Time Management for Dummies, DOPES, and Dudes: Part 1 – The Kit

The fact Las Vegas exists is proof positive that no matter how much you believe you are skilled at playing poker, tossing dice, guessing where a ball will land on a wheel of numbers, or even knowing which side will show after flipping a coin, you are wrong. Wrong to the tune of $35 billion in 2012, which is the estimated total revenue generated by 461 casinos in the US [1]. The house always wins – and if it didn’t, it wouldn’t be there! Statistically there will always be some winners that the casinos can show as role models, but the odds of YOU being that person are stunningly low. There is only one real winner in the gambling industry – and that’s the gambling industry.

Likewise, the fact that there are so many Life Coaches, Management Consultants, and general “Let Me Show You How To Be Fabulously Wonderful (for a fee)” folks out there is proof positive that no matter how much you believe you can control you life, you are wrong. Wrong to the tune of $11 billion dollars in 2008, which is the amount of money spent by Americans on self-improvement books, CDs, seminars, coaching and stress-management programs [2]. The only winner in the self-improvement industry is the self-improvement industry.

According to Steve Salerno, the author of the splendid 2008 book Sham: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless, there’s a self-sustaining element based on the fact that “the most likely customers of self-help products are the same people who purchased similar products within the previous 18 months.” In other words, it’s not actually helping.

Getting Organized

So let’s face it and admit to ourselves and the world that although we aspire to being super-organized, super-efficient, and razor-sharp in our thinking and execution of plans and programs, we’re basically messy slobs whose most organized closet is the one nailed shut so the crap doesn’t fall out of it. When Pink Floyd wrote the lines “plans that either come to naught, or half a page of scribbled line,” [3] they were being optimistic that someone would be inspired to actually pick up a pen! If any one of us were to write two lists headed “Things I Did” and “Things I’m Planning To Do,” I’m betting that the latter would be the longer.

There should be no shame in being disorganized and scatterbrained. In their book, The Perfect Mess, Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freeman argue that;

Our brains evolved to function in a messy world, and sometimes when we insist on thinking in neat, orderly ways, we’re really holding back our minds from doing what they do best. No matter how messy the world is, we humans seem determined not to see it that way. We enlist all sorts of schemes to avoid having to accept disorder and randomness, but when viewed logically these appear to be glitches in our software.

If the nature of the Universe tends towards chaos and unpredictability, who are we to argue with it? In fact, in order to be one with the Universe, one should “go with the flow” and let is all slide.

But sadly for me and 99% of people out there, the need for a steady paycheck typically means working for employers who don’t share that same view of the cosmos – they want results that can be measured and sold to make a profit. Steady paychecks are the antithesis of the Natural Order of Things.

This means that like it or not, we have to strive to imposing some sort of order to our lives, damaging as that may be to the universe as a whole [4]. And it also leads to the main point of this article; how to create and use a low-tech personal digital assistant to put some structure into you day!

The Basic Kit

Here my personal set-up for the Dudes Organizational Paradigm for the Exceptionally Scatterbrained – or DOPES.

Notebook and pen

DOPES Organizer

The notebook is a QUO VADIS HABANA COMPACT (6.25 inches by 9.25 inches). It’s as wide as an iPad but narrower, and has a much better battery life – plus you can see the pages in bright sunlight. There’s also a pocket on the inside back cover that is wide enough to let you slot in standard 8.5 x 11 paper, which is great when you are in meetings and someone hands you a sheet of paper to take away [5]. The same goes for metric A4 pages. In the picture below, you can see a folder piece of paper that illustrates how it fits; and you also have room to drop in a few business cards.

Pocker in Habana notebook

Habana Rear Pocket

Strapped onto the front of the notebook is a really cool piece of kit called the QUIVER, which is basically a leather pocket with an elasticated strap at the back. It comes in different sizes, but for the Quo Vadis Habana compact you need to order what they call the “Extra Large,” which can also be used on iPad covers. I have the double pen version in black leather with yellow stitching but there are other options.

Inside the Quiver I keep two writing instruments; a Cross Torero Diamondback fountain pen with Diamine Macassar brown ink, and a Pentel Graph Gear™ 1000 with the 0.9 mm lead. Why a pencil? Because if I run out of ink, the lead will always work! The Pentel Graph Gear 1000 comes in colors and thicknesses but I prefer the yellow 0.9 mm version. It is retractable, has a removable top that exposes an eraser, and you can remove the eraser to store extra lead fillers. Not your ordinary wooden pencil, in other words.

Pen and a pencil

Pen and Pencil

When you open up the notebook, just inside I keep three special “bookmarks” that I actually made from the transparency sheets we all used to use with overhead projectors. I have several boxes of these in a variety of colors that I have “repurposed” as bookmarks onto which I attached yellow, green, and blue sticky flags.

Bookmarks and sticky flags

Bookmarks and flags

You can still get acetate sheets at places like Staples and Office Depot, and you can cut out 6-8 bookmarks from one sheet. If you’re lucky -as I was – you can find colored sheets, so that as you can see above, I have yellow flags on a yellow strip, blue flags on a blue strip, and green flags on a green one. By having these on acetate bookmarks, I don’t have to carry around plastics flag holders, and I can re-use the flags.

Now, all of the organizing systems out there in the world will have you chop up your tasks into different types, usually up to about 7. That’s far too many for me so I use the following trio:

  • Green = To Do. This is for items that I have to get done within a time frame.
  • Yellow = Investigate. This is for things I need to look into but don’t necessarily have an end-date in mind.
  • Blue = Fun stuff. Speech Dudes blog post, @etyman tweets, new books to buy – anything I want to do outside of work that if I didn’t write them down I’d forget about.

