Author Archives: apophenikos

The Contronymic Properties of Shit

Some years ago I posted a piece called Shitosophy: A Philosophy for the Existentially Lost, which relied heavily on the use of the word shit and its synonyms to make a point. This time around, I’m using shit again to introduced – 0r reacquaint – readers to the concept of the contronym. You may not have heard the word contronym before but you will have come across examples of it.


A contronym is a word that can be used in two ways to mean exactly the opposite of the other. The classic example is cleave. On the one hand, it’s used to mean “to join or stick together” as in “I was so dry my tongue cleaved to the roof of my mouth,” and on the other it’s used to mean “to split apart” as in “The hatchet cleaved his head in two.” [1]

Other contronyms include sanction (meaning both “to permit” and “to ban”), strike (meaning both “to hit” and, in particularly in baseball, “to miss”), fast (meaning “moving quickly” and “stuck immovably”), and peruse (both “to look over quickly” and “to look at in great detail”).

So where does shit come into this? Well, below is an image shared with me last week from Facebook that is ostensibly one of those “kids, look at what they come up with” pieces:


To be fair to the kid, it’s not wrong! And what’s more interesting is that there are two meanings to the sentence that can only be disambiguated by changing which word is being stressed.

If the stress comes down on the verb have, as in “We HAVE shit,” then that means “we have something.” In this case, shit is used as a mass noun meaning “stuff” or “something.” However, if the stress comes down on the noun for “We have SHIT,” this means “we have nothing” or even “we ain’t got diddly squat.” Here the word shit means “nothing” or an absence of something.

What we’re seeing here is the word shit being used contronymically as it can mean both something and nothing. Of course, shit has many other meanings and so isn’t solely a contronym but the example above demonstrates its contronymic aspect. The Oxford English Dictionary has multiple entries for shit as a noun, adjective, verb, and interjection, along with a list of phrases that includes shit as an essential component. It’s clearly a very flexible word (as is the case with a number of profanities) and very, very old.

There’s another contronymic example of shit that depends on whether it is used along with the indefinite or definite article [2]. Consider the sentences below:

  1. You are the shit.
  2. You are a shit.

In the first instance, shit means something that is good and desirable but in the second it means something bad and undesirable. You’d be happy if you were THE shit but not if you were A shit.

Both cases serve to illustrate how a word’s meaning can be changed dramatically by minimal effort. In the first, it’s stress that determines meaning, and in the second it’s the definite/indefinite article that does it.

So now you know some new shit!

[1] Fans of the tremendously entertaining Game of Thrones on HBO can now go back and re-watch the series to count the number of examples of cleaving that take place on a regular basis. From the cleaving of Cersei and Jaime Lannister in an incestuous rendition of “the beast with two backs” to the cleaving of Gregor Clegane’s horse’s head from its body. And as a final piece of cleaving trivia, when Cersei Lannister, played by Lena Headey, did her naked “Walk of Shame,” she actually used a body double actress by the name of Rebecca Van Cleave, which involved the photo-shopped cleaving of Lena’s head onto Rebecca’s body. And who said linguistics was boring!

[2] In the field of Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) words like the, a, and an are often lumped together with words such as at, in, be, and is and called “Little Words.” As I’ve whined about before (Stop with the Little Words Grab-bag) this category is non-linguistic and based purely on the number of letters used in a word. But in the case of “the shit” versus “a shit,” we can clearly see that teaching a versus the is essential because the wrong choice can significantly change the intended meaning of a phrase or sentence. So the a/an/the distinction has to be treated as much more that just “little words.”

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.

[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: 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.

[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:


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.

“Scan Me and See!”: A New Presentation Technique

Most people seem to be more organized than I am. I’m pretty sure that on the organizational bell curve I come in at -3 standard deviations or more. Sadly, procrastination has not yet been defined as a legitimate pathology so I can’t claim it as being my “condition.” But if someone out there is doing drug trials to cure it, I’m up for the challenge!

