in an upcoming post I’ll explain in some detail precisely why but for now, just take this as a snippet of information that gives you a peek into what makes me tick. In several episodes, the phrase “clever clogs” is used, and although I had to explain this to my American family, folks over in the UK have no difficulty with it. And why not, seeing as it appears to have been around since 1866 at least! Joseph Wright’s 1898 English Dialect Dictionary also includes the phrases “clever-breeches,” “clever-clumsy,” “clever-dick,” “clever-head,” and “clever-shanks.”

[2] When I was a kid in the 1960s, the word bugger was a swear word that would get me a clip round the ear for using. In the hierarchy of swear words, bugger was about as profane as bloody, with bloody hell being a tad more shocking. In the more liberal 21st century, bugger and bloody are now little more than quaint Britishisms, especially to the American ear because they never crossed the Atlantic as curse words. It’s a little known fact – but allow the Dudes to enlighten you! – that the word bugger comes from the Latin Bulgarus, which means Bulgarian, and was used to refer to a group of 11th century heretics who came from Bulgaria. As often happens when people talk about any group with which they disagree, the orthodoxy ascribed certain “practices” to the Buggers, one of which was sodomy. By the 16th century, the word was being used to describe anyone who committed the crime of buggery (engaging in sodomy), and by the 19th century it was being used as a general term of abuse or insult. By the end of the 20th century, it had become less profane and could also be used in a more affectionate”blokish” way, such as “He’s really quite a decent bugger when all’s said and done.”

[3] An interesting article on the development of the ly-ending in English and its parallels in other languages is:

Hummel, M. (2014). The adjective-adverb interface in Romance and English. In P. Sleeman, F. V. d. Velde & H. Perridon (Eds.), Adjectives in Germanic and Romance (pp. 35-72). Amsterdam and Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins.

There’s also some information in the highly entertaining book:

Burridge, K. (2005). Weeds in the Garden of Words: Further Observations on the Tangled History of English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[4] Strang, Barbara M.H. (1080). A History of English. London: Methuen.

A Lesson in Ambiguity from the ASHA Leader

Although I like to think of myself as a digital native, or at worst a digital immigrant, when it comes to reading magazines I still prefer the look and feel of the real thing, complete with glossy cover, bendy paper, and long battery life. That’s especially true of the ASHA Leader, which mysteriously downloads itself into my work mailbox each month, begging me to flip through the crisp new pages while sipping coffee and eating a do-nut. Granted my first flip through is to see if the Speech Dudes get mentioned but once my ego has been shattered, I’m happy to relax and catch up on stuff I need to know.

This month’s edition (June 2015) includes a linguistically intriguing headline. Take a look below:

ASHA Leader magazine cover

ASHA Leader June 2015 © ASHA

The title “Helping Clients With Normal Hearing Decline” caught me off guard. Admittedly I was reading it without the help of the earlier mentioned coffee and do-nuts but I wondered why on I was being asked to hasten the decline of individuals who had normal hearing? Is this a subtle way of increasing the demand for Audiologists – taking folks with normal hearing and making it worse? Was there going to be an article inside about recommending folks jack up their iPod volume, stand for hours next to folks working with jack hammers, or attend an entire tour with Ted Nugent? [1]

Happily (unless you’re an audiologist low on clients) the problem was that I had parsed the phrase incorrectly and therefore misinterpreted the meaning. It wasn’t “Help folks who have normal hearing get worse,” where “worse” is a synonym for “decline” but “help people who have declining hearing.”

The ambiguity comes from the phrase “normal hearing decline,” which can be parsed as either ADJ + COMPOUND NOUN or (ADJ + NOUN) + VERB. If the sentence had been something like “Helping Clients with Normal Feet Walk” or “Helping Clients with Big Lips Whistle,” there would have been no ambiguity. “Feet Walk” and “Lips Whistle” are unlikely to be understood as compound nouns but “Hearing Decline”  (like “hearing loss” and “vision impairment”) can be compounds.

