Stop With the “Change Your Password” Ritual

In the past few months, we heard over and over how big corporations such as Sony and Anthem have been hacked and customer information stolen. It’s not just information for one or two folks but thousands, even millions. And you know what? This happened regardless of what YOUR personal password was! In fact, what I’m going to suggest is that whenever someone with whom you have an account asks to keep changing your password “for security reasons,” you should change it to “Bullshit!”

Hackers are not interested in my password for the Speech Dudes site. They really are not. Any hackers who are going to spend hours and hours trying to break into this account so as to upload a picture of a skull-and-crossbones and say “Yah boo sucks, Dudes, you’ve been hacked” are one card short of a deck; two fries short of a Happy Meal; three sandwiches short of a picnic. Their lights are on but no-one’s home; their elevator doesn’t go to the top floor; and their cheese has slid so far off the cracker that their collective intelligence can only be matched by that of a shed-load of broken garden tools.

Password entry screen

Just last week I wanted to check my recent health insurance bills from United Medical Resources (UMR) only to find that before I could, I have to change my password “for security reasons.” Fair enough – except that this is the third time in a year I’ve had to do it. And what’s more, I can’t use ANY of the past 10 passwords I’ve used, which means I have to invent new ones every time.

This “you cannot use any of your previous 10 passwords” is also an irritation because it (a) forces me to create yet more mindless character strings than I need to remember and (b) tells me that the Grand Keeper of the Passwords at UMR has a list of all my previous ones. “Someone” is tracking my passwords! And if “they” are keeping my passwords, and “they” are hacked, I’ve not just lost my current password to hackers but all my previous ones – which may in turn include ones that I am still using for other accounts.

Some sites have now introduced not just the password but some stupid picture that is supposed to help; by making you now remember both a password AND a picture! And hey, hey, hey, it’s not just pictures: my friend Kara has an account where they also include what they call a “personal security phrase,” which in her case was “devoted corn.” Devoted Corn! I’d love to stuff that devoted corn down the throat of the person who came up with that idea!!! So now she has to remember her password, “devoted corn,” and her “personal image.”

All I can take from this madness is that I bet the sale and use of sticky notes has gone up significantly over the past five years because let’s get real and acknowledge what people actually do with regard to passwords:

They make a list.

Sure, you might have a list that you store in an encrypted format using a piece of software (presumably written by the folks who have developed these password/image/personal-phrase systems) but you’re still making a list. And when folks like UMR and Apple stop you using previous passwords, you can’t even have the option to have just one “open sesame” for all your accounts. Apparently that’s a bad thing. But that didn’t help all the folks who had accounts in 2014 with Sony, Target, Anthem, Neiman Marcus, AT&T, eBay, PF Chang’s…

It’s the hacking of all those big, international corporations that points to where the real danger lies. It’s not from some guy in Russia [1] trying to get MY personal password for Chase Bank, but from some guy in Russia trying to get ALL the passwords for Chase Bank at a corporate level. The personal password might make me feel safe but the evidence is that I’m no safer having the word “password” for all my accounts than someone who has “XX345Xbbg$3iOO” and anagrams thereof for every single account they use. During my recent trip the ATIA 2015 conference at the Caribe Royale Hotel in Orlando, Florida, myself and a number of other colleagues had their credit card numbers stolen, with all evidence pointing to someone having access to the desk at the on site Cafe (the only place where we all used a card). No passwords were involved, just the opportunity for someone to see numbers in a hotel system [2], and opportunist theft is something that can happen to anyone.

The Emperor's New Clothes

“But the Emperor has no clothes!”

The danger I face from having “Captain Danger” as my one and only password for all my accounts is not that some hacker will work it out. The danger is from having an account in the first place with a company whose security system is lacking. If they employ highly paid so-called “security experts” whose answer to breaches is to tell all their customers to change their passwords, I suggest they recognize them for what they are – Naked Emperors. Get them to do their job and make the system secure or sack ’em and employ some East European hacker to bolster up your website and pay them with a subscription to XBox live for a year and a free download of Grand Theft Auto 6 – although there’s a good chance they’ll hack a pre-release freebie long before the product is released to paying customers.

Yes, it's like this...I want three, maybe four, passwords for all my accounts. I want them to last forever. I want to be allowed (yes, it’s my choice, after all) to use whatever characters I want no matter how simple, stupid, or “obvious” some over-hyped security expert thinks it is. And I want my health insurance company (to whom I give lots of cash), my bank (to whom I give lots of cash), and my wireless phone company (to whom I give ever-increasing amounts of cash), to get their acts together and stop trying to blame me for being unable to handle passwords when they seem unable to protect their own systems.

Rant over. Let the flames begin!