That opening paragraph is really just a snippet of background information to explain why I missed the deadline for submitting a paper to the 2015 American Speech-Hearing Association (ASHA) conference to take place in Denver in November. This doesn’t necessarily mean I won’t be there, but I always prefer to present a paper because it feels like I have “done something.”

But if I do end up there, I got to thinking about how I might be able to unofficially “present” a paper even though I’m not officially on the program. And hence the “Scan Me and See!” concept.

When you present a paper at a conference, what typically takes place? Well, you (a) have a scheduled time to appear at (b) a scheduled location, where you (c) orally present to a group of attendees followed by (d) handing out materials and (e) answering questions.

All of these things can be do asynchronously via a website and a link, which can be embedded into a QR code and printed large on a T-shirt. If you then wander around with this T-shirt inviting people at random to scan you, they can see your presentation at any time!

Scan Me and See QR code on a T-shirt

Click me and Scan me!

Once at my “Presentation Page” folks can watch a video, download any materials I have to offer, and ask questions and comment directly. Apart from losing the live element, I get to share my ideas.

Denver here we come!

Scribble, Scribble, Scribble

Observant regular visitors to this blog will have noticed the recent addition of a “Top 75 for 2015” badge, awarded to us by the nice folks at Kidmunicate. In their blurb summarizing our site – where we hit the ground running at 46th on the charts – they say;

This SLP blog is not your normal SLP blog. It’s edgy and often has nothing to do with speech pathology but when it does it is informative. They say they are going to post more this year. We are hoping they do.

Clearly they have taken the time to actually read some of our posts and not just use some slick algorithm to count hits, as evidenced by the comment about the fact that it “often has nothing to do with speech pathology,” an accusation to which we will happily raise out hands!

You see, our aim has always been to project an image of SLPs as much more than the stereotypical “twin-set and pearls” brigade, or “nice ladies who work with children.” [1] We want people who stumble across our posts to see folks who have opinions, interests, quirks, foibles [2], problems, solutions, and that whole gamut of things that make humans human. Our target readers hopefully includes SLPS but also non-SLPs who wonder what SLPs are like in “real life.”

In the last year, we’ve talked about Guns in the Clinic, Privacy, Coffee and Adjectives, and Cartography software. And for sheer off-the-wall rambling, if all you ever read were the Notes at the bottom of every post, you might be forgiven for believing that the phrase “not your normal SLP blog” accurately describes us as “not normal.” [3] But the thing about the “notes” are that these represent how people’s minds work in general, where one idea sparks off another – then another – and another…

CC license from Nic McPhee
“Scribble, Scribble, Scribble” (Image CC license from Nic McPhee)

Perhaps our most noticeable weakness – or at least noticeable to us – is that we avoid contentious issues and conflict. It’s what some might more kindly refer to as “lacking a position” or “sitting on the fence.” In private, we clearly do have opinion and positions, which would become clear to anyone who spends an evening with us in a bar after our inhibitions have been lowered by the demon drink, but we seem to be reluctant to share them publicly least we offend. And that suggests we really just want everyone to like us – and how shallow is that?! Now I’m not suggesting we go all Glenn Beck or Bill O’Reilly (Position: I think both are arrogant, insufferable boors with right-wing religo-fascist agendas who need punching in the face), or even Bill Maher or Michael Moore, but maybe during 2015 we should post at least a couple of articles that could have people unfriending us on Facebook or unfollowing us on Twitter. Or maybe not.

But even if we continue to sit on the fence, please continue to enjoy the Notes section at the end of the posts 😉

[1] Perhaps my choice of stereotype here is more indicative of my age and background than what maybe the current misperceptions of what we do. I’m not actually sure what the current stereotypes for SLPs might be because having been so unstereotypical for so long (dudes as SLP as still as rare as hen’s teeth and are de facto non-stereotypical) I no longer look for or notice them. So if anyone would like to share ANY of the modern-day received ideas for what an SLP is, let us know and maybe we’ll create a post.

