Author Archives: Etyman

Peppa Pig: Go Ahead and Let Your Kids Watch!

One of the special things about having grandchildren is that when you’ve had enough of them, you can give ’em back to their parents. There’s a certain amount of schadenfreude to be reveled in with this, particularly if you had some challenges bringing up your kids in the first place. Although I don’t actually gloat, I can’t but help feel a frisson of pleasure when my darling daughter tells me she’s had a sleepless night because her 3-year-old got up a 3:00 AM and began running round the house, and her 7-year-old had a tantrum before going to school. I simply nod sagely and say, “Yes, it’s rough, isn’t it.” Bad Daddy!

So while she and her husband get all the pain and anguish of living and working with two young kids (and we all know it doesn’t get any easier as they age!) I get to have fun time with them because (a) they only get me in small doses and (b) I can spoil them rotten [1].

Of course, this doesn’t give you free rein to allow total anarchy and hedonistic behavior so you have to at least rationalize your choices when it comes to letting your offspring decide what they want to do. Which brings me to Peppa Pig.

For those unfamiliar with this delightful British cartoon character, Peppa lives with her mummy and daddy and little brother George, who apparently has an expressive language disorder that no-one is in the least bit worried about. His only two utterances appear to be “dinosaur” and “Rrraarrrgggghhhh!” neither of which is core vocabulary and represent only two grammatical classes; noun and interjection. Sure he’s only a toddler pig but come on, his motor skills suggest he’s at least 24 to 30 months, so I’d expect him to have a much larger lexicon!

Language disorder aside, Peppa has an extended family in the form of Grandpa and Granny pig, who appear to be pretty well off considering they have a boat, which is not as common in the UK as in the US [2]. Then she has an extensive network of imaginatively named friends such as Suzy Sheep, Rebecca Rabbit, Zoe Zebra, Emily Elephant, and Delphine Donkey. It seems that initial consonant alliteration is a critical feature of animal nomenclature! But it’s actually a very good way to develop phonological awareness skills. According to Reese, Robertson, Divers, and Schaughency (2015):

…parents who play rhyming or alliteration games with their children, who sing rhyming songs more often with their children, or who engage in other types of wordplay (e.g., tongue twisters), may be fostering their children’s phonological awareness. (p.57).

Wittingly or unwittingly, the writers for Peppa Pig have built in so cute, subtle ways of providing viewers with phonemic cues that can help in speech sound development. And as Reese et al. also point out, “Children’s phonological awareness develops rapidly in the preschool years and is an important contributor to later reading skill. (p.54)” Clinicians and educators are usually much more aware of this. Thatcher (2010) points out that:

Children gain important information about rhyme and alliteration from learning poems and rhymes in which the prosodic features of the poem stress the shared sounds in the word. The profession of speech pathology must take possession of this area of early intervention… (p.476).

But wait, wait – there’s more! The didactic properties of Peppa Pig don’t just end with phonology. For the purpose of analyzing the vocabulary content of the show, I obtained a written set of transcripts from the complete first season [4] and ran the data through WordSmith 7, my trusty corpus linguistics software tool of choice. With this, I’m able to compare the frequency of use of words from the Peppa Pig sample with any other list that I choose. What I wanted to do was get an idea of how “core” the vocabulary in Peppa Pig is, and by “core” I mean how much of the entire vocabulary used is made up of high frequency words used by many people of many ages across different situations [5].

Being the author of Unity 84, a language program available in Prentke Romich devices, I choose the vocabulary associated with that as my core comparison. This is simply because it’s a set based on data from a number of core vocabulary studies and includes hundreds of low frequency nouns, which offer a little balance to a pure core list that would be weak in such words. But so long as I use the same core to make comparisons against other samples, the resulting “Core Scores” will be comparable [6].

So here’s how Peppa Pig fares in the “Core Score” arena.


Core Score for Peppa Pig

What this means is that I counted ALL the instances of where core words were used in Season One, then counted all the instances of fringe words, and generated a simple percentage. So if someone is watching Peppa Pig, almost 83% of all the words they hear will be core words. I therefore give Peppa Pig a “Core Score” rating of 83.

It’s great to be able to toss out a number and say “Hey, this TV show is an 83” but that’s not tremendously useful unless there are comparisons. So I found a transcript for an episode of another of my favorite cartoons shows; SpongeBob SquarePants. And here’s how he did:


SpongeBob SquarePants Core Score

As you can see, SpongeBob gets a “Core Score” of 75, which tells me that my clients would be better off watching Peppa than SpongeBob if I want them to hear more core words. And in general, I would. After all, if I want to encourage clients to use more core words, putting them in situations where they hear lots of models of how those words are used is a solid goal.

