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!

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 http://corpus.byu.edu/coca

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 http://ltr.sagepub.com/content/early/2014/12/08/1362168814559798.abstract

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 Time.com, 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: http://sigil.collocations.de/wizard.html

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.

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

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

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

CC licence from http://lambech.deviantart.com/

Bad Boys, Bad Boys: CC licence from http://lambech.deviantart.com/

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


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

Dude 2 racing car

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



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

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

All I Needed to Know About Adjectives I Learned at Starbucks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Order of adjectives

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

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

Or are we?

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

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

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

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

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

Tooling up for Therapy: Guns in the Clinic?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gun culture and gaming

Gun culture and gaming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dude 2, Chip, would probably shoot me for this stance :)

Privacy: Your Choice of Dystopias

The ongoing kerfuffle about Google Glass is certainly one to follow if you’re at all interested in the notion of what constitutes privacy, and how much accommodation we’re prepared to make in order for people to have a reasonable “freedom of choice.” And I purposely put quotes around “freedom of choice” because that phrase in of itself is worthy of a book let alone a mention in a blog. It’s not always obvious to some people that one man’s freedom is another man’s restriction, and individual freedom is a social contract and not an absolute.


Democracy, as a political and social system, suffers great anguish and soul-searching in trying to constantly balance individual freedom and social responsibility. The law says I cannot smoke a cigarette in a public place. Why? Because the effects of second-hand smoke are alleged to be directly injurious to the health of other people. My “freedom” to choose to smoke is a “restriction” on many other people’s’ choice to live a longer life [1]. On the other hand, the link between CO2 emissions from cars and the potential death of everyone on the planet as a result of global warming is also seen by  some as a “restriction” on everyone’s right to live a longer life – but we don’t (yet) ban driving. Freedom is always a grim balancing act.

Google Glass – the wearable spectacles that include both a tiny screen for viewing and a camera for capturing images – represents another stage in the constant struggle to determine how “free” we are to do what we want in a diverse society. As with all technology, it’s not the thing in of itself that is the issue but its application in the real world. For what it’s worth. my experience using Google Glass has left me feeling a little “so what” in that there’s nothing about the use of this tech that yet makes me want to perch the glasses on my head for longer than a few minutes. It’s “interesting” but not “compelling.” [2]

On the other hand, the social questions that the use of Google Glass raise it much more interesting – and compelling. You don’t have to be paranoid or a conspiracy theorist to be concerned about the privacy issues related to the fact that in principal, there’s a piece of technology here that could be worn by millions and millions of people, which could be recording images of the world – including you, dear reader – that can be shared with anyone. We know, of course, that folks with smartphones can already do this but that isn’t an argument for accepting a more widespread and covert method of collecting pictures.

Which brings me to a quick detour into the idea of a choice of dystopias [3]. Back in 1931, Aldous Huxley wrote his classic novel Brave New World about a future in which the population are controlled by drugs, psychology, and technology. Some 17 years later, George Orwell wrote his great work, 1984, which has a different future where people are controlled by a dictatorship based on power and manipulation. Both of these are called dystopias [4] – the opposite of utopias or perfect worlds. Although for many people, the latter vision is frightening because it is so overtly violent and marked by a political dictatorship – a form of government that is so antithetical to the democratic sensitivities of North America and Europe – the former is far more scary because it is a vision of voluntary acquisition to control rather than a seizing of control by force. In 1984, people don’t read books because they are banned and burned by the state, but in Brave New World, they don’t read books because they no longer want to.

Huxley’s future is the one into which it is much easier to slide. If the President of the USA decided to impose his or her will on the populace by turning the troops loose on dissenters and creating a “secret police” to spy on everyone, there would be some resistance. In fact, there would likely be lots of resistance. It’s a feature of any dictatorship that those in power are constantly under threat from dissidents, and the people might be acquiescent but they are still aware that they are under the yoke of tyranny. But not so in a brave new world where freedoms are not taken but given away, piece by piece. And there are two phrases that are used all the time to encourage people to do this; “It’s for the safety of the people” and “It’s for the welfare of our children.” The latter is, to me, the more egregiously hypocritical in that it seeks to turn dissenters into seemingly uncaring and callous child haters.

So how unreasonable is it to install cameras in malls to prevent child abductions?[5] How unreasonable to have them installed along roads to protect public safety? How unreasonable is it to have cameras in ATM’s to prevent theft? All of these things are now a feature of everyday life that we were never “asked” to approve but were simply added, slice by slice, to the point that it is now possible to not only prevent abductions (possibly), catch speeders (and fine them), and photograph debit card thieves (who always seem to wear hoodies), but for law enforcement and hackers to track an individual’s whereabouts. [6]


We have already surrendered a level of privacy by letting this happen. A 2011 report said that the UK had over 1.85 million cameras across the country, which works out to about one camera for every 32 people. That’s a lot of eyes. Yet this has now become a part of the norm – knowing that you might be being watched or recorded. Of course, supporters of CCTV will always trot out the tired cliché of “but if you’re innocent, what have you to worry about?” I worry about the interpretation of “innocence;” I worry about who is making that call; and I worry about how my non-criminal behavior can be tracked and shared with people.