Using the DOPES System

Here’s probably the most minimal set of instructions you’ll ever find for a “time management” tutorial:

1. Write things down in your notebook whenever you need to remember them. Add a date if you want to be really efficient!
2. Write the words “TO DO” or “INVESTIGATE” or “FUN” after any text where you need to actually do something.
3. Draw a little square after the words TO DO, INVESTIGATE, or FUN.4. Once a week (or whenever you can rouse yourself to action) look page over the pages and stick a GREEN FLAG next to a TO DO, a YELLOW FLAG next to an INVESTIGATE, and a BLUE FLAG next to a FUN. Make sure the colored end stick out beyond the edge of the page.
5. Every time you open the notebook, look for colored tabs and see what you still need to do, investigate, or enjoy.
6. When you’ve done it, investigated it, or enjoyed it, put a check/tick mark in the little box and remove the colored flag, replacing it neatly back on your acetate bookmark – see, I told you they were re-usable!

Here’s an example, just in case you are a visual learner:

Example DOPES Entry

Example DOPES Entry

A are the written notes I want to do something about; B is the FUN category (which I sometimes mark as a sub-category – in this instance it’s related to my Etyman twitter account); C is the check-box, that remains empty until I do some thing; and D is the BLUE flag I use to mark all FUN actions.

And that, dear reader, is the low-tech DOPES System in all its glory! If you look back at the first picture (and the second and third) you’ll see that you can always see all the flags even when the notebook is closed. So as long as you can see flags, you know you still have things to do; if there are no flags, you are all up-to-date and caught up. (Hint: unless you are superhuman, you will always see some flags!)

Although I can’t guarantee that this system will bring you untold wealth, universal acclaim, or a knighthood from the Queen, I can tell you that it’s a damn sight better than having no system at all.

So take a trip to your favorite stationery store and get yours own DOPES System set up this weekend. And if you want to take it to the next level, which is to add a hi-tech component, check out the next part in this series: Becoming DOPIER – the Dudes Organizational Paradigm Integrated with Electronic Recording!

[1] 2012 State of the States: The AGA Survey of Casino Entertainment. Report by the American Gaming Association, available in PDF from: http://www.americangaming.org/sites/default/files/uploads/docs/sos/aga_sos_2012_web.pdf

[2] No, I’m not picking on Americans; it’s just that it’s easier for me to get US statistics. I’m pretty confident we could find some similar figures for any Western country, where rather than worry about finding where the next meal is coming from, folks worry about why they have to pay more for extra leg-room on a plane. http://www.forbes.com/2009/01/15/self-help-industry-ent-sales-cx_ml_0115selfhelp.html

[3] The line comes from the track “Time” on the classic album The Dark Side of the Moon, which was released over 40 years ago in 1973. I had just about hit my teens and it was one of the first LPs (as they were called) that I ever bought. It’s actually embedded in a longer verse that reads;

Every year is getting shorter, never seem to find the time,
Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines.
Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way,
The time has come, the song is over,
Thought I’d something more to say

The older I get, the harder it has become to listen to this song because it’s so true. I can only play it if I’m in a good mood as it inevitably leads to me becoming sad and depressed. But then again, life sucks – and then you die.

[4] Physics tells us that “work” requires “energy,” and that all energy ultimately ends up as heat. The Second Law of Thermodynamics is quite explicit about this, especially with regard to something called “The Heat Death of the Universe” – or “How the Universe will die in a big ball of fire.” You see, in terms of energy, the universe is a closed system. And like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, no energy ever goes in and no energy ever goes out. Furthermore, energy cannot be created or destroyed but changed from one form to another, and the ultimate form of energy is heat. When you do any work, you generate heat; and the more heat we generate, the closer the universe is to its ultimate demise; and so the LESS work you do, the BETTER this is for the universe. Ergo, sitting around on my fat ass doing bugger all is helping to save the universe – and how noble is that! So next time some Type A hotshot trying to do 7 things at once tells you you’re lazy, remind him/her that you are, in fact, saving not just the planet but the entire cosmos and all its inhabitants, human and otherwise.

[5] I’ve tried another well-known higher-end notebook called the Rhodia Webnotebook, which is 5.5 inches by 8.5 inches. However, although it has a pocket on the inside back cover, you cannot get an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper folded in half to fit – you have to fold it into quarters. It seems like a minor detail but it is an important one to bear in mind. The Rhodia itself is a great notebook but for me having to fold a sheet twice instead of once in order to get it to fit is a deal breaker. You can see a review of the Habana and the Rhodia at The Goulet Pen Company‘s YouTube site.

The Sky is Falling; the Sky is Falling! The 4 Stages of a Word

The publication of the 4th Edition of the Collins Official Scrabble Words book has resulted in the unsurprising flurry of articles that predict the demise – again – of the English language as we know it. Now that players of that grand old game can score points for thanx, newb, lotsa, and shizzle – words that even the WordPress spellchecker angrily underlines in bright red – how long can it be before xneetrb  and ffydlea are allowed? Hell, why not randomly toss all seven of your tiles onto the board and line ’em up with a triple-word score on the basis that “Well, it could be a word someone has said.”

Collins Official Scrabble Words book cover

But although “Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells” [1] might have choked on his early morning cup of tea whilst reading this morning’s edition of the Times (or more likely the Daily Mail), and Miss Manners [2] may gently suggest that twerking and sexting should be avoided during family game night, Western civilization is unlikely to collapse overnight, and tomorrow morning we’re not going to find ourselves having to pledge allegiance to marauding gangs of thugs and murderers intent on establishing tribal fiefdoms in some vicious Mad Max post-apocalypse scenario. No, although scrabblers might now be able to score 10 points for tweep (a person who follows you on Twitter) and 6 points for eew (meaning “eew!”) the rest of us can get on with our everyday lives, listening to some awesome tuneage or indulging in a spot of facetime with our bezzy while showrooming for a pair of dench new shooties on the web [3].