[2] My passion for etymology spans years, and words continue to excite and entertain even as my ability to actually remember their origins fades. Foibles is a delightfully whimsical word to play with, and means “a weakness or failing of character.” For example, my wife sees my desire to track down word origins as “one of your little foibles.” Or perhaps it’s akin to an irregular noun; “I have a passion, you have a foible, he/she/it has an obsession!” It’s actually an obsolete form of the word feeble, being found as foible in Old French and deriving prior to that from the Latin flebilis meaning “to be wept over.” The Latin flere means “to weep” and is also the root for the sadly defunct but ought-to-be-resurrected fletiferous, which means “to cause weeping.”

[3] The ambiguity of the phrase “not your normal SL blog” is simply a result of being able to parse the phrase in two different ways. The first (which is the intended one, I hope) is to treat <SLP blog> as a compound noun meaning “a blog written by SLPs>, whereas the second is the have <(not) normal SLP> as an adjectival phrase that adjectivally pre-modifies the noun <SLP>. Thus we have two possible interpretation based on the following possible parsings:

(a) <(not) normal> <SLP blog>
(b) <(not) normal SLP> <blog>

For a reminder of how ambiguity in phrases and clauses can permeate even the simplest of sentences, take a look at my post from 2 years ago entitled “Baby Happy, Baby Sad” – a post that is actually also about speech pathology, unless you don’t consider syntax a part of what we do!

A Christmas Fireside Read

There’s still something magical about turning off technology over Christmas and spending time in a comfy chair with a real book watching a real fire while the scent of pine from a real Christmas tree mingles with the smell of hot chocolate in a big, red mug. If it also happens to be snowing outside and you can watch the fluffy flakes fall thickly on the garden, that’s an added bonus.

Christmas fireplace

Snugly cocooned in your own winter wonderland, the toughest chore you should need to do is ask yourself one question; what shall I read? Well, the purpose of this pre-yule article is to give you time to (a) make some decisions and (b) actually buy some real books. Now for those of you who believe that downloading is the cheapest and best way to go, I urge you to check out the “alternative formats” next time you go to the Kindle or Nook stores, because you not infrequently find that you can buy physical books for significantly less than the electronic version. Yes, that’s less as in “it’s cheaper.” And the best bargains of all are to go for the combination of “hard cover” in “very good” condition.

Don’t believe me? Here’s a few concrete examples from some of my last Amazon purchases:

Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain by John Darwin
Kindle Price – $9.99: Hardcover (Used-Very Good) – $8.10 inc. shipping.

Civilization: The West and the Rest by Niall Ferguson
Kindle Price – $9.99: Hardcover (Used-Very Good) – $5.46 inc. shipping.

Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture by Erez Aiden
Kindle Price – $9.99: Hardcover (Brand New) – $4.61 inc. shipping.

Men to Boys: The Making of Modern Immaturity by Gary Cross
Kindle Price – $14.49: Hardcover (Used-Very Good) – $4.12 inc. shipping.

It doesn’t take a lot of math skills to realize that you can actually save money while building up your personal library, and you also get that unique and special pleasure of having books arrive in parcels that you can’t wait to tear open and fondle lovingly while muttering, “My precious, my precious!”

So given that you might now be persuaded to try using some real books instead of their digital equivalents, here’s my recommendation for a delightful, entertaining, and stress-relieving Christmas read.

The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales by Maria Tatar

Fairy tales are not, and never have been, just for children. Classic fairy tales are called “classic” because they have a timeless appeal that transcends age. Sure, they can fulfill a critical role in the psychological development of wee ones [1] but for grown-ups they can be just as wondrous and enlightening.

