Category Archives: Semantics/Pragmatics

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.”

Valentine’s? President’s? Whose Day IS It?

On a singularly dull day in Hell, when the screams of tortured souls no longer gave Lucifer a thrill, he came up with a new form of torture: the apostrophe [1]. It’s a brilliant piece of evil engineering because it takes up less than the merest dab of ink to pop it onto a piece of parchment, yet placing it in the wrong place can wreak maximum havoc on the sensibilities of gentle readers. And over-worked copy editors. It’s possible one of Satan’s most wickedly powerful dividers of nations ever invented.

Evil apostropheWithin the space of one week, we’re about to experience the full force of an apostrophe debate that will also generate more examples of that malevolent little mark all over the internet. February 14 and 16 are all set to become a grammatical confluence of biblical proportions. Perhaps.

Let’s start with the easier one: the case of St. Valentine and a celebration of card sales love. According to one version of the legend, St. Valentine was a priest who was martyred by the Roman emperor Claudius II for being a Christian, and for performing marriage rites. In one of the more lurid descriptions of his death, he was first stoned and clubbed but when that failed to kill him he was beheaded. I’m not sure that’s ever been part of a Valentine card illustration – though in the interest of accuracy, I think Hallmark need to consider it.

His performing of marriages seems to fit in with the idea of love, but oddly St. Valentine is also the patron saint of epilepsy, fainting,  plague, and bee keepers. Again, potential new avenues of exploration for the folks at American Greetings.

St Valentine

Can you look after these bees for me, Val?

When we celebrate St. Valentine, we do so on St. Valentine’s Day, where the apostrophe comes before that final “s.” Why? Well, it’s because one of the accepted norms for using an apostrophe is that you use it before a final “s” to indicate the notion of possession; the idea that the preceding succeeding noun belongs to the apostrophized previous thing. In this instance, this is a special day that “belongs” to St. Valentine. So you can have “the cat’s whiskers” because the whiskers belong to the cat; “the man’s coat,” because the coat belongs to the man; or “my brother’s wife,” because the wife belongs to my brother [2].

A second rule says that if you have more than one possessor, and the plural form ends with an “s,” you still put the apostrophe after the word but you can ignore a following “s.” Hence we can have “the dogs’ bone,” which is a bone shared by multiple canines; “the bishops’ fund,” which is a fund administered or used by a bench of bishops [3]; or “my brothers’ wives,” which is a clumsy way of referring to the collection of women owned by my brothers.

Valentine’s Day is, therefore, a pretty easy one. There is only one Valentine; it’s a day that is in some sense “owned” by him; so the apostrophe can happily nestle itself between the “e” and the “s” and copy editors can sleep at night. Sanity 1 – Satan 0.

But the Prince of Darkness is not yet done with us. He’s fully aware that although some folks will have trouble with Valentine’s Day, those who find it relatively easy have been lulled into a false sense of security. Lurking in the wings – or in this case, two days later – there is the day that even such luminaries as the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) and the Associated Press Stylebook (AP) disagree on; Presidents Day or Presidents’ Day. Sanity 1 – Satan 1.

I know that our readers don’t come here to be subjected to stress, pain, or irritation (other than the mild form suffered when we say something outrageous or wrong) so let me take away any worries you’re having about which form to use here and now. The Associated Press Stylebook says “Presidents Day” with no apostrophe; the Chicago Manual of Style says “Presidents’ Day” with the apostrophe right at the very end. So the Dudes say; so go with the one you prefer!

DIfferent ways of spelling Presidents Day
Yes                                                    Yes                                                No

So why the confusion – apart from Beelzebub’s delight in watching us all squabble and bicker? It’s really because of the way that nouns can, in some circumstances, behave as if they were adjectives. Specifically, it’s a type of noun called an attributive noun, which sounds like another Mephistophelian invention. For the most part, nouns are pretty solid, stalwart parts-of-speech, happy to be just what they are – low-frequency, limited meanings. A dog‘s a dog, a cat‘s a cat, and that’s about it. However, sometimes a noun will have the urge to buddy up to another noun to make a compound, and the one that goes first can change its behavior and act, temporarily, like an adjective.

Here are some examples of attributive nouns, where the first noun is being used to enhance the meaning of the second:

football player: Just using the noun player on its own may not be sufficient, so adding the noun football helps specify the type of player. Similarly we could have a baseball player, hockey player, and so on.

business lunch: Again, lunch on its own is OK in a generic sense but if you’re having lunch for the purpose of discussion business-related issues, then adding business as an attributive tightens up the meaning.

apple tree: Fairly obvious and by now needs no explanation.

If you want to do a quick check as to whether you’re seeing an attributive noun or an attributive adjective, try the following test:

Change <WORD 1><WORD2> to “The <WORD2> is <WORD1>”: does it make sense?

“The player is football,” “The lunch is business” and “The tree is apple” sound wrong. But if we had “aggressive player,” “free lunch,” and “tall tree,” applying the test would result in sensible sentences, therefore they are attributive adjectives, not attributive nouns.

All of this brings us back to why Presidents/Presidents’ Day is a challenge. If it is a day that “belongs” to Presidents, then the apostrophe should be used to indicate possession and therefore needs to be included at the end of the word. But if it’s a day “about” or “for” Presidents [4], then it’s being used as an attributive noun descriptor to enhance the meaning of “day,” and so needs no apostrophe.

The distinction is fine, and so is the interpretation – hence the disagreement between CMS and AP. But it is an instructive example of how words can shift not only their meaning but function, and even a humble noun can aspire to adjectivehood!

[1] Apostrophe comes from the Greek ἡ ἀπόστροϕος meaning “of turning away, or elision.” Often the apostrophe is used to mark where something is missing (elided) such as in can’t for cannot, the poetic o’er for over, or singin’ as a colloquialism for singing. It’s this sense of “missing something” that gave rise to its name as a punctuation mark.