The teachable moment – and there’s always one of those with a Dudes post – is that what we’re really seeing here is how emotionally vested we can be when it comes to language, even when we might think we’re not. More specifically, the adoption of new words into the global vocabulary challenges our perceptions of what we consider “right” or “wrong” in relation to how we communicate. If nothing else, this sort of incident reminds us how changeable our vocabulary can be, and the more linguistically conservative we are, the more the new words rankle.

Picture of the word WORD

Creative Commons License from Marla Reyes-McDavis: http://bit.ly/1Syb3M2

The first step toward a word becoming “real” is its adoption into spoken language. People were talking about twerking before they were writing about it, and in general, it’s a rule of thumb for lexicographers [4] to assume that no matter how far back you can track the written form of a word, it will have been around in the oral form earlier than that. This first stage is also the “testing ground” for a word because once a word is born, it now has to survive in a nasty, brutish, and short linguistic pool, where other hopeful lexical monsters are competing for everyone’s attention. Many newly coined words can suddenly appear, shine brightly for a short period, then die without saying so much as a goodbye. Do you remember cell yell meaning “to talk loudly on a phone,”  annoyicon, the logo that hogs the bottom corner of a TV program, or even neuticles, defined as “fake testicles for neutered pets?” All of these were nominated in the American Dialect Society’s “Words of the Year” contest from 1999 to 2002 yet have since disappeared and failed to enter the Scrabble dictionary.

The second phase of a word’s journey to becoming “real” is when it gets written down. Lots of times. Anyone can coin a word at anytime – like preet, a verb meaning “to accidentally post a tweet before you’ve actually finished it, ending up in a half-finished tweet – derived from pre– and tweet,” but unless other people start using it and propagating it, it becomes a hapax legomenon and, like the psittacosaurus [5], disappears from the earth leaving only the word and a lost hope.

Provided a word can live long and prosper enough to catch the eyes of writers and distributors of content (no-one writes “stories” or “articles” these days – they provide “content,” like the literary equivalent of baked beans or tomato soup), professional lexicographers can gently guide it to the third stage of its journey to legitimacy and enshrine it in a dictionary. And I use the indefinite article on purpose because there is no single definitive dictionary but a small library of different ones. You can check out our previous post entitled The Top 7 Online Dictionaries – and Why is you want to find out a little more about how to choose which reference works to choose. Once a word gets into a dictionary, we’re now at the point where people begin to get either excited or aggrieved, depending on their point of view.

There’s actually a fourth stage that a word can go through and that’s to become an entry in the only dictionary that I would dare to call the dictionary – the Oxford English Dictionary. For a word to be included in this venerable collection it has to have been around for “a reasonable amount of time” and has reached “a level of general currency where it is unselfconsciously used with the expectation of being understood.” But like the Eagles’ Hotel California, once you check in to the OED, “you can never leave.” A significant raison d’être of the OED is that it provides not just a definition of a word but a history. This is important because we all know that meanings change over time and it’s essential for readers to be able to see and understand this. For example, someone under 25 watching an old episode of the Flintstones cartoon show might wonder what on earth is going one when they hear the theme song say that “we’ll have a gay old time.” By looking at the history of the word gay in the OED, it becomes clear that there has been a significant shift in its primary meaning since the end of the 1950s [6].

So to summarize, here are the Stages of a Word:

Stage 1: Oral Adoption
Stage 2: Physical Transcription
Stage 3: Editorial Consecration
Stage 4: Archival Immortalization

One last thing to bear in mind it that although a word can become immortalized in some archive like the OED, it doesn’t mean it lives forever in our spoken vocabulary. Sadly the OED is filled with the tombstones of long-forgotten words that only ever get resurrected when folks like the Speech Dudes roll back the stone and let them wander the internet for a brief time. Like snool, meaning “to crawl meekly and humbly (R.I.P. 1895); proficiat, “a payment given as a welcoming gesture or token of goodwill upon a person’s entry into a new position” (R.I.P. 1636) [7]; flird, “to sneer or gibe” (R.I.P. 1513); and leggiadrous, “graceful, elegant” (R.I.P. 1702).

And for those struggling with having to come to terms with the new Official Scrabble words, they should take heart that perhaps shizzle and newb will join snool and flird in the not-to-distant future.

[1] A generic character used in the UK to describe someone with right-wing views who writes letters to newspapers with the sign-off “Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disgusted_of_Tunbridge_Wells

[2] Judith Martin, a syndicated American writer on matters of Etiquette. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judith_Martin

[3] Yes, I knew you’d want to know!
tuneage: music.
facetime: to talk with someone using Apple’s FaceTime app.bezzy: Best friend.
showrooming: Looking at an item in a store and using your smart phone to find a better price elsewhere.
dench: excellent.
shooties: shoes that cover the ankles.

[4] The word lexicographer meaning “someone who creates dictionaries” is familiar enough in the 21st century but it’s only a few hundred years old, with its first written example coming from 1658 in a book gloriously entitled Topsall’s History of Four-Footed Beasts in reference to “Calepine and other Lexicographers of his gang.” More famously it appears in Dr. Johnson’s 1755 A Dictionary of the English Language defined as “…a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.” It seems to have been coined at that time because there are no instances of earlier versions of the word to be found, and its clearly Greek origin ( λεξικόν = a word-book or dictionary + γράϕος = a writer) suggests something made up by academics – which is what scholars are wont to do.

[5] Pity the poor psittacosaurus, a 6-foot long parrot-headed saurian that could run around on two legs, scarfing up as many nuts as it could find. It lived during the Cretaceous period and so tragically never even got a bit part in Spielberg’s classic Jurassic Park movie. Its name comes from the Greek ψιττακός meaning “parrot” and so-called because of the shape of its head.

psittacosaurus[6] There are many online histories of the word gay out there so I’m not inclined to write another but it is worth using the word to comment on the fact that a word can have many meanings simultaneously but that at any given time there is a most frequent or primary value. In the late 1950s, when the Flintstones tune was written, the word gay was, in fact, already being used as slang for homosexual, but it wasn’t its primary meaning. Evidence for this can be seen in a quotation from Gore Videl’s 1948 The City and the Pillar where he writes, “[In New York] the words ‘fairy’ and ‘pansy’ were considered to be in bad taste. It was fashionable to say a person was ‘gay’.” The fact that he has to define the term suggests that it had not yet become a common meaning. By the beginning of the 20th century, the primary meaning had shifted to the point that its use to mean “carefree and lively” is rare.