In fact, you could probably force my erroneous interpretation if you used PRIMING, a common technique in research that is used to “persuade” people to think in a certain direction. So if I gave you a list as follows and asked you to say what each phrase meant, by the time you got to the last one I suspect you’d be thinking like me:

Helping People with Normal Feet Walk
Helping People with Big Lips Whistle
Helping People with Blue Eyes See
Helping People with Happy Faces Swim
Helping People with Normal Hearing Decline

See? Now you’re wondering about the ethics of making folks get worse!

The phrase is also an example of what’s called a “garden path” sentence, which can be defined as a grammatically correct sentence that starts in such a way that a reader’s most likely interpretation will be incorrect; they are lured into an improper parse that turns out to be wrong [2]. So as you read “Helping Clients with Normal Hearing…” by the time you get there, you’ve already partially parsed the phrase as a subject noun phrase and so expect a verb to follow.

SUBJECT (NP: helping people with normal hearing) + VERB (VP: decline)

Well, that’s clearly how I read it! What garden path sentences serve to illustrate is that we process language in a linear fashion, piece by piece, but revise our understanding where necessary based on new input. This is why we should always let someone finish a sentence before butting in. And in German, because they have a tendency to put many verbs at the END of a sentence, you almost always have to wait to work out what exactly is going on ;)

Now, let me open my Leader again and see if I missed a reference to the Speech Dudes…

[1] For younger readers, before Ted Nugent became a spokesperson for the National Rifle Association, advocating that the best way to handle gun violence is to give everyone a gun (or maybe more than one – you can never be too careful) he was a rock star guitarist who promoted his concerts with the phrase “If it’s too loud, you’re too old.” It would be unfair to single Ted out as the major cause of premature hearing loss in many of we “oldies” but here’s a random quote trawled from the interwebs from one attendee of a Nugent concert: “I made the mistake of going to a Ted Nugent show once without ear protection. He was opening for Lynyrd Skynyrd, so when he hit the first chord of the night, my ears instantly rang, and didn’t stop for 2 or 3 days.”

[2] Other examples of “garden path” sentences include the following:

“Fat people eat accumulates.”
“The man who hunts ducks out at weekends.’
“I convinced her children are noisy.”
“The old man the boats.”

It’s only when you get to the end of the sentence that you realize you’ve been “lead down the garden path” and have to re-parse the sentence to get the intended meaning. It’s similar to a device used in humor called paraprosdokian (Greek παρά meaning “against” and προσδοκία meaning “expectation”), which is where the end of a sentence or phrase flips the expected meaning to something unexpected, which becomes the source of the humor. Here are some examples:

“I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening – but this wasn’t it.”
“The last thing I want to do is hurt your feelings – but it’s still on the list.”
“She got her good looks from her father – he’s a plastic surgeon.”
“I take life with a pinch of salt – and a lime with a shot of tequila.”

Time Management for Dummies, DOPES, and Dudes: Part 1 – The Kit

The fact Las Vegas exists is proof positive that no matter how much you believe you are skilled at playing poker, tossing dice, guessing where a ball will land on a wheel of numbers, or even knowing which side will show after flipping a coin, you are wrong. Wrong to the tune of $35 billion in 2012, which is the estimated total revenue generated by 461 casinos in the US [1]. The house always wins – and if it didn’t, it wouldn’t be there! Statistically there will always be some winners that the casinos can show as role models, but the odds of YOU being that person are stunningly low. There is only one real winner in the gambling industry – and that’s the gambling industry.

Likewise, the fact that there are so many Life Coaches, Management Consultants, and general “Let Me Show You How To Be Fabulously Wonderful (for a fee)” folks out there is proof positive that no matter how much you believe you can control you life, you are wrong. Wrong to the tune of $11 billion dollars in 2008, which is the amount of money spent by Americans on self-improvement books, CDs, seminars, coaching and stress-management programs [2]. The only winner in the self-improvement industry is the self-improvement industry.

According to Steve Salerno, the author of the splendid 2008 book Sham: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless, there’s a self-sustaining element based on the fact that “the most likely customers of self-help products are the same people who purchased similar products within the previous 18 months.” In other words, it’s not actually helping.