The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales cover

There are 26 tales in all, which include the ever-so-familiar Jack and the Beanstalk, Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, and The Emperor’s New Clothes, and the less familiar The Juniper Tree, Vasilisa the Fair, and East of the Sun, West of the Moon. For many people, their experience of some of these fairy tales is via the Disneyfied versions, which are often bowdlerized [2] to avoid some of the scarier or darker elements of the original tales, so reading the originals can be eye-opening. For example, the cuddly, song-filled world of Ariel, The Little Mermaid, is a little less sunny in the original story, with the mermaid (who is simply called “the little mermaid” because she’s the youngest and littlest) having to endure extreme pain and suffering. The sea witch (also unnamed) doesn’t just cast a spell to make her unable to speak but cuts out her tongue![3] And the sea witch also tells her that once she has legs;

…every step taken will make you feel as if you were treading on a sharp knife, enough to make you feet bleed.

And bleed they do! Yet it’s not enough that she spends her time trying to woo the prince while suffering for the lack of the availability of a skilled podiatrist, but ultimately he dumps her for some other girl and she has to spend 300 years doing good deeds in order to gain something she has never had – a soul.

The Little Mermaid Meets the Prince

The Prince Asked Who She Was: Edmund Dulac

Another reason to buy the physical book and not the electronic version is that the stories are all illustrated by images from a number of noted children’s illustrators. These include Arthur Rackham, Gustave Dore, Edmund Dulac, and Kay Nielsen [4]. Although they are smaller than one would prefer, the pictures alone are still worth the price of admission, and there’s no shame in taking pleasure in “picture books” when the artistry is as splendid as the ones in this book [5].

So treat yourself to some me-time this Christmas and snuggle up with a collection of fairy tales that will remind you all over again of what it’s like to be young and full of wonder.

[1] If you’re looking to read more than one book over the holidays, or you want to work out which to read after them, you’re in for a Freudian treat if you get hold of a copy of The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales by Bruno Bettelheim. It is unashamedly psychoanalytic in its outlook but even if you’re not a fan of Sigmund and the Analysts, the writing is fluid, the arguments persuasive, and you’ll come away with a perspective on fairy stories that you probably never thought of. It’s on my personal list of “books to re-read” since my first experience in 1978; yes, it’s that good.

[2] The word bowdlerize is an example of an eponym – a word taken from the name of a person, place, or thing. In this case, the person was the Rev. Thomas Bowdler whose singular claim to fame was to produce a version of Shakespeare’s works with all the naughty bits taken out. So, in Romeo & Juliet, the sentence “the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon” was altered to “the hand of the dial is now upon the point of noon.” The good reverend wanted neither ladies nor children to be exposed to any hands on pricks.

[3] In her annotations, Tater makes reference here to the much older tale of Tereus and Philomela that also includes the cutting out of a tongue. However, in the case of Philomela, it’s much more gruesome and shocking, and if you ever wanted to convince people that “the Classics” can be as raunchy, racy, and downright gory as any modern R-rated horror movie, have them pick up a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I suspect Brett Easton Ellis is a big fan. Of all the translation of Metamorphoses, the one I believe is most generally accessible is the version by Horace Gregory. My original copy figuratively traveled the world with me and is now so dogged-eared, beaten up, and full of scribbled notes that I had to buy a new one. In fact, Travels With Ovid is the title of a book I’d love to write!  Charles Martin’s version is next on my list, followed by Allen Mandelbaum then Stanley Lombardo.

[4] The links provided here are to one of my all-time favorite websites, Art Passions. You can spend far too much time here exploring all the works by the many artists featured, but it’s time well spent for lovers of visual imagery and

[5] Only last year I bought a copy of The Golden Book of Fairy Tales purely for the illustrations by Adrienne Segur (1901-1981), who illustrated hundreds of children’s stories, and who can best be appreciated if I send you to a page where you’ll find lots of her pictures. Adrienne Segur illustrations. You have my permission to leave this page in favor of those pictures – I guarantee it’s a pleasurable excursion.