[1] Before any Russian readers decide to hire a hacker to crash this blog because they think I’m being unkind to them, I use the example of Russian hackers because according to a 2013 article from the Gartner Group, it is “fairly well-known  by most security professionals that the best hackers on the planet often originate from Russia.” Deutsche Telekom has a fascinating little site that tracks real-time hacks across the world ( and during January 2015, China took first place by a wide margin, with the US taking silver, and Russia slipping down to a mere bronze. Another fascinating “live attack” site comes from the company Norse, and if they were to create a live wallpaper based on their map, I’d be using it!

[2] I’d be curious to hear if any other fellow attendees experienced card theft. I wrote to the hotel to alert them to the multiple thefts but heard nothing back – which may be expected because no-one wants to admit to having lax security.


The Dudes Do ATIA 2015: Day 2 – Of Powwows and Portmanteaus

The day before the Dudes left for the Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA) conference happened to be Lewis Carroll’s birthday. Folks who know me well – and maybe some who just happened to have heard me in presentations – will be painfully aware that I recommend Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass to anyone with the slightest interest in language. In fact, both books should be on the required reading list for all Educators and Speech and Language Therapists/Pathologists – seriously. Read the following single sentence as spoken by the Duchess in Wonderland and savor the complexity:

Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.

Now parse it. There’s glory for you [1]. The books are just overflowing with words, phrases, and sentences that can provide enough material for several seminars on morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics.

Time for a Powwow

Time for a Powwow

Coincidentally, or perhaps serendipitously, on the same day a Twitter colleague, @TactusTherapy, posted that she was about to take part in an appathon, which is clearly a blend of the words application and marathon. This is commonly referred to as a portmanteau word, a term first used by Carroll in Through the Looking Glass, when Humpty Dumpty is explaining what the words in the poem Jabberwocky mean:

“Well, slithy means ‘lithe and slimy.’ Lithe is the same as active. You see it’s like a portmanteau — there are two meanings packed up into one word.”

He then gives another example of a portmanteau with mimsy, which is a jamming together of miserable and flimsy. Linguists call these blends, or perhaps more specifically lexical blends – as distinct from, say, phonological blends where two or more sounds run together to end up as one. Other examples include positron (1933: positiveelectron); guesstimate (1936: guessestimate); skort (1951: skirtshorts); modem (1958: modulatordemodulator); metrosexual (1994: metropolitanhetero/homosexual); and hacktivist (1995: hackeractivist). My @TactusTherapy colleague also pointed out that she’d just come across a new portmanteau, listicle, to refer to one of those “5 Ways to Drive Your Lover Wild” or “10 Words Guaranteed to Get You a New Job” articles, where it’s basically a list modified into prose. Hence it’s a portmanteau of list and article.

ATIA15 Powwow 1

Moving ahead to Day 2 of the conference, I spent some time over lunch with a group of AAC/AT folks who had at some time attended one of the Pittsburgh AAC Language Seminar Series, or PALSS [2]. It’s a good excuse to get together with a group of like-minded folks for an informal powwow. Curiously enough, the word powwow (or pow-wow) may be another example of a portmanteau except from a non-English source. It can be traced back to the Narragansett language and pawwaw meaning a priest, shaman, or healer. It’s suggested that this in turn came from an earlier language, Proto-Algonquian [3], and the phrase *pawe-wa, which means “he who dreams.” The two words were blended into one by the elision of the middle syllable, and became the portmanteau, powwow.

During this powwow, yet another new portmanteau made its way into the discussion: the spamference. It’s clearly derived from spam and conference, and represents a relatively new concept in the field of academia – the junk conference. Basically, it’s a conference created not for the “free exchange of ideas and research from leaders in the field” but “a way of generating revenue for conference organizers by way of inviting folks to exotic and faraway places for a good time.” The typical invite goes along the lines of:

“Dear Speech Dude

As a recognized leader/expert/authority in the field of AAC/Linguistics/Toad Husbandry, our panel of professionals invite you to chair a session at our upcoming prestigious conference in Maui/Maldives/Vegas/Fiji (insert name of any place in which you’d love to spend a week).

As a conference chair, your registration fees will be discounted by 75% and hotel rooms by 25%. You will also be acknowledged as an Editor/Reviewer in the conference proceedings.”

And so on, and so on. The first hint of bogosity is the unsolicited nature of the invitation from someone who you’ve probably never heard of, and also that slightly hard-to-avoid-but-it’s-probably-true realization that you are maybe not quite the leader/expert/authority that you’d like to think you are!

Of course, if you want to beef up your resume and can get someone to fund you for your trip to Hawaii for “the conference,” then there’s nothing actually illegal going on here. Nothing. Like the whole “Open Access Journals” discussion – where you can get published so long as you stump up some cash – it’s a fundamentally grey area with advocates both for and against.