[7] The current equivalent to this is golden hello defined as “a substantial sum offered to a senior executive, etc., as an inducement to change employers, and paid in advance when the new post is accepted.” This was coined in the early 1980s along the lines of the golden handshake, which is “a gratuity given as compensation for dismissal or compulsory retirement.”

The QUAD Profile™: A Quick and Simple Language Evaluation Tool

Ten years ago, before we had such luxuries as tablets and apps, I wanted to create a simple. low-tech tool that could be used manually to help practitioners in AAC obtain a profile of a client’s language. The aim of the profile was;

…to provide a tool that enables a clinician to perform a simple, rapid evaluation of the language performance of a client who is using an SGD or VOCA. (Cross, 2010 p. 116).

I called this tool the “Quick AAC Developmental Profile” or “QUAD Profile.” In essence, it is a set of four checklists that focus on the areas of;

  • Vocabulary – the words an individual uses to build sentences
  • Morphology – the way words change within a sentence
  • Syntax – the order of words in a sentence
  • Function – what the purpose of a sentence is

Logo for QUAD vocabulary checklist Q-Voc: Vocabulary Checklist

This is a list of early, high frequency words, but with the exclusion of nouns. The reason for this is that nouns are highly idiosyncratic and vary significantly between individuals. All you have to do is check off occurrences of words as you see them in your language sample(s). You’ll see that some words exist only as ROOT forms i.e. without any endings, so if your sample includes the word leaving then you have to check off the word leave but make a note in the Morphology Checklist that the -ing form has been used. The words were selected from a number of sources that include Beukelman, McGinnis and Morrow, 1991; Fried-Oaken and More, 1992; Hofland and Johannson, 1984; Howes, 1966; Leech et al, 2001; Marvin, Beukelman and Bilyeu, 1994; Raban, 1987; Stuart, Beukelman and King, 1997.

Logo for QUAD morphology checklistQ-Morph: Morphology Checklist

In 1973, Roger Brown outlined a developmental sequence for the acquisition of morphology in the English language and this has been used extensively as a benchmark by clinicians. Brown’s morphemes have been used in a number of analytical tools such as the LARSP (Crystal, Garman and Fletcher, 1976), and SALT (Miller and Chapman, 1983) and so I used Brown as the basis for the morphology checklist. You should check off any occurrences of the various words, word endings, or contractions that appear in your sample. You can also mark by date, therefore keeping a record of change over time.

Logo for QUAD syntax checklistQ-Syn: Sentence Types Checklist

From a very early age, children are able to learn that words can be categorized as parts of speech (Waxman and Gelman, 1986), and even use these categories to attach meaning to words (Hall and Lavin, 2004). Adults frequently add new words to their mental dictionary and can typically use all the correct forms of the word once they know its grammatical category (Prasada and Pinker, 1993; Dabrowska, 2004). The rules that describe how parts of speech can vary are well documented (Huddleston and Pullum, 2005; Quirk and Greenbaum, 1990) and using these rules in any language system is recommended. Specifically, the QUAD drew heavily from the LARSP model and includes a checklist of basic sentence types.

Logo for QUAD function checklistQ-Funct: Language Functions Checklist

There are a number of possible ways to describe language “functions” but for the sake of simplicity (i.e. to have only 7 types of function to check off) I based the Q-Funct on the work of M.A.K. Halliday (1975). For each sentence (or single-word “sentence”) check off the function that the utterance performs. There may be some ambiguity and a certain amount of interpretation needed. This is a section I’d consider revising at some point.

But I Don’t Do AAC, So…

…so it doesn’t matter. Although I designed the QUAD Profile with the AAC community in mind, it really is a more general tool for language, and as it isn’t standardized or normed, it can be used in a very flexible manner. That’s why it’s a “profile” and not a “test” or a “measure” – that would be claiming far more than it is! The idea is that it can help you perform a brief evaluation that will help you decide where you might want to consider a more detailed assessment. The toughest part is collecting a sample of language; the rest is much easier.

So go ahead and download a free copy and see if it works for you. And if it does, please let me know!

Link to QUAD profile download

Click to download the QUAD Profile

Beukelman, D.R., McGinnis, J. and Morrow, D. (1991) Vocabulary selection in augmentative and alternative communication. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 7, 171–185.

Cross, Russell Thomas. (2010). Developing Evidence-Based Clinical Resources. Embedding Evidence-Based Practice in Speech and Language Therapy (pp. 114-121): John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Crystal, D., Fletcher, P. and Garman, M. (1976) The Grammatical Analysis of Language Disability. London: Arnold. Available as a free download from http://ir.canterbury.ac.nz/handle/10092/5483

Dabrowska, E. (2004) Rules or schemas? Evidence from Polish. Language and Cognitive Processes, 19, 225–271.

Fried-Oaken, M. and More, L. (1992) An initial vocabulary for nonspeaking preschool children based on developmental and environmental language sources. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 8, 41–54.

Hall, D.G. and Lavin, T.A. (2004) The use and misuse of part-of-speech information in word learning: Implications for lexical development. In D.G. Hall and S.R. Waxman (eds), Weaving a Lexicon. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Halliday, M.A.K. (1975) Learning how to Mean. London: Edward Arnold.

Hofland, S. and Johannson, K. (1984) Word Frequencies in British and American English. Bergen: Longman.