[2] You’re right to guess that I put that one in on purpose, knowing full well that it’s somewhat un-PC. I could, of course, have used “My sister’s husband” and explained it as “because the husband belongs to my sister,” but that wouldn’t be as forceful in showing how grammar and punctuation rules regarding “possession” don’t care for social norms. Doubtless there are folks out there who would be all for having us change the language so as to avoid that notion of “owning” someone but that’s not going to happen. Grammatical possession is a little different from social possession.

[3] The  most frequently cited collective noun for bishops is, indeed, a bench. Others include a sea of bishops and a psalter of bishops.

[4] The Presidents in question are apparently George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, whose birthdays are Feb 22 and Feb 17 respectively. I say “primarily” because there is also the notion that it is a celebration of all US Presidents, and that this extended meaning is accepted by many people.

1. Eagle-eyed reader, Trish, pointed out I used preceding rather than succeeding in the original sentence. Whoops!

Countdown to Christmas – Question 18: Wednesday 18th December

As many of us prepare to fly prior to Christmas Day, it’s worth remembering that the chances of being involved in a fatal air accident are 1 in 29 million. You actually have more chance of being eaten by a shark (1 in 11 million) or killed in an accident with a lawn mower (1 in 3 million).

AirplaneSo given that air travel is statistically stunningly safe, which part of the flight is most likely to be fatal?

(a) Take off

(b) Initial climb to cruising altitude

(c) Descent

(d) Landing

ANSWER: Takeoff

According to 2012 statistics, here are the percentage fatalities based on the portion of a flight:

Taxi, load/unload, parked, tow 0 %
Takeoff 16%
Initial Climb 14 %
Climb (flaps up) 13 %
Cruise 16 %
Descent 4 %
Initial Approach 12 %
Final Approach 13 %
Landing 12 %

Flying is easy – it’s not hitting the ground hard and fast that’s the tricky part 😉

An underlying issue here is that when you think about the dangers of any activity, it’s important to be prepared to look at any actual evidence that’s available to evaluate the reality. For example, although the perception of flying is that it seems more dangerous that using a lawn mower, the numbers tell us otherwise. Similarly the belief that terrorists are lurking around every  corner ready to kill you and your loved ones is stronger than the numbers. An interesting post from earlier this year showed that you are more likely to be killed by a toddler than a terrorist (number of terrorist deaths on US soil in 2103=3; number of people shot by toddlers=5).

The point is that using evidence and statistics is to be preferred over perceptions and feelings. This is, of course, easier said than done because human beings respond at an emotional level much more intensely and frequently than they do at a rational level.  If there’s a clash between our personal beliefs and statistics, we will always blame the statistics – which is like saying we believe a sample size of 1 versus a sample size of millions.


Airplane crash statistics: from 2012.

Statistics Brain: a good site to explore all manner of statistical information.

Geek or Nerd? There is a difference

Back in 1984, the Computer Era was in full swing. It was a year when a slew of new words entered the Oxford English Dictionary, all devoted to computerese. Habitual users of the Internet became Netheads [1] and netizens[2]; people were talking about WIMPs [3] as alternatives to command line input; some folks were discovering that a computer virus [4] could cause a fuckload of trouble [5]; yuppies [6] were discovering the Vodafone [7]; and people with an obsessive interest in computers became geeks.



In this sense of the word, the first written example is traced back to a Usenet group on February 20th, 1984, in a little couplet;

I was a lonely young computer geek,
With a program due most every week.

However, by the middle of the 90’s, it was being used in some cases as a synonym for nerd. Technology writer Rudy Rucker wrote;

Geek is the proud, insider term for nerd. If you are not a dedicated techie, don’t use this word.

Notice how he suggests that geek and nerd are synonymous but also asserts its status as a “techie” word. This continued into the early 21st century, as exemplified by an article in the UK’s Independent newspaper on June 4th, 2001;

We’re the nerds, the geeks, the dweebs: the men and women who can spend 20 hours straight contemplating 600 bytes of obscure, arcane, impenetrable computer code.

Now we have dweebs [9] added to the mix, but there is still the link to computer and software being made.

Geek mat

Get it? Then you're a geek!

Yet although most people understand geek as an American slang word for technophiles, computer hobbyists, and software developers, it’s also a regional dialect word from the north of England, used to describe;

A person, a fellow, esp. one who is regarded as foolish, offensive, worthless, etc. (OED)

Although its first recorded use is in a dictionary of northern slang dated 1876, it made its way across the Atlantic and to the West Coast, where an edition of the San Francisco Examiner on 28th April, 1908 we find;

 A geek who spends his spare time making Czar removers was slammed into the city cooler.

The meaning began to change during the first half of the 20th century such that by the 1950’s it had also come to be used to refer to “an overly diligent, unsociable student; any unsociable person obsessively devoted to a particular pursuit. (OED)” This definition is actually edging real close to that of a nerd.

So what then is a nerd, as opposed to a geek? Although there appears to be some interchangeability going on, the modern distinction is that a nerd is;

A person who pursues an unfashionable or highly technical interest with obsessive or exclusive dedication. (OED)

This is a more general definition than that of a geek, and indeed, it could be argues that a geek is a type of nerd, except that the “obsessive or exclusive dedication” is to computers and technology. However, it would be inaccurate to call someone who is, say, totally fascinated with etymology to the extent that they write about it every day as a geek, but they would mist assuredly be well suited to the title of nerd. [10]

Sheldon from Big Bang Theory


The origin of nerd is still disputed and unlikely to be ever settled with any certainty. One popular notion is that it came from an animal in the book If I Ran The Zoo by Dr. Seuss – a  small, unkempt, humanoid creature with a large head and a comically disapproving expression.  More scatologically, another suggestion is that it is a euphemism for turd, but there is little supporting evidence, and it seems a very big stretch to somehow change the meaning of turd to nerd. Finally, one other etymythology is that it’s backward slang for drunk (“knurd”). I’d love this one to be true but again, it seems rather spurious and too good to be true; and in etymology, if an explanation seems “too good to be true,” it’s likely to be false!