Getting Organized

So let’s face it and admit to ourselves and the world that although we aspire to being super-organized, super-efficient, and razor-sharp in our thinking and execution of plans and programs, we’re basically messy slobs whose most organized closet is the one nailed shut so the crap doesn’t fall out of it. When Pink Floyd wrote the lines “plans that either come to naught, or half a page of scribbled line,” [3] they were being optimistic that someone would be inspired to actually pick up a pen! If any one of us were to write two lists headed “Things I Did” and “Things I’m Planning To Do,” I’m betting that the latter would be the longer.

There should be no shame in being disorganized and scatterbrained. In their book, The Perfect Mess, Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freeman argue that;

Our brains evolved to function in a messy world, and sometimes when we insist on thinking in neat, orderly ways, we’re really holding back our minds from doing what they do best. No matter how messy the world is, we humans seem determined not to see it that way. We enlist all sorts of schemes to avoid having to accept disorder and randomness, but when viewed logically these appear to be glitches in our software.

If the nature of the Universe tends towards chaos and unpredictability, who are we to argue with it? In fact, in order to be one with the Universe, one should “go with the flow” and let is all slide.

But sadly for me and 99% of people out there, the need for a steady paycheck typically means working for employers who don’t share that same view of the cosmos – they want results that can be measured and sold to make a profit. Steady paychecks are the antithesis of the Natural Order of Things.

This means that like it or not, we have to strive to imposing some sort of order to our lives, damaging as that may be to the universe as a whole [4]. And it also leads to the main point of this article; how to create and use a low-tech personal digital assistant to put some structure into you day!

The Basic Kit

Here my personal set-up for the Dudes Organizational Paradigm for the Exceptionally Scatterbrained – or DOPES.

Notebook and pen

DOPES Organizer

The notebook is a QUO VADIS HABANA COMPACT (6.25 inches by 9.25 inches). It’s as wide as an iPad but narrower, and has a much better battery life – plus you can see the pages in bright sunlight. There’s also a pocket on the inside back cover that is wide enough to let you slot in standard 8.5 x 11 paper, which is great when you are in meetings and someone hands you a sheet of paper to take away [5]. The same goes for metric A4 pages. In the picture below, you can see a folder piece of paper that illustrates how it fits; and you also have room to drop in a few business cards.

Pocker in Habana notebook

Habana Rear Pocket

Strapped onto the front of the notebook is a really cool piece of kit called the QUIVER, which is basically a leather pocket with an elasticated strap at the back. It comes in different sizes, but for the Quo Vadis Habana compact you need to order what they call the “Extra Large,” which can also be used on iPad covers. I have the double pen version in black leather with yellow stitching but there are other options.

Inside the Quiver I keep two writing instruments; a Cross Torero Diamondback fountain pen with Diamine Macassar brown ink, and a Pentel Graph Gear™ 1000 with the 0.9 mm lead. Why a pencil? Because if I run out of ink, the lead will always work! The Pentel Graph Gear 1000 comes in colors and thicknesses but I prefer the yellow 0.9 mm version. It is retractable, has a removable top that exposes an eraser, and you can remove the eraser to store extra lead fillers. Not your ordinary wooden pencil, in other words.

Pen and a pencil

Pen and Pencil

When you open up the notebook, just inside I keep three special “bookmarks” that I actually made from the transparency sheets we all used to use with overhead projectors. I have several boxes of these in a variety of colors that I have “repurposed” as bookmarks onto which I attached yellow, green, and blue sticky flags.

Bookmarks and sticky flags

Bookmarks and flags

You can still get acetate sheets at places like Staples and Office Depot, and you can cut out 6-8 bookmarks from one sheet. If you’re lucky -as I was – you can find colored sheets, so that as you can see above, I have yellow flags on a yellow strip, blue flags on a blue strip, and green flags on a green one. By having these on acetate bookmarks, I don’t have to carry around plastics flag holders, and I can re-use the flags.

Now, all of the organizing systems out there in the world will have you chop up your tasks into different types, usually up to about 7. That’s far too many for me so I use the following trio:

  • Green = To Do. This is for items that I have to get done within a time frame.
  • Yellow = Investigate. This is for things I need to look into but don’t necessarily have an end-date in mind.
  • Blue = Fun stuff. Speech Dudes blog post, @etyman tweets, new books to buy – anything I want to do outside of work that if I didn’t write them down I’d forget about.