Howes, D. (1966) A word count of spoken English. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 5, 572–604.

Huddleston, R. and Pullum, G.K. (2005) A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Marvin, C.A., Beukelman, D.R. and Bilyeu, D. (1994) Vocabulary use patterns in preschool children: effects of context and time sampling. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 10, 224–236.

Miller, J.F. and Chapman, R.S. (1983) Systematic Analysis of Language Transcripts (SALT). San Diego: College Hills Press.

Prasada, S. and Pinker, S. (1993) Generalisations of regular and irregular morphological patterns. Language and Cognitive Processes, 8, 1–56.

Quirk, R. and Greenbaum, S. (1990) A Student’s Grammar of the English Language. Harlow, UK: Longman.

Stuart, S., Beukelman, D.R. and King, J. (1997) Vocabulary use during extended conversations by two cohorts of older adults. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 13, 40–47.

Waxman, S.R. and Gelman, R. (1986) Preschoolers’ use of superordinate relations in classification and language. Cognitive Development, 1 (2), 139–156.

But Why Are Irregulars “Irregular?”

The English language is a glorious bastard child. Like the English themselves, its words and grammar are the result of the promiscuous and incestuous interbreeding that has been going on since the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes decided that they’d like an island vacation rather than sprawl out topless on the beaches of 5th century Europe – just as their current descendants do. Add to the mix the vocabulary of the Picts and Scots, along with a smattering of the ancient Welsh and Irish, and you’ve got yourself a language that turns out to be more wanton and debauched than a Roman orgy hosted by Caligula in a particularly creative mood.

As a result of this linguistic licentiousness, speech pathologists and English Language teachers find themselves having to teach a host of irregular, eccentric, and downright capricious words and grammatical structures. And there’s no finer example of this than something we call “the irregular verbs.” In fact, the very name “irregular verbs” tells us all we need to know; that here is a bunch of words so odd that we’ve just given up on them and tossed them into a huge bucket labeled “irregular.”

Irregular verbs cartoonOccasionally, you might hear the uncomfortable question…

“But Miss, Miss, Miss, why is it went and not goed? Why is it saw not seed? And why can’t I say taked instead of took?”

As pragmatists, 99% of us will just say, “Because it is” and then focus on the job at hand – teaching the exception to the rule. But 1% of us – and I count me as “one of us” – really does wonder “But why IS it went and saw and took rather than goed and seed and taked?” After all, when we invent a new verb such as to google or to tweet, it only takes a few weeks until folks have googled and tweeted or maybe even Facebooked. We know the rules; we apply the rules; we’re done!

Well, much as we all like to think we are hip, modern, trendy, and capable of being innovative game-changers who think outside of the box and shake up current thinking, as far as language goes, we’re tied to our undeniable linguistic history – the ghosts of the philological past are still haunting our etymological present. And like prehistoric flies trapped in amber, some of the words we use are really just fossils from an earlier age.

Back in the mid 1990s, Eva Grabowski and Dieter Mindt published a paper [1] that listed the most frequently used irregular verbs. They didn’t just sit in an office and google “most frequently used irregular verbs” but went back to basics and used the data from two pretty big (at the time) corpora: The BROWN corpus of American English [2], and the LOB corpus of British English [3]. Using real data rather than the “best guesses” of lexicographers was a huge step forward. For those of you who like FREE STUFF, you can click below to get a PDF copy of the top 100 irregular verbs by frequency. And why would you want it? Well, if you’re going to teach irregulars, starting with those used most makes a lot of sense.

Link to 100 most frequent irregular versb100 most frequently used irregular verbs

So let’s take the top of the list item, the verb to say, and crack open the amber to extract its etymological DNA.

Old English, and its Germanic predecessors, had more verb forms than modern English. Today, if you invent a new verb, such as to twerk, you only need to add three different endings to make it sound right: +s, +ing, or +ed.

“Miley can twerk, She twerks too much. Yesterday she twerked, I think she’s twerking too much.”

But Old English was a much tougher, with most verbs having around 14 different forms. And some verbs were strong while others were weak. It wasn’t that the strong ones would bully the weaker ones but the strong verbs would change their forms in a much more dramatic fashion than the punier weak ones. A strong verb would change its base form by muscling in new vowels. A commonly cited example of a strong verb is to sing, where you get sing, sang, and sung, with each form differing by the vowel [4]. Similarly ring, rang, and rung, or swim, swam, and swum. In contrast, the reason weak verbs are so-called is because they merely add an ending to their base form rather than man-up and ram those new vowels between the consonants.

I’m over-simplifying a little. There’s something of a sliding scale from “very strong” to “milquetoast weak,” and Old English scholars talk about 7 classes of strong verbs and 3 classes of weak ones. You have to think that with such a complex system, being a grammar teacher back in the 5th century CE must have paid more than it does today.

Having just explained the distinction between strong and weak verbs [5], take a look again at the verb to say. Is it strong or weak? Well, it’s so weak I’m surprised it hasn’t locked itself in a bathroom for fear of being hassled by to begin and to go! All that happens is that a /d/ sound gets added to the base form of /seɪ/, and the vowel changes ever-so-slightly by getting a tad shorter to leave /sɛd/. It’s technically from an Old English Class 3 weak verb that began life as secgan, meaning “to say,” and now has the pitiful pair of say/said left.

Number two on the list of irregulars, to make, is really pretty similar to to say, and so we should skip hastily on to the much more interesting to go, which has the disarmingly bizarre went as one of its forms. Why not, indeed, *goed?

Well, Old English did, in fact, have a *goedeode. But there was also another verb around in the 5th century that meant “to wander around or go slowly,” and that was wendan. You still hear people talk about “wending their way around” but other than that, the word wend is pretty rare. So between Old English and Middle English (that’s between the 5th and 15th centuries) the word oede got pushed out by wend, the past tense of wendan, and the devoicing of that final /d/ sound to a /t/ gave us the now-familiar went. For those who are geekily curious, this is called suppletion in the world of historical linguistics, and it’s where one word is used as the inflected form of another, but where both words come from different origins. Ever wonder why things go from bad to worse – or worst? Suppletion. Or why things go from good to better and best? Suppletion. Hey, it’s not just a verb thing!