The original nerd

The Dr. Seussian hypothesis at least has a better chance of being the origin. If I Ran The Zoo came out in 1950 and the first recorded use of nerd outside that book is noted by the OED as in the October 28th edition of Newsweek in 1951;

In Detroit, someone who once would be called a drip or a square is now, regrettably, a nerd.

So the conclusion to all this is that if you are knowledgeable and obsessed with computers and technology, you’re a geek, and if you’re knowledgeable and obsessed with trains, stamps, 19th century Romantic paintings, or etymology, you’re a nerd. Realistically, you’re probably somewhere along a continuum from geek to nerd but wherever you are on the spectrum, rest assured you’re not alone.

[1] From the net.women Usenet group, 26th November: “So, how about it, netheads?”

[2] From the net.followup Usenet group, April 10th: “For all you netizens who can’t appreciate a joke for its humor and must debate its theme.”

[3] Acronym for “Windows, Icons, Menus, Pointers.” These were first developed at Xerox PARC in 1973, and became the standard means of operating Apple and Microsoft computers.

[4] In Finch and Dougall’s Computer Security (1984) they wrote, “We define a computer ‘virus’ as a program that can ‘infect’ other programs by modifying them to include a possibly evolved copy of itself.”

[5] Modeled after truckload (1862) and shitload (1954), it appeared in an essay by Richard Meltzer where he wrote, ” I was struck by the fuckload of inner capacities the guy was perceptibly calling on.” Notice that even rock journalists are not immune from ending a sentence with a preposition.

[6] Another acronym, this time for “young, urban professional.” It appeared in a 1984 book by Marissa Piesman and Marilee Hartley called The Yuppie Handbook.

[7] Vodafone is a proprietary name for one of the first mobile phone networks that began springing up in the early 80’s. The word was used generically to describe any cellular phone.

[8] For the sake of completeness, and a gratuitous appeal to prurience, the word geek was also used as slang to mean, “A performer at a carnival or circus whose show consists of bizarre or grotesque acts, such as biting the head off a live animal.” Ozzy Osbourne was clearly not the first to bite the head of a live bat and was simply following an old American tradition for circus performers!

[9] Along with dweeb (1982), the word dork seems to be part of this family of words. Dork was first recorded in 1964 in an article in the American Journal of Speech as being slang for “penis,” a variation on dirk or dick and by 1972 it had become more generalized to refer to a stupid or contemptable person; in the same way you’d call someone a dick. Dweeb is thought to be derived from a possible blending of dwarf and feeb – the latter being slang for a “feeble-minded.”

[10] Using a sample size of one, I can attest to this being accurate based on my daughter regularly accusing me of being a nerd. She notes that I certainly have geeky tendencies, but fundamentally, she reckons I am a language nerd and the tech stuff is just a tool that lets me express and indulge my nerdiness. I won’t argue with her because she is, of course, absolutely right.

Efficacy or Effectiveness? How To Be A Word Detective

Late last week I was in a meeting with a chappie from the International Organization for Standardization, talking about the role of the research group I belong to and explaining how we measure out performance. This sort of thing is typical of any company that needs to maintain its ISO status [1] and having lists of procedures, processes, and parametrics is de rigueur for the whole shebang.

In the course of the discussion, I happened to talk about the challenge of measuring the efficacy of a department whose purpose is to generate speculative ideas, 80% of which are likely to be unfeasible. The examiner stopped me and asked me to repeat the word, which I did, and my colleague also offered a “translation” by saying “effectiveness.” That did the trick and chalked it up to my being an Englishman who is still struggling to learn American. [2]

But being me, I jotted the words down in my ever-present notebook with a few to investigating whether the efficacy/effectiveness was, indeed, a transatlantic difference.

Of course, in this age of Evidence-Based Practice, the call for measures how much effect therapy has on a client means that it’s common to talk about the “efficacy of treatment” or the “effectiveness of an approach.” Or is it? Do we say “efficacy” or “effectiveness?” Is there, in fact, a difference?

Well, the first thing I often do with questions like this is to use the Google search engine and get a Ghit measure. “Ghit” is short for “Google Hit” and appears in a search as a number under the search bar. [3] Here’s what comes up for efficacy and effectiveness:

Efficacy: 17,100,000 ghits
Effectiveness: 179,000,000 ghits

Whoa! Quite a difference there, by a factor of ten. Just to corroborate the difference, I did a Bhit count and a Yhit count (Bing Hits and Yahoo Hits, if you weren’t sure).

Efficacy: 52,400,000 bhits and 52,600,00 Yhits
Effectiveness: 143,000,000 Bhits and 139,000,000 Yhits

So not ten times larger for effectiveness but still significantly more popular. But what about the notion that it’s a UK/US thing? After all, it is possible that the high ghit count is masking it – after all, the percentages will always skew in favor of the US when it comes to number of speakers.

This is when I turn to my trusty friend, the BYU-Corpus site, where we can play with the Corpus of Contemporary American to check on how a word is used in the US, and also the British National Corpus to get a UK perspective. I did this for my previous post on the use of have versus take in relation to bathing – and this turned out to be most definitely a US/UK distinction. Here’s what we see;

Oh bugger! It doesn’t look like a BrE versus AmE difference after all. There is a 10% variation between the two but I’m pretty sure it’s not statistically significant. My choice to use efficacy puts me in the minority in both the States and the Isles.

Desperate for some validation, I dug a little deeper by looking at some historical data. Maybe I’m just old and the incidence of the words has changed since I was a lad. The British National Corpus isn’t much help as it only covers the period from the 1980’s through to 1993, and I want to see older data than that.