But spamference is definitely a portmanteau.

[1] This comes from a discussion between Alice and Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass about unbirthday presents. It ends with a classic definition of “the word” that’s beloved by linguists around the globe:

“There’s glory for you!’

`I don’t know what you mean by “glory,”‘ Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. `Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘

`But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument,”‘ Alice objected.

`When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

`The question is,’ said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

`The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master – – that’s all.’

See what I mean about great seminar material?

[2] The Pittsburgh AAC Language Seminar Series is a 2-and-a-half day event run by Semantic Compaction Systems in, no surprise, Pittsburgh. It’s focus is on implementing the Unity/Minspeak language system, with each seminar having a nationally recognized guest speaker. The seminars are monthly and registration is free but there are limited numbers – only 24 folks per seminar. It’s pretty cool because food and lodging is free AND you can get $150 towards your flight or mileage. Oh, and you get to meet me on Thursday morning – and that’s gotta be worth the trip! If you’re curious, here’s the link:

[3] A proto-language is one for which there is no direct evidence but can be (re)constructed, hypothesized or inferred on the basis of the structure and behavior of words that are verifiable. Algonquian is a genus of languages spoken primarily by Native American in north-eastern regions of North America, and Proto-Algonquian is thought to be the version spoken around 3,000 years ago. Here’s a link to a map of the family of Algonquian should you be curious – and if you’re still reading, you are ;) THE ALGONQUIAN FAMILY

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!

The Dudes Do ATIA 2015: Day 1 – Of Wealth and Water

Economics, when all is said and done, is based on some pretty simple principles, which we can summarize as follows:

1. People want/need stuff.
2. There is only so much stuff available.
3. Rare stuff has more value than common stuff.
4. Economics is about how stuff gets moved around from person to person.

I’m not sure why it took Adam Smith over 1000 pages to explain this in his canonical Wealth of Nations in 1776, or Thomas Picketty close to 700 pages in his 2014 Capital in the Twenty-First Century. I guess one paragraph with 4 bullet points wouldn’t sell as a book,

But if you want an example of simple economics, you need look no further than the price of a humble bottle of water. Here’s your “Dudes Economics 101″ courtesy of our trip to the 2015 Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA) conference in Orlando, Florida.

Bottles of water

$4.98 and $5.00 water: which is which?

1. People Want/Need Stuff

Water is one of those commodities that folks need in order to live. You might think your life would come to a screeching halt if your smart phone disappeared, but surprisingly it wouldn’t because a phone is a “want” not a “need.”

When you stay at a hotel, you need water, and often not just the water contained in a beer. Typically hotels provide a coffee machine in your room so you can make a hot beverage but from experience, many hotels have faucet water that tastes of chlorine, sulfur [1], metal, or anything other than the standard watery taste of “nothing.” In fact, the stuff that comes out of the tap is only “water” in the sense that it’s wet and clear (although the latter is not always the case.) Which leads us to the notion that…

2. There Is Only So Much Stuff Available.

Gold, diamonds, platinum, tigers, honest politicians; these are all examples of things that, on a global basis, are in short supply.  And in the tiny world that is the Caribe Royale Hotel in Florida, when it’s 11:00 PM and you’re thirsty, water is also in short supply. Given that the tap water is undrinkable, this means the bottle of filtered artesian Norwegian spring water [2]  lovingly provided by the hotel becomes an example of “only so much stuff is available.” And because your alternative is to go to the all-night on site store or get in a car and drive “somewhere else,” the next lesson in economics is that…

3. Rare Stuff Has More Value Than Common Stuff

If something is in short supply, it can be very expensive. Being rare in of itself doesn’t mean something is valuable – it has to be desired or necessary in order to be worth something. Diamonds are only valuable so long as someone, somewhere wants them, otherwise they are just highly compressed pieces of coal; a Rolex is worth several thousand dollars – if you like Rolexes; and a Starbucks grande non-fat latte is worth on average $3.80 – if you like coffee.

So when your mouth is as dry as the bottom of a bird-cage, $5.00 for a bottle of water seems like a bargain. In other places and at other times, you’d sooner shoot yourself in the foot than spend $5.00 for just water but in this place and at this time, the value of that colorless, odorless, tasteless liquid can be jacked up to near obscene levels.

You are probably aware of the phrase “location, location, location” as the answer to the question “What’s the most significant factor to take into account when opening a store?” or “Which factor will play a critical part in determining the price of a house?” but the same phrase applies to all economic transactions at some level. This is because…

4. Economics Is About How Stuff Gets Moved Around From Person To Person

The hotel can charge $5.00 for a bottle of water because it’s sitting there in the room so you don’t have to go anywhere or do anything other than twist off the cap. What they include in the price is the shifting of the stuff (water) from one person (themselves) to another (you).