Before I wind up this work and wend my weary way to bed, there’s one other question that might still be nagging at you; why is it these particular irregulars that are irregular and not others? Why say, and make, and go, and come, and take, and see…? It’s because of their frequency! When we started shifting from using those many different types of strong/weak verbs in Old English to the more relaxed syntax of “+s,” “+ing,” and “+ed,” the words that were used most  often had a built-in inertia – a resistance to change. We very easily – and perhaps it’s better to say unconsciously – take new verbs like tweet and twerk and add those three endings to them, but if we wanted to change went to goed [6] or see to seed, we’d have a harder time because it just sounds so wrong! So although we know that many new words are coined and used every day, there’s a core of  thousands of other words that are protected from change by a lexical inertia that anchors them firmly into our language and presents a formidable resistance to change.

So next time you’re focusing on teaching the irregulars, just remember that you’re also providing a small but fascinating lesson on the history of the English language!

[1] Grabowski, Eva & Mindt, Dieter (1995. “A corpus-based learning list of irregular verbs in English.” ICAME Journal 19, 5-22.

[2] Francis, W. Nelson, Kucera, Henry, & Mackie, Andrew W. (1982). Frequency analysis of English usage : lexicon and grammar. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

[3] Hofland, Knut, & Johannson, Stig (1982). Word frequencies in British and American English. The Norwegian Computing Center for the Humanities, Bergen, Norway: Longman.

[4] Using vowel variation as a form of morphology is called ablaut. It’s from the German prefix ab- meaning “out of” or “away from” and laut meaning “sound.” So it refers to that notion of taking a sound away and replacing it with another.

[5] In today’s era of political correctness with the insistence on not hurting anyone’s feelings – ever, I can see the day coming when there will be pressure to re-define strong and weak verbs as robust versus relaxed. In that way, verbs like to chant and to hum no longer have to feel threatened by to sing.

[6] As every parent knows, kids will, in fact, quite happily “regularize” irregular forms when they are learning to talk. It is not unusual for kids to actually use irregular forms like went before they use regular, but erroneous, forms like goed. This overregularization is, in a sense, a good thing because it shows that a kiddo is learning to apply the more common rules of morphology – even if the words are technically wrong.

Thanks to eagle-eyed reader Mark Durham, we made a couple of corrections to the original text on 5/14/15; n two instances. we originally published tweak and here instead of twerk and hear. Both of these illustrate that relying solely on the built-in WordPress spell checker has some risks. It is, of course, better than not using it at all, but because both tweak and here are “good” words, the spell checker happily leaves them alone. So the teachable moment is “treat your spell checker as a friend who offers suggestions but not necessarily all the answers.”

A Twitter of Speechies – and other Terms of Venery

As I write this, the 2015 Irish Association for Speech and Language Therapists conference has just come to an end, and happy delegates are taking trains and boats and planes to wend their merry ways home. Some are taking an extra few days to enjoy the sights, sounds, tastes, and smells of the wonderful city of Dublin, a name derived from the Old Irish dubh meaning “black” and lind meaning “pool” – a reference to a point where the rivers Poddle entered the Liffey, giving the appearance of a dark pool.



Sadly the Dudes were unable to take the time out to make the trip but experienced it vicariously via the magic of Twitter and the hashtag #IASLTCon. And our sole contribution to the conference was in the form of a discussion that has been vexing Speech and Language professionals for years: what do you call a group of Speechies?

Being the sort of guys who care deeply and passionately about things of no great importance (if triviology [1] were the study of trivial things, we’d be Professors) we suggested that an appropriate collective noun would be “a twitter of speechies.” This has the advantage of tying in to a word already in use with an international acceptance. In contrast, a “natter of speechies,” while being perhaps my favorite after twitter, is not as universal. The word natter, meaning “to chat aimlessly, idly, or at length” is common enough in Scotland and Northern England (from where I hail and so I know it well) turns out to be less common outside the Sceptered Isle. I checked the Corpus of Global Web-based English (a corpus of over 1.9 billion words from 20 countries) and found natter scored highest in the UK at 161 instances, with Ireland and Australia lower at 32 and 37 respectively. In fact, it only scores a total of 333 from the entire 1.9 billion word sample, so that’s hardly “universal,” as opposed to twitter, which has a rollicking145,604 instances. Evidence-based vocabulary indeed!

A “decibel of Speechies” is yet another good candidate but seems a little clinical or scientific, whereas a twitter has a sense of humor and bonhomie about it. The same might be said of “an utterance of Speechies,” which while being another great candidate uses a term that means a lot to we clinicians but maybe less to folks outside the field – unless you’re a linguist or psycholinguist.

Whatever the outcome of a vote might be – and we’ve include a poll for you to take! – the “teachable moment” here relates to the idea of these things called collective nouns, which are essential phrases used to describe a group of things. More specifically, it’s typically a way of describing groups of animals (and SLPs are animals, are we not?) and it’s a descriptive form that’s been used in the English language for hundred of years. To be more specific, they can be traced back to a list of formal codifications found in a document from 1450 called The Egerton Manuscript. This contained a list of 106 terms to describe groups of animals for the purpose of hunting. They were called “terms of venery,” not collective nouns, and the word venery comes from the Old French venerie meaning “hunting,” and that in turn comes from the Latin venari meaning “to hunt [2].

These “terms of venery” were expanded upon in what might be the definitive volume called The Boke of St. Albans, a magnificent tome published in 1486 and dedicated to the Art of the Gentleman, who needed to be proficient at hunting, hawking, fishing, and heraldry; a sort of 15th century version of GQ  or Esquire for the sophisticated, urbane, man-about-town – and country.