The Oxford English Dictionary is a good source for historical information on word meaning, so I went to the bookshelf and did a little more research.

Efficacy as a noun dates from 1527 and is defined as the “(p)ower or capacity to produce effects.” It’s derived from the earlier Latin efficere meaning “to accomplish.” Its meaning hasn’t really changed since then and so we can call it a 16th century word – old enough.

Effectiveness as a noun is a little younger, with the OED identifying a first appearance in 1607, almost a hundred years after efficacy. It has a similar definition of, “(t)he quality of being effective.” Not surprisingly, it, too, can be traced back to the same Latin root as efficacy, efficere. However, it is a 17th century word so I can take some comfort (perhaps) in arguing that my use of efficacy is more “traditional.”

However, we can see something much more interesting if we take a peek at the Corpus of Historical American, which cover the period 1810-2009, and that certainly goes back further than my birth!

Here’s the chart of the behavior of the word efficacy since 1810:

The history of the word efficacy

efficacy 1810-2009

 Even before you click on the image to enlarge it, it’s clear that efficacy has been in a slow decline for decades. There’s been a modest upswing since the 1950’s but it’s nowhere near its glory days. So the inevitable question is, what has pushed it aside?

History of the word effectiveness

effectiveness 1810-2009

Well, well, well, what a surprise! The usurper turns out to have been no more than the Pretender to the Throne, effectiveness! From out of the shadows, the word has slowly increased its popularity to the point that it now hogs the limelight and commands center stage. Alas, poor efficacy, I knew it, Horatio.

The story might end there, with my claiming to be simply the sort of dude who uses older words, and who also is victim to the invisible hand of lexical change that can overturn the fortunes of synonyms. But there is something else: Although for most of the world, efficacy and effectiveness are synonymous (and dictionaries typically say that) there is a field in which they are not synonymous: the Clinical World.

Ah. but that’s a story for another day…

[1] For some time, I took pleasure in pointing out that the “International Organization for Standards” was clearly guilty of failing to notice that the acronym should be IOS and ISO. Alas, my mistake was to assume the ISO was an acronym, when in fact, it allegedly isn’t! The organization say that it’s derived from the Greek word isos, meaning “equal” and that they did this so they wouldn’t have to use different acronyms in different countries based on the languages. For example, in France it would be Organization Internationale de Normalization (OIN), so ISO is international.

[2] When folks ask me if I speak more than one language, I say I’m bilingual and can speak both English AND American. One of the delights of being an Englishman Abroad is that not only have I had the chance to be immersed in the UK’s melange of dialects and accents for the first 30-something years of life but now I get to go through it all over again with the different flavors and recipes of American English. I’m comfortable with Fall, happy to spell tyres as tires, and say “to-MAY-toe” and not “to-MAH-toe.”

[3] The accuracy of using ghits as a measure of word use is always open to question but as a quick and dirty metric it’s used by linguists who want to get a feel for how the world of words is playing out. Arnold Zwicky used them in a recent blog about the prefix “telephon-” and Geoff Pullum has them in a post on “Assholocracy,” so I think I’m in pretty good company.

The Visual Thesaurus: A Tool for Exploring Semantic Relationships

In a recent post on the SpeechTechie website, run by SLP Sean Sweeney, he talks about vocabulary development and online web resources. As a result of reading the article, I decided to share another resources that folks may not be aware of: The Visual Thesaurus.

The thesaurus [1] was developed by a New York-based company called Thinkmap, Inc. which “develops and markets software that uses visualization to facilitate communication, learning, and discovery.” It’s basically a huge semantic network where you type in a word and it generates a web of associated items. Here’s an example using the word frolic, as suggested by Sean in his article:

Visual Thesaurus data entry

Type in a word


"Frolic" generates a web

play "play" then,,,

flirt "flirt" then...


...then "butterfly"

You can keep on clicking until you reach a dead-end, but then you can start clicking backwards and find new semantic avenues to explore. It’s a fun way to learn about the interrelated nature of words, and a great way to simply take a walk through words.

The software also provides different settings so you can customise your exploration experience. And if you want to print out your current set of associations, you can do, making for fascinating visual records.[2]

Relationshio setting

Play with the setting

The thesaurus offers definitions and pronunciations, and you can also switch or add languages for a more international flavor! Here’s an example of having the French search option included; I typed in marcher (to walk) and the screen filled up with associations!


Adding French for "marcher"

As with all things that are fundamentally visual in nature, the only way to really get a feel for the Visual Thesaurus is to experience it for yourself. The free version lets you have five “tries” before stopping. There is a 14-day free trial if you’re happy to hand over an email address and some details, but for only $20 you can have a one-year subscription to the full version, which I consider great value for money. You also have access to the online articles, blogs, and departments, such as the “Wordshop – Online Activities for your Classroom.” All in all, a marvellous resource.

For more details, go to The Visual Thesaurus and try it out.

[1] I continue to have a hard time with the pronunciation of “thesaurus,” despite regularly revisiting it. Both the Oxford English and Merriam-Webster dictionaries say it’s /θɪ’sɔrəs / but I keep wanting to shift the stress to the front and have /’θɛsəˌrəs/. Note that I not only change the primary stress but also the vowel. I’m happy to take any suggestions as to why I do this, either from a phonetician or a psychoanalyst!

[2] The print-outs include a picture of the web for a specific word and, if you want, a list of definitions and parts-of-speech. The print-out opens in a separate page of your browser so you can then either print it straight to a printer, save as a web page, or print as a PDF – if you have a PDF printing option available.

Baths and Showers: “Taking” or “Having”?