We’ve Been Bad Boys – We’ll Try to do Better!

Let’s start with a big, big thank you to all those folks who have either nominated us or voted us as “Best Group Blog” in the 2104 Edublogs awards. Thank you! It’s not that we go out of our way to garner praise from folks, but we appreciate the support – however it may turn out.

Now, having said “thanks,” we should move on to saying “we’re sorry.” Taking a look at the total number of posts for this year is somewhat depressing. It’s not even one per month! As far as we’re concerned, that hardly deserves the title “blog,” let alone set us up for being deserving of an award. Painful as it may be to admit, we’ve been a little unproductive this year. Sorry.

CC licence from

Bad Boys, Bad Boys: CC licence from

Part of the reason for the limited output for the blog is due to our being busy with our lives outside of the blogosphere. Dude 1, for example, has now finished the development of an online service for analyzing data log files from speech-generating devices (SGDs) devices sold by the Prentke Romich company, which has been a labor and a half for nearly two years! It also represents, as far as he’s concerned, a significant application of corpus linguistics to the field of AAC, using a database of over 450 million words that include tags for frequency and part-of-speech. If you want to take a look at Dude 1’s efforts, you can watch a brief video.


Dude 2 has been focused – no pun intended – on eye-gaze systems and software, which has taken him around world; well, not all of it 😉 It’s probably also worth mentioning that he’s also become a part-time racing car driver and given his insurance agent heart palpitations by explaining how fast he can drive. Given the choice between trying to blow up an engine in a sports car by hurtling around a track at velocities that typically don’t appear on a car’s speedometer or writing a blog, it’s a no-brainer.

Dude 2 racing car

So that’s pretty much our version of “what I did on my summer vacation” or perhaps an extended apologia [1]. And if you (a) haven’t voted for us but (b) accept our mea culpa on this, click on the image below to help give us the swift keep up the backside that we need to more fecund [2] in 2015.



[1] Like the much commoner word apology, this word derives from the Greek , ἀπολογία which means “a speech in defense of someone or something.” The first bit, apo-, means “away or off” and the second, logia means “speaking.” So you’re speaking off a charge made against you – in our case, the charge of being idle.

[2] In keeping with our aim of providing a minimum of educational content in our blogs, it’s likely that the word fecund is one you, gentle reader, haven’t used this year. In fact, according to an analysis using the Google Ngrams Viewer, it’s one of those words whose incidence is piddlingly small, having achieved a peak use at the end of the 1920’s but is now going through a slump. It comes from the Latin fecundus meaning “fruitful” and ultimately it’s likely to be related to the Proto-Indo-European word *dha meaning “to nurse or suckle.” Hey, what we lack in quantity we make up for in quality!

All I Needed to Know About Adjectives I Learned at Starbucks

Language is an example of a moving target par excellence. Only today, I received a tweet that outlined a number of reasons why you should instantly wife your girlfriend. Wife her, I thought? Since when did wife switch teams and become a verb? Well, truth be told, it turns out that it became a verb in 1387, as evidenced by a quote from that popular 14th century pot-boiler Prolicionycion wrtten by Ranulf Higden:

Þey..kepeþ besiliche here children, and suffreth hem nouȝt to wyfe wiþ ynne foure and twenty ȝere.

But for reasons unknown – as is often the case in etymology – the use of wife as a verb disappeared sometime during the early 18th century, leaving only the noun usage in common use [1]. After a brief dalliance with verbiness, the word settled back into its original home.

Let’s now go back to just last week during the 2014 Closing the Gap conference in Minneapolis. After standing in line for almost 15 minutes to get a Starbucks latte from the hotel’s coffee bar, I asked for a “tall skinny” and was then quizzed with, “Is that the short tall?”