Just out of curiosity, I applied the same analysis to three common, popular children’s books; Where the Wild Things Are, Goodnight Moon, and The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Here’s what I found:


Books Core Scores

All of the preceding is not peer-reviewed research. It’s not even close. In fact, I’d even be hesitant to call it a “pilot study.” In the world of Business, it’s what we call a “Proof of Concept” – where you test out a few ideas so as to demonstrate that what you’re thinking about is something on which someone would be prepared to spend money [7]. But if you were to use it to argue the merits of suggesting that watching Peppa Pig is not a bad thing, then I think the data supports your decision!


Reese, E., Robertson, S.-J., Divers, S., & Schaughency, E. (2015). Does the brown banana have a beak? Preschool children’s phonological awareness as a function of parents’ talk about speech sounds. First Language, 35(1), 54-67.

Thatcher, K. L. (2010). The development of phonological awareness with specific language-impaired and typical children. Psychology in the Schools, 47(5), 467-480.

[1] It’s right there as number one in the Grandparent Commandments; “Thou shalt bestow upon thy grand offspring anything and everything they desire, and in the event that this is not possible, thou shalt feel perfectly OK with saying, ‘Oh sweetheart, that’s something to ask mommy and daddy.'”

[2] My older daughter and her husband have a boat on which my wife and I have spent some happy hours letting them do all the work of dragging it to a lake, dropping it in the water, steering it to the nearest lakeside bar, and paying the cost of repairs, maintenance, and storage required so that we can enjoy those 5 days in summer when the nautical life is the thing to embrace. Like having grandkids, having another family member own a boat means you can have all the pleasure but none of the responsibility.

[3] As further evidence that Peppa’s younger brother has a problem, note that he is one of the only character who does NOT have an alliterative name – he is “George Pig” as opposed to, say, Peter Pig or Paul Pig, or even Patrick Pig. So not only has he a more complex name structure to deal with than all the other animals, but he also has that initial “djuh” sound /d͡ʒ/ to struggle against. Poor George!

[4] My source is at “Glamour and Discourse”: Peppa Pig transcripts Season One. In the spirit of transparency, you’re free to use the same data and run your own analyses to see if they match with mine. I think they will but in a world driven by President Donald Trump’s “alternative facts” who’s to know?

[5] New visitors to this blog who are unfamiliar with the notion of what we refer to as a “core” vocabulary set in the field of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) might like to check out the following posts:
Of Puck and Patois
Of Corpora and Concordances
The Monteverde Invincia Stylus Fountain Pen – and Keyword Vocabulary

[6] At a more technical level, the Unity core list is an unlemmatized list that consists “words” that are defined as “a string of letter terminating in a space or punctuation mark.” So the words eat, eats, and eating are counted as three distinct words, even though they are really just variations of the one lemma, <EAT>. A critical question in deciding on what constitutes a “core” list is whether it should include only root words such as eat and drink but not eating and drinking, or whether it should have all forms of a word in there. If you use a core that has eat but not eats, then any TV show or book that uses the word eats would not have that token counted towards a “core score” – but shouldn’t it? I’m open to suggestions, folks!

[7] I intend to test out a few more core lists in order play with the Core Score idea a little more.

Shrove Tuesday and the Perils of Being Male

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

Blueberry pancakes Shrove Tuesday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cause Without a Rebel

men in speech language pathology

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

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

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

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

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

CPLOL Working Groups
CPLOL Working Groups

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

Everyone talks about the weather…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update 2/13/2020

In a discussion I cited this blog post as a source that suggests that in the area of gender balance, male strippers are more represented in the field of disrobing than male SLPs are in Speech Pathology. When I checked, to my horror I noticed I didn’t refer to any source to support that claim. Mea culpa. So I asked Dr. Google and went to, a site that provides information about jobs, and “Stripper/Exotic Dancer” is listed. It includes the statistic that of all the respondents to a survey, 16% identified as male – way higher than that of SLPs.

I also discovered that if you want to make money, your best chance is to find a job in Las Vegas, Miami, or New York, and if you want to really have a sucky time, Atlanta isn’t the place to be. And if you are really lucky, 18% get Medical benefits, 14% get Dental, and 13% get Vision.

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

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

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

Mosheim, J. (2005). Men in Speech-Language Pathology. Advance for Speech-Language Pathologists and Audiologist, 15 (30), 6. Available online from

Rowden-Racette, K. (2013). Where the Boys Aren’t. ASHA Leader, August 2013, 18, 46-51. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR1.18082013.46. Available online at

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

Speech Pathology Australia, 2012, Real Men Do Speech Pathology
(available at:

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

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

Dudes’ Eye View: Review of 2015

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


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

Dudes Eye View 2015 Soundtrack (4:12)

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

Welcome to the New Year!

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

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

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

Like snow.

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


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.

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.

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.