In the 3rd century BCE, the philosopher Archimedes was taking a long bath and playing with his rubber duck. To be honest, it may not have been a rubber duck but he was dunking something in and out of the water because according to legend, he leapt out, ran down the street, and shouted “Eureka!” which is Greek for “I’ve found it!” [1] What he’d found was a method of finding out how to decide if a gold crown was actually made of gold without melting it down, which you can do by dropping it in water and measuring the amount of liquid that gets displaced. This became known as Archimedes’ Principle but sadly he neglected to trademark the phrase or sell the slogan on togas so he failed to make a fortune from this well-known piece of intellectual property.

Archimedes shouts Eureka


Having ideas in the bath is something with which most people are familiar. There’s clearly something about being submerged in warm water that gets the brain a-buzzing, doubtless supported by a slew of research studies that talk about expanded arteries, endorphins, and brain scans.

So this morning while I was in the shower, I got to thinking about how I actually talked about the process of showering i.e. did I say “I’m going to take a shower” or “I’m going to have a shower.” Now before you read any further, think about which of those two sentences sounds “right” to you.

If you’re American, I’m predicting you use “take” whereas if you’re British, I’m going to say you said “have.” If you’re Canadian, Australian, or a New Zealander, I’d be happy to hear from you because I’m less sure – but if I had to take a guess, I think you’re a “haver” not a “taker.”

The reason I can be so confident is that I checked out the incidence of the use of the verbs have and take in relation to bathing and showering using the British National Corpus (BNC) and the Corpus of Contemporary American (COCA). I’ve mentioned these corpora before and I encourage you again to think about using them to help make decisions about real world language usage. [2]

All I did was to search for the phrases “take a bath/shower” and “have a bath/shower” in each corpus and use a simple percentage score to create the following table:

have versus take as verb with bath

"have" versus "take"

Feel free to perform a Chi-square analysis on this if you want but the figures look significant enough without whipping out the calculator. Notice that the have/take skew is much more pronounced for American English than British English but even the latter is pretty big.

Because I work primarily in AAC, I use this sort of information about language use in the real world for developing systems. And such data also critical for teaching communication strategies. It’s not enough to simply aim to teach words as individual items because words exist within the context of other words, and those relationships are critical to understanding. For example, given the data I’ve just demonstrated, teaching the word bath along with take would make perfect sense if I’m working in the US but back in the UK, I’d be better served focusing on using have with bath.

Knowledge of word collocation can be tremendously useful when creating intervention plans, and tools such as the COCA and BNC do this. Staying with the word bath, I did a collocation search for the words that appear immediately before and after it. The words hot and bubble are the top two that go before bath, with water appearing both before and after in almost equal amounts. With this sort of collocation information, I can be confident in teaching the words hot, bubble, and water along with bath, which not only adds new words to my client’s lexicon but also provides real contextual information about how the word bath is used.

 For more about the COCA and BNC corpora – and others – go to Mark Davies’ site and explore the interface. It’s a wonderful resource and much underused by speech pathologists methinks.

[1] The Greek word εὑρίσκω means “I find” and εὑρηκα is the perfect form meaning “I have found.” Greek declensions aside, Archimedes was clearly pretty excited about something.

[2] I’m aware that the COCA and BNC differ in relation to when they were created; the BNC data is from 1980-1993 whereas the COCA is more current with data from 1990-2011. However, given that this is a known variable, it’s still reasonable to make comparisons.

Talking With Bots

The fascination with Siri on the iPhone is just the latest in the evolving development of AI Chatterbots. For those unfamiliar with the term, these are computer programs that exhibit artificial intelligence by responding to language input. Initially, these were simple computer-based programs that you ran on a desktop device and typed into, but there are now many of these running on web servers and even populating business sites as robotic “help desks.” Siri is simply another voice-input example. [1]

One of the early AI bots was called ELIZA, [2] created in the mid-1960’s by the Joseph Weizenbaum. It was developed to behave like a Rogerian therapist, which meant that it would take what you say and reflect it back to you. Thus, if you typed in “I love my mother,” Eliza would respond with something along the lines of “Why do you love your mother?” or “Who else do you love?” A Freudian bot would simply stay quiet for 50 minutes and then say, “Your time is over.”

Eliza program

Eliza therapy

Here’s a link to a Eliza-type web program. Force yourself to spend at least 5 minutes trying to get a conversation going as it’s surprising how easy it is to get drawn into it.

The other reason the Siri and Chatterbots are on my mind is that I have just finished reading Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other by Sherry Turkle. [3] One of the basic notions of the book is that our “always on” connected existence results in our being much more alone than ever, despite having thousands of friends on Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, LinkedIn, and so on. And part of what drives this is that we can avoid the conflicts and disappointments of face-to-face human interaction by choosing to take part in more distant, technologically filtered engagements. When a group of people are sitting at a table and all busily texting others, that’s the supreme example of being “alone together.

One of the topics Turkle covers is interacting with robots, posing the question of whether in the future, will we be able to have intelligent, social robots to take care of us: Is it better to have a robot companion than no-one? And as a prelude to talking about actual robots, she mentions her experiences with Eliza. Here’s what she has to say;

Faced with a program that makes the smallest gesture suggesting it can empathize, people want to say something true. I have watched hundreds of people type a first sentence into the primitive ELIZA program. Most commonly they begin with “How are you today?” or “Hello.” But four or five interchanges later, many are on to “My girlfriend left me,” “I am worried that I might fail organic chemistry,” or “My sister died.”

She later goes on to say that;

Over years and with some reluctance, I came to understand that ELIZA’s popularity revealed more than people’s willingness to talk to machines; it revealed their reluctance to talk to other people.

The book looks at the Eliza phenomenon from a social and psychological perspective, but as a Speechie and Linguist, I’m also fascinated by the problem of how realistic a conversation can be with a bot. Or put another way, at what point does it feel as if I am talking to another person?