Here we find such classics as “a school of fish,” “a pride of lions,” “a swarm of bees,” and “a barrel of monkeys.” There are also lesser known terms such as “an exaltation of larks,” “a rope of pearls,” “a run of poultry,” and “a shrewdness of apes.”

Since then, more and more of these collective nouns have been created, many of which are delightfully fanciful and brimming with wit and humor. “A parliament of owls,” “a peep of chickens,” “a prudence of vicars,” “a pity of prisoners,” and ” a kindle of kittens” are just mere drops in the collective bucket.

But assuming you don’t want to slog your way through the free PDF version of The Boke of St. Albans because Medieval English script is not your thing, if you want just ONE book on your shelf that can become you go-to reference on collective nouns, you can do no better than James Lipton’s An Exaltation of Larks: The Ultimate Edition. At the time of writing, you can get a used hardcover in good condition from Amazon at the bargain price of $2.89 – and even with the $3.99 shipping it’s a marvelous investment.

Boke of St. Albans excerpt

Boke of St. Albans excerpt

Once you get passed Lipton’s rather flowery, almost purple, prose, he does a great job of documenting over 1000 collective nouns (he prefers “terms of venery” but I’m happy with “collective nouns”), tracing them back, where possible, to their sources. And as Speechies were not around in the 15th century, alas there is no “definitive” label. However, other medical/educational professions get mentioned. some of which Lipton has coined himself, others he’s gotten from other people:

“A handful of gynecologists”
“A stirrup of obstetricians”
“A rash of dermatologists”
“A herd of otologists”
“A passage of rhinologists”
“A tray of dietitians”
“A gross of pathologists.”

He offers a set of six criteria into which collective nouns can be subdivided:

1. Onomatopoeic: Where there is a sound relationship, such as “a murmuration of starlings.
2. Characteristic: Where there is a relationship between the thing being described and its characteristics e.g. “a paddling of ducks” or “a destruction of wildcats.”
3. Appearance: Where there is a relationship based on how something looks e.g. “a knot of toads” or “a skulk of friars.”
4. Habitat: Where something lives, such as “a nest of rabbits.”
5. Comment or Point-of-View: Where the relationship is based on the perspective/opinions of an observer e.g. “a threatening of courtiers.”
6. Error: Where the word used is a corruption of something else, such as “a school of fish,” which comes from shoal.

I’m not sure this is necessarily the best way of categorizing but unless I find enough free time to collect all 1000 of Lipton’s examples and create a new set of criteria, I’ll bow to his suggestions.

So before you leave, help us out by taking our poll, where all you have to do is pick one out of four options. Doubtless you may have another collective noun in mind but we’re just going to focus on the four we’ve mentioned. There’s no right or wrong, and no prizes, just the satisfaction of taking part ;)

POLL: A group of Speechies is…

[1] A search for triviology on Google returned 8,850 hits (or ghits as they are sometimes called), which is pretty trivial. There’s a writer called Neil Shalin who has a series of sports-related books such as Red Sox Triviology and Steelers Triviology; there’s someone with the twitter handle @triviology; and there’s the nearest thing to a dictionary definition in the Urban Dictionary by way of the word triviologist, which reads “A triviologist is someone who specializes in trivia or who loves trivia for trivia’s sake.” Oddly there was no definition for triviology.

[2] Yes, this is indeed the origin of the word venison, which refers to the meat of animals killed by chasing and hunting. Although the modern-day usage tends to be specific to dead deer, originally it applied to deer, boars, hares, rabbits, and all other such cute, lovable little beasties that hunters want to shoot, skin, and eat. Yum.


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

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

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

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

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

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

Scan Me and See QR code on a T-shirt

Click me and Scan me!

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

Denver here we come!

“A” is for Apple®: Phonics for the Technological Toddler

It’s clear to most people that apples , balls, cats, and dogs are no longer the images of choice for alphabet primers. So here for the 21st century is a newer offering for your Technological Toddler.

A is for “Apple®,” whose products we need, and
B is for “Broadband” for downloads at speed.
C is for “Cursor” for drag, point, and click, while
D is for “Drop-down” with things we can pick.
E is for “Ebooks” we download for pleasure, and
F is for “Facebook®,” that most use for leisure.
G is for “Google®” a web-searching titan,
H is for “Hackers” who just love to frighten.
I is for “Ice-cream” – for Androids and toffee, and
J is for “Java™” – that’s software AND coffee!
K is for “Kindle™,” a popular reader, and
L is for “Linux™,” an Open Source leader.
M is for “Microsoft®,” still a big player, and
N is for “Nike®,” a sports goods purveyor.
O is for “Outsource” for work on the cheap, and
P is for “Playstation®,” stealer of sleep.
Q is for “QWERTY” where writing can start, while
R is for “Reading,” a fast-dying art.
S is for “Skyping” that’s video chat, but
T is for “Texting,” to type “where u @?”
U is for “Unfriend” for people you hate, while
V is for “Vote Up” for people you rate!
W for “Warcraft®,” a virtual land, and
X is for “XBox®,” a Microsoft brand.
Y is for “YouTube®” where egos are fed, and
Z is for “Zombies,” the flesh-eating Dead.

And as a special treat, you can download a FREE copy of The Speech Dudes’ Techno Toddler Abecedarium [1], a PDF version with pictures that you can print out and read to your kiddos!

The Speech Dudes’ Techno Toddler Abecedarium

Let us know what your young readers think.

[1] Oh yes, it’s a real word. An abecedarium is “an alphabetical wordbook or wordlist, usually elementary; esp. a primer for teaching the basics of reading and spelling.” It dates from 1440, along with its alternate form, an abecedary (1475). It’s one of those words that deserves its day in the sun now and again, and today is a sunny day!