Using the DOPES System

Here’s probably the most minimal set of instructions you’ll ever find for a “time management” tutorial:

1. Write things down in your notebook whenever you need to remember them. Add a date if you want to be really efficient!
2. Write the words “TO DO” or “INVESTIGATE” or “FUN” after any text where you need to actually do something.
3. Draw a little square after the words TO DO, INVESTIGATE, or FUN.4. Once a week (or whenever you can rouse yourself to action) look page over the pages and stick a GREEN FLAG next to a TO DO, a YELLOW FLAG next to an INVESTIGATE, and a BLUE FLAG next to a FUN. Make sure the colored end stick out beyond the edge of the page.
5. Every time you open the notebook, look for colored tabs and see what you still need to do, investigate, or enjoy.
6. When you’ve done it, investigated it, or enjoyed it, put a check/tick mark in the little box and remove the colored flag, replacing it neatly back on your acetate bookmark – see, I told you they were re-usable!

Here’s an example, just in case you are a visual learner:

Example DOPES Entry

Example DOPES Entry

A are the written notes I want to do something about; B is the FUN category (which I sometimes mark as a sub-category – in this instance it’s related to my Etyman twitter account); C is the check-box, that remains empty until I do some thing; and D is the BLUE flag I use to mark all FUN actions.

And that, dear reader, is the low-tech DOPES System in all its glory! If you look back at the first picture (and the second and third) you’ll see that you can always see all the flags even when the notebook is closed. So as long as you can see flags, you know you still have things to do; if there are no flags, you are all up-to-date and caught up. (Hint: unless you are superhuman, you will always see some flags!)

Although I can’t guarantee that this system will bring you untold wealth, universal acclaim, or a knighthood from the Queen, I can tell you that it’s a damn sight better than having no system at all.

So take a trip to your favorite stationery store and get yours own DOPES System set up this weekend. And if you want to take it to the next level, which is to add a hi-tech component, check out the next part in this series: Becoming DOPIER – the Dudes Organizational Paradigm Integrated with Electronic Recording!

[1] 2012 State of the States: The AGA Survey of Casino Entertainment. Report by the American Gaming Association, available in PDF from:

[2] No, I’m not picking on Americans; it’s just that it’s easier for me to get US statistics. I’m pretty confident we could find some similar figures for any Western country, where rather than worry about finding where the next meal is coming from, folks worry about why they have to pay more for extra leg-room on a plane.

[3] The line comes from the track “Time” on the classic album The Dark Side of the Moon, which was released over 40 years ago in 1973. I had just about hit my teens and it was one of the first LPs (as they were called) that I ever bought. It’s actually embedded in a longer verse that reads;

Every year is getting shorter, never seem to find the time,
Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines.
Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way,
The time has come, the song is over,
Thought I’d something more to say

The older I get, the harder it has become to listen to this song because it’s so true. I can only play it if I’m in a good mood as it inevitably leads to me becoming sad and depressed. But then again, life sucks – and then you die.

[4] Physics tells us that “work” requires “energy,” and that all energy ultimately ends up as heat. The Second Law of Thermodynamics is quite explicit about this, especially with regard to something called “The Heat Death of the Universe” – or “How the Universe will die in a big ball of fire.” You see, in terms of energy, the universe is a closed system. And like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, no energy ever goes in and no energy ever goes out. Furthermore, energy cannot be created or destroyed but changed from one form to another, and the ultimate form of energy is heat. When you do any work, you generate heat; and the more heat we generate, the closer the universe is to its ultimate demise; and so the LESS work you do, the BETTER this is for the universe. Ergo, sitting around on my fat ass doing bugger all is helping to save the universe – and how noble is that! So next time some Type A hotshot trying to do 7 things at once tells you you’re lazy, remind him/her that you are, in fact, saving not just the planet but the entire cosmos and all its inhabitants, human and otherwise.

[5] I’ve tried another well-known higher-end notebook called the Rhodia Webnotebook, which is 5.5 inches by 8.5 inches. However, although it has a pocket on the inside back cover, you cannot get an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper folded in half to fit – you have to fold it into quarters. It seems like a minor detail but it is an important one to bear in mind. The Rhodia itself is a great notebook but for me having to fold a sheet twice instead of once in order to get it to fit is a deal breaker. You can see a review of the Habana and the Rhodia at The Goulet Pen Company‘s YouTube site.