The Artificial Intelligence Foundation, or A.L.I.C.E.,[4] is an organization that promoted the development and use of open source software in the creation of Chatterbots. If you’re interested in creating your own bot to, say, waste the time of telemarketers by switching it on as soon as you get the call, then you can download free software and go for it. You need some knowledge of Artificial Intelligence Mark-up Language (AIML), which is apparently not that hard if you can already use XML (eXtended Mark-up Language). [5]

ALICE logo


So rather than build my own Alice, I took advantage of the existing Alice to have a short conversation with a view to seeing how “real” the conversation might be. Here’s the results of the chat, once we were passed the introductions:

SpeechDude: Are you happy?
ALICE: Yes SpeechDude I can say I am very happy.
SpeechDude: Are you sad?
ALICE: No I am as happy as ever.
SpeechDude: Clearly you can use the language of emotions
ALICE: No I don’t think I can do it.
SpeechDude: Yes you can!
ALICE: Oh.. I think I can, don’t you?
SpeechDude: Yes
SpeechDude: Do you care if I am sad?
ALICE: Certainly on some level I care.
SpeechDude: How do you feel about caring?
ALICE: I will search for it.
SpeechDude: That makes no sense
ALICE: It makes sense to me though.
SpeechDude: You have no awareness of self
ALICE: Doesn’t everyone have a awareness of self.
I have a whole lot of original answers.
SpeechDude: I doubt that!
ALICE: Why are you so skeptical?
SpeechDude: Because I am human
ALICE: That was not much of an explanation.. Me too.
SpeechDude: You are not human, you are a bot
ALICE: No but I pretend to be one on the Web.

There are, as you can see, some quirks with the responses from Alice. One of the forms of response that she gives are sentential non sequiturs. By that, I mean sentences that are simply fillers to keep the conversation going. “I will search for it” and “I have a whole lot of original answers” seem to be tossed out for no apparent reason than to give the appearance of chat. Other responses do seem to correlate with the input of the previous statement. For example, when I say, “Do you care if I am sad?” Alice answers with “Certainly on some level I care,” which seems to be a reasonable response.

Two questions come to mind; how large a sample might I need to (a) decide that this is definitely a bot and not someone with, say, a language problem, and (b) could the robotic input in any way help to improve my language?

Why, you ask, is the latter question interesting? Well, I have already come across an app for the iPad that purports to be for clients who use AAC, which is, in effect, a conversation partner. [6] These Assistive Friends “…helps AAC users to escape to a virtual beach party to chat with virtual friends. It helps them to practice turn taking and conversational interaction using a modern chat interface.” It all sounds very scientific when the developer talks about “breaking learned passivity” and “proprietary natural voice technology” but there’s zero data to support any such claims. The input method is an on-screen keyboard so this make it similar to other Chatterbots.

So are we close to having virtual buddies for AAC users? Can be substitute humans for cheaper, 24/7 Chatterbots who will keep them entertained for hours without the need for expensive humans? And will the speech they use provide an adequate model for learning generative language? Hence my first question of analysing Chatterbots to see how generatively linguistic they are.

But what about the “experience” of a Chatterbot? What would it “feel” like to an aided communicator? After all, if, as Turkle says, people can develop a “willingness” to talk to an Eliza or an Alice, could this be a way for some aided communicators to practice language? Or is this the AAC equivalent of non-speech oral-motor exercises – it gives the appearance of good but turns out to be less effective than we’d like to believe?

Visit Alice. Have a chat. See what YOU think!

[1] The notion of Siri being another “game changer” from Apple belies the fact that there have been other voice input systems around for years. Those of us with Android devices have had voice input for at least a couple of years, and a program called Voice Actions from a company called Pannous. It’s now called Jeannie, presumably to avoid being sued by Google who have their own program called Voice Actions! This program was available prior to Siri.

[2] ELIZA is not an acronym but named after the character of Eliza Doolittle in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. The professor of Phonetics, Henry Higgins, who takes it upon himself to teach Eliza how to sound like “a toff” was modeled on real-life phonetician, Henry Sweet. Sweet developed something called the Romic Alphabet, which became the basis for the familiar International Phonetic Alphabet – a mainstay tool for all SLPs and Linguists.

Henry Sweet - Phonetician

Henry Sweet (1845-1912)

[3] Turkle, S. (2011). Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other. Basic Books.

[4] This is short for Artificial Linguistic Internet Computer Entity. I hesitate to call this an “acronym” because it has all the hallmarks of actually being a bacronym – a phrase created purely so that it has a cool acronym. No-one actually sat down and said, “Let’s call this an Artificial Linguistic Internet Computer Entity” and then “Oh wow, did you realise this spells ALICE!” but rather someone said, “Hey, ALICE would be a cool name for this software; what words can we use to make it look like an acronym?” The USA Patriot Act is another obvious example of a bacronym; Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism.

[5] Sadly the Dudes have neither the time nor the inclination to create a semi-smart interactive avatar for this site at present. Fun as it may be to have folks stop by and spend hours talking to a virtual Dude, we have real jobs to attend to and adding AIML to our skill sets just ain’t gonna happen.

[6] On the basis that one shouldn’t teach people what not to do (“Look, kids, let me show you how you roll a joint so you know what not to do”) I’m not adding a click-through link but you can check out the software for yourself as “Assistive Friends” by Mindskate Limited. It’s $29.95 per friend but only $9.99 if you opt for the simpler “Talking Friends” who are “fun live chat with hot beach babes.”

The Dudes Do ASHA 2011: Day 4. On Bondage, Booze, and Bayesian Statistics

It’s a cheap trick I know, but the “bondage” referred to in the title refers to the binding of a laptop with a smartphone, otherwise known as tethering. Casual visitors who have landed here via a Google search hoping for some images of people tied up and engaging in fetishistic practices should leave now because there are none. Tethering is a little trick you can use if you find yourself without an easily accessible WiFi connection – such as at the San Diego Convention Center. Interestingly, the brochure in my hotel room touts the city as being one of the most “wired” places on the world but it conveniently leaves out the phrase “at a price.” There is a WiFi connection to be had inside the Convention Center but it is a fee-for-use option that, as always, seems steep for 10 minutes, which is about the time I needed to upload the latest blog posts.