Purely as an exercise in Economics (well, and perhaps as a demonstration of how cheap the Dudes are) on our way back from dinner at the Dakshin, a wonderful Indian restaurant, we stopped off at a Wal-Mart store and found, to our fiscal delight, that there was a special sale of Aquafina bottled water – $4.98 for a pack of 32 bottles. That’s 15 cents a bottle, and a significant saving when compared to the $5.00 hotel water – sorry, “filtered Norwegian Spring Water.” On that basis, we reckoned that if we drank ONE bottle each and threw away the other 30, we’d still be $5.02 ahead of the game! In terms of the “Dudes 4-Point Model of Economics,” we’d moved stuff ourselves (point 4) and bought from a place where stuff wasn’t rare (point 2) and so was not a premium price (point 3).

Image of economic axes

So there you have it. Proof that attending a conference can be an educational event above and beyond the overt content. Other bloggers will have details about the sessions and the exhibition and all that stuff, but only the Dudes will create a complete fiscal model based on having to spend $5.00 for water. Pedants and doryphores [5] might want to quibble with some details regarding our admittedly simple 4-Point Model of Universal Economics but we like to think that it’s in its naked simplicity where the value of the model lies. “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”

[1] I have to work hard to be able to spell sulfur like this, rather than sulphur, which is what I learned in school when I was a lad in England. The latter gets flagged as “wrong” on WordPress, and Microsoft words also gently scolds me with it little red line. It derives from the Latin sulfur(em) or sulphur(em) and is found in Middle English with a number spellings, such as sulphre, sulphure, sulfur, sulphur, soulphre, solfre, sulphyr, and others. The sulphur spelling appears to have become the more common by the end of the 17th century but other European languages opted for using an “f” (Spanish azufre, German schwefel, French soufre, and Italian zolfo). Even the American Lexicographer in Chief, Noah Webster, used sulphur, with the switch to sulfur occurring in the US relatively recently – the early 20th century. It has now become one of those US/UK differences that folks love to talk about. In a 1988 article, Mitchie and Langslow note that, “Together with driving on the left, the use of ph in sulphur, be it in acid rain or human metabolism, has remained an English prerogative.” Michie, C. A., & Langslow, D. R. (1988). Sulphur or sulfur? A tale of two spellings. BMJ : British Medical Journal, 297(6664), 1697-1699.

[2] In the world of Marketing, adjectives are important. If you want to sell a product, you can’t just offer “water” or “beer,” you have to  stick some lipstick on that pig by using adjectives. “Spring Water” sounds better than just “water,” but “Crystal-clear, Fresh Spring Water” sounds even better. “Crisp, Cold-Filtered Beer” invites you to part with more money than just “Cold Beer.” Restaurants teach their wait staff to use “suggestive selling,” which is simply having them to use adjectives whenever they recommend food; “Would you like some of our fresh, crispy fries with that?” or “We have a delicious, spicy chili that’s popular with all our diners.” Adjectives make money – and so does providing lists of these for copywriters, the best of whom will have Richard Bayan’s popular Words That Sell on their bookshelf. Actually, I would recommend this book to educators and Speechies who are teaching vocabulary because it’s chock-a-block with synonyms for many words, and the “Key Word Index” makes it easy to find them.

[3] I’ve posted this definition before but it’s worth repeating because it’s interesting: A doryphore is defined by the OED as “A person who draws attention to the minor errors made by others, esp. in a pestering manner; a pedantic gadfly.” It comes from the Greek δορυϕόρος, which means “spear carrier,” (a δορο is a “spear” and ϕόρος means “to bear or carry”) and it was originally used in the US as a name for the Colorado beetle – a notable pest. This beetle was known as “the ten-striped spearman,” hence the allusion to a spear carrier.  To then take the noun and turn it into an adjective by adding the -ic suffix meaning “to have the nature of” was a piece of cake – and a great example of using affixation to change a word’s part of speech. As always, you leave a Speech Dudes’ post far smarter than you entered it!

28 Words to Boost Your Client’s Vocabulary – Maximum Bang for Buck

When developing a vocabulary set for an augmented and alternative communication (AAC) system – or indeed when deciding on what vocabulary to teach anyone – one of the most fundamental of measures you can use is frequency count; how often is a word used in a language? No-one can predict with 100% accuracy which words will be “best” for an individual, but if you’re going to take bets, you’re pretty safe to assume that words such as that, want, stop, and what are going to be used by everyone from ages 2 to 200. By the same token, you’d not be missing much if you didn’t spend too much time on words like ambidextrous, decalogue, and postilion [1].