The Sky is Falling; the Sky is Falling! The 4 Stages of a Word

The publication of the 4th Edition of the Collins Official Scrabble Words book has resulted in the unsurprising flurry of articles that predict the demise – again – of the English language as we know it. Now that players of that grand old game can score points for thanx, newb, lotsa, and shizzle – words that even the WordPress spellchecker angrily underlines in bright red – how long can it be before xneetrb  and ffydlea are allowed? Hell, why not randomly toss all seven of your tiles onto the board and line ’em up with a triple-word score on the basis that “Well, it could be a word someone has said.”

Collins Official Scrabble Words book cover

But although “Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells” [1] might have choked on his early morning cup of tea whilst reading this morning’s edition of the Times (or more likely the Daily Mail), and Miss Manners [2] may gently suggest that twerking and sexting should be avoided during family game night, Western civilization is unlikely to collapse overnight, and tomorrow morning we’re not going to find ourselves having to pledge allegiance to marauding gangs of thugs and murderers intent on establishing tribal fiefdoms in some vicious Mad Max post-apocalypse scenario. No, although scrabblers might now be able to score 10 points for tweep (a person who follows you on Twitter) and 6 points for eew (meaning “eew!”) the rest of us can get on with our everyday lives, listening to some awesome tuneage or indulging in a spot of facetime with our bezzy while showrooming for a pair of dench new shooties on the web [3].

The teachable moment – and there’s always one of those with a Dudes post – is that what we’re really seeing here is how emotionally vested we can be when it comes to language, even when we might think we’re not. More specifically, the adoption of new words into the global vocabulary challenges our perceptions of what we consider “right” or “wrong” in relation to how we communicate. If nothing else, this sort of incident reminds us how changeable our vocabulary can be, and the more linguistically conservative we are, the more the new words rankle.

Picture of the word WORD

Creative Commons License from Marla Reyes-McDavis:

The first step toward a word becoming “real” is its adoption into spoken language. People were talking about twerking before they were writing about it, and in general, it’s a rule of thumb for lexicographers [4] to assume that no matter how far back you can track the written form of a word, it will have been around in the oral form earlier than that. This first stage is also the “testing ground” for a word because once a word is born, it now has to survive in a nasty, brutish, and short linguistic pool, where other hopeful lexical monsters are competing for everyone’s attention. Many newly coined words can suddenly appear, shine brightly for a short period, then die without saying so much as a goodbye. Do you remember cell yell meaning “to talk loudly on a phone,”  annoyicon, the logo that hogs the bottom corner of a TV program, or even neuticles, defined as “fake testicles for neutered pets?” All of these were nominated in the American Dialect Society’s “Words of the Year” contest from 1999 to 2002 yet have since disappeared and failed to enter the Scrabble dictionary.

The second phase of a word’s journey to becoming “real” is when it gets written down. Lots of times. Anyone can coin a word at anytime – like preet, a verb meaning “to accidentally post a tweet before you’ve actually finished it, ending up in a half-finished tweet – derived from pre– and tweet,” but unless other people start using it and propagating it, it becomes a hapax legomenon and, like the psittacosaurus [5], disappears from the earth leaving only the word and a lost hope.

Provided a word can live long and prosper enough to catch the eyes of writers and distributors of content (no-one writes “stories” or “articles” these days – they provide “content,” like the literary equivalent of baked beans or tomato soup), professional lexicographers can gently guide it to the third stage of its journey to legitimacy and enshrine it in a dictionary. And I use the indefinite article on purpose because there is no single definitive dictionary but a small library of different ones. You can check out our previous post entitled The Top 7 Online Dictionaries – and Why is you want to find out a little more about how to choose which reference works to choose. Once a word gets into a dictionary, we’re now at the point where people begin to get either excited or aggrieved, depending on their point of view.