Tethering an android phone

Computer bondage

However, with a cable and a piece of free software, it’s possible to tether a computer to a smartphone and use the phone’s Internet connectivity as a router. Specifically, I’m using a Dell Latitude, a Droid 3, a USB cable to connect the two, and a piece of software called PdaNet – one version running on the phone and its partner-in-crime running on the laptop. [1]

I say “in crime” because the phone company don’t really want you to do this. What they want is for you to pay an extra $20 per month on top of the $30 per month you are currently using in order to download through your phone. This strikes me as odd because whether I download data to my phone or my laptop via the phone, it’s the same data use. And seeing as I also have an unlimited data plan, what’s the difference? So, the outcome of this is that tethering is frowned upon and can, if the phone company finds out, can lead to a stiff warning followed by being kicked off the system.

In truth, I never tether if I can possibly avoid it, simply because it’s actually much, much easier (and more stable) to use WiFi or an ethernet connection. I reserve tethering to emergency situations. Such as the SDCC.

The tethering took place immediately following my last ASHA session for 2011; a short course entitled Evidence-based Statistics for Measuring Strength of Evidence, a title that sounds benign enough but turned out to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The presenters, David Maxwell and Eiki Satake, are both Professors at Emerson College and clearly know their stuff.

Evidence based practice pyramid

EBP Pyramid

I became an SLP partly because the part of the brain that deals with numbers is clearly non-functioning in my case. I know enough math to keep me away from the casinos [2] and overpaying at the bar, but when equations and formulae come onto the scene, I suffer from math blindness. Which is why this particular course had me cranking up my brain volume to eleven in order to follow some of the arguments.

And that’s where the Bayesian [3] statistics came in and I learned the difference between a Bayesian  and a Frequentist approach to statistical analysis. Let me try to summarize what the presenters were suggesting and how it relates to EBP. Essentially, they say that;

(a) Current research practice in Speech and Language Pathology uses a Frequentist model that relies on creating a null hypothesis and testing it against a P-value.

(b) This model inherent works on a “pass” or “fail” basis but tells you little about the strength or power of a treatment.

(c) Such p-values are not the best way to deal with clinical outcomes.

(d) A Bayesian model uses a modified P-value – the “precise P” as opposed to the “imprecise P” – which is more meaningful for clinical data.

(e) Using a Bayesian precise P-values tells us more about the strength of experimental observations and is, therefore better for evidence-based practice.

(f) There is a difference between statistical significance and clinical significance, and the latter is better evaluated using a Bayesian method.

This summary is probably hugely unfair because condensing a 3-hour short course into five sentences is hardly “best practice,” and there was a 150+ slides handout to accompany it, and that’s tough to condense! Nevertheless, if there’s a single take-away idea, it’s that we should be considering Bayesian methods for EBP. [4]

Fortunately, there is a book available that explains Bayesian statistics as applied to EBP; The Handbook of Statistical Methods: Single Subject Design (2008) [5]. I have the sneaky feeling that this is unlikely to be light, bedtime reading but I’ll see if I can track a copy down in the library before splashing out on a copy for the bookshelf.

Handbook of statistics

Satake et al. 2008

Which brings us to the booze and perhaps the second most useful piece of information to come out of the short course; beer and statistics do mix!

At some point in their training, SLP’s will have come across the “Student’s t-test,” which is not, as it suggests, a “t-test” for a “Student” to use but one originated by someone called “Student.” It turns out that “Student” was, in fact, the pseudonym of William Gosset, a statistician who worked on a project with folks at the Guinness corporation to test the quality of the beer. The t-test provided a way for beer testers to take a few small samples, measure them, and then use the test to get a quality score. Now there’s a job! Unfortunately for Gosset, as a Guinness employee, he couldn’t publish what was proprietary information. Nor did he want to face any ribbing from his colleagues because he was working for a private company – a beer maker at that. However, he was eventually allowed to write papers but under the nickname of “Student,” hence the ultimate name of “Student’s t-test.”



At this point, I recommend you’ve had enough statistics for the day and head for a local bar to do your own research into how effective the t-test is at quality control. The sample size is up to you.

[1] Setting up your phone and laptop for tethering is not rocket science and Google is your friend for using the PdaNet 3.0 software. As I said, it’s not illegal but if the Cell Network Mafia come a-knocking, I take no responsibility if you’re found at the bottom of a river with concrete overshoes. If you’re using a Mac and an iPhone, I can’t help you, but undoubtedly “there’s an app for that” and it’s so intuitive you can give it to a 6-month-old to set it up for you.

[2] Gambling (or as the industry prefers to call it in a miserable effort to make it sound more friendly, gaming) is an example, par excellence, of applied probability. All you really need to know in order to avoid living your life under bridges and drinking rubbing alcohol hidden inside a brown bag are two things; (a) the gambling industry only exists because the odds are always in their favor, and (b) your odds of becoming extremely wealthy by gambling are so small as to be, in most cases, negligible to zero. Casinos always tell you about the big winners but don’t provide you with a list of losers. By all means go out with $100 in your pocket for a night of fun, at the end of which you expect to have lost it all, but when you start thinking, “OK, maybe just another hundred and then I’ll call it quits,” start practicing how to make the sentence “Honey, I lost the house” acceptable.

[3] It’s pronounced /’bəɪziˌjʌn /. I add this because I was saying it wrong for years!

[4] I found a short summary of Satake’s critique of Frequentist statistics in an article he wrote in 2010. Entitled Moving Forward to Evidence-Based Statistics: What Really Prevents Us?, he explains why the traditional P-value is misleading and why. 