In the field of AAC, this type of high frequency vocabulary that is used (a) across populations and (b) across situations is referred to as core vocabulary and it’s often contrasted with the phrase fringe vocabulary, which refers to words that are typically (a) low in frequency and (b) specific to isolated activities or situations. For a refresher on core and fringe – and an introduction to keyword vocabulary – check out my article entitled Small Object of Desire: The Monteverde Invincia Stylus fountain pen – and Keyword Vocabulary from two years ago.

The core/fringe distinction is now so embedded in the world of augmentative communication that it is rare to see any new app appear on the market that doesn’t use the phrase “core vocabulary” somewhere in its marketing blurb – even if it isn’t actually making good use of the core! And as core vocabulary is, by definition, common across ages, activities, situations, and pathologies, it’s not surprising that many AAC software offerings look the same, particularly with regard to the words being encoded [2].

But it’s worth taking a look at another level of frequency measurement, and that’s at the phrase level. Specifically, one area of research that seems to me to offer some value to Speech and Language pathologists and Educators working in vocabulary development is in the study of how phrasal verbs (PVs) are distributed.

PV 3

So what’s a phrasal verb? Well, simply put, it’s a phrase of two to three words that are yoked together, which include a verb and a preposition and/or adverb. Examples include, “I ran into Gretchen at the ATIA conference,” “I backed up my hard drive,” and “I came across an interesting article on phrasal verbs.” The English language is stuffed to the gills with these type of verbs, and a feature of them is that they tend to have multiple meanings.

To find out how polysemous a phrase can be, you can use the excellent WordNet online tool, a huge database of words and phrases that let you check out noun, verb, adjective, and adverb meanings. For example, would you believe that the simple phrase “give up” has 12 different meanings? Or that “put down” has 8 variations? It’s not surprising that learners of English find phrasal verbs quite challenging.

The other fascinating feature of phrasal verbs is summarized in a 2007 paper by Gardner and Davies, who point out that of you look at the 100 million word British National Corpus you find that;

…a small subset of 20 lexical verbs combines with eight adverbial particles (160 combinations) to account for more than one half of the 518,923 phrasal verb occurrences identified in the megacorpus. A more specific analysis indicates that only 25 phrasal verbs account for nearly one-third of all phrasal-verb occurrences in the British National Corpus, and 100 phrasal verbs account for more than one half of all such items. Subsequent semantic analyses show that these 100 high-frequency phrasal verb forms have potentially 559 variant meaning senses.

Read that again and see if you get the same tingle I did seeing those numbers. Over half the entire phrasal verbs found in the corpus can be accounted for by combining 20 verbs with 8 particles. In short, if you learn just 28 words, you’ve learned 50% of all the phrasal verbs you’ll need to use.

Let’s take a look at those Top 2o verbs first:

20 most frequent verbs in phrasal verbs

Table 1: Top 20 Verbs in PVs

And now the Top 8 particles:

Eight most frequently used particles in phrasal verbs

Table 2: Top 8 particles in PVs

All the verbs and prepositions as individual items are already high frequency, with the exception of perhaps the verbs point and set, which wouldn’t be on my list of “first words to teach.” However, the real bonus here is that not only do you get the benefit of teaching your client 28 high frequency words in isolation but if you then use them as phrasal verbs, your “bang for buck” is significant!

Here’s a link to a PDF of those 28 words:

This frequency analysis of phrasal verbs by Gardner and Davies has recently been supported by and extended upon by Dilin Liu (2011) and by Mélodie Garnier and Norbert Schmitt [3] (2014). In their paper, The PHaVE List: A pedagogical list of phrasal verbs and their most frequent meaning senses, they point out that a limitation in Gardner and Davies’ analysis is that they failed to take into account the polysemy inherent in the phrases – like the 12 meanings of “give up.” In fairness to Gardner and Davies, they did, in fact, talk about the polysemous nature of PVs but didn’t offer any measure of the different frequencies with which the various meanings are used. They wrote that:

For instance, the list-high 19 senses of the PV break up … could be arranged from highest to lowest semantic frequency, thus prioritizing them for language learning. We acknowledge, however, that corpora of this nature are much easier talked about than constructed. (p.353).

Garnier and Schmitt are interested not just in identifying the frequency with which a phrasal verb occurs but also the most common senses of those PVs. They say that;

…our main purpose for creating the PHaVE List, which is to reduce the total number of meaning senses to be acquired to a manageable number based on frequency criteria.