It’s 3:00 am and I’m drunk and walking home. I cross the road when there’s no traffic in sight. I take a pee against my front fence (hey, we’ve all been there, right!). Finally I get through the door and go to bed. Two days later there’s a knock at the door and I’m being charged with public intoxication, jaywalking, and indecent exposure. Now ask yourself – is that just? I guess if I’d stopped for a minute to have a quick smoke within 25 feet of a school I’d have another charge dropped on top!

So remind me again about how “innocence” inoculates me against being sanctioned in some way by “The Others.”

It’s not, therefore, much of a surprise to find that there are people who find the idea of Google Glass becoming a significant part of society somewhat troubling. In a recent poll by Toluna, a market-research firm, 72% of Americans put privacy concerns at the top of the list for why they won’t be wearing Google Glass. And in the UK, a blog post by the government’s data privacy watchdog agency, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) says that use of Google Glass for anything other than “the collection of personal information for domestic purposes” could lead to prosecution under the Data Protection Act. It’s also worth noting that we already have the derogatory word glasshole used to describe wearers of this technology, and glassing-out to describe prolonged staring while wearing the glasses.

Perhaps it’s true after all that there is no longer any such thing as privacy. In our rush to make the world safer, nicer, and easier, we’ve allowed the genie to slip out of the bottle and we can’t stuff him back in. Or maybe we worry too much, like the writer of this passage:

Instantaneous photographs and newspaper enterprise have invaded the sacred precincts of private and domestic life; and numerous mechanical devices threaten to make good the prediction that ” what is whispered in the closet shall be proclaimed from the house-tops.”[7]

The surprise – this is from a Harvard Law Review paper written in 1890! Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

[1] It’s worth mentioning here that I don’t, and never have, indulge in smoking. For the life in me I’ve never seen the value in setting fire to rolled up plants and sucking up the burning smoke in to my lungs. However, I can empathize with those who do, bearing in mind that I frequently drink alcohol – a drug that, in contrast to nicotine – is currently legal. My vaguely Libertarian sensibilities therefore generally come down in favor of acknowledging an individual’s right to smoke, even though I don’t do it myself. And provided it’s done in an environment that doesn’t significantly damage my health, so be it. But should the government ever decide to make alcohol illegal, they’ll have to pry the Whie Russian from my cold, dead hands.

[2] One of the “reasons” put forward by proponents of Google Glass or body-mounted cameras is so that you can record your life. If that’s the case, at what point do you actually stop and look back at what you’ve recorded? Logically, your life is halved because you need to spend 50% of your time recording it and leave another 50% open for you to watch what you’ve recorded! And if you’re response is that you’ll only watch the best bits of your life, how much time are you then going to want to spend editing you thousands of hours recorded data?

[3] This sounds to me like a perfect names for a band, or an album, or even a book. I’ll therefore take the opportunity to copyright the phrase right now as “A Choice of Dystopias” just in case.

[4] The word was coined by Sir Thomas More as the title for his 1516 novel Utopia about a place with a perfect social and legal system where everyone is happy. He took it from pieces of Greek: eu- (εὐ) meaning “good” and “topos”(τόπος) meaning “place” i.e. a good place. You might think there was an actual Ancient Greek word εὐτόπία but apparently not! A good example of an invented Greek word ;)

[5] On a side note, it’s always struck me that if the answer to school shootings is to arm teachers and install metal detectors, we’ve never really understood the question in the first place. I suppose once we can sneak in “owning your own tank” under the cover of the 2nd amendment, then even that solution will need revising!

[6] On the trivial and personal side, because of the ease of online banking – and the speed at which transactions can be made – my wife often knows exactly where I’ve been and what I’ve spent before I get home from a night out. Sure, she can’t track the dollar bills I’ve slipped into a stripper’s garter but if I use my debit card to pay for the food and drink tab, my night at “Naughty Nancy’s Nudey Saloon” is easily tracked! It also makes it really hard to buy anything as a surprise because we have a joint account so she sees instantly if I buy something – or of I take out cash to buy it. It’s a minor thing but it is, in fact, just one more slice taken out of the privacy salami.

[7] Warren, S. D., & Brandeis, L. D. (1890). The Right to Privacy. Harvard Law Review, 4(5), 193-220