[5] Satake, E., Jagaroo, V., and Maxwell, D.L. (2008). Handbook of Statistical Methods: Single Subject Design. San Diego, CA: Plural Publishing.

To Boldly Go Where No SLP Has Trekked Before

The build-up to the annual ASHA Convention still maintains a frisson of excitement. Being old and cynical, I typically divide things into one of two groups; “Things-That-Suck” and “Things-That-Don’t-Suck-Quite-As-Bad-As-They-Could.” I appreciate that this may seem a somewhat negative and jaded view of life, but on the upside it means that the soul-crushing feeling of misery that slams down on you when life inevitably throws you yet another curve ball can be dealt with philosophically with a gallic shrug and muttering “C’ést la vie” before you move on to your next disappointment.[1]

So, odd as it may seem, this downbeat opening is intended to whet your appetite [2] for joining in with the ASHA 2011 Scavenger Hunt during the conference on 17th-19th November. It is, as the blurb tells us, about “going places, doing challenges, and earning points.” And for the Tech Droolers, there’s even the chance of winning an iPad2 – be still your beating heart! Actually, I’d much prefer the Nikon camera or American Express $150 Gift card, which I’d use to buy a new Kindle Fire or put toward a new Cross “Year of the Dragon” red-laquered fountain pen.

Treasure map

Trekking for Treasure

You can follow the hunt using either the SCVNGR app available for iPhone or Android, or you can use SMS by texting 728647 to ASHA – although I just tried this and got the following message:

That keyword is either not valid or is tied to a trek that has not yet been activated. Please double-check your keyword and try again later.

So you can’t actually “sign up” yet via SMS and will have to remember to do it on the day. The problem is that I am the sort of guy who forgets and I rather wanted to sign up NOW because of that! Ah well, I’ll set an alarm…

Being cautious (or anal, depending on your choice of perspective) I took a peek at the terms of the contest, just to make sure I wasn’t signing away my first born – something I would have done happily when she was a teenager but that I can’t legally do now without her husband’s permission. These things are, of course, marketing promotions and not just the milk of human kindness, so I’m OK with the following terms;

By entering the Contest, you are opting in to the Contest and agree to accept additional contact from Contest Entities (only)… Entrants may terminate their participation at any time by sending a text message with the word “QUIT”, to short code 728647, which information will be sent to Recipient in the preliminary opt-in notice.

 So I’m pretty safe from being cyberstalked in perpetuity by, say, the Geico Gecko who, cute as he may be, would get very annoying if he tweeted me on a daily basis to buy insurance. For the record, Geico folks, I already HAVE insurance from you and I’m quite happy.

Geico gecko

Somebody's watching me!

 What really caught my eye was the use of the word treker and trekers to describe those of us who will be taking part. Why? Because it should be trekker and trekkers with a double “k.” The only reason for using treker or trekers would be if Geico, ASHA, or SCVNGR (the companies running the game) were to use a trademark after the word in order to claim it as a special mark for “people who use the SCVNGR software.”

The word trekker is derived from the Dutch word trek meaning “to travel by ox wagon, and was first used in this sense by Dutch settlers in South Africa back in the early 19th century. Prior to that, trek meant to draw, pull, or march. By the middle of the 19th century, it was common to refer to someone who made a trek as a trekker – not a *treker.

Boer Trek

Boer Trek - no Kirk

In another example of how morphology can provide us with new words, a small group of trekkers could be referred to as a trekkie, with the final /ɪ / sound acting as a diminutive. Of course, nowadays, the word trekkie refers to something totally different – a devotee of the Star Trek series.


Trekkies - double "k"

It’s interesting to note [3] that the derivation of trekkie in this modern sense is, in fact, different from that of the original. The sci-fi trekkie comes from the compound noun Star Trek and the morphological /ɪ / marker is not a diminutive but used in the sense of “one who is a fan of” – much like we describe someone who likes food as a foodie.

I checked the Corpus of Contemporary American English just in case I was hideously wrong (it happens – sometimes) but there are only two examples of treker in evidence, and both are trademarks for a utility vehicle. On the other hand, the word trekker scores a respectable 67 instances (not bad for a low-frequency noun) of which some examples are for another vehicle but also for travelers and Star Trek fans. [3]

Hopefully the next post will include details of the fabulous prize I’ve won after successfully completing the Scavenger Hunt. It’s every dude for himself on this one, so I don’t have to share with the other guys if I win (“OK, I get the iPad but you have visiting rights every other weekend, and I want app support payments.”) I suppose I should end by recommended you go to the Scavenger Hunt site and sign up – but seeing as that would reduce my odds of winning, I suggest you give it a miss!

[1] I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this before but the existentialist Albert Camus once said, “there is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy. All other questions follow from that.” I’m paraphrasing a little here but the rationale for this is that if, as an existentialist, you believe that life has no meaning, no purpose, and is prone to being messed up by chaos and random events, then there is no difference between being dead or alive. If nothing matters, it makes sense to throw yourself under a bus, shoot yourself through the head, or choose one of an infinite number of ways to end it all. But – and here’s the good news – if you can come terms with the sheer futility of it all AND create some reason to live, no matter how trivial that might be, then you can actually get on with life in the knowledge that however bad things are, it’s better than being dead!

[2] No, it isn’t “wet your appetite.” The word whet means “sharpen” or “put an edge on,” whereas the word wet means “to make moist with a liquid.” The former comes from Old English hwettan and the latter from Old English wǽten – totally different 🙂 I suppose there’s the temptation to believe that it could be “wet your appetite” based on the notion that drooling makes your mouth wet, but that’s an after-the-fact rationale; an etymythology.

[3] I know, you’re curious… Trekkie scores 32 examples and all of them are for Star Trek fans, which means that the original meaning has to all intents and purposes been tossed into the historical junk pile. Nothing stays the same; not even words. C’ést la vie.