On a pragmatic level, they want a learner not to have to learn every meaning of each PV but just focus on the most frequent, and therefore most useful meanings. Using the original list from Gardner and Davies, along with additions by Liu (2011), and including data from the Corpus of Contemporary American English (Davies, 2008), the duo created the PHaVE List; a list of the 150 most frequently used phrasal verbs, and 280 of the most frequently used meanings. So on the 12 potential meanings for “give up,” they use the following:

Stop doing or having something; abandon (activity, belief, possession) (80.5%)
Example: She had to give up smoking when she got pregnant.

The general entry starts with a rank (in this case, 16th out of 150); the basic phrasal verb; a definition; a percentage frequency; and a specific example use. The complete list is made available as a download from the Sage journals website [4]. If you can get access to it, it is well worth the read and the download. And all the articles referenced in this article are good examples of how we can use corpus linguistics to help guide our practice of developing the vocabulary of our clients with language challenges.

Davies, M. (2008-). The Corpus of Contemporary American English: 425 million words, 1990-present. Available from Brigham Young University The Corpus of Contemporary America English, from Brigham Young University

Gardner, D., & Davies, M. (2007). Pointing Out Frequent Phrasal Verbs: A Corpus-Based Analysis. TESOL Quarterly, 41(2), 339-359.

Garnier, M., & Schmitt, N. (2014). The PHaVE List: A pedagogical list of phrasal verbs and their most frequent meaning senses. Language Teaching Research, 1-22.Published online before print

Liu, D. (2011). The Most Frequently Used English Phrasal Verbs in American and British English: A Multicorpus Examination. TESOL Quarterly, 45(4), 661-688.

[1] A postilion is the driver of a horse-drawn carriage, who sits posterior to the horses. The sentence “The postilion has been struck by lightning” is the basis of a wonderful little paper by the linguist David Crystal, published in 1995 in the journal Child Language Teaching & Therapy. Simply titled “Postilion Sentences,” Crystal defines a postilion sentence as “one which has little or no chance of ever being useful in real life. It could be used, obviously, because it is grammatically well-formed; but the contexts in which it would be natural to use it are either so restricted or so adult that the chances of a child encountering it, or finding it necessary to use it, are remote.” In the design of AAC systems, using pre-stored sentences may have some limited value but many “pragmatic utterances” turn out to be nothing more than postilions; unlikely to be used. This is why teaching sentences is neither language nor therapy.Download Postilion sentences article

[2] The now-common practice of using core vocabulary also makes it much harder to prove plagiarism – or as we Lancastrians would say, “nicking someone else’s ideas.” People, of course, don’t “steal” ideas – they are “inspired” by the work of others. But such inspiration inevitably leads to systems appearing almost clone-like in their structure. It’s only when you get to the fine details of how words are organized and encoded that you can separate the wheat from the chaff. And there’s a lot of chaff out there.

[3] If I haven’t mentioned it before, Norbert is the author of an excellent book on vocabulary research methods. Here’s the full reference: Schmitt, N. (2010). Researching vocabulary : a vocabulary research manual. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire ; New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan. It’s full of useful information and lots of web links worth exploring, and worth the $30 you’ll spend on Amazon US – or the £20.99 in the UK.

[4] Just a reminder to all members of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists that you membership benefits includes access to a number of Sage journals online, and Language Teaching Research is one of those. In fact, you have access to over 700 (yes, count ’em!) titles, including my personal favorites Child Language Teaching and Therapy, Clinical Linguistics & Phonetics, English Today, and the riveting Scandinavian Journal of Occupational Therapy. OK, so I lied about the last one being a “favorite” :)

The State of the Union Address 2015: “We Are Family…”

Within seconds of a President turning off the autocue, political pundits stop trembling, wipe the drool from their lips, and spend the next 2 years talking incessantly about what was said. A single speech that clocks in at just under 6,500 words can single-handedly generate more web pages than the callipygian [1] Kim Kardashian can generate page clicks. Being a dude, you might think that this post is now about to become an excuse to share a picture of the ample Ms. Kardashian’s gluteus  maximus in all it’s shiny glory – but you’d be wrong! What I’m actually more interested in doing is taking a more detailed look at the vocabulary that Barack Obama used from the basis of corpus linguistics and concordance software. At this point, 90% of the guys who found this post by googling “Kim Kardashian’s ass” will leave. Sorry, dudes.

The data came from a transcript available from, which I then used as input for WordSmith 6.0 software, a corpus analysis tool. Of the many things this software will let analyze, the ones we’ll look at here are word frequencies, keywords, and concordances.

Keywords are those words that appear in a sample as being used significantly more or less than they are typically used in the general population. In the case of WordSmith, the “general population” is a list know as the British National Corpus, a sample of some 100 million words used in British English (BrE).