Quinoa Salad and Literacy

Over the past month of so, the written word quinoa has been popping up in my life more than usual. Or should I say, in the interest of accuracy, my perception of the frequency of appearance of the word quinoa has been that its incidence has increased. For those of you who care about evidence-based assertions – and I like to think that’s almost all of you who read the Speech Dudes’ posts – there is a difference in those two statements. For example, if I mention to you now that the number 23 will haunt you mysteriously for the next few weeks, there’s a very good chance that it will. And is that because there is a spooky, paranormal force at work? No, it’s because I’ve just turned on your “Number 23 Detector” and from here on in, your awareness of it has been activated. In other words, the real frequency of occurrence of 23 hasn’t changed – you attention to it has [1].

Quinoa and alfalfa salad

Quinoa and alfalfa salad

The number 23 aside, what’s become apparent is that I’ve been able to read the word quinoa quite happily for as long as I can remember, but I’ve never made the link between how I think it sounds in my head and how it is really pronounced by the rest of the world! Up until now, I’ve imagined that the word is pronounced /kwɪ’nəʊə/ when it’s actually /’ki:nwa:/ [2]. This boils down to that other than the /k/ and the /n/ sounds, I’ve had everything else totally wrong. In my defense, the Merriam-Webster dictionary also includes the variant /kɪ:’nəʊə/, which is closer to my imagined pronunciation; but it’s still without the /w/ as part of the /kw/ blend.

So apart from learning that I’m wrong – a condition that causes me no end of shame and batters my already fragile ego – what else can I learn from this? How much lemonade can I squeeze from this mispronounced lemon?

Well, we can try to work out why I imagined the pronunciation that I did, and that goes back to the process of reading. When you see a word with which you are unfamiliar, you use your current knowledge of letter-sound correspondences to make a “best guess.” In this case, clearly when I look at the “qui…” I think of words such as quick, quibble, quiet, quirky, quins, quintuplet, quit, quip, quill, quintessential [3], quincunx, and the list goes on. In ALL of these words, the letters “qu” represent the blend /kw/, so when faced with “quinoa,” it doesn’t seem unreasonable to think /kwɪ’nəʊə/ is OK.

But this is based on an assumed etymology of “quinoa” being Latin, because in the Latin alphabet, the letters “qu” were used to represent the sound /kw/. English is heavily influenced by words of Latin origin, and its alphabet is also derived from the Latin alphabet. So if you were a betting person, when you see a word that starts with “qu,” you’d win more than you’d lose if you guessed it sounded like /kw/ at the beginning.

Unless the word comes from the South American language called Quechuan, pronounced /’kɛt͡ʃwən/ and not with a /kw/. And quinoa does.

The word quinoa comes from a grain plant native to South America and the grains from this have become popular in the Western world as a health food during the late 20th century. When Spanish colonists moved into South America in the 16th century, they not only brought with them a generous amount of guns, horses, and diseases, but their alphabet. And what’s special about the Spanish alphabet’s letter-sound correspondence it that the sequence “qu” is pronounced as /k/ and NOT the original Latin /kw/. So when they heard the word /’ki:nwa:/, it was a no-brainer to spell it using a “qui” and not a “k” at the beginning. Thus the word quinoa made its way into text along with its /k/-not-/kw/ pronunciation.

Quechuan in South America

Quechua in South America

This incidence of my public shame also serves to remind us of that the relationship between letters and sounds is not always as clear-cut as we might want or imagine. Whether the string “qu” is pronounced /kw/ or /k/ depends not just on the letter themselves but the history and origin of the word [4]. So if I’d known about the Quechuan language, my pronunciation error would never have happened [5], and servers in restaurants wouldn’t be giggling and pointing at me after taking an order.

I should have paid more attention to languages at school.

[1] This type of effect is called Selection Bias, Observational Bias, or, more memorably, Cherry Picking. It can happen both unconsciously, such as my believing that “quinoa” has suddenly become popular, or consciously, such as when I only read articles that support my long-cherished beliefs and ignore/trash those that challenge them. Only in the fruit distribution industry in “cherry picking” a good thing; in Science, it’s bad.

[2] I sometimes forget that some of the folks who read the Speech Dudes blog are unfamiliar with the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) or at least don’t use it very often. So here’s another way of writing those pronunciations using a different type of phonetic spelling: [kwih-noh-uh] versus [keen-wah].

[3] I can’t resist this but the word quintessential derives from the Latin quintessence, which translates as “the fifth element,” and which in turn is the title of a delightfully campy and visual stylish sci-fi movie with Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich. In classical and medieval philosophy, the fifth element was the stuff of stars and something hidden within all things. I guess Moby had the same idea when he produced “We Are All Made of Stars” back in 2002. Once again, you learn the quirkiest of things on a trip to the Dudes’ site!

[4] My modest obsession with etymology as a hobby (and yes, I carry around a little notebook and scribble words down when I hear them – or use Evernote if I’m in a digital mood) is actually usually pretty helpful when it comes to deciphering new words. It’s also a source of pleasure when looking at how words evolve and change over the years. For example, did you realize that the word amazing originally meant “causing distraction, consternation, confusion, dismay; stupefying, terrifying, dreadful,” and not “wonderful and astonishing.” From 1600 to today, it’s pretty much flipped its meaning from something bad to something good. I find that amazing!

[5] In a last-ditch effort to dig myself out of the hole, I should point out that the Oxford English Dictionary does, in fact, include my [kwih-noh-uh] articulation along with the more common, “correct” version. Alas, I suspect this merely reflects that I’m not the only Englishman whose attitude to foreign language is that if English were good enough for God, it’s good enough for the rest of the world. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m only a polyglot in so far as I can speak British English, American English, and a smattering of Canadian English, Australian English, and possible South ‘Efrican and New Zealand English.

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 (http://www.sicherheitstacho.eu) 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 http://map.ipviking.com 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