A “short tall?” Dear Lord, how much more torture do we want to subject the English language to? Prescriptivists everywhere would be wailing in anguish and putting red pens to paper – or maybe tweeting their disgust in 140 characters or less!

However, it’s pretty clear what’s happening here. Just like wife in the 14th century, the word tall is getting bored with being a simple adjective and deciding that being a rambunctious noun is much better; “Noun Envy” as the psychoanalinguists might say [2].

Starbucks, for purposes of marketing and not linguistics, decided to ignore the more semantically accurate method of labeling coffee sizes by “small,” “medium,” “large,” and “freakin’ huge,” in favor of “tall,” “grande,” “venti” and “trenta.” But they created an element of cognitive dissonance in consumers’ minds by linking a word like tall, which is semantically typically opposed to short, with the word small, which is more likely to be balanced against large. So using a word like tall to describe something that is cognitively small just doesn’t jibe.

What our consciously unaware but unconsciously linguistic barista has done here is to overcome that dissonance by treating the word tall as a noun and using short as an attributive adjective. Pretty damn cool, eh? [3] I can easily imagine that at some point, various baristas [4] have uttered not only “Is that the small tall?” but also “Do you mean a medium grande?” or “Is that a large venti?”

So while I’m hanging out here with you all in our virtual Starbucks, something else you might be curious about is the whole “How do I order my coffee?” issue. Does one ask for “a skinny grande cappuccino” or “a grande skinny cappuccino?” And when you start adding caramel or extra shots, where on earth do  you hang them?

Well, having castigated my good friends at Starbucks in relation to their idiosyncratic naming of drink sizes, I’ll offer them points for actually providing a “syntax” for budding baristas in order to make ordering easier. In a 2003 manual distributed to employees, the following generic ordering structure was recommended:

1. CUP: That’s hot, cold, iced, or “for here.”
2. SHOT and SIZE: No stipulation for which should be first.
3. SYRUP: For your caramel, raspberry, cinnamon etc.
4. MILK: Skimmed, 2%, soy, or whatever.
5. DRINK: Coffee, tea, mocha, or any other name.

My personal common order is for a “grande, non-fat latte,” which fits the rules of 2>4>5. During summer, I might order an “iced, grande, non-fat latte,” which again conforms with 1>2>4>5. My wife has a “grande non-fat, caramel macchiato” that follows the rules, and sometimes goes for the “iced, grande non-fat caramel macchiato,” which illustrates the full-blown 1>2>3>4>5 ordering.

Budding researchers [5] might want to spend an afternoon at their local Starbies armed with a pen and a notebook, jotting down as many orders as they can overhear – what researchers like to call “taking a sample.” After an hour of sampling both orders and coffee, they should be able to do some analysis to see how many people actually conform to the ordering paradigm. Remember, this is what research is all about; setting up a hypothesis about how we think folks will order coffee, and then testing it against observations of how they really order it!

Outside the world of Starbucks, adjective ordering in English also has some rules. One of the most common ordering paradigms is as follows:

Order of adjectives

If we compare this with the Starbucks recommendations, we can see that the sequence CUP-SHOT/SIZE-SYRUP-MILK-DRINK corresponds to the generic OPINION-SIZE-MATERIAL-QUALIFIER-NOUN. So they’re pretty much on the syntactic ball here!

Doubtless our hundreds of “proxy Dudes” collecting real data at coffee bars across the world will find exceptions to the ordering rules, but language performance has always been variable. On the other hand, we’re unlikely to hear “macchiato iced grande caramel” or “caramel latte venti soy.”

Or are we?

[1] I suppose as a proponent of using evidence and data to support propositions, I did take a look at the Corpus of Contemporary American and found no instances of wife as a verb in the 450 million word sample. Same for the British National Corpus (100 million word sample) and the Canadian Strathy Corpus (50 million words). Of course, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but I think I’m pretty confident in asserting that using wife as a verb is extremely rare and unlikely.