The “teachable moment” here is to think about why I chose this sample. Now I know – because I have a ear for these things – that Barack Obama does not use British English; his accent is also a bit of a giveaway. However, for the purpose of this analysis, I don’t think the frequency differences between BrE and American English (AmE) are significant enough to warrant worrying about it. I could have used a different sample called the American National Corpus but that’s only good for 14 million words, which is much smaller than the BNC. Therefore, I chose to go for the larger corpus, knowing that there may be some variations between the two but not, in my opinion, enough to skew the analysis.

Top 25 words by frequency

Fig 1: Top 25 words by frequency

If we take a look at the most frequently used words in the speech, you’ll see that they are pretty much what you might expect on the basis of typical distributions. The word the is the most frequent in the English language and seeing it atop the President’s list is uninteresting. What is interesting is that the pronouns we and our are right up there above I and you. Pronouns regularly score high on frequency lists, and it’s one of the reasons practitioners in the field of Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) should make sure these words are targeted. But the fact that we and our appear so high up the list (at #4 and #8 respectively) made me wonder; is this what we might expect to see in general? And that, my friends, is why we turn to a keyness list.

Top 25 words by keyness

Fig 2: Top 25 words by keyness

Take a look at that keyness column and notice how both we and our are way up there at #2 and #3. Ignoring for now the intricacies of how those keyness figures are calculated [2], what is significant is that the Pres is using those two pronouns significantly more than how anyone else would use them in general, and that reflects a conscious effort to come across as one of “us” and not an “I” or “me” who is doing things. He’s appealing to a “Spirit of Unity.”

You can see more evidence for this appeal if you simply look at the keyness of # 4 and #8 – America and Americans. He’s certainly using the words with more frequency than you’d find in a regular sample but we can perform one more kind of analysis in order to see just how he’s using them; and that’s to create a concordance.

A concordance is a list that shows instances of a word in context, along with the words that go before and after it. Below is a concordance for the word Americans as used alongside our:

Concordance of instances of the words americans and we

Fig 3: Concordance showing WE and AMERICANS

Given that there were 19 instances of the word Americans being used in total, this pairing accounts for over 30% of the use of Americans and we. So as well as using the pronouns themselves to paint a picture of unity, he’s yoking one of them with Americans to further that underlying message.

Casting your eyes just a few more lines down the keyword list you’ll see the words jobs and the economy coming in at #11 and #12, not too far above families (#14) and childcare (#16). Here we see Obama invoking notions of family and economics, both of which are important to voters because we are all involved at some level with both! But take a look at the concordance for how the word family is being used and see if you can spot some familiar words:

Concordance of the word FAMILIES

Fig 4: Concordance of the word FAMILIES

Notice how our and American are also used along with families, further reinforcing that Spirit of Unity. In fact, Obama even makes that relationship between families and the United States in the following few sentences:

“It is amazing,” Rebekah wrote, “what you can bounce back from when you have to…we are a strong, tight-knit family who has made it through some very, very hard times.” We are a strong, tight-knit family who has made it through some very, very hard times. America, Rebekah and Ben’s story is our story.

So not only do we hear this explicit appeal to family but by analyzing the words he uses throughout the speech using keywords and concordances, we can tease out those subliminal nods and pointers toward an underlying message: We are family [3].

[1] Callipygian is one of my favorite words and, like many of them, deserves to be used much more than it is. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word as, “of, pertaining to, or having well-shaped or finely developed buttocks,” which in turn comes from the Greek words kalli meaning “beauty” and pygi meaning “buttocks or rump.” Incidentally, an old word for someone who engages in anal intercourse is a pygist, and the adjective dasypygal means “having hairy buttocks.” Try using the last one next time you want to insult folks – especially if they’re making asses of themselves!

[2] So for that one person out there who has less of a life than I have, you basically count the number of times your target word occurs out of a sample of X words in total, then match that against the number of times the same word occurs in your reference corpus of Y words in total. Here’s the word we in a little 2 x 2 box:
Measure of usage of the word WEBecause I always prefer an easy life when it comes to all things numerical, I used an online calculator to take these figures to calculate a “log-likelihood” figure – the “keyness” number. You can find that site here:

When the site works its magic, you see the score expressed as G-Squared below:

SOTUA2015 LogLiklihood
Take a look at that G-Squared figure and then look back at the Fig 4 and you’ll see the keyness figure is (almost) the same. You can try this with any of the value in Fig 4 and you’ll see that the online calculator scores match those of the WordSmith software.

[3] It was the end of the 70s and tight spandex leggings were all the rage – for the ladies – and Sister Sledge had a monster hit with “We Are Family” from the album of the same name. Apparently the Sisters are still touring to this very day – although I’m not sure if they’re still wearing spandex.