There’s actually a fourth stage that a word can go through and that’s to become an entry in the only dictionary that I would dare to call the dictionary – the Oxford English Dictionary. For a word to be included in this venerable collection it has to have been around for “a reasonable amount of time” and has reached “a level of general currency where it is unselfconsciously used with the expectation of being understood.” But like the Eagles’ Hotel California, once you check in to the OED, “you can never leave.” A significant raison d’être of the OED is that it provides not just a definition of a word but a history. This is important because we all know that meanings change over time and it’s essential for readers to be able to see and understand this. For example, someone under 25 watching an old episode of the Flintstones cartoon show might wonder what on earth is going one when they hear the theme song say that “we’ll have a gay old time.” By looking at the history of the word gay in the OED, it becomes clear that there has been a significant shift in its primary meaning since the end of the 1950s [6].

So to summarize, here are the Stages of a Word:

Stage 1: Oral Adoption
Stage 2: Physical Transcription
Stage 3: Editorial Consecration
Stage 4: Archival Immortalization

One last thing to bear in mind it that although a word can become immortalized in some archive like the OED, it doesn’t mean it lives forever in our spoken vocabulary. Sadly the OED is filled with the tombstones of long-forgotten words that only ever get resurrected when folks like the Speech Dudes roll back the stone and let them wander the internet for a brief time. Like snool, meaning “to crawl meekly and humbly (R.I.P. 1895); proficiat, “a payment given as a welcoming gesture or token of goodwill upon a person’s entry into a new position” (R.I.P. 1636) [7]; flird, “to sneer or gibe” (R.I.P. 1513); and leggiadrous, “graceful, elegant” (R.I.P. 1702).

And for those struggling with having to come to terms with the new Official Scrabble words, they should take heart that perhaps shizzle and newb will join snool and flird in the not-to-distant future.

[1] A generic character used in the UK to describe someone with right-wing views who writes letters to newspapers with the sign-off “Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells.”

[2] Judith Martin, a syndicated American writer on matters of Etiquette.

[3] Yes, I knew you’d want to know!
tuneage: music.
facetime: to talk with someone using Apple’s FaceTime app.bezzy: Best friend.
showrooming: Looking at an item in a store and using your smart phone to find a better price elsewhere.
dench: excellent.
shooties: shoes that cover the ankles.

[4] The word lexicographer meaning “someone who creates dictionaries” is familiar enough in the 21st century but it’s only a few hundred years old, with its first written example coming from 1658 in a book gloriously entitled Topsall’s History of Four-Footed Beasts in reference to “Calepine and other Lexicographers of his gang.” More famously it appears in Dr. Johnson’s 1755 A Dictionary of the English Language defined as “…a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.” It seems to have been coined at that time because there are no instances of earlier versions of the word to be found, and its clearly Greek origin ( λεξικόν = a word-book or dictionary + γράϕος = a writer) suggests something made up by academics – which is what scholars are wont to do.

[5] Pity the poor psittacosaurus, a 6-foot long parrot-headed saurian that could run around on two legs, scarfing up as many nuts as it could find. It lived during the Cretaceous period and so tragically never even got a bit part in Spielberg’s classic Jurassic Park movie. Its name comes from the Greek ψιττακός meaning “parrot” and so-called because of the shape of its head.

psittacosaurus[6] There are many online histories of the word gay out there so I’m not inclined to write another but it is worth using the word to comment on the fact that a word can have many meanings simultaneously but that at any given time there is a most frequent or primary value. In the late 1950s, when the Flintstones tune was written, the word gay was, in fact, already being used as slang for homosexual, but it wasn’t its primary meaning. Evidence for this can be seen in a quotation from Gore Videl’s 1948 The City and the Pillar where he writes, “[In New York] the words ‘fairy’ and ‘pansy’ were considered to be in bad taste. It was fashionable to say a person was ‘gay’.” The fact that he has to define the term suggests that it had not yet become a common meaning. By the beginning of the 20th century, the primary meaning had shifted to the point that its use to mean “carefree and lively” is rare.

[7] The current equivalent to this is golden hello defined as “a substantial sum offered to a senior executive, etc., as an inducement to change employers, and paid in advance when the new post is accepted.” This was coined in the early 1980s along the lines of the golden handshake, which is “a gratuity given as compensation for dismissal or compulsory retirement.”