[2] Don’t rush out to your dictionary – even if YOUR dictionary is the Urban Dictionary – to find the word psychoanalinguist. It doesn’t exist. It’s only a “real word” in the sense that (a) I have just used it and (b) it can be understood within the context of this article.

[3] I suppose I need to appreciate that not everyone gets as excited about language change as I do. But this type of living example of how new meanings come about helps us all understand how important it is to be aware of the simple fact that languages are not, and never have been, static. I’m not suggesting that we allow some form of lexical anarchy where you can simply stick any old word anywhere but knowing that words can, and do, change meaning and category can, I believe, make us more aware clinicians.

[4] The word barista is, as you might know, Italian, so you might be tempted to point out to me that I should really be using the word baristi to mark the plural. However, the word baristas is perfectly acceptable because it’s an example of a word that’s been Anglicized i.e. taken into the English language, and the normal rule for making a plural word is simply to add an “s.” Hence baristas. I think I’ve talked about this before in relation to octopuses as being a wonderful plural, with octopi being fake Latin (octopus comes from Greek, not Latin, and if you wanted a Greek plural, it would really be octopodes!)

[5] It strikes me that a generous supervisor might be totally OK with letting a grad student work on a study such as, “Syntactic adjectival variability in coffee ordering.” And should that student be the recipient of a grant from Starbucks itself, it seems a bit of a no-brainer, don’t yah think?

Tooling up for Therapy: Guns in the Clinic?

Following the recent incident in Ferguson, Missouri, where an unarmed black teenager was shot and killed by a white police officer, issues about race and gun control have once again taken center stage in the minds – and hearts – of large sections of the American public. Although the gun control topic is not the main one being discussed, its contribution to the situation was pointed out by an article in The Economist, a magazine produced in a country where gun control translates to “we don’t have any.”

First of all, the article offers some simple statistics about how the US compares with some other countries in relation to the number of people killed annually by police. The US, with a population of 315 million, saw 405 police shooting deaths in 2013; Germany, with 82 million, had 8; the UK, with 60 million, had zero; and Japan, with 127 million, had the same – zero.

But what was more thought-provoking was the following observation:

This is not because they are trigger-happy but because they are nervous. The citizens they encounter have perhaps 300 million guns between them, so a cop never knows whether the hand in a suspect’s pocket is gripping a Glock. This will not change soon. Even mild gun-controls laws tend to fail. And many Americans will look at the havoc in Ferguson and conclude that it’s time to buy a gun, just in case.

That first sentence actually makes sense. Whatever your beliefs may be in relation to gun control, it’s not impossible to be empathetic towards the notion that when you’re in a job where many of the people you come into contact with are (a) not likely to feel friendly towards you, and (b) could legitimately be carrying a gun, you might feel a little nervous. Note that this isn’t to say shooting an unarmed person is OK but that if you work in law enforcement there’s a good chance that you have learned to be more wary than most when it comes to issues of trust; and by “trust” I mean “could that person be carrying a gun?”

Yet it’s that final sentence that is something of a litmus test for determining people’s perspectives. Basically, what is says is that the answer to having lots of guns in the hands of people is to have more guns in the hands of more people. So you have to ask yourself; do I think having easier access to guns makes my life safer or more dangerous? For members of the National Rifle Association [2], the answer is “safer;” for supporters of gun control, the answer is “more dangerous.”

Gun culture and gaming

Gun culture and gaming

The gun-owning culture in the US is, quite frankly, very hard for folks who live in non-gun-owning cultures to understand. For example, when 20 children and 6 adults were shot at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December, 2012, there was, as you might expect and hope, international outrage and grief, with many countries citing the ease with which people in the US can get guns as being a contributory factor. Yet bizarrely – to the rest of the world – one of the corollaries to the shooting was an increase in gun sales! And the other was the promotion of the idea that teachers should be allowed to carry guns in schools.