Dudes’ Eye View: Review of 2014

A little later than usual, the annual Dudes’ Eye Review of the Year is now available on our YouTube channel. We’ve condensed the big news stories for 2014 into just under 4 minutes, along with a brand new soundtrack.

The original soundtrack can be downloaded from our Box account:

I’m working on the extended mix version, the link to which will be posted as soon as it’s finished.

Fewer Hassles Means Less Hassle

There are two types of people standing in a supermarket check-out line; those who use the “10 items or less” aisle and worry about how many things they have in their trolley [1] ,and those who want to use a thick red marker pen to scribble out the word “less” and write “FEWER!!!” in large, capital letters.

We need fewer mistakes

We need fewer mistakes: CC license from Flicker

As a long-time sufferer of prescriptivism – that terrible affliction where you can’t help feeling that there is a right and a wrong way to use a language – I have to admit I’m getting better at ignoring such things and adopt a Zen-like calm at the checkout, murmuring internal mantras to keep my blood pressure down. The trick is to take a little time analyzing just why “10 items or less” can be seen as “wrong.” And it’s all to do with the nature of nouns and counting.

When it comes to nouns, one of the ways to categorize them is as either count or mass nouns. A count noun is one that – not surprisingly – can be counted. You can have one button or two buttons; one banana or three bananas; one mongoose or 24 mongeese. OK, so that last one was a lie – it’s mongooses[2]. The point is that the noun in question can be viewed as a discrete item and quantified.

Mongooses - or mongees? CC license from Arpingstone.

Mongooses – or mongees? CC license from Arpingstone.

The contrary is a mass noun, which refers to a thing that can vary in terms of quantity but you can’t really count it. You can have salt and then more salt; water and then more water; fun and then more fun.

Morphologically, count nouns typically add an –s to the end of the singular form of the noun whereas mass nouns stay the same. Some count nouns have irregular plural forms – hence the goose/geese distinction mentioned as few sentences ago – and a few don’t change at all, such as sheep, deer, and moose.

Now, just to make things more interesting, some adjectives that are used to pre-modify nouns don’t work with both mass and count nouns. This is the case with fewer and less, where the former works better with count nouns whereas the latter typically partners up with mass nouns. So you have less salt, less water, and less fun but fewer buttons, bananas, and mongooses.

Mass nouns can, in some situations, defect to the count noun camp, usually when the mass is in some way chopped up into smaller pieces. So if you have water poured into glasses, it’s perfectly normal to say things like, “There were several waters in the table.” Similarly, when visiting a bakery you might say, “There were lots of breads to choose from.” But in both these cases, the “countiness” is due to the fact that the mass has been artificially quantized.

Unlike words such as bread and water, which seem to spend most of their lives being mass nouns, or dog and cat, which sit squarely in the count corner, words like hassle appear to swing happily back and forth between mass and count. Thus having fewer hassles can, indeed, lead to less hassle. More specifically, the first hassle is in its count form whereas the second is the uncountable mass version. If you think about it, you can talk about having “lots of hassles” because you can in theory count each individual hassle, but if you’re talking about hassle in general, it’s a more amorphous mass of “hassle” so uncountable. If I suggested replacing that second hassle with harassment, the mass element becomes more obvious.

Now you get an idea why we poor prescriptivists suffer from bouts of toe curling when seeing “10 items or less.” It’s that the noun items is clearly a count noun (it takes an -s plural and is preceded by a number) but less is reserved for mass nouns.

[1] There’s a sub-group here of sociopaths who either cannot count and so trundle through with a cart positively overflowing with stuff, or are so egocentric and narcissistic that they couldn’t care less how many items they have – they just want the shortest and faster line so they can get on with their terribly important and self-centered lives. In the world of self-carry laws for gun owners, it’s a surprise that there are so few gunfights at the Walmart corral.

[2] We like to think that the average Speech Dudes reader is not, in fact, average, and is more curious than a clowder of cats, and as such, may ask the obvious question as to precisely why isn’t the plural of mongoose mongeese? It’s because the word mongoose doesn’t actually have anything to do with the word goose in the first place. If actually derives from the Portuguese mangus, which in turn is from the Indian dialect Marathi word mungus, and then ultimately the Dravidian language Telagu and the word mungisa. Any tendency to use mongeese therefore comes from mistakenly assuming it’s a derivative of goose, which comes from Old English gos and can be traced back to Old Aryan *ghans.

Scribble, Scribble, Scribble

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Christmas Fireside Read

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

Christmas fireplace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales by Maria Tatar

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

The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales cover

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

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

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

The Little Mermaid Meets the Prince

The Prince Asked Who She Was: Edmund Dulac

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

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

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

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

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

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

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