Both these things make some sense within the framework of US gun culture. The simple equation is more-guns = more-security. The oft-quoted trope of “if we outlaw guns only outlaws will own guns” is a variation on that theme. As is the idea that “the answer to bad people having guns is to make sure more good people have them.” The latter sounds appealing for a few seconds but defining who “good people” are is much more difficult: ask some of the people of Ferguson if the police are “good people” and their response may be pretty vocal.

So does “good people” include Speech and Language Therapists? Special Educators? Educational Psychologists? Not all of us work in idyllic Norman Rockwell Mayberry’s next door to Mr. Rogers, where trips to the Malt shop are followed by an afternoon of baseball followed by an evening’s barbecue with friends from the neighborhood. Some of us may have “interesting” tales to tell of visits to and from clients that turn out to be less than the perfect therapeutic experience. And perhaps carrying a gun to work is not necessarily as bad an idea as some might think.

Take our poll and see how you match up with other Speech Dudes readers!

For those who demand that a blogger have a “point of view,” this Dude [3] is in favor of gun controls. It’s perfectly possible to support the Second Amendment (and more important to support the First) while simultaneously wanting some modest controls over how guns are handled within society as a whole. There’s no likelihood that America can become a “gunless society” and the suggestion that we should somehow lose the Second Amendment is just plain silly. However, to simply do nothing because someone thinks gun control won’t work is tantamount to saying things are OK. And isn’t stupidity defined as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting things to change?” If I buy a car, I have to go to the DMV to register it; if I want more than one car, there’s nothing to say I can’t; the government is not trying to take my car away from me; and if I want to hang out with other car enthusiasts, I’m free to do so. If we’re OK with this modest controls for cars, why not guns?

[1] Here in sunny Cleveland, Ohio, Mayor Frank Jackson is trying to introduce a bill that would include some of the following rules: you can’t take a gun onto a school campus; if you are a convicted offender, you have to register ownership of a gun; you can’t buy more than one gun every three months (i.e. you can only add four guns per year to you collection); if your gun is lost or stolen, you have report it to the police. Put it another way, here’s what you currently CAN do; take a gun to campus (Ohio lets you carry a gun as long as it’s concealed); buy as many guns as you want; lose a gun and not care who finds it; let your kids use guns. But so ingrained is the gun culture mentality that there is actually lots of opposition to these control. To folks outside the US, what might seem like fairly reasonable controls (and no-one here is suggesting that folks can’t own guns or that “someone” is going to “take your guns away”) are, in fact, perceived by a section of the US community as a deeply intrusive attack on a fundamental human right – the right to bear arms. And it’s this perspective that makes any talk of gun control so contentious and explosive within the US yet it’s so hard for folks outside the US to really understand how emotional it is.

[2] For our readers outside the US, the National Rifle Association (or NRA) is a non-profit organization that promotes itself as “proud defenders of history’s patriots and diligent protectors of the Second Amendment.” The Second Amendment says that “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” The NRA interpret this as meaning that the word “people” implies “individual,” and therefore the individual has a right to bear arms – and in states with Concealed (or not-so-concealed) Carry laws, this is figuratively the case, where folks walk around with holstered guns just waiting for someone to “make my day, punk.”

[3] “This Dude” is Russell, who, to help put things in perspective, was born and raised in the north of England and didn’t move to the US until I was 35. It’s taken almost 20 years for me to appreciate the Gun Culture perspective. I’ve handled and shot a number of different guns (including Dirty Harry’s “most powerful handgun in the world, and it will blow your head clean off”); live in a hunting/fishing/shooting community; have a son-in-law who’s an ex-soldier who  only gave up his gun collection when his first child was born; and have a daughter who once received a pink Smith & Wesson handgun as a Christmas present. I mention all this to illustrate why it is that I can be a supporter of the right to bear arms yet still support the idea of gun controls.

Dude 2, Chip, would probably shoot me for this stance 🙂